Silicon Valley & Technology
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Trump Administration Unveils Order to Prioritize, Promote AI

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday signed an executive order asking federal government agencies to dedicate more resources and investment into research, promotion and training on artificial intelligence, known as AI.

Under the American AI Initiative, the administration is directing agencies to prioritize AI investments in research and development, increase access to federal data and models for that research and prepare workers to adapt to the era of AI.

There was no specific funding announced for the initiative, but the White House wants better reporting and tracking of spending on AI-related research and development.

The White House said investment in AI is “critical to creating the industries of the future, like autonomous cars, industrial robots, algorithms for disease diagnosis, and more.”

The initiative aims to make sure the United States maintains its advantage in AI development and related areas, such as advanced manufacturing and quantum computing.

Trump, in his State of the Union speech last week, said he was willing to work with lawmakers to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future, calling it a “necessity.”

Michael Kratsios, a White House science adviser, said in an essay in Wired magazine on Monday that “with proper leadership, AI can empower American workers by liberating them from mundane tasks.”

“AI is something that touches every aspect of people’s lives,” a senior administration official told reporters on Sunday. “What this initiative attempts to do is to bring all those together under one umbrella and show the promise of this technology for the American people,” the official said.

AI and deep machine learning raise ethical concerns about control, privacy, cybersecurity, and is set to trigger job displacements across industries, companies and experts say.

A 2018 study from PwC said 30 percent of jobs are at potential risk of automation by the mid-2030s, including 44 percent of workers with low education. At the same time, the study found automation could boost global gross domestic product by $15 trillion by 2030.

The White House held a meeting on AI in May with more than 30 major companies from a variety of industries, including Ford, Boeing, Amazon.com and Microsoft, vowing not to stand in the way of its development.

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Science & Health
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US Youth Smoking Decline Stalls, And Vaping May Be to Blame

Cigarette smoking rates have stopped falling among U.S. kids, and health officials believe youth vaping is responsible.

For decades, the percentage of high school and middle school students who smoked cigarettes had been declining. For the past three years, it has flattened, according to new numbers released Monday.

There may be several reasons, but a recent boom in vaping is the most likely explanation, said Brian King of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We were making progress, and now you have the introduction of a product that is heavily popular among youth that has completely erased that progress,” King said.

The CDC findings come from a national survey conducted last spring of more than 20,000 middle and high school students. It asked if they had used any tobacco products in the previous month. Some of the findings had been released before, including the boom in vaping.

Experts attribute the vaping increase to the exploding popularity of newer versions of e-cigarettes, like those by Juul Labs Inc. of San Francisco. The products resemble computer flash drives, can be recharged in USB ports and can be used discreetly — including in school bathrooms and even in classrooms.

According to the new CDC data, about 8 percent of high schoolers said they had recently smoked cigarettes in 2018, and about 2 percent of middle schoolers did. Those findings were about the same seen in similar surveys in 2016 and 2017.

It also found that about 2 in 5 high school students who used a vaping or tobacco product used more than one kind, and that the most common combination was e-cigarettes and cigarettes. Also, about 28 percent of high school e-cigarette users said they vaped 20 or more days in the previous month — nearly a 40 percent jump from the previous year.

Smoking, the nation’s leading cause of preventable illness, is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths each year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans the sale of e-cigarettes and tobacco products to those under 18.

Gateway to regular cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are generally considered better than cigarettes for adults who are already addicted to nicotine. But health officials have worried for years that electronic cigarettes could lead kids to switch to smoking traditional cigarettes.

“I think the writing is on the wall,” with research increasingly suggesting e-cigarettes are becoming a gateway to regular cigarettes, said Megan Roberts, an Ohio State University researcher.

There is, however, some split of opinion among health researchers. Some had linked e-cigarettes to an unusually large drop in teen smoking a few years ago, and they say it’s not clear to what extent the decline in smoking has stalled or to what degree vaping is to blame.

Cigarette smoking is still declining in some states. And another large survey found that smoking has continued to drop among 12th graders, though not in younger school kids.

“It’s not clear yet what’s going on and it’s best to not jump to any conclusions,” said David Levy, a Georgetown University researcher.

In a statement, a Juul spokeswoman said the company has taken steps to prevent children from using its products and supports prohibiting sales of e-cigarettes to anyone under 21.

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Arts & Entertainment
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Hulu Making Howard the Duck, 4 More Marvel Animated Shows

Hulu is teaming with Marvel to make four separate animated series based on comic book characters like Howard the Duck.

Director Kevin Smith and comics Chelsea Handler and Patton Oswalt are among the people who have signed deals with the streaming service to help produce the cartoons. Smith will work on the Howard the Duck series.

