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NASA, SpaceX Join Forces to Study Earth's Environment

Thu, 02/08/2024 - 21:02
Two titans of space travel team up to study our planet's health. Plus, a Russian cosmonaut breaks the record for the most time in space, and sky gazers in North America will get a treat in coming months. VOA's Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

AI Deepfakes Pose Threat to Elections Worldwide

Thu, 02/08/2024 - 19:26
Four billion people worldwide have voted or are scheduled to do so in national elections through 2024. While the candidates and issues differ in each country, one common concern is the use of generative artificial intelligence in disinformation campaigns. VOA’s Valdya Baraputri has the story.

Oversight Board Urges Meta to Rethink Policy on Manipulated Media

Mon, 02/05/2024 - 18:51
NEW YORK — An oversight board is criticizing Facebook owner Meta's policies regarding manipulated media as "incoherent" and insufficient to address the flood of online disinformation that already has begun to target elections across the globe this year.  The quasi-independent board on Monday said its review of an altered video of President Joe Biden that spread on Facebook exposed gaps in the policy. The board said Meta should expand the policy to focus not only on videos generated with artificial intelligence, but on media regardless of how it was created. That includes fake audio recordings, which already have convincingly impersonated political candidates in the U.S. and elsewhere.  It also said Meta should clarify the harm it is trying to prevent and should label images, videos and audio clips as manipulated instead of removing the posts altogether.  The board's feedback reflects the intense scrutiny that is facing many tech companies for their handling of election falsehoods in a year when voters in more than 50 countries will go to the polls. As both generative artificial intelligence deepfakes and lower-quality "cheap fakes" on social media threaten to mislead voters, the platforms are trying to catch up and respond to false posts while protecting users' rights to free speech.  "As it stands, the policy makes little sense," oversight board co-chair Michael McConnell said of Meta's policy in a statement on Monday. He said the company should close gaps in the policy while ensuring political speech is "unwaveringly protected."  Meta said it is reviewing the oversight board's guidance and will respond publicly to the recommendations within 60 days.  Spokesperson Corey Chambliss said while audio deepfakes aren't mentioned in the company's manipulated media policy, they are eligible to be fact-checked and will be labeled or down-ranked if fact-checkers rate them as false or altered. The company also takes action against any type of content if it violates Facebook's Community Standards, he said.  Facebook, which turned 20 this week, remains the most popular social media site for Americans to get their news, according to Pew. But other social media sites, among them Meta's Instagram, WhatsApp and Threads, as well as X, YouTube and TikTok, also are potential hubs where deceptive media can spread and fool voters.  Meta created its oversight board in 2020 to serve as a referee for content on its platforms. Its current recommendations come after it reviewed an altered clip of Biden and his adult granddaughter that was misleading but didn't violate the company's policies because it didn't misrepresent anything he said.  The original footage showed Biden placing an "I Voted" sticker high on his granddaughter's chest, at her instruction, then kissing her on the cheek. The version that appeared on Facebook was altered to remove the important context, making it seem as if he touched her inappropriately.  The board's ruling on Monday upheld Meta's 2023 decision to leave the seven-second clip up on Facebook, since it didn't violate the company's existing manipulated media policy. Meta's current policy says it will remove videos created using artificial intelligence tools that misrepresent someone's speech.  "Since the video in this post was not altered using AI and it shows President Biden doing something he did not do (not something he didn't say), it does not violate the existing policy," the ruling read.  The board advised the company to update the policy and label similar videos as manipulated in the future. It argued that to protect users' rights to freedom of expression, Meta should label content as manipulated rather than removing it from the platform if it doesn't violate any other policies.  The board also noted that some forms of manipulated media are made for humor, parody or satire and should be protected. Instead of focusing on how a distorted image, video or audio clip was created, the company's policy should focus on the harm manipulated posts can cause, such as disrupting the election process, the ruling said.  Meta said on its website that it welcomes the Oversight Board's ruling on the Biden post and will update the post after reviewing the board's recommendations.  Meta is required to heed the oversight board's rulings on specific content decisions, though it's under no obligation to follow the board's broader recommendations. Still, the board has gotten the company to make some changes over the years, including making messages to users who violate its policies more specific to explain to them what they did wrong.  Jen Golbeck, a professor in the University of Maryland's College of Information Studies, said Meta is big enough to be a leader in labeling manipulated content, but follow-through is just as important as changing policy.  "Will they implement those changes and then enforce them in the face of political pressure from the people who want to do bad things? That's the real question," she said. "If they do make those changes and don't enforce them, it kind of further contributes to this destruction of trust that comes with misinformation." 

