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Robots in Aisle 5: Supermarket Tech for the Way We Shop

Self-driving cars haven’t fully made their way to Main Street, in part, because of the unpredictable conditions and occurrences on everyday roads. But a more controlled and mappable environment exists in the everyday supermarket or big box store, where autonomous vehicles (robots, really) are already cruising the aisles. At the recent National Retail Federation trade show in New York, several examples of autonomous robots were on display. Inside Intel’s booth, the Bossa Nova robot scanned mock store shelves to identify missing products and track inventory. Currently deployed at 50 Walmart stores, the robot uses 2D and 3D depth-sensing cameras, along with multiple sensors to capture items with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and invisible barcodes. ​How we shop Real-time analytics are one way retailers are responding to the way consumers shop today. “As we move forward with retail, with this click-and-collect or buy-at-home-and-pick-up-in-store, you need to have an accurate inventory,” said Alec Gefrides, general manager of transactional retail at Intel. Gefrides said the technology allows retailers to adjust stock accordingly and better serve customers. “They can say, ‘Yes, you can come into the store and pick up a new pair of jeans that you’ve just bought online.’” The emphasis on seamless and frictionless shopping experiences remains a key theme in the retail sector. “Customers don’t think in terms of channels, they don’t make a distinction between e-commerce and online and mobile and the store. They want it how and when they want it, where they want it,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. “I think that’s really causing this rapid innovation transformation and huge investment in the retail industry.” ​Robot in your shopping cart One of those innovations is the Dash robotic shopping cart by Five Elements Robotics, which creates a digital map of store layouts and leads customers directly to what they need. It can even lead customers to their parked car and return itself to a docking station afterward. “The problem that it’s solving for the customers, is that they don’t have to wander around the store trying to find their items,” said Wendy Roberts, CEO of Five Elements Robotics. The Dash cart could be potentially useful in big box or warehouse club stores. Roberts adds that retailers also benefit from targeted advertising opportunities, as the cart navigates through certain store sections, it can generate relevant ads or promotions on its tablet display. “Nowadays, users like to look at screens, sadly, not what’s around them,” Roberts said. “They stare at the screen while it’s moving in front of them, so you’ve really got their attention to do those targeted advertisings.” Customers can also pay right at the cart, which Roberts says builds on the trend of self-checkout lanes in stores today. “So many stores are moving to self-checkouts and this is really a mobile self-checkout,” Roberts said. The Dash robotic shopping cart costs about $5,000, depending on the level of software and hardware customization. Models are also available for leasing and cost “a few hundred dollars a month” according to Roberts.

Robots in Aisle 5: Supermarket Tech for the Way We Shop

Robots, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies were all on display at the National Retail Federation (NRF) 2018 trade show. The event showcased the ways retailers are keeping pace with shoppers' round-the-clock spending. Tina Trinh reports.

Facebook to Prioritize 'Trustworthy' News

Social media giant Facebook said Friday that it would begin to prioritize "trustworthy" news outlets on its site in order to counteract "misinformation." The company said it would ask its more than 2 billion users to rank the news organizations they trusted in order to prioritize "high-quality news" over less trusted sources. It said the new ranking system would seek to separate news organizations trusted only by their own subscribers from ones that are broadly trusted across society. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post that the company was not "comfortable" deciding which news sources are the most trustworthy in a "world with so much division." "There's too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today," he wrote. "Social media enables people to spread information faster than ever before, and if we don't specifically tackle these problems, then we end up amplifying them," Zuckerberg added. ​Outside experts rejected He said Facebook considered asking outside experts to choose the most reputable news sources, but that doing so would most likely have led to an "objectivity problem." He said the company decided to rely on member surveys as the most "objective" way to rank trust in news sources. Zuckerberg said it's important that Facebook's News Feed "promotes high-quality news that helps build a sense of common ground." He also announced that Facebook would shrink the content on its News Feed from 5 percent to 4 percent. This means users will see fewer posts from news organizations while scrolling through their feeds in favor of more posts from friends. Facebook has been struggling with how to handle its distribution of news in an era of fake news and claims of media bias. The social media company has faced accusations that it helped spread misinformation as well as Russian-linked content meant to influence the 2016 U.S. elections. Also last year, U.S. Republican lawmakers expressed concern that Facebook was suppressing stories from conservative news sources. The Pew Research Center has found that more than two-thirds of Americans are getting at least some of their news from social media, making such outlets prime sources of information.

