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Updated: 2 hours 22 min ago

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."

Are Consumers Ready to Give Augmented Reality a Try?

You might have gotten a taste of "augmented reality," the blending of the virtual and physical worlds, as you chased on-screen monsters at real-world landmarks in last year's gaming sensation, "Pokemon Go." Upcoming augmented reality apps will follow that same principle of superimposing virtual images over real-life settings. That could let you see how furniture will look in your real living room before you buy it, for instance. While "Pokemon Go" didn't require special hardware or software, more advanced AR apps will. Google and Apple are both developing technology to enable that. Google's AR technology is already on Android phones from Lenovo and Asus. On Tuesday, Google announced plans to bring AR to even more phones, including Samsung's popular S8 and Google's own Pixel, though it didn't give a timetable beyond promising an update by the end of the year. As a result, Apple might pull ahead as it extends AR to all recent iPhones and iPads in a software update expected next month, iOS 11. Hundreds of millions of AR-ready devices will suddenly be in the hands of consumers. But how many are ready to give AR a try? Early applications Of the dozen or so apps demoed recently for Android and iPhones, the ones showing the most promise are furniture apps. From a catalog or a website, it's hard to tell whether a sofa or a bed will actually fit in your room. Even if it fits, will it be far enough from other pieces of furniture for someone to walk through? With AR, you can go to your living room or bedroom and add an item you're thinking of buying. The phone maps out the dimensions of your room and scales the virtual item automatically; there's no need to pull out a tape measure. The online furnishing store Wayfair has the WayfairView for Android phones, while Ikea is coming out with one for Apple devices. Wayfair says it's exploring bringing the app to iPhones and iPads, too. As for whimsical, Holo for Android lets you pose next to virtual tigers and cartoon characters. For iPhones and iPads, the Food Network will let you add frosting and sprinkles to virtual cupcakes. You can also add balloons and eyes — who does that? — and share creations on social media. Games and education are also popular categories. On Apple devices, a companion to AMC's "The Walking Dead" creates zombies alongside real people for you to shoot. On Android, apps being built for classrooms will let students explore the solar system, volcanoes and more. Beyond virtual reality Virtual reality is a technology that immerses you in a different world, rather than trying to supplement the real world with virtual images, as AR does. VR was supposed to be the next big thing, but the appeal has been limited outside of games and industrial applications. You need special headsets, which might make you dizzy if you wear one too long. And VR isn't very social. Put on the headset, and you shut out everyone else around you. Part of the appeal of "Pokemon Go" was the ability to run into strangers who were also playing. Augmented reality can be a shared experience, as friends look on the phone screen with you. Being available vs. Being used While AR shows more promise than VR, there has yet to be a "killer app" that everyone must have, the way smartphones have become essential for navigation and everyday snapshots. Rather, people will discover AR over time, perhaps a few years. Someone renovating or moving might discover the furniture apps. New parents might discover educational apps. Those people might then go on to discover more AR apps to try out. But just hearing that AR is available might not be enough for someone to check it out. Consider mobile payments. Most phones now have the capability, but people still tend to pull out plastic when shopping. There's no doubt more people are using mobile payments and more retailers are accepting them, but it's far from commonplace. Expect augmented reality to also take time to take off.

