Microsoft Updates Bing Search to Highlight Reputable Results

Microsoft on Wednesday rolled out new features on its Bing search engine powered by artificial intelligence, including one that summarizes the two opposing sides of contentious questions, and another that measures how many reputable sources are behind a given answer.

Tired of delivering misleading information when their algorithms are gamed by trolls and purveyors of fake news, Microsoft and its tech-company rivals have been going out of their way to show they can be purveyors of good information — either by using better algorithms or hiring more human moderators.  

Second-place search engine 

Microsoft is also trying to distinguish its 2nd-place search engine from long-dominant Google and position itself as an innovator in finding real-world applications for the latest advances in artificial intelligence.

“As a search engine we have a responsibility to provide answers that are comprehensive and objective,” said Jordi Ribas, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for AI products.

Bing’s new capabilities are designed to give users more confidence that an answer is correct and save them time so they don’t have to click through multiple links to validate it themselves. 

“You could be asking, ‘Is coffee good for you?’ We know that there are no good answers for that,” Ribas said. But the new search features side-by-side opposing perspectives. One source emphasizes coffee’s ability to increase metabolism and another shows it can raise blood pressure. Similar questions can also be asked on more sensitive topics, such as whether the death penalty is a good idea.

Digestible doses

On more complicated questions — is there a god? — Bing doesn’t have enough confidence to provide a pro-con perspective. But on questions that involve numbers, it boils information down into digestible doses. Iraq, for instance, is described as “about equal to the size of California.”

Search engines have evolved since Google took the lead at the turn of the 21st century, when rankings were based on “link analysis” that assigned credibility to sites based on how many other sites linked to them. As machines get better at reading and summarizing paragraphs, users expect not just a list of links but a quick and authoritative answer, said Harry Shum, who leads Microsoft’s 8,000-person research and AI division. To test its technology, the company has compared its machine-reading skills to the verbal score on the SAT.

“We are not at 800 yet, but we bypassed President Bush a long time ago,” Shum jokes.

Sophisticated searches

 The demand for more sophisticated searches has also grown as people have moved from typing questions to voicing them on the road or in their kitchen.

“If you use Bing or Google nowadays you recognize that more and more often you’ll see direct answers on the top of search result pages,” Shum said. “We’re getting to the point that for probably about 10 percent of those queries we’ll see answers.”

Shum is hesitant to over-promise Bing’s new features as an antidote to the misinformation flooding the internet. 

“At the end of the day, people have their own judgments,” he said.

The search engine features were announced along with updates to Microsoft’s voice assistant Cortana and a new search partnership with the popular online forum Reddit.

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US Immigration Activists Make Push for DACA on National Mall

Undocumented immigrants, DACA recipients and immigrant rights advocates on Wednesday officially opened Dream Act Central, a tent space on Washington’s National Mall that will serve as headquarters for a final push this year to urge Congress to pass legislation replacing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

More than 900 immigrant youths and their families are scheduled to stop at the temporary headquarters in the next two weeks to share their stories and visit lawmakers in Congress. 

In front of the tent, a large-screen television has been erected facing Capitol Hill, showing stories of young undocumented immigrants, known informally as Dreamers. The term is based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act — the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — that would have provided residence and employment protections for young immigrants similar to those in DACA.

“I’m going to be here every day,” Nestor Ruiz told VOA. 

Ruiz immigrated to the United States along with his mother and siblings when he was 5. “This is my home. I don’t know anywhere else,” he said. 

Protection for young immigrants

Ruiz is a beneficiary of DACA, an administrative program begun during the administration of former President Barack Obama. The program protected certain undocumented immigrant youths from deportation and granted them work permits for renewable two-year periods. In September, President Donald Trump ended DACA. Permits will start to phase out in March 2018. Ruiz’s DACA permit is valid until June 2019.

“We have a huge screen behind our Congress. Basically, the goal is to get immigrant youth across the country who can’t make it to D.C. to be able to share their story, to share a picture of why they need a clean DREAM Act now,” he said. 

Organizers from United We Dream, the advocacy group behind Dream Act Central and the television display, said, “Anytime [House Speaker] Paul Ryan looks out the window, he’ll see the faces of immigrant youth who would be deported unless Congress passes the DREAM Act this year.”

The 22-foot-by-13-foot screen, dubbed the “DreamActTron,” will display 24-hour-a-day video and pictures of hundreds of DACA recipients. It will stay on for the next two weeks. The goal, advocates say, is to get DACA replacement legislation linked to the spending bill that is scheduled for a vote on December 22.

