California Ready to Open Its Roads to Driverless Cars 

Cars with no steering wheel, no pedals and nobody at all inside could be driving themselves on California roads by the end of the year, under proposed new state rules that would give a powerful boost to the fast-developing technology.

For the past several years, tech companies and automakers have been testing self-driving cars on the open road in California. But regulators insisted that those vehicles have steering wheels, foot controls and human backup drivers who could take over in an emergency.

On Friday, the state Department of Motor Vehicles proposed regulations that would open the way for truly driverless cars.

Under the rules, road-testing of such vehicles could begin by the end of 2017, and a limited number could become available to customers as early as 2018, provided the federal government gives the necessary permission.

Other states allow tests

Currently, federal automobile standards require steering wheels, though Washington has shown a desire to encourage self-driving technology.

While a few other states have permitted such testing, this is a major step forward for the industry, given California’s size as the most populous state, its clout as the nation’s biggest car market and its longtime role as a cultural trendsetter.

The proposed regulations also amount to the most detailed regulatory framework of any state.

“California has taken a big step. This is exciting,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who tracks government policy on self-driving cars.​

Rules maybe ready by year’s end

The rules are subject to a public hearing and a comment period and could change. Regulators hope to put them in effect by December.

The proposal is more than two years overdue, reflecting complex questions of safety and highly advanced technology.

“We don’t want to race to meet a deadline,” said Bernard Soriano, a leader of the motor vehicle agency’s self-driving program. “We want to get this right.”

In one important change from prior drafts, once a manufacturer declares its technology is road-ready, it can put its cars on the market. That self-certification approach mirrors how federal officials regulate standard cars, and represents a big victory for such major players as Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project.

Also under the proposed regulations, any driverless car still must be remotely monitored and able to pull itself over safely in an emergency.

Consumer Watchdog objects

A Waymo spokesman had no immediate comment. The chief skeptic of the technology, California-based Consumer Watchdog, said the proposal does not protect the public.

“The new rules are too industry-friendly,” Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson said in a statement.

The technology is developing quickly. More than a year ago, a Waymo prototype with no steering wheel or pedals drove a blind man on city streets in Texas.

Are they safer?

Supporters say the cars may one day be far safer than those with humans at the wheel, since the machinery won’t drive distracted, drunk or drowsy.

During road-testing in California, self-driving cars with human backup drivers are believed to have caused a few collisions.

A year ago, Waymo reported that during the 424,331 miles its cars had driven themselves, a human driver intervened 11 times to avoid a collision. In an update earlier this year, Waymo said its fleet had driven 636,868 miles in autonomous mode; it did not say how many crashes were avoided.

In all, 27 companies have Department of Motor Vehicles permits to test on California roads.

Waymo was able to legally put its prototype on the road in Texas because state law there does not prohibit a fully driverless car. Other states have explicitly invited the technology onto its roads, including Michigan, whose governor signed a bill in December that allows the public testing of cars with no driver.

In the meantime, the industry has been lobbying the U.S. Transportation Department and Congress for rule changes that could speed the introduction of truly driverless cars.

Caribbean Nations Huddle in Havana on Migration, Trade

Foreign ministers and other officials from 25 Caribbean countries met in Havana on Friday to discuss a joint response in the face of Trump administration threats to migrants and trade.

Opening remarks at the closed-door event, attended by representatives from Colombia, Mexico, Cuba and other countries in Central America and the Caribbean islands, made clear the new U.S. administration and key economic partner was uppermost on the agenda, though the name “Trump” was never uttered.

“We are meeting at an exceptional historic moment when there are geographic changes on the global scene and we have to be prepared,” said June Soomer, from Saint Lucia and secretary general of the Association of Caribbean States.

“We are not going to resign ourselves to what others in the world dictate. We are not a mediocre region, we are one of excellence and peace,” Sooner added.

Cuban President Raul Castro also attended the meeting.

His foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, lit into U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies in his opening remarks and said the organization should come up with a joint response, as they threaten the development models of local economies.

“The excluding and repressive migration policies announced by countries of destination… as well as the implementation of extremely protectionist trade measures, are real challenges for our sub region,” he said.

“In the face of the walls intended to be built, our choice should continue to be unity, solidarity and cooperation to defend the most legitimate interests of our peoples,” he said.

Panel Rules Venezuela Won’t Have to Pay $1.4B to ExxonMobil

A World Bank arbitration panel has determined that Venezuela will not have to pay $1.4 billion to ExxonMobil for confiscating company assets during a wave of nationalizations.

 

ExxonMobil asked the bank’s investment dispute panel for $12 billion for the seizure of its Cerro Negro facilities in the Orinoco Basin under then-President Hugo Chavez. The panel awarded $1.4 billion, a decision that was appealed by Venezuela.

 

The Washington-based panel issued a ruling Friday that annulled most of a $1.6 million judgment against Venezuela. The decision was celebrated in Caracas, where the socialist government is facing a cash shortfall triggered by collapsing oil production in recent years.

 

A lawyer for Venezuela said the decision as “correct and courageous.”

ExxonMobil did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump Nominee to Lead FDA Has Deep Ties to Drug Companies

U.S. President Donald Trump has chosen Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a conservative health policy expert with deep ties to the pharmaceutical industry, to lead the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a White House official said Friday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Gottlieb would be in charge of implementing Trump’s plan to dramatically cut regulations governing food, drugs, cosmetics, dietary supplements and tobacco.

Gottlieb is well-known on Capitol Hill, where he has testified multiple times on hot-button health issues, including complex drug pricing matters, and is viewed favorably by drug companies and pharmaceutical investors. A former FDA official, Gottlieb also sits on the boards of pharmaceutical companies.

“Thank God it’s Gottlieb,” Brian Skorney, an investment analyst at Robert W. Baird, wrote in a research note. “We view this as a favorable development for the sector.”

