A U.N. panel agreed Friday to move ahead with talks to define and possibly set limits on weapons that can kill without human involvement, as human rights groups said governments are moving too slowly to keep up with advances in artificial intelligence that could put computers in control one day. Advocacy groups warned about the threats posed by such "killer robots" and aired a chilling video illustrating their possible uses on the sidelines of the first formal U.N. meeting of government experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems this week. More than 80 countries took part. Ambassador Amandeep Gill of India, who chaired the gathering, said participants plan to meet again in 2018. He said ideas discussed this week included the creation of legally binding instrument, a code of conduct, or a technology review process. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an umbrella group of advocacy groups, says 22 countries support a ban of the weapons and the list is growing. Human Rights Watch, one of its members, called for an agreement to regulate them by the end of 2019 — admittedly a long shot. The meeting falls under the U.N.'s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons — also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention — a 37-year old agreement that has set limits on the use of arms and explosives like mines, blinding laser weapons and booby traps over the years. The group operates by consensus, so the least ambitious goals are likely to prevail, and countries including Russia and Israel have firmly staked out opposition to any formal ban. The United States has taken a go-slow approach, rights groups say. U.N. officials say in theory, fully autonomous, computer-controlled weapons don't exist yet, but defining exactly what killer robots are and how much human interaction is involved was a key focus of the meeting. The United States argued that it was "premature" to establish a definition. Dramatic depictions The concept alone stirs the imagination and fears, as dramatized in Hollywood futuristic or science-fiction films that have depicted uncontrolled robots deciding on their own about firing weapons and killing people. Gill played down such concerns. "Ladies and gentlemen, I have news for you: The robots are not taking over the world. So that is good news, humans are still in charge. ... We have to be careful in not emotionalizing or dramatizing this issue," he told reporters Friday. The United States, in comments presented, said autonomous weapons could help improve guidance of missiles and bombs against military targets, thereby "reducing the likelihood of inadvertently striking civilians." Autonomous defensive systems could help intercept enemy projectiles, one U.S. text said. Some top academics like Stephen Hawking, technology experts such as Tesla founder Elon Musk and human rights groups have warned about the threats posed by artificial intelligence, amid concerns that it might one day control such systems — and perhaps sooner rather than later. "The bottom line is that governments are not moving fast enough," said Steven Goose, executive director of arms at Human Rights Watch. He said a treaty by the end of 2019 is "the kind of timeline we think this issue demands."
After more than a decade of making cars and SUVs — and, more recently, solar panels — Tesla Inc. wants to electrify a new type of vehicle: big trucks. The company unveiled its new electric semitractor-trailer Thursday night near its design center in Hawthorne, California. CEO Elon Musk said the semi is capable of traveling 500 miles on an electric charge and will cost less than a diesel semi considering fuel savings, lower maintenance and other factors. Musk said customers can put down a $5,000 deposit for the semi now and production will begin in 2019. “We’re confident that this is a product that’s better in every way from a feature standpoint,” Musk told a crowd of Tesla fans gathered for the unveiling. One-fourth of transit emissions The move fits with Musk’s stated goal for the company of accelerating the shift to sustainable transportation. Trucks account for nearly a quarter of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to government statistics. Musk said Tesla plans a worldwide network of solar-powered “megachargers” that could get the trucks back up to 400 miles of range after 30 minutes. Tesla, Musk stretched But the semi also piles on the chaos at Palo Alto, California-based company. Tesla is way behind on production of the Model 3, a new lower-cost sedan. It’s also ramping up production of solar panels after buying Solar City Corp. last year. Musk has said Tesla is also working on a pickup and a lower-cost SUV and negotiating a new factory in China. Meanwhile, the company posted a record quarterly loss of $619 million in its most recent quarter. Musk, too, is being pulled in many different directions. He leads rocket maker SpaceX and is dabbling in other projects, including high-speed transit, artificial intelligence research and a new company that’s digging tunnels beneath Los Angeles to alleviate traffic congestion. “He’s got so much on his plate right now. This could present another distraction from really just making sure that the Model 3 is moved along effectively,” said Bruce Clark, a senior vice president and automotive analyst at Moody’s. Uncertain market Tesla is venturing into an uncertain market. Demand for electric trucks is expected to grow over the next decade as the U.S., Europe and China all tighten their emissions regulations. Electric truck sales totaled 4,100 in 2016, but are expected to grow to more than 70,000 in 2026, says Navigant Research. But most of that growth is expected to be for smaller, medium-duty haulers like garbage trucks or delivery vans. Those trucks can have a more limited range of 100 miles or less, which requires fewer expensive batteries. They can also be charged overnight. Long-haul semi trucks, on the other hand, would be expected to go greater distances, and that would be challenging. Right now, there’s little charging infrastructure on global highways. Without Tesla’s promised fast-charging, even a midsized truck would likely require a two-hour stop, cutting into companies’ efficiency and profits, says Brian Irwin, managing director of the North American industrial group for the consulting firm Accenture. Irwin says truck companies will have to watch the market carefully, because tougher regulations on diesels or an improvement in charging infrastructure could make electric trucks more viable very quickly. Falling battery costs also will help make electric trucks more appealing compared to diesels. But even lower costs won’t make trucking a sure bet for Tesla. It faces stiff competition from long-trusted brands like Daimler AG, which unveiled its own semi prototype last month. Fleet operators want reliable trucks, and Tesla will have to prove it can make them, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst with the car shopping site Autotrader.
