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Updated: 2 hours 29 min ago

New Tech Reads Sealed Ancient Documents Without Opening Them

Attempting to open sealed age-old books and documents without damaging them is difficult. Now scientists in Switzerland have perfected an X-Ray technique to read the fragile records without even touching them. VOA’s Deborah Block explains how.

Global Carmakers to Invest at Least $90B in Electric Vehicles

Ford's plan to double its electrified vehicle spending is part of an investment tsunami in batteries and electric cars by global automakers that now totals $90 billion and is still growing, a Reuters analysis shows. That money is pouring in to a tiny sector that amounts to less than 1 percent of the 90 million vehicles sold each year and where Elon Musk's Tesla, with sales of only three models totaling just over 100,000 vehicles in 2017, was a dominant player. With the world's top automakers poised to introduce dozens of new battery electric and hybrid gasoline-electric models over the next five years — many of them in China — executives continue to ask: Who will buy all those vehicles? “We're all in,” Ford Motor Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. said of the company's $11 billion investment, announced on Sunday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “The only question is, will the customers be there with us?” “Tesla faces real competition,” said Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation Inc, the largest U.S. auto retailing chain. By 2030, Jackson said he expects electric vehicles could account for 15-20 percent of New vehicle sales in the United States. Investments in electrified vehicles announced to date include at least $19 billion by automakers in the United States, $21 billion in China and $52 billion in Germany. But U.S. and German auto executives said in interviews on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show that the bulk of those investments are earmarked for China, where the government has enacted escalating electric-vehicle quotas starting in 2019.  Mainstream automakers also are reacting in part to pressure from regulators in Europe and California to slash carbon emissions from fossil fuels. They are under pressure as well from Tesla's success in creating electric sedans and SUVs that inspire would-be owners to flood the company with orders. While Tesla is the most prominent electric car maker, “soon it will be everybody and his brother,” Daimler AG Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche told reporters on Monday at the Detroit show. Daimler has said it will spend at least $11.7 billion to introduce 10 pure electric and 40 hybrid models, and that it intends to electrify its full range of vehicles, from minicompact commuters to heavy-duty trucks. “We will see whether demand will drive our (electric vehicle) sales or whether we will all be trying to catch the last customer out there,” Zetsche said. “Ultimately, the customer will decide.” For now, Nissan's 7-year-old Leaf remains the world's top-selling electric vehicle and the company's sole battery-only car — an offering soon to be swamped by new rivals bringing tougher competition that could add pressure to pricing. “Everybody will find out that if you push you will have a lot of bad news on residual values,” Nissan Chief Performance Officer Jose Munoz told Reuters. Jim Lentz, chief executive of Toyota's North American operations, said it took Toyota 18 years for sales of hybrid vehicles to reach 3 percent share of the total market. And hybrids are less costly, do not require new charging infrastructure and are not burdened by the range limits of battery electric vehicles, he said. “What's it going to take to get to 4 to 5 percent” share for electric cars, Lentz said. “It's going to be longer.” The largest single investment is coming from Volkswagen AG , which plans to spend $40 billion by 2030 to build electrified versions of its 300-plus global models. In the United States, General Motors has outlined plans to introduce 20 new battery and fuel cell electric vehicles by 2023, most of them built on a new dedicated, modular platform that will be introduced in 2021. GM Chief Executive Mary Barra has not said how much the automaker will spend on electric vehicles. Much of the investment will be made in China, where GM's Cadillac brand will help spearhead the company's more aggressive move into electric vehicles, according to Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen. In an interview on Monday at the Detroit show, de Nysschen said Cadillac would “play a central role” in GM’s electric vehicle strategy in China, and will introduce an unspecified number of models based on GM's future electric-vehicle platform. Some of those Cadillacs could be assembled in China, de Nysschen said. Chinese automakers, including local partners of Ford, VW and GM, all have publicized aggressive investment plans. Not every multinational automaker is moving so aggressively into electric vehicles. In Detroit on Monday, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne said it did not make sense to announce a specific number of new electric vehicles — and he said the company was not under pressure, but working to meet emissions requirements.  “We do not have a gun to our head,” Marchionne said. He said EVs will likely become mandatory in Europe because of emissions rules.

