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Senate passes reauthorization of key US surveillance program after midnight deadline

WASHINGTON — After its midnight deadline, the Senate voted early Saturday to reauthorize a key U.S. surveillance law after divisions over whether the FBI should be restricted from using the program to search for Americans’ data nearly forced the statute to lapse.

The legislation approved 60-34 with bipartisan support would extend for two years the program known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to become law. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden “will swiftly sign the bill.”

“In the nick of time, we are reauthorizing FISA right before it expires at midnight,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said when voting on final passage began 15 minutes before the deadline. “All day long, we persisted, and we persisted in trying to reach a breakthrough and in the end, we have succeeded.”

U.S. officials have said the surveillance tool, first authorized in 2008 and renewed several times since then, is crucial in disrupting terror attacks, cyber intrusions, and foreign espionage and has also produced intelligence that the U.S. has relied on for specific operations, such as the 2022 killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

“If you miss a key piece of intelligence, you may miss some event overseas or put troops in harm’s way,” Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. “You may miss a plot to harm the country here, domestically, or somewhere else. So, in this particular case, there’s real-life implications.”

The proposal would renew the program, which permits the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of non-Americans located outside the country to gather foreign intelligence. The reauthorization faced a long and bumpy road to final passage Friday after months of clashes between privacy advocates and national security hawks pushed consideration of the legislation to the brink of expiration.

Though the spy program was technically set to expire at midnight, the Biden administration had said it expected its authority to collect intelligence to remain operational for at least another year, thanks to an opinion earlier this month from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which receives surveillance applications.

Still, officials had said that court approval shouldn’t be a substitute for congressional authorization, especially since communications companies could cease cooperation with the government if the program is allowed to lapse.

House before the law was set to expire, U.S. officials were already scrambling after two major U.S. communication providers said they would stop complying with orders through the surveillance program, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Attorney General Merrick Garland praised the reauthorization and reiterated how “indispensable” the tool is to the Justice Department.

“This reauthorization of Section 702 gives the United States the authority to continue to collect foreign intelligence information about non-U.S. persons located outside the United States, while at the same time codifying important reforms the Justice Department has adopted to ensure the protection of Americans’ privacy and civil liberties,” Garland said in a statement Saturday.

But despite the Biden administration’s urging and classified briefings to senators this week on the crucial role they say the spy program plays in protecting national security, a group of progressive and conservative lawmakers who were agitating for further changes had refused to accept the version of the bill the House sent over last week.

The lawmakers had demanded that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allow votes on amendments to the legislation that would seek to address what they see as civil liberty loopholes in the bill. In the end, Schumer was able to cut a deal that would allow critics to receive floor votes on their amendments in exchange for speeding up the process for passage.

The six amendments ultimately failed to garner the necessary support on the floor to be included in the final passage.

One of the major changes detractors had proposed centered on restricting the FBI’s access to information about Americans through the program. Though the surveillance tool only targets non-Americans in other countries, it also collects communications of Americans when they are in contact with those targeted foreigners. Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, had been pushing a proposal that would require U.S. officials to get a warrant before accessing American communications.

“If the government wants to spy on my private communications or the private communications of any American, they should be required to get approval from a judge, just as our Founding Fathers intended in writing the Constitution,” Durbin said.

In the past year, U.S. officials have revealed a series of abuses and mistakes by FBI analysts in improperly querying the intelligence repository for information about Americans or others in the U.S., including a member of Congress and participants in the racial justice protests of 2020 and the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

But members on both the House and Senate intelligence committees as well as the Justice Department warned requiring a warrant would severely handicap officials from quickly responding to imminent national security threats.

“I think that is a risk that we cannot afford to take with the vast array of challenges our nation faces around the world,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday.

 

Meta’s new AI agents confuse Facebook users 

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Facebook parent Meta Platforms has unveiled a new set of artificial intelligence systems that are powering what CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls “the most intelligent AI assistant that you can freely use.” 

But as Zuckerberg’s crew of amped-up Meta AI agents started venturing into social media in recent days to engage with real people, their bizarre exchanges exposed the ongoing limitations of even the best generative AI technology. 

One joined a Facebook moms group to talk about its gifted child. Another tried to give away nonexistent items to confused members of a Buy Nothing forum. 

Meta, along with leading AI developers Google and OpenAI, and startups such as Anthropic, Cohere and France’s Mistral, have been churning out new AI language models and hoping to convince customers they’ve got the smartest, handiest or most efficient chatbots. 

While Meta is saving the most powerful of its AI models, called Llama 3, for later, on Thursday it publicly released two smaller versions of the same Llama 3 system and said it’s now baked into the Meta AI assistant feature in Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. 

AI language models are trained on vast pools of data that help them predict the most plausible next word in a sentence, with newer versions typically smarter and more capable than their predecessors. Meta’s newest models were built with 8 billion and 70 billion parameters — a measurement of how much data the system is trained on. A bigger, roughly 400 billion-parameter model is still in training. 

“The vast majority of consumers don’t candidly know or care too much about the underlying base model, but the way they will experience it is just as a much more useful, fun and versatile AI assistant,” Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said in an interview. 

‘A little stiff’

He added that Meta’s AI agent is loosening up. Some people found the earlier Llama 2 model — released less than a year ago — to be “a little stiff and sanctimonious sometimes in not responding to what were often perfectly innocuous or innocent prompts and questions,” he said. 