U.S. regulators on Thursday approved the use of new technology that will improve picture quality on mobile phones, tablets and television, but also raises significant privacy concerns by giving advertisers dramatically more data about viewing habits. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to allow broadcasters to voluntarily use the new technology, dubbed ATSC 3.0, which would allow for more precise geolocating of television signals, ultra-high definition picture quality and more interactive programming, like new educational content for children and multiple angles of live sporting events. The system uses precision broadcasting and targets emergency or weather alerts on a street-by-street basis. The system could allow broadcasters to wake up a receiver to broadcast emergency alerts. The alerts could include maps, storm tracks and evacuation routes. The new standard would also let broadcasters activate a TV set that is turned off to send emergency alerts. Advertisers excited Current televisions cannot carry the new signal, and the FCC on Thursday said it was only requiring broadcasting both signals for five years after deploying the next-generation technology. Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. last month called the new standard "the Holy Grail" for the advertiser because it tells them who is watching and where. But Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan said the new technology "contemplates targeted advertisements that would be 'relevant to you and what you actually might want to see.' This raises questions about how advertisers and broadcasters will gather the demographic information from consumers which are necessary to do targeted advertisements." New TV, higher costs Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the new technology would force consumers to buy new televisions. "The FCC calls this approach market driven. That's right — because we will all be forced into the market for new television sets or devices." FCC Chairman Ajit Pai defended the proposal, calling concerns about buying new devices "hypothetical." He added five years is "a long time. We'll have to see how the standard develops." One issue is whether broadcasters will be able to pass on the costs of advanced broadcast signals through higher retransmissions fees and demand providers carry the signals. The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents Tegna Inc, Comcast Corp., CBS Corp., Walt Disney Co., Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. and others, petitioned the FCC in April 2016 to approve the new standard. "This is game-changing technology for broadcasting and our viewers," the group said Thursday. Many companies have raised concerns about costs, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. Cable, satellite and other pay TV providers "would incur significant costs to receive, transmit, and deliver ATSC 3.0 signals to subscribers, including for network and subscriber equipment," Verizon said. Many nations are considering the new standard. South Korea adopted the ATSC 3.0 standard in 2016.
Kenya’s annulled 2017 presidential election was among the African continent’s most expensive. President Uhuru Kenyatta and main challenger Raila Odinga spent tens of millions of dollars on their campaigns, including sizeable investments in global PR firms that mined data and crafted targeted advertisements. As experts sort through the historic election’s aftermath, the involvement of data analysis companies has come to the forefront, raising questions about privacy, voter manipulation and the role of foreign firms in local elections. Mercenary outfits Data mining and PR companies conduct surveys to gauge public sentiment and sift through reams of data across social media. They stitch that information together to build detailed profiles and deliver targeted, customized messages aimed at changing behaviors. Some see it as smart campaigning. But others point to the ethical concerns of manipulating voters with false information. “You have a lot of these organizations, these PR firms, lobby firms, out there, and they’re essentially just mercenary outfits that do work for the highest bidder, regardless of their bloodstained track record,” Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, an organization that advocates for good governance on the continent, told VOA. “It’s all legal. It’s a business, and these businesses exist to make a profit ... It’s the ethical and moral side where I tend to question.” Democratic practices falling behind According to media reports, Kenyatta’s campaign paid $6 million to Cambridge Analytica, the analytics and PR firm tied to the Brexit referendum, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and, as recently reported by The Wall Street Journal, WikiLeaks. Owned in part by the influential Mercer family, U.S.-based billionaires and political donors, Cambridge Analytica compiles demographic information to build vast databases of voter profiles. It then delivers personalized advertisements to key voters in an attempt to sway them. Kenyatta wasn’t the only candidate to enlist the services of a high-tech PR firm. According to new reporting by The Star, one of Kenya’s leading newspapers, Odinga’s campaign employed Aristotle International, a U.S.-based company focused on campaign data mining. The exact impact of these firms on the outcome of the August election is impossible to gauge, but their prominence in Kenya points to the role high-tech campaigning will play in future elections across the continent. That’s raising questions about whether these companies undermine the democratic process by giving their clients an unfair advantage and manipulating the public. “We have reached a point where our technological advances now exceed the ability of democratic practices to catch up,” said Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. “That has created a window where people can exploit platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google to amplify certain messages that play on ethnic stereotypes for purposes of creating fear and winning elections,” Juma told VOA. Previous involvement This isn’t Cambridge Analytica’s first foray into Kenyan politics. Although it won’t acknowledge working on the recent campaign, the company boasts of its role in the 2013 elections, when Kenyatta contracted with the firm. According to its website, Cambridge Analytica “designed and implemented the largest political research project ever conducted in East Africa” by sampling and interviewing 47,000 respondents to provide key political issues and identify voting behaviors, from which it drafted an “effective campaign strategy based on the electorate’s real needs (jobs) and fears (tribal violence.)” New frontier Cambridge Analytica and other data-driven PR firms have worked throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. The African market, with a projected population of 2.5 billion people in 2050, represents an enticing new frontier, with Kenya emerging as an especially appealing place to do business. A unique mix of high mobile phone penetration, fast mobile internet, pervasive social media use and a young electorate, people under 35 comprise more than half of Kenya’s 19 million registered voters, makes the country ripe with opportunities for data mining and digital PR companies to invest in, or exploit. For Smith, the lack of transparency inherent in how companies like Cambridge Analytica operate undermines the democratic process. “What they do is essentially help propagate false news stories,” Smith said. “Me and my organization, Vanguard Africa ... were portrayed as somehow financing and supporting the Kenyan opposition, which was fundamentally not true,” he said. “That didn’t make those stories go away, of course. The truth becomes the victim in all of this.”
