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Sri Lanka Shuts Down Social Media After Terror Attack

People in Sri Lanka are experiencing a second day without access to some of the most popular social media sites within the country, after the government shut down the services in the wake of a terror attack that killed nearly 300 people and injured hundreds on Easter Sunday.

Facebook and its properties — Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — were blocked. Access to Snapchat was turned off, as was Viper, a popular chat application. 

The government said it blocked access to the sites because false news reports were spreading through social media.

A lack of trust 

Sri Lanka’s shutdown of social media is a “wake-up call,” said Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, a digital advocacy and journalism organization. 

The shutdown reflects governments’ worldwide growing mistrust of Facebook, Google and other digital platforms during periods of crisis, he said.

“What’s different to me is this sense that enough is enough’ with the internet companies. The narrative up to three years ago was that technology companies can help us in times of crisis,” he said. “There really is a shift in the public conversation of what we expect from technology companies — from a sense that they are positive forces to ones that are more complicated and possibly negative.” 

Shutdowns are becoming more common after politically sensitive events such as elections, said Peter Micek with Access Now, a digital rights group.

What appears to be changing is that “authorities are putting tragedies such as a terrorist attack or a disaster in the same bucket as politically sensitive events,” Micek said. “I don’t know how governments can communicate with their constituencies with these media bans in place. They only increase the risks to health and safety.” 

Social media-fueled unrest

Sri Lankans have experienced social media shutdowns in the past. In March 2018, Sri Lanka turned off access for more than eight days after anti-Muslim riots that left three people dead.

The restrictions then were at first accepted by many, said Alp Toker, executive director of Netblocks, a digital rights group based in London that monitors government shutdowns. There was a sense that social media was fueling the flames. But citizens quickly clamored for access to be restored, he said. 

“People realized they are attached to the platforms,” Toker said. 

Facebook’s safety check 

A Facebook spokesperson said that the company is “working to support first responders and law enforcement, as well as to identify and remove content which violates our standards. We are aware of the government’s statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms.”

After the terror attacks in Sri Lanka, Facebook turned on its Safety Check service, which asks people in the affected area to report they are safe.

It is unclear if anyone in the country is able to access the site. 

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Melinda Gates Talks ‘Brash’ Microsoft Culture in New Book

Looking back at her time as an early Microsoft employee, Melinda Gates said the brash culture at the famously tough, revolutionary tech company made her want to quit, but that she didn’t discuss it with her boyfriend, and later her husband, Bill Gates, the company CEO who embodied that culture.

“That wasn’t my job to do that at the time,” Gates said in an interview with The Associated Press, adding that she drew “bright lines” around the office and home in order to work there for nine years before she left to have children.

Her new book, “The Moment of Lift,” is a memoir and manifesto on women and power from the former tech business executive, outspoken feminist and public supporter of the #MeToo movement. The Associated Press reviewed an advanced copy of the book ahead of its release Tuesday. All book proceeds will be donated to charity.

Missing from the memoir is how her relationship with Gates affected her experience at Microsoft. And she said it’s difficult to look back to 30 years ago to say how things might be different today if he had made a move on an employee at work, back when the company was 1% of its current size.

“It’s impossible to project how that was different,” she said.

Gates didn’t say in the interview if she ever had doubts about starting a relationship with her company CEO.

The book trails her life from Catholic school girl in Texas, to young tech leader at Microsoft; and from her private struggles as the wife of a dominating public icon and stay-at-home mom with three kids, to finding her professional purpose as a champion of women through venture capital and philanthropy.

The Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s $50 billion endowment makes it the world’s largest private foundation. Much of its resources are spent on global health and development, which informed the many academic interpretations of world poverty issues that make up the majority of the book. Illustrated by vivid, heartbreaking anecdotes on how those problems cause death and suffering, it is told from her extraordinary perch as one of the world’s richest people.

And it’s also part celebrity memoir that delves into her personal life. She won Bill Gates’ heart after meeting at a work dinner, sharing a mutual love of puzzles and beating him at a math game. Their children enrolled in school under her maiden name, “French,” to give them anonymity. At a time when she was still discovering how gender roles were engrained in her, he offered to do school drop-offs, which then influenced other fathers to take on the task.