US Gearing Up for Digital Arms Race

In the straight-laced world of the U.S. military, the big room with glossy white paint stands out. Beyond the desks lined with computer screens, the overhead projectors or the digital clock displaying the time in various world cities, the walls demand your attention.     They are covered from floor to ceiling with questions, equations, sketches and ideas — scribbled frantically or in moments of inspiration — all representing the best thinking of some of the U.S. military’s best analysts.   “There are precious few places in this building where you can write on a wall,” said Albert Bolden, not surprisingly given that this is, after all, part of a military base. But according to Bolden, the director of innovation at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, that’s part of the point for the so-called Innovation Hub, or iHUB.   “People from across the agency can come into this space and figure out how to solve our problems,” he said.   'Relevant in this digital age'   While all this may sound like a feel-good tale of military structure melding with Silicon Valley ingenuity to make life easier by using technology, it is actually about much more.   “If we don’t embrace it, our adversaries will,” said outgoing DIA Director, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart. “The fight for remaining relevant in this digital age is what keeps me awake.”   And Stewart was clear. It is, in many ways, an arms race.   “Our adversaries have been modernizing,” he warned, speaking to a small group of reporters in August, as the agency welcomed private companies and academics to the iHub for a series of so-called Industry Days.   And it is these encounters between the DIA’s own top thinkers and some of the best outside of government that form a second, crucial component of the iHub strategy. It is a chance to see how off-the-shelf technologies might be able to help solve problems the agency’s analysts have identified.   One company making a pitch to be part of this overall effort is an Austin, Texas-based artificial intelligence start-up called SparkCognition.   SparkCognition already has attracted interest from the U.S. Air Force. And companies like Verizon and Boeing are now investing more than $30 million in the company's neural networks, designed to mimic the functionality of a human brain in order to predict likely outcomes.   “What we’ve done is automate that research that a data scientist would do,” said SparkCognition’s Sam Septembre following a question-and-answer session at the DIA’s iHub.   Instead of taking weeks or days, however, Septembre said SparkCognition’s systems can deliver results in hours or even minutes.   “We’re not just a black box,” added the company’s director of business operations, Timothy Stefanick. “We have why the [computer] model thought that.”   SparkCognition says its platforms already have succeeded in predicting Brexit, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. And the company says it nearly correctly predicted President Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by looking at sales of campaign merchandise, like Trump’s “Make America Great Again” baseball caps.   “The human factor got involved and skewed it,” said Stefanick, explaining that in the run-up to the election, the company’s analysts didn’t trust the initial prediction of a Trump victory because it differed so much from the polls. He said they then decided to have the computer models take into account additional factors, causing them to predict a Trump loss.   AI for video   Another company vying for a DIA contract is Percipient.ai, which focuses on applying artificial intelligence to video.   “This is a kind of capability that helps you get into productive analytics and helps you protect forces,” said company co-founder, ret. Brig. Gen. Balan Ayyar, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer who commanded a task force in Afghanistan. “You can check any person in any video,” he said.   Ayyar and fellow Percipient.ai co-founder Raj Shah, say their platform can save analysts considerable time, for example scouring hundreds of hours of video from the scene of a terror attack to quickly identify if any suspected terrorists were nearby.   Even mobile phones could be used to track potential adversaries, programmed to vibrate, for instance, if a person of interest turns up in a “selfie.”   “With this kind of system, the [terror] watch list could be much, much bigger,” said Shah, who previously headed up Google Maps.   Already, Ayyar and Shah say Percipient.ai’s systems can identify suspicious activity, or tradecraft, like the use of specific getaway vehicles. Handwriting on the wall   For DIA, the early results have been promising.   “We’ve seen examples when machines are able to provide insights to the analysts that they haven’t had,” said Randy Soper, a senior DIA analyst for analytics modernization.   To speed up the process, DIA even awards seed money — up to about $250,000 — to projects that have shown the most promise.   Two have already been approved and another four projects are set to receive funding once the once the money becomes available.   More projects could soon be added to the list. DIA’s Innovation Hub is still considering the latest pitches from industry and academia, like those from SparkCognition and Percipient.ai.   The agency says that overall, the response has been “overwhelming.”   But the success in reaching out to industry and academia also has brought some changes to the program.   Last week [August 22], the DIA opened up a new Innovation Hub.   At first glance, it looks sleek and modern, a row of screens and a digital world clock etched smoothly into wood-paneled walls, while a large conference table dominates the center of the room.   To be sure, it seems like quite a departure from the old iHub, which almost had the feel of a useful but makeshift classroom.   Some things, though, have not changed. The wood-paneling only extends so far. Much of the rest of the room is covered in that white, glossy paint.   “You can still write on the walls,” said one official.  

Pizza Delivery Without Drivers: Domino's, Ford Team Up for Test

No ring of the doorbell, just a text. No tip for the driver? No problem in this test, where Domino's and Ford are teaming up to see if customers will warm to the idea of pizza delivered by driverless cars.   Starting Wednesday, some pizzas in Domino's hometown of Ann Arbor will arrive in a Ford Fusion outfitted with radars and a camera that is used for autonomous testing. A Ford engineer will be at the wheel, but the front windows have been blacked out so customers won't interact with the driver.   Instead, people will have to come out of their homes and type a four-digit code into a keypad mounted on the car. That will open the rear window and let customers retrieve their order from a heated compartment. The compartment can carry up to four pizzas and five sides, Domino's Pizza Inc. says.   The experiment will help Domino's understand how customers will interact with a self-driving car, says company President Russell Weiner. Will they want the car in their driveway or by the curb? Will they understand how to use the keypad? Will they come outside if it's raining or snowing? Will they put their pizza boxes on top of the car and threaten to mess up its expensive cameras?   “The majority of our questions are about the last 50 feet of the delivery experience,” Weiner told reporters last week.   Domino's, which delivers 1 billion pizzas worldwide each year, needs to stay ahead of emerging trends, Weiner says. The test will last six weeks, and the companies say they'll decide afterward what to do next. Domino's is also testing pizza delivery with drones.   Weiner said the company has 100,000 drivers in the U.S. In a driverless world, he said, he could see those employees taking on different roles within the company.   Ford Motor Co., which wants to develop a fully driverless vehicle by 2021, said it needs to understand the kinds of things companies would use that vehicle for. The experiment is a first for Ford. But other companies have seen the potential for food deliveries. Otto, a startup backed by Uber, delivered 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer from a self-driving truck in Colorado last fall.   “We're developing a self-driving car not just for the sake of technology,” said Sherif Marakby, Ford's vice president of autonomous and electric vehicles. “There are so many practical things that we need to learn.”   Only one car will be deployed in Ann Arbor, and it has a special black-and-white paint job to identify it as a research vehicle.   Customers in the test area will be chosen randomly when they order a pizza, and will get a phone call to confirm they want to participate. If they agree, they'll get a text message letting them know when the vehicle is pulling up and how to retrieve their food.

