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Seeing Microscopic Creatures from Space

The oceans and lakes are full of life, and most of it is not visible to the naked eye. In most bodies of water, every cubic centimeter contains many microorganisms — bacteria, zooplankton as well as single-cell plants called phytoplankton — all of them important links in the natural food chain. Scientists are now using satellites to observe and study these tiny creatures. VOA's George Putic reports.

Facebook Launches Parent-controlled Messenger App for Kids

Facebook is coming for your kids. The social media giant is launching a messaging app for children to chat with their parents and with friends approved by their parents. The free app is aimed at kids under 13, who can't yet have their own accounts under Facebook's rules, though they often do. Messenger Kids comes with a slew of controls for parents. The service won't let children add their own friends or delete messages — only parents can do that. Kids don't get a separate Facebook or Messenger account; rather, it's an extension of a parent's account. A kids-focused experience While children do use messaging and social media apps designed for teenagers and adults, those services aren't built for them, said Kristelle Lavallee, a children's psychology expert who advised Facebook on designing the service. "The risk of exposure to things they were not developmentally prepared for is huge," she said. Messenger Kids, meanwhile, "is a result of seeing what kids like," which is images, emoji and the like. Face filters and playful masks can be distracting for adults, Lavallee said, but for kids who are just learning how to form relationships and stay in touch with parents digitally, they are ways to express themselves. Lavallee, who is content strategist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard University, called Messenger Kids a "useful tool" that "makes parents the gatekeepers." But she said that while Facebook made the app "with the best of intentions," it's not yet known how people will actually use it. As with other tools Facebook has released in the past, intentions and real-world use do not always match up. Facebook's live video streaming feature, for example, has been used for plenty of innocuous and useful things, but also to stream crimes and suicides. Hooked on Facebook Is Messenger Kids simply a way for Facebook to rope in the young ones? Stephen Balkam, CEO of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute, said "that train has left the station." Federal law prohibits internet companies from collecting personal information on kids under 13 without their parents' permission and imposes restrictions on advertising to them. This is why Facebook and many other social media companies prohibit younger kids from joining. Even so, Balkam said millions of kids under 13 are already on Facebook, with or without their parents' approval. He said Facebook is trying to deal with the situation pragmatically by steering young Facebook users to a service designed for them. Facebook said Messenger Kids won't show ads or collect data for marketing. Facebook also said it won't automatically move users to the regular Messenger or Facebook when they get old enough, though the company might give them the option to move contacts to Messenger down the line. Messenger Kids is launching Monday in the U.S. on Apple devices — the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Versions for Android and Amazon's tablets are coming later.

Seeing Microscopic Creatures from Space

The oceans and lakes are full of life and most of it is not visible to the naked eye. In most bodies of water, every cubic centimeter contains many microorganisms - bacteria, zooplankton as well as single-cell plants called phytoplankton - all of them important links in the natural food chain. Scientists are now using satellites to observe and study these tiny creatures. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Apple, Google at China Internet Fest Shows Lure of Market