On women and power, Gates outlines her agenda tackling poverty in developing nations and evolution from reluctant to proud feminist pushing for equality in the American workplace after a largely positive but also at times frustrating experience at Microsoft.

Melinda Gates said she learned to adapt by being herself despite Microsoft’s abrasive style because she loved the work while she was there in the 1980s and 1990s. She said she recruited some of the best in the company who appreciated her kinder leadership style.

She also describes how the couple evolved to become more and more equal since starting the foundation together in 2000. She gives Gates feedback often and is adamant about creating a collaborative culture at their powerful nonprofit.

“Bill and I are equal partners,” Melinda Gates said. “Men and women should be equal at work.”

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Tesla Shows Off Self-Driving Technology to Investors

Tesla broadcast a web presentation on Monday to update investors about its self-driving strategy as Chief Executive Elon Musk tries to show that the electric car maker’s massive investment in the sector will pay off.

Global carmakers, large technology companies and an array of startups are developing self-driving — including Alphabet Inc’s Waymo and Uber Technologies Inc — but experts say it will be years before the systems are ready for deployment.

Musk previously forecast that by 2018 cars would go “from your driveway to work without you touching anything.” Teslas still require human intervention and are not considered fully self-driving, according to industry standards.

The webcast, scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. PT (1800 GMT), was delayed and Tesla showed a repeating video of its vehicles for 30 minutes.

Teslas have been involved in a handful of crashes, some of them fatal, involving the use of the company’s AutoPilot system.

The system has automatic steering and cruise control but requires driver attention at the wheel. Tesla has been criticized by safety groups for being unclear about the need for “hands-on” driving.

The company also sells a “full self-driving option” for an additional $5,000, explained on Tesla’s website as “automatic driving from highway on-ramp to off-ramp,” automatic lane changes, the ability to autopark and to summon a parked car.

Coming later in 2019 is the ability to recognize traffic lights and stop signs, and perform automatic driving on city streets, says Tesla.

But Tesla’s use of the term “full self-driving” still garners criticism, as the option is not yet “Level 4,” or fully autonomous by industry standards, in which the car can handle all aspects of driving in most circumstances with no human intervention.

Tesla says its cars have the necessary hardware for full self-driving in most circumstances, and Musk said in February he was certain that Tesla would be “feature complete” for full self-driving in 2019, although drivers would still need to pay attention until the system’s reliability improved.

Tesla reports first-quarter earnings on Wednesday. That is also the deadline by which Musk and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are supposed to settle their dispute over Musk’s use of Twitter.

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Ford Unveils New Electric Fleet

Ford is showing off its new fleet of electric vehicles. Some of the standouts include a new hybrid plug-in and the promise of a new, all-electric model by 2022. The U.S. automaker plans to have a fleet of 40 different electric vehicles on the roads in the next three years. VOA’S Kevin Enochs reports.

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The Future of Farming: Robots Tend Crops and Bovines Go 5G

British agriculture is going high-tech. Farmers recently tested cutting-edge technology like robots that autonomously tend fields and wireless cattle that may connect faster to the farm than you to your favorite app. Incoming message from Arash Arabasadi.

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China’s Political System Helps Advance Its Artificial Intelligence

Recent technological advances demonstrated by China have started an intense debate on whether it is set to take a lead in the field of artificial intelligence, or AI, which has extensive business and military applications.

U.S. concerns about China’s AI advances have also influenced, in part, the ongoing trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing. Both the United States and European Union are taking measures to stop information leaks that are reportedly helping Chinese companies at the expense of Western business.

But many analysts are saying that Chinese corporate and defense-related research in areas like AI and 5G wireless technologies can thrive on their own even if information from the Western world is shut off. China is already reportedly leading in several segments of businesses like autonomous vehicles, facial recognition and certain kinds of drones.

The U.S.-based Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence recently captured attention when it reported that China is a close second after the United States when it comes to producing frequently-cited research papers on artificial intelligence. The U.S. contribution is 29%, and China accounts for 26% of such papers.

“The U.S. still is ahead in AI development capabilities, but the gap between the U.S. and China is closing rapidly because of the significant new AI investments in China,” Bart Selman, president-elect of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, a professional organization, told VOA.