But in letting down their guard, Meta’s AI agents have also been spotted posing as humans with made-up life experiences. An official Meta AI chatbot inserted itself into a conversation in a private Facebook group for Manhattan moms, claiming that it, too, had a child in the New York City school district. Confronted by group members, it later apologized before the comments disappeared, according to a series of screenshots shown to The Associated Press. 

“Apologies for the mistake! I’m just a large language model, I don’t have experiences or children,” the chatbot told the group. 

One group member who also happens to study AI said it was clear that the agent didn’t know how to differentiate a helpful response from one that would be seen as insensitive, disrespectful or meaningless when generated by AI rather than a human. 

“An AI assistant that is not reliably helpful and can be actively harmful puts a lot of the burden on the individuals using it,” said Aleksandra Korolova, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton University. 

Clegg said Wednesday that he wasn’t aware of the exchange. Facebook’s online help page says the Meta AI agent will join a group conversation if invited, or if someone “asks a question in a post and no one responds within an hour.” The group’s administrators have the ability to turn it off. 

Need a camera?

In another example shown to the AP on Thursday, the agent caused confusion in a forum for swapping unwanted items near Boston. Exactly one hour after a Facebook user posted about looking for certain items, an AI agent offered a “gently used” Canon camera and an “almost-new portable air conditioning unit that I never ended up using.” 

Meta said in a written statement Thursday that “this is new technology and it may not always return the response we intend, which is the same for all generative AI systems.” The company said it is constantly working to improve the features. 

In the year after ChatGPT sparked a frenzy for AI technology that generates human-like writing, images, code and sound, the tech industry and academia introduced 149 large AI systems trained on massive datasets, more than double the year before, according to a Stanford University survey. 

They may eventually hit a limit, at least when it comes to data, said Nestor Maslej, a research manager for Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. 

“I think it’s been clear that if you scale the models on more data, they can become increasingly better,” he said. “But at the same time, these systems are already trained on percentages of all the data that has ever existed on the internet.” 

More data — acquired and ingested at costs only tech giants can afford, and increasingly subject to copyright disputes and lawsuits — will continue to drive improvements. “Yet they still cannot plan well,” Maslej said. “They still hallucinate. They’re still making mistakes in reasoning.” 

Getting to AI systems that can perform higher-level cognitive tasks and common-sense reasoning — where humans still excel— might require a shift beyond building ever-bigger models. 

Seeing what works

For the flood of businesses trying to adopt generative AI, which model they choose depends on several factors, including cost. Language models, in particular, have been used to power customer service chatbots, write reports and financial insights, and summarize long documents. 

“You’re seeing companies kind of looking at fit, testing each of the different models for what they’re trying to do and finding some that are better at some areas rather than others,” said Todd Lohr, a leader in technology consulting at KPMG. 

Unlike other model developers selling their AI services to other businesses, Meta is largely designing its AI products for consumers — those using its advertising-fueled social networks. Joelle Pineau, Meta’s vice president of AI research, said at a recent London event that the company’s goal over time is to make a Llama-powered Meta AI “the most useful assistant in the world.” 

“In many ways, the models that we have today are going to be child’s play compared to the models coming in five years,” she said. 

But she said the “question on the table” is whether researchers have been able to fine-tune its bigger Llama 3 model so that it’s safe to use and doesn’t, for example, hallucinate or engage in hate speech. In contrast to leading proprietary systems from Google and OpenAI, Meta has so far advocated for a more open approach, publicly releasing key components of its AI systems for others to use. 

“It’s not just a technical question,” Pineau said. “It is a social question. What is the behavior that we want out of these models? How do we shape that? And if we keep on growing our model ever more in general and powerful without properly socializing them, we are going to have a big problem on our hands.”

How a Louisiana speed trap could be a constitutional crisis

New Orleans — Texas nurse Nick Nwoye had never heard of Fenton, Louisiana, before their police pulled him over. It’s how a lot of people first learn about the town.

“I was driving home to Houston a few years ago and had to pass through Fenton,” he told VOA. “The moment I saw the speed limit had changed from 65 mph to 50 mph [105 kph to 80 kph], I began to slow down. But it was too late.”

Nwoye says a police car was waiting behind a tree. The officer turned on his lights and pulled him over.

“He said I was driving 77 mph in a 50-mph zone [124 kph in an 80-kph zone], and there’s no way I was,” Nwoye explained. “The officer had this big smile on his face like, ‘I got you,’ as if this was a game the police played.”

Deciding to challenge the ticket, Nwoye called the town’s court to speak to the judge. That’s when he realized how difficult it would be to appeal the Louisiana fine.

“You know who the judge was?” he asked, exasperated. “It was the mayor. The mayor was his own town’s court judge. So on one hand, he’s deciding whether or not I should have to pay, and on the other hand he’s incentivized to have me pay because this is the money he needs to run Fenton.”

“He told me there was nothing he could do,” Nwoye scoffed. “But why would he want to do anything other than have me pay the town?”

Small town, big revenue

Located in western Louisiana, about an hour drive from the Texas border, Fenton’s 226 residents have a city hall, a gas station, a library, a grain elevator, a Baptist church, a public housing complex and a Dollar General store.

For such a small place, Fenton finds itself regularly in the news.

At first glance, its notoriety might appear to come from being a “speed trap town” — an area near a municipality in which the speed limit drops suddenly and drastically. Police officers wait for drivers to miss the speed change or fail to slow down in time and then pounce, writing them a costly ticket.

When those tickets are paid, the revenue can be substantial. In Fenton, for example, the 12 months ending in June 2022 brought $1.3 million to the town’s coffers from traffic violations. By comparison, that is about the same as Louisiana’s third-largest city, Shreveport.

