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Turning Waste into Fuel and Food

While mountains of waste and trash keep growing in industrialized and developing countries, materials scientists are busy as ever experimenting with new methods for turning those scraps into something useful, from biofuel to food. VOA’s George Putic looks at some of the latest discoveries.

US Signals Tougher Stance with Tech Companies on Encryption

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Tuesday sharply criticized technology companies that have built strongly encrypted products, suggesting Silicon Valley is more willing to comply with foreign government demands for data than those made by their home country. While echoing many arguments made by previous senior U.S. law enforcement officials, Rosenstein struck a harder line than his predecessors who led the Obama Justice Department, dismissing attempts to negotiate with the tech sector as a waste of time and accusing companies of putting sales over stopping crime. "Company leaders may be willing to meet, but often they respond by criticizing the government and promising stronger encryption," Rosenstein said during a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, according to a copy of his remarks. "Of course they do. They are in the business of selling products and making money. ... We are in the business of preventing crime and saving lives." Rosenstein's first lengthy comments on encryption signaled a desire for Congress to write legislation mandating that companies provide access to encrypted products when a law enforcement agency obtains a court order. Tech companies and many cybersecurity experts say requiring law enforcement access to encrypted products will broadly weaken cybersecurity for everyone. U.S. officials have countered that default encryption settings hinder their ability to collect evidence needed to pursue criminals. Previous officials have urged such an approach, but Rosenstein more directly criticized Silicon Valley. He cited a series of media reports to suggest U.S.-based companies are more willing to accede to demands for data from foreign governments than they are from the United States. The remarks were quickly denounced by supporters of strong encryption. "Despite his attempts at rebranding, a government backdoor by another name will still make it easier for criminals, predators and foreign hackers to break into our phones and computers," Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said in a statement. The decades-old feud over encryption reignited last year when the Justice Department attempted to force Apple Inc to break into an iPhone used by a gunman during a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The clash subsided when an unidentified third party outside the government came forward with a way to crack the phone. Some U.S. lawmakers expressed interest in legislation that would require companies to help law enforcement access encrypted data. The effort crumbled due to a lack of political support and a decision by the Obama administration to not endorse it.

Fake News Is Still Here, Despite Efforts by Google, Facebook

Nearly a year after Facebook and Google launched offensives against fake news, they’re still inadvertently promoting it — often at the worst possible times.   Online services designed to engross users aren’t so easily retooled to promote greater accuracy, it turns out. Especially with online trolls, pranksters and more malicious types scheming to evade new controls as they’re rolled out. Fear and falsity in Las Vegas In the immediate aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, Facebook’s "Crisis Response" page for the attack featured a false article misidentifying the gunman and claiming he was a "far left loon." Google promoted a similarly erroneous item from the anonymous prankster site 4chan in its "Top Stories" results. A day after the attack, a YouTube search on "Las Vegas shooting" yielded a conspiracy-theory video that claimed multiple shooters were involved in the attack as the fifth result. YouTube is owned by Google. None of these stories were true. Police identified the sole shooter as Stephen Paddock, a Nevada man whose motive remains a mystery. The Oct. 1 attack on a music festival left 58 dead and hundreds wounded. The companies quickly purged offending links and tweaked their algorithms to favor more authoritative sources. But their work is clearly incomplete — a different Las Vegas conspiracy video was the eighth result displayed by YouTube in a search Monday. Engagement first Why do these highly automated services keep failing to separate truth from fiction? One big factor: most online services systems tend to emphasis posts that engage an audience — exactly what a lot of fake news is specifically designed to do. Facebook and Google get caught off guard "because their algorithms just look for signs of popularity and recency at first," without first checking to ensure relevance, says David Carroll, a professor of media design at the Parsons School of Design in New York. That problem is much bigger in the wake of disaster, when facts are still unclear and demand for information runs high. Malicious actors have learned to take advantage of this, says Mandy Jenkins, head of news at social media and news research agency Storyful. "They know how the sites work, they know how algorithms work, they know how the media works," she says. Participants on 4chan’s "Politically Incorrect" channel regularly chat about "how to deploy fake news strategies" around major stories, says Dan Leibson, vice president of search at the digital marketing consultancy Local SEO Guide. One such chat just hours after the Las Vegas urged readers to "push the fact this terrorist was a commie" on social media. "There were people discussing how to create engagement all night," Leibson says. Eye of the beholder Thanks to political polarization, the very notion of what constitutes a "credible'' source of news is now a point of contention. Mainstream journalists routinely make judgments about the credibility of various publications based on their history of accuracy. That’s a much more complicated issue for mass-market services like Facebook and Google, given the popularity of many inaccurate sources among political partisans. The pro-Trump Gateway Pundit site, for example, published the false Las Vegas story promoted by Facebook. But it has also been invited to White House press briefings and counts more than 620,000 fans on its Facebook page.   Facebook said last week it is "working to fix the issue" that led it to promote false reports about the Las Vegas shooting, although it didn’t say what it had in mind.   The company has already taken a number of steps since December; it now features fact-checks by outside organizations, puts warning labels on disputed stories and has de-emphasized false stories in people’s news feeds.   Getting algorithms right Breaking news is also inherently challenging for automated filter systems. Google says the 4chan post that misidentified the Las Vegas shooter should not have appeared in its "Top Stories" feature, and was replaced by its algorithm after a few hours. Outside experts say Google was flummoxed by two different issues. First, its "Top Stories" is designed to return results from the broader web alongside items from news outlets. Second, signals that help Google’s system evaluate the credibility of a web page — for instance, links from known authoritative sources — aren’t available in breaking news situations, says independent search optimization consultant Matthew Brown. "If you have enough citations or references to something, algorithmically that’s going to look very important to Google," Brown said. "The problem is an easy one to define but a tough one to resolve." More people, fewer robots Federal law currently exempts Facebook, Google and similar companies from liability for material published by their users. But circumstances are forcing the tech companies to accept more responsibility for the information they spread. Facebook said last week that it would hire an extra 1,000 people to help vet ads after it found a Russian agency bought ads meant to influence last year’s election. It’s also subjecting potentially sensitive ads, including political messages, to "human review." In July, Google revamped guidelines for human workers who help rate search results in order to limit misleading and offensive material. Earlier this year, Google also allowed users to flag so-called "featured snippets" and "autocomplete" suggestions if they found the content harmful. The Google-sponsored Trust Project at Santa Clara University is also working to create tags that could serve as markers of credibility for individual authors. These would include items such as their location and journalism awards, information that could be fed into future algorithms, according to project director Sally Lehrman.  

