Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

Electric Vehicles Poised to Go Mainstream

The bumper sticker on the back of Scott Wilson’s car reads, “This is what the end of gasoline looks like.”

And what does that car look like? A sleek, sci-fi experimental vehicle? A $100,000 Tesla luxury car? 

Nope. It’s just a Kia Soul EV, the battery-powered version of the Korean automaker’s boxy hatchback.

Once the domain of concept cars and hobbyists, electric vehicles are no longer so exotic. And sales are picking up. A record 150,000 of them sold last year in the United States.

“It used to be I knew everyone I saw that was driving an electric car,” said Wilson, the vice president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington, D.C. “Now, I don’t.”

There are about to be a lot more strangers in EVs on the roads, many experts say.

Big carmakers, big plans

Volvo says every car it makes in 2019 and beyond will have an electric motor. General Motors says the company “believes in an all-electric future.” Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) predicts that in just over two decades, EVs will make up more than half of all vehicles sold.

Other analysts have more modest expectations. But even Exxon Mobil sees EVs topping 10 percent of the market by 2040.

Automakers hit a significant milestone in the past year. In December, General Motors launched the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the first car with a price tag under $40,000 and a range of more than 320 kilometers.

Automakers hit a significant milestone in the past year. In December, General Motors launched the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the first car with a price tag under $40,000 and a range of more than 320 kilometers.

That range is “basically double anything else that’s available at a comparable price,” said Chevrolet spokesman Fred Ligouri. Those figures “do wonders for getting beyond” what’s known as range anxiety, potential buyers’ fear of draining the battery before reaching their destination.

One-third of buyers have never owned an electric vehicle before.

“They went from (an) internal combustion engine vehicle right into pure electric,” an encouraging sign, Ligouri said.

The Bolt’s performance has impressed critics as well. Motor Trend magazine named the Bolt the 2017 Car of the Year.

The Bolt beat industry upstart Tesla to the mid-priced market. A modest 15,000 or so have been sold so far. But nearly a half-million people have ordered the Tesla Model 3, the company’s entrant into the mass market, despite long waits and slow production.

“Those are signals that there’s unmet demand for some of these new technologies,” said the World Resources Institute’s Eliot Metzger.

Electrification is cheaper than ever as the price of lithium ion batteries plummets faster than analysts expected. As costs come down, experts are moving up the date when electric vehicles can compete with internal combustion engines on price. BNEF puts that date in the second half of the next decade.

“We’re much further along than most researchers (and) industry insiders would have projected just two or three years ago,” said Nic Lutsey at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

China syndrome

Another reason the industry is moving fast: China.

Officials in the world’s biggest auto market will require carmakers to meet an electric vehicle quota starting in 2019.

Beijing aims to increase EVs’ share of the market from 1 to 2 percent today to around 4 percent in 2020.

“That’s a very large scale up within just several years,” Lutsey noted, but automakers say they can do it.

The push for electric vehicles is part of the government’s plan to clean up the toxic air in China’s major cities. Chinese officials are considering a ban on gas- and diesel-powered cars.

But it’s not just China. Pollution concerns in France, the United Kingdom, and India have officials there considering bans, too.

In the United States, the Trump administration aims to relax vehicle emissions standards, though state policies will likely complicate those efforts.

Without a push from government, experts say electric vehicles will have a hard time making major gains as long as gas prices are relatively low.

But as electric vehicle driver Wilson points out, that can change at any time.

“After the next crisis, when gas is $5 a gallon, then there will be waiting lists for cars like this,” he said.

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US Warns About Attacks On Energy, Industrial Firms

The Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation warned in a report distributed by email late on Friday that the nuclear, energy, aviation, water and critical manufacturing industries have been targeted along with government entities in attacks dating back to at least May.

The agencies warned that hackers had succeeded in compromising some targeted networks, but did not identify specific victims or describe any cases of sabotage.

The objective of the attackers is to compromise organizational networks with malicious emails and tainted websites to obtain credentials for accessing computer networks of their targets, the report said.

U.S. authorities have been monitoring the activity for months, which they initially detailed in a confidential June report first reported by Reuters. That document, which was privately distributed to firms at risk of attacks, described a narrower set of activity focusing on the nuclear, energy and critical manufacturing sectors.

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Scott McConnell declined to elaborate on the information in the report or say what prompted the government to go public with the information at this time.

“The technical alert provides recommendations to prevent and mitigate malicious cyber activity targeting multiple sectors and reiterated our commitment to remain vigilant for new threats,” he said.

The FBI declined to comment on the report, which security researchers said described an escalation in targeting of infrastructure in Europe and the United States that had been described in recent reports from private firms, including Symantec Corp.

“This is very aggressive activity,” said Robert Lee, an expert in securing industrial networks.