The high-profile attendance of the leaders of Apple and Google at a Chinese conference promoting Beijing's vision of a censored internet highlights the dilemma for Western tech companies trying to expand in an increasingly lucrative but restricted market.   The event in Wuzhen, a historic canal town outside Shanghai, marked the first time chiefs of two of the world's biggest tech companies have attended the annual state-run World Internet Conference.   Apple CEO Tim Cook told the gathering as the conference opened Sunday that his company was proud to work with Chinese partners to build a “common future in cyberspace.”   His and Google CEO Sundar Pichai's presence along with other business leaders, diplomats and other experts, some analysts say, helped bestow credibility on Beijing's preferred version of an internet sharply at odds with Silicon Valley's dedication to unfettered access.   Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed, in remarks to the conference conveyed by an official, that “China's door to the world will never close, but will only open wider.”   As in previous years, organizers allowed attendees unrestricted access to the internet, contrary to official policy under which internet users face extensive monitoring and censorship and are blocked from accessing many overseas sites by the so-called Great Firewall of China.   Since Xi came to power in 2013, he has tightened controls and further stifled free expression, activists say.   Beijing's restraints also extend to Western companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook, which have largely been shut out from the market, leaving it to homegrown internet giants like Tencent. Apple has a large production base in China, which is one of its biggest markets, though domestic smartphone makers are catching up.   It has been criticized by some app developers for complying with Chinese censorship demands. In July, companies that let people get around the government's internet filters - known as virtual private network providers - said their programs had been removed from Apple's app store in China. One such company, ExpressVPN, said Apple was “aiding China's censorship effort.”   Apple said that China began requiring this year that developers of virtual-private networks have a government license. The California-based tech giant said it had removed apps “in China that do not meet the new regulations.” Two Apple spokeswomen couldn't be reached by phone for comment.   “The problem is that these companies are between a rock and a hard place,” said Rogier Creemers, a China researcher at Leiden University who attended the conference. They covet China's huge market but if they do make it in, as in Apple's case, local law “requires things that Western observers generally are uncomfortable with,” he said.   Cook's speech drew a big crowd. He said the company supports more than 5 million jobs in China, including 1.8 million software developers who have earned more than 112 billion yuan ($17 billion).   It's Apple's responsibility to ensure that “technology is infused with humanity,” he said, avoiding mention of any sensitive topics.   Google shut the Chinese version of its search engine in 2010 over censorship concerns. Pichai has talked about wanting to re-enter China, and he told a panel discussion in Wuzhen that small and mid-sized Chinese businesses use Google services to get their products to other countries, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. A Google spokesman declined to comment.   The tech giants may have chosen to appear at the conference because the current political climate in the United States encourages a pragmatic approach in pursuing business regardless of other concerns, said Jonathan Sullivan, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.   “There has never been a time when an American company is less likely to be called out by the White House for pursuing a business-first approach,” said Sullivan.

Facebook's Sandberg Warns of Backlash Against Women

Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is warning of a potential backlash against women and is urging companies to put into place clear policies on how allegations of sexual harassment are handled. In a Facebook post over the weekend, Sandberg that she has experienced harassment while doing her job but never by anyone she's worked for. The Facebook executive said “too many workplaces lack clear policies about how to handle accusations of sexual harassment.” She recommends every workplace start with clear principles and put in place policies to support them. That includes creating training sessions on proper workplace behavior, taking all claims seriously, establishing an investigation process and taking swift, decisive action against wrongdoing. Sandberg said she hopes the “#metoo” movement will result in a stronger, more equitable workplace.

