Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

Grammar-Proofing Startup by Ukrainian Techies Helps Foreign Students

Some foreign students in U.S. schools find it challenging to submit grammatically correct, idiomatically accurate papers. So two former Ukrainian graduate students launched an artificial intelligence-driven grammar-proofing program that goes well beyond spell-check. Today, their 8-year-old startup, Grammarly, whose first venture round netted $110 million in May, has offices in Ukraine and the U.S. VOA Ukrainian Service correspondent Tatiana Vorozhko has the story.

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UN to Host Talks on Use of ‘Killer Robots’

The United Nations is set to host talks on the use of autonomous weapons, but those hoping for a ban on the machines dubbed “killer robots” will be disappointed, the ambassador leading the discussions said Friday.

More than 100 artificial intelligence entrepreneurs led by Tesla’s Elon Musk in August urged the U.N. to enforce a global ban on fully automated weapons, echoing calls from activists who have warned the machines will put civilians at enormous risk.

A U.N. disarmament grouping known as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) will on Monday begin five days of talks on the issue in Geneva.

But anything resembling a ban, or even a treaty, remains far off, said the Indian ambassador on disarmament, Amandeep Gill, who is chairing the meeting.

“It would be very easy to just legislate a ban but I think … rushing ahead in a very complex subject is not wise,” he told reporters. “We are just at the starting line.”

He said the discussion, which will also include civil society and technology companies, will be partly focused on understanding the types of weapons in the pipeline.

Proponents of a ban, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots pressure group, insist that human beings must ultimately be responsible for the final decision to kill or destroy.

They argue that any weapons system that delegates the decision on an individual strike to an algorithm is by definition illegal, because computers cannot be held accountable under international humanitarian law.

Gill said there was agreement that “human beings have to remain responsible for decisions that involve life and death.”

But, he added, there are varying opinions on the mechanics through which “human control” must govern deadly weapons.

Machines ‘can’t apply the law’

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is mandated to safeguard the laws of conflict, has not called for a ban, but has underscored the need to place limits on autonomous weapons.

“Our bottom line is that machines can’t apply the law and you can’t transfer responsibility for legal decisions to machines,” Neil Davison of the ICRC’s arms unit told AFP.

He highlighted the problematic nature of weapons that involve major variables in terms of the timing or location of an attack — for example, something that is deployed for multiple hours and programmed to strike whenever it detects an enemy target.

“Where you have a degree of unpredictability or uncertainty in what’s going to happen when you activate this weapons system, then you are going to start to have problems for legal compliance,” he said.

Flawed meeting?

Next week’s U.N. meeting will also feature wide-ranging talks on artificial intelligence, triggering criticism that the CCW was drowning itself in discussions about new technologies instead of zeroing in on the urgent issue.

“There is a risk in going too broad at this moment,” said Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch, who is the coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

“The need is to focus on lethal autonomous weapons,” she told AFP.

The open letter co-signed by Musk as well as Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of Google’s DeepMind, warned that killer robots could become “weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.”

“Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” they said.

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From Grey to Green: Smokestack Cities Power to Bright Future

Bicycle highways, urban farms and local energy hubs — just some of the ways that yesterday’s smokestack cities are turning into tomorrow’s green spaces.

The Urban Transitions Alliance (UTA), a network that brings together cities in Germany, the United States and China, launched this week to help members learn regeneration tricks from each other.

“What to do with your brownfield sites, how to transition with citizens in mind, create new jobs — these cities have a lot of challenges in common,” said Roman Mendle, Smart Cities program manager at ICLEI, an international association of local governments.

As up to 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are generated in urban areas, cities have to play a leading role in addressing climate change.

Experts from more than 20 countries met in Essen, Germany, this week to launch the UTA and thrash out how post-industrial cities can reinvent themselves in plans that will be submitted to the U.N. climate talks in Bonn this week.

Essen, once a coal and steel city known as Germany’s “Graue Maus” (grey mouse) for its polluted air and waterways, has gained a reputation as a trailblazer for sustainability, becoming the European Commission’s European Green Capital 2017.

“There is a lot of know-how in Essen on how to transition from the age of carbon to a post-carbon world,” said Simone Raskob, Essen’s deputy mayor and head of its environment department.