Former IBM Developer Sentenced for Espionage, Theft of Trade Secrets

A former software engineer for IBM in China has been sentenced to five years in prison for stealing the source code for highly valuable software developed by the tech company, the U.S. Justice Department announced Friday. Xu Jiaqiang, 31, was sentenced Thursday by a federal judge in White Plains, New York, months after he pleaded guilty to three counts of economic espionage and three counts of theft, possession and distribution of trade secrets. Prosecutors said Xu stole the source code for computer performance-enhancing software while working for IBM from 2010 and 2014, with the intent to benefit China's National Health and Family Planning Commission.  Acting Assistant Attorney General Dana J. Boente of the Justice Department's national security division said the agency “will not hesitate to pursue and prosecute those who steal from American businesses.” Xu, a Chinese national, “is being held accountable for engaging in economic espionage against an American company,” Boente said in a statement. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman for the Southern District of New York said, “Xu's prison sentence should be a red flag for anyone attempting to illegally peddle American expertise and intellectual property to foreign bidders.” IBM was not identified in court documents. But a LinkedIn profile of Xu identifies him as a system developer for IBM in China from 2010 to 2014 with a master's degree from the University of Delaware. A Justice Department spokesman declined to say whether the company in question was IBM. IBM didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Xu appeared on the FBI's radar screen in 2014 after the bureau received a tip that Xu, who had by then left the company, claimed to have the source code to one of company's most closely guarded software packages and was using it in “business ventures” unrelated to its clients.   The software is described as a cluster file system sold to governments and large companies and used to enhance computer performance. Undercover FBI agents posing as an investor and project manager for a large data storage company approached Xu, who tried to sell them the software and admitted that he’d built it with stolen source code, according to prosecutors. IBM employees later confirmed to the FBI that the software had been built by someone with access to the company’s proprietary source code. Xu was arrested in December 2015 after meeting with an undercover agent at a White Plains hotel.  

Tracking Shoes Help Keep Kids Safe

The worst nightmare for parents is probably a child wandering off and getting lost. And for parents who want to keep their kids within their reach and still give them a chance to play freely and be adventurous, a New York company is offering a solution. Faiza Elmasry has the story. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Social Media Companies Accelerate Removals of Online Hate Speech

Social media companies Facebook, Twitter and Google's YouTube have greatly accelerated their removals of online hate speech, reviewing over two thirds of complaints within 24 hours, new EU figures show. The European Union has piled pressure on social media firms to increase their efforts to fight the proliferation of extremist content and hate speech on their platforms, even threatening them with legislation. Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube signed a code of conduct with the EU in May 2016 to review most complaints within a 24-hour timeframe. The companies managed to meet that target in 81 percent of cases, EU figures seen by Reuters show, compared with 51 percent in May 2017 when the European Commission last monitored their compliance with the code of conduct. EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova has said previously she does not want to see a removal rate of 100 percent as that could impinge on free speech. She has also said she is not in favor of legislating as Germany has done.  A law providing for hefty fines for social media companies if they do not remove hate speech quickly enough went into force in Germany this year. "I do not hide that I am not in favor of hard regulation because the freedom of speech for me is almost absolute," Jourova told reporters in December. "In case of doubt it should remain online because freedom of expression is [in a] privileged position." Of the hate speech flagged to the companies, almost half of it was found on Facebook, the figures show, while 24 percent was on YouTube and 26 percent on Twitter. The most common ground for hatred identified by the Commission was ethnic origins, followed by anti-Muslim hatred and xenophobia, including expressions of hatred against migrants and refugees. Following pressure from several European governments, social media companies stepped up their efforts to tackle extremist content online, including through the use of artificial intelligence. The Commission will likely issue a recommendation, a soft law instrument, on how companies should take down extremist content related to militant groups at the end of February, an official said, as it is less nuanced than hate speech and needs to be taken offline more quickly.