Rwanda Ramps Up STEM Education for Girls

18-year-old secondary school student Yvonne Kevia pours a clear liquid into a burette, watching the bubbles flow down the long, glass tube. After mixing and measuring, the liquid turns bright pink. Kevia writes down measurements in her notebook. The aspiring chemical engineer has just performed a titration, but we are witnessing more here than just a simple laboratory procedure. Rwanda is making a push to equip girls for science-related careers and is creating a model for other African governments to follow. Kevia's classmate Keza Marie Aimeé is planning on becoming a pilot. Her backup plan is to be a pharmacist. “The first thing that came to my mind before choosing this school was that I wanted to live with girls who know what they want. The reason why I want to become a pilot is because we’re having just few girls that are pilots and I want to show people that yes, we can as girls,” Aimeé says. The FAWE Girls’ School, where Aimeé has been a student for the past three years, is part of a proliferation of STEM-focused schools in Rwanda over the past decade. FAWE is considered one of the best. The boarding school admits girls from impoverished backgrounds. On national exams, FAWE students overwhelming score in the top percentile. “It’s a belief of many that girls cannot perform as good as boys, but that is not correct. So believing that they have that potential of doing sciences as well as boys, I think it’s very good for them because with sciences, one can do many things,” says Pascale Dukuzi, a chemistry instructor at FAWE Girls’ school. WATCH: Girls in STEM Rwanda’s Ministry of Education reports that the number of females studying STEM in school continues to rise. The latest statistics from the Ministry of Education say in 2015, 55.1 percent of girls in secondary schools opted to enroll in science classes, up from 48.7 percent in 2011. It is no accident. The government has been on a mission to transform the economy by 2020, in part by promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields. “Africa faces a dire deficit in skilled workers in the applied sciences, engineering and technology (ASET) fields. There is one or less scientist or engineer per 10,000 people, compared with 20 to 50 in industrialized countries,” according to a 2015 World Bank report. Rwanda leads the way The World Bank cites Rwanda as one of a handful of African countries leading the way in working to boost STEM education at tertiary and vocational schools. The country came in third in a 2017 report that ranked the capacity of African governments’ agendas to developing science and technology, commenting on the government’s effective policies to encourage the expansion and development of STEM with initiatives that include establishing a science ministry, research institutions, partnering with private groups and awarding scholarships. The Ministry of Education has seen its budget climb nearly 10 percent from last year to 240.9 billion Rwandan francs [$280 million] in 2017, of which 14 percent is allocated for STEM projects, including developing “smart classrooms” equipped with computers and internet connectivity and building a building a center for theoretical physics. The government wants to double the current budget allocation for STEM education at the university level. Currently, 80 percent of students in Rwanda receiving government scholarships pursue STEM programs. When it comes to getting more girls and women into STEM, advocates say the younger, the better. Exposure to science in primary school matters. Jeannette Gahunga, who graduated from university three years ago with a degree in computer programming, is now a volunteer teacher at a public primary school in Kigali. She stands in the front of the classroom, displaying a screen to the students. They watch her and turn to their laptops to create interactive animations using scratch programming. Half the students in this classroom are girls, and Gahunga says she keeps a close eye on them. Mentorship is key to keeping girls on the STEM track.  “They're able to make innovation, and they are not as shy as before. Now they are really learning very hard. The girls in my class are doing the same as boys. They are as hardworking as others and they are following very well,” Gahunga says. Cultural and historic barriers are still a challenge. Girls and young women in Rwanda face cultural expectations to prioritize getting married and raising a family. “Culturally, African girls and women were the people to stay in the backdoors and never on the front line. So, even when education came and people embraced education, they were educating men, and women were only educated to take care of the children and that was the end of the story,” says Josephine Kobusingye, an education activist. “A serious challenge is the aftereffects of the genocide. Some of these girls are orphans. Some of them come are living with step parents who do not support their education because again, many fathers were killed during the genocide and women remarried. Some of the girls have HIV-infected parents. These girls are dealing with so much, poverty. They have my contact and they call me sometimes saying they don’t know how to keep going. Life becomes too much. But there is an array of hope with STEM and I don’t want anything to shake that hope in them. Kobusingye takes part in support group meetings in Kigali, where female science students from various schools meet to interact and talk about their professional goals. Support comes in other ways as well. On a rare visit to see her family, Yvonne Keza embraces her mother with a smile. Her mother is a domestic house helper. Her father is still recovering from being violently attacked during the 1994 genocide. Keza is the only one in school and the family is counting on her.

Luxury Car Makers Shift Gears from Sporty Sedans to SUVs

Luxury brands are switching gears at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show. Manufacturers once known for iconic sports cars are facing an identity crisis -- trying to compete with Tesla’s electric autos while still serving Americans’ love of SUVs (sport utility vehicles). Arash Arabasadi reports