“No city can do this by itself. There are a lot of challenges,” Raskob, who leads the European Green City – Essen 2017 project, told Reuters.

Experts praise Essen for cleaning up its waterways, creating green spaces and turning grimy industrial sites into dynamic cultural centers, such as the Zeche Zollverein, a towering UNESCO World Heritage site that arose from a disused coal mine.

To ease traffic congestion, Essen built Germany’s first bike highway, connecting with a 100-km (62-mile) regional network.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh, once a dynamo of U.S. heavy industry, has shifted from a fossil fuel-based economy, reinventing itself as a hub for green buildings innovation and clean energy.

The former steel city has been switching over to LED street lights, retro-fitting municipal buildings for energy efficiency and developing district energy initiatives.

The city will also host the largest U.S. urban farm: 23 acres (9 hectares) on a site where low-income housing once stood.

“One of the key things we have recognized is that becoming greener also brings economic benefits,” said Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer.

Founding UTA members include districts of Beijing and Shijiazhuang in China; Buffalo and Cincinnati in the United States; and Dortmund in Germany.

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Frog-count App Aims for Deep Dive into Australia’s Population

An Australian museum has teamed up with computer giant International Business Machines to count the country’s native frog population, and they want amphibian enthusiasts to jump on board.

The Australian Museum and IBM say they developed the world’s first smartphone app especially designed to let users record and report frog calls, croaks and chirps — without disturbing them.

Australia has 240 named native species of frog, and the museum wants to use its FrogID app to identify what it believes are dozens more still ribbiting under the radar.

“One of the cool things about this is you can survey frogs just by listening,” said Jodi Rowley, the museum’s curator of amphibian and reptile conservation biology.

“It’s actually a lot more accurate than photos, and photos encourage people to handle or disturb frogs,” Rowley added. She noted that every frog species has a unique call.

While frog populations are in decline around the world, Australia’s frogs are especially vulnerable because of a combination of climate change, pollution, introduced species and urban development, the country’s Department of Environment and Energy says.

According to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act four frog varieties are extinct, five are critically endangered, 14 are endangered and a further 10 are considered vulnerable.

Scientists say the presence of frogs in an ecosystem is a sign of good environmental health, but the small amphibians are highly sensitive to changes in their habitat.

Rowley said she hopes campers, hikers and other serious nature lovers will help with the research, but she noted that even the humble backyard fishpond could provide valuable data.

“It might allow us to figure out which areas of suburbia are really good for frogs, why they are good and hopefully help create more frog friendly habitats in suburbia,” she said.

Rowley said amateurs who record previously unknown frog calls may even help discover a new type of frog or determine if any introduced species have gone unnoticed.

“All these things will help us — and help Australia — make sure that frogs don’t croak,” she said.

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Zuckerberg Nears End of US Tour, Wants to Boost Small Business

What’s Mark Zuckerberg’s biggest takeaway as he wraps up a year of travel to dozens of U.S. states? The importance of local communities.

To this end, Facebook’s CEO is announcing a program to boost small businesses and give people technical skills on and off Facebook. The move shows how intertwined Facebook has become not just in our social lives, but in entrepreneurs’ economic survival and growth. Facebook says 70 million small businesses use its service. Only 6 million of them advertise.


Called Community Boost, the program will visit 30 U.S. cities next year and work with local groups to train people in skills such as coding, building websites – and naturally, using Facebook for their business.


Zuckerberg says the effort is not just about Facebook’s business but its core mission.


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Trump Skirts ‘Great Firewall’ to Tweet About Beijing Trip

U.S. President Donald Trump went around and over the “Great Firewall” of China in a late-night tweet in Beijing as he thanked his hosts for a rare tour of the Forbidden City and a private dinner at the sprawling, centuries-old palace complex.

Many Western social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are banned in China. A sophisticated system has been built to deny online users within China access to blocked content.

That was not an issue for Trump, known for tweeting to his 42.3 million followers at any hour of the day, Wednesday, the day he arrived in Beijing.

“On behalf of @FLOTUS Melania and I, THANK YOU for an unforgettable afternoon and evening at the Forbidden City in Beijing, President Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan. We are looking forward to rejoining you tomorrow morning!”

Trump even changed his Twitter banner, uploading a photograph of himself and Melania with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, during a Chinese opera performance at the Forbidden City.

