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First Turkish Astronaut Arrives at International Space Station

Thu, 01/25/2024 - 20:47
Turkey makes space history. Plus, the 20th anniversary of twin rovers on Mars, and a flood of news for future missions to the Red Planet. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

‘Moon Sniper’ Nailed the Landing, Japan’s Space Agency Says

Thu, 01/25/2024 - 08:22
TOKYO — Japan's "Moon Sniper" craft landed around 55 meters from its target, the country's space agency said Thursday as it released the first images from the mission. The unmanned Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), dubbed the "Moon Sniper" for its pin-point technology, had the goal of touching down within 100 meters of a specific landing spot. That is much more precise than the usual landing zone of several kilometers. "SLIM succeeded in a pin-point soft landing ... the landing point is confirmed to be 55 meters away from the target point," space agency JAXA said. Saturday's soft lunar landing made Japan the fifth nation to achieve the feat, after the United States, Soviet Union, China and India. But celebrations were muted because of a problem with the lightweight spacecraft's solar batteries, which were not generating power. JAXA decided to switch the craft off with 12% of its power remaining, to allow for a possible recovery when the sun's angle changes. "If sunlight hits the moon from the west in the future, we believe there's a possibility of power generation, and we're currently preparing for restoration," JAXA said earlier this week. Before switching SLIM off, mission control was able to download technical and image data from the craft's descent and the lunar surface. On Thursday, JAXA published the first color images from the mission, showing the SLIM craft sitting intact at a slight angle on the rocky, gray surface, lunar slopes rising in the distance. The mission was aiming for a crater where the moon's mantle, the usually deep inner layer beneath its crust, is believed to be exposed on the surface. By analyzing the rocks there, JAXA hopes to shed light on the mystery of the moon's possible water resources, key to building bases there one day as possible stopovers on the way to Mars. Two probes detached successfully from SLIM on Saturday: one with a transmitter and another designed to trundle around the lunar surface beaming images to Earth. This shape-shifting mini-rover, slightly bigger than a tennis ball, was co-developed by the firm behind the Transformer toys and took the picture released by JAXA on Thursday. SLIM is one of several recent lunar missions by governments and private firms, 50 years after the first human moon landing. But technical problems are rife, and the United States faced two setbacks this month in its ambitious moon programs. Two previous Japanese lunar missions, one public and one private, have also failed. In 2022, the country unsuccessfully sent a lunar probe named Omotenashi as part of the United States' Artemis 1 mission. In April, Japanese startup ispace tried in vain to become the first private company to land on the Moon, losing communication with its craft after what it described as a "hard landing."

EU Tools Up to Protect Key Tech From China

Wed, 01/24/2024 - 16:46
BRUSSELS — The European Union on Wednesday unveiled plans to strengthen the bloc's economic security, including measures to protect sensitive technology from falling into the hands of geopolitical rivals such as China.  Brussels has bolstered its armory of trade restrictions to tackle what it deems to be risks to European economic security, following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and global trade tensions.  The fallout from the war in Ukraine hit Europe particularly hard, forcing the bloc to find alternative energy sources. Now, it wants to avoid a similar over-reliance on China, which dominates in green technology production and critical raw materials.  On Wednesday, EU officials outlined an economic security package containing five initiatives, including toughening rules on the screening of foreign direct investment and launching discussions on coordination around export controls.  The EU has already proposed new rules that it says are necessary to keep the bloc competitive during the global transition to clean technology and to bring more production to Europe.  "In this competition, Europe cannot just be the playground for bigger players, we need to be able to play ourselves," said the EU's most senior competition official, Margrethe Vestager.  "By doing what we are proposing to do, we can de-risk our economic interdependencies," she told reporters in Brussels.  Wednesday's package is part of the EU's focus on de-risking but not decoupling from China, pushed strongly by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.  "The change in EU-China relations has been the driving force of this embrace of economic security, which is something extremely new for the EU," said Mathieu Duchatel, director of international studies at the Institut Montaigne think tank.  “Focus on riskier transactions”  EU officials also pushed back on claims that the package had been watered down and that some of the initiatives would kick in too late.  One of the initiatives is to revise the EU's regulation on screening foreign direct investment, but others recommend further discussions, raising concerns that action could come too late.  For example, the commission said it wanted to promote further discussions on how to better support research and development of technologies that can be used for civil and defense purposes.  The EU also wants all member states to establish screening mechanisms, which could later lead to investments being blocked if they are believed to pose a risk.  "I would not agree that the package is watered down," the EU's trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, said.  He later said the EU wanted "to focus on riskier transactions and spend less time and resources on low-risk ones."  The negotiations are likely to prove a delicate balancing act for the commission. Investment and export control decisions are up to national governments; therefore, it must avoid overstepping its mark. 

