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

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

French Startup Launches Hydrogen-powered Bicyles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, 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 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 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.