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Companion Robot Aims to Fight Isolation Among Elderly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump Administration Bars Oil Drilling Off Florida

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has caved in to pressure from the governor and is banning oil and gas drilling off the Florida coast.

“I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,” Zinke said in a statement late Tuesday.

He outright admitted that Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott pressured him to put the state’s waters off limits.

Last week, the Trump administration proposed opening nearly all U.S. offshore waters to oil and gas drilling, reversing former Obama administration policies.

The White House has said it wants to make the U.S. more energy independent.

But environmental groups and Republican and Democratic governors from coastal states loudly object. They say oil and gas drilling puts marine life, beaches, and lucrative tourism at risk.

The Pentagon has also expressed misgivings about drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where naval exercises are held.

The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf was the largest such disaster in U.S. history, causing billions of dollars in damage to the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Florida, killing more than 100,000 different marine mammals, birds, and reptiles.

Poverty for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Could Push Children to Marry and Work

Nearly seven years into Syria’s civil war, Syrian refugees in neighboring Lebanon are becoming poorer, leaving children at risk of child labor and early marriage, aid organizations said on Tuesday.

A recent survey by the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, U.N.’s World Food Program, and refugee agency, UNHCR showed that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are more vulnerable now than they have been since the beginning of the crisis.

Struggling to survive, more than three quarters of the refugees in Lebanon now live on less than $4 per day, according to the survey which was based on data collected last year.

“The situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is actually getting worse – they are getting poorer. They are barely staying afloat,” Scott Craig, UNHCR spokesman in Lebanon, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Around 1.5 million refugees who fled Syria’s violence account for a quarter of Lebanon’s population.

The Lebanese government has long avoided setting up official refugee camps. So, many Syrians live in tented settlements, languishing in poverty and facing restrictions on legal residence or work.

“Child labor and early marriage are direct consequences of poverty,” Tanya Chapuisat, UNICEF spokeswoman in Lebanon said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We fear this (poverty) will lead to more children being married away or becoming breadwinners instead of attending school,” she said.

According to UNICEF, 5 percent of Syrian refugee children between 5-17 are working, and one in five Syrian girls and women aged between 15 and 25 is married.

Mike Bruce, a spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said without sufficient humanitarian aid and proper work Syrian families would increasingly fall into debt and more could turn to “negative coping mechanisms” like child labor and marriage.

Cold winter temperatures in Lebanon would also hurt refugees, he said.

“Refugees are less and less able to deal with each shock that they face and severe weather could be one of those shocks,” said Bruce.

Twitter, Snapchat Tie Up with Fox to Provide Coverage of FIFA World Cup

Twenty-First Century Fox’s Fox Sports is partnering with Twitter to stream a live show and Snap Inc’s Snapchat to showcase stories with match-day highlights on the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament to be hosted in Russia later this year.

Fox Sports would produce the show, which will be streamed from Moscow’s Red Square on each match day and provide previews, recaps and near real-time video highlights for each game, the company said.

Fox said the coverage of the tournament, taking place from June 14 to July 15, will be available in the United States and can be seen using the @FOXSports and @FOXSoccer Twitter handles.

Fox Sports will also produce magazine-like editions of content for Snapchat’s mobile-first audience, called Publisher Stories.

The Publisher Stories on Snapchat will record the day-by-day highlights of the monthlong tournament through recaps, previews and features produced specifically for Snap.

Snapchat will also produce FIFA World Cup “Our Stories,” featuring video highlights of goals and other key moments provided by Fox Sports.

Livestreaming has been one of Twitter’s biggest focus areas since last year as it seeks to attract new users.

The company had previously signed a multi-year deal with the U.S. National Football League to livestream pre-game coverage as well as a 30-minute show.

Snapchat has also done something similar by previously partnering with Discovery Communications Inc’s Eurosport for a European, multi-language deal that will see Winter Olympics content held this year as part of Snapchat’s “stories” feature.

Venezuela’s Congress Declares ‘Petro’ Cryptocurrency Illegal

Venezuela’s opposition-run parliament on Tuesday outlawed a “petro” cryptocurrency promoted by socialist President Nicolas Maduro, calling it an effort to illegally mortgage the cash-strapped country’s oil reserves.