Political advantage

Chinese President Xi Jinping has in recent months encouraged Communist leaders to “ensure that our country marches in the front ranks when it comes to theoretical research in this important area of AI, and occupies the high ground in critical and AI core technologies.” He also asked them to “ensure that critical and core AI technologies are firmly grasped in our own hands.”

Analysts said China’s political system and its government’s eagerness to support the technological advancement were key reasons it could build infrastructure such as cloud computing and a software engineering workforce, and become a big player in artificial intelligence.

Chinese companies enjoy special advantages in deploying new technology like facial recognition, which is often difficult in democratic countries like the U.S., said William Carter, deputy director and fellow in the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“China does have strengths in terms of application development and deployment, and has the potential to take the lead in the deployment of some technologies like autonomous vehicles and facial recognition where ethical, social and policy hurdles may impede deployment in the U.S. and other parts of the world,” Carter said.

China’s capabilities in image and facial recognition are possibly the best in the world, partly because government controls have made it easier to generate data from a wide range of sources like banks, mobile phone companies and social media.

“These capabilities arise out of the use of deep learning on very large data sets. In general, China has the advantage of having more real world data to train AI systems on … than any other country,” Selman said.

Other areas where China has shown significant advances are natural language processing (in Chinese only) and drone (unmanned aerial vehicle) swarming.

“China also has unique capabilities that are not found in the U.S. or Europe. I’m thinking of electronic payment platforms [e.g. AliPay] and the super app WeChat that provide an advanced platform for the rapid introduction of further AI technologies,” Selman said.

U.S. role

Last February, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking government agencies to do more with AI.

“Continued American leadership in artificial intelligence is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States,” Trump was quoted as saying in an official press release accompanying the order.

Critics have said that Trump’s order does not suggest enhanced government investment and plans for attracting fresh talent in AI research and development, which is essential for growth and industry competition.

Gregory Allen is an adjunct senior fellow with the research group Center for a New American Security. He was recently quoted as saying that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending the most on research and development at $2 billion over five years. In contrast, the Chinese province of Shanghai, which is a city government, is planning to spend $15 billion on AI over 10 years.

“So literally, we have the U.S. federal government at present at risk of being outspent by a provincial government of China,” Allen said.

China’s AI capabilities have limits. They suffer from major weaknesses in areas like advanced semiconductors to support machine learning applications.

“At the end of the day, when it comes to most major AI fields, China is not the technological leader and is not the source of most foundational innovations,” Carter said. 

The U.S. still dominates in the overall market for self-driving car technology, machine translation, natural language understanding, and web search. China has gained a strong presence in a few segments of these businesses, largely because of its vast domestic market.

Despite the competition, collaboration and exchange of ideas occur between the two countries in the AI field, although this aspect is less discussed, Carter added.

“Politically, the dynamic is more competitive; economically and scientifically, it is more collaborative,” he said.

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NASA Launches Chicago Planetarium’s Student Project into Space

College student Fatima Guerra, 19, will be the first to admit, she’s into some really nerdy stuff.

“Like, up there nerdy.”

“Way up there nerdy,” she says. “All the way up into space.”

Guerra is an astronomer in training, involved since a high school internship with a small project at the Adler Planetarium, with big goals.

“Our main goal was to see if the ozone layer is getting thinner and by how much, and if there is different parts of the Earth’s atmosphere getting thinner because of the pollution and greenhouse gases,” she told VOA from the laboratory at the Adler where she often works.

​Coding ThinSat

Data that sheds light on those circumstances is gathered by a small electronic device called “ThinSat” designed to orbit the Earth. It is developed not by high-paid engineers and software programmers, but by Chicago-area students like Guerra.

“We focused on coding the different parts of the sensors that the ThinSat is composed of. So, we coded so that it can measure light intensity, pressure.”

“This stuff is very nerdy,” Jesus Garcia admits with a chuckle.

“What we hope to accomplish is look at Earth from space as if it was the very first exoplanet that we have. So, imagine that we are looking at the very first images from a very distant planet.”

As a systems engineer, Garcia oversees the work of the students developing ThinSat for the Adler’s Far Horizon’s Project, which he outlines “bring all types of students, volunteers and our staff to develop projects, engineering projects, that allow us to answer scientific questions.”