New Electric Bikes Accelerate Clean Transport in Africa

Wed, 01/24/2024 - 15:54
With the growing concern over greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for climate change, a Kenyan-Dutch company is introducing electric bikes in sub-Saharan Africa for deliveries in urban areas to help reduce emissions. The transport sector plays a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the effects of global warming. Juma Majanga reports from Nairobi. Camera: Amos Wangwa     

Green Energy Expected to Cover Growth in Demand for Electricity

Wed, 01/24/2024 - 09:53
Paris — Power generated from low-emissions sources, such as wind, solar and nuclear, will be adequate to meet growth in global demand for the next three years, the International Energy Agency said, adding that emissions from the power sector are on the decline. Following record growth, electricity generation from low-emissions sources will account for almost half of the world's power by 2026, up from less than 40% in 2023, the IEA said in report on Wednesday. Renewables are expected to overtake coal by early 2025, accounting for more than a third of total electricity generation, the report said. Nuclear power is also forecast to reach a record globally as French output continues to recover from lows in 2022, several plants in Japan come back online and new reactors begin operations in markets including China, India, Korea and Europe. Electricity demand is expected to rise on average by 3.4% from 2024 through 2026 with about 85% of demand growth seen coming from China, India and southeast Asia, after growth eased slightly to 2.2% in 2023, IEA data showed. Over this period, China is expected to account for the largest share of the global increase in electricity demand in terms of volume, despite a forecast for slower economic growth and a lower reliance on heavy industry, the report said. Meanwhile, global emissions are expected to decrease by 2.4% in 2024, followed by smaller declines in 2025 and 2026, the report said. "The decoupling of global electricity demand and emissions would be significant given the energy sector's increasing electrification, with more consumers using technologies such as electric vehicles and heat pumps," the report said. Electricity accounted for 2% more of final energy consumption in 2023 from 2015 levels, though reaching climate goals would require electrification to advance significantly faster in coming years, the IEA said.

