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Mobile Payments, Smart Meters Bring Power to Tanzanian Homes

When Asteria Lymo saw her prepaid electricity meter was short of units, she grabbed her smartphone and bought some using Tigo Pesa, a local application that allows customers to pay their utility bills on their mobile phones. “I simply transferred the money from my bank account into my phone to buy electricity,” said the 35-year-old mother of three. “It’s fast, easy to use, efficient and saves a lot of time and money.” With 10,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $4.50), Lymo bought 28 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy, enough to power her home for one week. Previously, that would have meant standing in a line for an hour to buy electricity coupons at a vending kiosk. Lymo, who lives in the Kimara neighborhood of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, is among the many customers of state power supplier TANESCO who now use digital platforms to pay their bills. A new study suggests that digital payment, whereby users shift to smart, prepaid metering systems and purchase a set amount of power electronically, not only helps customers but benefits utility companies and mini-grid providers too by reducing the costs of metering and credit operations. As a result, digital payments are helping make off-grid power sources like solar and wind more economically viable. The study, published in July by the Better Than Cash Alliance, a partnership of governments and international organizations, also suggests that digital payments can create new business opportunities, increase transparency, and improve cash flow for utilities and off-grid operators. While most African countries are embracing modern technologies like mobile money transfers, utility bill payments across the continent are still overwhelmingly made in cash, according to the report. And it points out that traditional electricity meters, which have to be read manually, can easily be tampered with. Of 76,000 households audited by TANESCO in 2012, 5 percent were found to be stealing energy. TANESCO spokesperson Leila Muhaji said most of its domestic customers now use prepaid plans. Honest Prosper Ngowi, an economics professor at Mzumbe University in Dar es Salaam, said the shift from cash to digital payments has helped utility firms boost revenues significantly and cut transaction costs, while delivering “social benefits” to their customers, such as eliminating time spent in lines. New customers Globally, 1.1 billion people lack access to electricity, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Digital payments can help by enabling mini-grid operators to expand their customer base in areas that are not connected to the national grid, experts say. In East Africa alone, pay-as-you-go solar operators have financed the sale of more than 800,000 units of solar home systems, according to a 2016 report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The research organization estimated that digital payment-enabled solar units will bring renewable electricity to 15 million households and 75 million people by 2020. In rural Uganda, customers of Fenix International can access lighting and phone-charging through a solar system that costs just 380 shillings ($0.11) a day, but only if they can pay digitally, the report says. In Kenya’s western Kakamega region, Edna Joroge has recently installed an M-Kopa solar system in her new three-bedroom home. The farmer had been waiting for a connection to the grid, but because her house is far from the nearest transformer, she decided to go solar. “I paid $217 in one year and got a solar panel, lithium battery, three light bulbs, a mobile phone charger, a torch and a radio,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “This cost is much less than what I had been incurring buying kerosene.” With an ambitious target of achieving universal access to electricity by 2030, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are now exploring mini-grids to power rural communities away from the main grid. In Kenya, U.S.-based technology venture Powerhive operates a micro-grid network for rural homes and businesses, using smart meters linked to a cloud-based server. This integrated system enables customers to pre-pay for electricity using M-Pesa, a widely used mobile phone-based money transfer service, while allowing Powerhive to remotely monitor performance, consumption and cash flows. Cheaper, faster, healthier? Shashank Verma of Energy 4 Impact, a nonprofit group working with local businesses to broaden energy access across Africa, said digital payments give customers the flexibility to pay in small installments from as little as 50 Kenyan shillings (about $0.50) per day. As most customers for pay-as-you-go solar live in off-grid rural places, they also save time and money, Verma said. “Digital payments avoid all the transactions costs of cash collection and customers can easily be reached and served,” he added. Ray Naluyaga, managing director of the Eleanor Foundation, a Tanzanian charity promoting clean energy technologies, said digital payments help prevent deaths from respiratory diseases by allowing rural people to access the financing they need for alternatives to smoky fuels like kerosene and wood. The foundation provides solar home systems on loan and accepts mobile payments in weekly installments over a minimum 20-week period. This eliminates the need for a down payment of around $100, which most villagers cannot afford, Naluyaga said.