Facebook Opens New London Office, to Create 800 UK Jobs

Facebook opens its new London office on Monday and said it would add 800 more jobs in the capital next year, underlining its commitment to Britain as the country prepares for Brexit. The social network said more than half of the people working at the site in central London will focus on engineering, making it Facebook's biggest engineering hub outside the United States. It will also house Facebook's first in-house start-up incubator, called LDN_LAB, designed to help kick start fledgling British digital businesses. EMEA vice president Nicola Mendelsohn said Facebook was more committed than ever to the U.K. and supporting the growth of the country's innovative start-ups. "The U.K.'s flourishing entrepreneurial ecosystem and international reputation for engineering excellence makes it one of the best places in the world to build a tech company," she said. "And we've built our company here - this country has been a huge part of Facebook's story over the past decade, and I look forward to continuing our work to achieve our mission of bringing the world closer together." The new jobs, which come 10 years after the company set up its first London office, will take Facebook's total British workforce to more than 2,300 by the end of 2018, it said. Facebook, along with other U.S. digital giants including Google and Amazon, has not been deterred from expanding in London by Britain's decision to leave the European Union. It announced the new headquarters last year, shortly after Google said it was building a new hub in the city that will be able to accommodate more than 7,000 employees in total. Facebook's new office in the capital's West End, designed by architect Frank Gehry, will house engineers, developers, marketing and sales teams working on products like Workplace, its business product which was built in London, it said.

Geologists Say Fracking Won't Solve England's Energy Problems

Fracking, at least in the U.S., has changed the country's energy outlook. It has cut the cost of fossil fuels and turned the U.S. into a net exporter of fuel. But fracking hasn't had the same effect in Britain, and geologists say the island nation's unique geology means fracking will never solve their energy problems. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Toyota Unveils a New Robot That Mimics its Operator’s Movements

Toyota Motor Corporation recently unveiled a high-tech personal assistant at the International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo. It mimics the moves of the user, which Toyota says may turn this machine into a caregiver for the elderly. Arash Arabasadi reports.

UK Warns Government Agencies not to use Kaspersky Software

Britain's cybersecurity agency has told government departments not to use antivirus software from Moscow-based firm Kaspersky Lab amid concerns about Russian snooping. Ciaran Martin, head of the National Cyber Security Centre, said "Russia is acting against the U.K.'s national interest in cyberspace." In a letter dated Friday to civil service chiefs, he said Russia seeks "to target U.K. central government and the U.K.'s critical national infrastructure." He advised that "a Russia-based provider should never be used" for systems that deal with issues related to national security. The agency said it's not advising the public at large against using Kaspersky's popular antivirus products. Martin says British authorities are holding talks with Kaspersky about developing checks to prevent the "transfer of U.K. data to the Russian state." Kaspersky has denied wrongdoing and says it doesn't assist Russian cyberespionage efforts. In September, the U.S. government barred federal agencies from using Kaspersky products because of concerns about the company's ties to the Kremlin and Russian spy operations. News reports have since linked Kaspersky software to an alleged theft of cybersecurity information from the U.S. National Security Agency. Britain has issued increasingly strong warnings about Russia's online activity. Martin said last month that Russian hackers had targeted the U.K.'s media, telecommunications and energy sectors in the past year. U.S. authorities are investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and some British lawmakers have called for a similar probe into the U.K.'s European Union membership referendum. Prime Minister Theresa May said last month that Russia was "weaponizing information" and meddling in elections to undermine the international order.

World's Largest Lithium Ion Battery Switched on in South Australia

The world's largest lithium ion battery has begun providing electricity into the power grid in South Australia.  The project is a collaboration between the state government, American firm Tesla, and Neoen, a French energy company.  Tesla boss Elon Musk, who was not in attendance at the switch-on, had boldly promised to build the battery in South Australia within 100 days - a pledge that has been fulfilled.  The 100-megawatt battery was officially activated Friday.  Musk has said it was three times more powerful than the world's next biggest battery, and promised to deliver it for free had it not been built on schedule. The South Australian state government hopes the project can prevent power outages because it can rapidly deploy electricity when it is most needed and reduce prices. Last September, South Australia suffered a state-wide power outage when storms damaged the electricity network. State premier Jay Weatherill believes the new battery will guarantee energy supplies. “People were making fun of South Australia for its leadership in renewable energy and blaming it for the black-out," said Weatherill. "That, of course, has now been debunked as a myth.  We now know that our leadership in renewable energy is not only leading the nation but leading the world, and we are more than happy to supply our beautiful renewable energy stored in a battery to help out the national electricity market.” Located near Jamestown, about 200 kilometers north of Adelaide, the Tesla-built 100 megawatt lithium ion battery is connected to a wind farm run by French energy company Neoen. The farm has 99 wind turbines and generates electricity that can be stored in the battery to serve 30,000 people for about an hour.  In a statement, the California-based firm said the project in South Australia showed “that a sustainable, effective energy solution is possible”. Critics of the battery have said the technology’s potential has been exaggerated. The bulk of Australia’s electricity is still generated by coal, and the nation is one of the world’s worst per capita emitters of greenhouses gases.    