AI Audience Row at Sundance Sparks Walkout, Highlights Division

Wed, 01/24/2024 - 04:06
Park City, Utah — An audience member was ejected from a Sundance festival event Tuesday in a spat over artificial intelligence, triggering a walkout that illustrates the divisions the technology has rapidly wrought in the film industry. AI — a key driver of the recent and devastating Hollywood strikes — has been debated extensively at this year's indie movie festival in Utah. Filmmakers have experimented with using the technology as a creative tool, while also cautioning about its potential to erase jobs and stifle human expression and connection. At a Tuesday screening of "Being (The Digital Griot)," in which audience members were encouraged to approach the screen and discuss issues like racism and the patriarchy with an AI bot, an audience member appeared to shout profanity about AI. "I'm not here to be cursed out and I'm not going to have my AI child be cursed out either," responded the film's creator, artist Rashaad Newsome, refusing to participate in a post-screening Q&A until action was taken. Festival staff forced the woman who had apparently yelled to leave the auditorium, prompting jeers. Roughly a quarter of the auditorium walked out in solidarity, with some complaining that debate was being shut down and others insisting the lady expelled had not been the actual culprit. Sundance organizers told AFP they were "looking into" the incident and "reviewing all available material to determine what happened so that corrective actions can be taken." But the incident highlighted long-brewing and sharply escalating tensions triggered by the issue of AI in the film world -- something that this year's Sundance lineup was specifically programmed to address. ‘Scary’ In addition to "Being," the Sundance indie festival has hosted "Eternal You" and "Love Machina," two documentaries about loved ones using AI to communicate after death. Another film, "Eno," explored musician Brian Eno's career and creative process, using a "generative engine" to mesh together near-infinite different versions of a film from hundreds of possible scenes. AI was also addressed on the fiction side by films like "Love Me," starring Kristen Stewart, which imagined a romance between an AI-powered buoy and a satellite in a post-human world. "Love Machina" director Peter Sillen told AFP that AI could soon mean that making a film will be a similar process to writing a novel. "You're going to be able to have somebody who's sitting in their room create a masterpiece of filmmaking, probably," he said.    The idea was "hard and scary" but "interesting," Sillen said, concluding: "I think you have to be open to it." "Eternal You" director Hans Block pointed out that AI is already widely used in movies -- indeed, the Adobe software he used to edit the film is "full of AI" and "helped us as a tool a lot." "It's so much more easy to make a film nowadays," he said. But Block said that while AI can help as a tool, it is important to debate what harm could be caused if the technology is not regulated. "That's why we are so happy to present the film right now, because it's a perfect time to open the debate about these discussions," he said.  ‘Human touch’ The danger that AI could replace screenwriters, actors and other professions was a key sticking point in last year's Hollywood strikes, with unions holding out for guarantees from studios that they would not be replaced. The encroachment of AI has sparked resolutely negative reactions from many filmmakers at Sundance. Anirban Dutta, co-director of "Nocturnes," an experiential documentary about scientists studying moths in the eastern Himalayas, said his movie is "a response to what's happening to this world where all our human instincts are being mechanized." "Our film is a love letter to invite people to come back to what we are losing... human touch," he said. The woman who was thrown out of the "Being" screening, who has not been identified, was making a similar point before chaos erupted. "As interesting as this (film) is... all of the knowledge it has comes from people," she said.

Nigerian Startups See Rough Financing Road Ahead

Sat, 01/20/2024 - 09:03
ABUJA, NIGERIA     — Nigeria's tech startups are facing reluctance from investors, stemming from the shutdown of some prominent young companies last year. Kingsley Eze co-runs Nairaxi, an e-Commerce, on-demand logistics startup in Abuja, Nigeria's capital. Despite its record of handling tens of thousands of successful requests, the firm has been largely funded by Eze, as well as family and friends.  Eze told VOA that even though he is ready for expansion, it has been difficult to secure financing, amid the tales of failing startups in the country.  "It's been very difficult to raise funds, investors are cautious, the interest rate hikes in the Western economy is also a contributing factor to that, coupled with a lot of disappointing or not so good outings for a few startups that were like a beacon of hope for the Nigerian startup ecosystem," said Eze. Nigeria has been leading growth in African startups. Nevertheless, the sector faced a significant blow in 2023. Prominent startups such as 54Gene, Lazerpay, Vibra, Payday, and Hytch went out of business — largely over their inability to raise more capital to keep the companies running — losing more than $70 million of foreign investors' funds.  Abuja-based economist and investment expert Paul Alaje told VOA he blames the collapses on neglect of business principles.  "Assumption is the major bane to startup development in Africa, especially Nigeria," said Alaje. "That the idea worked at first and is technology-driven does not mean the fundamentals of traditional business or a growing business, economic principles behind traditional business, should be neglected when it comes to startups."  A recent report by Briter Bridges, a London-based business intelligence and research firm, showed a 54% drop in funding for startups between January and October of last year in Africa compared to the same period in 2022.  Eze said he believes this will make it even harder to navigate the funding terrain.    "The last statistics we had projected a 60% failure rate for Nigerian startup companies which is not a good bet for most investors," said Eze. "When everyone is succeeding in the market, it encourages more investors."  Alaje said Nigeria's business ecosystem needs an overhaul.  ((ACT Paul Alaje, Senior Economist (Male, in English) ))  "Change policy, bring new policies that make it difficult for people who don't have an idea regarding how business should be properly run," said Alaje. "Two, show examples of people who got it correctly, including Paystack. We need to become more deliberate at all levels."  Paystack, a successful Nigerian payment processing company, was acquired by an Irish-American company for $200 million in 2020.  According to venture capitalists in Nigeria, poor infrastructure, lack of accountability by business owners, and the foreign exchange crisis aided the collapse of many startups.  For his part, Eze said he will continue to build his business from the revenues it generates. 