Gottlieb, 44, is a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank and a partner at a large venture capital fund. He is a former FDA deputy commissioner who has frequently advocated a loosening of requirements needed for approval of new medical products.

“Scott knows how the agency works and he will move it forwards, though maybe not always in ways the agency is comfortable with,” said John Taylor, a lawyer and president of compliance and regulatory affairs with the consulting firm Greenleaf Health and a former acting FDA deputy commissioner.

Picked over O’Neill

Gottlieb was chosen over Jim O’Neill, a libertarian investor close to Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder who now advises Trump on technology and science matters. O’Neill’s stated view that drugs should be approved before being proven effective generated widespread alarm.

 

Gottlieb, who declined to comment on the nomination, is unlikely to upend the FDA in the way O’Neill might have, but he is nonetheless expected to bring significant change, including moving the agency to increase flexibility in the clinical trial development process.

In this he will be supported by the recently passed 21st Century Cures Act, which instructs the FDA among other things to consider the use of “real world evidence” to support new drug applications. This could include anecdotal data, observational studies and patient reports.

“People don’t want to take chances with safety, but there’s increasingly some clamor to be more flexible on the efficacy side,” said Kathleen Sanzo, who leads the FDA practice at the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. “You need to have some signal of efficacy. The question is: How much?”

Generic therapeutics

One of Gottlieb’s priorities will most likely be to streamline the process for approving generic versions of complex, difficult-to-copy therapeutics. He has stated publicly that he does not believe the FDA has good tools or policies to move such products and has advocated the creation of different approval standards.

A survey conducted by Mizuho Securities USA Inc. of 53 pharmaceutical executives found that 72 percent favored Gottlieb over other potential candidates. Many described him as knowledgeable, experienced and balanced.

“He will be a pragmatic leader with an eye toward both expedited approvals and safety,” one executive wrote.

Others were less sanguine, citing his deep ties to industry, including his seat on multiple pharmaceutical company boards, as potential conflicts of interest.

Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, said Gottlieb “has spent most of his career dedicated to promoting the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry.” If confirmed, he added, “he will have to be recused from key decisions time and time again.”

Nude Photo-sharing Scandal Rocks US Marine Corps

A Facebook group consisting of thousands of U.S. Marines and Marine veterans has shared nude photographs of women, including fellow Marines, through social media, prompting the U.S. military to launch an investigation into the incident.

The commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, told reporters Friday at the Pentagon that when female Marines are subjected to cyberbullying, presumably by other Marines, it “undermines everything” the military branch stands for, as it protects and serves the country.

“There is no honor in denigrating a fellow Marine in any way, shape or form,” Neller said.

The general said fewer than 10 victims have come forward, but evidence provided by a reporter suggested that around 30 women have been victimized by the cyberbullying scandal.

Marine officials say they were informed about the Facebook site that is sharing the nude photos, known as the “Marines United” community page, on January 30. On February 1, the Marine Corps had the site taken down, but learned later about a link to Google Drive files that contained the nude photos. Some of the photos shared were taken without the women’s knowledge.

Neller said an investigation into the incident by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is under way. In addition, Neller said the Marine Corps is setting up a task force to see what actions can be taken, and to come up with practices that both prevent this violation in the future and prevent the “subculture that gave rise to this.”

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis released a statement Friday calling the “lack of respect for the dignity and humanity” of fellow military members “unacceptable and counter to unit cohesion.”

“We will not excuse or tolerate such behavior if we are to uphold our values and maintain our ability to defeat the enemy on the battlefield,” added Mattis, a former Marine general.

Neller told reporters he will testify on Capitol Hill about the incident next week. He also has planned to visit Camp Lejeune, in eastern North Carolina, one of the largest Marine bases on the U.S. East Coast.

Marine officials said they are working to ensure the victims’ privacy is protected as the investigation continues. There are reports that some Marines have continued to share the nude photos, despite the ongoing investigation.

Tech and Hollywood Head to Texas SXSW Festival

Movie stars, tech moguls and music artists are among those converging in Austin, Texas, starting this week, as part of South by Southwest Conference and Festivals.

Known by its shorthand SXSW, the nine-day event, now in its 31st year, mixes music, film, comedy and digital entertainment, as well as technology and politics.

The event in the Texas capital, normally a low-key tech hub, has become an important nexus where the already successful mix with the aspiring. New movies premiere, music acts perform and startups pitch their wares. Twitter gained traction at SXSW in 2007, putting up flat-panel screens in the hallways.

But not every new tech or its CEO can call SXSW experience a success. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg struggled through his keynote interview in 2008. Meerkat, a video streaming app that took off in SXSW 2015, quickly faded.

This year, among the actors, musicians and tech celebrities, Buzz Aldrin, the former astronaut who walked on the moon in 1969, will speak about human space exploration.

U.S. government officials and American politicians also come to mingle with the celebrities and tech executives. At last year’s SXSW, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama spoke to the festival-goers.

FBI Director James Comey was expected to speak at this year’s event, but he canceled. In his place, James Baker, the FBI’s general counsel, is scheduled to discuss the “intersection of national security, technology and First Amendment rights.”

On Sunday, Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president, will speak about his work on cancer research as part of the Biden Cancer Initiative.

The intersection of politics and technology is one major theme this year, with SXSW organizers creating a “Tech Under Trump” series of discussions. Topics include immigration, self-driving cars and the effects that artificial intelligence may have on jobs. One panel, “Startup investing in the Trump years,” will look at how the Trump administration could affect the investment landscape.

Some panels tout how technology can be used to achieve goals such as helping people seeking faith. Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw — a technology incubator that is part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company — will discuss how technology can be used to fight extremism.

Other sessions focus on bleaker possibilities, like how technology can potentially hurt people, such as robots taking jobs.

Ultimately, SXSW this year, as in the past, is a giant party with thousands of people looking for the next big thing.

Do You Trust Information You Don’t Want to Hear?