Intel Underfoot: Floor Sensors Rise as Retail Data Source

The next phase in data collection is right under your feet. Online clicks give retailers valuable insight into consumer behavior, but what can they learn from footsteps? It's a question Milwaukee-based startup Scanalytics is helping businesses explore with floor sensors that track people's movements. The sensors can also be used in office buildings to reduce energy costs and in nursing homes to determine when someone falls. But retailers make up the majority of Scanalytics' customers, highlighting one of several efforts brick-and-mortar stores are undertaking to better understand consumer habits and catch up with e-commerce giant Amazon. Physical stores have been at a disadvantage because they "don't have that granular level of understanding as to where users are entering, what they're doing, what shelves are not doing well, which aisles are not being visited," said Brian Sathianathan, co-founder of Iterate.ai, a small Denver-based company that helps businesses find and test technologies from startups worldwide. But it's become easier for stores to track customers in recent years. With Wi-Fi — among the earliest available options — businesses can follow people when they connect to a store's internet. One drawback is that not everyone logs on so the sample size is smaller. Another is that it's not possible to tell whether someone is inches or feet away from a product. Sunglass Hut and fragrance maker Jo Malone use laser and motion sensors to tell when a product is picked up but not bought, and make recommendations for similar items on an interactive display. Companies such as Toronto-based Vendlytics and San Francisco-based Prism use artificial intelligence with video cameras to analyze body motions. That can allow stores to deliver customized coupons to shoppers in real time on a digital shelf or on their cellphones, said Jon Nordmark, CEO of Iterate.ai. With Scanalytics, Nordmark said, "to have [the sensors] be super useful for someone like a retailer, they may need to power other types of things," like sending coupons to customers. Using the data Scanalytics co-founder and CEO Joe Scanlin said that's what his floor sensors are designed to do. For instance, the sensors read a customer's unique foot compressions to track that person's path to a digital display and how long the person stands in front of it before walking away, he said. Based on data collected over time, the floor sensors can tell a retailer the best time to offer a coupon or change the display before the customer loses interest.    "Something that in the moment will increase their propensity to purchase a product," said Scanlin, 29, who started developing the paper-thin sensors that are 2-square feet (0.19-sq. meters) as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2012. He employs about 20 people. Wisconsin-based bicycle retailer Wheel and Sprocket uses Scanalytics' sensors — which can be tucked under utility mats — to count the number of customers entering each of its eight stores to help schedule staff. "That's our biggest variable expense," said co-owner Noel Kegel. "That sort of makes or breaks our profitability." Privacy and surveillance Kegel wants to eventually have sensors in more areas throughout his stores to measure where customers spend most of their time and what products are popular, but he said it's too expensive right now. The cost of having the sensors ranges from $20 to $1,000 per month, depending on square footage and add-on applications to analyze data or interact with digital signs, Scanlin said. He said he's working with 150 customers in the U.S. and other countries and estimates that about 60 percent are retailers.   The emergence of tracking technologies is bound to raise concerns about privacy and surveillance. But Scanlin noted his sensors don't collect personally identifying information. Jeffrey Lenon, 47, who was recently shopping at the Shops of Grand Avenue mall in Milwaukee, said he wasn't bothered by the idea of stores tracking foot traffic and buying habits. "If that's helping the retailer as far as tracking what sells and what no, I think it's a good idea," Lenon said. These technologies have not become ubiquitous in the U.S. yet, but it's only a matter of time, said Ghose Anindya, a business professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. "In a couple of years this kind of conversation will be like part and parcel of everyday life. But I don't think we're there yet," he said.

Palestinians to Get 3G in West Bank, After Israel Lifts Ban

Palestinians in the West Bank are finally getting high-speed mobile data services, after a yearslong Israeli ban that cost their fragile economy hundreds of millions of dollars, impeded tech start-ups and denied them simple conveniences enjoyed by the rest of the world.   Palestinian cell phone providers Wataniya and Jawwal are expected to launch 3G broadband services in the West Bank by the end of this month, Palestinian officials said, after Israel assigned frequencies and allowed the import of equipment.   "It's about time," Wataniya CEO Durgham Maraee said of the anticipated launch, speaking to The Associated Press at company headquarters in the West Bank last week. ``It has taken a very, very long time.''   The belated move to 3G comes a decade after Palestinian operators first sought Israeli permits and at a time when faster 4G is increasingly available in the Middle East.   This keeps Palestinian mobile companies at a continued disadvantage, including in competition with Israeli companies that offer 3G and 4G coverage to Palestinian customers in the West Bank through towers installed in Israeli settlements. The World Bank has criticized this state of affairs because the Israeli firms do not pay license fees or taxes to the Palestinian authorities.   The Israeli ban on 3G also remains in place in the Gaza Strip, making that Palestinian territory, dominated by the militant group Hamas, one of the last without such services across the globe. Mobile internet is available in far-flung places, from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to the Atlantic's volcanic rock island of Ascension.   In blocking 3G for years, Israel has cited security concerns, without going into details. Officials suggest, for example, that high-speed mobile data could make it easier for Palestinian militants to communicate while reducing the risk of Israeli surveillance.   Israel's Shin Bet security agency declined comment Sunday.   COGAT, an Israeli Defense Ministry branch, said it worked on implementing a 2015 memorandum of understanding with the Palestinians on 3G, and that it expects a launch in two to three weeks. Officials did not respond to questions about Israel's yearslong ban on 3G.   Israel has delayed approval for Palestinian economic development projects in the past, leading to efforts by high-level international efforts to try to speed things along. Most recently, President Donald Trump's Mideast team has urged Israel to make economic gestures to the Palestinians.   Palestinian officials have said they suspect such projects are being used as political leverage.   At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for so-called "economic peace" with the Palestinians, as he stepped back from offers by predecessors to negotiate the terms of an independent Palestinian state on lands Israel captured in 1967.   At Wataniya headquarters, where employees got 3G as part of pre-launch tests, the mood was upbeat.   The CEO said the 3G launch and the company's recent expansion into Gaza, after Israel lifted restrictions on importing equipment, could translate into profits in 2018 — the first since Wataniya began operations in 2009 as the second Palestinian cellphone provider.   "The future is bright," Maraee said.   But the company's struggles also illustrate the difficulties faced by Palestinian entrepreneurs, large and small, as they operate under Israeli obstacles to trade, movement and access.   Israel has kept a tight grip on the daily lives of Palestinians since its 1967 capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas sought for a Palestinian state.   It annexed east Jerusalem and retains overall control of the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government, administers 38 percent of the West Bank, while the remaining area, home to 400,000 Israeli settlers, is largely off-limits to Palestinian economic development.   Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but has enforced a border blockade, along with Egypt, since Hamas seized the strip in 2007. The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to regain a foothold in Gaza in stop-and-go reconciliation talks with Hamas.   The World Bank has repeatedly urged Israel to unshackle the Palestinian economy to allow private sector growth, essential for lowering double-digit Palestinian unemployment.   In 2016, the bank said the Palestinian mobile phone sector lost more than $1 billion in potential earnings over the previous three years, largely due to Israeli restrictions.   It noted that Israeli providers siphoned off as much as 30 percent of the potential Palestinian customer base in the West Bank with offers of 3G and 4G services.   Maraee said Wataniya has stayed afloat in part because of the continued support of its main investors — the Qatar-based telecommunications company Ooredoo and the self-rule government's Palestinian Investment Fund.   Wataniya is now at the break-even point, but that it once suffered losses of as much as $20 million a year, he said.   "If it wasn't for the commitment of the PIF and the Ooredoo Group ... to the Palestinian economy, probably Wataniya would not have survived under these trying circumstances," he said.   Smaller Palestinian entrepreneurs also expect an immediate 3G bump in business.   Ali Taha launched Rocab, an online taxi booking service, last July, but has so far captured only a tiny slice of the market. He expects a significant increase with 3G, since customers would be able to summon a ride from anywhere, instead of having to search for a location with WiFi.   Shadi Atshan, founder of the Palestinian start-up accelerator FastForward, said he expects app development to flourish and generate more Palestinian tech jobs.   For ordinary Palestinians, everyday life will get just a little easier.   Alaa Amouri, 20, a student, said she gets 4G from an Israeli provider that offers only partial coverage in the West Bank.   Mobile data from a Palestinian provider would offer real-time updates on potential trouble on the roads, said Amouri, who commutes between east Jerusalem and her West Bank university, passing through the crowded Israeli-run Qalandiya crossing almost daily.   "It (3G) helps in getting news updates," she said. "Sometimes when we are at the Qalandiya crossing, we find it blocked without knowing why."  