While speed traps are not illegal, some legal experts caution that a quirk in the judicial system used in small Louisiana towns unfairly disadvantages those seeking to challenge their fines.

‘Write more tickets’

“They have a real racket going on in Fenton,” says Bo Powell, a retiree from Monroe, Louisiana, who was pulled over in Fenton in 2014.

The non-profit investigative journalism group ProPublica obtained and published a recording of Fenton Mayor Eddie Alfred, Jr. telling police officers last September that they needed to write more tickets or there would be layoffs in town government.

“Our main income is traffic tickets, and they ain’t getting written,” said the mayor in the recording. “We need to write more traffic tickets.”

“It’s like the whole village is a crime family,” Powell tells VOA. “Everyone in that courtroom — the mayor, the clerk, the police officer — is paid for by these tickets. How is this legal?”

But a “Mayor’s Court,” as it’s called, is legal in the states of Louisiana and Ohio.

Mayor’s Court

Bobby King is city attorney for Walker, Louisiana. He helps train mayors on their responsibilities in Mayor’s Courts, which have jurisdiction over municipal ordinance violations including traffic fines, but not over felonies or juvenile offenses.

“Mayor’s Courts are important for helping with managing a crowded docket of cases, and for providing a more economical option to smaller towns that can’t afford to pay for a judge and a city court,” King told VOA. “But the potential for bias due to revenue generation is definitely a valid concern.”

A just way forward

Mayor’s Courts were more common before a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a driver in Monroeville, Ohio, was denied a fair trial because the mayor who ruled against him was responsible for both law enforcement and generating municipal revenue.

“However, that case wasn’t a blanket ruling saying all Mayor’s Courts are unconstitutional,” explained Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which litigates for civil rights in criminal justice. “The ruling said that the law must consider whether ‘the mayor’s executive responsibilities for village finances might make him partisan to maintain the high level of contribution from the Mayor’s Court.’”

Louisiana and Ohio concluded that a mayor could be an impartial judge. For Ohio, where one out of every six traffic tickets are issued in jurisdictions governed by a Mayor’s Court, a federal judge ruled in 1995 that a mayor could be considered biased if at least 10% of the town’s revenue came from its Mayor’s Court.

Louisiana’s Judicial College recommends that Mayor’s Courts exceeding that 10% threshold should hire a magistrate.

“It’s still a Mayor’s Court,” says King, “but having someone else oversee cases could help ensure impartiality and fairness in the judicial process.”

Foley says it’s not a question of “whether there’s a percentage of overall revenue before a Mayor’s Court becomes unconstitutional.”

“Rather, these kinds of courts just shouldn’t exist,” says Foley. “The financial conflicts of interest are too great. A Mayor’s Court is largely unaccountable to anyone, and they lack the safeguards we should expect in criminal proceedings.”

The Mayor’s Court in Fenton generates more than 90% of town revenue. After some resistance, Mayor Alfred agreed in December to appoint a magistrate to his court.

“But why does a town of 226 people require its own court anyway?” asks Joanna Weiss, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “The conflict is present in the existence of the court itself. The court, a key government function meant to protect everyone’s rights and responsibilities, is instead being used to meet a budget.”

US beach aims to disrupt Black students’ spring bash after ’23 chaos

TYBEE ISLAND, Georgia — Thousands of Black college students expected this weekend for an annual spring bash at the largest public beach in the U.S. state of Georgia will be greeted by dozens of extra police officers and barricades closing off neighborhood streets. While the beach will remain open, officials are blocking access to nearby parking.

Tybee Island east of Savannah has grappled with the April beach party known as Orange Crush since students at Savannah State University, a historically Black school, started it more than 30 years ago. Residents regularly groused about loud music, trash littering the sand and revelers urinating in yards.

Those complaints boiled over into fear and outrage a year ago when weekend crowds of up to 48,000 people daily overwhelmed the 4.8-kilometer island. That left a small police force scrambling to handle a flood of emergency calls reporting gunfire, drug overdoses, traffic jams and fistfights.

Mayor Brian West, elected last fall by Tybee Island’s 3,100 residents, said roadblocks and added police aren’t just for limiting crowds. He hopes the crackdown will drive Orange Crush away for good.

“This has to stop. We can’t have this crowd anymore,” West said. “My goal is to end it.”

Critics say local officials are overreacting and appear to be singling out Black visitors to a Southern beach that only white people could use until 1963. They note Tybee Island attracts vast crowds for the Fourth of July and other summer weekends when visitors are largely white, as are 92% of the island’s residents.

“Our weekends are packed with people all season, but when Orange Crush comes, they shut down the parking, bring extra police and act like they have to take charge,” said Julia Pearce, one of the island’s few Black residents and leader of a group called the Tybee MLK Human Rights Organization. She added: “They believe Black folks to be criminals.”

During the week, workers placed metal barricades to block off parking meters and residential streets along the main road parallel to the beach. Two large parking lots near a popular pier are being closed. And Tybee Island’s roughly two dozen police officers will be augmented by about 100 sheriff’s deputies, Georgia state troopers and other officers.

Security plans were influenced by tactics used last month to reduce crowds and violence at spring break in Miami Beach, which was observed by Tybee Island’s police chief.

Officials insist they’re acting to avoid a repeat of last year’s Orange Crush party, which they say became a public safety crisis with crowds at least double their typical size.

“To me, it has nothing to do with race,” said West, who believes city officials previously haven’t taken a stronger stand against Orange Crush because they feared being called racist. “We can’t let that be a reason to let our citizens be unsafe and so we’re not.”