In America’s current polarized climate, social observers have noted, people tend to turn to news sources that reflect their political beliefs and avoid listening to anything that challenges them. But without a shared understanding of what’s going on, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to achieve cooperation and compromise.

It is not only regarding politics that people avoid or ignore information that may be useful, according to a new study from Carnegie Mellon University. Dieters may choose to overlook how many calories there are in a rich dessert. People with a family history of a genetic disease may skip screening tests that could reveal whether their health is at risk.

Writing in the Journal of Economic Literature, the study’s authors explain how and why people deliberately avoid information that could threaten their happiness and well-being. “People often avoid information that could help them to make better decisions if they think the information might be painful to receive,” said George Loewenstein, who co-founded the field of behavioral economics.

Loewenstein and his colleagues found that when people cannot avoid encountering information that goes against their beliefs, they may discount it; they point to widespread disbelief and doubts about scientific evidence of climate change. By the same token, questionable evidence may be treated as credible if it confirms what someone wants to believe.

There can be understandable reasons for avoiding information. Not taking a genetic test could allow someone to enjoy life until illness can’t be ignored. Not following the stock market could keep investors from selling in a panic.

Co-author David Hagmann notes that “bombarding people with information that challenges their cherished beliefs … is more likely to engender defensive avoidance than receptive processing.”

To reduce the political divide, “we have to find ways not only to expose people to conflicting information, but to increase people’s receptivity to information that challenges what they believe and want to believe,” he said.

Kenya Firing Doctors in Dispute Over Collective Bargaining Agreement

A decision by the government to fire doctors who went on strike three months ago has left Kenya’s health care sector in crisis.

Kenyans remain in limbo after the two sides failed to agree on and sign documents that cover a range of issues, including better pay and working conditions for the doctors, improved health facilities and security for medical staff.

Peter Munya is the governor of the state of Meru and chairman of the council of governors. He says the government remains firm in its decision to penalize doctors who refuse to return to work.

“The decision we took still stands and I am told people are following the processes of laying off those who have not reported back to work,” said Munya. “I am told [disciplinary measures] have been given. So that is what we are implementing.”

12 medics fired

On Wednesday, the biggest hospital in the county, Kenyatta National Hospital, fired 12 medics and put 48 others on notice.

Kenyan media report a handful of physicians returned to work.  

Dr. George Got is with the union that represents the doctors. He said its national advisory council agreed to proposed amendments presented in a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that now awaits the signatures of both parties.

“I can only confirm, we were told that the CBA would be signed with the amendments,” said Got. “I will not tell you exactly which amendments because that’s fairly confidential. So the third document to be signed is a formal return-to-work formula checking out the procedures of returning to work.”

Union remains optimistic

Got said the union had yet to receive word whether the government would sign the documents, but that union officials remained optimistic.

“The national advisory council remains committed, and so far we have not received any communication that those documents will not be signed.” Got said. “We are just waiting for our negotiators to brief us as when they sign, and they advise us to resume work; we already gave them our blessing, and we shall resume work.”

Governor Munya confirmed to VOA that changes were made to the previous collective bargaining agreement of 2013 in which doctors sought a pay raise of up to 180 percent. The government’s offer stands at 40 percent.

Foreign doctors may be hired

Munya says the government is considering hiring foreign doctors.

“We want to start working out the process of hiring doctors from outside the country, and the minister of health is already working on that,” Munya said. The minister “has spoken to friendly countries that can provide doctors, and he is also working on the legal framework to register these doctors locally.”

This is not the first time the government has announced the plan to fire doctors and bring in physicians from abroad.

The state plans to hire physicians from neighboring Tanzania as well as Cuba and India. Before that happens, an appeals court will have to rule on the matter.

WHO: Half a Million Africans Die From Cancer Annually

The World Health Organization says about half a million Africans die of cancer each year, or six percent of global cancer deaths annually.

The leading cancers in Africa affect the breast, cervix and prostate, according to WHO.

Dr. Andre Ilbawi, the technical officer for cancer control at WHO headquarters in Geneva, says the cause of the illness in Africa is not always clear, though factors that may contribute to breast cancer include alcohol use, obesity and lack of physical activity.

Weakened immune systems also play a role, making people susceptible to many infections and diseases, including the human papilloma virus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer.

“Women in Africa have a higher rate of HIV, which makes worse the effect of HPV,” Ilbawi said, “so we see the combination of infectious causes really can explain the majority of cervical cancer cases in Africa and elsewhere.”

Ilbawi says other infections, besides HPV, also can lead to cancer.

“We know the immune system plays a very important role in fighting cancer. And in some situations, infections can cause cancer themselves,” he said. “It’s not always as easy as saying malaria triggers cancer years down the line for someone exposed to malaria, but we do know there are some cause and effects for infectious causes of cancer in Africa. Some include hepatitis B and C, [which] contribute to liver cancer. … There are infections in the stomach that can contribute to gastric cancer … so infections both directly and by weakening the immune system can contribute to cancer cases.”

Early detection

Not all cancers are fatal, especially if detected early. The WHO is working to encourage governments to adopt measures that are low cost, but high impact, especially on the local, or primary care, level.

“Early diagnosis has a strategic position in health expenditures because if we are able to detect cancer early, then the costs of treatment are lower,” Ilbawi said. “We know from high-income countries that detecting cancer at stage one or two [out of four] reduces the cost of treatment between two- to four-fold in some settings.”

He also says earlier detection makes it likely that less toxic medications can be used.

WHO guidelines suggest inexpensive ways to improve cancer detection, beginning by educating the public and health workers on how to recognize potential symptoms.

“We need that provider to identify high-risk symptoms and say to a patient, ‘I understand you are having bleeding in your stool or a lump or mass that may be concerning to you. It could be many possible diseases. But what you need to do is get from the primary care level to the diagnostic facilities, where you can access biopsy and pathology to confirm whether it’s cancer,'” Ilbawi said.