Other shows revolve around M.O.D.O.K., a villain with an enormous head; Hit-Monkey, about a Japanese snow monkey turned assassin; and Tigra and Dazzler, two superheroes who work in Los Angeles.

Hulu senior vice president Craig Erwich said Monday animation is a particular favorite for its users. Since the deal was just signed, there’s no estimate on when the series will be ready.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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AP Explains: The Promise and Hype of 5G Wireless

A much-hyped network upgrade called “5G” means different things to different people.

To industry proponents, it’s the next huge innovation in wireless internet. To the U.S. government, it’s the backbone technology of a future that America will wrestle with China to control. To many average people, it’s simply a mystery.

The technology is one of the issues expected to take center stage at the MWC mobile conference in Barcelona, Spain, this month. The interest goes well beyond engineers: In Washington, there are fears that China could take the lead in developing the technology and sell equipment that could be used to spy on Americans.

What, exactly, is 5G wireless — and will you even notice when it comes online?

What is 5G?

5G is a new technical standard for wireless networks — the fifth, naturally — that promises faster speeds; less lag, or “latency,” when connecting to the network; and the ability to connect many devices to the internet without bogging it down. 5G networks will ideally be better able to handle more users, lots of sensors and heavy traffic.

Before we can all use it, wireless companies and phone makers have to upgrade. Phones need new chips and radio antennas. The phone you have today won’t work with a 5G network.

Wireless companies have been getting ready. They’ve been revamping their network equipment, buying up chunks of radio spectrum for carrying 5G signals, and installing new 5G antennas on cellphone towers, utility poles and streetlights. Wireless providers will invest $275 billion in 5G-related networks in the U.S., according to CTIA, an industry trade group.

When will it be available?

A true U.S. mobile rollout will start in 2019. It will take a few years to go national, and even then more rural areas of the country will not be covered in the “millimeter wave” frequencies that promise the highest data speeds and capacities, said Michael Thelander, CEO of wireless consultancy Signals Research Group.

Thelander predicts that China may lag the U.S. by a year in its initial rollout, but will ultimately have the biggest deployment, while European countries will build out more slowly.

Beware of confusion, though. Wireless carriers have a history of rushing to slap the latest-and-greatest label on their networks, and this time is no different. AT&T has already applied the name 5G on a service that’s not really 5G. (Sprint, upset, then sued its larger rival.)

Once the network is ready, you’ll need a 5G-enabled phone to connect to it. The first ones should be available in the first half of 2019, but a 5G iPhone isn’t expected until 2020. 5G phones will most likely be more expensive than current 4G phones. Don’t worry, even when 5G turns on, you can keep using 4G phones, just not at 5G speeds.

Wat can 5G do?

There’s a considerable amount of hype over the promise of 5G. Industry groups say it will promote smart cities by connecting sensor networks that could manage traffic and quickly identify streetlight outages. 5G could connect self-driving cars and fuel new applications in virtual and augmented reality. Its high-speed connections could enable better remote surgery and other telemedicine, help companies automate their factories and offer businesses dedicated high-speed internet lanes.

“5G speeds, and ever-faster home broadband, will mean that existing applications will get richer, and also that new applications will emerge — new Flickrs, YouTubes or Snapchats. We don’t know what yet,” Benedict Evans, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, wrote in a January blog post .

The most immediate impact on consumers will be faster download speeds for movies and other video. Thelander says your phone’s internet will work better in crowded locations such as stadiums.

What are the security concerns?

The 5G network is one front in rising tensions between the U.S. and China. The U.S. government has warned U.S. companies not to use Chinese telecom technology in communications networks due to security concerns, and is pressing other countries to ban Huawei, a Chinese telecom company, from 5G network buildouts.

U.S. officials have suspected for years that the Chinese government could use Huawei network equipment to help it spy. Huawei has rejected such accusations.

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Economy & business
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Turkey Opens Government Vegetable Stalls in Battle with Inflation

Battling a sharp rise in food costs, Turkish authorities opened their own markets on Monday to sell cheap vegetables directly to shoppers, cutting out retailers who the government has accused of jacking up prices.

Crowds queued outside municipality tents to buy tomatoes, onions and peppers in Istanbul’s Bayrampasa district, waiting for an hour for items selling at half the regular shop prices.

The move to set up state markets follows a 31 percent year-on-year surge in food prices in January and precedes local elections next month in which President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party faces a tough challenge to maintain support.

Traders blamed storms in southern Turkey’s farming region for food price inflation, as well as rising costs of labor and transport. Authorities called it “food terror” and said they would punish anyone trying to keep prices artificially high.

“This was a game. They started manipulating prices, they tried to make prices skyrocket,” President Tayyip Erdogan said in a campaign speech on Monday.

“This was an attempt to terrorize (society),” Erdogan said.

