Economy & business

Brazil Police Raid Brokerage for Allegedly Laundering ‘Car Wash’ Bribe Cash

Brazil’s federal police on Tuesday raided a brokerage in Rio de Janeiro which they allege helped launder money for corrupt former executives of state-run oil firm Petrobras, as part of their sprawling “Car Wash” anti-graft probe.

Police said they searched the offices of the Advalor Distribuidora de Titulos e Valores brokerage firm in Rio, which they allege facilitated the movement of bribes from big construction firms to the then-Petrobras executives, often to their overseas bank accounts.

A person who answered the phone at Advalor’s Rio de Janeiro office did not respond to requests for comment.

Goncalves arrested

Former Petrobras executive Roberto Goncalves was arrested in Tuesday’s operation on the order of federal judge Sergio Moro, who oversees Operation Car Wash.

Police allege Goncalves received at least $5 million in bribes paid into overseas bank accounts.

The arrest warrant issued by Moro states that Goncalves had at least five Swiss bank accounts. In just one of those, he received $3 million in bribes from construction giant Odebrecht, according to police.

Allegedly took bribes for several projects

Goncalves allegedly took bribes in connection with several projects, one of the largest being a contract awarded to a consortium composed of Odebrecht and UTC Engenharia for work on the Comperj refinery outside Rio de Janeiro.

He does not yet face any formal charges. Under Brazilian law, only prosecutors can level charges. The prosecutor’s office did not respond to request for comment about Goncalves’ case.

A lawyer for Goncalves could not immediately be reached.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Elon Musk’s Latest Target: Brain-computer Interfaces

Tech billionaire Elon Musk is announcing a new venture called Neuralink focused on linking brains to computers.

The company plans to develop brain implants that can treat neural disorders —  and that may one day be powerful enough to put humanity on a more even footing with possible future superintelligent computers, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing unnamed sources.

Musk, a founder of both the electric-car company Tesla Motors and the private space-exploration firm SpaceX, has become an outspoken doomsayer about the threat artificial intelligence might one day pose to the human race.

Continued growth in AI cognitive capabilities, he and like-minded critics suggest, could lead to machines that can outthink and outmaneuver humans with whom they might have little in common.

In a tweet Tuesday, Musk gave few details beyond confirming Neuralink’s name and tersely noting the “existential risk” of failing to pursue direct brain-interface work.


Stimulating the brain

Some neuroscientists and futurists, however, caution against making overly broad claims for neural interfaces.

Hooking a brain up directly to electronics is itself not new. Doctors implant electrodes in brains to deliver stimulation for treating such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and chronic pain. In experiments, implanted sensors have let paralyzed people use brain signals to operate computers and move robotic arms. Last year , researchers reported that a man regained some movement in his own hand with a brain implant.

Musk’s proposal goes beyond this. Although nothing is developed yet, the company wants to build on those existing medical treatments as well as one day work on surgeries that could improve cognitive functioning, according to the Journal article.

Neuralink is not the only company working on artificial intelligence for the brain. Entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who sold his previous payments startup Braintree to PayPal for $800 million, last year started Kernel, a company working on “advanced neural interfaces” to treat disease and extend cognition.

Risk of overhype

Neuroscientists posit that the technology that Neuralink and Kernel are working on may indeed come to pass, though it’s likely to take much longer than the four or five years Musk has predicted. Brain surgery remains a risky endeavor; implants can shift in place, limiting their useful lifetime; and patients with implanted electrodes face a steep learning curve being trained how to use them.

“It’s a few decades down the road,” said Blake Richards, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto. “Certainly within the 21st century, assuming society doesn’t implode, that is completely possible.”

Amy Webb, CEO of Future Today Institute, pointed out that the Neuralink announcement is part of a much larger field of human-machine interface research, dating back over a decade, performed at the University of Washington, Duke University and elsewhere.

Too much hype from one “buzzy” announcement like Neuralink, she said, could lead to another “AI Winter.” That’s a reference to the overhype of AI during the Cold War, which was followed by a backlash and reduced research funding when its big promises didn’t materialize.

“The challenge is, it’s good to talk about potential,” Webb said. “But the problem is if we fail to achieve that potential and don’t start seeing all these cool devices and medical applications we’ve been talking about then investors start losing their enthusiasm, taking funding out and putting it elsewhere.”