Uganda Considering Launching Its Own Social Media Platforms

[Uganda is mulling over the idea of creating its own social media platforms. But social media users and government critics see this as a potential effort to control free expression. Facebook and Twitter should brace themselves for competition from Uganda. With no name yet or date on when the new services will be operational, the Uganda Communications Commission is planning to launch its own social media platforms. Commission Director Godfrey Mutabazi says Uganda has many young people who have come up with innovations and applications that can be deployed to serve the population. “There is open information for everything. We have got over almost 70 percent penetration," he said. "We are moving into digital era, data communication. We are hope that by the end of this year 20-25 percent, maybe 30 percent of Ugandans will be on data communication. So we shall access the information, education-wise, research, name it, will be available.” Nicholas Opiyo executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, a local civil liberties organization, says Uganda is not seeking to develop its own social media space because it appreciates the innovative power of social media. He fears a darker purpose. “One I don’t believe they can do it, but if they want to do it, it’s not for the best of intentions," he said. "Recent studies have shown that the government of Uganda is now involved in active filtering of particular information. Namely; information about corruption, information about same sex relations, critical government policies on the first family, that’s what they are trying to do. That’s what they are trying to do, because the biggest threat to this government now, is an informed citizenry." In 2016, the Ugandan government shut down social media twice — on Election Day and during President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing in ceremony. For social media users like Jackie Kemigisa, a move by the government regulator to set up its own social media is cause to worry. “As a person who uses social media and whose source of employment, everything that I do is online, it was a horrible idea. At first I thought it was a joke. So, counting on the sad part of it that they don’t have the money, and if they do, well then, Ugandans will have to re-strategize, go back to the drawing board and see how we can still fight for our freedoms,” said Kemigisa. Critics say a social media platform controlled by the government will put Uganda in the same league as countries such as Iran, China and North Korea. But the Uganda Communications Commission has described those who see this innovation as eroding freedom of speech as patronizing. The government agency insists they just want to keep hate speech out of Ugandan social media, and says the new platforms are going to be positive.  