Deepfake Scam Video Cost Company $26 Million, Hong Kong Police Says

Sun, 02/04/2024 - 22:32
Hong Kong — Scammers tricked a multinational firm out of some $26 million by impersonating senior executives using deepfake technology, Hong Kong police said Sunday, in one of the first cases of its kind in the city. Law enforcement agencies are scrambling to keep up with generative artificial intelligence, which experts say holds potential for disinformation and misuse — such as deepfake images showing people mouthing things they never said. A company employee in the Chinese finance hub received "video conference calls from someone posing as senior officers of the company requesting to transfer money to designated bank accounts," police told AFP. Police received a report of the incident on January 29, at which point some HK$200 million ($26 million) had already been lost via 15 transfers. "Investigations are still ongoing and no arrest has been made so far," police said, without disclosing the company's name. The victim was working in the finance department, and the scammers pretended to be the firm's U.K.-based chief financial officer, according to Hong Kong media reports. Acting Senior Superintendent Baron Chan said the video conference call involved multiple participants, but all except the victim were impersonated. "Scammers found publicly available video and audio of the impersonation targets via YouTube, then used deepfake technology to emulate their voices... to lure the victim to follow their instructions," Chan told reporters. The deepfake videos were pre-recorded and did not involve dialogue or interaction with the victim, he added.

China Launches Rocket as Commercial Missions Pick Up Pace

Sat, 02/03/2024 - 19:26
BEIJING — A small but powerful Chinese rocket capable of carrying payloads at competitive costs delivered nine satellites into orbit Saturday, Chinese state media reported, in what is gearing up to be another busy year for Chinese commercial launches.  The Jielong-3, or Smart Dragon-3, blasted off from a floating barge off the coast of Yangjiang in southern Guangdong province, the second launch of the rocket in just two months.  Developed by China Rocket Company, a commercial offshoot of a state-owned launch vehicle manufacturer, Jielong-3 made its first flight in December 2022.  President Xi Jinping has called for the expansion of strategic industries including the commercial space sector, deemed key to building constellations of satellites for communications, remote sensing and navigation.  Also Saturday, Chinese automaker Geely Holding Group launched 11 satellites to boost its capacity to provide more accurate navigation for autonomous vehicles.  Last year saw 17 Chinese commercial launches with one failure, among a record 67 orbital launches by China. That was up from 10 Chinese commercial launches in 2022, including two failures.  In 2023, China conducted more launches than any other country except for the United States, which made 116 launch attempts, including just under 100 by Elon Musk's SpaceX.  Critical to the construction of commercial satellite networks is China's ability to open more launch windows, expand rocket types to accommodate different payload sizes, lower launch costs and increase the number of launch sites.