Seventy-five news organizations teamed with social media giants Facebook and Twitter as well as Google and other tech firms Thursday in an initiative to identify "trustworthy" news sources shared online. The "Trust Project," a consortium of news agencies and tech firms meeting in Santa Clara, California, is creating a "trust indicator" to make readers aware of a news story's credibility. "In today's digitized and socially networked world, it's harder than ever to tell what's accurate reporting, advertising, or even misinformation," said Sally Lehrman of Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, the project leader. "An increasingly skeptical public wants to know the expertise, enterprise and ethics behind a news story." The new indicators will appear as “i” symbols alongside articles posted online and will indicate how a story was reported, the media company’s standards and the writer’s credentials. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have been criticized for spreading fake news, particularly during the election in 2016, some of which was perpetuated by Russia. In a Senate hearing earlier this month, Twitter said it has taken action against the suspected Russian trolls, suspending 2,752 accounts and implementing new dedicated teams "to enhance the quality of the information our users see."
After more than a decade of making cars and SUVs — and, more recently, solar panels — Tesla Inc. wants to electrify a new type of vehicle: big trucks. The company was set to unveil its new electric semitractor-trailer Thursday night near its design center in Hawthorne, California. The move fits with Tesla CEO Elon Musk's stated goal for the company of accelerating the shift to sustainable transportation. Trucks account for nearly a quarter of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to government statistics. Tesla also could equip its trucks with the semiautonomous driving features found in its cars, like automatic braking and lane changing. But the semi also piles on the chaos at Palo Alto, California-based company. It's way behind on production of the Model 3, a new lower-cost sedan. It's also ramping up production of solar panels after buying Solar City Corp. last year. Musk has said Tesla is also working on a pickup truck and a lower-cost SUV and negotiating a new factory in China. Meanwhile, the company posted a record quarterly loss of $619 million in its most recent quarter. Musk, too, is being pulled in many different directions. He leads rocket maker SpaceX and is dabbling in other projects, including high-speed transit, artificial intelligence research and a new company that's digging tunnels beneath Los Angeles to alleviate traffic congestion. "He's got so much on his plate right now. This could present another distraction from really just making sure that the Model 3 is moved along effectively,'' said Bruce Clark, a senior vice president and automotive analyst at Moody's. Tesla hasn't released any details about the semi. Some analysts expect it to get around 200 miles per charge and be used for daily tasks like transporting freight from a port to a distribution center. Musk has said it should take about two years for the semi to go on sale. Projected sales growth Tesla is venturing into an uncertain market. Demand for electric trucks is expected to grow over the next decade as the U.S., Europe and China all tighten their emissions regulations. Electric truck sales totaled 4,100 in 2016, but are expected to grow to more than 70,000 in 2026, Navigant Research said. But most of that growth is expected to be for smaller, medium-duty haulers like garbage trucks or delivery vans. Those trucks can have a more limited range of 100 miles or less, which requires fewer expensive batteries. They can also be charged overnight. Long-haul semis, on the other hand, would be expected to go greater distances, and that would be challenging. Right now, there's little charging infrastructure on global highways. And charging even a mid-sized truck would likely require a two-hour stop, cutting into companies' efficiency and profits, said Brian Irwin, managing director of the North American industrial group for the consulting firm Accenture. Irwin says truck companies will have to watch the market carefully, because tougher regulations on diesels or an improvement in charging infrastructure could make electric trucks more viable very quickly. Falling battery costs also will help make electric trucks more appealing compared with diesels. But even lower costs won't make trucking a sure bet for Tesla. It faces stiff competition from long-trusted brands like Daimler AG, which unveiled its own semi prototype last month. Fleet operators want reliable trucks, and Tesla will have to prove it can make them, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst with the car shopping site Autotrader.