Waste Not: Belgian Startup to Print 3-D Recycled Sunglasses

A Belgium-based start-up is on its way to making the world a bit sunnier, by printing the first 3-D sunglasses out of recycled plastic. The Antwerp-based company w.r.yuma - pronounced "We are Yuma" and named after one of the sunniest places on earth - began a month-long online crowd-sourcing campaign on Kickstarter on Wednesday. After two years of prototyping and testing different materials, it promises to transform old car dashboards, soda bottles, fridges and other plastic waste into different colored shades. "It's the icon of cool, really, and when you wear, literally you are looking to the world through a different set of lenses, and that's exactly the message that I want to bring," Founder Sebastiaan de Neubourg said of the company, named after Yuma, Arizona. "I want to inspire people to have, quite literally, another look at waste." The plastic waste is sourced from the Netherlands and Belgium's Flemish region. The waste is fed into the 3-D printer, melted to form thin strands of plastic wire and layered together to construct the frames. These are then assembled by hand and fitted with Italian made Mazzuchelli lenses. Marketing schemes include setting up stands at music festivals to transform plastic drinking cups into sunglasses on the spot. The company is also making a limited number of soda white sunglasses made from 90 percent recycled PET plastic from soda bottles. It is also inviting would-be clients to return the glasses once they are done with them to be turned into a new pair of glasses. "The idea ... [is] also to make sure that the materials eventually come back to us in a closed loop system," de Neubourg said. With five unique designs and three colours of lenses to choose from, de Neubourg is trying to make sustainable recycling fashionable and useful. The sunglasses will be shipped to customers in January 2018. "I think that sustainability should become mainstream," said de Neubourg, a former mechanical engineer for a sustainability consultancy. "We're not going to solve the plastic waste problem by just taking this plastic and putting it in sunglasses, but it's a first step. ... I want to touch a lot of people with that message."

Tech Leaders Prepare to Fight DACA Decision

They took to Twitter, Facebook and their corporate blog posts. They called their congressional representatives, signed letters and pledged to fight.     This week, many tech industry leaders geared up for battle after the Trump administration announced it was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows people in the U.S. without legal documents to live, work and go to school without fear of deportation. The fate of young adults who benefited from DACA is a civil rights issue, say tech executives and leaders.   However, the lengths to which the tech industry will go to get Congress to act before the program expires in six months remain unclear.   Already, some tech executives have pledged not to fire employees who are DACA beneficiaries, even if they lose the legal right to work in the U.S.   Tools of political action   But there is more the tech industry could do. It could use its very services to put out a call to employees and customers to lobby Congress, something many firms and organizations did in 2012 when they successfully fought anti-copyright piracy legislation. ​Tech companies also could pledge not to disclose personal information collected on their platforms to authorities to help deport people. While many tech leaders spoke out this week against the decision, it's not clear how uniform the industry is about how to advocate for DACA beneficiaries. “They need to go to Washington and sit down with people and say, ‘Get this done,’” said Todd Schulte, president of, an advocacy group co-founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “It is a must-pass legislative item.”   DACA before tax reform   Some companies have promised to make congressional legislation their No. 1 issue, even putting aside their long-held hopes for tax reform, which congressional leaders pledged to address this fall.   Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, said Congress should pursue DACA legislation before tax reform.   “We need to put the humanitarian needs of these 800,000 people on the legislative calendar before a tax bill,” Smith wrote in a blog post.   The software giant also is pledging to help with the legal costs of the 39 DACA beneficiaries who it knows work at its company, he said. Zuckerberg, in a Facebook post, called on people to contact congressional representatives.   In an email to employees, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the company would provide help to the more than 250 employees who are in the program, according to CNET.   Ads attacking Trump   The Emerson Collective, the philanthropic organization run by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, began airing political ads Wednesday in some cable markets criticizing the Trump administration action regarding DACA.   Outside of Silicon Valley, business leaders also were joining the call for action. Stas Gayshan, managing director of Cambridge Innovation Center, a workspace business in the Boston area catering to entrepreneurs, said he planned to be part of “ramping up pressure to make it clear that these folks are Americans.”   “This is a pretty clear assault on what makes our country great,” said Gayshan, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Uzbekistan when he was nine years old.   In Chicago, Rishi Shah, chief executive officer and founder of Outcome Health, a digital health firm currently valued on paper at more than $1 billion, said he was seeing the tech industry move quickly to get Congress to act.   “This is not a niche issue for the industry,” said Shah, whose father emigrated to the U.S. from India. “We really see this as a defining moment.”