Global Sensor Network on Alert for Nuclear Tests

Nuclear proliferation watchdog CTBTO is using its worldwide array of monitoring stations to authenticate possible nuclear explosions, including the one claimed last month by North Korea. Kevin Enochs reports.

Teams Race Across Australia in World Solar Challenge

The World Solar Challenge began Sunday with 42 solar cars crossing Australia’s tropical north to its southern shores, a grueling 3,000 kilometer (1,864 mile) race through the outback. The race from the northern city of Darwin to the southern city of Adelaide is expected to take a week for most cars, with speeds of 90-100 kilometers per hour (55-62 mph) powered only by the sun. The fastest time was achieved by Japan’s Tokai University in 2009, completing the transcontinental race in 29 hours and 49 minutes. Belgian team Punch Powertrain started first Sunday after recording a trial time of 2:03.8 for 2.97 km (1.78 miles), hitting an average speed of 83.4 kilometers per hour (51.5mph). But reigning 2015 champions Nuon from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands believes it has a good chance of retaining the prize. “All the cars look completely different (this year), and all we know is we’ve got a good car, we’ve got it running perfectly the last couple of days and we’re confident we’re going to do everything to win,” tour manager Sarah Benninkbolt said Sunday. Race director Chris Selwood said the biennial event has attracted one of the best fields ever, with teams from more than 40 countries. “This is the 30th anniversary of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge and competitors want to be part of that. They have been drawn to the challenge of new regulations which reduced the solar array size without limiting the size of the solar car,” Selwood said. Teams come from countries including the United States, Japan, Germany, Chile, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Malaysia, Belgium, Sweden, Iran, South Korea, India, Hong Kong, South Africa, Poland, Thailand, Turkey, Canada, Taiwan and Australia. The Northern Territory Minister for Tourism and Culture, Lauren Moss said her government’s A$250,000 (US$194,150) sponsorship of the race showed it was committed to achieving 50 percent renewable energy for the territory by 2030. “Innovation is at the heart of the event and the technology showcased this year will influence continuing solar innovation for vehicles and householders in the future,” she said. “This event is a great promotion for the NT — it shows our ability to innovate to the world.”

Technology Crammed Into Cars Worsens Driver Distraction

Automakers trumpet new technology, including blind-spot warnings, backup cameras, and rear cross-traffic alerts, as a way to make driving safer. But road safety advocates say the explosion of technology in cars may actually do the opposite. Faith Lapidus reports.