US Lawmakers Push for Limits on American Investment in China Tech

Wed, 01/17/2024 - 20:26
Capitol Hill — U.S. lawmakers renewed calls Wednesday to pass bipartisan legislation that would restrict American investment in Chinese technology. “It should come as no surprise that China's military and surveillance state are exploiting loopholes in U.S. policy to access billions of U.S. investment dollars and expertise. We know that U.S. investment has not democratized China and countries which are controlled by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] have no power over the applications of their technology. The CCP can direct it to us for military or surveillance purposes,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said at a hearing on the legislation Wednesday.  The bill – which has support from both conservative organizations and the Biden administration – was not included in the National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA passed late last year. Republican Senator John Cornyn has sponsored companion legislation in the U.S. Senate that passed with more than ninety votes.  Lawmakers hope it can still be passed individually and signed into law.   If passed, McCaul said the measure, H.R. 6349, would target “specific technology sectors, like AI [artificial intelligence] and quantum computing, that are empowering China’s military development and surveillance.”  Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said an executive order issued by the Biden administration last August “that calls for provisions and notification requirements of specific types of American investments in China, or in certain companies that develop or produce semiconductors, quantum computers, and artificial intelligence applications” is an important first step.  But experts in U.S.-China relations told a House panel more could be done.  “Congress has an opportunity to build on the initial steps taken by the Trump and Biden administrations to prevent U.S. capital from fueling China’s military and intelligence capabilities. First, Washington should take a sectoral rather than merely an entity-based approach. The Treasury Department has demonstrated since at least 2021 that it is disinterested in using even its existing narrow authorities to limit investment in Chinese military-linked companies. And in fairness to the Treasury Department tackling the problem on a company-by-company basis would be a resource-intensive and gargantuan task,” Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser during the Trump administration, said Wednesday.  “We still haven't learned that they will do everything they can to take anything we sell, particularly in the area of electronics and really high tech, and use it for the military. They've been doing that for decades. We don't learn. We think somehow if you trade more, they'll matriculate from dictatorship to democracy,” Republican Rep. Chris Smith said Wednesday. The bipartisan push in the U.S. House comes as Senate negotiators continue work on the White House’s $106 billion national security supplemental request that includes funding to combat Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. Citing a border security crisis, Senate Republicans have sought changes to U.S. immigration law in return for their votes to pass more than $50 billion in assistance to Ukraine that is also part of the Biden administration’s request.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged lawmakers Wednesday to reach an agreement soon.  “It’s become quite fashionable in Washington to talk about how we’re not taking competition with China seriously enough,” McConnell said. “Winning this competition means credibly deterring Beijing’s worst impulses, which, for us, means investing in American strength. Outcompeting the PRC [People's Republic of China] will require greater investments in our military capabilities and in our industrial capacity to produce them. The West cannot be caught unprepared for this challenge. We cannot afford to neglect the lessons of history.” 

