All posts by MTechnology

No Pedal to Metal in GM’s Planned Self-driving Cruise AV Car

General Motors Co is seeking U.S. government approval for a fully autonomous car — one without a steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator pedal — to enter the automaker’s first commercial ride-sharing fleet in 2019, executives said.

For passengers who cannot open doors, the Cruise AV — a rebranded version of GM’s Chevrolet Bolt EV — has even been designed to perform that task. It will have other accommodations for hearing and visually impaired customers.

This will be one of the first self-driving vehicles in commercial passenger service and among the first to do away with manual controls for steering, brakes and throttle. What is the driver’s seat in the Bolt EV will become the front left passenger seat in the Cruise AV, GM said.

Company President Dan Ammann told reporters GM had filed on Thursday for government approval to deploy the “first production-ready vehicle designed from the start without a steering wheel, pedals or other unnecessary manual controls.”

GM is part of a growing throng of vehicle manufacturers, technology companies and tech startups seeking to develop so-called robo-taxis over the next three years in North America, Europe and Asia. Most of those companies have one or more partners.

On Friday, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed GM had petitioned for approval to operate up to 2,500 vehicles without steering wheels or human drivers.

 “Safety is the [Transportation] department’s top priority. The department will review this petition and give it careful consideration,” the agency said in a statement.

Ford Motor Co said on Tuesday it will partner with delivery service Postmates Inc as the automaker starts testing ways to transport people, food and packages this spring in its self-driving cars, which are being developed by Ford’s Argo unit.

Other companies, from Uber Technologies Inc to Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, have been testing self-driving vehicle prototypes in limited ride-sharing applications, but have been less explicit than GM in announcing plans for commercial robo-taxi services.

GM executives said the automaker has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow 16 alterations to existing vehicle safety rules — such as having an airbag in what would normally be the driver’s seat, but without a steering wheel — to enable the deployment of the Cruise AV.

The automaker would then need to obtain similar approval from individual U.S. states. GM executives said seven U.S. states already allow the alterations sought by the automaker.

In other states — including those that stipulate a car must have a licensed human driver — GM will work with regulators to change or get a waiver from existing rules.

The company declined to identify the first states in which it plans to launch the vehicle or say when it would begin testing.

GM wants to control its own self-driving fleet partly because of the tremendous revenue potential it sees in selling related services, from e-commerce to infotainment, to consumers riding in those vehicles.

At a Nov. 30 briefing in San Francisco, GM’s Ammann told investors the lifetime revenue generation of one of its self-driving cars could eventually be “several hundred thousands of dollars.” That compares with the $30,000 on average that GM collects today for one of its vehicles, mostly derived from the initial sale.

GM’s Cruise AV is equipped with the automaker’s fourth-generation self-driving software and hardware, including 21 radars, 16 cameras and five lidars — sensing devices that use laser light to help autonomous cars “see” nearby objects and obstacles.

The Cruise AV will be able to operate in hands-free mode only in premapped urban areas.

GM’s prototype self-driving vehicles have been developed in San Francisco by Cruise Automation, the onetime startup that GM acquired in March 2016 for a reported $1 billion.

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Jeff Bezos Contributes $33M to ‘Dreamers’ Scholarship Program

Scholarship program TheDream.US said on Friday it had received a $33 million donation from Amazon.com Inc Chief Executive Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos to fund 1,000 college scholarships.

The scholarship program will fund U.S. high school graduates with a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, an Obama-era program protecting young immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents — commonly known as Dreamers.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday blasted the federal court system as “broken and unfair” after a judge blocked his administration’s move to end the DACA program.

2,850 students are currently enrolled in different colleges as part of TheDream.US scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition, fees and books.

Bezos’ parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos, were among the early donors to TheDream.US. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pershing Square Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are also among the other major contributers to the program.

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Cybersecurity Firm: US Senate in Russian Hackers’ Crosshairs

The same Russian government-aligned hackers who penetrated the Democratic Party have spent the past few months laying the groundwork for an espionage campaign against the U.S. Senate, a cybersecurity firm said Friday.