Big Tech Has Big Plans to Help Reconnect Puerto Rico

Facebook and Google once aimed to connect the world. Now they would be happy just to reconnect part of it. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to send a "connectivity team" to help restore communications in ravaged Puerto Rico. Google parent company Alphabet offered to send its Wi-Fi balloons. They were among several tech companies proposing disaster response ideas, most aimed at getting phone and internet service up and running. Some of these plans, of course, are more aspirational than others. Battery Power Tesla CEO Elon Musk often takes to Twitter to mull over ideas, but on Friday his musings about sending his company's solar-powered batteries to help restore Puerto Rico's power attracted the attention of the island's governor. "Let's talk," said Gov. Ricardo Rossello in a Friday tweet. Musk agreed. Hours later, he announced he was delaying the unveiling of Tesla's new semi-truck and diverting resources, in part to "increase battery production for Puerto Rico and other affected areas." The need for help in restoring power and communication after Hurricane Maria is great: The Puerto Rican energy authority reported Saturday that about 88 percent of the island is still without power. The Federal Communications Commission said Saturday that 82 percent of cell sites remain out in Puerto Rico; 58 percent are out of service in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The FCC's daily status report also shows significant wireline, TV and radio outages remain in both U.S. territories. The agency formed a task force this week and approved an advance of $77 million to support carriers working to restore telecommunications services. Vague Promises But many offers of help from big companies remain somewhat vague. Google parent company Alphabet has proposed launching balloons over the island to bring Wi-Fi service to hard-to-reach places, as it has in other parts of the world. The FCC announced Saturday that it's approved an experimental license for Project Loon to operate in Puerto Rico. But that doesn't mean it will able to get them in the air anytime soon. "We're grateful for the support of the FCC and the Puerto Rican authorities as we work hard to see if it's possible to use Loon balloons to bring emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need," said Libby Leahy, a spokesman for Alphabet's X division. But there are limitations, she said Saturday. "To deliver signal to people's devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner's network -- the balloons can't do it alone," she said, adding that the company is "making solid progress on this next step." Collaborative efforts Cisco Systems has sent a tactical team and says it is working with local government, emergency responders and service providers to facilitate restoration and recovery efforts. The company, along with Microsoft and others, backs the NetHope consortium, which specializes in setting up post-disaster communication networks and has field teams now operating in Puerto Rico and several other Caribbean islands. "Communication is critical during a disaster," Zuckerberg said after the hurricane hit, announcing that employees from his company's connectivity team -- the same group working to build high-altitude drones that can beam internet service down to Earth -- were heading to Puerto Rico. But with its aircraft still in the testing phase, the company said Friday that the engineers it's sent to Puerto Rico are focused on providing support to NetHope's teams. Smaller organizations Much of the ground work is being spearheaded by nonprofit organizations and small firms with expertise in rural or emergency communications. Lexington, Massachusetts-based Vanu Inc., which sets up wireless communications networks in rural parts of the United States, Africa and India, is sending dozens of its small, solar-powered cellular base stations to volunteer crews on the ground in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Aid workers are pairing Vanu's devices with other technology, such as inflatable satellite antennas. After setting up a network on the island of Vieques, off the main island of Puerto Rico, one team watched from a roof as local residents started getting text alerts from family members who had been trying to get in touch. "They noticed everyone in the plaza pulling their phones out," said CEO Vanu Bose. "You don't have to announce you've lit up coverage. People know right away."

Our Planet Seen From High Above

Astronauts say seeing the Earth from a distance, where the whole planet comes into perspective, is a life-changing experience that makes you realize how beautiful and fragile it is. A group of enthusiasts in California set up a nonprofit organization that uses satellite imagery to spread this feeling to as many people as possible and raise awareness about the dangers of detrimental human activities. VOA's George Putic has more.

US House Committee Calls New Hearing on Kaspersky Software

A U.S. House of Representatives committee said Friday that it had scheduled a new hearing on Kaspersky Lab software as lawmakers review accusations that the Kremlin could use its products to conduct espionage. Kaspersky Lab has strongly denied those allegations — which last month prompted the Trump administration to order civilian government agencies to purge the software from its networks — and agreed to send Chief Executive Eugene Kaspersky to Washington to testify before Congress. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology announced the October 25 hearing a day after reports that Russian government-backed hackers stole highly classified U.S. cybersecrets in 2015 from a National Security Agency contractor who had Kaspersky software installed on his laptop. The House science committee did not say who would be called to testify at the hearing. Eugene Kaspersky last month told Reuters that the committee had invited him to testify at a September 27 hearing and that he would attend if he could get an expedited visa to enter the United States. Classified session That hearing was later canceled, though the committee held a closed-door classified session on Kaspersky software on September 26. Kaspersky said in a statement on Friday that he hoped to attend the hearing. "I look forward to participating in the hearing once it's rescheduled and having the opportunity to address the committee's concerns directly," he said. An appearance before Congress would mark Kaspersky's most high-profile attempt to dispel long-standing accusations that his firm may be conducting espionage on behalf of the Russian government. The investigation into the 2015 NSA hack is focused on somebody who worked at the agency's Tailored Access Operations unit, a unit that uses computer hacking to gather intelligence, according to two people familiar with the classified probe. Kaspersky anti-virus software was running on the contractor's laptop at the time of the hack, and investigators are looking into whether hackers used the software to breach the computer and steal the data, said one of those sources.