“The first-level provider is critical because that’s where most patients go first. And we have to bring those providers into the health system for cancer — not just focus on high-cost treatment at a centralized facility when most people can’t get there, can’t afford those treatments or get there far too late,” he added.

Low-cost options

Other low-cost options include providing social workers and patient navigators who can help direct patients to facilities that provide blood and tissue testing — and treatment.

Ilbawi says therapies for cancer patients do not have to be costly. They might involve surgery, chemotherapy, and oral and hormonal treatments.

The WHO advises countries on how to improve cancer care, including insurance and other mechanisms that make treatment more affordable.

Ibawi says it’s a coordinated effort that includes governments, advocacy groups, the U.N. and donors. Together, they help identify where strategic investments can help improve health services and extend the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Says NAFTA Talks to Launch Soon

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says he hopes to launch formal talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada in a little more than three months.

Ross spoke with reporters in Washington Friday, saying he hopes to notify Congress in the next couple of weeks that the 90-day countdown to talks has begun. He spoke in a joint news conference with Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo.

Ross is obligated to formally notify Congress of his plans to renegotiate the deal; the letter he sends to Congress officially starts the process. If he carries through on his promise, talks would likely begin in early July.

Ross said any revision of NAFTA would either be two bilateral agreements with Mexico and Canada or one deal among all three countries.

At Friday’s news conference, Guajardo voiced his support for a trilateral deal, resembling the trade agreement now in place. Rather than separate U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada discussions, he said all three nations should negotiate together.

“NAFTA is a trilateral agreement, and it would make a lot of sense to have trilateral discussions,” he said. He also noted that Mexico will be ready to start negotiations by the end of May.

In Houston, Texas, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters he is open to working with the Trump administration to revise NAFTA.

President Donald Trump has said he plans to renegotiate NAFTA because, he says, the United States has lost more than one-fourth of its manufacturing jobs to Mexico. But the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported in 2015 that NAFTA caused only a modest effect on job losses.

Ball State University in Indiana reported that trade deals like NAFTA were responsible for about 10 percent of factory job losses since the 1970s, while automation was responsible for 88 percent of factory job losses over the same period.

 

Facebook Founder, Wife Expecting 2nd Child

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife are expecting their second child.

 

In a Facebook post, Zuckerberg says his wife Priscilla Chan is pregnant with a girl. The couple already has a 1-year-old daughter.

 

In his post, Zuckerberg writes that he’s happy his first daughter, Max, will have a sister. Zuckerberg says he grew up with three sisters and they taught him to learn from smart, strong women. He also says his wife grew up with two sisters.

 

Zuckerberg says he and his wife can’t wait to welcome the baby and do their best to raise another strong woman.

 

What the CIA WikiLeaks Dump Tells Us: Encryption Works

If the tech industry is drawing one lesson from the latest WikiLeaks disclosures, it’s that data-scrambling encryption works, and the industry should use more of it.

 

Documents purportedly outlining a massive CIA surveillance program suggest that CIA agents must go to great lengths to circumvent encryption they can’t break. In many cases, physical presence is required to carry off these targeted attacks.

 

“We are in a world where if the U.S. government wants to get your data, they can’t hope to break the encryption,” said Nicholas Weaver, who teaches networking and security at the University of California, Berkeley. “They have to resort to targeted attacks, and that is costly, risky and the kind of thing you do only on targets you care about. Seeing the CIA have to do stuff like this should reassure civil libertarians that the situation is better now than it was four years ago.”

 

More encryption

 

Four years ago is when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of huge and secret U.S. eavesdropping programs. To help thwart spies and snoops, the tech industry began to protectively encrypt email and messaging apps, a process that turns their contents into indecipherable gibberish without the coded “keys” that can unscramble them.

 

The NSA revelations shattered earlier assumptions that internet data was nearly impossible to intercept for meaningful surveillance, said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Washington-based civil-liberties group Center for Democracy & Technology. That was because any given internet message gets split into a multitude of tiny “packets,” each of which traces its own unpredictable route across the network to its destination.

 

The realization that spy agencies had figured out that problem spurred efforts to better shield data as it transits the internet. A few services such as Facebook’s WhatsApp followed the earlier example of Apple’s iMessage and took the extra step of encrypting data in ways even the companies couldn’t unscramble, a method called end-to-end encryption.

 

Challenges for authorities

 

In the past, spy agencies like the CIA could have hacked servers at WhatsApp or similar services to see what people were saying. End-to-end encryption, though, makes that prohibitively difficult. So the CIA has to resort to tapping individual phones and intercepting data before it is encrypted or after it’s decoded.

 

It’s much like the old days when “they would have broken into a house to plant a microphone,” said Steven Bellovin, a Columbia University professor who has long studied cybersecurity issues.

 

Cindy Cohn, executive director for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group focused on online privacy, likened the CIA’s approach to ” fishing with a line and pole rather than fishing with a driftnet.”

 

Encryption has grown so strong that even the FBI had to seek Apple’s help last year in cracking the locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers. Apple resisted what it considered an intrusive request, and the FBI ultimately broke into the phone by turning to an unidentified party for a hacking tool – presumably one similar to those the CIA allegedly had at its disposal.

 

On Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey acknowledged the challenges posed by encryption. He said there should be a balance between privacy and the FBI’s ability to lawfully access information. He also said the FBI needs to recruit talented computer personnel who might otherwise go to work for Apple or Google.

 

Government officials have long wanted to force tech companies to build “back doors” into encrypted devices, so that the companies can help law enforcement descramble messages with a warrant. But security experts warn that doing so would undermine security and privacy for everyone. As Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed out last year, a back door for good guys can also be a back door for bad guys. So far, efforts to pass such a mandate have stalled.

 

Still a patchwork

 

At the moment, though, end-to-end encrypted services such as iMessage and WhatsApp are still the exception. While encryption is far more widely used than it was in 2013, many messaging companies encode user data in ways that let them read or scan it. Authorities can force these companies to divulge message contents with warrants or other legal orders. With end-to-end encryption, the companies wouldn’t even have the keys to do so.