Vietnam Seeks Upper Hand on Dissent with Rules On Foreign Internet Services

Vietnam is adding pressure on foreign internet firms to keep data on local users and be more accessible to the country’s authorities as the country tightens control over online dissent. A bill that the Southeast Asian country’s Ministry of Public Security offered to legislators this month would require foreign internet services to open representative offices if they have at least 10,000 Vietnamese users or if otherwise requested, official media say. The bill being reviewed by the National Assembly also calls for making the same foreign companies store data on Vietnamese users in Vietnam, VnExpress International reported Jan. 11.  Those providers should collect “important data collected or generated from activities in the country,” the report adds. Legislation on normally free-wheeling foreign internet firms such as Facebook and Google, both popular among Vietnamese, extend the Communist country’s tightening of control over online dissent after initial moves over the past two years, analysts say. “In recent years Vietnam has witnessed a boom on the Internet and social media plays a very important role in Vietnamese citizens’ lives, and so I think that the government is aware of the importance of social media,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. “That’s the reason why they want to establish their presence, because they want to control social media,” he said. Trend of tightening A series of arrests of bloggers in 2016 and 2017 bared the Vietnamese government's sensitivity to public views about graft and inefficiency among officials, experts believe.  Those views weigh increasingly on state-to-people relations despite Vietnam’s fast economic growth that has brought perks such as job creation. In June 2017 the Ministry of Public Security initially proposed the law to give it more power over prohibited content, including cyber-crime, and anti-government activities.  Owners of Internet cafes had already been asked to install monitoring software and make customers show identification that inspectors could check. But Vietnam lacks an Internet censorship scheme like its Communist neighbor China. Vietnam does not, for example, routinely filter websites for provocative keywords or block foreign social media networks. Authorities are, however, allowed to stop content that includes “propaganda against the state.” About 70 percent of Vietnam’s total 92 million people use the internet, with 53 million on social media sites, government figures show. The country lacks widespread, homegrown social media, steering people instead toward foreign-registered services. Officials also hope the law, now it its fifth draft, will also ease “fake news,” curb internet fraud and stop hacking that has hit 18,000 Vietnam-registered websites including that of the country’s chief airline, said Lam Nguyen, country manager with market research firm IDC. Risk of internet crime is particularly high in Vietnam, he said. The representative offices required under the law would force foreign Internet firms to pay taxes and follow local regulations that they can avoid now by basing offshore. Still, a chief mission of the pending legislation is to keep dissent offline, Trung Nguyen said. “Obviously some things they feel sensitive about,” said Yee Chung Seck, partner with the international law form Baker & McKenzie (Vietnam). “And there’s such a degree of what’s the level of sensitivity -- does it somehow cross the line into being abusive.” Foreign firms expected to comply Facebook and Google are expected to follow the new law once passed. Neither American internet giant replied to a request for comment for this report, but Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications said Friday it had gotten initial compliance from both. Google and YouTube have blocked or removed “many harmful and unlawful video clips," though they still appear on Facebook, the ministry said in a statement. Facebook, it said, has taken down more than 670 of about 5,000 accounts that Vietnam said are “false” or “spread defamation, obscenity and violence.” Facebook has closed 159 anti-government accounts and Google has removed 4,500 videos containing “bad or toxic content from YouTube,” VnExpress International said. “The minister stressed that Vietnam was particularly concerned about information that incites anti-government and anti-Party sentiment, violence, or smears the regime, and called for Facebook’s collaboration to deal with the problem,” said the statement, which followed a meeting between the minister and Facebook’s regional regulatory affairs head Damien Yeo. Internet firms are likely to comply as long as they can avoid hurting overall business. “I think to a certain degree, probably, if it’s not too much of a cost and not so much disruption to their current business in Vietnam, they would probably try to comply,” Lam Nguyen said. The Facebook legal affairs official pledged to work with authorities in “dealing with bad information in the global scale,” the ministry website said.

Computer Modeling May Become Faster

Scientists build computer models in order to understand how complex systems, such as traffic, weather or cancer progression work. These simulations of real-world situations usually require dozens of scientists working for many months. But a new approach to building such models, together with new advances in artificial intelligence, may significantly speed up this process. VOA’s George Putic reports.

How Tech Affects Kids a Concern at Consumer Electronics Show

Kathryn Green and her husband prevented their young son from playing on screen devices until he was 2 years old. Then they handed him a Square Panda, a screen that sounds out letters. He loved it. “It was pretty incredible and actually scary in some ways to see how quickly he was drawn to it and knew what to do,” said Green, who works at Square Panda. Square Panda, in many parents’ eyes, would qualify as good screen time. It teaches young children early literacy while also engaging them with fun sounds and cartoonlike figures. The company was among thousands last week exhibiting at CES, the large consumer electronics show that took place in Las Vegas. WATCH: Tech's Effects on Kids a Concern at Consumer Electronics Show Worries about kids and screens But while there was a lot of excitement at CES about the latest in drones, robots and wearable devices, there was also some ambivalence about how the digital life might be affecting children. “We need to start to set our own rules,” said Robin Raskin, with Living in Digital Times, a firm that creates tech conferences. “And I don’t think you can depend on the industry to set them for you. But I think you can depend on them to make the tools so you can set your rules easily.” Should Apple help parents? Tech executives have also sounded the alarm, and earlier this month, two large Apple shareholders wrote to the iPhone maker to express their concerns. They asked the company to do more to help parents who want to restrict their children’s use of mobile phones and requested that Apple fund research looking into the effects of smartphones and other technologies on children.  “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media have a 27 percent higher risk of depression, while those who exceed the average time spent playing sports, hanging out with friends in person, or doing homework have a significantly lower risk,” the investors wrote. “Wait Until 8th,” a parent group, invites parents to hold out until the eighth grade before letting their adolescents have their own smartphones. The organizers say that smartphones are addictive, affect sleep and interfere with schoolwork and friendships. At CES, some exhibitors aimed their products at anxious parents worried that screens are upending play. Games beyond screens When John Shi’s older two children received laptops, “they just disappeared behind screens,” said the long-time tech executive. Inspired to do something differently with his third child, he created Beyond Screen, a company that makes interactive games that do not rely on screens. He says tech executives should make products and services they would let their own kids use. “I’m not going to make all these things that will just simply suck in our children’s time, without providing benefits, that really take them away from social interactions, take them away from parents and teachers, make them feel lonely,” Shi said. “I’ll make products my children will actually use.” An opportunity for tech Raskin says the growing ambivalence is a chance for the tech industry to do something new. “The industry has a big opportunity to say, ‘We will educate you, trust us, we got you covered,’” she said. “And they really do owe it to people.’’