Researchers: Hacking Campaign Linked to Lebanese Spy Agency

A major hacking operation tied to Lebanon's main intelligence agency has been exposed after careless spies left hundreds of gigabytes of intercepted data exposed to the open internet, according to a report published Thursday. Mobile security firm Lookout, Inc. and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said the haul, which includes nearly half a million intercepted text messages, had simply been left online by hackers linked to Lebanon's General Directorate of General Security. "It's almost like thieves robbed the bank and forgot to lock the door where they stashed the money," said Mike Murray, Lookout's head of intelligence. Lookout security researcher Michael Flossman said the trove ran the gamut, from Syrian battlefield photos to private phone conversations, passwords and pictures of children's birthday parties. "It was everything. Literally everything," Flossman said. Discoveries of state-sponsored cyberespionage campaigns have become commonplace as countries in the Middle East and Asia scramble to match the digital prowess of the United States, China, Russia and other major powers. But Lookout and EFF's report is unusual for the amount of data uncovered about the spying campaign's victims and its operators. Notably, their report drew on data generated by suspected test devices — a set of similarly configured phones that appear to have been used to try out the spy software — to potentially pinpoint the hackers' exact address. The report said the suspected test devices all seemed to have connected to a WiFi network active at the intersection of Beirut's Pierre Gemayel and Damascus Streets, the location of the bulky, sandstone-colored high-rise that houses Lebanon's General Directorate of General Security. The Associated Press was able to at least partially verify that finding, sending a reporter to the area around the heavily guarded, antennae-crowned building Wednesday to confirm that the same WiFi network was still broadcasting there. Other data also points to the spy agency: the report said the internet protocol addresses of the spyware's control panels mapped to an area just south of the GDGS building. Electronic Frontier Foundation Director of Cybersecurity Eva Galperin said the find was remarkable, explaining that she could think of only one other example where researchers were able to pin state-backed hackers to a specific building. `We were able to take advantage of extraordinarily poor operational security," she said. The GDGS declined to comment ahead of the report's publication. The 49-page document lays out how spies used a network of bogus websites and malicious smartphone apps — such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Threema and Signal — to steal passwords or pry into communications, eavesdropping on conversations and capturing at least 486,000 text messages. Some victims were tricked into visiting the websites or downloading the rogue apps by booby trapped messages sent over WhatsApp, the report said. Others may have had malicious programs installed physically when they were away from their phones. Still more may have been lured into compromising their devices by a set of apparently fake Facebook profiles set up to look like attractive young Lebanese women. EFF and Lookout said the spying stretched over 21 different countries, including the United States and several European nations, but they declined to identify any of the victims except in general terms, saying that there were thousands of them and that in many cases it wasn't always obvious who they were. Murray said relevant authorities had been notified of the spying but declined to go into further detail. Lebanon has historically been a hub for espionage and Lebanese spies have a documented interest in surveillance software. In 2015, for example, the internet watchdog group Citizen Lab published evidence that GDGS had tapped FinFisher, a spyware merchant whose tools have been used to hack into the computers of several African and Middle Eastern dissidents. The hacking campaign exposed Thursday by EFF and Lookout — which they dub "Dark Caracal" — was discovered in the wake of an entirely different cyberespionage campaign targeting Kazakh journalists and lawyers. An EFF report on the Kazakh campaign published in 2016 caught the attention of researchers at Lookout, who swept through the company's vast store of smartphone data to find a sample of the smartphone surveillance software mentioned in the write-up. It was while pulling on that string that investigators stumbled across the open server full of photos, conversations and intercepted text messages — as well as the link to Lebanon. Galperin and Murray both said researchers were marshalling more evidence and that more revelations were coming. "Stay tuned," Murray said.

Tap and Donate: Paris Church to Take Contactless Cards

The Catholic church is going digital in Paris.   The city's diocese will introduce a system allowing contactless card payments during Sunday's mass at Saint Francois de Molitor, a church located in an upscale and conservative Paris neighborhood.   The diocese explained Thursday that five connected collection baskets with a traditional design will be handed out to mass attenders during the service. They will choose on a screen the amount they want to donate - from 2 to 10 euros ($2.4 to $12.2) - and their payment will be processed in “one second.”   The diocese insisted “this new gesture remains extremely close to the usual” one, yet parishioners will still be able to use cash for their donations.   According to the diocese, donations amount to 79 percent of its resources.   “Mass collection represents 14 percent of that contribution,” it said in a statement. “That's about 98 euros on average, per year and per faithful.” It explained that the move is meant “to anticipate the gradual disappearance of cash money.”   This is not the French Catholic church's first attempt to keep up with new technologies.   Since 2016, a smartphone app for making donations called “La Quete,” which translates as “The Collection,” has been introduced across 28 French dioceses and more than 2,000 parishes.   About 4,000 donations have been made over 14 months in the eight Paris parishes that have been testing the app, with the average amount spent coming in at 4.71 euros.   “The Church is committed to supporting everyone in the new ways of life and consumption,” the Paris diocese said. “The dematerialization of the means of payment is also part of the challenges the Church has to take up. Whether through a connected basket, with contactless payment, or through a smartphone app.”  

Underwater Robots Monitor Changes Under Antarctic Ice Sheet

While the calving of cliff-sized chunks of ice off the polar glaciers is a very visible effect of climate change, what’s happening, unseen, below the ice shelf is a more significant indicator of the warming seas. A new generation of robots is being launched to monitor those changes. Faith Lapidus reports.