Beheading Video Gone from YouTube, But Questions Remain

Sat, 02/03/2024 - 09:00
NEW YORK — A graphic video from a Pennsylvania man accused of beheading his father that circulated for hours on YouTube has put a spotlight yet again on gaps in social media companies' ability to prevent horrific postings from spreading across the web. Police said Wednesday that they charged Justin Mohn, 32, with first-degree murder and abusing a corpse after he beheaded his father, Michael, in their Bucks County home and publicized it in a 14-minute YouTube video that anyone, anywhere could see. News of the incident — which drew comparisons to the beheading videos posted online by the Islamic State militants at the height of their prominence nearly a decade ago — came as the CEOs of Meta, TikTok and other social media companies were testifying in front of federal lawmakers frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress on child safety online. YouTube, which is owned by Google, did not attend the hearing despite its status as one of the most popular platforms among teens. The disturbing video from Pennsylvania follows other horrific clips that have been broadcast on social media in recent years, including domestic mass shootings livestreamed from Louisville, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; and Buffalo, New York — as well as carnages filmed abroad in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the German city of Halle. Middletown Township Police Capt. Pete Feeney said the video in Pennsylvania was posted at about 10 p.m. Tuesday and online for about five hours, a time lag that raises questions about whether social media platforms are delivering on moderation practices that might be needed more than ever amid wars in Gaza and Ukraine, and an extremely contentious presidential election in the U.S. "It's another example of the blatant failure of these companies to protect us," said Alix Fraser, director of the Council for Responsible Social Media at the nonprofit advocacy organization Issue One. "We can't trust them to grade their own homework." A spokesperson for YouTube said the company removed the video, deleted Mohn's channel and was tracking and removing any re-uploads that might pop up. The video-sharing site says it uses a combination of artificial intelligence and human moderators to monitor its platform but did not respond to questions about how the video was caught or why it wasn't done sooner. Major social media companies moderate content with the help of powerful automated systems, which can often catch prohibited content before a human can. But that technology can sometimes fall short when a video is violent and graphic in a way that is new or unusual, as it was in this case, said Brian Fishman, co-founder of the trust and safety technology startup Cinder. That's when human moderators are "really, really critical," he said. "AI is improving, but it's not there yet." The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a group set up by tech companies to prevent these types of videos from spreading online, was in communication with its all of its members about the incident on Tuesday evening, said Adelina Petit-Vouriot, a spokesperson for the organization. Roughly 40 minutes after midnight Eastern time on Wednesday, GIFCT issued a "Content Incident Protocol," which it activates to formally alert its members - and other stakeholders - about a violent event that's been livestreamed or recorded. GIFCT allows the platform with the original footage to submit a "hash" — a digital fingerprint corresponding to a video — and notifies nearly two dozen other member companies so they can restrict it from their platforms. But by Wednesday morning, the video had already spread to X, where a graphic clip of Mohn holding his father's head remained on the platform for at least seven hours and received 20,000 views. The company, formerly known as Twitter, did not respond to a request for comment. Experts in radicalization say that social media and the internet have lowered the barrier to entry for people to explore extremist groups and ideologies, allowing any person who may be predisposed to violence to find a community that reinforces those ideas. In the video posted after the killing, Mohn described his father as a 20-year federal employee, espoused a variety of conspiracy theories and ranted against the government. Most social platforms have policies to remove violent and extremist content. But they can't catch everything, and the emergence of many newer, less closely moderated sites has allowed more hateful ideas to fester unchecked, said Michael Jensen, senior researcher at the University of Maryland-based Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START. Despite the obstacles, social media companies need to be more vigilant about regulating violent content, said Jacob Ware, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The reality is that social media has become a front line in extremism and terrorism," Ware said. "That's going to require more serious and committed efforts to push back." Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at the media advocacy group Free Press, said among the tech reforms she would like to see are more transparency about what kinds of employees are being impacted by layoffs, and more investment in trust and safety workers. Google, which owns YouTube, this month laid off hundreds of employees working on its hardware, voice assistance and engineering teams. Last year, the company said it cut 12,000 workers "across Alphabet, product areas, functions, levels and regions," without offering additional detail.

History of AI

Thu, 02/01/2024 - 11:22
From counting machines to neural networks, the development of artificial intelligence has paralleled emerging brain science. Writer, Matt Dibble; graphic designer, Kateryna Stepchenko; motion designer, Valeryia Rusak; narrator, Hayde Fitzpatrick.