Facebook: Likely Russia-based Operation Bought Ads During 2016 US Election

Facebook Inc. said on Wednesday it had found that an influence operation likely based in Russia spent $100,000 on ads promoting divisive social and political messages in a two-year-period through May. Facebook, the dominant social media network, said that many of the ads promoted 470 "inauthentic" accounts and pages that it has now suspended. The ads spread polarizing views on topics including immigration, race and gay rights, instead of backing a particular political candidate, it said. Facebook announced the findings in a blog post by its chief security officer, Alex Stamos, and said that it was cooperating with federal inquiries into influence operations during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The company said it found no link to any presidential campaign. Three-fourths of the ads were national in scope, and the rest did not appear to reflect targeting of political swing-states as voting neared. Facebook did not print the names of any of the suspended pages, but some of them included such words as "refugee" and "patriot."   Even if no laws were violated, the pages ran afoul of Facebook requirements for authenticity, setting up the suspensions. More than $1 billion was spent on digital political ads during the 2016 presidential campaign, 10,000 times the amount identified by Facebook's security team. But the findings buttress U.S. intelligence agency conclusions that Russia was actively involved in shaping the election. Facebook previously published a white paper on influence operations, including what it said were fake "amplifier" accounts for propaganda, and said it was cracking down. As recently as June, it told journalists that it had not found any evidence to date of Russian operatives buying election-related ads on its platform. A Facebook employee said Wednesday that there were unspecified connections between the divisive ads and a well-known Russian "troll factory" in St. Petersburg that publishes comments on social media. Beyond the issue ads, Facebook said it uncovered $50,000 more in overtly political advertising that might have a link to Russia. Some of those ads were bought using the Russian language, even though they were displayed to users in English.

Trump Administration Looking to 'Real World' Measures Against Cyber Enemies

Whether it be meddling in a U.S. presidential election or accessing the fingerprints of some 6 million federal workers, American officials are warning a cyberattack on the United States may be met with more than a retaliatory cyberstrike. Instead, nation states, terrorists and other adversaries attacking the U.S. though cyberspace likely will face "real world" consequences under a doctrine being developed by President Donald Trump. "I think what we'll do on the deterrence side is end up figuring out a means and method to apply elements of national power outside of cyber to punish bad behavior," the president's homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, told a national security conference Wednesday in Washington. "There's very little reason to believe that an offensive cyberattack is going to have any deterrent effect on a cyber adversary," he added. "In fact, it's going to encourage them to hurry up and become better hackers and develop better defenses." Perhaps more importantly, to this point the U.S. sees little evidence to support the idea that a cyber response will do much to change an adversary's behavior. "You see how difficult a problem it is to apply pressure to the Venezuelan dictator or the North Korean regime," Bossert said. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are all seen as threats to the U.S. in cyberspace, looking to steal money or intellectual property rights, or just create havoc. "We have nation-state actors, whether you go back to the Sony attack by North Korea. You have Iran incursions, Russian incursions, Chinese cyber actors, all of which are using the easiest methods to get at businesses," said Joshua Skule, executive assistant director for intelligence at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). "Ransomware is on a huge upswing." Bossert on Wednesday warned China not to use its government resources to spy on U.S. companies, a practice Beijing had agreed to curtail under a 2015 agreement with then-President Barack Obama. "We want to remind the Chinese so that they remain within the spirit of that agreement," Bossert said. "That's something we cannot tolerate and that's something that they've pledged to not do." Protecting U.S. networks U.S. intelligence officials warn that the United States' information and communication networks are vulnerable to attack, and likely will be for years. "The cyberthreats have exponentially increased on the homeland," said David Glawe, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The current administration says it is taking steps to address this vulnerability. Just last month, Trump approved a long-talked about plan to create a fully independent U.S. Cyber Command, with the goal of improving the country's cyber operations against a range of adversaries, including the Islamic State terror group. Currently, U.S. Cyber Command is joined with the National Security Agency, which is primarily responsible for collecting telephone, internet and other intelligence data from around the world. "This new Unified Combatant Command will strengthen our cyberspace operations and create more opportunities to improve our nation's defense,'' Trump said in a written statement at the time, saying the change "will help reassure our allies and partners and deter our adversaries.'' One persistent hurdle, though, has been establishing norms for behavior in cyberspace, something that remains a challenge. "We first have to decide what it is that we think is and is not acceptable, and what we can live by in terms of a golden rule," Bossert said Wednesday. "Then we can think through what it is we will do to those who violate those rules." Edging ahead of US There also are concerns that countries like Russia and China may be edging ahead of the U.S. "When it comes to cyberwarfare capabilities, I think we may be behind," said David Kennedy, chief executive officer at TrustedSec, an IT security consulting firm, who previously served with the NSA and with the Marine Corps electronic warfare unit. "I think we are behind not from a pure technology perspective, but how we can actually apply technology," he said.

New Rockets Could Inspire Next Generation

Rockets that will take Americans back to space from U.S. soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 could also launch new careers in space science. Faith Lapidus reports.