 

Further expanding the use of end-to-end encryption presents some challenges. That’s partly because encryption will make it more difficult to perform popular tasks such as searching years of emails for mentions of a specific keyword. Google announced in mid-2014 that it was working on end-to-end encryption for email, but the tools have yet to materialize beyond research environments.

 

Instead, Google’s Gmail encrypts messages in transit. But even that isn’t possible unless it’s adopted by the recipient’s mail system as well.

 

And encryption isn’t a panacea, as the WikiLeaks disclosures suggest.

 

According to the purported CIA documents, spies have found ways to exploit holes in phone and computer software to grab messages when they haven’t been encrypted yet. Although Apple, Google and Microsoft say they have fixed many of the vulnerabilities alluded to in the CIA documents, it’s not known how many holes remain open.

 

“There are different levels where attacks take place, said Daniel Castro, vice president with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “We may have secured one level (with encryption), but there are other weaknesses out there we should be focused on as well.”

 

Cohn said people should still use encryption, even with these bypass techniques.

 

“It’s better than nothing,” she said. “The answer to the fact that your front door might be cracked open isn’t to open all your windows and walk around naked, too.”

 

Researchers: Fast Radio Bursts Could Power Alien Spaceships

Extremely brief but powerful radio bursts coming from billions of light years away could be evidence of an advanced alien civilization, according to a new paper.

Fast radio bursts, which are “millisecond-long flashes of radio emission” could be “leakage” from “planet-sized transmitters” that power alien spaceships over incredible distances.

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence,” said theorist Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”

The bursts were first observed in 2007, and so far, fewer than two dozen have been detected using massive radio telescopes. They appear to originate from galaxies billions of light years away, researchers said.

For the paper, researchers tried to assess the feasibility of creating massive transmitters, determining that while it would be well beyond our technology, it would be within the realm of possibility, according to the laws of physics.

They also investigated whether such a device would be viable from an “engineering perspective,” with particular focus on how something that would need such massive amounts of energy would not melt. They said “a water-cooled device twice the size of Earth could withstand the heat.”

Researchers theorize that the use of such massive radio transmitters could be to power “interstellar light sails.” The power would be enough to push a ship of a million tons or about the same as 20 large cruise ships here on Earth.

“That’s big enough to carry living passengers across interstellar or even intergalactic distances,” said co-author Manasvi Lingam, also of Harvard.

In order to do that, the beam of energy would need to be focused constantly on the would-be ship. The reason we may only observe brief flashes here on Earth is that the “host planet, star and galaxy are all moving relative to us. As a result, the beam sweeps across the sky and only points in our direction for a moment.”

The paper was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

South African Taxi Drivers Hold Airport Protest Against Uber

South African taxi drivers on Friday blocked roads around Johannesburg’s main international airport to protest against ride-hailing company Uber, causing some passengers to miss their flights.

The protest by drivers with metered cabs, who say Uber unfairly siphons business from them, caused morning traffic jams on two highways near O.R. Tambo International Airport. Police later cleared the roads.

The impact of the blockade will continue “to be felt throughout the day due to earlier delays, particularly on flights that need to return to O. R. Tambo International Airport,” Airports Company South Africa, which manages the airport, said in a statement. “Airlines have informed the airport that passengers that missed flights in the morning are being accommodated on other flights.”

South African Airways urged passengers to arrive at the airport earlier than usual, even if they planned to fly later in the day.

In a statement, Uber said many South African drivers with metered taxis are also picking up customers with its ride-hailing app.

“Our technology is open and pro-choice and we are keen to offer it to a broad number of taxi drivers to boost their chances for profit,” said Uber, adding that threats and intimidation toward Uber drivers are unacceptable.

Meanwhile, some Uber drivers protested outside the company’s Johannesburg office on Friday, local media reported. That group of protesters reportedly said Uber does not do enough to address their safety concerns.

Taxi drivers in some other countries also have protested, sometimes violently, against Uber because of concerns over allegedly unfair competition.

US Unemployment Drops Slightly; Economy Gains 235K Jobs

The U.S. economy had a net gain of 235,000 jobs in February, while the unemployment rate fell one-tenth of a percent to 4.7 percent.

Friday’s report from the Labor Department was stronger than most economists expected. Some experts say it takes around 100,000 jobs a month to accommodate new entrants to the work force.  

A survey of accountants who manage companies across the nation shows firms “are now looking to expand,” according to Ash Noah of AICPA. He tells VOA there is “pent-up” demand for labor.

Job gains were seen in private education, manufacturing, health care, mining and construction. The Associated General Contractors of America said construction employment jumped by the largest number since 2008. The National Council of La Raza said the construction hiring may have helped cut the unemployment rate for Latinos to 5.6 percent. 

On Twitter, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the report “Great news for American workers.” Since President Donald Trump has previously called official jobless numbers “phony” and “complete fiction,” Spicer joked with reporters that the figures may have been “phony in the past, but they are very real now.”

WATCH: Jobs Report ‘Real Now,’ Spicer Says

The tight job market means companies may have to start raising wages to attract and keep the best workers. Friday’s report said wages rose about 2.8 percent over the past year, which is a stronger gain than the previous month, and stronger than inflation.  

Top officials of the U.S. central bank have said they are watching the labor market closely, and the strong report may encourage them to raise interest rates. The Federal Reserve meets next week to debate interest-rate policy, and is scheduled to make an announcement Wednesday.

PNC Bank economist Gus Faucher says rates will go up one-quarter of one percent because the labor market is where the Fed “wants it to be.” Officials slashed rates to near zero during the recession to boost growth and fight unemployment.  

While the latest job data is stronger than expected, it also shows that 7.5 million Americans are still unemployed. Another 5.7 million who want to work full-time can only find part-time employment. The government figures count people as unemployed if they are available for work and tried to find a job sometime in the past four weeks. The figures do not count as officially unemployed those who stay home to raise children, those who are enrolled in school or those who have retired.