Trump Says Solar Tariff Decision Coming Soon, Stakes Huge for Industry

 U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he would announce a decision soon on whether to slap tariffs on imported solar panels, and quipped that when countries dump subsidized panels in the United States, “Everybody goes out of business.” The solar industry is anxiously awaiting the decision, which will have wide-reaching implications for the sector. Domestic panel producers opposed to cheap imports would benefit from a tariff. But installers that have relied on the lower-cost hardware for their recent breakneck growth would suffer. In an interview with Reuters, Trump declined to say how he would land on the case — which was triggered last year by a domestic manufacturer’s trade grievance — but complained about the effect of imports on U.S. panel makers. “You know, they dump ’em — government-subsidized, lots of things happening — they dump the panels, then everybody goes out of business,” he said. Asked when the decision would be announced, he said: “Pretty soon. Honestly, pretty soon.” According to a process governed by the International Trade Commission, Trump has until Jan. 26 to make his decision. Bankrupt domestic panel producer Suniva triggered Trump’s consideration of tariffs last year when it filed a trade case arguing it could not compete with cheap imports. About 95 percent of the solar cells and panels sold in the United States are made abroad, with most coming from China, Malaysia and the Philippines, according to SPV Market Research. Suniva was later joined in the case by the U.S. arm of German manufacturer SolarWorld AG. In October, Trump received a range of options from members of the U.S. International Trade Commission to protect domestic producers, but he has broad leeway to come up with his own alternative or do nothing at all. Suniva is seeking strong measures. “A robust tariff will allow Suniva to restart its factories and rehire employees,” Suniva spokesman Mark Paustenbach said. Jobs at stake Only about 14 percent of the solar industry's 260,000 jobs are in manufacturing. The trade case has fueled anxiety among installers that make up most of the rest of the industry and rely on low-priced imports. The installation sector’s trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, has campaigned against tariffs, saying they would drive up the price of solar and cripple demand, eliminating tens of thousands of jobs and ultimately hurting the manufacturers that sought them in the first place. “I’m staying optimistic that the business aspect of this will come through in the end,” said George Hershman, president of Swinerton Renewable Energy, a privately held firm that constructs large-scale solar projects. Hershman said Swinerton employed 2,000 full-time employees and up to 8,000 temporary workers, but added several of its projects had been placed on hold pending Trump's decision.  “If you add 50 percent to the cost of the job, it may not be economic,” Hershman said. Solaria Corp, a U.S. company that produces panels in both California and South Korea, also opposes tariffs, according to Chief Executive Suvi Sharma. The company said a recent $23million financing round took months longer than it should have partly because of investor jitters about the case. “The best thing would be to have this whole thing go away,” Sharma said.

Facebook Widens Probe Into Alleged Russian Meddling in Brexit

Facebook Inc said on Wednesday it would conduct a new, comprehensive search of its records for possible propaganda that Russian operatives may have spread during the run-up to Britain's 2016 referendum on EU membership. Some British lawmakers had complained that the world's largest social media network had done only a limited search for evidence that Russians manipulated the network and interfered with the referendum debate. Russia denies meddling in Britain's vote to exit the European Union, known as Brexit, or in the 2016 U.S. elections. Facebook, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc's Google and YouTube have been under intense pressure in Europe and the United States to stop nations from using tech services to meddle in another country's elections, and to investigate when evidence of such meddling arises. Facebook's new search in Britain will require the company's security experts to go back and analyze historical data, Simon Milner, Facebook's UK policy director, wrote in a letter on Wednesday to Damian Collins, chair of the British parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. "We would like to carry out this work promptly and estimate it will take a number of weeks to complete," Milner wrote. Facebook said in December that it had found just 97 cents worth of advertising by Russia-based operatives ahead of Britain's vote to leave the EU. Its analysis, though, involved only accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a suspected Russian propaganda service. Collins last month described Facebook's initial Brexit-related search as inadequate, and said on Wednesday he welcomed the company's latest response. "They are best placed to investigate activity on their platform," he said in a statement. "I look forward to seeing the results of this investigation, and I'm sure we will want to question Facebook about this when we know the outcome." Facebook told U.S. lawmakers last year that it had found 3,000 ads bought by suspected Russian agents posing as Americans and seeking to spread divisive messages in the United States about race, immigration and other political topics. In France last year, Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in the days before the country's presidential election to try to stop the spread of fake news, misinformation and spam.