The revelation suggests the group often nicknamed Fancy Bear, whose hacking campaign scrambled the 2016 U.S. electoral contest, is still busy trying to gather the emails of America’s political elite.

“They’re still very active — in making preparations at least — to influence public opinion again,” said Feike Hacquebord, a security researcher at Trend Micro Inc., which published the report . “They are looking for information they might leak later.”

The Senate Sergeant at Arms office, which is responsible for the upper house’s security, declined to comment.

Hacquebord said he based his report on the discovery of a clutch of suspicious-looking websites dressed up to look like the U.S. Senate’s internal email system. He then cross-referenced digital fingerprints associated with those sites to ones used almost exclusively by Fancy Bear, which his Tokyo-based firm dubs “Pawn Storm.”

Trend Micro previously drew international attention when it used an identical technique to uncover a set of decoy websites apparently set up to harvest emails from the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in April 2017. The sites’ discovery was followed two months later by a still-unexplained publication of private emails from several Macron staffers in the final days of the race.

Hacquebord said the rogue Senate sites — which were set up in June and September of 2017 — matched their French counterparts.

“That is exactly the way they attacked the Macron campaign in France,” he said.

Attribution is extremely tricky in the world of cybersecurity, where hackers routinely use misdirection and red herrings to fool their adversaries. But Tend Micro, which has followed Fancy Bear for years, said there could be no doubt.

“We are 100 percent sure that it can attributed to the Pawn Storm group,” said Rik Ferguson, one of the Hacquebord’s colleagues.

Like many cybersecurity companies, Trend Micro refuses to speculate publicly on who is behind such groups, referring to Pawn Storm only as having “Russia-related interests.” But the U.S. intelligence community alleges that Russia’s military intelligence service pulls the hackers’ strings and a months-long Associated Press investigation into the group, drawing on a vast database of targets supplied by the cybersecurity firm Secureworks, has determined that the group is closely attuned to the Kremlin’s objectives.

If Fancy Bear has targeted the Senate over the past few months, it wouldn’t be the first time. An AP analysis of Secureworks’ list shows that several staffers there were targeted between 2015 and 2016.

Among them: Robert Zarate, now the foreign policy adviser to Florida Senator Marco Rubio; Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who now runs a Washington consultancy; and Jason Thielman, the chief of staff to Montana Senator Steve Daines. A Congressional researcher specializing in national security issues was also targeted.

Fancy Bear’s interests aren’t limited to U.S. politics; the group also appears to have the Olympics in mind.

Trend Micro’s report said the group had set up infrastructure aimed at collecting emails from a series of Olympic winter sports federations, including the International Ski Federation, the International Ice Hockey Federation, the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation, the International Luge Federation and the International Biathlon Union.

The targeting of Olympic groups comes as relations between Russia and the International Olympic Committee are particularly fraught. Russian athletes are being forced to compete under a neutral flag in the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics following an extraordinary doping scandal that has seen 43 athletes and several Russian officials banned for life.

Amid speculation that Russia could retaliate by orchestrating the leak of prominent Olympic officials’ emails, cybersecurity firms including McAfee and ThreatConnect have picked up on signs that state-backed hackers are making moves against winter sports staff and anti-doping officials.

On Wednesday, a group that has brazenly adopted the Fancy Bear nickname began publishing what appeared to be Olympics and doping-related emails from between September 2016 and March 2017. The contents were largely unremarkable but their publication was covered extensively by Russian state media and some read the leak as a warning to Olympic officials not to press Moscow too hard over the doping scandal.

Whether any Senate emails could be published in such a way isn’t clear. Previous warnings that German lawmakers’ correspondence might be leaked by Fancy Bear ahead of last year’s election there appear to have come to nothing.

On the other hand, the group has previously dumped at least one U.S. legislator’s correspondence onto the web.

One of the targets on Secureworks’ list was Colorado State Senator Andy Kerr, who said thousands of his emails were posted to an obscure section of the website DCLeaks — a web portal better known for publishing emails belonging to retired Gen. Colin Powell and various members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign — in late 2016.