Women in Tech Talk Change in Orlando

In Orlando, Florida, where tourists come for the palm trees, shopping and theme parks, 18,000 women converged recently on the city's giant convention center to talk about technology. Amid technical sessions on artificial intelligence and augmented reality, the main theme of the Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest gathering of women in technology worldwide, was simple: How to make the tech industry more welcoming to women.   With women making up nearly 23 percent of the U.S. tech industry's workforce, women should be playing a bigger role than they currently do in the industry, said Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "It's time the world recognizes that the next Bill Gates may not look anything like the last one and that not every great idea comes wrapped in a hoodie," said Melinda Gates, who worked at Microsoft earlier in her career. This isn't your typical technology conference.   First, its namesake "Grace Hopper" was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and a groundbreaking computer programmer.   The conference also provided childcare and all-gender bathrooms. At some of the career booths, women were offered lip balm embossed with a corporate name. At one booth, they were invited to vamp it up, while promoting a new cloud computing service. Chinyere Nwabugwu, a machine learning researcher at IBM Research in San Jose, California, said what she liked most was hearing about what successful women have done to get ahead. "I'm just encouraged to work hard in my field, to be known for something, to put in my best, to be a good role model to others, mentor other people coming after me," Nwabugwu said. Town hall conference Voice of America held a town hall at the conference where female leaders in technology talked about the progress that has been made and how far it has yet to go. There are concrete steps companies can take that will bring more women into the industry, the speakers said. One simple thing companies can do is publicly announce job openings, rather than fill jobs from managers' personal connections, said Danielle Brown, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Google. Paula Tolliver, chief information officer at Intel, recently left one male-dominated industry — she was an executive at Dow Chemical — for the tech industry. But she said she was drawn by tech's promise.   "Being CIO of Intel, and being at the middle of the ecosystem of Silicon Valley and working across many industries, it's exciting," Tolliver said. "And I personally, want more women to be more representative of that." Deborah Berebichez, a data scientist and co-host of the Discovery Channel's Outrageous Acts of Science, said that she pursued science despite the lack of support from her parents.   Gatherings, such as the Grace Hopper Celebration, are solving two important problems in the tech industry, Berebichez said: How to interest more women in tech and how to help women already in tech to advance their careers. Gender diversity issues Both issues came to the forefront in August after a memo written by a male engineer at Google questioned the need for gender diversity programs in the industry. In a 10-page internal memo that was leaked on social media, James Damore suggested fewer women are employed in the technology field because women "prefer jobs in social and artistic areas" due to "biological causes." Brown, who joined Google two weeks prior to the notorious memo, said that it upset both men and women at the company and didn't reflect Google's values. Damore was fired. Berebichez's message to women?     "You're the only one that can make your future," Berebichez said. "Nobody else will do it for you so seek mentors, do whatever you have to do, study like crazy, be very entrepreneurial and craft your path, because you will be the only one that gets the fruits of your own labor."

Women in Tech Talk Change at Orlando Gathering

In Orlando, Florida this past week, 18,000 women from around the world gathered to talk about technology and how women can play a bigger role in shaping the industry’s future. VOA’s Michelle Quinn went to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the largest meeting of women in technology worldwide, to find out what women in tech want to change.

Microsoft to Help Expand Rural Broadband in 6 US States

Microsoft said Thursday that it would team up with communities in six U.S. states to invest in technology and related jobs in rural and smaller metropolitan areas. Company President Brad Smith launched the TechSpark program Thursday in Fargo, a metropolitan area of more than 200,000 people that includes a Microsoft campus with about 1,500 employees. Smith said the six communities are different by design and not all have a Microsoft presence. Smith says TechSpark is a multiyear, multimillion-dollar investment to help teach computer science to students, expand rural broadband, and help create and fill jobs, among other things. The other programs will be in Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. "This is really a blueprint for private-public partnerships," said North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, himself a former Microsoft executive. Microsoft announced in July that it hoped to extend broadband services to rural America. The company said then that it would partner with rural telecommunications providers in 12 states with a goal of getting 2 million rural Americans high-speed internet over the next five years. Microsoft planned to use "white space" technology, tapping buffer zones separating individual television channels in airwaves that could be cheaper than existing methods such as laying fiber-optic cable. The company had originally envisioned using it in the developing world, but shifted focus to the U.S. this summer. Being 'more present' "We are a very diverse country," Smith said. "It's important for us to learn more about how digital technology is changing in all different parts of the country. So we are working to be more present in more places." Smith said there are 23.4 million Americans living in rural communities who don't have broadband coverage and the TechSpark program is going to focus on bringing coverage to these six regions. "The good news in North Dakota ... is that it is in one of the strongest positions nationally in terms of the reach of broadband coverage," he said. "But it still doesn't reach everyone everywhere." Microsoft officials say there are nearly 500,000 unfilled computing jobs in the U.S. and that number is expected to triple by the end of next year. North Dakota currently has more than 13,000 job openings, many in computer software and engineering. "The private sector doesn't post a job unless they think they can make more money with the job filled than unfilled," Burgum said. "So when we're filling those jobs, we're actually helping those companies become more profitable, which should help create more jobs. There's no chicken-or-the-egg thing here." Microsoft on Thursday also selected Appleton, Wisconsin, as one of the six sites. The other communities will be announced later. Smith said the success of the program would be measured first by how it provided digital skills to students and then by the job creation, economic growth and "making a difference in the lives of real people."