Tech's Effects on Kids a Concern at Consumer Electronics Show

Even at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, there is ambivalence about the ways technology affects children. VOA's Michelle Quinn talked to people about the benefits and costs as technology is becoming more a part of young people's lives.

New 'Smart Home' Tech Lets You Talk to Your Smoke Detector

Gadgets that can make homes smarter are becoming more affordable for consumers. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, even simple devices were getting sophisticated new brains. VOA's George Putic has more.

No Pedal to Metal in GM's Planned Self-driving Cruise AV Car

General Motors Co is seeking U.S. government approval for a fully autonomous car — one without a steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator pedal — to enter the automaker's first commercial ride-sharing fleet in 2019, executives said. For passengers who cannot open doors, the Cruise AV — a rebranded version of GM's Chevrolet Bolt EV — has even been designed to perform that task. It will have other accommodations for hearing and visually impaired customers. This will be one of the first self-driving vehicles in commercial passenger service and among the first to do away with manual controls for steering, brakes and throttle. What is the driver's seat in the Bolt EV will become the front left passenger seat in the Cruise AV, GM said. Company President Dan Ammann told reporters GM had filed on Thursday for government approval to deploy the "first production-ready vehicle designed from the start without a steering wheel, pedals or other unnecessary manual controls." GM is part of a growing throng of vehicle manufacturers, technology companies and tech startups seeking to develop so-called robo-taxis over the next three years in North America, Europe and Asia. Most of those companies have one or more partners. On Friday, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed GM had petitioned for approval to operate up to 2,500 vehicles without steering wheels or human drivers.  "Safety is the [Transportation] department's top priority. The department will review this petition and give it careful consideration," the agency said in a statement. Ford Motor Co said on Tuesday it will partner with delivery service Postmates Inc as the automaker starts testing ways to transport people, food and packages this spring in its self-driving cars, which are being developed by Ford's Argo unit. Other companies, from Uber Technologies Inc to Alphabet Inc's Waymo, have been testing self-driving vehicle prototypes in limited ride-sharing applications, but have been less explicit than GM in announcing plans for commercial robo-taxi services. GM executives said the automaker has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow 16 alterations to existing vehicle safety rules — such as having an airbag in what would normally be the driver's seat, but without a steering wheel — to enable the deployment of the Cruise AV. The automaker would then need to obtain similar approval from individual U.S. states. GM executives said seven U.S. states already allow the alterations sought by the automaker. In other states — including those that stipulate a car must have a licensed human driver — GM will work with regulators to change or get a waiver from existing rules. The company declined to identify the first states in which it plans to launch the vehicle or say when it would begin testing. GM wants to control its own self-driving fleet partly because of the tremendous revenue potential it sees in selling related services, from e-commerce to infotainment, to consumers riding in those vehicles. At a Nov. 30 briefing in San Francisco, GM's Ammann told investors the lifetime revenue generation of one of its self-driving cars could eventually be "several hundred thousands of dollars." That compares with the $30,000 on average that GM collects today for one of its vehicles, mostly derived from the initial sale. GM's Cruise AV is equipped with the automaker's fourth-generation self-driving software and hardware, including 21 radars, 16 cameras and five lidars — sensing devices that use laser light to help autonomous cars "see" nearby objects and obstacles. The Cruise AV will be able to operate in hands-free mode only in premapped urban areas. GM's prototype self-driving vehicles have been developed in San Francisco by Cruise Automation, the onetime startup that GM acquired in March 2016 for a reported $1 billion.

Jeff Bezos Contributes $33M to 'Dreamers' Scholarship Program

Scholarship program TheDream.US said on Friday it had received a $33 million donation from Amazon.com Inc Chief Executive Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos to fund 1,000 college scholarships. The scholarship program will fund U.S. high school graduates with a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, an Obama-era program protecting young immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents — commonly known as Dreamers. U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday blasted the federal court system as "broken and unfair" after a judge blocked his administration's move to end the DACA program. 2,850 students are currently enrolled in different colleges as part of TheDream.US scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition, fees and books. Bezos' parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos, were among the early donors to TheDream.US. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pershing Square Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are also among the other major contributers to the program.