Australia Outlines Plan to Manage the Rise of Artificial Intelligence

Wed, 01/17/2024 - 09:29
sydney — The Australian government is considering new laws to regulate the use of artificial intelligence in “high-risk” areas such as law enforcement and self-driving vehicles. Voluntary measures also are being explored, such as asking companies to label AI-generated content. The country has outlined its plan to respond to the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, or AI. Under the Canberra government's plan announced Wednesday, safeguards would be applied to technologies that predict the chances of someone again committing a crime, or that analyze job applications to find a well-matched candidate. Australian officials have said that new laws could also mandate that organizations using high-risk AI must ensure a person is responsible for the safe use of the technology. The Canberra government also wants to minimize restrictions on low-risk areas of AI to allow their growth to continue. An expert advisory committee will be set up to help the government to prepare legislation. Ed Husic is Australia’s federal minister for industry and science. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. On Wednesday that he wants AI-generated content to be labeled so it can't be mistaken as genuine. “We need to have confidence that what we are seeing we know exactly if it is organic or real content, or if it has been created by an AI system.  And, so, industry is just as keen to work with government on how to create that type of labeling," he said. "More than anything else, I am not worried about the robots taking over, I’m worried about disinformation doing that. We need to ensure that when people are creating content that it is clear that AI has had a role or a hand to play in that.” Kate Pounder, the head of the Tech Council of Australia, which represents the technology sector, told local media that the government's AI proposals strike a sensible balance between fostering innovation and ensuring systems are developed safely. The Australian Parliament defines artificial intelligence as “an engineered system that generates predictive outputs such as content, forecasts, recommendations…without explicit programming.” Recent research shows that most Australians still distrust the technology, which they see as unsafe and prone to errors.  

Robotic Restaurant Opening in California

Mon, 01/15/2024 - 16:58
An automated restaurant is opening this month in Pasadena, California. CaliExpress will be serviced by robots that make food in the kitchen and AI that takes clients’ orders. The only job humans will still need to do is assemble and pack the food. Angelina Bagdasaryan has the story, narrated by Anna Rice. Camera: Vazgen Varzhabetian

At CES, Connected Devices Are Becoming More Discreet and Invisible

Fri, 01/12/2024 - 05:20
An estimated 130,000 people have descended on Las Vegas for CES 2024, the consumer technology show that attracts big and small companies alike. VOA’s Tina Trinh met with some of the more than 4,000 exhibitors for a look at emerging trends in artificial intelligence, digital health and more. Camera: Tina Trinh

AI-Powered Misinformation Is World's Biggest Short-Term Threat, Davos Report Says 

Wed, 01/10/2024 - 14:40
London — False and misleading information supercharged with cutting-edge artificial intelligence that threatens to erode democracy and polarize society is the top immediate risk to the global economy, the World Economic Forum said in a report Wednesday. In its latest Global Risks Report, the organization also said an array of environmental risks pose the biggest threats in the longer term. The report was released ahead of the annual elite gathering of CEOs and world leaders in the Swiss ski resort town of Davos and is based on a survey of nearly 1,500 experts, industry leaders and policymakers. The report listed misinformation and disinformation as the most severe risk over the next two years, highlighting how rapid advances in technology also are creating new problems or making existing ones worse. The authors worry that the boom in generative AI chatbots like ChatGPT means that creating sophisticated synthetic content that can be used to manipulate groups of people won't be limited any longer to those with specialized skills. AI is set to be a hot topic next week at the Davos meetings, which are expected to be attended by tech company bosses including OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and AI industry players like Meta's chief AI scientist, Yann LeCun. AI-powered misinformation and disinformation is emerging as a risk just as a billions of people in a slew of countries, including large economies like the United States, Britain, Indonesia, India, Mexico, and Pakistan, are set to head to the polls this year and next, the report said. "You can leverage AI to do deepfakes and to really impact large groups, which really drives misinformation," said Carolina Klint, a risk management leader at Marsh, whose parent company Marsh McLennan co-authored the report with Zurich Insurance Group. "Societies could become further polarized" as people find it harder to verify facts, she said. Fake information also could be used to fuel questions about the legitimacy of elected governments, "which means that democratic processes could be eroded, and it would also drive societal polarization even further," Klint said. The rise of AI brings a host of other risks, she said. It can empower "malicious actors" by making it easier to carry out cyberattacks, such as by automating phishing attempts or creating advanced malware. With AI, "you don't need to be the sharpest tool in the shed to be a malicious actor," Klint said. It can even poison data that is scraped off the internet to train other AI systems, which is "incredibly difficult to reverse" and could result in further embedding biases into AI models, she said. The other big global concern for respondents of the risk survey centered around climate change. Following disinformation and misinformation, extreme weather is the second-most-pressing short-term risk. In the long term — defined as 10 years — extreme weather was described as the No. 1 threat, followed by four other environmental-related risks: critical change to Earth systems; biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; and natural resource shortages. "We could be pushed past that irreversible climate change tipping point" over the next decade as the Earth's systems undergo long-term changes, Klint said.