From Hotel to Beer Factory, Robots Increasingly Used in Japan

Japan leads the world in the number of robots per person that are used in the workplace. Instead of being wary, people apparently like them. VOA's Deborah Block takes us to a hotel and a beer factory where droids are doing just about everything.

Sky High Lifeguard Soon to be Monitoring Australian Beaches

It is still true that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark; but, that does not matter much to the 150 or so people who experienced what the International Shark Attack File calls "shark-human interaction in 2016. Still, some Australian eyes in the sky are helping lifeguards look out for the predators just offshore. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

'Need Help': Harvey Victims Use Social Media When 911 Fails

Desperate for help and unsure whether traditional rescue efforts will come through, Harvey victims are using social media to share maps of their location and photos of themselves trapped on rooftops and inside buildings. "Need help in NE Houston! Baby here and sick elderly!" one user posted on Twitter along with her address late Sunday. Another woman, Alondra Molina, posted Monday on Facebook that her sister was desperate for a rescue for herself and her four children, including a 1-year-old. "Please if someone could at least get them out of the city me and my mom will come get them," Molina wrote on a Facebook group where dozens were pleading for help. "The roads are just all blocked and we can't get in." Annette Fuller took a video when she began fearing for her life on Sunday. She was on the second floor of a neighbor's home along with the residents of three other houses, including five children, as water rose and hit waist level on the first floor. "We called 911 and it rang and rang and rang and rang," Fuller said Monday after the water receded and she managed to return safely to her single-story home. "There's just no agency in the world that could handle Harvey," she said. "However, none of us were warned that 911 might not work. It was very frightening." Fuller's two daughters, who live in Austin and Dallas, posted her video to Facebook after their mother texted it to them, and the post went viral. "Social media, in some ways, is more powerful than the government agencies," Fuller said. Nursing home rescue A nursing home in Dickinson, a low-lying city 30 miles (48 kilometers) southeast of Houston, quickly became the face of the crisis after its owner took a photo of residents, some in wheelchairs, up to their chests in water. The nursing home owner, Trudy Lampson, sent the photo to her daughter, whose husband posted it Sunday to Twitter, where it's been retweeted about 4,500 times. The photo was so dramatic that many users denounced it as fake. The nursing home residents were saved the same day. "Thanks to all the true believers that re-tweeted and got the news organizations involved," Lampson's son-in-law, Timothy McIntosh, posted later in the day. "It pushed La Vita Bella to #1 on the priority list." McIntosh told The Associated Press on Monday that his post gained traction after a local newspaper reported it. "We are in Tampa, Florida," he said. "The only way we could have an impact was by trying to reach out to emergency services and trying to do social media to gain attention to the cause." Not only are the people who need rescuing relying on social media for help, volunteers and police departments alike are posting their phone numbers and instructions on Twitter and Facebook so people can get more immediate help. Revolutionizing search and rescue An unofficial battalion of volunteers called the Cajun Navy who brought small boats to Houston posted on Facebook that people who need rescuing should download the Zello cellphone app to find rescuers close to their area. "This will connect you with officials on the ground there that can navigate help your way. PLEASE SHARE!" said the post, which has been shared more than 12,000 times since Sunday night. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted early Sunday that a woman was going into labor and shared the address. An hour later, he updated his followers that the woman had been taken away in an ambulance. More than any other natural disaster, Harvey has made it clear that social media has revolutionized the search-and-rescue process, said Karen North, a professor of social media at the University of Southern California. "And what's really fascinating is that this is not emergency services experts creating strategic systems to rescue people," North said. "This is evolving organically ... Not only can people reach out to 911 but to friends and family elsewhere who can not only reach out to 911 but directly to rescuers in the location where the person needs help. "It's really just the idea of taking technology designed for one purpose and applying them to a disaster situation," North said. Dozens of people continued to post their pleas to be rescued through late Monday. Fuller said if the water rises again at her home, she won't bother calling 911 and will post directly to social media. "If I was desperate, I'd put it in a public Facebook site and say, `Somebody please help,' and hope that somebody was looking,"' she said.

Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi Reportedly to Lead Uber

Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has been named Uber's top executive, taking the difficult job of mending the dysfunctional ride-hailing giant and turning it from money-losing behemoth to a profitable company.   Uber's fractured eight-member board voted to hire Khosrowshahi late Sunday, capping three days of meetings and the withdrawal of once-top candidate Jeffery Immelt, former CEO and still chairman of General Electric, two people briefed on the decision said. They didn't want to be identified because the decision had not been officially announced as of Sunday night.   Khosrowshahi has been CEO of Expedia since August of 2015. The online booking site is one of the largest travel agencies in the world. Self-driving cars   He'll replace ousted CEO Travis Kalanick and faces the difficult task of changing Uber's culture that has included sexual harassment and allegations of deceit and corporate espionage. Uber also is losing millions every quarter as it continues to expand and invest in self-driving cars.   The company currently is being run by a 14-person group of managers and is without multiple top executive positions that will be filled by Khosrowshahi.   Khosrowshahi has served as a member of Expedia's board since it was spun off from IAC/InterActiveCorp. two years ago. An engineer who trained at Brown University, Khosrowshahi helped to expand IAC's travel brands which were combined into Expedia, the company's website says. He also serves on the boards of Fanatics Inc. and The New York Times Co. Many problems to solve   He immediately will face troubles on many fronts, including having to deal with multiple board factions that had once pushed Immelt and Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman. Several factions of the board are suing each other.   Whitman, an investor in Uber, denied multiple times publicly that she was interested in the job. Although she spoke to some board members remotely Friday night, they could not guarantee an end to their infighting or that Kalanick would not become board chairman, said another person with knowledge of the board discussions. That person also didn't want to be identified because board discussions are supposed to be private.   Khosrowshahi also must bring together a messy culture that an outside law firm found was rampant with sexual harassment and bullying of employees. He also must deal with driver discontent, although Uber already has started to fix that by allowing riders to tip drivers through its app.

Russian Engineers Testing a Driverless Minibus

Researchers in Moscow are testing a battery-powered driverless vehicle with a guidance system based on human eyesight. They say it will be cheap to produce and could soon be seen on closed roads, such as technology parks and college campuses. VOA's George Putic reports.