Economy & business

US Consumer Confidence Surges in March

U.S. consumer confidence, home prices, and the trade deficit all improved, according to economic reports published Tuesday.

Consumer confidence hit a 16-year high, as consumers said they were more confident about getting or keeping jobs and the economic outlook in general. The Conference Board said its index jumped more than nine percentage points in March.

Experts track consumer attitudes for clues about the consumer spending that drives most U.S. economic activity.

A separate report by S&P Case-Shiller showed home prices rose sharply over the past 12 months, increasing at the fastest pace since July 2014.  Some buyers may have speeded up home purchases to avoid further expected interest-rate hikes.  Experts say prices are rising in part because demand for homes is outstripping the supply.

In a separate report, the Census Bureau said the trade deficit shrank as imports dropped sharply. The deficit means that U.S. consumers buy more from foreign companies than Americans are selling to customers abroad.

Economy & business

Ford Investing $1.2B in 3 Michigan Plants, Adding 130 Jobs

Ford Motor Co. is investing $1.2 billion in three Michigan facilities, including an engine plant where it plans to add 130 jobs.

President Donald Trump, who has pressured automakers to invest more and create jobs in the U.S., applauded the move Tuesday in an early morning tweet.

“Big announcement by Ford today. Major investment to be made in three Michigan plants. Car companies coming back to U.S. JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!,” Trump tweeted hours ahead of the announcement.

The investments were in the works well before Trump took office, however. Ford announced plans to upgrade some of its Michigan plants in November 2015 as part of a new contract with the United Auto Workers union.

Ford Americas President Joe Hinrichs said the company told the White House about the investments Tuesday morning. Hinrichs said it’s not unusual for the company to reach out to state and national political leaders before such an announcement.

Hinrichs said Tuesday’s announcement was timed to a state meeting where officials approved nearly $31 million in grants and 15-year tax exemptions for Ford.

Ford will spend $850 million to upgrade the Michigan Assembly Plant next year to build the Ford Ranger midsize pickup and Ford Bronco SUV. Ford plans to build the Ranger starting at the end of 2018 and the Bronco starting in 2020.

The suburban Detroit plant currently makes small cars, which are moving to a plant in Mexico. Trump has needled Ford and other automakers in the past about plans to move small car production to Mexico. Amid slowing sales of smaller vehicles, Ford did scrap plans for a brand new plant in Mexico, but will continue to build small cars at an existing facility there.

Hinrichs said the Michigan Assembly Plant will operate on two shifts unless demand dictates that a third shift be added. The plant used to operate on three shifts, but it cut a shift and 673 factory workers in 2015 because of slumping sales of small cars.

Ford will spend $150 million to upgrade its Romeo Engine Plant outside Detroit. The company says it will create or retain 130 jobs at that plant, which will make components for a new engine.

Ford also is spending $200 million on a data center that will store information collected from self-driving and connected cars. The data center will be located at an assembly plant in the Detroit suburb of Flat Rock. Ford announced in January that the Flat Rock plant would get $700 million in upgrades and 700 new jobs to make electric and self-driving cars.

Ford shares rose 2.2 percent to $11.71 in afternoon trading.

Science & Health

Main Points in Trump Climate Policy Executive Order

The executive order signed by President Trump shelves the Clean Power Plan, the signature Obama-era policy designed to combat climate change.

But it also is a sweeping rollback of decades of U.S. policy regarding not only climate change but environmental protection, energy production and emissions.

Pro-growth, pro-environment

Trump repeatedly promised to overturn the plan during the campaign. At one point, he referred to climate change as a “hoax,” but more generally the president has claimed that restrictive and punitive environmental regulations hurt the energy industry’s ability to turn a profit, and that they cost jobs.

Today’s executive order lays out a White House strategy to get rid of any regulations that “impede” energy production.

White House officials such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have telegraphed this strategy for weeks, saying, “This is about making sure that we have a pro-growth and pro-environment approach to how we do regulation in this country.”

The Clean Power Plan already is on hold due to legal challenges, but if it had been implemented it would have forced U.S. power plants to significantly cut their emissions of planet warming greenhouse gases like carbon and methane.

Here is a quick rundown of the main points of today’s executive order.

♦ Initiate a review of the Clean Power Plan:

Its goal was to lower U.S. carbon emissions from power plants by 32 percent over 2005 levels by 2030. The EPA estimates that would have kept 870 million tons of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere.