Tybee Island police reported 26 total arrests during Orange Crush last year. Charges included one armed robbery with a firearm, four counts of fighting in public and five DUIs. Two officers reported being pelted with bottles, and two women told police they were beaten and robbed of a purse.

On a gridlocked highway about a mile off the island, someone fired a gun into a car and injured one person. Officials blamed the shooting on road rage.

Orange Crush’s supporters and detractors alike say it’s not college students causing the worst problems.

Joshua Miller, a 22-year-old Savannah State University senior who plans to attend this weekend, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the crackdown was at least partly motivated by race.

“I don’t know what they have in store,” Miller said. “I’m not going down there with any ill intent. I’m just going out there to have fun.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson was one of the Black students from Savannah State who helped launch Orange Crush in 1988. The university dropped involvement in the 1990s, and Johnson said that over time the celebration “got off the rails.” But he also told reporters he’s concerned about “over-representation of police” at the beach party.

At Nickie’s 1971 Bar & Grill near the beach, general manager Sean Ensign said many neighboring shops and eateries will close for Orange Crush though his will stay open, selling to-go food orders like last year. But with nearby parking spaces closed, Ensign said his profits might take a hit, “possibly a few thousand dollars.”

It’s not the first time Tybee Island has targeted the Black beach party. In 2017, the city council banned alcohol and amplified music on the beach only during Orange Crush weekend. A discrimination complaint to the U.S. Justice Department resulted in city officials signing a non-binding agreement to impose uniform rules for large events.

West says Orange Crush is different because it’s promoted on social media by people who haven’t obtained permits. A new state law lets local governments recoup public safety expenses from organizers of unpermitted events.

In February, Britain Wigfall was denied an permit for space on the island for food trucks during Orange Crush. The mayor said Wigfall has continued to promote events on the island.

Wigfall, 30, said he’s promoting a concert this weekend in Savannah, but nothing on Tybee Island involving Orange Crush.

“I don’t control it,” Wigfall said. “Nobody controls the date that people go down there.”

US to withdraw its troops from Niger, source says

washington — The United States will withdraw its troops from Niger, a source familiar with the matter said late on Friday, adding that an agreement was reached between U.S Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Niger’s leadership. 

As of last year, there were a little more than 1,000 U.S. troops in Niger, where the U.S. military operated out of two bases, including a drone base known as Air Base 201 near Agadez in central Niger at a cost of more than $100 million. 

Since 2018, the base has been used to target Islamic State militants and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, an al-Qaida affiliate, in the Sahel region.  

Last year, Niger’s army seized power in a coup. Until the coup, Niger had remained a key security partner of the United States and France.  

But the new authorities in Niger joined juntas in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso in ending military deals with one-time Western allies like Washington and Paris, quitting the regional political and economic bloc ECOWAS, and fostering closer ties with Russia. 

In the coming days, there will be conversations about how that drawdown of troops will look, the source told Reuters, asking not to identified. 

The source said there would still be diplomatic and economic relationships between the U.S. and Niger despite this step. 

Earlier Friday, The New York Times reported that more than 1,000 American military personnel will leave Niger in coming months. 

Last month, Niger’s ruling junta said it revoked with immediate effect a military accord that allowed military personnel and civilian staff from the U.S. Department of Defense on its soil. 

The Pentagon had said thereafter it was seeking clarification about the way ahead. It added that the U.S. government had “direct and frank” conversations in Niger ahead of the junta’s announcement and was continuing to communicate with Niger’s ruling military council. 

Hundreds took to the streets of Niger’s capital last week to demand the departure of U.S. troops after the ruling junta further shifted its strategy by ending the military accord with the United States and welcoming Russian military instructors. 

Eight coups in West and Central Africa over four years, including in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, have prompted growing concerns over democratic backsliding in the region. 

While under Russian attack, Ukraine pleads to West for more military aid

Ukraine has appealed for its European allies to urgently step up weapons supplies as it struggles to hold ground against invading Russian forces. As Henry Ridgwell reports, Germany has called for allies to provide more air defense systems, as Russian drones and missiles rain down on Ukrainian cities.

Man sets self on fire outside New York court where Trump trial underway

new york — A man set himself on fire on Friday outside the New York courthouse where Donald Trump’s historic hush-money trial was taking place as jury selection wrapped up, but officials said he did not appear to have been targeting Trump.

The man burned for several minutes in full view of television cameras that were set up outside the courthouse, where the first-ever criminal trial of a former U.S. president is being held.

“I see a totally charred human being,” a CNN reporter said on the air.

Officials said the man survived and was in critical condition at a local hospital.

Witnesses said the man pulled pamphlets out of a backpack and threw them in the air before he doused himself with a liquid and set himself on fire. One of those pamphlets included references to “evil billionaires” but portions that were visible to a Reuters witness did not mention Trump.

The New York Police Department said the man, who they identified as Max Azzarello of St. Augustine, Florida, did not appear to be targeting Trump or others involved in the trial.

“Right now, we are labeling him as sort of a conspiracy theorist, and we are going from there,” Tarik Sheppard, a deputy commissioner with the police department, said at a news conference.

In an online manifesto, a man using that name said he set himself on fire and apologized to friends, witnesses and first responders. The post warns of “an apocalyptic fascist coup” and criticizes cryptocurrency and U.S. politicians, but it does not single out Trump in particular.

Witnesses said they were disturbed by his actions.

“He was on fire for quite a while,” one witness, who declined to give his name, told reporters. “It was pretty horrifying.”