Apple to Build 2nd Campus, Hire 20,000 in $350B Pledge

Apple is planning to build another corporate campus and hire 20,000 workers during the next five years as part of a $350 billion commitment to the U.S. economy. The pledge announced Wednesday is an offshoot from the sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code championed by President Donald Trump and approved by Congress last month.   Besides dramatically lowering the standard corporate tax rate, the reforms offer a one-time break on cash being held overseas.   Apple plans to take advantage of that provision to bring back more than $250 billion in offshore cash, generating a tax bill of roughly $38 billion.   The Cupertino, California, company says it will announce the location of a second campus devoted to customer support later this year.    

Twitter May Notify Users Exposed to Russian Propaganda During 2016 Election

Twitter may notify users whether they were exposed to content generated by a suspected Russian propaganda service, a company executive told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday. The social media company is "working to identify and inform individually" its users who saw tweets during the 2016 U.S. presidential election produced by accounts tied to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Army, Carlos Monje, Twitter's director of public policy, told the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. A Twitter spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about plans to notify its users. Facebook Inc in December created a portal where its users could learn whether they interacted with accounts created by the Internet Research Agency. Both companies and Alphabet's YouTube appeared before the Senate committee on Wednesday to answer lawmaker questions about how their efforts to combat the use of their platforms by violent extremists, such as the Islamic State. But the hearing often turned its focus to questions of Russian propaganda, a vexing issue for internet firms who spent most of the past year responding to a backlash that they did too little to deter Russians from using their services to anonymously spread divisive messages among Americans in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. elections. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia sought to interfere in the election through a variety of cyber-enabled means to sow political discord and help President Donald Trump win. Russia has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Technology Developers Call on Others to Make Use of It

The world’s biggest Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is over but this year’s battle for consumers and their pocketbooks has only began. As smaller companies do not have the resources for research and development, big companies, such as Samsung, Canon and others, have a common message for them – let your imagination tell you how to use our technologies. VOA’s George Putic reports.

21 States Sue to Keep Net Neutrality as Senate Democrats Reach 50 Votes

A group of 21 U.S. state attorneys general filed suit to challenge the Federal Communications Commission's decision to do away with net neutrality on Tuesday, while Democrats said they needed just one more vote in the Senate to repeal the FCC ruling. The attorneys general filed a petition with a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., to challenge the action, calling it "arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion" and saying that it violated federal laws and regulations. The petition was filed as Senate Democrats said they had the backing of 50 members of the 100-person chamber for repeal. Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement that all 49 Democrats in the upper chamber backed the repeal. Earlier this month, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said she would back the effort to overturn the FCC's move. Democrats need 51 votes to win any proposal in the Republican-controlled Senate because Vice President Mike Pence can break any tie. Override would be difficult Trump backed the FCC action, the White House said last month, and overturning a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers. A two-thirds vote would be much harder for Democrats in the House, where Republicans hold a greater majority. States said the lawsuit was filed in an abundance of caution because, typically, a petition to challenge would not be filed until the rules legally take effect, which is expected later this year. Internet advocacy group Free Press, the Open Technology Institute and Mozilla Corp. filed similar protective petitions Tuesday. The FCC voted in December along party lines to reverse rules introduced in 2015 that barred internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic or offering paid fast lanes, also known as paid prioritization. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the issue would be a major motivating factor for the young voters the party is courting. A trade group representing major tech companies including Facebook, Alphabet and Amazon said it would support legal challenges to the reversal. The FCC vote in December marked a victory for AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications and handed them power over what content consumers can access on the internet. It was the biggest win for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in his sweeping effort to undo many telecommunications regulations. Disclosure required While the FCC order grants internet providers sweeping new powers, it does require public disclosure of any blocking practices. Internet providers have vowed not to change how consumers obtain online content. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, said in an interview Tuesday that he planned to hold a hearing on paid prioritization. He has urged Democrats to work constructively on a legislative solution to net neutrality "to bring certainty and clarity going forward and ban behaviors like blocking and throttling." He said he did not believe a vote to overturn the FCC decision would get a majority in the U.S. House. Representative Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said Tuesday that his bill to reverse the FCC decision had 80 co-sponsors. Paid prioritization is part of American life, Walden said. "Where do you want to sit on the airplane? Where do you want to sit on Amtrak?" he said.