The plan was the backbone of the U.S. contribution to the Paris Accords, which was a worldwide, non-binding agreement among 195 nations to keep the planet from warming more than an average of 2 degrees Celsius.

♦ Initiate a 180-day review among all U.S. agencies:

The goal is to identify all regulations and rules that “impede” energy production.

♦ Lift the moratorium on federal coal leasing:

In 2016, the Obama administration put a 3-year moratorium on new leases of federal land for coal mining. At the time, the administration said the program needed to be modernized to ensure U.S. taxpayers were getting a solid return on the money developers were paying for the land, and also to take into account the impact mining has on climate change.

♦ Rescind restrictions on hydraulic fracking:

Current restrictions require drillers to use tanks instead of pits to store fracking wastewater, and to disclose the chemicals that are pumped into fracking wells to draw out the natural gas.

♦ Roll back federal regulations forcing energy companies to limit methane emissions from wells and pipes.

♦ New guidance on the National Environmental Policy Act:

The NEPA is a law passed by Congress in 1970 and signed into law by a Republican president, Richard Nixon.  NEPA required that federal agencies prepare environmental assessments and environmental impact statements on any new development.  These reports state the potential environmental effects of proposed federal agency actions.  The Obama administration included greenhouse gases on the list of things that could have a negative environmental impact.  The executive order takes them back out.

We’ll see you in court

Environmental groups already have vowed to challenge any backsliding on the part of the White House in regard to climate policy.

They point to the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled three times that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and qualifies as a “threat” to human health. That gives the EPA not only the legal authority, but the responsibility, to regulate the emission of CO2.

When VOA spoke with Tomas Carbonnel, the lead counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, he said it is ready to challenge any rollback in court.

“Once the administration undertakes this process,” he said, “it will experience significant challenges in the courts and in public opinion if it attempts to roll back progress in that, that had been made.”

It is unclear how the Supreme Court might rule if Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick to sit on the court, is approved by the Senate, but the fate of the executive order, may very well be decided in court.

Science & Health

Ivanka Trump, Education Secretary DeVos Promote STEM Careers

Ivanka Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday exhorted young girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, saying those fields will provide the jobs and innovation for the future.

Their tour of the National Air and Space Museum with a group of middle school students came as the Trump administration proposed further cuts to education and science, drawing harsh criticism from teachers’ unions and others.

Ivanka Trump, a successful entrepreneur who considers herself as a women’s rights activist, lamented that women make up 48 percent of America’s work force but only 24 percent of STEM professionals.

“This statistic is showing that we are sadly moving in the wrong direction. Women are increasingly underrepresented in important fields of science, technology, engineering and math,” Trump said. “But I dare you to beat these statistics and advance the role of women in STEM fields.”

She said she and her 5-year-old daughter Arabella plan to take a coding class together this summer because “coding truly is the language of the future.”

Astronaut Kay Hire and female researchers at NASA also spoke to the students and DeVos urged the children to follow in their footsteps by studying, working hard and mentoring younger peers.

“You can do your part to improve the lives of women in the future,” DeVos said.

As she praised the role of women in the American space program, Ivanka Trump also said her father’s administration has expanded NASA’s space exploration to add Mars as a top objective. But as she spoke, the Trump administration sent Congress a series of “options” for budget cuts, including slashing $3 billion from Education Department, as well as cuts to NASA and the National Institutes of Health.

The American Federation of Teachers accused the administration of hypocrisy.

“Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Ivanka Trump are feigning an interest in STEM careers with a photo op at the National Air and Space Museum while eliminating all funding for NASA’s education programs. This takes chutzpah to a new level,” AFT president Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “The next generation of astronauts, scientists, engineers and mathematicians need support, not budget cuts eliminating the very programs being promoted.”

Science & Health

Trump Rolls Back Obama-era Environmental Rules

President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order Tuesday that would effectively dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations, rekindling the highly charged partisan debate about how human activity affects the earth’s climate, and deepening concern that decades of work on global climate treaties may be unraveling.

“We will put our miners back to work” and produce “really clean coal,” Trump said during the signing ceremony.

“Many agree that would be disastrous,” Dutch Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen told VOA in a telephone interview. “Whatever has been achieved could be destroyed, so I don’t think many scientists would be pleased with this,” said Crutzen, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize for work explaining the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump believes he can balance twin goals of protecting the environment while promoting energy production in the U.S.