Cybersecurity Firm: US Senate in Russian Hackers' Crosshairs

The same Russian government-aligned hackers who penetrated the Democratic Party have spent the past few months laying the groundwork for an espionage campaign against the U.S. Senate, a cybersecurity firm said Friday. The revelation suggests the group often nicknamed Fancy Bear, whose hacking campaign scrambled the 2016 U.S. electoral contest, is still busy trying to gather the emails of America's political elite. "They're still very active — in making preparations at least — to influence public opinion again," said Feike Hacquebord, a security researcher at Trend Micro Inc., which published the report . "They are looking for information they might leak later." The Senate Sergeant at Arms office, which is responsible for the upper house's security, declined to comment. Hacquebord said he based his report on the discovery of a clutch of suspicious-looking websites dressed up to look like the U.S. Senate's internal email system. He then cross-referenced digital fingerprints associated with those sites to ones used almost exclusively by Fancy Bear, which his Tokyo-based firm dubs "Pawn Storm." Trend Micro previously drew international attention when it used an identical technique to uncover a set of decoy websites apparently set up to harvest emails from the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron's campaign in April 2017. The sites' discovery was followed two months later by a still-unexplained publication of private emails from several Macron staffers in the final days of the race. Hacquebord said the rogue Senate sites — which were set up in June and September of 2017 — matched their French counterparts. "That is exactly the way they attacked the Macron campaign in France," he said. Attribution is extremely tricky in the world of cybersecurity, where hackers routinely use misdirection and red herrings to fool their adversaries. But Tend Micro, which has followed Fancy Bear for years, said there could be no doubt. "We are 100 percent sure that it can attributed to the Pawn Storm group," said Rik Ferguson, one of the Hacquebord's colleagues. Like many cybersecurity companies, Trend Micro refuses to speculate publicly on who is behind such groups, referring to Pawn Storm only as having "Russia-related interests." But the U.S. intelligence community alleges that Russia's military intelligence service pulls the hackers' strings and a months-long Associated Press investigation into the group, drawing on a vast database of targets supplied by the cybersecurity firm Secureworks, has determined that the group is closely attuned to the Kremlin's objectives. If Fancy Bear has targeted the Senate over the past few months, it wouldn't be the first time. An AP analysis of Secureworks' list shows that several staffers there were targeted between 2015 and 2016. Among them: Robert Zarate, now the foreign policy adviser to Florida Senator Marco Rubio; Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who now runs a Washington consultancy; and Jason Thielman, the chief of staff to Montana Senator Steve Daines. A Congressional researcher specializing in national security issues was also targeted. Fancy Bear's interests aren't limited to U.S. politics; the group also appears to have the Olympics in mind. Trend Micro's report said the group had set up infrastructure aimed at collecting emails from a series of Olympic winter sports federations, including the International Ski Federation, the International Ice Hockey Federation, the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation, the International Luge Federation and the International Biathlon Union. The targeting of Olympic groups comes as relations between Russia and the International Olympic Committee are particularly fraught. Russian athletes are being forced to compete under a neutral flag in the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics following an extraordinary doping scandal that has seen 43 athletes and several Russian officials banned for life. Amid speculation that Russia could retaliate by orchestrating the leak of prominent Olympic officials' emails, cybersecurity firms including McAfee and ThreatConnect have picked up on signs that state-backed hackers are making moves against winter sports staff and anti-doping officials. On Wednesday, a group that has brazenly adopted the Fancy Bear nickname began publishing what appeared to be Olympics and doping-related emails from between September 2016 and March 2017. The contents were largely unremarkable but their publication was covered extensively by Russian state media and some read the leak as a warning to Olympic officials not to press Moscow too hard over the doping scandal. Whether any Senate emails could be published in such a way isn't clear. Previous warnings that German lawmakers' correspondence might be leaked by Fancy Bear ahead of last year's election there appear to have come to nothing. On the other hand, the group has previously dumped at least one U.S. legislator's correspondence onto the web. One of the targets on Secureworks' list was Colorado State Senator Andy Kerr, who said thousands of his emails were posted to an obscure section of the website DCLeaks — a web portal better known for publishing emails belonging to retired Gen. Colin Powell and various members of Hillary Clinton's campaign — in late 2016. Kerr said he was still bewildered as to why he was targeted. He said while he supported transparency, "there should be some process and some system to it. "It shouldn't be up to a foreign government or some hacker to say what gets released and what shouldn't."

Social Robots May Soon Become the Newest Member of the Family

The robot revolution has arrived at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. Among those on display are a robotic arm that plays table tennis with a human opponent, and a larger-than-human robot that plays the word game Scrabble against another player. Many tech companies from around the world are developing robots that act as social companions that can be a part of the family. Imagine a mobile device, such as a tablet, with a moving body and personality. Many social robots have faces with blinking eyes and moving mouths and different expressions. One robot even yawns. Some speak in various languages while one sounds like R2-D2 in the Star Wars movies. ​Companions and safety “This year, I think is the first year we can touch this revolution,” said Rodolphe Hasselvander, founder of Blue Frog Robotics, a French company that created the robot named Buddy. Several robotic social companions that interact with people will be available for sale this year. WATCH: Social Robots May Soon Become the Newest Member of the Family “This is like humanoid. It’s good for maybe the elderly, for children and for adults to have interaction,” said Sean Wang, general director of the Industrial Technology Research Institute International Center. They can do what a smartphone can do and more. Some robots can entertain children. The robot Buddy can patrol the home when the residents are not home and contact a person’s phone if it detects an intruder or fire. Many of the robots have cameras that act as eyes. For those concerned about someone hacking into a robot to peep into a home, there are safeguards to look for when purchasing one. “When the camera is activated, we will show it on the screen and specific lights so you know that someone is using your camera,” Hasselvander said about Buddy. He said 2018 is the time when people are ready to accept social robots into their homes. “This kind of robot is the next step because Amazon Echo, Google Home, can’t move. They’re not alive. It’s not a character you know. So it’s the next step. I think this robot, I hope it will be Buddy, but this kind of robot will be adopted by everybody in the next few years,” Hasselvander said. ​Welcome robots? What do the conventiongoers think of welcoming a robot into the family? “I don’t know. I guess it would really depend on what you would use it for and what it would do for you,” said Shane Hoalst, who stopped by to look at Buddy. “I think today, people they don’t have time to spend time with elderly people or with children and using that is just perfect, because it looks like a human, interacts like a human, and it’s a gentle product,” said Roseline Le Thomas, who said she could see having a robot for her family. The costs of companion robots vary. Buddy will cost about $1,500. “If you’re going to spend $1,000 on an iPhone, you can spend $1,000 on a little robot like that,” Hoalst said. Just like a dog or a cat, a robot companion may become a regular part of many families in the not so distant future.