Maduro on Friday said his government would issue nearly $6 billion of petros as a way to raise hard currency and to evade financial sanctions imposed by Washington.

Cryptocurrency experts say Venezuela’s mismanagement of its own economy, combined with the ruling Socialist Party’s historic lack of respect for private property rights, will likely leave investors uninterested in acquiring petros.

“This is not a cryptocurrency, this is a forward sale of Venezuelan oil,” said legislator Jorge Millan. “It is tailor-made for corruption.”

Legislators warned investors that the petro would be seen as null and void once Maduro, who is up for re-election this year, is no longer in office. They added that the petro issue violates constitutional requirements that the legislature approve borrowing.

The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Maduro has routinely ignored the legislature since his party lost control of it in 2016, and the pro-government Supreme Court has shot down nearly every measure passed since then.

In July, the country elected an all-powerful legislative body called the Constituent Assembly, a vote that was boycotted by the opposition.

The government of U.S. President Donald Trump described the new Constituent Assembly as the consolidation of a dictatorship, and issued sanctions barring U.S. financial institutions from acquiring any debt issued by Venezuela after mid-2017.

That has effectively blocked Maduro’s government from refinancing its hefty debt burden, and would likely add to investor concern about the petro, although it was not specifically mentioned in the sanctions measure.

Maduro hopes it will serve as a payment mechanism for foreign suppliers and avoid the payments delays that have grown more acute since the sanctions went into place.

The government plans in the coming weeks to issue 100 million petros, backed by 100 million barrels of oil reserves.

The petro’s price is initially to be pegged to the value of Venezuela’s basket of oil and fuel exports, which last week closed at $59.07.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Now World’s Richest Man

Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos is now the richest person of all time, with a fortune of $105.1 billion, according to financial news outlet Bloomberg.

With the stock market soaring to new heights in the first few days of 2018, Bezos’ fortune rocketed upward, growing $6.1 billion in just five trading days.

That happened because most of Bezos’ wealth is contained in shares of Amazon.com, the online retail giant. Shares of Amazon rose 56 percent in 2017 and more than 6 percent since the start of this year.

Financial news trackers differ on whether Bezos is the richest man in history, or if his nearest rival, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, holds that record.

Bezos surpassed Gates briefly last year before taking the lead for good in October and crossing the $100-billion mark by November, buoyed by the holiday shopping season.

Gates is worth more than $90 billion, but financial experts say he would be worth far more if he had not given away so much in cash and shares of Microsoft to charity. Bloomberg reports that if Gates had not given away some $36 billion of stock to charity, his fortune would be worth more than $150 billion.

In addition to Amazon, Bezos’ holdings include The Washington Post and the space exploration company, Blue Origin.

Oil Prices Rise to Three-Year High

Oil prices surged to a three-year high Tuesday on rising expectations that OPEC member countries will comply with oil production cuts to the end of 2018.

Brent Crude prices are headed toward $70 a barrel, West Texas Crude settled at $62.96 bbl, the highest since December 2014. But other factors could derail OPEC member agreement on production quotas, including continued expansion of U.S. shale production and the likelihood of stronger global demand. 

Analysts say rapid changes in supply and demand could trigger an early exit or prompt member countries to cheat on production quotas, especially when prices start to rise.

Meanwhile, the United States is increasingly less dependent on foreign oil, thanks in part to the shale boom and the influx of cheap natural gas. U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts U.S. crude oil production will climb to more than 10 million barrels per day by the first quarter of 2018, exceeding 11 million bpd in 2019.  

The American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. trade group that represents the oil and natural gas industry, boasted Tuesday about helping to create “U.S. energy abundance” but said the industry was focused on minimizing the harmful effects of greenhouse gases associated with fossil fuels.

In his 2018 State of American Energy address, API president and CEO Jack Girard said it was time to move beyond the debate over climate change.

“I think we’re at the point where we need to get over the conversation of who believes and who doesn’t, and move to a conversation about solutions,” he said.

The U.S. is now the world’s biggest natural gas producer. Despite a 30 percent increase in domestic natural gas production since 2008, Girard says CO2 emissions in the U.S. are near 25-year lows, and key air pollutants have declined 73 percent since 1970.