Some Democrats have remained firm in linking the spending legislation to a measure that would allow nearly 800,000 DACA immigrants to continue to work and study in the United States.

Speaking Wednesday at Dream Act Central, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois said he wished he could “tell you that we’re totally confident we can get it done I can’t say that. I don’t want to mislead you.

“I’ll tell you this: You can count on me to give a total commitment to use every minute of every day to move us to the moment where the DREAM Act becomes the law of the land.”

‘We are here to stay’

Greisa Martinez, a DACA recipient and United We Dream advocacy director, said that with Dream Act Central, immigrant youth are declaring, “We are here, and we are here to stay.”

Martinez is one of the 1 million young immigrants who would qualify for protection under a new DREAM Act. “I’m unafraid, and I’m here to stay. … I’ve been fighting for this for the past 10 years,” she said. 

Martinez is from Hidalgo, Mexico, and moved to the U.S. with her family at an early age. She grew up in Dallas, Texas. 

Dream Act Central, she said, is an idea that comes from the “hearts of people” who want to make sure that lawmakers and their staffs can’t miss the fact “that we are holding space, and that we’re not going anywhere.” 

But Republican lawmakers are not in a hurry.

“There is no emergency. The president has given us until March to address it,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Sunday on ABC’s This Week program. “I don’t think Democrats would be very smart to say they want to shut down the government over a nonemergency that we can address anytime between now and March.”

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Jones Victory in Alabama Could Signal Democratic Wave in 2018

The political landscape in the United States looks a bit different in the wake of Tuesday’s Senate election victory by Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama.

In an outcome few could have imagined several weeks ago, Jones defeated controversial Republican candidate Roy Moore, who had the backing of President Donald Trump. In the wake of Jones’ victory, Democrats are more confident about success in next year’s congressional midterm elections, and Republicans are looking for a way to rebound.

Late Tuesday, Jones paid tribute to the voters and staffers who supported him in his longshot victory over Moore. “This campaign has been about common courtesy and decency and making sure everyone in this state, regardless of which ZIP code you live in, is going to get a fair shake in life!” he told supporters.

Republicans split on Moore

Moore was unable to overcome allegations of sexual misconduct stemming back decades involving several women who were teenagers at the time while Moore was in his 30s.

Moore stopped short of conceding the race, however, saying, “We have been painted in an unfavorable and unfaithful light. We have been put in a hole, if you will, and it reminds me of a [Bible] passage in Psalms 40, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord.’ That is what we have got to do.”

Moore had the full backing of the president in the final days of the campaign after Trump initially held back his endorsement in the wake of the allegations against Moore.

Trump: I wanted the seat

The president responded Wednesday to questions at the White House about the Alabama race and said that he had hoped for a different result.

“I wish we would have gotten the seat. A lot of Republicans feel differently. They are very happy with the way it turned out,” he said. “But as the leader of the party, I would have liked to have the seat. I want to endorse the people who are running.”

Jones won in large part because of a strong Democratic turnout, especially by African-Americans. Moore was hurt by a depressed Republican turnout and a write-in campaign that drained away votes.

Democrats also saw similarities between the Jones victory and Democratic wins last month in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, which could portend a successful midterm congressional campaign in 2018.

“So you put all that together — the base being energized, millennials overwhelmingly Democratic, suburbs swinging back to the Democrats — and it means that things are looking good for us,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters at the Capitol.

‘A wave building’?

Jones’ victory in a heavily Republican state like Alabama is sure to send political shockwaves around the country as both parties look ahead to next year’s elections.

And some Republicans are growing increasingly concerned that Trump’s weak national approval rating fueled Democratic energy in the recent elections. In one new survey from Quinnipiac University, Trump’s approval rating bumped up slightly to 37 percent. Another new poll from Monmouth University, however, had the president down at 32 percent, a drop of eight points from its last survey in September.

In addition to Alabama, the recent Democratic statewide wins in Virginia and New Jersey have energized Democrats, according to several analysts.

“If I were running Republican campaigns for Senate, for the House, for governor, for state legislature, I would be really, really worried because there appears to be a wave building and it has a giant ‘D’ on it — ‘D’ for ‘Democrat,’ ” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said via Skype.

Governing becomes harder

Experts see the Democratic victory in Alabama not only as a rejection of Moore as a flawed candidate but also as a setback for Trump.

He defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in Alabama by a margin of 62 to 34 percent in the 2016 election. However, exit polls from Tuesday’s race found that Alabama voters were deadlocked on Trump’s job performance, with 48 percent approving and the same percentage disapproving.

Jones will now serve out the remaining two years of the term of Jeff Sessions, who left the Senate to serve as Trump’s attorney general. Republicans will now have to push through their agenda with one Senate seat fewer in a body that is already sharply divided.

