The Catholic church is going digital in Paris. The city's diocese will introduce a system allowing contactless card payments during Sunday's mass at Saint Francois de Molitor, a church located in an upscale and conservative Paris neighborhood. The diocese explained Thursday that five connected collection baskets with a traditional design will be handed out to mass attenders during the service. They will choose on a screen the amount they want to donate - from 2 to 10 euros ($2.4 to $12.2) - and their payment will be processed in “one second.” The diocese insisted “this new gesture remains extremely close to the usual” one, yet parishioners will still be able to use cash for their donations. According to the diocese, donations amount to 79 percent of its resources. “Mass collection represents 14 percent of that contribution,” it said in a statement. “That's about 98 euros on average, per year and per faithful.” It explained that the move is meant “to anticipate the gradual disappearance of cash money.” This is not the French Catholic church's first attempt to keep up with new technologies. Since 2016, a smartphone app for making donations called “La Quete,” which translates as “The Collection,” has been introduced across 28 French dioceses and more than 2,000 parishes. About 4,000 donations have been made over 14 months in the eight Paris parishes that have been testing the app, with the average amount spent coming in at 4.71 euros. “The Church is committed to supporting everyone in the new ways of life and consumption,” the Paris diocese said. “The dematerialization of the means of payment is also part of the challenges the Church has to take up. Whether through a connected basket, with contactless payment, or through a smartphone app.”
While the calving of cliff-sized chunks of ice off the polar glaciers is a very visible effect of climate change, what’s happening, unseen, below the ice shelf is a more significant indicator of the warming seas. A new generation of robots is being launched to monitor those changes. Faith Lapidus reports.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he would announce a decision soon on whether to slap tariffs on imported solar panels, and quipped that when countries dump subsidized panels in the United States, “Everybody goes out of business.” The solar industry is anxiously awaiting the decision, which will have wide-reaching implications for the sector. Domestic panel producers opposed to cheap imports would benefit from a tariff. But installers that have relied on the lower-cost hardware for their recent breakneck growth would suffer. In an interview with Reuters, Trump declined to say how he would land on the case — which was triggered last year by a domestic manufacturer’s trade grievance — but complained about the effect of imports on U.S. panel makers. “You know, they dump ’em — government-subsidized, lots of things happening — they dump the panels, then everybody goes out of business,” he said. Asked when the decision would be announced, he said: “Pretty soon. Honestly, pretty soon.” According to a process governed by the International Trade Commission, Trump has until Jan. 26 to make his decision. Bankrupt domestic panel producer Suniva triggered Trump’s consideration of tariffs last year when it filed a trade case arguing it could not compete with cheap imports. About 95 percent of the solar cells and panels sold in the United States are made abroad, with most coming from China, Malaysia and the Philippines, according to SPV Market Research. Suniva was later joined in the case by the U.S. arm of German manufacturer SolarWorld AG. In October, Trump received a range of options from members of the U.S. International Trade Commission to protect domestic producers, but he has broad leeway to come up with his own alternative or do nothing at all. Suniva is seeking strong measures. “A robust tariff will allow Suniva to restart its factories and rehire employees,” Suniva spokesman Mark Paustenbach said. Jobs at stake Only about 14 percent of the solar industry's 260,000 jobs are in manufacturing. The trade case has fueled anxiety among installers that make up most of the rest of the industry and rely on low-priced imports. The installation sector’s trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, has campaigned against tariffs, saying they would drive up the price of solar and cripple demand, eliminating tens of thousands of jobs and ultimately hurting the manufacturers that sought them in the first place. “I’m staying optimistic that the business aspect of this will come through in the end,” said George Hershman, president of Swinerton Renewable Energy, a privately held firm that constructs large-scale solar projects. Hershman said Swinerton employed 2,000 full-time employees and up to 8,000 temporary workers, but added several of its projects had been placed on hold pending Trump's decision. “If you add 50 percent to the cost of the job, it may not be economic,” Hershman said. Solaria Corp, a U.S. company that produces panels in both California and South Korea, also opposes tariffs, according to Chief Executive Suvi Sharma. The company said a recent $23million financing round took months longer than it should have partly because of investor jitters about the case. “The best thing would be to have this whole thing go away,” Sharma said.
Facebook Inc said on Wednesday it would conduct a new, comprehensive search of its records for possible propaganda that Russian operatives may have spread during the run-up to Britain's 2016 referendum on EU membership. Some British lawmakers had complained that the world's largest social media network had done only a limited search for evidence that Russians manipulated the network and interfered with the referendum debate. Russia denies meddling in Britain's vote to exit the European Union, known as Brexit, or in the 2016 U.S. elections. Facebook, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc's Google and YouTube have been under intense pressure in Europe and the United States to stop nations from using tech services to meddle in another country's elections, and to investigate when evidence of such meddling arises. Facebook's new search in Britain will require the company's security experts to go back and analyze historical data, Simon Milner, Facebook's UK policy director, wrote in a letter on Wednesday to Damian Collins, chair of the British parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. "We would like to carry out this work promptly and estimate it will take a number of weeks to complete," Milner wrote. Facebook said in December that it had found just 97 cents worth of advertising by Russia-based operatives ahead of Britain's vote to leave the EU. Its analysis, though, involved only accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a suspected Russian propaganda service. Collins last month described Facebook's initial Brexit-related search as inadequate, and said on Wednesday he welcomed the company's latest response. "They are best placed to investigate activity on their platform," he said in a statement. "I look forward to seeing the results of this investigation, and I'm sure we will want to question Facebook about this when we know the outcome." Facebook told U.S. lawmakers last year that it had found 3,000 ads bought by suspected Russian agents posing as Americans and seeking to spread divisive messages in the United States about race, immigration and other political topics. In France last year, Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in the days before the country's presidential election to try to stop the spread of fake news, misinformation and spam.