Lee, chief executive of cyber-security firm Dragos, said the report appears to describe hackers working in the interests of the Russian government, though he declined to elaborate. Dragos is also monitoring other groups targeting infrastructure that appear to be aligned with China, Iran, North Korea, he said.

The hacking described in the government report is unlikely to result in dramatic attacks in the near term, Lee said, but he added that it is still troubling: “We don’t want our adversaries learning enough to be able to do things that are disruptive later.”

The report said that hackers have succeeded in infiltrating some targets, including at least one energy generator, and conducting reconnaissance on their networks. It was accompanied by six technical documents describing malware used in the attacks.

Homeland Security “has confidence that this campaign is still ongoing and threat actors are actively pursuing their objectives over a long-term campaign,” the report said.

The report said the attacker was the same as one described by Symantec in a September report that warned advanced hackers had penetrated the systems controlling operations of some U.S.

and European energy companies.

Symantec researcher Vikram Thakur said in an email that much of the contents of Friday’s report were previously known within the security community.

Cyber-security firm CrowdStrike said the technical indicators described in the report suggested the attacks were the work of a hacking group it calls Berserk Bear, which is affiliated with the Russian Federation and has targeted the energy, financial and transportation industries.

“We have not observed any destructive action by this actor,” CrowdStrike Vice President Adam Meyers said in an email.

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Kids, Screens and Parental Guilt: Time to Relax a Bit?

Parents of small children have long been hearing about the perils of “screen time.” And with more screens, and new technologies such as Amazon’s Echo speaker, the message is getting louder.

And while plenty of parents are feeling guilty about it, some experts say it might be time to relax a little.

Go ahead and hand your kid a gadget now and then to cook dinner or get some work done. Not all kids can entertain themselves quietly, especially when they are young. Try that, and see how long it takes your toddler to start fishing a banana peel out of the overflowing trash can.

“I know I should limit my kid’s screen time a lot, but there is reality,” said Dorothy Jean Chang, who works for a tech company in New York and has a 2-year-old son. When she needs to work or finds her son awake too early, “it’s the best, easiest way to keep him occupied and quiet.”

Screen time, she says, “definitely happens more often than I like to admit.”

She’s not alone. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group focused on kids’ use of media and technology, said in a report Thursday that kids ages 8 and younger average about 2 hours and 19 minutes with screens every day at home. That’s about the same as in 2011, though it’s up from an hour and a half in 2013, the last time the survey was conducted, when smartphones were not yet ubiquitous but TV watching was on the decline.

While the overall numbers have held steady in recent years, kids are shifting to mobile devices and other new technologies, just as their parents are. The survey found that kids spend an average of 48 minutes a day on mobile devices, up from 15 minutes in 2013. Kids are also getting exposed to voice-activated assistants, virtual reality and internet-connected toys, for which few guidelines exist because they are so new.

​Mixed message

Some parents and experts worry that screens are taking time away from exercise and learning. But studies are inconclusive. 

The economist Emily Oster said studies have found that kids who watch a lot of TV tend to be poorer, belong to minority groups and have parents with less education, all factors that contribute to higher levels of obesity and lower test scores. For that reason, it’s “difficult to draw strong conclusions about the effects of television from this research,” Oster wrote in 2015.

In fact, the Common Sense survey found that kids whose parents have higher incomes and education spend “substantially less time” with screens than other children. The gap was larger in 2017 than in previous years.

Rules relaxed

For more than a quarter century, the American Academy of Pediatrics held that kids under 2 should not be exposed to screens at all, and older kids should have strict limits. The rules have relaxed, such that video calls with grandma are OK, though “entertainment” television still isn’t. Even so, guidelines still feel out of touch for many parents who use screens of various sizes to preserve their sanity and get things done.

Jen Bjorem, a pediatric speech pathologist in Leawood, Kansas, said that while it’s “quite unrealistic” for many families to totally do away with screen time, balance is key.

“Screen time can be a relief for many parents during times of high stress or just needing a break,” she said.

Moderation

Bjorem recommends using “visual schedules” that toddlers can understand to set limits. Instead of words, these schedules have images — dinner, bed time, reading or TV time, for example. 

Another idea for toddlers? “Sensory bins,” or plastic tubs filled with beads, dry pasta and other stuff kids can play around with and, ideally, be just as absorbed as in mobile app or an episode of “Elmo.”

Of course, some kids will play with these carefully crafted, Pinterest-worthy bins for only a few minutes. Then they might start throwing beans and pasta all over your living room. So you clean up, put away the bins and turn on the TV.

In an interview, Oster said that while screen time “is probably not as good for your kid as high-quality engagement” with parents, such engagement is probably not something we can give our kids all the time anyway.

“Sometimes you just need them to watch a little bit of TV because you have to do something, or you need (it) to be a better parent,” Oster said.