40 Years After Launch Voyager 1 Still Sending Data

Forty years ago, as President Carter was spending his first year in office, NASA launched two spacecraft hoping to learn about Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn's moon Titan. But beyond all expectations, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still communicating. VOA's George Putic reports.

Facebook's Pricey Cricket Bid Shows Appetite for Big Sports Events

Facebook's $600 million losing bid to buy the streaming rights to a hugely popular cricket tournament in India shows the social network is willing to spend big bucks for high-profile sporting events to keep users engaged on its platform. Facebook on Monday emerged as the highest bidder for the rights to stream the Indian Premier League (IPL) through 2022, but lost out to Twenty-First Century Fox's Star India, which bid $2.55 billion for the television and streaming rights combined. Cricket is the most popular sport in India and the IPL is watched by more than a billion people worldwide. The tournament began in 2008 with franchise owners including movie stars and India's richest man. The bid by Facebook also highlights the company's efforts to accelerate its push into video as it tries to take advertising dollars from television and increase the time people spend on its platform. Facebook currently offers live video from a number of news publishers as well as its users. "[Facebook's bid] is still significant because it's such a large amount of money in a market that's still nascent," Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser said. "It clarifies that they intend to be a real player in traditional premium video content." With a cash pile of $6.25 billion, Facebook will have even more shots at bidding for live sporting events as it seeks to keep people glued to its expanding media network. Facebook kicked off live-streaming sports events about a year ago with a soccer match between Manchester United and Everton. It has since streamed basketball, baseball and more soccer matches. Another significant deal for Facebook was its agreement with Major League Baseball in May to live-stream 20 games this season. However, the social network lost out to in April for the highly coveted rights to stream 10 U.S. National Football League (NFL) games this year. Amazon agreed to pay the NFL five times the amount Twitter had spent on the rights last year, which was reported to be $10 million, a source told Reuters at the time. Facebook was also competing with Twitter and Snapchat parent Snap to score the online rights to video highlights from Fox for next year's soccer World Cup, Bloomberg reported in July. Facebook might also eye other big events such as the Olympics or the soccer World Cup, the world's most viewed sports event, Tigress Financial Partners analyst Ivan Feinseth said.