FBI Chief Calls Unbreakable Encryption ‘Urgent Public Safety Issue’

The inability of law enforcement authorities to access data from electronic devices due to powerful encryption is an “urgent public safety issue,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday as he sought to renew a contentious debate over privacy and security.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation was unable to access data from nearly 7,800 devices in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 with technical tools despite possessing proper legal authority to pry them open, a growing figure that impacts every area of the agency’s work, Wray said during a speech at a cyber security conference in New York.

The FBI has been unable to access data in more than half of the devices that it tried to unlock due to encryption, Wray added.

“This is an urgent public safety issue,” Wray added, while saying that a solution is “not so clear cut.”

Technology companies and many digital security experts have said that the FBI’s attempts to require that devices allow investigators a way to access a criminal suspect’s cellphone would harm internet security and empower malicious hackers.

U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, have expressed little interest in pursuing legislation to require companies to create products whose contents are accessible to authorities who obtain a warrant.

Wray’s comments at the International Conference on Cyber Security were his most extensive yet as FBI director about the so-called Going Dark problem, which his agency and local law enforcement authorities for years have said bedevils countless investigations. Wray took over as FBI chief in August.

The FBI supports strong encryption and information security broadly, Wray said, but described the current status quo as untenable.

“We face an enormous and increasing number of cases that rely heavily, if not exclusively, on electronic evidence,” Wray told an audience of FBI agents, international law enforcement representatives and private sector cyber professionals.

A solution requires “significant innovation,” Wray said, “but I just do not buy the claim that it is impossible.”

Wray’s remarks echoed those of his predecessor, James Comey, who before being fired by President Donald Trump in May frequently spoke about the dangers of unbreakable encryption.

Tech companies and many cyber security experts have said that any measure ensuring that law enforcement authorities are able to access data from encrypted products would weaken cyber security for everyone.

U.S. officials have said that default encryption settings on cellphones and other devices hinder their ability to collect evidence needed to pursue criminals.

The matter came to a head in 2016 when the Justice Department tried unsuccessfully to force Apple to break into an iPhone used by a gunman during a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

The Trump administration at times has taken a tougher stance on the issue than former President Barack Obama’s administration.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in October chastised technology companies for building strongly encrypted products, suggesting Silicon Valley is more willing to comply with foreign government demands for data than those made by their home country.

Democrats Vow to Force Vote on Net Neutrality, Make It a Campaign Issue

U.S. Senate Democrats said on Tuesday they will force a vote later this year on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s reversal of landmark Obama administration net neutrality rules and will try to make it a key issue in the 2018 congressional elections.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the issue will be a major motivating factor for young voters the party is courting.

“We’re going to let everyone know where we stand and they stand,” Schumer said at a Capitol Hill news conference in Washington.

The FCC voted in December along party lines to reverse rules introduced in 2015 that barred internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or offering paid fast lanes. A group of state attorneys general immediately vowed to sue.

A trade group representing major tech companies including Facebook, Alphabet and Amazon.com said last week it will back legal challenges to the reversal.

The vote in December marked a victory for AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications and hands them power over what content consumers can access over the internet. It marked the biggest win for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in his sweeping effort to undo many telecommunications regulations.

Senate Democrats on Tuesday called the FCC decision “un-American” and an “all-out assault on consumers.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, backs the FCC repeal. A reversal of the FCC vote would need the approval of the Senate, U.S. House and President Donald Trump.

Trump also backed the FCC action, the White House said last month.

The FCC order grants internet providers sweeping new powers to block, throttle or discriminate among internet content, but requires public disclosure of those practices. Internet providers have vowed not to change how consumers get online content.

Democrats say net neutrality is essential to protect consumers, while Republicans say the rules hindered investment by providers and were not needed.

Democratic Senator Ed Markey said on Tuesday he had 39 co-sponsors to force a vote, but it is not clear when the vote will occur since the new rules will not take effect for at least another three months. “There will be a political price to pay for those who are on the wrong side of history,” Markey said.

Republicans control the Senate with 51 votes out of the 100-member body.

Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, said the issue was resonating with teenagers and college students.

“People are mobilizing across the country to save the free and open internet,” Schatz said.