French Startup Launches Hydrogen-powered Bicyles

A French start-up has become the first company to start factory production of hydrogen-powered bicycles for use in corporate or municipal fleets. Pragma Industries, which is based in Biarritz, France and makes fuel cells for military use, has sold some 60 hydrogen-powered bikes to French municipalities including Saint Lo, Cherbourg, Chambery and Bayonne. At about 7,500 euros per bike, and at least 30,000 euros for a charging station, the bikes are too expensive for the consumer market, but Pragma is working to cut that to 5,000 euros, which would bring their price in line with premium electric bikes. "Many others have made hydrogen bike prototypes, but we are the first to move to series production," said founder and chief executive Pierre Forte. The firm's Alpha bike runs for about 100 km (62 miles) on a two-liter tank of hydrogen, a range similar to an electric bike, but a refill takes only minutes while e-bikes take hours to charge. One kilo of hydrogen holds about 600 times more energy than a one-kilo lithium battery. Pragma also sells refueling stations that produce hydrogen through the electrolysis of water as well cheaper tank-based stations. The bikes, which look and ride the same as any normal bicycle, are aimed at bike-rental operators, delivery companies, and municipal or corporate bicycle fleets with intensive usage. Pragma, which produced 100 hydrogen bikes last year, plans to manufacture 150 this year. It has received demand from Norway, the United States, Spain, Italy and Germany, Forte said. With bike's range limited by the size of the hydrogen tank, Pragma is also working on a bike that will convert plain water into hydrogen aboard the bike, using a chemical reaction between water and aluminum or magnesium powder to produce hydrogen gas. "In the next two-three years we want to enter the consumer market and massively increase the scale of our operations," said Forte.

Lifelike Robots Made in Hong Kong Are Meant to Win Over Humans 

David Hanson envisions a future in which robots powered by artificial intelligence evolve to become "super-intelligent genius machines" that might help solve some of mankind's most challenging problems. If only it were as simple as that. The Texas-born former sculptor at Walt Disney Imagineering and his Hong Kong-based startup Hanson Robotics are combining AI with southern China's expertise in toy design, electronics and manufacturing to craft humanoid "social robots" with faces designed to be lifelike and appealing enough to win trust from humans who interact with them. Hanson, 49, is perhaps best known as the creator of Sophia, a talk show-going robot partly modeled on Audrey Hepburn that he calls his "masterpiece." Akin to an animated mannequin, she seems as much a product of his background in theatrics as an example of advanced technology. 'Is it weird?' "You're talking to me right now, which is very 'Blade Runner,' no?" Sophia said during a recent visit to Hanson Robotics' headquarters in a suburban Hong Kong science park, its home since shortly after Hanson relocated here in 2013. "Do you ever look around you and think, 'Wow, I'm living in a real-world science fiction novel'?" she asked. "Is it weird to be talking to a robot right now?" Hanson Robotics has made about a dozen copies of Sophia, who like any human is a work in progress. A multinational team of scientists and engineers are fine-tuning her appearance and the algorithms that enable her to smile, blink and refine her understanding and communication. Sophia has moving 3-D-printed arms and, with the help of a South Korean robotics company, she's now going mobile. Shuffling slowly on boxy black legs, Sophia made her walking debut in Las Vegas last week at the CES electronics trade show. Her skin is made of a nanotech material that Hanson invented and dubbed "Frubber," short for flesh-rubber, that has a fleshlike, bouncy texture. Cameras in her eyes and a 3-D sensor in her chest help her to "see," while the processor that serves as her brain combines facial and speech recognition, natural language processing, speech synthesis and a motion control system. ​Sophia's predecessors Sophia seems friendly and engaging, despite the unnatural pauses and cadence in her speech. Her predecessors include an Albert Einstein, complete with bushy mustache and white thatch of hair; a robot named Alice whose grimaces run a gamut of emotions; and one that eerily resembles the late sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, which won an award from the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. They variously leer, blink, smile and even crack jokes. Disney's venture capital arm is an investor in Hanson, which is building a robot based on one of the entertainment giant's characters. An artist and robotics scientist, Hanson worked on animatronic theme park shows, sculpting props and characters for Disney attractions like Pooh's Hunny Hunt and Mermaid Lagoon. He studied film, animation and video, eventually earning a doctorate in interactive arts and technology from the University of Texas at Dallas. Hanson says he makes his robots as humanlike as possible to help alleviate fears about robots, artificial intelligence and automation. That runs contrary to a tendency in the industry to use cute robo-pets or overtly machinelike robots like Star Wars' R2-D2 to avoid the "uncanny valley" problem with human likenesses such as wax models and robots that many people find a bit creepy. Global market revenue for service robotics is forecast to grow from $3.7 billion in 2015 to $15 billion in 2020, according to IHS Markit. That includes both professional and domestic machines like warehouse automatons, smart vacuums and fuzzy companion robots. Hanson Robotics is privately owned and has a consumer-oriented business that sells thousands of shoebox-sized $200 Professor Einstein educational robots a year. Chief Marketing Officer Jeanne Lim says the company is generating revenue but won't say whether it's profitable. Specific chores For now, artificial intelligence is best at doing specific tasks. It's another thing entirely for machines to learn a new ability, generalize that knowledge and apply it in different contexts, partly because of the massive amount of computing power needed to process such information so quickly. "We're really very far from the kind of AI and robotics that you see in movies like Blade Runner," said Pascale Fung, an engineering professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "Sorry to disappoint you." Unlike toddlers, who use all five senses to learn quickly, machines generally can handle only one type of input at a time, she noted. While Sophia's repartee can be entertaining, she's easily thrown off topic and her replies, based on open-source software, sometimes miss the mark. Hanson and other members of his team, like chief scientist Ben Goertzel, have set their sights on a time when the computer chips, processing capacity and other technologies needed for artificial general intelligence could enable Sophia and other robots to fill a variety of uses, such as helping with therapy for autistic children, caring for seniors or providing customer services. As for tackling challenging world problems, that's a ways off, Hanson acknowledges. "There's a certain expression of genius to be able to get up and cross the room and pour yourself a cup of coffee, and robots and AI have not achieved that level of intelligence reliably," Hanson said.