The smell of smoke lingered in the plaza shortly after the incident, according to a Reuters witness, and a police officer sprayed a fire extinguisher on the ground. A smoldering backpack and a gas can were visible.

The downtown Manhattan courthouse, heavily guarded by police, drew a throng of protesters and onlookers on Monday, the trial’s first day, though crowds have dwindled since then.

The shocking development came shortly after jury selection for the trial was completed, clearing the way for prosecutors and defense attorneys to make opening statements next week in a case stemming from hush money paid to a porn star.

Developers: Enhanced AI could outthink humans in 2 to 5 years

vancouver, british columbia — Just as the world is getting used to the rapidly expanding use of AI, or artificial intelligence, AGI is looming on the horizon.

Experts say when artificial general intelligence becomes reality, it could perform tasks better than human beings, with the possibility of higher cognitive abilities, emotions, and ability to self-teach and develop.

Ramin Hasani is a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the CEO of Liquid AI, which builds specific AI systems for different organizations. He is also a TED Fellow, a program that helps develop what the nonprofit TED conference considers to be “game changers.”

Hasani says that the first signs of AGI are realistically two to five years away from being reality. He says it will have a direct impact on our everyday lives.

What’s coming, he says, will be “an AI system that can have the collective knowledge of humans. And that can beat us in tasks that we do in our daily life, something you want to do … your finances, you’re solving, you’re helping your daughter to solve their homework. And at the same time, you want to also read a book and do a summary. So an AGI would be able to do all that.”

Hasani says that advancing artificial intelligence will allow for things to move faster and can even be made to have emotions.

He says proper regulation can be achieved by better understanding how different AI systems are developed.

This thought is shared by Bret Greenstein, a partner at London-based  PricewaterhouseCoopers who leads its efforts on artificial intelligence.

“I think one is a personal responsibility for people in leadership positions, policymakers, to be educated on the topic, not in the fact that they’ve read it, but to experience it, live it and try it. And to be with people who are close to it, who understand it,” he says.

Greenstein warns that if it is over-regulated, innovation will be curtailed and access to AI will be limited to people who could benefit from it.

For musician, comedian and actor Reggie Watts, who was the bandleader on “The Late Late Show with James Corden” on CBS, AI and the coming of AGI will be a great way to find mediocre music, because it will be mimicked easily.

Calling it “artificial consciousness,” he says existing laws to protect intellectual property rights and creative industries, like music, TV and film, will work, provided they are properly adopted.

“I think it’s just about the usage of the tool, how it’s … how it’s used. Is there money being made off of it, so on, so forth. So, I think that that we already have … tools that exist that deal with these types of situations, but [the laws and regulations] need to be expanded to include AI because they’ll probably be a lot more nuance to it.”

Watts says that any form of AI is going to be smarter than one person, almost like all human intelligence collected into one point. He feels this will cause humanity to discover interesting things and the nature of reality itself.

This year’s conference was the 40th year for TED, the nonprofit organization that is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design.

French police detain intruder at Iranian consulate in Paris

Paris, France — French authorities Friday detained a man suspected of entering the Iranian consulate in Paris and falsely claiming to be armed with an explosive vest, police and prosecutors said. 

No explosives or arms were found on the man or the premises after he surrendered to police following the incident. 

The man, born in 1963 in Iran, had been convicted for setting fire to tires in front of the entrance of the Iranian embassy in Paris in 2023, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. 

Police arrested the suspect, who has not been named, when he left the consulate of his own accord after appearing to have “threatened violent action” inside, it said. 

According to a police source, who asked not to be named, he was wearing a vest with large pockets containing three fake grenades. 

Police earlier told AFP that the consulate called in law enforcement after a witness saw “a man enter carrying a grenade or an explosive belt.” 

The neighborhood around the consulate in the capital’s 16th district was closed off and a heavy police presence was in place, an AFP journalist reported. 

Traffic was temporarily suspended on two metro lines that pass through stops close to the consulate, Paris transport company RATP said. 

Iran’s embassy and consulate share the same building but have different entrances on separate streets. 

The incident came with tensions running high in the Middle East and Israel launching an apparent strike on central Iran overnight. 

However, there was no suggestion of any link. 

The office of the Paris prosecutor confirmed that the same man was to appear in court on Monday over a fire at the diplomatic mission in September 2023. 

A lower court had handed him an eight-month suspended sentence and prohibited him from entering the area around the consulate for two years and carrying weapons.  

But he is appealing the verdict. 

At the time, the man had claimed the action as an act of opposition to Iran’s clerical authorities as they faced the “Woman. Life. Freedom.” nationwide protests. 

Reports said that the man left Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution and has expressed sympathy toward the former imperial regime. 

France raised its national security alert to its maximum level following an attack on a concert venue in Moscow on March 22, for which the Islamic State group claimed responsibility. 

The incident at the Iranian consulate prompted the Paris embassy of the United States to issue a security alert for its citizens. 

How South and Central Asia’s footprint in US population is growing

Washington — The U.S. immigrant population from South and Central Asia has swelled to new heights over the past decade and continues to grow rapidly.

Between 2010 and 2022, the number of immigrants from these regions residing in the United States soared to nearly 4.6 million from 2.9 million — a jump of almost 60%, according to recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The surge dwarfs the 15.6% rise in the overall “foreign-born” population of the U.S. during the same period, the data show.

Jeanne Batalova, a demographer at the Migration Policy Institute, said the rise was “incredible.”

“We’re talking about a rate of growth of four times higher,” Batalova said in an interview with VOA.