Kerr said he was still bewildered as to why he was targeted. He said while he supported transparency, “there should be some process and some system to it.

“It shouldn’t be up to a foreign government or some hacker to say what gets released and what shouldn’t.”

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Facebook Says Its Putting Friends, Family First

Facebook on Thursday announced a major update that will put friends and family above pages or celebrities in a user’s news feed — and likely result in people spending less time on the leading social network.

The change to the way Facebook ranks posts will put more weight on social interactions and relationships, according to News Feed product manager John Hegeman.

“This is a big change,” Hegeman said.

People more important

“People will actually spend less time on Facebook, but we feel good about that because it will make the time they do spend more valuable, and be good for our business in the end.”

For example, a family video clip posted by a spouse will be deemed more worthy of attention than a snippet from a star or favorite restaurant.

“We think people interaction is more important than passively consuming content,” Hegeman said. “This will be one of the more important updates that we have made.”

Facebook co-founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg has said that bringing people together and strengthening communities in the real world are priorities.

Update coming soon

The news feed ranking update, which is set to roll out globally in the coming weeks, is expected to support that goal.

“As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media,” Zuckerberg said in a post at his Facebook page.

“And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”

Battling fake news

Google, Twitter and Facebook have come under fire for allowing the spread of bogus news — some of which was directed by Russia — ahead of the 2016 US election and in other countries.

Facebook has introduced a series of changes intended to address the problem.

“We are doing a ton of work to reduce the frequency of bad content on Facebook,” Hegeman said.

“This update is more about amplifying the things people value.”

He cited academic research indicating that interacting with loved ones is crucial to a person’s wellbeing, while reading news articles or watching shared videos may not be.

“There is really no silver bullet here to determine what is most meaningful, but we are trying to mine the signals to get the best representation that we can,” Hegeman said.

Fix Facebook

Known for setting annual personal goals ranging from killing his own food to learning Mandarin, Zuckerberg’s stated mission for this year is to “fix” the social network, including by targeting abuse and hate, and making sure visiting Facebook is time well spent.

“I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions,” Zuckerberg said Thursday.

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CTA: Countries With Entrepreneur-friendly Policies Boost Innovation, Economies

More than 60 countries are represented at CES, the giant consumer electronics show taking place this week in Las Vegas, and the large international presence is a testament to the interest worldwide in entrepreneurship and technology.

But while many governments say they support a homegrown innovation economy, policy decisions may hamper entrepreneurial growth, according to a report out this week by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which puts on the marquee Las Vegas technology show.

Innovation factors

The report looked at 12 factors to determine whether a country is an “innovation champion.” They include standard indicators like a country’s tax policy, the education level of its workforce, and broadband access and speeds.

Overall, Finland had the highest ranking, followed by the U.S., Canada, other European nations, Australia and New Zealand.

India, Morocco and Colombia were dubbed “modest innovators,” and they were among the lowest scoring nations.

A different set of countries emerged as leaders, however, when CTA looked at some of the more contentious areas of the tech economy, such as drones, ridesharing, self-driving cars and short-term home rentals such as Airbnb.

Ridesharing leaders

For example, when it comes to ridesharing, the report found that Panama, Peru, Poland, Rwanda and Mexico were among countries that allow ridesharing to operate most freely.

Likewise, for short-term home rentals such as Airbnb, the report gave its highest marks to Chile, Mexico, Nigeria and Peru among other countries.

The best countries for drone testing and deployment are Australia, Finland, Portugal, Singapore and Sweden.

In an interview with VOA, Gary Shapiro, the chief executive of CTA, said that countries were evaluated “from a uniquely American perspective.” The goal, he said, is to identify which countries have the best policies for innovators, and then encourage other countries to create similar environments.

French takeover

At Eureka Park, the exhibit area that’s home to about 800 early stage startups at CES, about one-third are French. They occupy row after row of the show floor, all under signs reading “La French Tech.”

Senegal brought two IT companies that won a competition for their work for the government.