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G-7 Backs Internet Industry Effort to Detect, Blunt Extremism

The Group of Seven industrialized nations threw their support behind a new technology industry alliance aimed at detecting and blunting online propaganda, saying Friday it had a “major role” to play in combating extremism on the internet.

G-7 interior ministers meeting in Italy invited representatives from Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter to a session Friday dedicated to the fight against terrorism. In a final communique, the ministers pressed the industry as a whole to do more.

“Internet companies will continue to take a proactive role and ensure decisive action in making their platforms more hostile to terrorism, and will support actions aimed at empowering civil society partners in the development of alternative narratives online,” the statement said.

Social media companies have long seen themselves as neutral platforms for other people to share information, and have traditionally been cautious about taking down objectionable material. But as social media platforms have increasingly been used to recruit jihadis, radicalize young people, share fake news and incite extremism, they have come under pressure from governments to take action.

Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube in June created the Global Internet Forum to Combat Terrorism, which got an early boost when British Prime Minister Theresa May used a speech to the U.N. General Assembly to applaud the initiative and demand internet companies develop technology to more quickly identify and remove terrorist content.

The alliance says it is committed to developing new content detection technology, to helping smaller companies combat extremism and to promoting “counter-speech,” content meant to blunt the impact of extremist material.

The G-7 endorsed the aims and pledged to work collaboratively across the industry to counter the “misuse of technology” by terrorist organizations.

Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said “a great alliance” had been formed between world governments and major internet providers. While stressing the internet has been an important tool for promoting freedom, “at the same time we all together have agreed that al-Qaida and Islamic State are enemies of our freedoms.”

Several ministers said that while the industry had made progress to quickly remove extremist content, more needed to be done, and faster.

“Our enemies are moving at the speed of a tweet, so we have to counter them just as quickly,” said acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke.

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At G-7, Social Media Firms Pushed to Do More to Fight Terror

Technology firms have improved cooperation with the authorities in tackling online militant material but must act quicker to remove propaganda fueling a rise in homegrown extremism, acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said Wednesday.

The United States and Britain will push social media firms at a meeting of G7 interior ministers this week to do more on the issue, Duke told reporters in London where she had been meeting British Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

Duke said there has been a change in the attitude of tech companies since a rally organized by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August turned deadly when a counter-protester was killed by a car driven into a crowd.

“There has been a shift and for us somewhat with the Charlottesville incident,” she said. “There are a lot of social pressures and they want do business so they really have to balance between keeping their user agreements and giving law enforcement what they need.

“The fact they are meeting with us at G7 is a positive sign. I think they’re seeing the evidence of it being real and not just hyperbole.”

Series of attacks

After a series of Islamist militant attacks this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May and her ministers such as Rudd have been demanding action from tech leaders such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to do more about extremist material on their sites.

British politicians have also called for access to encrypted messaging services like Facebook’s WhatsApp, a campaign that U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave his backing to after meeting Rudd and the head of the UK domestic spy agency MI5 last week.

Internet companies say they want to help governments remove extremist or criminal material but say they have to balance the demands of state security with civil liberties.

“We would like to have the ability to get encrypted data with the right legal processes,” Duke said.

Propaganda’s role

Asked what action governments might take if social media firms failed to act to improve their removal of extremist material, she said: “We will continue to push as far as we can go. I think that we have the cooperation of those companies and we just need to work on that.”

Authorities say propaganda from Islamic State has played a major part in radicalizing people in the West but despite its defeat in its capital Raqqa in Syria, Duke said the group’s online presence was likely to increase.

“I would surmise being able to put terrorist propaganda on the internet might become more imperative,” said Duke, who described the terrorist threat to the United States as being as high as it had been since pre-9/11.

She also warned that those who turned to violence by being radicalized by such material posed a bigger problem than the comparatively small number of fighters who had joined the militant group returning to United States.

“The number of foreign fighters we have returning is declining,” she said. “The number of home-grown violent extremists, most of them inspired by terrorist organizations, is increasing.”

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Iridium to Rely on Used SpaceX Boosters for Next 2 Launches

Iridium Communications says its next two launches of new-generation satellites will use refurbished SpaceX Falcon 9 first-stage boosters that have flown previously.

The announcement Thursday is another step in SpaceX’s effort to reduce launch costs.

 

The company has launched a few used boosters and is trying to expand acceptance of reusability across the industry.

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has had successful landings of Falcon 9 first stages after launches from both coasts.

Iridium is in the midst of seven launches to replace its satellite fleet that provides global mobile voice and data communications.

The McLean, Virginia, company says insurers confirmed there is no increase in premiums for “flight-proven” rocket use.

Thirty new satellites are in orbit and the fourth launch is scheduled for Dec. 22 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

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