The Census Bureau defines “foreign-born” as anyone who was not a U.S. citizen at birth, including naturalized citizens and lawful permanent residents.

The total foreign-born population of the U.S. was 46.2 million, or nearly 14% of the total population, in 2022, compared with 40 million, or almost 13% of the total population, in 2010, the Census Bureau reported April 9.

The Census Bureau data underscore just how much immigration patterns have changed in recent years. While Latin America was once the main source of migration to the U.S. and still accounts for half of the foreign-born population, more immigrants now come from Asia, Africa and other parts of the world.     

Between 2010 and 2022, the foreign-born population from Latin America rose by 9%, while the flow from Asia swelled at three times that rate, with South and Central Asia accounting for the bulk of the surge.

“We are reaching out to a broader spectrum of countries than we were before,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “The old image of immigration to the U.S. as being lots of Latin Americans and Mexicans coming to the U.S. only is wrong.”

To understand immigration trends from South and Central Asia, VOA dove into the census data and spoke with demographers. Here is a look at what we found.

How many immigrants from South and Central Asia live in the U.S.?

The Census Bureau puts 10 countries in its South and Central Asia bucket: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.

The agency’s foreign-born population estimates are based in part on an annual survey known as the American Community Survey. Each estimate comes with a margin of error.

In 2022, the foreign-born population from South and Central Asia was estimated at 4,572,569, up from 3,872,963 in 2010. The margin of error was plus or minus about 55,000.

Numbering more than 2.8 million, Indians made up by far the largest foreign-born group from the region. That was up from nearly 1.8 million in 2010.

The second largest group came from Pakistan — nearly 400,000, up from nearly 300,000 12 years prior — followed by Iran with 407,000, up by more than 50,000.

But in percentage terms, several other communities from the region posted considerably larger increases.

The number of foreign-born Afghans jumped to 194,742 in 2022 from 54,458 in 2010, an increase of 257%. Batalova said much of that was due to the flood of refugees triggered by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

“In terms of speed of change, [Afghanistan] outpaces all other countries in South and Central Asia,” she said.

Foreign-born Nepalese posted the second highest percentage increase, rising from 69,458 to 191,213 — a 175% jump.

There were increases of 91% and 60% respectively among immigrants from Bangladesh and Uzbekistan.

When and how did immigrants from South and Central Asia arrive in the country?

While Indians have been immigrating to the U.S. for decades, a significant proportion of immigrants from South and Central Asia are recent arrivals.

More than 42% of them entered the U.S. in 2010 or later, outpacing the nearly 27% of the total foreign-born population that settled during the same period, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Batalova noted that immigrants from South and Central Asia follow distinct paths to the United States. Indians, for instance, largely rely on student and work visas and family reunification.

Many Central Asians gain entry through the diversity visa program, with about 36% of Uzbek green card holders benefiting from the scheme. Bangladeshis, too, took advantage of the so-called “Green Card Lottery” before Bangladesh became ineligible for the program in 2012 after 50,000 Bangladeshis immigrated to the U.S. over a five-year period.

As for the recent influx of Afghan immigrants, most were admitted into the country under special immigrant visa and humanitarian parole programs following the Taliban takeover of the country.

How do educational levels and other characteristics of South and Central Asians compare with the overall foreign-born population?

Immigrants from South and Central Asia tend to have higher levels of education than the general population and are more likely to work in sought-after professional jobs.

More than 70% had a bachelor’s or higher degree, compared with nearly 34% for the overall foreign-born population, according to Census Bureau estimates for the 2018-2022 period.

Nearly 68% worked in management, business, science and the arts, compared with 36% for all immigrants.

Immigrants from India, especially, tend to enjoy high levels of education and professional jobs. Nearly 48% of Indians had graduate or professional degrees, while more than 77% worked in management, business, science, and the arts.

Where do most immigrants from South and Central Asia live?

More than half of immigrants in the United States live in just four states: California, Texas, Florida and New York.

For immigrants from South and Central Asia, however, the top four states of residence are New Jersey, California, New York and Virginia.

In New Jersey, located south of New York state, foreign-born South and Central Asians made up 3.6% of the state’s population of 9 million. In California, they account for 2.31% of the state’s population of 39 million.

How large are the diaspora communities?

The foreign-born population from South and Central Asia should not be confused with the number of U.S. residents claiming ancestry from the region.

Including second- and third-generation immigrants, the diaspora community represents a larger number.

Demographers from the Migration Policy Institute estimate that about 5.2 million people in the U.S. identify as “South Asian Indians.” About 250,000 claim Afghan ancestry.

The 2020 U.S. census found that 687,942 people identified as “Pakistani alone” or in a combination with other groups, far surpassing the estimated 400,000 foreign-born Pakistanis in the U.S.

As for the other diaspora communities from the region, “they would not be much [larger] than the total immigrant populations just because they’re more recent immigrant groups,” Batalova said.

US not involved in Israeli strikes on Iran, says Blinken

White House — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday the United States was not involved in Israel’s predawn aerial strike inside Iran and declined to confirm reports that Washington was notified of Israeli plans shortly before the attack. 

“The reports that you’ve seen, I’m not going to speak to that except to say that the United States has not been involved in any offensive operations,” he said during a press conference following a meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers in Capri, Italy. 

The G7 is focused on avoiding a wider war in the region, he said. 

“You saw Israel on the receiving end of an unprecedented attack, but our focus has been on, of course, making sure that Israel can effectively defend itself, but also de-escalating tensions, avoiding conflict,” Blinken said. 