“We see that Republicans, once Jones is seated, will now have a 51- instead of a 52-seat majority in the Senate, and we have seen time and again, over the course of the year, that they have trouble governing with just 52 seats. Those challenges won’t get easier when they lose one of those senators,” said analyst Molly Reynolds at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

As if to counter the Democrats’ good news on Wednesday, House and Senate Republican leaders said they had now agreed on a final version of a tax reform bill, a key campaign promise made by the president.

Republicans hope to iron out final differences in House and Senate versions of the tax cut bill, have it passed by both chambers and signed into law by the president in the next few weeks.

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Trump Administration Calls for Government IT to Adopt Cloud Services

The White House said Wednesday the U.S. government needs a major overhaul of information technology systems and should take steps to better protect data and accelerate efforts to use cloud-based technology.

“Difficulties in agency prioritization of resources in support of IT modernization, ability to procure services quickly, and technical issues have resulted in an unwieldy and out-of-date federal IT infrastructure,” the White House said in a report.

The report outlined a timeline over the next year for IT reforms and a detailed implementation plan. The report said one unnamed cloud-based email provider has agreed to assist in keeping track of government spending on cloud-based email migration.

President Donald Trump in April signed an executive order creating a new technology council to overhaul the U.S. government’s information technology systems.

The report said the federal government must eliminate barriers to using commercial cloud-based technology. “Federal agencies must consolidate their IT investments and place more trust in services and infrastructure operated by others,” the report found. Government agencies often pay dramatically different prices for the same IT item, the report said, sometimes three or four times as much.

Amazon.com Inc, Microsoft Corp, Alphabet Corp’s Google and Intel Corp are making big investments in the fast-growing cloud computing business.

A 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office report estimated the U.S. government spends more than $80 billion on IT annually but said spending has fallen by $7.3 billion since 2010.

In 2015, there were at least 7,000 separate IT investments by the U.S. government. The $80 billion figure does not include Defense Department classified IT systems and 58 independent executive branch agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency.

The GAO report said U.S. government IT investments “are becoming increasingly obsolete: many use outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported.”

The GAO report found some agencies are using systems that have components that are at least 50 years old.

Agencies typically buy their own IT systems independently, the White House said Wednesday. A “lack of common standards and lack of coordination drives costly redundancies and inefficiencies.”

The White House said in June that most of the government’s 6,100 data centers can be consolidated and moved to a cloud-based storage system.

Various U.S. government systems have been the target of hacking and data breaches in recent years. In September, the Securities and Exchange Commission, America’s chief stock market regulator, said cybercriminals may have used data stolen last year.

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Men due to Leave Gitmo Under Obama Seem Stuck Under Trump

Abdellatif Nasser got what he thought was the best news possible in the summer of 2016: One of his lawyers called him at the Guantanamo Bay detention center and told him that the U.S. decided he no longer posed a threat and could go home to Morocco.

The prisoner allowed himself to get excited, to think about Moroccan food, imagining he would be home in no time. “I’ve been here 14 years,” he said at the time. “A few months more is nothing.”

But his optimism turned out to be misplaced. A diplomatic agreement that would have allowed him to go free was not returned by Morocco until Dec. 28, eight days too late to meet a deadline to be among the last prisoners to leave under President Barack Obama.

Now, he is one of five prisoners who the U.S. cleared to go but whose freedom is in doubt under President Donald Trump.

“We had hoped until the last moment that he might still be released,” said Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, the lawyer who told him about his pending release and shared her notes from the conversation. “When it didn’t happen we were crushed. That eight-day foible has turned into a potential lifetime of detention.”

The Trump administration has not released any prisoners and not added any to the list of cleared men who can go home, or to a third country, for resettlement. There were 197 transferred out under his predecessor and more than 500 under President George W. Bush.

Obama sought to close the detention center but was thwarted by Congress because of objections over transferring any of the remaining detainees to facilities in the U.S.

“It is entirely unprecedented for an administration to take the position that there will be no transfers out of Guantanamo without regard to the facts, without regard to individual circumstances,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, a detainee attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

The administration has not announced its policy toward the detention center. But Trump said on Twitter before he took office that there should be no further releases from “Gitmo,” as it’s often called. “These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield,” he said.

Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a Pentagon spokesman for issues related to Guantanamo, said detainee case files will still be reviewed on a periodic basis but the government “is still considering whether or not to transfer detainees.”