Social Robots May Soon Become the Newest Member of the Family

The robot revolution has arrived at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. Many tech companies are developing robots that act as social companions who can be a part of the family. Will people embrace robots like smartphones? Elizabeth Lee finds out from the show in Las Vegas.

Facebook Says Its Putting Friends, Family First

Facebook on Thursday announced a major update that will put friends and family above pages or celebrities in a user's news feed — and likely result in people spending less time on the leading social network. The change to the way Facebook ranks posts will put more weight on social interactions and relationships, according to News Feed product manager John Hegeman. "This is a big change," Hegeman said. People more important "People will actually spend less time on Facebook, but we feel good about that because it will make the time they do spend more valuable, and be good for our business in the end." For example, a family video clip posted by a spouse will be deemed more worthy of attention than a snippet from a star or favorite restaurant. "We think people interaction is more important than passively consuming content," Hegeman said. "This will be one of the more important updates that we have made." Facebook co-founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg has said that bringing people together and strengthening communities in the real world are priorities. Update coming soon The news feed ranking update, which is set to roll out globally in the coming weeks, is expected to support that goal. "As we roll this out, you'll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media," Zuckerberg said in a post at his Facebook page. "And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people." Battling fake news Google, Twitter and Facebook have come under fire for allowing the spread of bogus news — some of which was directed by Russia — ahead of the 2016 US election and in other countries. Facebook has introduced a series of changes intended to address the problem. "We are doing a ton of work to reduce the frequency of bad content on Facebook," Hegeman said. "This update is more about amplifying the things people value." He cited academic research indicating that interacting with loved ones is crucial to a person's wellbeing, while reading news articles or watching shared videos may not be. "There is really no silver bullet here to determine what is most meaningful, but we are trying to mine the signals to get the best representation that we can," Hegeman said. Fix Facebook Known for setting annual personal goals ranging from killing his own food to learning Mandarin, Zuckerberg's stated mission for this year is to "fix" the social network, including by targeting abuse and hate, and making sure visiting Facebook is time well spent. "I'm changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions," Zuckerberg said Thursday.

CTA: Countries With Entrepreneur-friendly Policies Boost Innovation, Economies

More than 60 countries are represented at CES, the giant consumer electronics show taking place this week in Las Vegas, and the large international presence is a testament to the interest worldwide in entrepreneurship and technology. But while many governments say they support a homegrown innovation economy, policy decisions may hamper entrepreneurial growth, according to a report out this week by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which puts on the marquee Las Vegas technology show. Innovation factors The report looked at 12 factors to determine whether a country is an "innovation champion." They include standard indicators like a country’s tax policy, the education level of its workforce, and broadband access and speeds. Overall, Finland had the highest ranking, followed by the U.S., Canada, other European nations, Australia and New Zealand. India, Morocco and Colombia were dubbed “modest innovators,” and they were among the lowest scoring nations. A different set of countries emerged as leaders, however, when CTA looked at some of the more contentious areas of the tech economy, such as drones, ridesharing, self-driving cars and short-term home rentals such as Airbnb. Ridesharing leaders For example, when it comes to ridesharing, the report found that Panama, Peru, Poland, Rwanda and Mexico were among countries that allow ridesharing to operate most freely. Likewise, for short-term home rentals such as Airbnb, the report gave its highest marks to Chile, Mexico, Nigeria and Peru among other countries. The best countries for drone testing and deployment are Australia, Finland, Portugal, Singapore and Sweden. In an interview with VOA, Gary Shapiro, the chief executive of CTA, said that countries were evaluated “from a uniquely American perspective.” The goal, he said, is to identify which countries have the best policies for innovators, and then encourage other countries to create similar environments. French takeover At Eureka Park, the exhibit area that's home to about 800 early stage startups at CES, about one-third are French. They occupy row after row of the show floor, all under signs reading “La French Tech.” Senegal brought two IT companies that won a competition for their work for the government. “Right now we hope to meet a lot of companies here to check what we can do for our country,” said Cheikh Bakhoum, with the Senegal’s State Informatics Agency. Hrvoje Bujas from Croatia said he came hoping to meet investors, but he switched his goals once he arrived at CES. “I want to get some feedback from our potential users, women that want to get pregnant,” he said. His second goal? “To get some space in media.”  