Report Details Digital Divide Among Nations

A recent report provides some surprises about which countries are gaining traction in the digital space and which are stalling. Researchers at the Fletcher School of International Affairs at Tufts University in Massachusetts looked at where digital is replacing "physical interactions," in communications, society and politics, commerce, media and entertainment. For example, instead of handing over paper currency to a human who locks it in a safe, we now make bank transfers with the swipe of a phone screen, regardless of location. "We identified many hot spots around the world where these changes are happening rapidly and other spots where momentum has slowed," the authors of the Digital Evolution Index said. "Two years on, depending on where we live, we continue to move at different speeds toward the digital planet." Countries were organized into the categories of Stand Out, Stall Out, Break Out and Watch Out. The highest rating, Stand Out, was given to countries that are digitally advanced and show significant momentum for innovation. Winners in bringing people online were Singapore, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates. Malaysia was perched on the edge of Stand Out. "Not only are they digitally highly evolved, they are moving very, very fast," said Bhaskar Chakravorti, one of the report's authors and senior associate dean at the Fletcher School. Governments in this category act as "stewards and connector" to ferry public and private sectors into the digital space, he said. Likely to stall While digitally advanced, the nations of Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Denmark were the top five most likely to Stall Out, the report said. While they might be ahead of the curve, their momentum has slowed. "European governments are not making the investments needed to advance the development of new technologies," Chakravorti said. The EU "is not a digital market union." Mexico, India, Morocco and Russia were poised to Break Out. While not very digitally advanced, they are evolving rapidly by making infrastructure stronger. The report said it was important for countries to understand basic aspects of digital competition: — Digital technology is widespread and spreading fast. "There are more mobile connections than people on the planet, and more people have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet," the report said. — Digital players wield outsize market power, it added. "Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook were the five most valuable companies in the world. ... Seventh overall was China's e-commerce giant, Alibaba Group. These players enjoy economies of scale and dominant market share." — Digital technologies are poised to change the future of work, affecting as much as 50 percent of the world economy, the report said. "There is both anticipation and apprehension about what lies on the other side of the threshold of the 'second machine age.' " — Digital markets are uneven, the report said. Politics, regulations and levels of economic development play a major role in shaping the digital industry. The world's largest internet user population, at 721 million, is China, where many of the major global players don't have entry. India has the greatest market potential, the Fletcher School researchers said, with 462 million internet users. But it struggles with multiple languages and infrastructure challenges, although the government has tried to enable a digital market. Fragmented EU market The European Union has 412 million internet users, but the market is fragmented and still forming a "digital single market," the report said.  In many countries, several websites or digital companies are blocked. Around the world, digital access itself is far from uniform: Barely 50 percent of the world's population has access to the internet today, the report said. Cash is another condition plaguing digital commerce, it said. Digital alternatives have not replaced cash in many places, despite online options. In 2013, the report said, 85 percent of the world's transactions were in cash. Even in the Eurozone, 75 percent of point-of-sale payments were in cash. "In Malaysia, Peru, and Egypt, only 1 percent of transactions are cashless," the authors wrote. In India, where the government adjusted 86 percent of its currency, cash withdrawals were 0.6 percent higher than a year earlier. At the bottom of the pack were Egypt, Pakistan and Peru, rated Watch Out. These countries are not digitally advanced, and they lack momentum to get there. Some actually are declining digitally, the report said. The study authors recommended that countries improve by closing the "mobile gap," or the difference between the number of mobile phones and the number of mobile phones with internet access. As for global titans Germany and the U.S., the report said they are in danger of losing momentum, having moved so far, so fast. The U.S. is not investing in "foundational technology" for "10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now," Chakravorti said. Global citizens, especially young people and international students, will look away from the U.S. if it does not invest more in technology, and toward Asia, he said. Asia is the most digitally exciting region in the world, led by China and Malaysia, the report said. Entrepreneurship and venture capital is being aimed at that region, and it can expect to see a lot of investor and entrepreneurial interest in coming years.