A coalition of rights groups launched an online petition on Thursday urging IBM Corp to declare that it will not develop technology to help the Trump administration carry out a proposal to identify people for visa denial and deportation from the United States. IBM and several other technology companies and contractors attended a July informational session hosted by immigration enforcement officials that discussed developing technology for vetting immigrants, said Steven Renderos, organizing director at petitioner the Center for Media Justice. President Donald Trump has pledged to harden screening procedures for people looking to enter the country, and also called for "extreme vetting" of certain immigrants to ensure they are contributing to society, saying such steps are necessary to protect national security and curtail illegal immigration. The rights group said the proposals run counter to IBM's stated goals of protecting so-called "Dreamer" immigrants from deportation. Asked about the petition and whether it planned to work to help vet and deport immigrants, an IBM spokeswoman said the company "would not work on any project that runs counter to our company's values, including our long-standing opposition to discrimination against anyone on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion." The petition is tied to a broader advocacy campaign, also begun Thursday, that objects to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Extreme Vetting Initiative. In an Oct. 5 email seen by Reuters, Christopher Padilla, IBM's vice president of government affairs, cited the company's opposition to discrimination in response to an inquiry about the vetting program from the nonprofit group Open Mic. Padilla said the meeting IBM attended was only informational and it was "premature to speculate" whether the company would pursue business related to the Extreme Vetting Initiative. ICE wants to use machine learning technology and social media monitoring to determine whether an individual is a "positively contributing member of society," according to documents published on federal contracting websites. More than 50 civil society groups and more than 50 technical experts sent separate letters on Thursday to the Department of Homeland Security saying the vetting program as described was "tailor-made for discrimination" and contending artificial intelligence was unable to provide the information ICE desired. Opponents of Trump's policies ranging from immigration to trade have been pressuring IBM and other technology companies to avoid working on proposals in these areas from the Republican president's administration. Shortly after the presidential election last year, for example, several internet firms pledged that they would not help Trump build a data registry to track people based on their religion or assist in mass deportations. IBM is among dozens of technology companies to join a legal briefing opposing Trump's decision to end the "Dreamer" program that protects from deportation about 900,000 immigrants brought illegally into the United States as children. "While on the one hand they've expressed their support for Dreamers, they're also considering building a platform that would make it easier to deport them," Renderos said. CREDO, Daily Kos, and Color of Change also organized the petition. Reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington, additional reporting by Salvador Rodriguez in San Francisco, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and David Gregorio.
If you're wealthy and you want to buy an airplane, no matter how big, you want to go to the biennial Dubai Air Show. There, you will find everything, from a small two-seater to a diamond-encrusted jet. Aircraft manufacturers say business is booming as more and more rich people try to avoid crowded commercial flights. VOA's George Putic has more.
Strong demand is set to give a huge boost to renewable energy growth in sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years, driving cumulative capacity up more than 70 percent, a senior international energy official said Wednesday. From Ethiopia to South Africa, millions of people are getting access to electricity for the first time as the continent turns to solar, wind and hydropower projects to boost generation capacity. "A big chunk of this [growth] is hydro because of Ethiopia, but then you have solar ... in South Africa, Nigeria and Namibia and wind in South Africa and Ethiopia as well," said Paolo Frankl, head of the renewable division at the Paris-based International Energy Agency. He forecast installed capacity of renewable energy in the Sub-Saharan region almost doubling — from around 35 gigawatts now to above 60 gigawatts, given the right conditions. Ethiopia has an array of hydropower projects under construction, including the $4.1 billion Grand Renaissance Dam along the Nile River that will churn out 6,000 megawatts upon completion. That is enough for a good-sized city for a year. "Africa has one of the best potential resources of renewables anywhere in the world, but it depends very much on the enabling framework, on the governance and the right rules," Frankl told Reuters on the sidelines of a wind energy conference. Coal industry opposition The transition to a low-carbon trajectory to reduce harmful greenhouse gases is creating opposition from the coal industry and fueling uncertainty in countries where job creation was linked to coal mining. In Africa, this tension and its impact on new investment has been best illustrated by South Africa's state-owned Eskom and its reluctance to sign new deals with independent power producers, according to analysts. In May, the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA) said the energy regulator agreed to investigate Eskom's refusal to sign agreements that delayed 2,942 megawatts in new solar and wind projects. "Our government does not appear to appreciate the forces of nature," SAWEA Chairman Mark Pickering said Wednesday. The inability of Eskom to sign the new power purchase agreements for two years has delayed investment of 58 billion rand ($4.03 billion), and hit investor confidence with at least one shutdown of a wind turbine manufacturing plant, said SAWEA. "The continent has a lot of potential, but the problem is financial and political issues, so all of our projects are being delayed for quite a long time, like with Eskom," said Mason Qin, business development manager for southern and eastern Africa at China's Goldwind.