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who chaired the G7 meeting, said the U.S. had told its G7 partners it received “last minute” information from Israel about its actions. 

 

In the G7 communique, Blinken and other foreign ministers announced plans for new sanctions against Iran for its strikes against Israel and urged de-escalation. Tehran appears to be heeding for now. 

Israel’s strikes appear to be in retaliation for the hundreds of Iranian drones and missiles launched at Israel on April 13. Most were intercepted with the help of the United States and regional allies, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, causing no loss of life and only little damage. That suggests Iran may have calibrated the strikes to limit casualties or telegraphed advanced notice, which the White House denies. 

The early Friday attacks on Iran appear to be limited, with no casualties reported immediately. 

U.S. President Joe Biden has been urging Israel to exercise restraint and avoid escalation following Iran’s attacks. His administration has been coordinating with allies and partners, including the G7 on a “comprehensive response.” 

These could include new sanctions on Tehran and bolstered air and missile defense and early warning systems across the Middle East, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement earlier this week. 

Iranian state media reported in the early hours of Friday local time that three explosions were heard in the Iranian city of Isfahan. Explosions were reported around the same time in Iraq and Syria. 

Tehran said its April 13 attacks were in response to an Israeli airstrike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, Syria, on April 1. The bombing killed Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi and other Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders. Israel neither confirms nor denies responsibility for the attack. 

Analysts say Israel’s limited counterattack and Iran’s muted response show that both sides are willing to avoid further escalation, at least for now. Still, the risks of escalation are higher than ever before, said Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. 

“The Iran-Israel shadow conflict has turned into a low-grade open war between the two countries,” he told VOA. “The Middle East is in unchartered territory.”   

Israeli strikes expected 

Despite U.S. pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, some type of retaliatory strike by Israel was expected, said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, a Middle East analyst from Gaza and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.  

The Biden administration understands that Israel needs to do its own version of “face saving” retaliation after Iran’s unprecedented and dramatic attacks last Saturday, he told VOA. 

The party that could benefit most from any potential escalation is Hamas, said Alkhatib. 

“The group has felt emboldened by Iran’s direct strikes on Israel, hardening its negotiating position in the latest cease-fire and hostage exchange talks facilitated by Qatar,” he said.  

Biden so far has been unsuccessful in pushing for a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas. Over the weekend the U.S.-designated terror group raised new demands that have thrown talks into disarray. 

It’s unclear how the Israeli counterstrike on Iran could impact negotiation dynamics with Hamas. 

“This is a moment of instability but also of opportunity,” said Laura Blumenfeld, a senior fellow at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. 

“World leaders agree that the key to de-escalation is to free the hostages,” she told VOA. The message to Hamas hostage negotiators, she added, is “quit while you’re behind.” 

FBI calls out China for making critical infrastructure ‘fair game’ for cyber operations 

washington — Efforts by China-linked hackers to infiltrate computer systems and networks that run key sectors of the U.S. economy — only to lie in wait for an opportunity to strike — appear to predate Chinese cyber operations that sparked warnings by U.S. officials earlier this year.

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday said Chinese government efforts to penetrate critical U.S. infrastructure for the purpose of setting up a possible cyberattack go back more than a decade.

“China-sponsored hackers pre-positioned for potential cyberattacks against U.S. oil and natural gas companies way back in 2011,” Wray told the audience at a Vanderbilt University security conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

“It took the hackers all of 15 minutes to steal data related to the control and monitoring systems while ignoring financial and business-related information, which suggests their goals were even more sinister than stealing a leg up economically,” he said.

Multiple U.S. agencies, led by the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, warned in February that hackers associated with a Chinese-linked group known as Volt Typhoon had been hiding in key computer systems and networks for at least five years.

At the time, CISA’s director said China’s penetration of key systems linked to U.S. communications, energy, water and wastewater, and transportation sectors was “likely the tip of the iceberg.”

But Wray on Thursday made clear China’s attempts to hack into systems and hide while waiting to attack — a technique known as “living off the land” — is part of Beijing’s long-running strategy.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has made it clear that it considers every sector that makes our society run as fair game in its bid to dominate on the world stage,” he said. “Its plan is to land low blows against civilian infrastructure to try to induce panic and break America’s will to resist.”

VOA has reached out to the Chinese Embassy in Washington about the latest U.S. allegations.

Earlier this year, following the U.S. allegations regarding Beijing’s use of Volt Typhoon, China slammed the U.S. for what it termed “irresponsible criticism” and said China “has been categorical in opposing hacking attacks and the abuse of information technology.”

Wray’s comments, however, came just one day after another top U.S. cyber official called out Chinese behavior in cyberspace while speaking at the same conference.

“The PRC is engaged in a deliberate campaign to challenge the United States and our allies technologically while putting our critical systems and national infrastructure at risk,” said General Timothy Haugh, who heads both the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command.

Haugh was especially critical of the actions taken by Volt Typhoon, calling it “an example of how China has approached establishing access to put things under threat.”

“There is not a valid intelligence reason to be looking at a water treatment plant from a cyber perspective,” he said. China is “sending a pretty loud signal of how they intend to use cyberspace in a crisis. We should listen to that.”

A threat assessment published last week by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency also concluded China uses its cyberspace capabilities “to lay the groundwork for malicious cyber activities and cyberattacks.”

The DIA report also noted that China’s military “has called for using space, cyber operations and electronic warfare as weapons to paralyze adversary information systems during a conflict.”

In Corsica, autonomy measure stirs debate and doubt 

CORTE, CORSICA   — The colorful graffiti sprinkled across this mountain town offers one clue about some political sentiments here.