Women in Tech Town Hall

A panel discussion examining the on-going barriers to Internet access for women in developing countries and the workplace challenges of women in the IT industry.

Development of Electric-Powered Planes

As electric-powered cars are rapidly gaining popularity, the last frontier in private transportation is also opening up to alternative, eco-friendly power. Thanks to advances in battery and electric motor technology, several manufacturers are experimenting with light planes that are quiet, easy to maintain and cheap to fly. VOA’s George Putic reports.

GM More Than Doubles Self-Driving Car Test Fleet in California

General Motors's self-driving unit, Cruise Automation, has more than doubled the size of its test fleet of robot cars in California during the past three months, a GM spokesman said on Wednesday. As the company increases the size of its test fleet, it has also reported more run-ins between its self-driving cars and human-operated vehicles and bicycles, telling California regulators its vehicles were involved in six minor crashes in the state in September. "All our incidents this year were caused by the other vehicle," said Rebecca Mark, spokeswoman for GM Cruise. In the past three months, the Cruise unit has increased the number of vehicles registered for testing on California streets to 100 from the previous 30 to 40, GM spokesman Ray Wert said. Cruise is testing vehicles in San Francisco as part of its effort to develop software capable of navigating congested and often chaotic urban environments. Investors are watching GM's progress closely, and the automaker's shares have risen 17 percent during the past month as some analysts have said the company could deploy robot taxis within the next year or two. A U.S. Senate panel approved legislation on Wednesday that would allow automakers to greatly expand testing of self-driving cars. Some safety groups have objected to the proposal, saying it gives too much latitude to automakers. As Cruise, and rivals, put more self-driving vehicles on the road to gather data to train their artificial intelligence systems, they are more frequently encountering human drivers who are not programmed to obey all traffic laws. In filings to California regulators, Cruise said the six accidents in the state last month involved other cars and a bicyclist hitting its test cars. The accidents did not result in injuries or serious damage, according to the GM reports. In total, GM Cruise vehicles have been involved in 13 collisions reported to California regulators in 2017, while Alphabet Inc's Waymo vehicles have been involved in three crashes. California state law requires that all crashes involving self-driving vehicles be reported, regardless of severity. Most of the crashes involved drivers of other vehicles striking the GM cars that were slowing for stop signs, pedestrians or other issues. In one crash, a driver of a Ford Ranger was on his cellphone when he rear-ended a Chevrolet Bolt stopped at a red light. In another instance, the driver of a Chevrolet Bolt noticed an intoxicated cyclist in San Francisco going the wrong direction toward the Bolt. The human driver stopped the Bolt and the cyclist hit the bumper and fell over. The bicyclist pulled on a sensor attached to the vehicle causing minor damage. "While we look forward to the day when autonomous vehicles are commonplace, the streets we drive on today are not so simple, and we will continue to learn how humans drive and improve how we share the road together,” GM said in a statement on Wednesday.

Horses to Power Helsinki Horse Show, With Droppings

Horse manure will generate electricity for an international horse show in Finland this month in a new form of alternative energy, Finnish utility Fortum said Wednesday. It said the Helsinki horse show in mid-October will be the first at which the event’s electricity needs, from scoreboards to lighting, are met by energy from the horses’ droppings. The show, including Olympic and world champions in jumping and dressage, will require the equivalent of the annual dung produced by 14 horses to generate 140 megawatts (MW). Scientists estimate that a horse can produce nine tons of manure a year. “I am really proud that electricity produced with horse manure can be utilized for ... Finland’s biggest and best-known horse show,” Anssi Paalanen, vice president of Fortum’s horsepower unit, said in a press release. Fortum HorsePower provides wood chips from sawmills as a form of bedding for stables. It later collects the mixture of bedding and manure and uses it in energy production. The manure is burned like any other biofuel, Paalanen said. The service was launched this autumn also in Sweden, where there are close to 3,000 horses producing energy. During the event, Fortum HorsePower will deliver wood-based bedding for the 250 or so horses that stay in temporary stalls at the Helsinki Ice Hall and use the manure-bedding mix at Fortum’s Jarvenpaa power plant. An estimated 135 tons of manure-bedding mixture will be generated during the event.