Growing US Dilemma: Automated Jobs Meet Social Consciousness

Security guard Eric Leon watches the Knightscope K5 security robot as it glides through the mall, charming shoppers with its blinking blue and white lights. The brawny automaton records video and sounds alerts. According to its maker, it deters mischief just by making the rounds. Leon, the all-too-human guard, feels pretty sure that the robot will someday take his job. "He doesn't complain," Leon says. "He's quiet. No lunch break. He's starting exactly at 10." Even in the technology hotbed stretching from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, a security robot can captivate passers-by. But the K5 is only one of a growing menagerie of automated novelties in a region where you can eat a delivered pizza made via automation and drink beers at a bar served by an airborne robot. This summer, the San Francisco Chronicle published a tech tourism guide listing a dozen or so places where tourists can observe robots and automation in action. Yet San Francisco is also where workers were the first to embrace mandatory sick leave and fully paid parental leave. Voters approved a $15 hourly minimum wage in 2014, a requirement that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law for the entire state in 2016. And now one official is pushing a statewide "tax" on robots that automate jobs and put people out of work. It's too soon to say if the effort will prevail, let alone whether less-progressive jurisdictions might follow suit. The tussle points to the tensions that can flare when people embrace both technological innovation and a strong brand of social consciousness. Such frictions seem destined to escalate as automation makes further inroads into the workplace. One city supervisor, Norman Yee, has proposed barring food delivery robots from city streets, arguing that public sidewalks should be solely for people. "I'm a people person," Yee says, "so I tend to err on the side of things that should be beneficial and safe for people."  Future for workers Jane Kim, the city supervisor who is pushing the robot tax, says it's important to think now about how people will earn a living as more U.S. jobs are lost to automation. After speaking with experts on the subject, she decided to launch a statewide campaign with the hope of bringing revenue-raising ideas to the state legislature or directly to voters. "I really do think automation is going to be one of the biggest issues around income inequality," Kim says. It makes sense, she adds, that the city at the center of tech disruption take up the charge to manage that disruption. "It's not inherently a bad thing, but it will concentrate wealth, and it's going to drive further inequity if you don't prepare for it now," she says. "Preposterous" is what William Santana Li, CEO of security robot maker Knightscope calls the supervisor's idea. His company created the K5 robot monitoring the Westfield Valley Fair mall in San Jose. The private security industry, Li says, suffers from high turnover and low pay. As he sees it, having robots handle menial tasks allows human guards to assume greater responsibilities — like managing a platoon of K5 robots — and likely earn more pay in the process. Li acknowledges that such jobs would require further training and some technological know-how. But he says people ultimately stand to benefit. Besides, Li says, it's wrong to think that robots are intended to take people's jobs. "We're working on 160 contracts right now, and I can maybe name two that are literally talking about, `How can I get rid of that particular human position?"' Spurring new jobs The question of whether — or how quickly — workers will be displaced by automation ignites fierce debate. It's enough to worry Bill Gates, who suggested in an interview early this year a robot tax as a way to slow the speed of automation and give people time to prepare. The Microsoft co-founder hasn't spoken publicly about it since. A report last year from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that 9 percent of jobs in the United States — or about 13 million — could be automated. Other economists argue that the impact will be much less drastic. The spread of automation should also generate its own jobs, analysts say, offsetting some of those being eliminated. Workers will be needed, for example, to build and maintain robots and develop the software to run them. Technological innovation has in the past created jobs in another way, too: Work involving new technologies is higher-skilled and typically higher-paying. Analysts say that much of the extra income those workers earn tends to be spent on additional goods and services, thereby creating more jobs. "There are going to be a wider array of jobs that will support the automation economy," said J.P. Gownder, an analyst at the research firm Forrester. "A lot of what we're going to be doing is working side by side with robots." What about people who lose jobs to automation but can't transition to more technologically demanding work? Lawmakers in Hawaii have voted to explore the idea of a universal basic income to guarantee wages to servers, cooks and cleaners whose jobs may be replaced by machines. Kim, the San Francisco supervisor, is weighing the idea of using revenue from a robot tax to supplement the low wages of people whose jobs can't be automated, like home health care aides. Doug Bloch, political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7 in Northern California and northern Nevada, said there have been no mass layoffs among hotel, trucking or food service staff resulting from automation. But that day is coming, he warns. Part of his responsibility is to make sure that union drivers receive severance and retraining if they lose work to automation. "All the foundations are being built for this," he says. "The table is being set for this banquet, and we want to make sure our members have a seat at the table." Innovation 'moves the world forward' Tech companies insist their products will largely assist, and not displace, workers. Savioke, based in San Jose, makes 3-foot-tall (91 centimeter) robots — called Relay — that deliver room service at hotels where only one person might be on duty at night. This allows the clerk to stay at the front desk, said Tessa Lau, the company's "chief robot whisperer." "We think of it as our robots taking over tasks but not taking over jobs," Lau says. "If you think of a task as walking down a hall and waiting for an elevator, Relay's really good at that." Similarly, friends Steve Simoni, Luke Allen and Gregory Jaworski hatched the idea of a drink-serving robot one night at a crowded bar in San Francisco. There was no table service. But there was a sea of thirsty people. "We all wanted another round, but you have to send someone to leave the conversation and wait in line at the bar for 10 minutes and carry all the drinks back," Allen says. They created the Bbot, a box that slides overhead on a fixed route at the Folsom Street Foundry in San Francisco, bringing drinks ordered by smartphone and poured by a bartender — who still receives a tip. The bar is in Kim's district in the South of Market neighborhood. Simoni says the company is small and it couldn't shoulder a government tax. But he's glad policymakers are preparing for a future with more robots and automation. "I don't know if we need to tax companies for it, but I think it's an important debate," he says. As for his trio, he says: "We're going to side with innovation every time. Innovation is what moves the world forward."

Creator of Food Sharing App Wants to Feed the World

Here's a statistic for you to consider: the U.N. estimates that over 30 percent of the food that is produced every year never gets eaten. Now one enterprising Nigerian entrepreneur has built an app to help get some of that food to those who need it. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Internet of Things Relying on Personal Assistants

The world of smart appliances capable of communicating with humans is slowly taking shape, thanks to the increasing popularity and ubiquity of so-called personal assistants. At the International Consumer Electronics Trade Show now being held in Berlin, manufacturers are promoting a new generation of gadgets from smart refrigerators to window cleaning robots. VOA's George Putic reports.