Can Computers Enhance Work of Teachers? Debate Is On

In middle school, Junior Alvarado often struggled with multiplication and earned poor grades in math, so when he started his freshman year at Washington Leadership Academy, a charter high school in the nation's capital, he fretted that he would lag behind. But his teachers used technology to identify his weak spots, customize a learning plan just for him and coach him through it. This past week, as Alvarado started sophomore geometry, he was more confident in his skills. “For me personalized learning is having classes set at your level,” Alvarado, 15, said in between lessons. “They explain the problem step by step, it wouldn't be as fast, it will be at your pace.” As schools struggle to raise high school graduation rates and close the persistent achievement gap for minority and low-income students, many educators tout digital technology in the classroom as a way forward. But experts caution that this approach still needs more scrutiny and warn schools and parents against being overly reliant on computers. The use of technology in schools is part of a broader concept of personalized learning that has been gaining popularity in recent years. It's a pedagogical philosophy centered around the interests and needs of each individual child as opposed to universal standards. Other features include flexible learning environments, customized education paths and letting students have a say in what and how they want to learn. Personalized learning Under the Obama administration, the Education Department poured $500 million into personalized learning programs in 68 school districts serving close to a half million students in 13 states plus the District of Columbia. Large organizations such as the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation have also invested heavily in digital tools and other student-centered practices. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning estimates that up to 10 percent of all America's public schools have adopted some form of personalized learning. Rhode Island plans to spend $2 million to become the first state to make instruction in every one of its schools individualized. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also embraces personalized learning as part of her broader push for school choice. Supporters say the traditional education model, in which a teacher lectures at the blackboard and then tests all students at the same time, is obsolete and doesn't reflect the modern world. “The economy needs kids who are creative problem solvers, who synthesize information, formulate and express a point of view,” said Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. “That's the model we are trying to move toward.” At Washington Leadership Academy, educators rely on software and data to track student progress and adapt teaching to enable students to master topics at their own speed. Digital tool finds problem This past week, sophomores used special computer programs to take diagnostic tests in math and reading, and teachers then used that data to develop individual learning plans. In English class, for example, students reading below grade level would be assigned the same books or articles as their peers, but complicated vocabulary in the text would be annotated on their screen. “The digital tool tells us: We have a problem to fix with these kids right here and we can do it right then and there; we don't have to wait for the problem to come to us,” said Joseph Webb, founding principal at the school, which opened last year. Webb, dressed in a green T-shirt reading “super school builder,” greeted students Wednesday with high-fives, hugs and humor. “Red boxers are not part of our uniform!” he shouted to one student, who responded by pulling up his pants. The school serves some 200 predominantly African-American students from high-poverty and high-risk neighborhoods. Flags of prestigious universities hang from the ceiling and a “You are a leader” poster is taped to a classroom door. Based on a national assessment last year, the school ranked in the 96th percentile for improvement in math and in the 99th percentile in reading compared with schools whose students scored similarly at the beginning of the year.   It was one of 10 schools to win a $10 million grant in a national competition aimed at reinventing American high schools that is funded by Lauren Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. 'Female Bill Gates’ Naia McNatt, a lively 15-year-old who hopes to become “the African-American and female Bill Gates,” remembers feeling so bored and unchallenged in fourth grade that she stopped doing homework and her grades slipped.   At the academy, “I don't get bored ‘cause I guess I am pushed so much,” said McNatt, a sophomore. “It makes you need to do more, you need to know more.” In math class, McNatt quickly worked through quadratic equations on her laptop. When she finished, the system spitted out additional, more challenging problems. Her math teacher, Britney Wray, says that in her previous school she was torn between advanced learners and those who lagged significantly. She says often she wouldn't know if a student was failing a specific unit until she started a new one. In comparison, the academy's technology now gives Wray instant feedback on which students need help and where. “We like to see the problem and fix the problem immediately,” she said. Still, most researchers say it is too early to tell if personalized learning works better than traditional teaching. A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that personalized learning produced modest improvements: a 3 percentile increase in math and a smaller, statistically insignificant increase for reading compared with schools that used more traditional approaches. Some students also complained that collaboration with classmates suffered because everybody was working on a different task. “I would not advise for everybody to drop what they are doing and adopt personalized learning,” said John Pane, a co-author of the report. “A more cautious approach is necessary.” New challenges The new opportunities also pose new challenges. Pediatricians warn that too much screen time can come at the expense of face-to-face social interaction, hands-on exploration and physical activity. Some studies also have shown that students may learn better from books than from computer screens, while another found that keeping children away from computers for five days in a row improved their emotional intelligence. Some teachers are skeptical. Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the Badass Teachers Association, an education advocacy group, agrees that technology has its merits, but insists that no computer or software should ever replace the personal touch, motivation and inspiration teachers give their students. “That interaction and that human element is very important when children learn,” Kilfoyle said.  

Vehicles Powered By Solar, Electric Moving Into the Market

Ever so slowly, the world is edging towards the demise of the gasoline-powered engine. It likely won't come for decades, but it's coming. Two new entries in the alternative powered vehicle department are showing off ways that technology is slowly changing the automobile marketplace. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports

More Dependence on Internet Leads to More Cyberattacks Worldwide

From power grids, to major corporations, nothing in the world is immune to cyberattacks. The reason, said cyber security experts, is the growing dependence on the internet.   “The internet is becoming more and more integrated into our lives every single day, and we as citizens and we as corporations and governments are becoming more interconnected and using the internet as part of that backbone of communication and collaboration. This means that there’s increased attack surface for those who wish to be malicious,” said Jonathan Homer, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center.   Homer works with a team that supports federal agencies, local governments and those who are part of the critical infrastructure within the U.S. to help them get back online and help prevent future attacks.   “On a weekly basis, we fly out and respond to organizations that are going through the once in a lifetime cyberattack,” Homer said.   Greater financial gain More digital information on the web means greater financial gain for criminals. In the last year, there has been an increase in cases of ransomware, an attack that locks a computer until a payment is made.    “It’s becoming easier and easier in part because the tool kits needed to break into many of these systems are becoming more readily accessible on the dark web,” said Clifford Neuman, director of the University of Southern California Center for Computer Systems Security.    Tracking down the criminals has not been easy for law enforcement.   “We do think that reporting cyber intrusions is underreported to law enforcement, whether it’s the FBI, Secret Service or another entity,” said John Brown, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Los Angeles office.   “I think it’s a business decision. They’re concerned about the publicity, which we completely understand. There they have customers, et cetera that may not do business with them if like, hey, there’s an issue with their cyber defense,” Brown said.   Federal laws on reporting breaches are vague and many state laws require reporting when personal information is compromised, but there are gray areas.   "Much of what happens in the case of businesses is they don’t necessarily know what information has been disclosed, and they sort of, perhaps intentionally, lay a blind eye to that to say, 'Well, we don’t know personal identifiable information has been disclosed. All that we know is someone got into our system,'" Neuman said.   Range of online perpetrators The FBI says the online perpetrators range from criminals who want money to hackers with geopolitical motivations.    “Clearly there are nation states that are involved in cyber activity who are interested in stealing our trade secrets, our proprietary information that our companies are developing, our secrets within our government,” Brown said. A Chinese national, Yu Pingan of Shanghai, was arrested and charged this week for allegedly distributing malicious software known as Sakula. The malware has been linked to hacks against U.S businesses. Sakula has also been linked to the 2014 and 2015 cyberattacks at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), where personal information of millions of  federal employees was stolen. The federal court filing, however, against Yu does not mention the OPM hacks. U.S. officials have blamed the Chinese government on those attacks.   “Most cyberattacks require multiple weaknesses or vulnerabilities of some form in order to be able to reach the final goal of the attacker.One of the greatest weaknesses of any corporate network is the human element,” said Homer.   Neuman said it is not a matter of if an attack will happen, but when.   “I think that most companies are not prepared to handle the zero day, the newest attack that occurs because it’s like fighting the last war. You don’t know what the particular new techniques are that are going to be applied,” Neuman said.   Critical partnership For the FBI, building partnerships with private industry is critical.    “It’s really about building those relationships before the intrusion. So, what we ask companies to do is to call us and to basically just say, 'Hey, let’s talk about what would happen if we did have an intrusion. Let’s work through that,'" Brown explained.   Another way to prepare for a cyberattack is to rethink how systems on the web are designed, Neuman said.   “Where we really need to be going is in a way where we design our systems to be more resilient against the inevitable hack," he said. "Understand that individuals are going to get in, but make sure that the structures of the systems are designed to contain the damage that can occur. And that’s a much more difficult problem to solve because it requires changing the way we design our systems overall.”

More Dependence on Internet Leads to More Cyberattacks Worldwide

Reports of cyberattacks against companies and governments around the world seem to be appearing in the headlines more frequently this year. Cyber security experts explain why the risk of being hacked is now greater, who is doing the hacking and what can be done to prevent or minimize the damage. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details.

Iran Media Report Apple Shuts Down Iranian Apps

Iranian media are reporting that Apple Inc. has removed all Iranian mobile apps from its App Store. In reaction to Apple's decision, Telecommunication Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said Apple should respect its Iranian consumers. He also sent out this tweet:   Apple, based in Cupertino, California, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Jahromi tweeted: "11 percent of Iran's mobile phone market share is owned by Apple. Giving respect to consumer rights is a principle today which Apple has not followed. We will follow up the cutting of the apps legally.'' Apple is not officially in Iran or any other Persian Gulf countries, but many Iranians purchase its products from stores inside Iran.

Facebook Lambasted Over Video of Traffickers Abusing Migrants

People smugglers are using Facebook to broadcast the abuse and torture of migrants in order to extort ransom money from their families, the U.N. migration agency said on Friday. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) lambasted the tech giant for failing to police the platform and help crack down on traffickers. One video hosted on the site since June shows Libyan gangmasters threatening emaciated and abused migrants - mostly Somalis and Ethiopians - huddled in a concrete room. IOM said the traffickers had sent clips to the captives' families via the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp - a Facebook channel - along with threats that their loved ones would be killed unless ransoms of up to $10,000 were paid. One young Somali man is seen lying face down with a concrete block on his back. "I was asked for $8,000," he says, according to the IOM. "They broke my teeth. They broke my hand. I have been here 11 months. They put this stone on me for the last three days. It's really painful." British newspaper The Times, which ran the story on its front page on Friday, also quoted a young Ethiopian who had been held for 15 months. "They beat me with iron bars," he said. "They ordered me to pay $8,300 and my family cannot afford to pay that amount." Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe since 2014, and thousands have died trying. Facebook, which has also been criticized for failing to stop traffickers using the platform to advertise their services, said posts by smuggling groups would be removed if reported. "We encourage people to keep using our reporting tools to flag this kind of behavior so it can be reviewed and swiftly removed by our global team of experts, who work with law enforcement agencies around the world," a spokesperson said. But Facebook said it had not removed the June video as it had been posted by a Somali journalist and was important for raising awareness of the problem. However, IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle accused Facebook of "arrant nonsense", adding that the smugglers had used the journalist to publicize their demands. He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was totally inappropriate for Facebook to host a video showing the faces of vulnerable people being abused. "Don't let Facebook off the hook here," he said. "It's an absolutely nonsensical argument that it's up to the public to notify Facebook of stuff that's happening on Facebook. "They should invest heavily in policing their platforms to stop vulnerable migrants being exploited, extorted and murdered." Doyle said the IOM had tried without success to talk to Facebook about targeting smugglers. "They should stop smugglers telling people there's an El Dorado waiting for them in Europe when it's a lie," he added. "It's not good enough to say, 'we are a technology platform, it's got nothing to do with us'." Doyle said the IOM had tried to find the people in the video, but they had disappeared.  