Will Your Job Be Automated? 70 Percent of Americans Say No

Most Americans believe their jobs are safe from the spread of automation and robotics, at least during their lifetimes, and only a handful says automation has cost them a job or loss of income.  Still, a survey by the Pew Research Center also found widespread anxiety about the general impact of technological change. Three-quarters of Americans say it is at least “somewhat realistic” that robots and computers will eventually perform most of the jobs currently done by people. Roughly the same proportion worry that such an outcome will have negative consequences, such as worsening inequality. “The public expects a number of different jobs and occupations to be replaced by technology in the coming decades, but few think their own job is heading in that direction,” Aaron Smith, associate director at the Pew Research Center, said. More than half of respondents expect that fast food workers, insurance claims processors and legal clerks will be mostly replaced by robots and computers during their lifetimes. Nearly two-thirds think that most retailers will be fully automated in 20 years, with little or no human interaction between customers and employers.   Americans’ relative optimism about their own jobs might be the more accurate assessment. Many recent expert analyses are finding less dramatic impacts from automation than studies from several years ago that suggested up to half of jobs could be automated. Skills will need to be updated   A report last week, issued by the education company Pearson, Oxford University, and the Nesta Foundation found that just one in five workers are in occupations that will shrink by 2030.   Many analysts increasingly focus on the impact of automation on specific tasks, rather than entire jobs. A report in January from the consulting firm McKinsey concluded that less than 5 percent of occupations were likely to be entirely automated. But it also found that in 60 percent of occupations, workers could see roughly one-third of their tasks automated.   That suggests workers will need to continually upgrade their skills as existing jobs evolve with new technologies. Few have lost jobs to automation Just 6 percent of the respondents to the Pew survey said that they themselves have either lost a job or seen their hours or incomes cut because of automation. Perhaps not surprisingly, they have a much more negative view of technology’s impact on work. Nearly half of those respondents say that technology has actually made it harder for them to advance in their careers.   Contrary to the stereotype of older workers unable to keep up with new technology, younger workers — aged 18 through 24 — were the most likely to say that automation had cost them a job or income. Eleven percent of workers in that group said automation had cut their pay or work hours. That’s double the proportion of workers aged 50 through 64 who said the same.   The Pew survey also found widespread skepticism about the benefits of many emerging technologies, with most Americans saying they would not ride in a driverless car. A majority are also not interested in using a robotic caregiver for elderly relatives. Self-driving cars    Thirty percent of respondents said they think self-driving cars would actually cause traffic accidents to increase, and 31 percent said they would stay roughly the same. Just 39 percent said they thought accidents would decline.   More than 80 percent support the idea of requiring self-driving cars to stay in specific lanes.   The survey was conducted in May and had 4,135 respondents, Pew said.  

Cambodian Virtual Reality Helps Train Bomb-disposal Techs

A lab in Cambodia is using cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, machine learning, swarm robotics and 3-D printing to try and revolutionize bomb disposal. The suite of products developed by Golden West Humanitarian Foundation's Phnom Penh lab, in collaboration with universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Villanova, are designed to mesh all these technologies together into a "total knowledge" toolkit for deminers. Replica bombs created on 3-D printers in Phnom Penh that reveal the precise inner mechanics of a growing range of killing machines have already been sold to clients around the world, including the United Nations and the United States military. Before that, Cambodian teams pioneered explosive ordinance harvesting, in which material recovered from unexploded bombs is recast into detonators used in the field to destroy mines and UXO, or unexploded ordnance. Now Golden West, which is funded by the U.S. State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, has turned its sights to the virtual world. Cambodian-American Alan Tan, a former U.S. army bomb disposal tech and director of applied technology at Golden West, said Cambodians are using their country's painful experience to become world leaders in solving the crippling problem of explosive war remnants disposal. "We're bringing this deeper and more thorough knowledge to our field, and I like to say democratizing explosive ordinance disposal so any country that has that need can have that need addressed even if they don't have a multibillion-dollar military budget to do it," he said. Virtual bomb disposal On a sunny afternoon, Tan throws large, unexploded bombs around in a (virtual) burned-out industrial park with reckless abandon. The factory complex is an electronic canvass he is painting with familiar objects from the kind of bomb sites he regularly encountered in Iraq. Thanks to a glitch in the matrix, a conga line of Humvees he's picked up and hauled across the concrete enclosure are stuck awkwardly in the sky. "That looks like a glitch," the former deminer said, as he moved around in his virtual reality headset while others watched what he was seeing on a nearby monitor. His virtual reality team, led by a Cambodian engineer, is debugging ahead of a launch of the Virtual EOD Training Room software at Ravens Challenge, the world's biggest bomb disposal expo in Thailand. Tan is walking around in a Virtual EOD Training Center — a program his lab has created to speed up the process of teaching the most critical skill in the field: rapid risk assessment. He changes mode to show observers generic objects from daily life available in the simulation, then accidentally drops a rubbish bag on one of the bombs he has thrown on the ground in front of him. Ka-boom! But Tan is still alive, and that is one of the great assets virtual reality training brings to instructors — safe but immersive practice grounds. Shifting scenarios The other major benefit is that instructors can rapidly create a vast number of completely different bomb disposal scenarios to train students on various pressures they might encounter in the field — in a similar way to flight simulators. Edwin Faigmane has trained U.N. peacekeepers in many of the world's worst conflict zones, including Afghanistan, South Sudan and Angola. Faigmane says the software would be particularly useful in training explosive ordinance disposal techs working as peacekeepers outside of their country, such as the Cambodians currently deployed in South Sudan. "Virtual reality would let them feel, would let them experience, would let them see the surroundings for themselves and let them prepare their minds, so when they actually get into South Sudan, they know what they can expect," he said. To help visualize the inner mechanisms of the many different bombs and land mines that EOD techs have to diffuse, Golden West has also developed augmented reality animations. Using a smartphone and a roughly $10 bifocal headset, a user views a live feed — captured by the phone's camera and mimicking the viewer's natural point of view —projected to-scale onto an object in front of him or her. With the aim of eventually pairing these technologies, one of the world's largest databases of explosive ordnance, with very high-resolution imaging and "open source" access for EOD techs, is being built. Machine learning systems that work off these images are also under development to automate the identification of different types of explosives, although this technology is still in its infancy. Al Johnston is a former U.S. army EOD tech and director of Ravens Challenge, which serves as both a testing ground and marketplace for technology manufacturers like Golden West. Tools like these are particularly important, Johnston said, because traditional alternatives such as cutting open real versions of devices or accessing classified U.S. databases are prohibitively expensive and difficult to negotiate. "That is really good because that gets the knowledge into more hands at the level that are actually encountering the UXO all over the world," he said.