Mesh Networks Can Keep People Connected During Natural Disasters

Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey are a threat not only to human life but also to telecommunication systems. When they go down, entire cities and communities are cut off from each other. Mesh networks, however, can get people connected again, and during emergencies they can be a crucial link to information. "It really all boils down to the 'central point of failure' problem," said Daniela Perdomo. "If the central infrastructure goes down, everyone who plugs into it is also disconnected." Perdomo would know. When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012, lower Manhattan was left in the dark, with no electricity or connectivity. Unable to use cellular networks, the New Yorker and her brother eventually decided to do something about it. The two co-founded goTenna, a line of products that use low-frequency radio waves to send SMS text messages and GPS information. Their latest product is the goTenna Mesh, a mesh networking device that works independently of traditional cellular networks. Originally developed for military use, mesh networks spread connectivity over multiple nodes, or connection points, that communicate with each other. Strength in numbers "Any individual Wi-Fi device doesn't reach very far, but if you can chain many of them together, then you can provide access over a wider area," said Joshua King, lead developer at Commotion Wireless, an open-source software initiative for mesh networks. If at least one node is connected to the internet, the signal can be shared and multiple users can connect as well. If there is no internet connection, a mesh network can still function as a hyperlocal server for emergency information and basic messaging, like texts. In emergency situations like Hurricane Harvey, this basic network can mean the difference between life and death. King said the advantage of mesh networks is that they are dynamically routed — if one node goes down, others take its place. "A mesh network can potentially route around any kind of damage, if there is another path for the traffic to go," he said. "The idea is to make telecommunication systems more modular, more distributed. So that even if centralized points fail, you would still have working telecommunications in different areas," said Greta Byrum, director of the Resilient Communities program at research institution New America. Centralized systems' flaws King and Byrum were at a recent Columbia University forum called Sneakercon to discuss the buildout of offline networks in local communities. "I think it's important for thinking about the future of utilities and telecommunications, because we're finding more and more that centralized systems just don't make sense at scale," Byrum said. Byrum and her colleagues teach communities how to build their own mesh networks using everyday, off-the-shelf equipment. In a workshop at Sneakercon, participants were learning to make their own "PNKs" or Portable Network Kits, using wireless routers and small portable computers like the Raspberry Pi. "[It's] about community control, community power," said Byrum. "People start thinking about things like telecommunications sovereignty — who controls the internet, who controls what we say online, who benefits from it, who gets the data?" "Why can't we empower people to create their own connectivity?" said Perdomo, "And create more of a people-powered, bottom-up network as opposed to a heavy infrastructure top-down network?" When it comes to weathering the storm, mesh networks are restoring power in more ways than one.

Mesh Networks Can Keep People Connected During Natural Disasters

Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey pose a threat not only to human lives but also to telecommunication systems. When they go down, entire cities and communities are cut off from each other. But mesh networks can get people connected again and, during emergencies, be a crucial link to information. VOA's Tina Trinh explains.

Russia Sees Artificial Intelligence as Key to World Domination

The digital arms race between the United States and Russia appears to be accelerating, fueled in part by new comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin, speaking to a group of Russian students Friday, called artificial intelligence "not only Russia's future" but "the future of the whole of mankind." "The one who becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world," he said. "There are colossal opportunities and threats that are difficult to predict now." Digital domain Top U.S. intelligence officials have been warning of a "perpetual contest" between the United States and Russia, with much of it playing out in the digital domain. The Defense Intelligence Agency in particular has sought to maximize its ability to make use of artificial intelligence, or AI, reaching out to private industry and academia to help maintain the U.S. advantage. Russia and China are seen as key competitors in the digital space and have been working on how to apply technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, to their war-fighting doctrines. "They've got their heads wrapped around the idea that 21st century warfare is as much cognitive as it is kinetic," outgoing DIA Director Lt.  Gen. Vincent Stewart told a small group of reporters from VOA and other organizations last month. Top officials, both in government and in the private sector, have long been willing to discuss the impact of artificial intelligence and other technological advances. But some analysts see Putin's willingness to address the issue publicly as telling. "[It's] rare that you have a head of state discussing these issues," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. "He is sending a message." And Cilluffo hopes the U.S. is paying attention. "A big space race is on, and it's a race we can't afford to lose," he said. US maintains advantage Many experts say the U.S. still maintains an advantage over Russia in artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Still, as Russia, China and other countries seek additional breakthroughs in how to apply such technology, the stakes are high. "It completely changes the game of warfare," said David Kennedy, who served with the U.S. National Security Agency and with the Marine Corps' electronic warfare unit. "It's no longer going to be about who has the most bombs or who has the better bombs," he said. "It's going to be who can apply these principles to respond faster to fight a war and win a war." And Kennedy, now chief executive officer at TrustedSec, an information technology security consulting firm, sees Russia gaining. "They explore all options, and they have a substantial budget for it," he said, noting that Moscow may have an advantage in how to apply the technology since it is willing to sidestep privacy and ethical concerns that the U.S. and even China have tried to address. China, too, is making significant gains. But unlike Russia, China has focused more on quantum computing, launching a quantum satellite into space last year. Quantum computing uses a quirk of physics that allows subatomic particles to simultaneously exist in two different states. As a result, a computer is then able to skip through much of the elaborate mathematical computations necessary to solve complex problems. It is seen as a potentially game-changing tool for intelligence agencies, enabling them to hack encrypted messages from their adversaries while their own communications would be "hackproof," if the technology can be perfected. "The Chinese have one of the most powerful quantum encryption capabilities in the world," DIA's Stewart cautioned last month. "Whoever wins this space wins the game."