Unwrapping Mummy Mysteries Goes High-Tech

More than a century after being unearthed in Egypt, a nearly 2000-year-old mummy is giving scientists, museum curators and medical researchers a unique look at the ancient world. Faith Lapidus reports.

Los Angeles Set to Embark on a Smart City Experiment

From cellphones and cars, to televisions and refrigerators, more devices are being connected to the Internet. This network of connected devices is call the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States, is planning to use the prevalence of these IoT devices as a testing ground for becoming a city of the future. “By putting computers in parking meters, you already have computers in your car, and you have computers in the street lights. The ability to connect them to the Internet of Things allows a better way for your car to know where parking spots are available, allows better for it to communicate when street lights should turn green to maximize traffic flow,” said Ted Ross, chief information officer for the city of Los Angeles. WATCH: Los Angeles About to Embark on a Smart City Experiment What is I3?  Los Angeles is a part of a consortium called “I3” that includes the University of Southern California (USC) and tech companies. This partnership is developing and will soon test an Internet of Things system. It aims to connect sensors placed around the city with other connected devices to make L.A. a smart city. It is an endeavor that will also rely on residents’ participation, said Raman Abrol of Tech Mahindra. It is one of the I3 tech companies and will provide a platform for an online marketplace called Community Action Platform for Engagement or CAPE. “Communities can collaborate with businesses and cities and share data in a manner where privacy’s enforced,” Abrol said. In the online marketplace, neighborhoods could be shopping for a cheaper source of renewable energy or water filtration system. Companies can then compete for their business. CAPE is just one of the many elements in the I3 system that will make up the Internet of Things network in Los Angeles. “The I3 is an Internet of Things integrator. Through I3, we’re (Los Angeles) working with the University of Southern California and vendor partners to aggregate the data and give us a better ability to make decisions, decisions to maximize traffic flow, decisions to help reduce crime, decisions to help improve business prosperity,” Ross said. Privacy, security concerns As connected devices become more ubiquitous and the flow of personal data increases, privacy and security concerns will be more scrutinized. “I think that this is one piece of a huge emerging problem, of figuring out how we protect privacy and limit government power in an era of rapidly expanding information availability and rapidly expanding data processing abilities. So it’s not just that there are more and more data points that are available for the government to look at. It is also that we are rapidly expanding our ability to analyze data,” said Stanford University Law School professor, David Alan Sklansky. Sklansky has been closely following a U.S. Supreme Court case, Carpenter v. the United States, which examines whether police need a warrant to obtain cellphone location information. Sklansky said the decision from the case will impact other applications of technology and data in the modern age. “The more powerful the technology, the more powerful the unintended consequences,” said Yannis Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “How do you make sure to possibly regulate this because there has to be regulation so that they have legal and ethical issues taken into consideration as well,” Yortsos added. Choose to connect In Los Angeles, people will largely choose whether they want to provide data to the city. “For someone who’s going to be able to let’s say, connect through their smart phone or through their vehicle, it’s extremely important that they agree and they consent to such matters,” Ross said. While there was an initial forecast of a big demand in the Internet of Things, over time, the demand dropped, said Jerry Power, executive director of the USC Institute for Communication Technology Management. “So we started looking at it and trying to understand why and what the problems were,” he said. “We looked at it from a perspective of privacy from the users’ standpoint. We realized privacy was an important issue. We realized that trust was an important issue, and we realized that incentives (was) an issue in the process as well.”  Power continued, “what incentive has to go back to the users to get them to opt-in? The level of incentive depends on how much the user of the data, who wants the data, how much they disclose about what they’re going to do with the information and how well-trusted that person is.”  “The exchange of data.” Power added, “if you think about it, it almost becomes like a form of currency, and it’s part of a transaction.” The smart city experiment will begin at the University of Southern California and expand to the city of Los Angeles. Some of what works from the program will be be made available for other cities to use.