Tesla's 'Long-haul' Electric Truck Aims for 200 to 300 Miles on a Charge

Tesla next month plans to unveil an electric big-rig truck with a working range of 200 to 300 miles, Reuters has learned, a sign that the electric car maker is targeting regional hauling for its entry into the commercial freight market. Chief Executive Elon Musk has promised to release a prototype of its Tesla Semi truck next month in a bid to expand the company's market beyond luxury cars. The entrepreneur has tantalized the trucking industry with the prospect of a battery-powered heavy-duty vehicle that can compete with conventional diesels, which can travel up to 1,000 miles on a single tank of fuel. Tesla's electric prototype will be capable of traveling the low end of what transportation veterans consider to be "long-haul" trucking, according to Scott Perry, an executive at Miami-based fleet operator Ryder System. Perry said he met with Tesla officials earlier this year to discuss the technology at the automaker's manufacturing facility in Fremont, California. Perry said Tesla's efforts are centered on an electric big-rig known as a "day cab" with no sleeper berth, capable of traveling about 200 to 300 miles with a typical payload before recharging. "I'm not going to count them out for having a strategy for longer distances or ranges, but right out of the gate I think that's where they'll start," said Perry, who is the chief technology officer and chief procurement officer for Ryder. Tesla responded to Reuters questions with an email statement saying, "Tesla's policy is to always decline to comment on speculation, whether true or untrue, as doing so would be silly. Silly!" Tesla's plan, which could change as the truck is developed, is consistent with what battery researchers say is possible with current technology. Tesla has not said publicly how far its electric truck could travel, what it would cost or how much cargo it could carry. But Musk has acknowledged that Tesla has met privately with potential buyers to discuss their needs. Reuters reported earlier this month that Tesla is developing self-driving capability for the big rig. 'Manufacturing hell' Musk has expressed hopes for large-scale production of the Tesla Semi within a couple of years. That audacious effort could open a potentially lucrative new market for the Palo Alto, California-based automaker. Or it could prove an expensive distraction. Musk in July warned that the company is bracing for "manufacturing hell" as it accelerates production of its new Model 3 sedan. Tesla aims to produce 5,000 of the cars per week by the end of this year, and 10,000 per week sometime next year. Tesla shares are up about 65 percent this year. But skeptics abound. Some doubt Musk's ability to take Tesla from a niche producer to a large-scale automaker. About 22 percent of shares available for trade have been sold "short" by investors who expect the stock to fall. Musk, a quirky billionaire whose transportation ambitions include colonizing the planet Mars, has long delighted in defying conventional wisdom. At Tesla's annual meeting in June, he repeated his promise of a battery-powered long-haul big rig. "A lot of people don't think you can do a heavy-duty, long-range truck that's electric, but we are confident that this can be done," he said. Trucking's sweet spot While the prototype described by Ryder's Perry would fall well short of the capabilities of conventional diesels, Musk may well have found a sweet spot if he can deliver. Roughly 30 percent of U.S. trucking jobs are regional trips of 100 to 200 miles, according to Sandeep Kar, chief strategy officer of Toronto-based Fleet Complete, which tracks and analyzes truck movement. A truck with that range would be able to move freight regionally, such as from ports to nearby cities or from warehouses to retail establishments. "As long as [Musk] can break 200 miles, he can claim his truck is 'long haul' and he will be technically right," Kar said. Interest in electric trucks is high among transportation firms looking to reduce their emissions and operating costs. Electric motors require less maintenance than internal combustion engines. Juice from the grid is cheaper than diesel. But current technology doesn't pencil when it comes to powering U.S. trucks across the country. Experts say the batteries required would be so large and heavy there would be little room for cargo. An average diesel cab costs around $120,000. The cost of the battery alone for a big rig capable of going 200 to 400 miles carrying a typical payload could be more than that, according to battery researchers Shashank Sripad and Venkat Viswanathan of Carnegie Mellon University. Battery weight and ability would limit a semi to a range of about 300 miles with an average payload, according to a paper recently published by Viswanathan and Sripad. The paper thanked Tesla for "helpful comments and suggestions." Tesla did not endorse the work or comment on the conclusions to Reuters. A range of 200 to 300 miles would put Tesla at the edge of what the nascent electric truck industry believes is economically feasible, the researchers and industry insiders said. Short-haul trucks Transportation stalwarts such as manufacturer Daimler AG and shipping company United Parcel Service said they are focusing their electric efforts on short-haul trucks. That's because smaller distances and lighter payloads require less battery power, and trucks can recharge at a central hub overnight. Daimler, the largest truck manufacturer in the world by sales, will begin production this year on an electric delivery truck. The vehicle will have a 100-mile range and be capable of carrying a payload of 9,400 pounds, about 1,000 pounds less than its diesel counterpart, according to Daimler officials. Daimler has been joined by a handful of startups such as Chanje, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer that has a partnership with Ryder to build 100-mile-range electric trucks for package delivery. Ryder and its customers believe electric trucks could cost more to buy but may be cheaper to maintain and have more predictable fuel costs. As batteries become cheaper and environmental regulation increases, the case for electric trucks could strengthen. "This tech is being seen as a major potential differentiator. Everyone wants to understand how real it is," said Perry, the chief technology officer.