Lunar Night Puts Japan's Lander Back to Sleep

Thu, 02/01/2024 - 11:02
TOKYO — After a brief awakening, Japan's Moon lander is out of action again but will resume its mission if it survives the two-week lunar night, the space agency said Thursday. The unmanned Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) touched down last month at a wonky angle that left its solar panels facing the wrong way. As the sun's angle shifted, it came back to life for two days this week and carried out scientific observations of a crater with its high-spec camera. "After completing operation from 1/30 (to) 1/31, #SLIM entered a two-week dormancy period during the long lunar night," space agency JAXA said on X, formerly Twitter. "Although SLIM was not designed for the harsh lunar nights, we plan to try to operate again from mid-February, when the Sun will shine again on SLIM's solar cells." JAXA said SLIM was able to "successfully complete observations... as originally planned" with its multiband spectroscopic camera and could study more target areas than initially expected. The space agency also on Thursday posted a black-and-white photo of the rocky surface taken by the spacecraft. It followed other grainy images sent back from the mission to investigate an exposed area of the moon's mantle, the inner layer usually deep beneath its crust. SLIM, dubbed the "Moon Sniper" for its precision landing technology, touched down within its target landing zone on Jan. 20. The feat was a boon for Japan's space program after a string of recent failures, making the nation only the fifth to achieve a "soft landing" on the moon, after the United States, the Soviet Union, China and India. But during its descent, the craft suffered engine problems and ended up on its side, meaning the solar panels were facing west instead of up. Russia, China and other countries from South Korea to the United Arab Emirates are also trying their luck to reach the moon. U.S. firm Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander began leaking fuel after takeoff in January, dooming its mission. It likely burned up in the Earth's atmosphere on its return. NASA has also postponed plans for crewed lunar missions under its Artemis program.