A National Security Council spokeswoman, Tara Rigler, noted that the president has said the detention center will “remain an available option in the war on terrorism.” She said he will make any decisions related to detainees “on a case-by-case basis and in the best interest of the United States,” but she declined to go into further detail.

The possibility that former Guantanamo prisoners would resume hostile activities has long been a concern that has played into the debate over releases. The office of the Director of National Intelligence said this summer in its most recent report on the subject that about 17 percent of the 728 detainees who have been released are “confirmed” and 12 percent are “suspected” of re-engaging in such activities.

But the vast majority of those re-engagements occurred with former prisoners who did not go through the security review that was set up under Obama. A task force that included agencies such as the Defense Department and CIA analyzed who was held at Guantanamo and determined who could be released and who should continue in detention. The previous administration also created a Periodic Review Board that considered not just the potential threat, but also such factors as detainees’ behavior in custody and their prospects for meaningful work on the outside. The recidivism rate for those released after those measures were adopted dropped to 4 percent confirmed and 8 percent suspected.

The 41 remaining prisoners include the five approved for transfer and 10 who have been charged by military commission. That leaves 26 in indefinite confinement who could potentially be reviewed and added to the cleared list. Several may still be prosecuted and are unlikely to be set free, but lawyers for the rest are considering filing new legal challenges, arguing that a policy of no releases would mean their confinement can no longer legally be justified as a temporary wartime measure.

In addition to Nasser, the prisoners who have been cleared for release come from Algeria, Yemen and Tunisia. Another was born in the United Arab Emirates but has been identified in Pentagon documents as an ethnic Rohingya who is stateless.

A review board cleared the Algerian, Sufiyan Barhoumi, and he was expected to go just before Obama left office, but then Defense Secretary Ash Carter did not sign off on the transfer and he had to stay behind despite a last-minute legal appeal filed in a federal court in Washington on behalf of him and Nasser. The other three have been approved for release by the task force since at least 2010. It’s not publicly known why the U.S. has not been able to resettle them. A lawyer appointed to represent the one born in the U.A.E. says the man has never agreed to a meeting.

“The daily reality of what it means to them is really settling in,” said Sullivan-Bennis, who met with Nasser and other detainees at the base last week to discuss legal strategies as the men near their 16th year confined at the U.S. base on the southeastern coast of Cuba.

Nasser’s journey to the prison was a long one.

Now 53, he was a member of a non-violent but illegal Moroccan Sufi Islam group in the 1980s, according to his Pentagon file. In 1996, he was recruited to fight in Chechyna but ended up in Afghanistan, where he trained at an al-Qaida camp. He was captured after fighting U.S. forces there and sent to Guantanamo in May 2002.

An unidentified military official appointed to represent him before the review board said he studied math, computer science and English at Guantanamo, creating a 2,000-word Arabic-English dictionary. The official told the board that Nasser “deeply regrets his actions of the past” and expressed confidence he would reintegrate in society. The board approved him by consensus in July 2016.

When Nasser learned he wasn’t going home, he initially stopped taking calls from his lawyers and they feared he might try to kill himself, Sullivan-Bennis said. More recently, she said, he has tried not to lose hope.

Another of his reprieve attorneys, Clive Stafford-Smith, said after visiting the prisoner at Guantanamo last week that Nasser is worried some in his large extended family won’t recognize him if he does go home.

“He holds it in,” the lawyer said. “You can see tears welling up in his eyes but he tries to put up a positive front.”

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Growing Levels of E-Waste Bad for Environment, Health and Economy

A new report finds growing levels of E-waste pose significant risks to the environment and human health and result in huge economic losses for countries around the world.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from the launch of the International Telecommunication Union report in Geneva.

The global information society is racing ahead at top speed.  The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports nearly half of the world uses the internet and most people have access to mobile phones, laptops, televisions, refrigerators and other electronic devices.

But ITU E-waste Technical Expert, Vanessa Gray, said the ever-increasing expansion of technology is creating staggering amounts of electronic waste.

“In 2016, the world generated a total of 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste—that is, electronic and electrical equipment that is discarded,” Gray said. “So, that basically everything that runs on a plug or on a battery.  This is equivalent to about 4,500 Eiffel Towers for the year.” 

The report found Asia generates the greatest amounts of E-waste, followed by Europe and the Americas.  Africa and Oceania produce the least.

Gray warned improper and unsafe treatment and disposal of e-waste pose significant risks to the environment and human health.  She noted that low recycling rates also result in important economic losses, because high value materials – including gold, silver, copper – are not recovered. 

“We estimate that the value of recoverable material contained in the 2016 e-waste is no less than $55 billion US, which is actually more than the Gross Domestic Product in many of the world’s countries,” Gray said.