Under the government initiative, municipalities are selling vegetables at around 50 percent of prices recorded by the Turkish Statistical Institute in January. A maximum of three kilos of goods per person is allowed.

The move will be extended to rice and pulses such as lentils, as well as cleaning products, Erdogan said.

The project is currently taking place only in Istanbul, where around 50 sites are selling the cut-price goods, and in the capital Ankara. That means it is unlikely to have a direct impact on national inflation figures, but could mitigate the price rises for residents of Turkey’s two largest cities.

Barely managing

Mustafa Dilli, 55, said he was struggling to make ends meet and hoped shops would follow suit by lowering their prices. “I think I can only shop here from now on,” he said. “We barely make it through to the end of the month.”

Several shoppers in Bayrampasa said they hoped the sales would carry on after next month’s vote. “I am curious whether this will continue after the elections,” 43-year-old housewife Nebahat Deniz said as she bought spinach and eggplants.

Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli, visiting a tent set up by the Ankara municipality, said the project would continue as long as it is needed, and could become permanent.

Last week, authorities inspected fresh produce wholesalers and imposed fines totaling 2 million lira ($380,000) on 88 firms for setting unreasonably high prices, according to the Trade Ministry.

At an Istanbul food market in a covered parking lot, traders complained that they could not compete with municipality stalls they said were subsidized by taxpayers and had been set up to win votes.

Standing behind an array of peppers, tomatoes and fresh greens, one trader said he was being hit by rising costs across the board.

“Prices in the food market are affected by the price of plastic bags, employee wages, stall fees, taxes, fuel prices.

All of them are increasing the cost of the goods,” said the trader, who only gave his first name, Yusuf.

“The government does not have these costs,” Yusuf said. “All of their costs are paid from the money out of our pockets.”

Another vendor, Erkan, said municipality sales were aimed purely at maximizing votes. “After the election, municipality sales will halt,” he said.

Erkan said the profit margin at his own stall, which supports three or four families, was very tight. “If we buy for 8 liras per kilo from the wholesaler we sell with little profit. We sell the goods for 9 liras for example,” Erkan said.

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Science & Health
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NASA’s Faraway Space Snowman Has Flat, Not Round, Behind

The faraway space snowman visited by NASA last month has a flat — not round — behind.

New photos from the New Horizons spacecraft offer a new perspective on the small cosmic body 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away. Scientists say the two-lobed object, nicknamed Ultima Thule, is actually flatter on the backside than originally thought. Pictures released late last week — taken shortly after closest approach on New Year’s Day — provide an outline of the side not illuminated by the sun.

When viewed from the front, Ultima Thule still resembles a two-ball snowman. But from the side, the snowman looks squashed, sort of like a lemon and pie stuck together, end to end.

Ultima Thule is the most distant world ever explored.

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Economy & business
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Mexico President Calls for Steps to Keep Power Prices Low

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday contracts private companies have with state-run power utility CFE should be revised to keep electricity prices low, sending shares in one Mexican contractor tumbling

“We are urging companies that have agreements with the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) to come together to review contracts and above all to reach an agreement that electricity prices will not increase,” Lopez Obrador said during his morning press conference.

Lopez Obrador noted that the state-run utility is already contractually obliged to pay billions of dollars to the private firms that developed seven gas pipelines to supply power stations, even though the projects are incomplete and unable to deliver gas.

Those companies are Mexican energy infrastructure firm IEnova, a unit of U.S.-based Sempra Energy; TransCanada Corp; and Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim’s Carso, said CFE chief Manuel Bartlett.

“If the pipelines can’t be built, as is happening in seven large gas pipelines, the companies still have to be paid even if there is no gas,” said Lopez Obrador.

IEnova’s shares dropped 6.7 percent, TransCanada’s were down 0.5 percent and Carso slipped 0.21 percent after the comments. In a statement to the Mexican stock exchange, IEnova said it has one pipeline that entered into operation in 2017, but that the supplies to CFE were interrupted due to “sabotage.”

Lopez Obrador has been a staunch critic of landmark 2013-14 energy reforms that ended the wholesale electricity monopoly held by CFE and opened up the Mexican oil industry to private investment.

“We are looking to achieve a voluntary restructuring of agreements and commitments within the framework of the law … The Mexican government is committed to not increasing electricity prices for consumers, but we want private companies to help in this initiative,” he said.

The reforms ended state oil company Pemex’s decades-long monopoly by allowing private producers to operate projects on their own as well as enter into partnerships with Pemex known as farm-outs.

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Science & Health
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‘Water from Air’ Aims to Turn Back Thailand’s Tide of Plastic

Staying at a hotel on the Thai island of Koh Samui in 2015, Meghan Kerrigan noticed the four bottles of water she was given every day were clogging her bin with plastic.