Remote Washington State Town Becomes Hub for EV Battery Production

Wed, 01/31/2024 - 19:17
Moses Lake, Washington — It’s mid-winter in east Washington state, yet despite the chilly fog, two construction sites in the town of Moses Lake are brimming with activity. Several hundred workers are on an ambitious timeline to complete two new factories slanted to begin production of the next-generation components for electric vehicle batteries later this year. Two American start-ups, backed by $100 million in federal grants each, in addition to commercial partnerships, are racing to secure the domestic supply chain with the next-generation battery materials for EV automakers. “That's going to go into everything from electric vehicles to IoT [Internet of Things] devices to smartphones and wearables and a lot of battery-based applications that we don't even know exist yet,” explains Nik Anderson, director of program management with Group 14 Technologies, as he walks through the company’s vast construction site. Washington is one of the American states planning to ban sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035. For now, electric cars account for 8.6% of new vehicle sales in the United States. Affordable electric vehicles would require a significant scaling of domestic battery production, experts say. According to the Biden administration, affordable electric vehicles and reliable supply chain would require a significant scaling of domestic battery production and the national charging infrastructure. Once fully operational, the two companies’ factories in Moses Lake will be able to annually produce enough material to make batteries for about 400,000 electric vehicles. They also promise to produce a better battery, reducing the ‘charge anxiety’ of electric cars by replacing the graphite in conventional lithium-ion batteries with silicon-based components, which will allow for a faster charge. “The thing that makes our battery better, that uses our SCC55 [silicon-carbon composite] versus traditional graphite, is that it can have up to 50% more energy density, it can allow for extremely fast charging,” said Grant Ray, vice president for global market strategy with Group 14. “When we think about charge times, you know, right now we're hearing 10% to 80% in ten minutes. Well, what if that changes and it comes down to five minutes? What if it starts to get closer to what it really is for, you know, the way we think about refueling a car?” he said. One of the challenges for U.S. EV production with traditional lithium-ion batteries is the need to rely on imports. Daniel Schwartz, director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington, says the silicon-based component provides solutions for several challenges. “The primary mineral for what's going in Moses Lake is sand, silica — the most widely distributed mineral in the crust of the earth. Graphite is lower performance, and we are trade-exposed as a nation,” he said. The Biden administration invested in domestic EV battery production as part of its ambitious clean energy agenda. Among the Republican presidential candidates, most reject the urgency surrounding EV adoption, with former President Donald Trump calling it an “all-electric car hoax.” Last September, speaking in front of hundreds of people attending a rally in Clinton Township, Michigan, Trump called prioritizing EVs a “transition to hell,” telling auto workers that Democrats “want to go all electric and put you all out of business." Gene Berdichevsky, CEO of Sila Nanotechnologies, the second startup planning to start EV battery components production in Moses Lake, says the transition to electric vehicles is going to happen regardless of whether the U.S. is taking the lead in the process. “Renewables and batteries are really going to form the basis of 21st-century energy,” he said. “It's critical for the U.S. to build the capacity to be able to have battery production. Catching up to the world leaders in Asia is quite challenging. And so, the way to do that is not to build the same thing, it's to build the next generation of battery technologies.” In Moses Lake, a town of about 25,000 an hour and-a-half drive from the nearest city, all-electric cars are not a common sight. Berdichevsky is convinced that EV adoption in the area is just a matter of time. “We have to recognize that consumers want choice, and some consumers are going to want electric cars with 500 miles (range),” he says. “What we need to do is increase the choices for folks, and the way you do that is through better batteries.” Rosendo Alvarado, a Moses Lake native who took a job as a plant manager for Sila Nanotechnologies, says the remote town became an attractive spot for EV production thanks to the combination of several factors: cheap hydro power provided by local dams; existing manufacturing infrastructure and legacy companies, such as REC Silicon that could become a partner in the EV batteries production; and Washington state policies embracing clean energy initiatives. The cutting-edge industry promises to bring hundreds of new jobs to Moses Lake. Alvarado says he saw the town transforming over time from traditional farming to an industrial community — and expects further change. “We worked in the fields that this building is sitting on today,” he recalls. “It's been fast paced, but super exciting — the opportunities that we are able to bring here for the community and for the EV market.” He says the companies partnered with the local Columbia Basin Technical School and Big Bend Community College to start developing a new workforce as early as during high school classes. “It's a small, tight community. Kind of like everyone knows everyone type thing,” shrugs Nicholas Cruz, a young man out of school walking with his friend down the main street of Moses Lake, when asked about the EV projects coming to town. “It's gonna be exciting in the sense, like, there's more job opportunities and new opportunities to go here because Moses Lake is small, there's not much to it. I am not sure if it will impact me personally — I guess time will tell,” he said.

Remote Washington Town Becomes a Hub for EV Battery Production

Wed, 01/31/2024 - 16:00
The Biden administration’s push for clean energy solutions has turned a rural Washington state town into a hub for electric vehicle battery production. VOA’s Natasha Mozgovaya reports from Moses Lake.

African Small Businesses Turn to AI to Improve E-commerce

Tue, 01/30/2024 - 15:20
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development ranks Africa as the region with the lowest amount of e-commerce investment. UNCTAD says e-commerce is currently accessible to very few urban areas. An AI solution, however, aims to solve the problem. Senanu Tord reports from Accra, Ghana.

Iran Launches 3 Satellites Into Space

Sun, 01/28/2024 - 08:14
JERUSALEM — Iran said Sunday it successfully launched three satellites into space, the latest for a program that the West says improves Tehran's ballistic missiles. The state-run IRNA news agency said the launch also saw the successful use of Iran's Simorgh rocket, which has had multiple failures in the past. The launch comes as heightened tensions grip the wider Middle East over Israel's continued war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. While Iran has not intervened militarily in the conflict, it has faced increased pressure within its theocracy for action after a deadly Islamic State suicide bombing earlier this month and as proxy groups like Yemen's Houthi rebels conduct attacks linked to the war. Footage released by Iranian state television showed a nighttime launch for the Simorgh rocket. An Associated Press analysis of the footage's details showed that it took place at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran's rural Semnan province. State TV named the launched satellites Mahda, Kayhan-2 and Hatef-1. It described the Mahda as a research satellite, while the Kayhan and the Hatef were nanosatellites focused on global positioning and communication respectively. There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, another satellite-carrying rocket. The Simorgh, or "Phoenix," rocket failures have been part of a series of setbacks in recent years for Iran's civilian space program, including fatal fires and a launchpad rocket explosion that drew the attention of former U.S. President Donald Trump. The United States has previously said Iran's satellite launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution and called on Tehran to undertake no activity involving ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. U.N. sanctions related to Iran's ballistic missile program expired last October. The U.S. intelligence community's 2023 worldwide threat assessment said the development of satellite launch vehicles "shortens the timeline" for Iran to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile because it uses similar technology. The U.S. military and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, the U.S. military has quietly acknowledged a successful Iranian satellite launch from January 20 conducted by the country's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