“Right now we hope to meet a lot of companies here to check what we can do for our country,” said Cheikh Bakhoum, with the Senegal’s State Informatics Agency.

Hrvoje Bujas from Croatia said he came hoping to meet investors, but he switched his goals once he arrived at CES.

“I want to get some feedback from our potential users, women that want to get pregnant,” he said.

His second goal? “To get some space in media.”

 

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Amazon Looks to Build on 1st Season of NFL Streaming

Amazon had a mostly successful debut into live streaming of major sports events with increased audience and an improved viewing experience in its first season showing NFL games.

The question looking ahead is how aggressively will Amazon be in the sports streaming landscape?

“It’s too soon to say,” said Jim DeLorenzo, the head of Amazon Sports. “We’re just in the early stages here. We were definitely pleased with the way things played out. It was great to partner with the NFL on this and we were really happy with how our customers reacted to it. But it’s too soon to say this impacts our strategy going forward.”

Amazon already has smaller deals with the ATP Tour to air last year’s Next Gen ATP Finals and the rights to show some men’s tennis tournaments to customers in the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as an upcoming deal to show beach volleyball events.

But the NFL is the biggest endeavor Amazon has made so far after paying $50 million for the rights to stream 10 Thursday night games and an additional one on Christmas.

Amazon built on the audience Twitter had in 2016 in the first year of streaming on Thursday nights, with the averaging per minute audience for the 11 games hitting 310,000, a 17 percent increase from Twitter’s numbers. 

On a per capita basis, the biggest audience was in the District of Columbia, followed by Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Utah. Prime members in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and North Carolina watched for the longest amount of time.

Viewers who are already used to watching movies and scripted shows on Amazon’s various platforms stayed longer on the NFL, with the average viewer watching for 63 minutes.

The feed was usually much cleaner than on Twitter or some other streaming services and was delivered even faster than some cable systems as opposed to the usual delay for online streaming.

“This was really our first step into distributing live sporting events at scale on a global basis,” DeLorenzo said. “Of course there was learning. Because we’re so early on in that process of distributing this kind of content to our customers, there are a number of things we can look at along the way.”

Even though television audiences for the NFL dropped for the second straight year as people cut the cord and drop cable or satellite service, the streaming audience on Amazon was still a small fraction compared to the more than 10 million viewers who watched on average the Thursday night games on NBC, CBS or the NFL Network. CBS and NBC pay about $45 million per game for the rights to their Thursday night broadcasts.

The NFL is expected to decide soon its plans for Thursday night games next season, but is expected to once again split the package between a broadcast and streaming partner.

Amazon offered alternate language feeds for the broadcast to cater to some of the fans from more 220 countries who tuned into the games, with feeds in Spanish, Portuguese and “U.K. English” for those less familiar with the American version of football.

“That was a fun component of what we were doing and we were glad to see customers reacted well to that as well,” DeLorenzo said.

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Female-led Startups Look to Cryptocurrency for Funding

Female startup founders have a notoriously harder time securing funding than men. But new methods of financing could help close the gender gap. One of those methods lies in the buzzy technologies of blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

“Cryptocurrency, being a digital platform, fundamentally erases that sort of bias and does create a sort of leveling of the playing field,” said Lisa Wang, founder and CEO of SheWorx. “Women who are savvy and are able to hop onto the train are able to raise money really quickly for their ideas.”

SheWorx hosted an event last month for its New York City members dubbed “Cryptocurrency 101: Practical Advice on Getting Involved in Bitcoin & Beyond.” About 35 women showed up to learn more.

“For a lot of women, they’re looking at the Bitcoin prices, the Ethereum prices, Litecoin prices and they’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s too late for me to get involved,’” Wang said. “It’s not too late, you didn’t miss the boat.”

Women received just 11 percent of total venture funding in the first half of 2017, according to TechCrunch.

What is blockchain?

Could blockchain pave the way to more financing for women?

Blockchain technologies have garnered a lot of attention lately, thanks in part to the roller-coaster ride of their most famous protocol and cryptocurrency, Bitcoin.