High-tech Yarn Shows Promise as Energy Generator

A new, high-tech yarn that generates electricity when stretched or twisted could use ocean waves and human motion to lower man's dependency on fossil fuels, researchers said Thursday. An international team of scientists said in a study they had developed a stretchy yarn made of carbon nanotubes — tiny strands of carbon atoms up to 10,000 times smaller than a hair — that produces electricity from a host of natural sources. "The easiest way to think of twistron harvesters is you have a piece of yarn, you stretch it, and out comes electricity," said Carter Haines, a lead author of the study published in the journal Science. The device, which exploits the ability of nanotubes to transfer springlike motion into electrical energy, has numerous possible applications, according to the paper. In the lab, tests showed that yarn weighing less than a housefly could light up a small LED. When sewn into a T-shirt, it could power breathing sensors — like those used to monitor babies — using the stretch caused by the chest expanding at every inhalation. The innovation could be used to power internet-connected devices and smart clothing, said the study's senior author, Ray Baughman, a professor at the University of Texas-Dallas. "Electronic textiles are of major commercial interest, but how are you going to power them?" Baughman said in a statement. "Harvesting electrical energy from human motion is one strategy for eliminating the need for batteries," he said. Seawater operation But the twistron's most compelling feature was the ability to operate in seawater and potentially harvest vast amounts of energy from the ocean, he added. "The grander dream is to make a real difference in the energy economy of nations," Baughman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. A trial in South Korea showed that a small twistron attached between a buoy and a sinker on the seabed produced electricity every time a passing wave pulled it. Baughman said that the technique could be scaled up in the future to create sea-power stations that can light entire cities, though harvesters are currently too expansive. Under the Paris accord reached in 2015, rich and poor countries committed to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases generated by burning fossil fuels that are blamed by scientists for warming the planet.

Court Orders Web Host to Provide Records on Anti-Trump Site

An internet hosting company must turn over records for a website that the government alleges was used to plan violent protests on the day of President Donald Trump's inauguration. A District of Columbia Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that DreamHost must provide the Justice Department with records for a website called disruptj20.org. Prosecutors allege the site was used to organize anti-Trump protests on Jan. 20 where protesters broke windows and set fire to a limousine. Prosecutors are pursuing charges against 200 people accused of taking part. Prosecutors originally obtained a search warrant for the site's records in July. But DreamHost challenged the request as overly broad and infringing on the rights of free speech and political expression for the site's approximately 1.3 million visitors.

Amazon to Close on Whole Foods Buyout Monday

Amazon will close its $13.7 billion buyout of Whole Foods Market Inc. on Monday and plans to cut prices on grocery staples.   Starting Monday, Whole Foods will offer lower prices on bananas, eggs, salmon, beef, and other products. Looking ahead, the Seattle company hopes to give Amazon Prime members special savings and other in-store benefits. Also, certain Whole Foods products will be available through Amazon.com, AmazonFresh, Prime Pantry and Prime Now. Whole Foods shareholders approved the deal Wednesday, and the Federal Trade Commission said it would not block the deal. Amazon will pay Whole Foods shareholders $42 per share, marking an 18 percent premium from its stock price the day before the tie-up was announced on June 16. Earlier this month, Amazon.com Inc. sold $16 billion of bonds in order to pay for the purchase. By buying Whole Foods, Amazon is taking a bold step into brick-and-mortar, with more than 460 stores and potentially very lucrative data about how shoppers behave offline. Meanwhile, rivals are scrambling to catch up with the e-commerce giant. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has the largest share of the U.S. grocery market, is expanding its grocery delivery service with ride-hailing service Uber and announced Wednesday that it will join forces with Google to let shoppers order goods by voice on Google devices.

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