Cyber 'Kidnapping' Scams Target Chinese Students Around the World

Tue, 01/09/2024 - 21:05
WASHINGTON — A recent cyber kidnapping incident involving a Chinese exchange student in Utah appears to be part of an international pattern in which unknown perpetrators, often masquerading as Chinese police or government officials, target Chinese students around the world and extort their families for upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. In late December, 17-year-old Chinese student Kai Zhuang was reported missing near Salt Lake City, only to be found days later alone and freezing in a tent in the mountains. Authorities have said the case was part of an apparent cyber kidnapping scheme to scam his family in China out of $80,000. Cyber kidnapping is when perpetrators pretend to have abducted someone to coerce their family into paying a ransom. “At the heart of it are the heartstrings of the victim, who is told to go run and hide, and the heartstrings of the people who think their loved one is actually in the possession of kidnappers,” said Theresa Payton, CEO of cybersecurity company Fortalice Solutions. “Virtual kidnapping is, at its very root, manipulative. It is coercive. It is emotionally draining and complex,” said Payton, who is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. On January 3, just days after Kai Zhuang was found, the FBI issued a warning about criminals impersonating Chinese police officers to defraud Chinese people based in the United States, especially Chinese students. Around the world VOA has learned that the cyber scams aren’t targeting only Chinese students studying in the United States. Over the past year, Chinese students studying abroad in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan have also been targeted by cyber kidnapping scams and other cybercrime schemes, VOA found. In these countries, the perpetrators also often pretended to be Chinese police officers or government officials. Cybersecurity experts said this tactic indicates criminals are leveraging China’s authoritarian system, in which deference to and fear of the police are the norm, to their advantage. “Chinese people are naturally afraid of the police,” said Han Jiang Du Diao Seng, a pharmacist based in the United States who runs accounts on YouTube and Weibo that are popular among Chinese exchange students. Han Jiang Du Diao Seng has helped four Chinese students caught up in cyber kidnapping scams, he said. In his experience, he said, scammers posing as government officials tend to approach Chinese students and first ask if they recently received money from their family in China. If the student says yes, he said, the scammer either claims the money was transferred illegally or that their family is being targeted by criminals, before requiring the student to halt contact with their family during an investigation — all of which is a ploy to then extort money from the family. Left their homes In the incidents Han Jiang Du Diao Seng worked on, he said, the criminals coerced all the students to leave where they lived and go stay at a hotel, which helped convince their parents that they were actually kidnapped. He said that these criminals may be taking advantage of the fact that Chinese parents may be less likely to report the incidents to American police — in part due to language barriers but also due to general distrust among Chinese people of the American police. Chinese state media regularly depict American police as violent and irresponsible. “You have a fear of government involvement and law enforcement involvement because the relationship to the government is different,” cybersecurity expert Joseph Steinberg said, referring to people from authoritarian countries such as China. There is no clear data on the number of cyber kidnapping cases in the United States or around the world, cybersecurity experts told VOA, but incidents seem to be rising. Technological advancements, particularly with artificial intelligence, risk making the schemes even easier to perpetrate, they said. There are different tiers of sophistication in these cybercrime syndicates, according to Payton. At the lower end, perpetrators may use an auto dialer to target random people in hopes of getting a few hundred dollars, she said. More sophisticated schemes At the upper end, perpetrators use artificial intelligence algorithms to identify targets and deepfake technology to create photos and audio intended to make victims believe their loved one has actually been kidnapped, Payton said. “You do not actually have to be technically minded to get into this type of crime. You just have to be a twisted, evil individual,” she said. AI advancements mean perpetrators don’t even need to speak the same language as their victims, according to Steinberg, who is based in New York City. “AI is only going to get better, and that means that the attacks will only be more and more realistic,” he told VOA. Some cybercriminals are just after a quick buck, Steinberg said. “But you have some that are after the big dollars and will spend the time to do the research,” he said. That may help explain why Chinese exchange students apparently are being specifically targeted. Payton said that given the complex relationship between the Chinese government and its citizens, as well as other factors such as culture, history and economics, “it is conceivable that global criminal syndicates engaging in such activities as virtual kidnapping may perceive young Chinese adults studying abroad as more susceptible to fall prey to this crime,” Payton said. In Canada in February 2023, regional police said Chinese students had been swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by scammers claiming to be Chinese government officials. Similar incidents have played out in Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. It is not clear whether the perpetrators of any of these crimes are linked in any way. The investigation into the recent Utah incident is ongoing, and it is not clear whether the perpetrators imitated Chinese officials. China’s embassy in Washington did not respond to that question when VOA reached out for comment. Warnings from embassies and police The embassy did urge Chinese citizens in the U.S., especially those studying in the country, to boost safety awareness, take necessary precautions, and stay vigilant against "virtual kidnapping" and other forms of telecom and online fraud. In the span of two months in Japan last summer, at least six Chinese students were targeted in cyber kidnapping schemes, local police said. The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo issued a warning about the scams in August, urging Chinese citizens in the country to “be wary” and “vigilant.” Local British police issued a warning about cyber scams targeting Chinese students in September, and the Australian government released a similar warning a month later. “These criminal syndicates demonstrate a profound understanding of human behavior, potentially leveraging fear tactics to manipulate individuals into compliance and their families into making payments. They are targeting all demographics, but the trend appears to indicate they favor targeting Chinese exchange students studying abroad,” Payton said. To avoid falling victim to these kinds of schemes, cybersecurity experts recommended families set up a password to verify one another’s identity over the phone during these kinds of scenarios. “The cyber kidnapping scam very much can happen to anybody, and that’s what people need to be aware of,” Steinberg said.