Amazon Looks to Build on 1st Season of NFL Streaming

Amazon had a mostly successful debut into live streaming of major sports events with increased audience and an improved viewing experience in its first season showing NFL games. The question looking ahead is how aggressively will Amazon be in the sports streaming landscape? "It's too soon to say,'' said Jim DeLorenzo, the head of Amazon Sports. "We're just in the early stages here. We were definitely pleased with the way things played out. It was great to partner with the NFL on this and we were really happy with how our customers reacted to it. But it's too soon to say this impacts our strategy going forward.'' Amazon already has smaller deals with the ATP Tour to air last year's Next Gen ATP Finals and the rights to show some men's tennis tournaments to customers in the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as an upcoming deal to show beach volleyball events. But the NFL is the biggest endeavor Amazon has made so far after paying $50 million for the rights to stream 10 Thursday night games and an additional one on Christmas. Amazon built on the audience Twitter had in 2016 in the first year of streaming on Thursday nights, with the averaging per minute audience for the 11 games hitting 310,000, a 17 percent increase from Twitter's numbers.  On a per capita basis, the biggest audience was in the District of Columbia, followed by Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Utah. Prime members in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and North Carolina watched for the longest amount of time. Viewers who are already used to watching movies and scripted shows on Amazon's various platforms stayed longer on the NFL, with the average viewer watching for 63 minutes. The feed was usually much cleaner than on Twitter or some other streaming services and was delivered even faster than some cable systems as opposed to the usual delay for online streaming. "This was really our first step into distributing live sporting events at scale on a global basis,'' DeLorenzo said. "Of course there was learning. Because we're so early on in that process of distributing this kind of content to our customers, there are a number of things we can look at along the way.'' Even though television audiences for the NFL dropped for the second straight year as people cut the cord and drop cable or satellite service, the streaming audience on Amazon was still a small fraction compared to the more than 10 million viewers who watched on average the Thursday night games on NBC, CBS or the NFL Network. CBS and NBC pay about $45 million per game for the rights to their Thursday night broadcasts. The NFL is expected to decide soon its plans for Thursday night games next season, but is expected to once again split the package between a broadcast and streaming partner. Amazon offered alternate language feeds for the broadcast to cater to some of the fans from more 220 countries who tuned into the games, with feeds in Spanish, Portuguese and "U.K. English'' for those less familiar with the American version of football. "That was a fun component of what we were doing and we were glad to see customers reacted well to that as well,'' DeLorenzo said.

Female-led Startups Look to Cryptocurrency for Funding

Female startup founders have a notoriously harder time securing funding than men. But new methods of financing could help close the gender gap. One of those methods lies in the buzzy technologies of blockchain and cryptocurrencies. “Cryptocurrency, being a digital platform, fundamentally erases that sort of bias and does create a sort of leveling of the playing field,” said Lisa Wang, founder and CEO of SheWorx. “Women who are savvy and are able to hop onto the train are able to raise money really quickly for their ideas.” SheWorx hosted an event last month for its New York City members dubbed “Cryptocurrency 101: Practical Advice on Getting Involved in Bitcoin & Beyond.” About 35 women showed up to learn more. “For a lot of women, they’re looking at the Bitcoin prices, the Ethereum prices, Litecoin prices and they’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s too late for me to get involved,’” Wang said. “It’s not too late, you didn’t miss the boat.” Women received just 11 percent of total venture funding in the first half of 2017, according to TechCrunch. What is blockchain? Could blockchain pave the way to more financing for women? Blockchain technologies have garnered a lot of attention lately, thanks in part to the roller-coaster ride of their most famous protocol and cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. The distributed ledger technology (DLT) that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin enables peer-to-peer or machine-to-machine transactions without the need for intermediary third parties. This removal of middlemen (and their subsequent fees) is a major draw for both startups and established companies across a variety of industries. Wang said entrepreneurs should assess their risk profile, determine whether blockchain is a fit for their startup, and research the types of fundraising processes that could best serve them. Unique coins Tech startups are now exploring the option of issuing their own unique tokens or coins, based on an established blockchain protocol like Bitcoin or Ethereum. Others are creating entirely new blockchain protocols and alternative coins. These initial coin offerings (ICOs) allow startups to raise money quickly in a limited amount of time, via crowdfunding. Unlike traditional initial public offerings (IPOs), ICOs do not offer investors an ownership stake in the company. Instead, investors assess the potential usefulness and value of an alternative or “alt” coin, and the long-term profitability of its parent product or service, whether it makes sense as a blockchain application. Michelle McCormack is the founder and CEO of Casting Coin, an Ethereum-based token that will launch this year and be used as currency on a crowdsourcing platform connecting models and brands. Using blockchain tech McCormack spoke at the SheWorx event and explained how her fashion industry experience helped her identify a gap in the model booking business. “Models are a perfect example of people that have a really hard time connecting with work unless they know somebody ... a lot of times, they’re faced with dealing with shady, internet intermediaries who are calling themselves agents,” McCormack said. “When they do get work, they have to give at least 20 percent of their rate to the agent.” McCormack is a building a blockchain-based platform where industry influencers pay Casting Coins to up-vote or down-vote models, resulting in a new kind of crowdsourcing business model for the traditional model and talent agency. “Over time, a natural influencer vertical and talent vertical will come up ... so that the brand can easily identify them, directly hire them,” McCormack said. While some may be deterred by the ambiguous qualities of a nascent technology like blockchain, McCormack said women should get involved sooner rather than later. “There’s no legacy of male domination in blockchain, because there’s no legacy. So why not get involved, build something?” McCormack said.

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