Garcia says the students he works with on the project cross national, racial and cultural divides to work toward a common goal.

“Here at the Adler, we have students who are minorities who have been faced with challenges of not having opportunities presented to them,” he said. “And here we are presenting a mission where they are collaborating with us scientists and engineers on our first mission that is going into space.”

Rocket carries project into space

As the NASA-owned, Northrop Grumann-developed Antares rocket successfully blasted off from the coast of Virginia on April 17, it wasn’t just making a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

On board was ThinSat, the culmination of work by many at the Adler, including Guerra, who joined the Far Horizons team as a high school requirement that ended up becoming much more.

“A requirement can become a life-changing opportunity, and you don’t even know it,” she told VOA. “It’s really exciting to see, or to know, especially, that my work is going to go up into space and help in the scientific world.”

Daughter of immigrants

It is also exciting for her parents, immigrants from Guatemala, who can boast that their daughter is one of the few who can claim to have built a satellite orbiting the Earth.

“I told them it might become a worldwide type of news, and I’m going to be a part of it. And they were really proud. And they were calling my family over there and saying, ‘She might be on TV.’ And it’s something they really feel a part of me about,” Guerra said.

Long after the data compiled by ThinSat is complete, Guerro will still have a place in history as a member of a team that put the first satellite developed by a private planetarium into space.

She says her friends don’t think that’s nerdy at all.

“It’s cool, because it’s interesting to see that something so nerdy is actually going to work, and is going to go up into something so important,” she said.

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NASA Rocket Carries Adler Planetarium Student Project into Space

For some, the launch of a rocket into space to resupply the International Space Station is a routine mission. But for a group of students working with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, it is a historic moment marking the achievement of a lifetime. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more from Chicago.

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Facebook ‘Unintentionally’ Uploaded Email Contacts of 1.5 Million Users

Facebook Inc said on Wednesday it may have “unintentionally uploaded” email contacts of 1.5 million new users since May 2016, in what seems to be the latest privacy-related issue faced by the social media company.

In March, Facebook had stopped offering email password verification as an option for people who signed up for the first time, the company said. There were cases in which email contacts of people were uploaded to Facebook when they created their account, the company said.

“We estimate that up to 1.5 million people’s email contacts may have been uploaded. These contacts were not shared with anyone and we are deleting them,” Facebook told Reuters, adding that users whose contacts were imported will be notified.

The underlying glitch has been fixed, according to the company statement. Business Insider had earlier reported that the social media company harvested email contacts of the users without their knowledge or consent when they opened their accounts.

When an email password was entered, a message popped up saying it was “importing” contacts without asking for permission first, the report said.

Facebook has been hit by a number of privacy-related issues recently, including a glitch that exposed passwords of millions of users stored in readable format within its internal systems to its employees.

Last year, the company came under fire following revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, obtained personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent.

The company has also been facing criticism from lawmakers across the world for what has been seen by some as tricking people into giving personal data to Facebook and for the presence of hate speech and data portability on the platform.

Separately, Facebook was asked to ensure its social media platform is not abused for political purposes or to spread misinformation during elections.

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Google: Android Users Get Browser, Search Options in EU Case

Google said Thursday it will start giving European Union smartphone users a choice of browsers and search apps on its Android operating system, in changes designed to comply with an EU antitrust ruling.

Following an Android update, users will be shown two new screens giving them the new options, Google product management director Paul Gennai said in a blog post.

The EU’s executive Commission slapped the Silicon Valley giant with a record 4.34 billion euro (then $5 billion) antitrust fine in July after finding that it abused the dominance of Android by forcing handset and tablet makers to install Google apps, reducing consumer choice.

The commission had ordered Google to come up with a remedy or face further fines. The company, which is appealing the ruling, said the changes are being rolled out over the next few weeks to both new and existing Android phones in Europe.

Android users who open the Google Play store after the update will be given the option to install up to five search apps and five browsers, Gennai said. Apps will be included based on their popularity and shown in random order. Users who choose a search app will also be asked if they want to change the default search engine in the phone’s Chrome browser.

Android is the most widely used mobile operating system, beating even Apple’s iOS.

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