With the Islamic State group almost defeated on the ground in Iraq and Syria and its territorial hold dramatically reduced, the terror group and its sympathizers continue to demonstrate their ability to weaponize the internet in an effort to radicalize, recruit and inspire acts of terrorism in the region and around the world. Experts charge that the terror group's ability to produce and distribute new propaganda has been significantly diminished, particularly after it recently lost the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, its self-proclaimed capital and media headquarters. But they warn that the circulation of its old media content and easy access to it on social media platforms indicates that the virtual caliphate will live on in cyberspace for some time, even as IS's physical control ends. "Right now we have such a huge problem on the surface web — and [it's] really easy to access literally tens of thousands of videos that are fed to you, one after the other, [and] that are leading to radicalization," Hany Farid, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College and adviser for the group Counter Extremism Project (CEP) in Washington, said Monday. Little headway Speaking at a panel discussion about the rights and responsibilities of social media platforms in an age of global extremism at the Washington-based Newseum, Farid said the social media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter have tried to get radical Islamist content off the internet, but significant, game-changing results have yet to be seen. Farid said social media companies are facing increasing pressure from governments and counterterrorism advocates to remove content that fuels extremism. Earlier this year, Facebook announced it had developed new artificial intelligence programs to identify extremist posts and had hired thousands of people to monitor content that could be suspected of inciting violence. Twitter also reported that it had suspended nearly 300,000 terrorism-related accounts in the first half of the year. YouTube on Monday said Alphabet's Google in recent months had expanded its crackdown on extremism-related content. The new policy, Reuters reported, will affect videos that feature people and groups that have been designated as terrorists by the U.S. or British governments. The New York Times reported that the new policy has led YouTube to remove hundreds of videos of the slain jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki lecturing on the history of Islam, recorded long before he joined al-Qaida and encouraged violence against the U.S. The World Economic Forum's human rights council issued a report last month, warning tech companies that they might risk tougher regulations by governments to limit freedom of speech if they do not stem the publishing of violent content by Islamic State and the spread of misinformation. IS digital propaganda has reportedly motivated more than 30,000 people to journey thousands of miles to join IS, according to a report published by Wired, a magazine published in print and online editions that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy and politics. An ongoing struggle Experts say measures to restrict cyberspace for terrorist activities could prove helpful, but they warn it cannot completely prevent terror groups from spreading their propaganda online and that it will be a struggle for some time. According to Fran Townsend, the former U.S. homeland security adviser, terrorist groups are constantly evolving on the internet as the new security measures force them onto platforms that are harder to track, such as encrypted services like WhatsApp and Telegram and file-sharing platforms like Google Drive. She said last month's New York City attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, used Telegram to evade U.S counterterrorism authorities. "This guy was on Telegram in ISIS chat rooms. He went looking for them, he was able to find them, and he was able to communicate on an encrypted app that evaded law enforcement," Townsend said during Monday's panel on extremism at the Newseum. U.S. officials said Saipov viewed 90 IS propaganda videos online, and more than 4,000 extremism related images were found on his cellphones, including instructions on how to carry out vehicular attacks. As the crackdown increases on online jihadi propaganda, experts warn the desperate terror groups and their lone wolf online activists and sympathizers could aggressively retaliate. Last week, about 800 school websites across the United States were attacked by pro-IS hackers. The hack, which lasted for two hours, redirected visitors to IS propaganda video and images of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Similar attacks were also reported in Europe, including last week's hacking of MiX Megapil, a private radio station in Sweden where a pro-IS song was played for about 30 minutes. A global response Experts maintain that to counter online extremism and terrorism, there is a need for a coordinated international response as social media platforms continue to cross national borders and jurisdictions. Last month, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the Group of Seven advanced economies joined forces against jihadi online propaganda and vowed to remove the content from the web within two hours of its being uploaded. "Our European colleagues — little late to this game, by the way — have come into it in a big way," Townsend said. She said the U.S-led West had given more attention to physical warfare against IS at the expense of the war in cyberspace. "We have been very proficient in fighting this in physical space. ... But we were late in the game viewing the internet," she said. Townsend added that the complexity of the problem requires action even at the local level. "The general public can be a force multiplier," she said, adding, "As you're scrolling through your feed and you see something ... it literally takes 50 seconds for you to hit a button and tell Twitter, 'This should not be here and it's not appropriate content.' And it will make a difference."