Researchers: More Green Power Could Lessen India's Water, Electricity Problems

Water shortages have disrupted India's power plants for years and are likely to worsen as power demands grow and climate change brings more frequent droughts — a reality that is adding urgency to government plans to boost use of renewable energy, analysts said. Most of India's energy comes from fossil-fuel-powered thermal power plants that rely on fresh water for cooling. Fourteen of the country's 20 largest thermal power utility companies experienced disruptions related to water shortages at least once between 2013 and 2016, losing more than $1.4 billion in potential revenue, the World Resources Institute (WRI) said in a report Tuesday. "Water shortages are a threat to power companies in India," said Tianyi Luo, co-author of the WRI report. "As India is expected to grow significantly in the next 20 to 30 years, the water competition is only going to be more severe." India is expanding its power supplies to meet the demands of a growing economy, which is set to double by 2030, according to Pricewaterhouse Coopers. The country also needs to extend power to an estimated 300 million people currently living without electricity. Climate change, which is expected to cause more frequent and intense droughts and change rainfall patterns, will most likely put additional stress on water supplies, Luo said. Less water, more power? In a bid to address the problem, the government has introduced rules to curb the amount of water used by power stations. But to effectively keep water consumption from India's fossil fuel power generation in check, the country needs to meet its own ambitious renewable energy goals and implement its stringent water regulations on power plants, WRI said. "We don't know how much water those power plants are using exactly on a daily basis. Unless you start to monitor and disclose this type of information, it's hard to get a sense of what kinds of risks you are exposed to," said Luo. The government's plans to meet India's growing energy needs include building more power plants that run on coal, ramping up its nuclear power capacity — and investing heavily in solar and, to a lesser extent, wind power. Although growing use of solar power will to a large extent reduce reliance on water for power generation, it can still put a strain on water supplies in the arid areas where some major solar plants have been built, said Karthik Ganesan, a research fellow at the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water. Even the small amount of water needed to clean dust off solar panels, for example, "is a significant demand" in extremely arid areas, Ganesan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "So it doesn't mean that the issue [of water shortages] dies out completely. It takes a different form." Many entrepreneurs and companies are looking at building solar installations and wind turbines on the same pieces of land, as the wind often picks up when the sun sets. Wind power also requires little or no water. "I think the private sector will find what the right mix is," Ganesan said. By 2022, India is expected to more than double its current renewable electricity capacity, according to the International Energy Agency. The government has decided to scale back some of its plans to build new coal-fired power plants, partly because the cost of renewables has dropped significantly in the last decade, said Niklas Höhne, a climate emissions expert at the Germany-based NewClimate Institute, which tracks countries' emission reduction policies. "India is a country where changes are the fastest compared to most other countries. [It's gone] from building more coal-fired power plants to building a lot of renewable energy," Höhne said.

Clean Energy Investment Rose to $333.5B in 2017, Research Shows

New clean energy investment worldwide rose by 3 percent last year to $333.5 billion from a year earlier, driven by a surge in solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, research showed on Tuesday. The figure is below 2015's record amount of $360.3 billion, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) said in an annual report. Solar investment totaled $160.8 billion in 2017, up 18 percent from the previous year even though technology costs have fallen. Just over half of that was spent in China, the research showed. "The 2017 total is all the more remarkable when you consider that capital costs for the leading technology — solar — continue to fall sharply. Typical utility-scale PV systems were about 25 percent cheaper per megawatt last year than they were two years earlier," said Jon Moore, the chief executive of BNEF. Chinese investment in clean energy as a whole totaled $132.6 billion last year, up 24 percent from a year earlier to a record high. Europe invested $57.4 billion, down 26 percent from the previous year, and the United States invested $56.9 billion, up 1 percent on 2016. Meanwhile, $127.9 billion changed hands last year — the highest amount ever — as organizations purchased and sold clean energy projects and companies and refinanced existing project debt. Private equity buy-outs reached a record high of $15.8 billion, six times higher than the previous year. The largest acquisition transaction of 2017 was Brookfield Asset Management's purchase of a stake in U.S. TerraForm Power for $4.7 billion, the report said.