George Carlin Estate Sues Over Fake Comedy Special Purportedly Generated by AI

Fri, 01/26/2024 - 16:52
LOS ANGELES — The estate of George Carlin has filed a lawsuit against the media company behind a fake hour-long comedy special that purportedly uses artificial intelligence to recreate the late standup comic's style and material.  The lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles on Thursday asks that a judge order the podcast outlet, Dudesy, to immediately take down the audio special, "George Carlin: I'm Glad I'm Dead," in which a synthesis of Carlin, who died in 2008, delivers commentary on current events. Carlin's daughter, Kelly Carlin, said in a statement that the work is "a poorly-executed facsimile cobbled together by unscrupulous individuals to capitalize on the extraordinary goodwill my father established with his adoring fanbase."  The Carlin estate and its executor, Jerold Hamza, are named as plaintiffs in the suit, which alleges violations of Carlin's right of publicity and copyright. The named defendants are Dudesy and podcast hosts Will Sasso and Chad Kultgen.  "None of the Defendants had permission to use Carlin's likeness for the AI-generated 'George Carlin Special,' nor did they have a license to use any of the late comedian's copyrighted materials," the lawsuit says.  The defendants have not filed a response to the lawsuit and it was not clear whether they have retained an attorney. They could not immediately be reached for comment.  At the beginning of the special posted on YouTube on January 9, a voiceover identifying itself as the AI engine used by Dudesy says it listened to the comic's 50 years of material and "did my best to imitate his voice, cadence and attitude as well as the subject matter I think would have interested him today."  The plaintiffs say if that was in fact how it was created — and some listeners have doubted its stated origins — it means Carlin's copyright was violated.  The company, as it often does on similar projects, also released a podcast episode with Sasso and Kultgen introducing and commenting on the mock Carlin.  "What we just listened to, was that passable," Kultgen says in a section of the episode cited in the lawsuit.  "Yeah, that sounded exactly like George Carlin," Sasso responds.  The lawsuit is among the first in what is likely to be an increasing number of major legal moves made to fight the regenerated use of celebrity images and likenesses.  The AI issue was a major sticking point in the resolution of last year's Hollywood writers and actors strikes.  Josh Schiller, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the "case is not just about AI, it's about the humans that use AI to violate the law, infringe on intellectual property rights, and flout common decency." 

US Agencies Warn of Security Risks from Chinese Drones

Fri, 01/26/2024 - 14:57
Chinese-made drones dominate the global market and are used widely by government agencies inside the United States. As Matt Dibble reports, US cybersecurity watchdogs warn that using those drones come with risks.