Virtual Reality Allows Patients to Preview Their Own Surgery

It wasn’t a typical headache that bothered Felicia Luna, 41. It was painful pressure “like someone was squeezing my head really tight.” The pain was so bad that Luna says she couldn’t lie down with her head on the pillow. Her primary doctor and a specialist told her to stop worrying. Then she went to Stanford Medical Center. The head of neurosurgery, Dr. Gary Steinberg, scheduled her for brain surgery. Her aneurysm was in danger of rupturing. High-tech technique Because of the complexity of the upcoming surgery and Luna’s curiosity, Steinberg decided to use virtual reality to perfect the surgical route. To do this, contrast dye was injected during Luna’s CT scan and angiograms, two medical scans, to highlight the width and shape of the vessels. WATCH: Virtual Reality Allows Patients to Preview Their Own Surgery Stanford’s Malie Collins, who works with Steinberg, builds the reconstructions in 3-D and prepares the patient-specific VR cases for Steinberg. Collins formerly worked for Surgical Theater, an Ohio startup that designs the software to transform the scans to be viewed in VR via Oculus Rift and other headsets. Flying through the brain with VR Collins trained Stanford’s staff on the equipment and then joined the team. She and Steinberg created the Neurological Simulation and Virtual Reality Center, the first VR clinic for spine and neurosurgery in the United States. Now Collins is applying to medical school in June, to become a neurosurgeon. Part of Collins’ job is to create a “fly though” virtual reality video for patients. The night before Luna’s surgery, Collins gives her a headset to wear and lets her travel through her own brain. Luna admits being “a nervous wreck” before seeing the path Steinberg would take to locate the aneurysm. She sees where he will clip off its growth so the clot can be resorbed, eliminating her pain. “Now I understand exactly what’s going to happen,” Luna says. Her husband also took a turn at the virtual reality flight. “This makes me understand it 100 percent,” Rene Luna says. “That extra understanding gives me a lot more confidence.” ​VR theater ‘rehearsal’ Later that evening, a group gathers in what resembles a home theater, with darkened lighting, padded recliners and large monitors. They all wear big black goggles. Their arms are outstretched, directing the empty air around them with controls wrapped around their knuckles. This is a Stanford medical school class taught by Steinberg. Collins has loaded the 3-D reconstruction of Felicia Luna’s aneurysm and a virtual craniotomy so students can follow in virtual reality as Steinberg explains his surgery strategy. Steinberg uses his controls to turn the virtual skull. He virtually “erases” a bone, glides along a vessel, and reveals his target. “That’s exactly where the aneurysm is, where that turn is,” he says. He shows where he plans to place a clip, cutting off the blood that can thin the aneurysm’s walls, causing it to rupture. The virtual procedure, which Steinberg describes as a “kind of GPS navigation with 1-2 millimeter precision,” is invaluable to him. “In a sense, it allows me to plan for surgery ahead of time and rehearse it,” he says. ​In the operating room The next day, the 3-D images appear on monitors in the operating room. Steinberg makes last-minute checks and “practices” his surgery one final time before he begins the five-hour operation. At this point, the VR is there for reference. Collins sees the benefit from all sides, from “the patient, then into the operating room, then for education. The fact that it’s so versatile makes it unique and powerful,” she says. Future VR/high-tech medical surgeries Technology may someday place the 3-D virtual reality in a head’s up display in surgical microscopes. Or the doctor may manipulate robotic surgical controls remotely, eliminating the need for him or her to be in the operating room. But technology is not yet able to eliminate the lag time between the remote location and the operating room, where vessels constantly change and move. In his three decades of neurosurgery, Steinberg says VR has “transformed the way we can prepare for and adjust surgery in the operating room.” He says just being able to see around the aneurysm in 360 degrees is something that was impossible before VR. He says for patients it means “remarkably improved outcomes, in terms of safety and efficacy.” Luna on the road to recovery Felicia Luna had a good outcome, but her right eye is still recovering. Because of her aneurysm’s irregular shape, Steinberg needed two clips, one more than he planned. The naked eye in this case proved more accurate than virtual reality. She left the hospital two days later, to recuperate with her husband and four children.