New Uber CEO Highlights Iranians in Tech

In Silicon Valley, all eyes are on Dara Khosrowshahi, the new CEO of Uber, who starts his turnaround of the ride-hailing firm on Tuesday. But for Iranian Americans working in tech, Khosrowshahi's appointment is not just about who will guide Uber, a nearly $70 billion company that has searched since June for a new leader. Khosrowshahi, 48, is Iranian American. Born in Tehran, he came to the U.S. when he was nine. His appointment highlights the prominence of people of Iranian descent in the tech industry at a time when many feel under increased scrutiny. "The Persian Mafia in Tech gets $70B bigger!" noted one Iranian American tech investor. Khosrowshahi's hiring prompted Ali Tahmaseb, a tech entrepreneur, to compile a list of more than 50 Iranian Americans who have founded companies, become tech investors or are in leadership roles at tech firms. They include Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, and Falon Roz Fatemi, founder and chief executive of and, when she was 19, Google's youngest employee at the time.   Uber board's appointment of Khosrowshahi comes at a time when Iranian Americans are increasingly worried about how they are perceived, said Leila Austin, executive director at the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a non profit organization based in Washington, D.C. More than 80 percent of Iranian Americans in a recent survey said they worried about rising discrimination, double those had expressed the same concern in 2015. And 56 percent said they had personally experienced discrimination. Khosrowshahi, until recently the chief executive at Expedia, spoke out against the Trump administration's efforts to restrict Iranians traveling to the U.S. The Trump administration argues that its more restrictive visa and immigration policies will make the United States safer, and American citizens more prosperous. In January, Khosrowshahi told his employees in a memo, obtained by Business Insider, that the travel ban would make the U.S. "ever so slightly less dangerous as a place to live, but it will certainly be seen as a smaller nation, one that is inward-looking versus forward thinking, reactionary versus visionary." Khosrowshahi faces a long list of problems at Uber. Sexual harassment claims. An aggressive, break-things culture. Internal strife within the board. And then there is the actual Uber business, which has transformed transportation worldwide. The company has faced more pressure from Lyft, its main U.S. competitor. It has given up in big global markets, ceding to rivals in China, Russia and India. In his first all-hands meeting with Uber employees, Khosrowshahi said the company planned to go public in 18 to 36 months.   No doubt Khosrowshahi's job at Uber is a big one, yet the enormity of the challenge adds to the Iranian community's sense of pride, said Pirooz Parvarandeh, a longtime Silicon Valley executive who created a nonprofit to gather and analyze data about Iranian Americans' contributions to the U.S. Khosrowshahi's ascendancy at Uber is "symbolic of the value and service that Iranian Americans bring to America," he said.

Desalination Promises Ample Supply of Fresh Water

Although 75 percent of our planet is covered with water, many countries around the world suffer from a low supply of fresh water. There is plenty of water in the ocean, but removing the salt is very expensive, and only coastal nations with an ample supply of power, such as the Arab Gulf States, can afford to rely on desalination. Now, as sources of fresh water dwindle, emerging new technologies could make the technology much more cost effective. VOA's George Putic reports.