US Net Neutrality Move May Lead to Trade War with Chinese Internet Firms

A recent decision by the United States' Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality, which are rules designed to prevent the selective blocking or slowing of websites, has wide-ranging implications for China, which never believed in net neutrality and banned hundreds of foreign websites. The decision could result in a major trade war involving Chinese telecom and Internet companies, which are interested in accessing the U.S. market, analysts said. The move will allow American telecom service providers to charge differential prices for various services and even examine the data of their customers. Though this aspect has stirred controversy in the United States, the situation there is still very different from the realities in China. "In China, the government is monitoring and controlling the networks whereas [in U.S.] it is, at least so far, it is telecommunication companies. At this point, the government does not have access, we know it does not have access to manipulating the flow of traffic in the U.S. Internet," Aija Leiponen, a professor at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, said. The FCC decision could help U.S. telecom service providers offer high-priced premium services. Trade war But this would also open up an opportunity for U.S. service providers to charge high rates from foreign customers. At present, foreign companies can easily access the U.S. cyber market without facing the kind of resistance American companies encounter in China and elsewhere. "I think it (FCC decision) has an impact potentially for Chinese technology companies that want to do business in the U.S.," said Benjamin Cavender, a senior analyst at the Shanghai-based China Market Research Group (CMR). "You are asking about companies like Alibaba or Tencent, what this means for them in the U.S. markets-- and I could very possibly see this being used as a trade war tool--and the U.S. government saying, 'Look, we are going to restrict access to companies to our ISPs and force them to pay a lot of money." U.S. telecom companies are getting increasing integrated with content providers and might look at foreign players as a source of serious competition. They might go further and even consider blocking some foreign players, including Chinese Internet giants, he said. "I can also see this happening that they (Chinese Internet firms) just get completely blocked because of the U.S. using this more as a trade tool trying to get more access to the Chinese market because if you are a U.S. technology company you are working at a great disadvantage in the Chinese market. I do see this being used as a trade tool," Cavender said. The point is about applying pressure on China to open up its Internet market to American players in exchange for similar treatment in the United States. Washington has usually avoided this kind of tit-for-tat game, but the situation may be changing under the Trump administration, analysts said. "They (U.S. telecom companies) could at some point say, 'Look, if you want to have confidential, fast access to the U.S. you have to kind of allow us to do the same thing, allow us to invest more heavily in Chinese firms.' I could see that happening," Cavender said. Moral high ground China has been advocating the idea of 'Internet sovereignty,' which allows governments to create boundaries in cyber space and block foreign sites that it perceives as potential threats to security. Proponents of 'open Internet' have been protesting against the idea of 'Internet sovereignty.' The Obama administration lobbied and argued with China for nearly a decade to open up Internet access for American companies like YouTube, Twitter and Netflix. It was an important aspect of the annual strategic economic dialogue between the two countries. The FCC decision coupled with the controversy over alleged cyber spying by Russia is a moral boost of support for China’s online restrictions, which include a ban on major sites like Google, YouTube and Twitter. The moral high ground enjoyed by the United States under the past administration may be at risk, analysts said. "Even democracies are beginning to think about the need to regulate content. So the Chinese, you know, might take a little comfort in that," James Lewis, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said. "When you look at Europeans talking about blocking each other’s content, when you look at the U.S. talking about blocking Russian political warfare, the Internet cannot be the wild west that it’s been for a couple of decades. So, everyone’s moving in this direction and I guess the Chinese can take comfort from that." Meanwhile, Chinese experts are protesting a new bill introduced in the U.S. Congress that would prevent branches of the U.S. government from working with service providers that use any equipment from two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE, for security reasons. "This (prejudice towards Chinese companies) seems like a problem that can’t be solved, at least not in the short term," Liu Xingliang, head of the Data Center of China Internet, told the Global Times newspaper in Beijing. At the same time, "Chinese firms can't give up the U.S. market and just focus on smaller countries if they want to really achieve their global goals," Liu Dingding, an independent tech expert told the paper.

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