Central Asia Seen as Key to Breaking China's Rare Earth Monopoly

Thu, 01/25/2024 - 23:50
WASHINGTON — U.S. officials hoping to break China's near monopoly on the production of rare earth elements needed for many cutting-edge technologies should engage the governments of Central Asia to develop high concentrations of REEs found in the region, says a new report.  The study by the U.S.-based International Tax and Investment Center warns that a failure to act could leave China with a "decisive advantage" in the sector, which is crucial to green energy, many new weapons systems and other advanced technologies.  "As the uses for these minerals has expanded, so too has global competition for them in a time of sharply increasing geostrategic and geo-economic tension," the report says.  "Advanced economies with secure, reliable access to REEs enjoy economic advantages in manufacturing, and corresponding economic disadvantages accrue for those without this access."  China, which accounts for most of the world's rare earth mining within its own borders, has not yet had to seek additional supplies from Central Asia, which enjoys plentiful reserves of minerals ranging from iron and nonferrous metals to uranium.  But, the report says, "the massive size of the Chinese economy and the Chinese Communist Party's conscious efforts to dominate the REE sector globally mean such increases are a matter of time."   Oil-rich Kazakhstan, the region's economic giant, holds the world's largest chromium reserves and the second-largest stocks of uranium, while also possessing other critical elements.   Report co-author Ariel Cohen says it is up to the governments of Central Asia to create the investment climate for development of these resources.    "They may be the next big thing in Central Asia as the engine of economic growth," Cohen said this week during a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.   Across Central Asia, experts note, REEs are found in substantial volumes in the Kazakh steppe and uplands as well as in the Tien Shan mountains across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan.   Monazite, zircon, apatite, xenotime, pyrochlore, allanite and columbite are among Central Asia's most abundant rare metals and minerals.   In 2016, the U.S. Geological Survey listed 384 REE occurrences in the region: 160 in Kazakhstan, 87 in Uzbekistan, 75 in Kyrgyzstan, 60 in Tajikistan, and two in Turkmenistan. Wesley Hill, another expert on Central Asia's mineral reserves, says production of rare earths at present "is almost wholly monopolized by China."   "Depending on how you count, between 80 to 90% of REE refining is controlled by China and done directly inside of China," Hill said.    But, he argued, despite China's heavy involvement in Central Asia, it has yet to fully take over the region's rare earth sector. "So, this means that Central Asia is very much at a crossroads,” he said. “Central Asia has the opportunity to expand its REE production without being wholly dependent on China."  Central Asia is currently in a position where it can develop its REE refining capacities both for its national development strategies and to break the Chinese monopoly, Hill said.   "But this is only going to happen with good policy, both from the American side and the Central Asian side."   Ambassador John Herbst, Washington's former top diplomat in Uzbekistan and Ukraine, says the region's REE assets are "simply another reason for enhanced engagement by the West."  He said he is not sure that Central Asian governments appreciate how important rare earths can be to their development. "But I do know that the countries of Central Asia want a closer relationship with the United States, and that is one important part of their maintaining their hard-won independence."  Herbst added that the United States and Central Asia have a common interest in working together to develop the region's rare earths "for the economy of the future."  "We have an ability to innovate that far exceeds [China's]. Their innovation is based largely on taking our technology." Suriya Evans-Pritchard Jayanti, who serves as energy transition counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce, says the region is eager for investment.  "It is a development opportunity. Particularly with the geostrategic energy realignment after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also, because of the energy transition. Lithium and other REE are necessary for different parts of that transition. So that's primarily an economic incentive," she said.  She pointed to the Mineral Strategic Partnership Initiative run by the U.S. State Department's Bureau on Energy Resources, which is able to promote foreign direct investment in the region while providing technical assistance in the mining sector.  Cohen said the Central Asian countries cannot wait long to develop their rare earths. "There is a competition, and the African countries, Latin American countries and others will compete increasingly."   Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, who heads a consultancy called Second Floor Strategies, says Central Asia needs a rare earth research center that can provide timely information to prospective customers and investors.   Transportation is key, Sanchez said. "It's not just about finding and mining them. You have to get them to the international market."   Access from the landlocked region at present is limited to China's Belt and Road infrastructure or routes through Russia. Sanchez and others recommend using the Middle Corridor, also called the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, which can carry goods to Europe across the Caspian and Black seas.   These experts also say progress will depend on regional governments overcoming their traditional secretiveness regarding natural resources. They emphasize the importance of transparency, the rule of law, adherence to best practices and compliance with international norms if they hope to attract Western investment.

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