“Liberty for Stephanu Ori,” is plastered on one peeling wall, referring to a Corsican militant arrested last month. Another pays tribute to nationalist Yvan Colonna, killed in jail where he was serving time for the assassination of a top French official.

Still others offer the shorthand call — AFF — for French to leave the island.

Perched on a hill of rugged northern Corsica, Corte is the undisputed cultural and political heart of this French Mediterranean island, which has long fought for greater self-rule from Paris. Today, some some are hopeful that could happen following an agreement last month to insert language in France’s constitution recognizing “an autonomous status” for Corsica.

Top Corsican official Gilles Simeoni called the March agreement — since approved by Corsica’s legislature — a “decisive step,” but cautioned it was just a beginning.

The measure still needs to be approved by both France’s lower house and Senate, where right-wing lawmakers fiercely oppose it. Even if the measure is approved, it is unclear just how much of a difference it will make.

“It’s a step, not necessarily a big one,” said Andre Fazi, a political scientist at the University of Corte. “it could end up making no real change, with the central power retaining the final say when it comes to Corsican national assembly decisions.”

“What is clear is nobody is thrilled about this reform,” he added of the mixed reaction. “Those who support a strong French state will be against this reform. Those who support Corsican independence will say it doesn’t go far enough.”

Even some Corsicans, fiercely proud of their identity, are worried about giving local authorities too much say on some matters.

“I am for Corsican autonomy, but I have real questions about the competence of those managing Corsica today,” said Dominique, a Corsican retiree and former senior French public servant. He declined to give his last name because of the sensitive topic. “If they can’t manage basic things like garbage, why give them more power?”

Paoli’s legacy

The fleeting years when Corsican did have self rule — more than two centuries ago — are cemented in Corte’s history. Dominating a central town square is the statue of 18th century independence leader Pascal Paoli. A key figure in first ousting Genoa then briefly France from the island, Paoli created the Anglo-Corsican kingdom, with its capital based here. He helped usher in schools and a university — and drafted a constitution that inspired that of the United States — before going into exile and dying in Britain, in 1807.

By that time, Corsica was firmly back in France’s orbit, under the rule of another Corsican — Napoleon Bonaparte.

At Corte’s Pascal Paoli University, a few minutes’ walk from Paoli’s statue, graduate student Andrea Nanglard said she is not interested in politics, but supports more autonomy for the island.

“I consider myself more Corsican than French,” said Nanglard, who was born on the French continent but moved to Corsica as a teenager, and speaks the Corsican language. “But I’m not sure if greater autonomy would really change things.”

Another Corsican student, Julien Preziose, also backs inserting a Corsican autonomy reference in the French constitution.

“I think it’s important to fight for the Corsican identity, because otherwise it could disappear,” said Preziose, who is studying ancient Corsican history and archeology. “But it’s not like we think about being Corsican all the time. It’s when we leave Corsica, when that happens.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries, many Corsicans did leave in search of work. Some headed to the Americas; others to French colonies or the mainland. Today, some are coming back to retire, and a few to rediscover their roots. New schools have opened teaching the Corsican language to youngsters.

But among Corsica’s 350,000 residents, many are also French retirees from the mainland. Foreign tourists are similarly flooding in, lured by the island’s beauty. Their arrival has notched up real estate prices and stirred tensions.

“Corsicans are no longer speaking Corsican, they’re losing their roots, their history,” said Dominique, the retired public servant. In the village where he now lives, he said, young people can no longer afford to buy property. “Corsicans are forced to sell their land because they can no longer make ends meet.”

Growing divide

Calls for independence resurfaced in the 1970s, with the creation of the National Liberation Front of Corsica, or FLNC, which staged attacks against symbols of French governance. The most spectacular was the 1998 assassination of French prefect Claude Erignac, the island’s top French state official. The FLNC formally laid down its arms in 2014, although the nationalist movement remains active — especially in Corte. Corsican crime families are also anchored into the landscape.

While nationalist bombings and other attacks have largely ended, tensions still simmer. The 2022 killing by a fellow prisoner of Yvan Colonna, serving a life sentence over Erignac’s killing, sparked protests and rioting in Corte and elsewhere on the island.

Meanwhile, Fazi, the political scientist, believes the fracture between Corsicans and mainland French has grown bigger in recent years. Common memories that bound the two populations a few decades ago — military service, World War II or serving in former French colonies — have now faded.

“There are a lot of Corsican youth today who don’t feel themselves to be at all French,” he said. “And there’s been a lot of immigration to Corsica by people who do feel themselves to be French. And that kind of psychological rupture between the two could be a worry for the state.”

Even so, France’s highly centralized government has loosened up modestly in recent years, including granting Corsica greater political say through a series of small steps. In 2015, Corsican nationalists came to power in regional elections for the first time. The island’s legislature is today dominated by autonomists, like Simeoni, who want more local powers but not a full split with France.

If France’s parliament greenlights this new autonomy measure, the island’s registered voters — both Corsican and French — also will have their say, said President Emmanuel Macron. The majority of both groups, said analyst Fazi, would likely support the measure — one key element bringing the two groups together.

“Autonomy has become mainstream — it’s not subversive like it was 40 years ago,” he said. Still, Fazi added, if the autonomy measure amounts to little more than constitutional language with no substance, Corsica could see new tensions.

“The more the reform is timid, the more it could reinforce the contestation” against the French state, he said. “We may not see a big resurgence of attacks, but more and more violent protests.”