The Twitter banner upload did not go unnoticed by Chinese state media, with state broadcaster CCTV flashing screenshots of the photograph Thursday.

Trump’s visit was also the third-most talked-about topic on Chinese social media platform Weibo over the last 24 hours, trailing only the birthday of a singer in a Chinese boy band and a weekly Asian pop song chart.

Many people wondered how Trump managed to evade China’s tough internet controls.

“I guess he must have done it via WiFi on a satellite network,” said a user on Weibo.

Many foreigners log on to virtual private networks (VPNs) to access content hosted outside of China. Another option is to sign up for a data-roaming service before leaving one’s home country.

Not all of Trump’s tweets in China were bright and cheerful.

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Congress, Silicon Valley Seek Common Ground on Social Media Interference

Executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter faced anger from lawmakers last week over their platforms’ roles in Russian interference into the 2016 election. But for Silicon Valley, the biggest challenge lies ahead as tech companies look for ways to work with a U.S. Congress intent on closing legal loopholes before 2018 midterm elections.

Congressional scrutiny showed U.S. law has fallen behind the rapid growth of social media. Without rules governing paid political advertising on social media, foreign agents were free to post false or inflammatory material in an attempt manipulate public opinion. But lawmakers remain optimistic about the opportunity to learn from the past.

“If there is a place that has ever understood change, it’s Silicon Valley. It is based on disruption. It’s based on people taking risks,” Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, told VOA.

Greater transparency

Eshoo, whose congressional district covers part of Silicon Valley, has been a longtime advocate for greater transparency in the more traditional fields of TV and print political advertising.

“When citizens know who has paid for something, it has an effect on their thinking,” Eshoo said. “It doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t still be Americans that would like that divisive ad. But at least they’ll know where it comes from, and you can have a much clearer debate about who is saying what and what they are attempting to do.”

The HONEST Ads Act, a legislative proposal recently introduced in both houses of Congress, follows along those lines.

If passed, the bill would regulate online political ads under the same rules as broadcast advertisements, requiring companies to keep a public database storing those ads and providing information about their funding.

“Americans deserve to know who’s paying for the online ads,” Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a co-sponsor of the bill, said last month. “Even if the Russian interference hadn’t occurred, we should still be updating our laws. Our laws should be as sophisticated as those who are trying to manipulate us.”

“Creating a database like that is going to be hard and complicated and messy. It’s a good idea that’s going to have a tough execution,” Dave Karpf, a professor of political communication at George Washington University, told VOA.

Karpf said that while there are no perfect solutions, it’s important to recognize the tech companies for what they’ve become.

“Facebook and Google are media companies — they’re just different media companies then we’re used to seeing,” he said. “They’re not broadcasters, but they are information platforms. And they’re quasi-monopolies — even a benevolent monopoly is a bad thing for public discourse and public knowledge.”

But none of the social media heads would fully commit to support of the bill as it now stands during their congressional testimony, appearing instead to favor a self-policing approach.

Battling fake news

Addressing paid political advertisements on social media platforms is just one part of the puzzle. The 2016 election revealed a vast ecosystem of fake news that will be almost impossible to police.

“What’s an even greater problem is that the Russians and others are setting up sites to deliberately disseminate misinformation — false news, fake news, what have you — they are not identifying themselves as Russian-sponsored,” said Mark Jacobson, a professor at Georgetown University and co-author of an October 2017 report on Russian cybermeddling.

“This is the larger problem for Facebook and other social media companies — how to handle the deliberate disinformation — and I’m not so sure the solution is legislative,” Jacobson said.

Eshoo downplayed talk that these challenges signal a downturn for tech innovators, saying it’s time lawmakers, companies and citizens took on a shared responsibility.

“We need to do a much better job with this,” she said. “We’re going to need them to cooperate with us. I don’t think that there has to be a slugfest on this.” She said the social media companies need to tell Congress how, in terms of their engineering and their algorithms, they can best accomplish what lawmakers set forth.

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FBI Again Finds Itself Unable to Unlock a Gunman’s Cellphone

The Texas church massacre is providing a familiar frustration for law enforcement: FBI agents are unable to unlock the gunman’s encrypted cellphone to learn what evidence it might hold.