Electric trucks are having a moment in the spotlight, but they won’t replace diesel-powered trucks in big numbers until they overcome costs and other limitations. Tesla Inc. plans to unveil a semitractor-trailer this week, its first foray into trucking after more than a decade of making cars and SUVs. German automaker Daimler AG showed off its own electric semi last month and says it could be on sale in a few years. Truck rental company Ryder just added 125 all-electric vans made by California startup Chanje to its fleet. “It’s kind of like the checkered flag is being waved,” said Glen Kedzie, energy and environmental counsel with the American Trucking Associations. “We've seen different fuels come and go, and electric has gotten to the front of the line.” Battery cost is the key As battery costs fall and more options enter the market, global sales of pure electric trucks are expected to grow exponentially, from 4,100 in 2016 to 70,600 in 2026, according to Navigant Research. Delivery companies, mail services and utilities will be among the biggest purchasers, and most of the growth will come from Europe, China and the U.S. Most electric trucks on the road will be medium-duty vehicles like delivery vans or garbage trucks. They're quiet and emission-free, and they can be plugged in and charged at the end of a shift. They’re ideal for predictable urban routes of 100 miles or less; a longer range than that requires more batteries, which are heavy and expensive. One issue: Cost. A medium-duty electric truck costs about $70,000 more than equivalent diesel trucks, according to the consulting firm Deloitte. Buyers considering electrics have to weigh what they can save on fuel and maintenance costs, since electrics have fewer parts. Heavy-duty trucks like electric semis have even further to go before they can be competitive with diesels. Some of those trucks are used for shorter routes, but to achieve a longer range of 300 miles, they require more batteries. Electrification is expensive Deloitte estimates electrification adds around $150,000 to the cost of a heavy-duty vehicle, or more than double the cost of some diesel tractor-trailers. Electric semi trucks will have the added problem of long charging times and little highway charging infrastructure. “I see it being relevant but not ready for prime time,” Chanje CEO Bryan Hansel said of long-haul electric trucks. He thinks it will be five years or more before the battery technology and infrastructure can support cross-country electric trucking. “It’s a big prize, but the physics haven’t caught up yet,” he said. But analysts believe that will change. Battery costs are expected to fall significantly over the next decade as technology improves. Deloitte expects battery costs for trucks to fall from $260 per kilowatt-hour in 2016 to $122 in 2026. That would cut the cost of a 300 kWh battery pack — like the one in Daimler’s prototype semi — from $78,000 to $36,600. In the meantime, regulations will drive interest in electric trucks. In the U.S., trucks must meet stricter emissions standards through 2027 under rules that went into effect last year. China is also tightening emissions standards. And several major cities, including Paris and Mexico City, have called for a ban on diesels by 2025 to improve air quality. Incentives are also enticing companies to add electric trucks to their fleets. Companies that buy or lease vans from Chanje are eligible for an $80,000 voucher per vehicle from the state of California, for example. France pays out 10,000 euros ($11,669) to buyers who replace diesel vehicles with electric ones. UPS has 300 electric trucks Companies are also experimenting with electrics — and other alternatives, like natural gas — because they want to meet their own sustainability goals and figure out the optimal mix for their fleets. United Parcel Service, for example, has 300 electric trucks in its global fleet of 100,000 vehicles, mostly in the U.S. and Europe, said Scott Phillippi, UPS's Senior Director of Maintenance and Engineering for international operations. Many of UPS’s delivery routes require trucks to travel less than 100 miles per day, a range easily met by an electric truck, Phillippi said. He said electric trucks also help the company take advantage of incentives. UPS has set a goal of having 25 percent of its fleet be made up of alternative fuel vehicles by 2020, in part to encourage manufacturers to keep building and improving such trucks. “The proof of concept time is over,” he said. “Everybody is starting to agree it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.”
Eleven countries meeting at the APEC summit in Da Nang agreed Saturday to seek a trans-pacific free trade agreement, despite the world’s largest market - the United States - pulling out of the deal. Vietnam is expected to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of freer trade as it expands rapidly growing exports, including technology. VOA’s Daniel Schearf visited Vietnam’s largest technology company, FPT, and has an exclusive interview with its chairman in Danang.
U.S. intelligence agencies say that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in part through online propaganda. But a new report shows the United States was not the only target. According to the 2017 “Freedom on the Net” report, disinformation campaigns are increasing as Internet freedom declines globally. VOA’s Jesusemen Oni has the findings of the report.
