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FBI agents monitor social media. As domestic threats rise, the question is who they’re watching



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On Aug. 11, Adam Bies logged into his account on Gab and began typing:

“I sincerely imagine that in case you work for the FBI, then you definitely should DIE.”

Bies, 46, was an aspiring freelance photographer who had stuffed his web site with motion photographs of quick vehicles and out of doors sports activities. He had been fired from his day job in advertising for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, he wrote on-line, and had struggled in his efforts to file an unemployment declare.

As federal prosecutors would later describe in court docket filings, Bies was filling his days posting beneath a pseudonym on Gab, a social media service in style with right-wing extremists.

His submit included a hyperlink to a Fox Information story about FBI Director Christopher Wray decrying the wave of violent threats directed on the company within the three days for the reason that search of former President Donald Trump’s dwelling and membership Mar-a-Lago. He in contrast federal brokers to Nazi forces. He fumed about “police state scum.” And he composed what may need been seen as a remaining plan.

“I already know I’ll die by the hands of those … legislation enforcement scumbags,” he wrote, interspersed with profanity. “My solely purpose is to kill extra of them earlier than I drop.”

4 days later, warrant in hand, armed federal brokers and SWAT groups surrounded Bies’ dwelling, close to a tumbling waterfall within the deep-forest searching nation of western Pennsylvania. Inside the home have been Bies and his 12-year-old son. It was darkish, close to midnight.

Officers known as Bies on his cellphone, time and again, 16 occasions in all. They issued orders by way of a loudspeaker to give up.

Lastly, Bies emerged, carrying an assault rifle. Officers ordered him to place down the weapon.

In these 4 days between Bies’ threatening posts and the second he confronted off with armed brokers, he had been snared by a fancy, little-known apply throughout the FBI known as social media exploitation, or SOMEX—one that may, at this second, be monitoring the net actions of anybody in America.

High FBI leaders have sought to downplay the extent to which brokers can legally monitor public on-line actions of people that aren’t beneath investigation. However in actuality, the bureau can conduct virtually limitless monitoring of public-facing social media, so long as it is doing so for law-enforcement functions, FBI officers instructed U.S. TODAY.

Consultants say that provides the FBI extra energy than it has been prepared to acknowledge publicly—energy the bureau and different security experts say they’ve a duty to make use of to forestall terrorism.

However critics say social media exploitation additionally means brokers are allowed to assessment on-line posts at will, with no oversight, but huge authorities.

“FBI officers have put out lots of misinformation concerning the scope of their authorities,” mentioned Michael German, a former FBI particular agent and a fellow with New York College’s Brennan Heart for Justice. “The FBI has large powers to analyze lengthy earlier than there is a affordable legal predicate.”

SOMEX, entails brokers who develop their very own leads and obtain info from a community of contractors and collaborators, similar to a terrorism analysis group that first flagged the posts by Bies.

However the bureau has been criticized for the way its investigators have reacted—as within the case of on-line posts made by liberal activists through the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020—and the way they didn’t react—as within the right-wing build-up to the Jan. 6 rebel.

The FBI has lengthy been beneath scrutiny for overreach in creating recordsdata on public figures and others, even when they weren’t beneath legal investigation. And a few specialists say the company has a historical past of specializing in left-leaning teams like environmentalists and racial justice activists, whereas ignoring threats from white supremacists and others on the appropriate. They are saying this tendency carries over into the digital period.

And inner data obtained by one advocacy group seem to point out brokers in cyber-research particularly specializing in anti-police and racial justice rallies as a substitute of armed counterprotesters or white supremacists.

“The issue with social media surveillance is commonly the issue with policing at giant, which is that police can not predict crime, all they will do is make an evaluation of what sort of individual is probably to commit crime, and put that group beneath surveillance,” mentioned Matthew Guariglia, a coverage analyst on the Digital Frontier Basis. That “knee-jerk response,” Guariglia mentioned, finally ends up that means extra surveillance and harassment of individuals of shade and marginalized teams.

However as outrage over Mar-a-Lago now spurs threats from right-leaning extremists to historic ranges, longstanding questions on how the FBI actually displays Individuals on-line encounter a brand new twist: What occurs when the folks being threatened are the FBI brokers themselves?

FBI has wider latitude than many notice

In June of final yr, in a listening to of the Home Committee on Oversight and Reform, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilled Wray concerning the FBI’s failure to foresee the chaos of the Jan. 6 rebel.

“We now know that the assaults have been deliberate out within the open on in style social media platforms,” Ocasio-Cortez mentioned. “Does the FBI usually embrace social media monitoring as a part of its efforts to fight violent extremism?”

Wray’s response was emphatic:

“We have now very particular insurance policies which were on the division for a very long time that govern our capability to make use of social media. And when now we have a licensed objective and correct predication there’s lots of issues we are able to do on social media,” Wray mentioned. “However what we will not do on social media is with out correct predication, and a licensed objective, simply monitor.”

Months earlier, the FBI’s former govt assistant director for nationwide safety, Jill Sanborn, gave an identical rationalization to the Senate Committee on Homeland Safety and Governmental Affairs. “We can not accumulate First Modification-protected actions with out type of the subsequent step, which is the intent,” she mentioned.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema adopted up, asking, “So the FBI doesn’t monitor publicly out there social media conversations?”

“Right, ma’am. It is not inside our authorities,” Sanborn replied.

The FBI’s personal guidelines say in any other case.

FBI officers instructed U.S. TODAY that Wray’s assertion was appropriate, whereas acknowledging that an “approved objective” means merely doing something consistent with the duties of an FBI agent.