Senate Bill to Clear Obstacles to Self-driving Cars Advances

Legislation that could help usher in a new era of self-driving cars advanced in Congress on Wednesday after the bill's sponsors agreed to compromises to address some concerns of safety advocates. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the bill by a voice vote, a sign of broad, bipartisan support. It would allow automakers to apply for exemptions to current federal auto safety standards in order to sell up to 15,000 self-driving cars and light trucks per manufacturer in the first year after passage. Up to 40,000 per manufacturer could be sold in the second year, and 80,000 each year thereafter. Action by the full Senate is still needed and differences with a similar bill passed by the House would have to be worked out before the measure could become law. The bill initially would have allowed manufacturers to sell up to 100,000 self-driving vehicles a year, but that number was reduced in last-minute negotiations. In another change, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would evaluate the safety performance of the vehicles before increasing the number of vehicles manufacturers can sell. Supporters of the bill, which was sought by the auto industry, say it would be a boon to safety since an estimated 94 percent of crashes involve human error. They say it would also help the disabled. The bill "is primarily about saving lives," but it will also increase U.S. international competitiveness and create jobs, said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan. Safety advocates said the bill has been significantly improved, but they still have serious concerns. Joan Claybrook, a NHTSA administrator under President Jimmy Carter, said the bill is one of the "biggest assaults" ever on the landmark 1966 law that empowered the federal government to set auto safety standards because it permits such large and unprecedented number of exemptions to those standards. Automakers are "making guinea pigs out of their car buyers," she said. Under the bill, the NHTSA would have 180 days after an application in which to grant or deny the exemption. Manufacturers must show that they can provide an equivalent of safety. Safety advocates say six months isn't enough time for an agency that is undermanned and lacks expertise in self-driving technology to effectively make such determinations. The bill is broad enough to permit exemptions to standards that protect occupants in a crash, like air bags, safety advocates said. There are no federal safety standards for many of the technologies at the heart of self-driving cars, like software and sensors, and there is no sign that the Trump administration would create such standards. Administration and auto and technology industry officials suggest that new regulations would be unable to keep up with rapid developments in technology and would slow deployment of self-driving cars. The bill pre-empts state and local governments from enacting their own safety standards in the absence of federal standards. Industry officials have complained that being forced to comply with a patchwork of state safety laws would be unmanageable. But another compromise made to the bill allows states to continue their traditional roles of licensing vehicles and regulating auto insurance even if their actions affect the design of vehicles. Wrongful death lawsuits against manufacturers would also be allowed in states that permit them. Automakers have experienced the largest number of recalls for safety defects in the industry's history in recent years. General Motors, for example, was found to have buried evidence of an ignition switch defect that ultimately caused the recall of 2.6 million small cars worldwide. The switches played a role in at least 124 deaths and 275 injuries. Also, about 70 million defective Takata air bag inflators are being recalled in the U.S. The inflators are responsible for up to 19 deaths worldwide and more than 180 injures.

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