Alleged CIA Hacking Techniques Lay Out Online Vulnerability 

If this week’s WikiLeaks document dump is genuine, it includes a CIA list of the many and varied ways the electronic device in your hand, in your car, and in your home can be used to hack your life.

It’s simply more proof that, “it’s not a matter of if you’ll get hacked, but when you’ll get hacked.” That may be every security expert’s favorite quote, and unfortunately they say it’s true. The WikiLeaks releases include confidential documents the group says exposes “the entire hacking capacity of the CIA.”

The CIA has refused to confirm the authenticity of the documents, which allege the agency has the tools to hack into smartphones and some televisions, allowing it to remotely spy on people through microphones on the devices.

Watch: New Generation of Hackable Internet Devices May Always Be Listening

WikiLeaks also claimed the CIA managed to compromise both Apple and Android smartphones, allowing their officers to bypass the encryption on popular services such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram.

For some of the regular tech users, news of the leaks and the hacking techniques just confirms what they already knew. When we’re wired 24-7, we are vulnerable.

“The expectation for privacy has been reduced, I think,” Chris Coletta said, “… in society, with things like WikiLeaks, the Snowden revelations … I don’t know, maybe I’m cynical and just consider it to be inevitable, but that’s really the direction things are going.”

The internet of things

The problem is becoming even more dangerous as new, wired gadgets find their way into our homes, equipped with microphones and cameras that may always be listening and watching.

One of the WikiLeaks documents suggests the microphones in Samsung smart TV’s can be hacked and used to listen in on conversations, even when the TV is turned off.

Security experts say it is important to understand that in many cases, the growing number of wired devices in your home may be listening all the time.

“We have sensors in our phones, in our televisions, in Amazon Echo devices, in our vehicles,” said Clifford Neuman, the director of the Center for Computer Systems Security, at the University of Southern California. “And really almost all of these attacks are things that are modifying the software that has access to those sensors, so that the information is directed to other locations. Security practitioners have known that this is a problem for a long time.”

Neuman says hackers are using the things that make our tech so convenient against us.

“Certain pieces of software and certain pieces of hardware have been criticized because, for example, microphones might be always on,” he said. “But it is the kind of thing that we’re demanding as consumers, and we just need to be more aware that the information that is collected for one purpose can very easily be redirected for others.”

Tools of the espionage trade

The WikiLeaks release is especially damaging because it may have laid bare a number of U.S. surveillance techniques. The New York Times says the documents it examined lay out programs called “Wrecking Crew” for instance, which “explains how to crash a targeted computer, and another tells how to steal passwords using the autocomplete function on Internet Explorer.”

Steve Grobman, chief of the Intel Security Group, says that’s bad not only because it can be done, but also because so-called “bad actors” now know it can be done. Soon enough, he warns, we could find our own espionage tools being used against us.

“We also do need to recognize the precedents we set, so, as offensive cyber capabilities are used … they do give the blueprint for how that attack took place. And bad actors can then learn from that,” he said.

So how can tech-savvy consumers remain safe? Security experts say they can’t, and to remember the “it’s not if, but when” rule of hacking.

The best bet is to always be aware that if you’re online, you’re vulnerable.

US Solar Soared in 2016, But Investors Still Leery

New U.S. solar installations nearly doubled last year, but slowing demand for both residential and large-scale systems, falling panel prices and concerns about looming federal tax reform are still dampening investor appetite for the sector.

Solar installations soared 97 percent to 14.8 gigawatts in 2016, according to a report released Thursday by Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association. The technology is cheaper than ever, with panel prices dropping 40 percent last year, and many utilities procuring solar on the basis of cost alone.

But the dramatic drop in panel prices has hampered solar manufacturers’ profits and ramped up competition for utility-scale contracts among developers, companies said in recent weeks while reporting fourth-quarter results. Add in a slowdown in the residential market, tax reform pushed by U.S. President Donald Trump, climbing interest rates and falling oil prices, and stock market investors remain skittish about solar.

2017 a transition year

Credit Suisse analyst Andrew Hughes said in a client note on Thursday that the key risk to his “outperform” rating on shares of residential solar player Sunrun was “investor sentiment, which in a rising interest rate and falling oil price market obscured by tax policy uncertainty remains tepid.”

The MAC Global Solar Energy index, which tracks shares of solar power companies, slid 43 percent in 2016. The index has recovered to gain nearly 8 percent so far this year but remains 65 percent below its year-ago level.

U.S. module manufacturers and project developers SunPower and First Solar Inc are both viewing 2017 as a transition year for their businesses, they said after reporting in February losses for the fourth quarter of last year.

SunPower Chief Executive Tom Werner in a conference call predicted “intense competition for the forseeable future in mainstream power plants,” adding that some companies were selling panels at below cash cost.

A slowdown is forecast

Indeed, the solar industry report released Thursday forecasts a slowdown in the market this year after last year’s boom. Utility systems accounted for more than 10.5 GW of the total in 2016, but are not expected to exceed 10 GW again until 2021, the report said.

The 2016 boom was largely due to a rush by developers to claim a federal tax credit for solar systems that had been expected to expire at the end of the year. The five-year extension of that credit, however, has allowed projects to be pushed into this year and beyond.

Though Trump has not called for ending tax credits for solar and other renewable energy, he has expressed doubts about the role of clean power sources.

Home installations are growing

On the solar residential side, installations grew 19 percent to 2.6 GW last year, down from 66 percent growth in 2015. Growth has slowed in major markets like California, where many of the households most interested in solar have already put up panels.

Tesla, which acquired residential market leader SolarCity late last year, said last month that it deployed 201 megawatts of solar in the fourth quarter, a more than 20 percent drop from the same period a year earlier.