Outside her door, Chaweng beach was smothered in rubbish. It was then that she and Kohler brothers, Ryan and Matthew, had a “light-bulb moment.”

“Instead of trying to solve the problem by cleaning the beaches every day, let’s go to what the source of the problem is, and take the plastic bottle away,” said Kerrigan, now 31.

In 2016, the trio founded startup company Generation Water, based on the Thai resort island of Phuket.

They partnered with Marriott, the world’s largest hotel brand, in January 2017 to come up with a sustainable alternative to plastic bottles that would be commercially competitive and meet the needs of resorts and authorities.

Two years on, the South African-born entrepreneurs explained the workings of a pilot water plant at the JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa on Mai Khao beach, next to slogans saying “Save Water Drink Air” and “Made 100% from the air.”

Here, in the sweltering heat, two water generators suck in vapor from the air, which then condenses into water when it hits cold coils.

The water drips into tanks, making 4,000 liters a day. It is filtered, minerals are added, and it is put into reusable glass bottles. These are placed into 445 guestrooms at the JW Marriott Phuket and neighboring Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa.

The bottled water is also being trialed at two Marriott vacation clubs nearby.

The move is part of a wider effort on the holiday island to cut down on plastic bottles, rife in the hospitality industry, and a major problem in Asia and its travel hotspots.

Sustainable shift

In many parts of Asia, tap water is unsafe to drink, so hotel guests get complimentary water, mostly in plastic bottles.

As much as 60 percent of the plastic found in the ocean comes from five Asian nations, including Thailand, according to U.S.-based nonprofit group Ocean Conservancy.

In 2017, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific organized a forum to encourage sustainable water management on resort islands.

On Phuket, which is half the size of Hong Kong, more hotels are being built, and water is already in short supply.

Trucks navigate crowded roads as resorts without their own catchment area bring in water from reservoirs.

Phuket was the world’s 11th top city destination in 2017, with 11.6 million international arrivals, according to global research company Euromonitor International.

To cope with the environmental impacts of this influx, nearly 70 hotels from the Phuket Hotels Association have pledged to cut plastic bottles and straws by the end of 2019.

Since Marriott started producing its own water four months ago, it has stopped more than 100,000 plastic bottles from entering landfill or oceans, the chain says.

It plans to expand the scheme to all Marriott resorts in southern Thailand, handing out 4 million glass bottles.

Carsten Siebert, Marriott International’s director of operations for Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, said the company understood it had “a greater obligation to operate responsibly given our expanding global footprint.”

The chain has a goal to reduce water consumption per occupied room by 20 percent between 2007 and 2020.

‘Climate-positive’

The “water from air” technology uses 78 percent less energy than producing standard bottled water, has a lower carbon footprint, and is about a third cheaper, Generation Water says.

“The good thing is that it starts to become financially affordable,” said Matthias Y. Sutter, general manager at JW Marriott Phuket.

Nor does the system rely on pulling water from the ground, rivers or lakes.

“We don’t have to invest in land to secure our own water,” said Kanokwan Homcha-aim, corporate social responsibility manager for the same Marriott hotel.

Guests here have reacted positively since the bottled water was introduced in September, happy that “finally a big brand made a move,” she said.

They also like the taste. Michael Lawson, a lawyer from Sydney sitting at the Sala Sawasdee lobby bar, said his children were “quite picky” about water. “But it’s very refreshing and they are fighting over it in the room,” he said.

Downstairs in the Siam Deli, teenage student Jeremy Frydman from Melbourne said it was better than tap water at home.

One challenge for Generation Water is explaining the science behind the technology.

Many guests ask about air pollution, for example. But the water collected is clean to start with, and the technology still works if the air is polluted as only water condenses, not the air or its contaminants, said Ryan Kohler.

And with human activities emitting more greenhouse gases, the atmosphere is warming up, causing more water to evaporate, which further heats the air in “a vicious circle,” he added.

The water-from-air system helps reduce this vapor, said Kerrigan, adding that it has no impact on rainfall levels.

Thailand’s food and drug administration approved Generation Water last August, and the company is now expanding.

It is building a plant in Phuket, which will use solar energy to make “climate-positive” water, producing more than 20,000 liters of water per day by the end of the year.

Nine Marriott resorts on Phuket are in the process of signing up, along with 30 other hotels.

Generation Water is now eyeing the rest of Thailand, and is talking to hotels in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Maldives, Kohler said.

It also sells smaller water production units that can be used in homes, offices, classrooms and yachts.

The company’s goal is to stop 1 billion 500 ml plastic bottles from entering landfills and the oceans every year by the end of 2021 — equal to supplying 3,000 hotels of 250 rooms.

As for Marriott staff on Phuket, they have “no excuse now,” said Homcha-aim.

Their birthday gift from the company will be a reusable tumbler, which they can fill up with “water from the air.”

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