Virtual Reality Allows Patients to Preview Their Own Surgery

Most of us would be shocked and afraid if a doctor told us we needed brain surgery. But imagine how much calmer you'd be if you could get inside your skull to navigate the path the surgeon will take? Technology can now make that happen. VOA's Carolyn Presutti takes us to the Stanford Medical Center in Silicon Valley to see how virtual reality can get patients into their own heads.

Los Angeles About to Embark on a Smart City Experiment

As the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case about privacy and technology, Los Angeles, California, is becoming a city that is ever more connected. From cell phones to televisions to refrigerators, more devices are being connected to the Internet. L.A. wants to use the prevalence of these "smart" devices to help the city run more efficiently, turning it into a city of the future. VOA's Elizabeth Lee has the details of the project and the security and privacy implications of a more connected city.

Tesla Plugs Biggest Battery into Australian Outback

The world’s biggest lithium-ion battery has plugged into an Australian state grid, delivering on a promise by Tesla Inc. chief executive Elon Musk. Musk said he would build the 100-megawatt battery within 100 days of contracts for the project being signed at the end of September or hand it over to the South Australia state government for free. South Australia Premier Jay Weatherill said Friday the battery had begun dispatching power to the state grid Thursday, providing 70 megawatts as temperatures rose above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). The official launch came a little more than 60 days after the deal was signed. But crucially, it came on the first day of the Australian summer, the season when power usage soars because of the use of air conditioning.