SolarCity rival Sunrun reported a quarterly profit that topped Wall Street estimates due to cost cuts, but said growth would be substantially slower in 2016. System deployments rose 40 percent in 2016, but are expected to rise just 15 percent this year, Sunrun said.

“While it may be slowing, it is still growing. That is an important piece of the story,” Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in an interview. “Some of that resetting is to be expected.”

Monitoring Droughts’ Movements Would Aid Vulnerable Areas, Researchers Say

It’s a major natural disaster that slowly grows in one place and then moves across a region, gaining intensity and size. As it spreads, it destroys land, ruins agriculture and tears apart communities, and it can kill people.

It’s a drought.

Researchers are just beginning to view droughts as this type of dynamic force, and some hope that soon they will be monitored similarly to hurricanes — with scientists able to predict their development, helping to protect those living in their path.

Ten percent of droughts travel between 1,400 to 3,100 kilometers from where they begin, according to a recent study. The study, which analyzed 1,420 droughts between 1979 and 2009, identified “hot spots” around the world and common directions in which droughts move.

Some droughts in the southwest United States, for example, tend to move from south to north. In Argentina, they usually migrate the opposite direction. In Central Africa, droughts tend to go southeastern toward the coast.

“It can start somewhere, move throughout the continent, and obviously cause harm throughout its way,” Julio Herrera-Estrada, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University and leader of the study, said Thursday.

Droughts that travel are usually the largest and most disastrous, the scientists found. They can cause a loss of agriculture, wildlife, wetlands and human life, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Very costly

They are also one of the most expensive natural disasters that people face today, according to Herrera-Estrada, who collaborated on the study with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna.

The most recent moving drought that Herrera-Estrada studied began in 2008 in Ukraine and Russia, and moved 1,700 kilometers northeast, ending in northwest Russia and affecting parts of Kazakhstan on the way. It lasted almost a year.

“People haven’t really thought of droughts in this way,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Future research, Herrera-Estrada said, can shed light on what mechanisms cause some droughts to move and what affects their paths. This can be done accurately, however, only through collaboration among national governments, he said.

“It’s important to have a global or a continental understanding about how droughts are behaving,” he said. Collaboration “benefits people on the ground, farmers, cities that need water, power plants that need water.”

The study was published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.   

Romania’s Health Care Exodus

Sonia Papiu started her first year of residency as a psychiatrist in the Romanian city of Cluj in January, but she plans to move abroad within the

year, seeking better learning opportunities and hospital conditions.

She will not be alone.

“I don’t think any of my colleagues are planning to stay,” she said. “I think I could learn more abroad. You have higher responsibilities as a resident there.”

In the Romanian system, doctors go through six years of medical school and then three to five years as a hospital resident, treating patients while working under the supervision of senior staff.

Finding a job abroad will be easy. Cluj, one of Romania’s largest cities and a university and business hub, hosts several agencies recruiting for western European hospitals.

Romania has bled out tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists since joining the European Union a decade ago, lured abroad by what the country lacks: significantly higher pay, modern infrastructure and functional healthcare systems. France, Germany and Britain are among the most popular destinations.

The consequences are dire. Romania is one of the EU states with the fewest doctors. Nearly a third of hospital positions are vacant and the health ministry estimates one in four Romanians has insufficient access to essential healthcare.

“Medical staff leaving Romania at an almost massive pace deepens the problems of the healthcare system,” former health minister Vlad Voiculescu has said. “Entire hospitals are facing a major personnel deficit and entire towns don’t have a family physician.”

This despite the fact that Romania is a leading EU state when it comes to the number of medical graduates. But the system — ridden with corruption, inefficiencies and politicized management — has been unable to motivate them to stay. The shortages are even starker in rural areas.

“Because we have one doctor per section for most specialties, when a doctor goes on holiday we need to close down the section,” said Cristian Vlad, the hospital manager in Viseul de Sus, a small town near the Ukrainian border.

Vlad said three hospitals in the region shared one anaesthetist until last year, when his hospital brought in another from neighboring Moldova.

“I live in hope that our resident doctors will change their mind and stay in smaller hospitals, too,” Vlad said.

Turning point

Romania is taking steps to address the issues. Pay has risen significantly, although it still does not measure up to western standards. The net average monthly wage for the healthcare system stood at 2,609 lei ($606) at the end of 2016, nearly double what it was three years ago.

In 2016, the health ministry created a multi-year plan for the medical profession, including a simpler recruitment process, education reform, better promotion opportunities, and subsidies for physicians willing to move to remote villages.

The strategy has yet to be approved by the two-month-old cabinet of Social Democrat Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu.

“Measures to improve healthcare are in place, but the system suffers from inefficiencies, limited accessibility and corruption,” the European Commission said last month.

Yet not all doctors shy away from remote areas. From the village of Tureni, Andreea Kis has been serving as a family doctor for five villages for nearly five years.

“I chose to be a family doctor because this is compatible with family life,” said Kis, a mother of two. “People in the villages preserve their humanity better.”

Apple’s Siri Learns Shanghainese as Voice Assistants Race to Cover Languages

With the broad release of Google Assistant last week, the voice-assistant wars are in full swing, with Apple, Amazon.com, Microsoft and now Alphabet’s Google all offering electronic assistants to take your commands.

Siri is the oldest of the bunch, and researchers including Oren Etzioni, chief executive officer of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, said Apple has squandered its lead when it comes to understanding speech and answering questions.

But there is at least one thing Siri can do that the other assistants cannot: speak 21 languages localized for 36 countries, a very important capability in a smartphone market where most sales are outside the United States.

Microsoft Cortana, by contrast, has eight languages tailored for 13 countries. Google’s Assistant, which began in its Pixel phone but has moved to other Android devices, speaks four languages. Amazon’s Alexa features only English and German. Siri will even soon start to learn Shanghainese, a special dialect of Wu Chinese spoken only around Shanghai.

The language issue shows the type of hurdle that digital assistants still need to clear if they are to become ubiquitous tools for operating smartphones and other devices.