The distributed ledger technology (DLT) that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin enables peer-to-peer or machine-to-machine transactions without the need for intermediary third parties.

This removal of middlemen (and their subsequent fees) is a major draw for both startups and established companies across a variety of industries.

Wang said entrepreneurs should assess their risk profile, determine whether blockchain is a fit for their startup, and research the types of fundraising processes that could best serve them.

Unique coins

Tech startups are now exploring the option of issuing their own unique tokens or coins, based on an established blockchain protocol like Bitcoin or Ethereum. Others are creating entirely new blockchain protocols and alternative coins.

These initial coin offerings (ICOs) allow startups to raise money quickly in a limited amount of time, via crowdfunding. Unlike traditional initial public offerings (IPOs), ICOs do not offer investors an ownership stake in the company. Instead, investors assess the potential usefulness and value of an alternative or “alt” coin, and the long-term profitability of its parent product or service, whether it makes sense as a blockchain application.

Michelle McCormack is the founder and CEO of Casting Coin, an Ethereum-based token that will launch this year and be used as currency on a crowdsourcing platform connecting models and brands.

Using blockchain tech

McCormack spoke at the SheWorx event and explained how her fashion industry experience helped her identify a gap in the model booking business.

“Models are a perfect example of people that have a really hard time connecting with work unless they know somebody … a lot of times, they’re faced with dealing with shady, internet intermediaries who are calling themselves agents,” McCormack said. “When they do get work, they have to give at least 20 percent of their rate to the agent.”

McCormack is a building a blockchain-based platform where industry influencers pay Casting Coins to up-vote or down-vote models, resulting in a new kind of crowdsourcing business model for the traditional model and talent agency.

“Over time, a natural influencer vertical and talent vertical will come up … so that the brand can easily identify them, directly hire them,” McCormack said.

While some may be deterred by the ambiguous qualities of a nascent technology like blockchain, McCormack said women should get involved sooner rather than later.

“There’s no legacy of male domination in blockchain, because there’s no legacy. So why not get involved, build something?” McCormack said.

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Companion Robot Aims to Fight Social Isolation Among Elderly

People around the world are living longer, and their quality of life as they grow old is changing. The World Health Organization finds the number of older adults living alone is dramatically increasing which could lead to loneliness, social isolation and depression. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has details about a solution, a robot companion, available for homes in the not so distant future, featured at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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Companion Robot Aims to Fight Isolation Among Elderly

People around the world are living longer, and how they grow old is changing. The World Health Organization finds the number of older adults living alone is dramatically increasing, and fewer multi-generational families are living together. To help the elderly with loneliness, social isolation and depression, an Israeli company, Intuition Robotics, created a robot called ElliQ designed for older adults.

Featured at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, ElliQ is named in part after the Norse goddess that represents old age. Described as a “she” by her founder, ElliQ is a tabletop robot that lights up when she hears her name.

ElliQ does not have a face, arms or legs, but it talks and tries to keep her human companion active and engaged.

“You’ve been sitting all day. You’re not on your track to completing your goal. You should go for a walk,” the robot said.

The robot does mimic head movements to connect with the user.

“She can look down she can look up, she can get excited,” explained Dor Skuler, co-founder of Intuition Robotics.

He described ElliQ as a proactive social companion. She takes calls, reads emails and plays music for her human companion.

Skuler said ElliQ aims to solve a growing problem in many countries around the world because of a global demographic change.

“In China through the one child policy, we’re seeing a huge aging of the population.” Skuler added, “and Europe has a negative birth rate for a few decades already, so this is by far a global problem.”

The voice-activated robot comes with a touch-screen tablet through which the user can interact and access the web and social media assisted by ElliQ.

Skuler said this robot is not supposed to replace humans, rather, it allows older adults to “stay sharp, keep connected, active and engaged” with their environment to fend off feelings of isolation and being depressed. 

The price of the companion robot is still being determined, but Skuler said it will be on the high end of consumer electronics.

ElliQ will be tested in the homes of the elderly in the United States and will be commercially available sometime in 2018. 

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