Before advanced satellites and drones started collecting military intelligence, the U.S. relied on high-flying supersonic aircraft that could quickly penetrate the airspace of adversary countries, take pictures and exit before being caught. The last of those planes, retired in 1998, still holds several world records. But now, spy planes can only be found in museums. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Last week, Somalilanders went to the polls in a historic presidential election. Officials employed advanced iris-scanning technology to identify voters and prevent duplicate ballots — the first use of such a biometric system in a national election. For Somaliland, a breakaway region whose independence has not yet been recognized by the U.N., the scanners also made a powerful statement about its legitimacy as a nation-state. Traditional ways to identify voters, including ID cards and indelible ink, aren't perfect. Paper identification can be forged, and ink can be washed off. In Somaliland, concerns about duplicate voting in past elections have been well-documented, to the point that the legitimacy of the process has been questioned, according to Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard Kennedy School. The move to iris-scanning technology is a way to thwart these concerns. It's also a high-tech solution that vaults Somaliland ahead of more connected countries such as Nigeria and Kenya. In the latter, concerns about the transmission of electronic ballots figured prominently in the Supreme Court's decision to annul the August election. "When elections don't go well, it basically generates the view that Africa is not ready for democracy," Juma told VOA. Iris scanning helps Somaliland improve its democratic process by incorporating the best-available technology, Juma said. Like fingerprints, everyone's eyes are unique. But because our irises also have a highly complex pattern, they're more reliable than other biometrics. To establish someone's identity, iris scanning involves capturing high-quality images of an individual's eyes. To record the greatest detail possible, the scan uses special cameras capable of sensing both visible and infrared light. The images are then added to a database where they can be compared with any other saved images to find potential matches, indicating a duplicate. Building public trust Early on, Somaliland contacted researchers on the forefront of iris-scanning technology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana to ensure the feasibility of the technology. Election officials engaged in a lengthy pilot study to test different system designs and solicit feedback from the public. This transparent process built trust, Juma said. In a test ahead of the Somaliland election, Notre Dame researchers correctly found all 457 duplicates in a large sample of images. No false positives were identified in the process — any pair of images determined to be a duplicate did, in fact, belong to the same person. These results show a high degree of accuracy, although a small collection of images required manual verification after the software's analysis generated inconclusive results. The effort is particularly inspiring given Somaliland's poverty and struggle for international recognition, according to Juma. "To me, [it's] a demonstration to the commitment that Somaliland has to having credible elections." Still, biometric identification such as iris scanning isn't without critics, and concerns about privacy loom particularly large. For the system to work, images must be stored and, to create a national registry, transmitted. That means a data breach is possible. And emerging technologies suggest individuals' eyes could soon be scanned without their consent. So-called long-range iris scanning makes it possible to capture a scan from dozens of feet away. New leadership Vote counting is under way to determine Somaliland's fifth leader since the republic broke away from Somalia in 1991. The current president, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud, did not seek re-election, clearing the way for one of three candidates to assume his post. Election observers from 27 countries found isolated issues at the over 1,600 polling stations, but no problems with the iris scanners have been reported.
How do you obtain the freshest, locally grown produce in a big city? For an increasing number of urbanites, the answer is to grow it yourself. Cam MacKugler can help. MacKugler was at the recent Food Loves Tech event in Brooklyn, New York showing off Seedsheets, roll-out fabric sheets embedded with seed-filled pods. The sheets are placed atop soil in a home planter or an outdoor garden. When watered, the pods dissolve and plants sprout in 10 days (for pea shoots) to 70 days (for dragon carrots). The seed groupings on any given Seedsheet provide ingredients for specific dishes like salads or tacos. Pricing starts at $15 for pre-made sheets and go up to $100 for custom outdoor sheets measuring 1.2 by 2.4 meters. "Someone that's never gardened before might say, 'I want to know where my food comes from but I don't know how to do it, but I like salads so I'm going to buy the salad kit,' " said MacKugler, Seedsheet's CEO and founder. Efforts like Seedsheet come as consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and are more interested in socially and environmentally responsible growing methods. MacKugler told VOA that most of the company's sales come from urban millennials. Comparing Seedsheets to meal kit delivery companies like Blue Apron, MacKugler said Seedsheet took an experiential and educational approach to gardening, while making it user-friendly for customers. "I view it as a way to not only help them grow food, but also help grow their skill sets of knowing how to curate their food, how to actually bring food from seed to supper. It's a life skill," said MacKugler, "It's the same thing that you get from using Blue Apron and learning how to cook." Consumers aren't giving up on the convenience and low cost of packaged foods, but new products and technologies are playing a bigger role in helping them understand where their food comes from. "Consumer education is really progressing," said Nicole Baum, senior marketing and partnerships manager at Gotham Greens, a New York-based provider of hydroponically grown produce. Baum said consumers were less familiar with the term "hydroponics," growing plants in water instead of soil, when Gotham Greens started in 2011. Perceptions have since changed, and she has seen an increase in competing companies. "We're definitely seeing a lot more people within the space from when we first started, which is awesome," said Baum. "I think it's really great that other people are coming into the space and looking for ways to use technology to have more productive, efficient growth." Gotham Greens provides rooftop-grown leafy greens and herbs to supermarkets and top-ranked restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, which uses seasonal vegetables but also depends on the reliability of produce from urban hydroponic farms. "When we write our menus, we know that there are staples that we can continue using," said Gramercy Tavern sous chef Kyle Goldstein. Companies like Smallhold were also on hand at the Food Loves Tech event to promote their mushroom mini-farms — self-contained, vertical farm units that are intended for use in commercial kitchens. Smallhold's mini-farms are installed and serviced by the company at restaurants, with chefs harvesting mushrooms directly on-site. Hannah Shufro, operations lead at Smallhold, said the mini-farms minimize the environmental footprint that comes with transporting and packaging produce for delivery. "A lot of chefs these days, I think, are more concerned with sustainability" and have always been concerned with freshness, she said. Shufro noted that produce starts to lose its nutritional value from the moment it's picked or harvested. "When you're harvesting food right out of a system that's growing on-site, it does not get fresher than that," she said.