Apple is planning to build another corporate campus and hire 20,000 workers during the next five years as part of a $350 billion commitment to the U.S. economy. The pledge announced Wednesday is an offshoot from the sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code championed by President Donald Trump and approved by Congress last month. Besides dramatically lowering the standard corporate tax rate, the reforms offer a one-time break on cash being held overseas. Apple plans to take advantage of that provision to bring back more than $250 billion in offshore cash, generating a tax bill of roughly $38 billion. The Cupertino, California, company says it will announce the location of a second campus devoted to customer support later this year.
Twitter may notify users whether they were exposed to content generated by a suspected Russian propaganda service, a company executive told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday. The social media company is "working to identify and inform individually" its users who saw tweets during the 2016 U.S. presidential election produced by accounts tied to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Army, Carlos Monje, Twitter's director of public policy, told the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. A Twitter spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about plans to notify its users. Facebook Inc in December created a portal where its users could learn whether they interacted with accounts created by the Internet Research Agency. Both companies and Alphabet's YouTube appeared before the Senate committee on Wednesday to answer lawmaker questions about how their efforts to combat the use of their platforms by violent extremists, such as the Islamic State. But the hearing often turned its focus to questions of Russian propaganda, a vexing issue for internet firms who spent most of the past year responding to a backlash that they did too little to deter Russians from using their services to anonymously spread divisive messages among Americans in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. elections. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia sought to interfere in the election through a variety of cyber-enabled means to sow political discord and help President Donald Trump win. Russia has repeatedly denied the allegations.
The world’s biggest Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is over but this year’s battle for consumers and their pocketbooks has only began. As smaller companies do not have the resources for research and development, big companies, such as Samsung, Canon and others, have a common message for them – let your imagination tell you how to use our technologies. VOA’s George Putic reports.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The next phase in data collection is right under your feet. Online clicks give retailers valuable insight into consumer behavior, but what can they learn from footsteps? It's a question Milwaukee-based startup Scanalytics is helping businesses explore with floor sensors that track people's movements. The sensors can also be used in office buildings to reduce energy costs and in nursing homes to determine when someone falls. But retailers make up the majority of Scanalytics' customers, highlighting one of several efforts brick-and-mortar stores are undertaking to better understand consumer habits and catch up with e-commerce giant Amazon. Physical stores have been at a disadvantage because they "don't have that granular level of understanding as to where users are entering, what they're doing, what shelves are not doing well, which aisles are not being visited," said Brian Sathianathan, co-founder of Iterate.ai, a small Denver-based company that helps businesses find and test technologies from startups worldwide. But it's become easier for stores to track customers in recent years. With Wi-Fi — among the earliest available options — businesses can follow people when they connect to a store's internet. One drawback is that not everyone logs on so the sample size is smaller. Another is that it's not possible to tell whether someone is inches or feet away from a product. Sunglass Hut and fragrance maker Jo Malone use laser and motion sensors to tell when a product is picked up but not bought, and make recommendations for similar items on an interactive display. Companies such as Toronto-based Vendlytics and San Francisco-based Prism use artificial intelligence with video cameras to analyze body motions. That can allow stores to deliver customized coupons to shoppers in real time on a digital shelf or on their cellphones, said Jon Nordmark, CEO of Iterate.ai. With Scanalytics, Nordmark said, "to have [the sensors] be super useful for someone like a retailer, they may need to power other types of things," like sending coupons to customers. Using the data Scanalytics co-founder and CEO Joe Scanlin said that's what his floor sensors are designed to do. For instance, the sensors read a customer's unique foot compressions to track that person's path to a digital display and how long the person stands in front of it before walking away, he said. Based on data collected over time, the floor sensors can tell a retailer the best time to offer a coupon or change the display before the customer loses interest. "Something that in the moment will increase their propensity to purchase a product," said Scanlin, 29, who started developing the paper-thin sensors that are 2-square feet (0.19-sq. meters) as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2012. He employs about 20 people. Wisconsin-based bicycle retailer Wheel and Sprocket uses Scanalytics' sensors — which can be tucked under utility mats — to count the number of customers entering each of its eight stores to help schedule staff. "That's our biggest variable expense," said co-owner Noel Kegel. "That sort of makes or breaks our profitability." Privacy and surveillance Kegel wants to eventually have sensors in more areas throughout his stores to measure where customers spend most of their time and what products are popular, but he said it's too expensive right now. The cost of having the sensors ranges from $20 to $1,000 per month, depending on square footage and add-on applications to analyze data or interact with digital signs, Scanlin said. He said he's working with 150 customers in the U.S. and other countries and estimates that about 60 percent are retailers. The emergence of tracking technologies is bound to raise concerns about privacy and surveillance. But Scanlin noted his sensors don't collect personally identifying information. Jeffrey Lenon, 47, who was recently shopping at the Shops of Grand Avenue mall in Milwaukee, said he wasn't bothered by the idea of stores tracking foot traffic and buying habits. "If that's helping the retailer as far as tracking what sells and what no, I think it's a good idea," Lenon said. These technologies have not become ubiquitous in the U.S. yet, but it's only a matter of time, said Ghose Anindya, a business professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. "In a couple of years this kind of conversation will be like part and parcel of everyday life. But I don't think we're there yet," he said.
Palestinians 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 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 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.
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.