US Delays Planned Return of Astronauts to Moon Until 2026

Tue, 01/09/2024 - 20:59
washington — The United States is pushing back its planned return of astronauts to the surface of the Moon from 2025 to 2026, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Tuesday. Artemis, named after the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, was officially announced in 2017 as part of the US space agency's plans to establish a sustained presence on Earth's nearest space neighbor, and apply lessons learned there for a future mission to Mars. Its first mission, an uncrewed test flight to the Moon and back called Artemis 1, took place in 2022, after several postponements. Artemis 2, involving a crew that doesn't land on the surface, has been postponed from later this year to September 2025, Nelson told reporters. Artemis 3, in which the first woman and first person of color are to set foot on lunar soil at the Moon's south pole, should now take place in September 2026. "Safety is our top priority, and to give Artemis teams more time to work through the challenges," said Nelson. NASA is also looking to build a lunar space station called Gateway where spacecraft will dock during later missions. Elon Musk's SpaceX has won the contract for a landing system for Artemis 3 based on a version of its prototype Starship rocket, which remains far from ready. Both of its orbital tests have ended in explosions. Delays to Starship have knock-on effects because the spacesuit contractor needs to know how the suits will interface with the spacecraft, and simulators need to be built for astronauts to learn its systems. And the Artemis 1 mission itself revealed technical issues, such as the heat shield on the Orion crew capsule eroded in an unexpected way, and the ground structure used to launch the giant SLS rocket sustained more damage than expected. As of March 2023, NASA has agreed to pay approximately $40 billion to hundreds of contractors in support of Artemis, the same watchdog found. A key difference between the 20th-century Apollo missions and the Artemis era is the increasing role of commercial partnerships, part of a broader strategy to involve the private companies in space exploration to reduce costs and to make space more accessible.