A new independent study places Pakistan among the top four countries, including Brazil, Mexico and Syria, where people have been murdered in each of the last three years for writing about sensitive subjects online. The annual "Freedom on the Net" report, released Tuesday by U.S.-based Freedom House, is based on an assessment of internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 87 percent of internet users worldwide. The latest study primarily focused on developments between June 2016 and May 2017. The research declared Pakistan "not free" for a sixth consecutive year, noting internet freedom has deteriorated due to violence and intimidation related to social media activists. "Internet shutdowns, a problematic cybercrime law, and cyberattacks against government critics contributed to the ongoing deterioration. Political speech online is vulnerable to restriction as Pakistan enters an election year in 2018," the report noted. The most frequent targets, it says, seem to be online journalists and bloggers covering politics, corruption and crime, as well as people who express religious views that may contrast with or challenge the views of the majority. The study went on to conclude that perpetrators of the reprisal attacks remained unknown "but their actions often aligned with the interests of politically powerful individuals or entities." The report documented incidents of violence and intimidation during the research period. The government of Pakistan has not commented on the findings. In June, a Pakistani court sentenced to death earlier this year an internet user, Taimoor Raza, for committing blasphemy on Facebook. In April, university student Mashal Khan was killed in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province by a mob who accused him of posting blasphemous content online. Khan's murder sparked widespread outrage across Pakistan. An anti-terrorism court is hearing the lynching case against 57 suspects indicated by the court. "Such attacks often succeed in silencing more than just the victim, encouraging wider self-censorship on sensitive issues like religion. The state's failure to punish perpetrators of reprisal attacks for online speech perpetuates a cycle of impunity," according to the report. The Pakistani government enacted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in August 2016, introducing stronger censorship and surveillance powers with inadequate oversight, say critics. Earlier this year, five bloggers known for criticizing the powerful military and religious militancy were abducted for few weeks. One of them later told media a government institution had detained and tortured him. Authorities had distanced themselves from the alleged abductions. Tuesday's report also criticized the government for the prolonged suspension of mobile internet services in parts of Pakistan, including the violence-plagued northwestern federally administered tribal areas, where security forces have been conducting anti-militancy operations.
About 15 percent of U.S. federal agencies have reported some trace of Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab software on their systems, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told Congress on Tuesday. Jeanette Manfra, assistant secretary for cybersecurity at DHS, told a U.S. House of Representatives panel that 94 percent of agencies had responded to a directive ordering them to survey their networks to identify any use of Kaspersky Lab products. The Trump administration in September ordered civilian U.S. agencies to remove Kaspersky Lab from their networks, saying it was concerned the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm was vulnerable to Kremlin influence and that using its anti-virus software could jeopardize national security. Kaspersky Lab has repeatedly denied the allegations. Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama.
Around the world, Internet freedom is deteriorating, with some governments taking down their mobile Internet service, restricting live video streaming and employing a digital army of pro-government commentators. These are some of the findings of “Freedom on the Net 2017,” an annual report by Freedom House, a global non-profit that tracks democracy and freedom around the world. According to the report, which covered June 2016 to May 2017, about half of the 65 countries assessed – which covers about 87 percent of all the people online globally - saw their Internet freedoms decline, with the Ukraine, Egypt and Turkey showing the most notable one-year erosion of freedoms. China remained the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia, the report said. Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project at Freedom House, said the decline of Internet freedoms has coincided with the rise of Internet access worldwide and people increasingly turning to the Internet to promote democratic reforms and greater human rights. “One of the reasons why we are seeing greater restrictions is precisely because some of the leaders in authoritarian countries, in particular, have discovered the power of the Internet and are trying to come up with innovative methods to suppress that,” she said. Until recently, some governments in Africa and other parts of the world didn’t pay much attention to the Internet, focusing instead on traditional media, such as broadcast. That focus shifts when Internet penetration reaches 20 to 30 percent of the population, she said. “Suddenly the governments start taking note and we start seeing propaganda actions,” she said. Countries such as Zambia and Gambia have shut down mobile access to the Internet, particularly around elections. “Shutting down mobile Internet is such a blunt measure,” she said. “It really signals the government is willing to take it to the next level.” Some other key findings of the report: • Online manipulation tactics played a role in elections in 18 countries. • Governments in 30 countries promoted distorted online information, up from 23 the previous year, employing tools such as paid commentators and false news sites. • Half of all Internet shutdowns were focused on mobile connectivity, with most shutdowns happening in areas populated with ethnic or religious minorities. In October 2016, the Ethiopian, government shut down mobile networks for nearly two months as part of a state of emergency amid antigovernment protests. Belarus disrupted mobile connectivity to prevent livestreamed images from reaching mass audience. Bahrain has issued a specific law that news websites are prohibited from using live video on their websites. • In 30 countries, there have been physical reprisals for online speech, up from 20 countries in the prior year. Not long ago, some of these online suppression techniques were mostly employed by China and Russia. “The extent to which these techniques are being used and the number of countries where they are present is something in itself new,” said Kelly. “It seems like these techniques are spreading and some of the authoritarian countries like China and Russia are actually exporting these techniques,” Kelly said. “And some of the authoritarian regimes around the world are learning from example.”