Google's Phones and Other Gadgets Have Had Bumpy Ride

Google, which prides itself on developing simple, intuitive software that seems to know what you want almost before you do, is finding itself in a very different world when it comes to its own phones and other gadgets. Its new Pixel 2 phones, released in October, got high marks for their camera and design — at least until some users complained about "burned in" afterimages on their screens, a bluish tint, periodic clicking sounds and occasionally unresponsive touch commands. Then the company's new Home Mini smart speaker was caught always listening. Finally, its wireless "Pixel Buds" headset received savage reviews for a cheap look and feel, mediocre sound quality, and being difficult to set up and confusing to use. In short, Google is re-learning an old adage in the technology business: Hardware is hard. Growing pains Google quickly extended the warranty on the Pixel 2 and tweaked software on the devices and its Home Mini in an attempt to fix the troublesome issues. (It hasn't had much to say about the Pixel Buds.) Still, the problems served as a high-profile reminder of the company's inexperience in making consumer electronics — a field where Apple has a 40-year head start. But the company insists that its problems are being blown out of proportion. "I believe, quite frankly, that Google has a spotlight on it," Rick Osterloh, the executive in charge of the company's hardware division, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Things that would normally be pretty minor issues are a bit amplified in today's environment." Of course, Google has actively courted this spotlight. In 2016, Osterloh took the stage at a product event to tout the Pixel phone as "the best of hardware and software, designed and built by Google." The company is also currently running a major ad campaign to draw attention to its gizmos for the holiday shopping season. "Being a software company is an entirely different animal from being a hardware company," said technology analyst Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research. "The cultures are very different and there are more moving parts in hardware, so you have to learn along the way." Google has to realize a "fail fast" philosophy that worked well for free software products doesn't work as well for smartphones that cost hundreds of dollars, said analyst Ross Rubin of Reticle Research. Software "can be more forgiving of that development philosophy," he said. "You can't do that with atoms. You risk some backlash." Hardware full of Google Google's push into devices, which includes its own Wi-Fi routers and an older line of web-based notebook computers, has become a key strategy for the internet giant. It sees these gadgets as a way to ensure services such as search, maps, Gmail, and its voice-activated assistant remain prominent as personal computing expands on mobile devices and new smart gizmos in homes. All those Google services are baked into Android, which powers more than 2 billion devices worldwide — but device makers such as Samsung that use the free software also can make adjustments to highlight their own products instead. And Apple only uses Google's search engine as a built-in service on iPhones, and that's only because Google pays billions of dollars annually for the access. The Pixel phones and Home speakers also serve as a showcase and data-collection tool for the Google Assistant, its voice-activated digital concierge. The virtual assistant is key to Google's artificial-intelligence efforts, aimed at making computers that constantly learn new things and eventually seem more human than machine. Slow start The Pixels, however, got off to a slow start. Google sold only 2.8 million of the first-generation model, accounting for about 0.1 percent of the market, according to the research firm International Data Corp. Such a low sales volume makes it more difficult to acquire the highest-quality components for hardware, particularly when suppliers make it a priority to meet the demands of market leaders Apple and Samsung. Apple is expected to sell between 230 million and 250 million iPhones during the fiscal year ending in September. Like the Pixel 2s, the new iPhone X features an OLED screen to display more vibrant colors. And like the Pixel 2 XL, the iPhone X's screen may also display a bluish tint and suffer "image retention" that makes it look like something has burned into the screen, by Apple's own admission. As part of its effort to catch up to Apple and Samsung, Google recently acquired more expertise in a $1.1 billion deal with device maker HTC that included the brought in 2,000 more smartphone engineers and certain hardware technologies. But Edison Investment Research analyst Richard Windsor believes many consumers will balk at paying a premium price for the Pixel 2 (prices start at $650), given its troubles. "It appears that the best way to get the most value from Google services is still to use them on another device," Windsor said.

Facebook Suspends Ability to Target Ads by Excluding Racial Groups

Facebook Inc. said on Wednesday it was temporarily disabling the ability of advertisers on its social network to exclude racial groups from the intended audience of ads while it studies how the feature could be used to discriminate. Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, told African-American U.S. lawmakers in a letter that the company was determined to do better after a news report said Facebook had failed to block discriminatory ads. The U.S.-based news organization ProPublica reported last week that, as part of an investigation, it had purchased discriminatory housing ads on Facebook and slipped them past the company's review process, despite claims by Facebook months earlier that it was able to detect and block such ads. "Until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately, we are disabling the option that permits advertisers to exclude multicultural affinity segments from the audience for their ads," Sandberg wrote in the letter to the Congressional Black Caucus, according to a copy posted online by ProPublica. It is unlawful under U.S. law to publish certain types of ads if they indicate a preference based on race, religion, sex or certain classifications. Facebook, the world's largest social network with 2.1 billion users and $36 billion in annual revenue, has been on the defensive for its advertising practices. In September, it disclosed the existence of Russia-linked ads that ran during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. The same month it turned off a tool, also reported by ProPublica, that had inadvertently let advertisers target based on people's self-reported jobs, even if the job was "Jew hater." Sandberg said in the letter that advertisers who use Facebook's targeting options to include certain races for ads about housing, employment or credit will have to certify to Facebook that they are complying with Facebook's anti-discrimination policy and with applicable law. Sandberg defended race- and culture-based marketing in general, saying it was a common and legitimate practice in the ad industry to try to reach specific communities. U.S. Representative Robin Kelly of Illinois, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Facebook's action was appropriate. "When I first raised this issue with Facebook, I was disappointed," Kelly, a Democrat, said in a statement. "When it became necessary to raise the issue again, I was irritated. Thankfully, we've been able to establish a constructive pipeline of communication that's resulted in a positive step forward."