Meta Toughens Content Curbs for Teens on Instagram, Facebook

Tue, 01/09/2024 - 18:06
Washington — Meta on Tuesday said it was tightening up content restrictions for teens on Instagram and Facebook as it faces increased scrutiny that its platforms are harmful for young people.  The changes come months after dozens of U.S. states accused Meta of damaging the mental health of children and teens, and misleading users about the safety of its platforms.  In a blog post, the company run by Mark Zuckerberg said it will now "restrict teens from seeing certain types of content across Facebook and Instagram even if it's from friends or people they follow."  This type of content would include content that discusses suicide or self-harm, as well as nudity or mentions of restricted goods, the company added.  Restricted goods on Instagram include tobacco products and weapons as well as alcohol, contraception, cosmetic procedures and weight loss programs, according to its website.  In addition, teens will now be defaulted into the most restricted settings on Instagram and Facebook, a policy that was in place for new users and that now will be expanded to existing users.  This will "make it more difficult for people to come across potentially sensitive content or accounts in places like Search and Explore," the company said.  Meta also said that it will expand its policy of hiding results to searches related to suicide and self harm to include more terms. Leaked internal research from Meta, including by the Wall Street Journal and whistle-blower Frances Haugen, has shown that the company was long aware of dangers its platforms have on the mental health for young people. On the platforms, teens are defined as being under eighteen, based on the date of birth they give when signing up. 

First US Lunar Lander In More Than 50 Years Rockets Toward Moon With Commercial Deliveries

Mon, 01/08/2024 - 01:50
Cape Canaveral, Florida — The first U.S. lunar lander in more than 50 years rocketed toward the moon Monday, launching private companies on a space race to make deliveries for NASA and other customers. Astrobotic Technology's lander caught a ride on a brand new rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan. The Vulcan streaked through the Florida predawn sky, putting the spacecraft on a roundabout route to the moon that should culminate with an attempted landing on Feb. 23. The Pittsburgh company aims to be the first private business to successfully land on the moon, something only four countries have accomplished. But a Houston company also has a lander ready to fly, and could beat it to the lunar surface, taking a more direct path. “First to launch. First to land is TBD" — to be determined, said Astrobotic chief executive John Thornton. NASA gave the two companies millions to build and fly their own lunar landers. The space agency wants the privately owned landers to scope out the place before astronauts arrive while delivering NASA tech and science experiments as well as odds and ends for other customers. Astrobotic's contract for the Peregrine lander: $108 million. The last time the U.S. launched a moon-landing mission was in December 1972. Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became the 11th and 12th men to walk on the moon, closing out an era that has remained NASA’s pinnacle. The space agency’s new Artemis program — named after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology — looks to return astronauts to the moon’s surface within the next few years. First will be a lunar fly-around with four astronauts, possibly before the end of the year. Highlighting Monday's moonshot was the long-delayed initial test flight of the Vulcan rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The 61-meter rocket is essentially an upgraded version of ULA’s hugely successful workhorse Atlas V, which is being phased out along with the company’s Delta IV. Jeff Bezos' rocket company, Blue Origin, provided the Vulcan's two main engines. The Soviet Union and the U.S. racked up a string of successful moon landings in the 1960s and 70s, before putting touchdowns on pause. China joined the elite club in 2013 and India in 2023. But last year also saw landers from Russia and a private Japanese company slam into the moon. An Israeli nonprofit crashed in 2019. Next month, SpaceX will provide the lift for a lander from Intuitive Machines. The Nova-C lander's more direct one-week route could see both spacecraft attempting to land within days or even hours of one another. The hourlong descent to the lunar surface — by far the biggest challenge — will be “exciting, nail-biting, terrifying all at once,” said Thornton. Besides flying experiments for NASA, Astrobotic drummed up its own freight business, packing the 1.9-meter-tall Peregrine lander with everything from a chip of rock from Mount Everest and toy-size cars from Mexico that will catapult to the lunar surface and cruise around, to the ashes and DNA of deceased space enthusiasts, including “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. The Navajo Nation recently sought to have the launch delayed because of the human remains, saying it would be a “profound desecration” of a celestial body revered by Native Americans. Thornton said the December objections came too late but promised to try to find “a good path forward” with the Navajo for future missions. One of the spaceflight memorial companies that bought room on the lander, Celestis, said in a statement that no single culture or religion owns the moon and should not be able to veto a mission. More remains are on the rocket’s upper stage, which, once free of the lander, will indefinitely circle the sun as far out as Mars. Cargo fares for Peregrine ranged from a few hundred dollars to $1.2 million per kilogram, not nearly enough for Astrobotic to break even. But for this first flight, that's not the point, according to Thornton. “A lot of people’s dreams and hopes are riding on this,” he said.

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