But while heart-wrenching details of the rampage that left more than two dozen people dead might revive the debate over the balance of digital privacy rights and national security, it’s not likely to prompt change anytime soon.


Congress has not shown a strong appetite for legislation that would force technology companies to help the government break into encrypted phones and computers. And the fiery public debate surrounding the FBI’s legal fight with Apple Inc. has largely faded since federal authorities announced they were able to access a locked phone in a terror case without the help of the technology giant.


As a candidate, Donald Trump called on Americans to boycott Apple unless it helped the FBI hack into the phone, but he hasn’t been as vocal as president.


Still, the issue re-emerged Tuesday, when Christopher Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio division, said agents had been unable to get into the cellphone belonging to Devin Patrick Kelley, who slaughtered much of the congregation in the middle of a Sunday service.


“It highlights an issue you’ve all heard about before. With the advance of the technology and the phones and the encryption, law enforcement is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” Combs told reporters, saying the device was being flown to an FBI lab for analysis.


Combs didn’t identify the make or model, but a U.S. official briefed by law enforcement told The Associated Press it was an Apple iPhone.


“We’re working very hard to get into that phone, and that will continue until we find an answer,” Combs said.


Combs was telegraphing a longstanding frustration of the FBI, which claims encryption has stymied investigations of everything from sex crimes against children to drug cases, even if they obtain a warrant for the information. Agents have been unable to retrieve data from half the mobile devices – more than 6,900 phones, computers and tablets – that they tried to access in less than a year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said last month, wading into an issue that also vexed his predecessor, James Comey. Comey spoke before Congress and elsewhere about the bureau’s inability to access digital devices. But the Obama White House never publicly supported legislation that would have forced technology companies to give the FBI a back door to encrypted information, leaving Comey’s hands tied to propose a specific legislative fix.

Bad idea, some believe


Security experts generally believe such encryption backdoors are a terrible idea that could expose a vast amount of private, business and government data to hackers and spies. That’s because those backdoor keys would work for bad guys as well as good guys – and the bad guys would almost immediately target them for theft, and might even be able to recreate them from scratch.


Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took aim at Silicon Valley’s methods for protecting privacy during a speech last month, saying Trump’s Justice Department would be more aggressive in seeking information from technology companies. He took a harder line than his predecessors but stopped short of saying what specific steps the administration might take.


Washington has proven incapable of solving a problem that an honest conversation could fix, said David Hickton, a former U.S. attorney who now directs a cyber law institute at the University of Pittsburgh.


“We wait for a mass disaster to sharpen the discussion about this, when we should have been talking about it since San Bernardino,” he said. “Reasonable people of good will could resolve this problem. I don’t think it’s dependent on the political wins or who is the FBI director. It’s begging for a solution.”


Even so, the facts of the church shooting may not make it the most powerful case against warrant-proof encryption. When the FBI took Apple to court in February 2016 to force it to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, investigators believed the device held clues about whom the couple communicated with and where they may have traveled.


But Combs didn’t say what investigators hoped to retrieve from Kelley’s phone, and investigators already have ample information about his motive. Authorities in Texas say the church shooting was motivated by the gunman’s family troubles, rather than terrorism, and investigators have not said whether they are seeking possible co-conspirators.


Investigators may have other means to get the information they seek. If the Texas gunman backed up his phone online, they can get a copy of that with a legal order – usually a warrant. They can also get warrants for any accounts he had at server-based internet services such as Facebook, Twitter and Google.


In the California case, the FBI ultimately broke into the phone by paying an unidentified vendor for a hacking tool to access the phone without Apple’s help, averting a court battle.


The FBI has not yet asked Apple for help unlocking Kelley’s phone as it continues to analyze the device, according to the U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the case and did so on condition of anonymity. Another person familiar with the matter, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the discussions, said Apple contacted the FBI on its own to offer technical advice after learning from a Texas news conference that the bureau was trying to access the cellphone.


Former federal prosecutor Joseph DeMarco, who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of groups that supported the Justice Department against Apple, said he was hopeful the case would spur fresh discussion. If not by itself, he said, the shooting could be one of several cases that prompt the Justice Department to take other technology companies to court.


“Eventually, the courts will rule on this or a legislative fix will be imposed,” he said. “Eventually, the pressure will mount.”

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