Speaking languages natively is complicated for any assistant. If someone asks for a football score in Britain, for example, even though the language is English, the assistant must know to say “two-nil” instead of “two-nothing.”

At Microsoft, an editorial team of 29 people works to customize Cortana for local markets. In Mexico, for example, a published children’s book author writes Cortana’s lines to stand out from other Spanish-speaking countries.

“They really pride themselves on what’s truly Mexican. [Cortana] has a lot of answers that are clever and funny and have to do with what it means to be Mexican,” said Jonathan Foster, who heads the team of writers at Microsoft.

Google and Amazon said they plan to bring more languages to their assistants but declined to comment further.

At Apple, the company starts working on a new language by bringing in humans to read passages in a range of accents and dialects, which are then transcribed by hand so the computer has an exact representation of the spoken text to learn from, said Alex Acero, head of the speech team at Apple. Apple also captures a range of sounds in a variety of voices. From there,

an acoustic model is built that tries to predict words sequences.

Then Apple deploys “dictation mode,” its text-to-speech translator, in the new language, Acero said. When customers use dictation mode, Apple captures a small percentage of the audio recordings and makes them anonymous. The recordings, complete with background noise and mumbled words, are transcribed by humans, a process that helps cut the speech recognition error

rate in half.

After enough data has been gathered and a voice actor has been recorded to play Siri in a new language, Siri is released with answers to what Apple estimates will be the most common questions, Acero said. Once released, Siri learns more about what real-world users ask and is updated every two weeks with more tweaks.

But script-writing does not scale, said Charles Jolley, creator of an intelligent assistant named Ozlo. “You can’t hire enough writers to come up with the system you’d need in every language. You have to synthesize the answers,” he said. That is years off, he said.

The founders of Viv, a startup founded by Siri’s original creators that Samsung acquired last year, is working on just that.

“Viv was built to specifically address the scaling issue for intelligent assistants,” said Dag Kittlaus, the CEO and co-founder of Viv. “The only way to leapfrog today’s limited functionality versions is to open the system up and let the

world teach them.”

Solar Energy Station to Power Hawaiian Island

One of Hawaii’s islands may soon be powered by solar energy, at least during the night.

In the biggest project since it acquired the solar cell giant SolarCity, the Tesla company will build a 13-megawatt solar farm on the island of Kauai, covering more than 44 acres (18 hectares). The solar cells will charge a 53-megawatt hour battery station able to provide most of the island’s power at night.

The batteries, called Powerpacks, will be built by Tesla’s new Gigafactory.

Right now, Kauai residents are paying very high prices for energy, so the plan is to gradually transition to renewable sources, including wind and biomass.

Kauai plans to generate 70 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030 and to completely wean itself from fossil-generated electricity by 2045.

Tesla says that once it’s in full production, the Kauai solar energy plant will lower the fossil fuel burn by over 6,000 metric tons a year.

Doctors Tie Zika Virus to Heart Problems in Some Adults

For the first time, doctors have tied infection with the Zika virus to possible new heart problems in adults.

The evidence so far is only in eight people in Venezuela, and is not enough to prove a link. It’s also too soon to know how often this might be happening. The biggest trouble the mosquito-borne virus has been causing is for pregnant women and their fetuses.

“I think as awareness increases, the cases will start to show up more,” said Dr. Karina Gonzalez Carta, a Mayo Clinic research fellow working in Venezuela who investigated the heart cases.

She discussed them on an American College of Cardiology press call, ahead of a presentation Saturday at the group’s meeting in Washington.

Many people infected with Zika will have no or only mild symptoms, such as fever, aches, an itchy rash or red eyes. But the virus has caused an epidemic of birth defects in the Caribbean and South America, notably babies with abnormally small heads and brains.

A report last June in the International Journal of Cardiology describes heart problems that have been seen from other viruses spread by mosquitoes, such as West Nile and ones that cause yellow fever, dengue fever and chikungunya.

Doctors have been watching for the same from Zika, and “we were surprised at the severity of the findings” in the Venezuela cases, Carta said.

She studied nine patients, ages 30 to 64, treated at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Caracas who developed heart symptoms such as palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue an average of 10 days after typical Zika symptoms began.

Only one had any prior heart-related problem – high blood pressure that was under control with medications – and all had lab tests confirming Zika infection. They were given extensive heart tests and were studied for an average of six months, starting last July.

Eight of the nine developed a dangerous heart rhythm problem, and six of the nine developed heart failure, which occurs when a weakened heart can’t pump enough blood.

Doctors don’t know if these problems will be permanent. So far, they haven’t gone away although medicines have improved how patients feel.

“This is the first time we’ve considered that cardiovascular disease may be associated with Zika,” and people who travel to or live in places where Zika is spreading need to watch for possible symptoms, said Dr. Martha Gulati, cardiology chief at the University of Arizona-Phoenix who is familiar with the results.

Zika infections have been reported in more than 5,000 people in the United States, mostly travelers. After a big outbreak in Brazil in 2015, Zika spread throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. The virus also spread locally in parts of southern Florida and Texas last year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned pregnant women to avoid travel to Zika zones and to use bug spray and other measures to prevent bites.

It Might Be Possible to Grow Potatoes on Mars

When humans finally land on Mars one of the first dishes made of locally grown vegetables may be the universally popular French fries.

Researchers from the International Potato Center and the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, Peru, say potatoes could grow in Martian soil, if they are given certain nutrients and water.

Researchers successfully grew potatoes in soil from the Pampas de La Joya desert in Peru, which they say is the closest chemically to the dry Martian soil.

 

Helped by scientists from NASA Ames Research Center, they built a special chamber closely mimicking the Martian temperature, air pressure, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

The most promising results have come from a variety of potato specially bred for extreme soil and climate conditions on Earth.

The new experiments were started on February 14 and can be viewed on potatoes.space/mars.