“The president strongly believes that protecting the environment and promoting our economy are not mutually exclusive goals,” Spicer said during his daily White House media briefing. “This executive order will help to ensure that we have clean air and clean water without sacrificing economic growth and job creation.”

Trump’s order will seek to suspend, rescind or identify for review more than a half-dozen rules, in an attempt to increase domestic energy production in the form of fossil fuels. It directs federal agencies to identify rules the administration says impede domestic energy production, as a first step in a 6-month process to create a blueprint for the administration’s future energy policy. Included in the review will be the Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants.

The rollback also scraps many of former President Barack Obama’s environmental initiatives and removes the requirement that federal officials weigh the impact of climate change when making decisions.

Trump has repeatedly signaled disdain for his predecessor’s climate policy. On the campaign trail, he called Obama’s Clean Power Plan “stupid,” largely because it put in place what he called “job-killing” regulations. The executive orders he signed Tuesday direct the Environmental Protection Agency to thoroughly revise regulations outlined in the Clean Power Plan.  

Trump’s 2018 budget proposal slashes EPA funding by 31 percent, including an almost total cut of climate research funds. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told a White House briefing, “We’re not spending money on that anymore.”

International effect

Less clear is the president’s commitment to international agreements such as the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, signed by Obama. Trump has an aversion to treaties that cede U.S. authority to global bodies, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, speaking Sunday on ABC’s This Week, called the Paris treaty a “bad deal.”

A hot issue

Leaked details of the executive orders ignited a firestorm among climate scientists.

Tim Barnett, emeritus research geophysicist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California, says even he, a Trump supporter, would find it “unconscionable” to roll back regulations contained in the Clean Power Plan.

“Global warming is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue,” he said. “If you look at what’s going on the Arctic, the Antarctic, by continuing to put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we’re making the oceans more acidic. It is thought that by 2040, half the planktonic creatures will be under stress.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune called Trump’s order “the single biggest attack on climate action in U.S. history, period.” Brune said the action ignores the growing clean energy economy that serves as the best way to protect both workers and the environment.

In Washington, views on climate change generally split along party lines. With Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, the views of climate skeptics, largely marginalized during the Obama years, are finding fresh voice.



The House Science Committee has scheduled hearings this week to look into the methods of climate scientists, as Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, pushes forward a bill to require the EPA to make public the data it uses to justify environmental regulations. The hearing will feature three prominent academics who question the scientific consensus, alongside Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University and author of the “hockey stick” graph that suggests a steep rise in the earth’s temperature since fossil fuels came into wide use.

Speaking to VOA, Mann said the rising profile of climate change doubters in Washington is part of a well-funded campaign by big energy industry interests, mainly Charles and David Koch, who are major contributors to conservative political and policy groups.

“Trump’s administration has been filled with individuals who have close ties to polluting interests, ExxonMobil obviously, but the Koch brothers, the largest privately owned fossil fuel interests in the country,” Mann said.  “… and their agenda has long been to gut all government regulations so they can increase their own profits from the sale of fossil fuels.”

Climate skeptics agree money has corrupted the scientific debate, but they differ on its effect. The dissenters argue that fierce competition for the billions of dollars in government research grants has forced academics to exaggerate the danger of climate chance.

Richard Lindzen, professor emeritus of meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, represents the small minority of scientists who find fault with the overwhelming consensus on climate change. He argues universities have given in to the temptation to exaggerate climate change as they have become increasingly dependent on billions of dollars in government research funding, effectively making bureaucrats the real judges of science.

“We went way backward in studying climate and replaced it with this single variable, [CO2] and increased funding by 1500 percent and created a whole new community that had never studied climate but was willing to attribute everything to it,” he said.

Economy & business

Amazon Makes Another Brick & Mortar Move

Online retailer Amazon has announced another move into a traditional brick and mortar business, drive-up grocery stores.

The company announced the AmazonFresh Pickup service Tuesday, according to CNBC. The service, which is currently only available to Amazon employees, would allow Amazon Prime members to order groceries online, choose a pick up time and pick them up at that store.

The service would allow customers to select fruits, vegetables, breads, dairy and meats among other items. Pick up times can be made as soon as within 15 minutes of placing an order.

Amazon also offers a grocery delivery service to certain parts of the United States.

AmazonFresh Pickup is the latest move for the company, which is also reportedly considering furniture and home appliance showrooms, according to the New York Times.

The company is also experimenting with convenience stores without cashiers.