The report calls for the development of proper legislation to manage e-waste.  It says a growing number of countries are moving in that direction.  Currently, it says 66 percent of the world population, living in 67 countries, is covered by national e-waste management laws.

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WH Denies Trump’s Tweet Against Democratic Senator Was Sexist

U.S. President Donald Trump is facing a backlash after posting an insulting tweet about a Democratic senator from New York. Kirsten Gillibrand said Tuesday that the president is trying to silence her calls for his resignation following renewed allegations by women who claim that Trump harassed them sexually in the past. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports the White House has denied the allegations.

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Italian Laser Device Detects Potentially Dangerous Food Fraud

‘Food Fraud’ costs the food and beverage industry an estimated $30 billion every year. Food fraud is the deliberate substitution or misrepresentation of food products for economic gain. It can be as harmless as selling watered down olive oil, or as dangerous as substituting starch or plastic for rice. But a new laser test developed in Italy can spot the fakes with incredible accuracy. VOAs’ Kevin Enochs reports.

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Democrat Jones Wins Alabama Senate Election

Democrat Doug Jones won the special election to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat representing the southern state of Alabama, delivering what many see as a stunning setback to the Republican Party and a stinging rebuke to President Donald Trump, who urgently endorsed embattled Republican candidate Roy Moore despite a chorus of sexual misconduct allegations.

After a contentious campaign, voters backed Jones over Moore by a margin of 49.9 percent to 48.4 percent.

The result means that in January when Jones is sworn in, the Republican majority in the 100-seat Senate will shrink to 51-49 and make it tougher for President Trump to enact his agenda.

“We have shown not just around the state of Alabama, but we have shown the country the way, that we can be unified,” Jones told cheering supporters in a victory speech Tuesday night. He said the Senate has a lot of work to do on important issues facing the country, including health care, jobs and the economy.

Moore, at his own rally, did not concede the election to Jones.

“It’s not over. It’s going to take some time,” he said.

His campaign pointed to Alabama laws concerning recounts, including a provision that calls for an automatic recount of votes if the margin of victory is less than one-half of one percent.

​Speaking to CNN, Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill said he would find it “highly unlikely” that Jones will not be declared the winner when the vote tally is certified in the coming week. He said there are “not a whole lot of mistakes that are made” during the initial vote-counting process.

Moore had the backing of Trump, but faced opposition from other Republican leaders. He has been accused of sexual misconduct in the 1970s when his female accusers were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

Moore has consistently denied the allegations, but he initially admitted dating young women when he was an attorney general, before denying ever knowing any of his accusers.

Some Republicans, including Alabama’s other senator, Richard Shelby, opted to use write-in votes rather than support Moore. The number of total write-ins was about the same as the margin of victory for Jones.

Trump used Twitter to congratulate Jones while looking ahead to the next election for the Senate seat in 2020.

“The write-in votes played a very big factor, but a win is a win. The people of Alabama are great, and the Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time,” Trump wrote.

Jones is the first Democrat from Alabama to win a Senate seat since 1992 and will serve out the roughly three years remaining in the term Jeff Sessions won in 2014 before stepping down to serve as Trump’s attorney general.

Capri Cafaro, executive in residence at American University’s School of Public Affairs, told VOA that with the demographics of Alabama it is more likely than not that whoever challenges Jones in the 2020 race will win.

She said overall with Jones in the Senate she thinks there will be a slowdown in the Republicans’ legislative agenda, but with a major push already ongoing on tax reform in Congress, Republicans will do their best to finish that work before breaking for a holiday recess at the end of this month.

“Certainly now that the majority has shrunk by one seat and now they only have a one-seat margin, it will be more likely than not the Republicans will try to expedite the process,” she said.

Cafaro added that the controversies surrounding Moore, including his history of statements regarding the LGBT, Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as the recent rise in visibility and consequences surrounding high-profile sexual assault cases in the United States, made a difference in Tuesday’s result.

Jones, who said he was “overwhelmed” by the victory, did not specifically reference Moore in his victory speech, but did allude to some of the same themes.

“This entire race has been about dignity and respect. This campaign has been about the rule of law. This campaign has been about common courtesy and decency and making sure everyone in this state regardless of which zip code you live in is going to get a fair shake in life,” he said.

Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who has announced he will not be running for re-election in his state of Arizona, posted on Twitter last week a picture of a campaign donation he was making to Jones. He followed that Tuesday night with a post that said, “Decency wins.”

Democratic Senator Cory Booker campaigned alongside Jones and said Alabama “gave the whole country a needed renewal of hope and the first ray of light of a rising sun and a coming new day.”

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