Tesla Starts Production of Solar Cells in Buffalo, New York

Tesla Inc. is starting production of the cells for its solar roof tiles at its factory in Buffalo, New York.   The company has already begun installing its solar roofs, which look like regular roofs but are made of glass tiles. But until now, it has been making them on a small scale near its vehicle factory in Fremont, California.   Tesla's Chief Technical Officer, JB Straubel, says the company now has several hundred workers and machinery installed in its 1.2 million-square-foot factory in Buffalo.   "By the end of this year we will have the ramp-up of solar roof modules started in a substantial way,'' Straubel told The Associated Press Thursday. "This is an interim milestone that we're pretty proud of.''   The Buffalo plant was originally begun by Silevo, a solar panel startup, on the site of an old steel mill. Solar panel maker SolarCity Corp. bought Silevo in 2014. Then Tesla acquired SolarCity for around $2 billion late last year. SolarCity was run by cousins of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who sat on SolarCity's board.   "This factory, and the opportunity to build solar modules and cells in the U.S., was part of why this project made sense,'' Straubel said.   Tesla's partner, Panasonic Corp., will make the photovoltaic cells, which look similar to computer chips. Tesla workers will combine the cells into modules that fit into the roof tiles. The tiles will eventually be made in Buffalo as well, along with more traditional solar panels. Panasonic is also working with Tesla at its Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada.   Straubel says Tesla eventually hopes to reach 2 gigawatts of cell production annually at the Buffalo plant. That's higher than its initial target of 1 gigawatt by 2019. Straubel said Tesla has been working on making the factory more efficient.   One gigawatt is equivalent to the annual output of a large nuclear or coal-fired power plant, Straubel said, "so it's like we're eliminating one of those every single year.''   Straubel wouldn't say how many customers have ordered solar roof tiles, but said demand is strong and it will take Tesla through the end of next year to meet its current orders. Both he and Musk have had the tiles installed on their roofs.   Tesla shares were up less than 1 percent to $355.65 in afternoon trading.

Alexa, Cortana Talk to Each Other in Amazon-Microsoft Deal

Microsoft and Amazon are pairing their voice assistants together in a collaboration announced Wednesday. Both companies say later this fall, users will be able to access Alexa using Cortana on Windows 10 computers and on Android and Apple devices. They'll also be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices such as the Amazon Echo. Microsoft says the tie-up will allow Alexa customers to get access to Cortana features such as for booking meetings or accessing work calendars. Cortana users, in turn, can ask Alexa to switch on smart home devices or shop on Amazon's website. The use of voice assistants is growing. Google and Amazon already have smart speakers on the market. Apple has HomePod coming with its Siri assistant, while Samsung plans one with Microsoft's Cortana. Amazon has little to lose from the partnership, and Microsoft's Cortana — which has been largely limited to laptops — might get discovered by more users because of it, said Carolina Milanesi, a mobile technology analyst at Creative Strategies. "Cortana might get a little bit more out of it because it gets Cortana out of the PC," she said. "For Cortana to really get to be more important, it needs to be consistently used every day for different tasks." Milanesi said that for Amazon especially, which wants more people to consider Alexa as their first choice, the partnership also might be designed to send a message to customers and rivals. "They both get something out of it, which is mainly showing Apple and Google that they're willing to work together to get stronger," Milanesi said.

World's Biggest Drone Drug Deliveries Take Off in Tanzania

Tanzania is set to launch the world's largest drone delivery network in January, with drones parachuting blood and medicines out of the skies to save lives. California's Zipline will make 2,000 deliveries a day to more than 1,000 health facilities across the east African country, including blood, vaccines and malaria and AIDS drugs, following the success of a smaller project in nearby Rwanda. "It's the right move," Lilian Mvule, 51, said by phone, recalling how her granddaughter died from malaria two years ago. "She needed urgent blood transfusion from a group O, which was not available," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Malaria is a major killer in Tanzania, and children under age 5 often need blood transfusions when they develop malaria-induced anemia. If supplies are out of stock, as is often the case with rare blood types, they can die. Tanzania is larger than Nigeria and four times the size of the United Kingdom, making it hard for the cash-strapped government to ensure all of its 5,000-plus clinics are fully stocked, particularly in remote rural areas. The drones fly at 100 kph (62 mph), much faster than traveling by road. Small packages are dropped from the sky using a biodegradable parachute. The government also hopes to save the lives of thousands of women who die from profuse bleeding after giving birth. Tanzania has one of the world's worst maternal mortality rates, with 556 deaths per 100,000 deliveries, government data show. "It's a problem we can help solve with on-demand drone delivery," Zipline's chief executive, Keller Rinaudo, said in a statement. "African nations are showing the world how it's done." Companies in the United States and elsewhere are keen to use drones to cut delivery times and costs, but there are hurdles ranging from the risk of collisions with airplanes to ensuring battery safety and longevity. The drones will cut the drug delivery bill for Tanzania's capital, Dodoma, one of two regions where the project will first roll out, by $58,000 a year, according to Britain's Department for International Development, one of the project's backers. The initiative could also ease tensions between frustrated patients and health workers. "We always accuse nurses of stealing drugs," said Angela Kitebi, who lives 40 kilometers east of Dodoma. "We don't realize that the drugs are not getting here on time due to bad roads."