That “approved objective” is definitely terribly broad. Coverage would forbid brokers from social media to, for instance, maintain tabs on a romantic associate, or monitor for another non-law enforcement use. However it might permit an agent to take a look at primarily something on-line, proactively, if the intent was to cease against the law or to maintain Individuals protected. An FBI official known as this falling throughout the “penumbra of nationwide safety, enforcement of federal legislation, or international intelligence.”

German, a fellow with the Brennan Heart’s Liberty and Nationwide Safety Program, argued in a latest report that particular person FBI brokers have extraordinary leeway to look by way of public-facing social media posts with out searching for authorization from their superiors upfront and even maintaining an official report of their actions.

The FBI guidelines, specified by their handbook and periodically up to date Lawyer Normal’s tips, permit brokers to conduct “pre-assessments” of potential threats, German mentioned. These pre-assessments will be performed “with none factual foundation to suspect wrongdoing,” German writes in his report.

He and a number of other different specialists agree that the FBI definitely can, then, proactively monitor Individuals’ social media for indicators of unrest, dissent or violence that may result in legal exercise.

FBI officers instructed U.S. TODAY that is appropriate. There isn’t any want for “correct predication,” or proof of against the law, when conducting a pre-assessment of a topic.

German’s evaluation of the principles was echoed by Brian Murphy, a former high FBI official who helped pioneer the FBI’s social media exploitation efforts.

He cited Sanborn’s statements, telling U.S. TODAY, “I simply suppose that she was incorrect.” He mentioned the company has a risk-averse tradition that stops brokers and managers from taking the steps vital to completely defend Individuals.

Sanborn, who’s now not on the FBI, didn’t reply to messages searching for remark. An FBI spokesperson mentioned Sanborn’s feedback referred particularly to “conversations” on social media and to not public-facing posts by people.

Whereas the bureau describes its authorities fastidiously, its brokers—and third get together contractors—can observe critics of the federal government like Adam Bies, watching till their on-line rantings cross a line into outright threats.

Then the FBI can act.

What SOMEX actually appears for

The FBI’s SOMEX workforce, which sits throughout the company’s Nationwide Menace Operations Heart in Clarksburg, West Virginia, receives and investigates tips about imminent social media threats from involved residents, different legislation enforcement businesses, unbiased monitoring organizations and others.

However the effort entails extra than simply performing as a catcher’s mitt for incoming ideas. It additionally develops its personal social media intelligence.

Paperwork obtained by the open-government group Property of the Folks (and first reported by Rolling Stone) give perception into the broader social media monitoring function SOMEX performs contained in the FBI. The paperwork element stories from the workforce to federal and native legislation enforcement within the Seattle space through the civil unrest that unfolded within the wake of the homicide of George Floyd.

“Whereas in a single day social media exercise was very gentle, the SOMEX workforce did discover some tweeting by people stating they’d monitor police radio exercise,” reads a typical extract from the paperwork, taken from a June 2, 2020 scenario report emailed to dozens of FBI brokers.

“The FBI aggressively scours social media for info associated to matters of Bureau curiosity,” mentioned Ryan Shapiro, govt director and co-founder of the nonprofit group, which offered U.S. TODAY with tons of of pages of paperwork concerning the FBI’s social media monitoring that it acquired by way of open data requests. “This routinely consists of surveillance of Individuals who are usually not the topic of an investigation and even suspected of committing against the law.”

In an announcement, the FBI mentioned that SOMEX was created to help in figuring out “unknown topic, sufferer, or location info” when there is a menace to life by utilizing publicly out there info. The workforce then forwards info to the suitable company for additional investigation and applicable motion.

FBI officers instructed U.S. TODAY that brokers are usually not allowed to make use of particular SOMEX instruments with out extra coaching in privateness and civil liberties protections. These instruments embrace industrial software program the FBI purchases to make use of in-house. The FBI additionally works with third-party contractors for social media evaluation, the officers mentioned.

One contractor is the personal intelligence agency the Hetherington Group, which has skilled legislation enforcement and the army on conducting on-line investigations.

Cynthia Hetherington, the agency’s founder and president, mentioned the corporate identifies “actionable intelligence” that can be utilized to guard life or somebody’s status by serving to these it trains learn to hyperfocus and effectively establish a key assortment of phrases that display respectable threats, similar to “kill,” “die,” “shoot,” “fireplace,” “bomb,” “rob.”

“People must be allowed to say what they wish to say on the web, however must also perceive that it is open supply and the events involved will hint it again” to them, Hetherington mentioned.

One other manner of claiming that, mentioned Shapiro, who holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Know-how specializing in authorities surveillance, is that the FBI can, and is, monitoring virtually whoever it needs, every time it needs.

“The FBI is nearly solely unhindered in its capability to observe American social media postings,” Shapiro mentioned, “So when the FBI reported to Congress that it was unable to take action—I imply, that may be a bald-faced lie. That is what the bureau does. They lie.”

Because the FBI turns into extra excited by particular posts, the bureau can even ramp up its monitoring in additional “intrusive” methods, FBI officers mentioned. With extra inner approvals, FBI brokers can entry not simply public-facing social media, but in addition personal teams and chat rooms.

Even when accessing this extra personal info, the FBI’s inner checks do not defend Individuals’ civil liberties, a number of specialists instructed U.S. TODAY.

The FBI has an extended and troubled historical past of specializing in teams on the left of the political spectrum whereas largely turning a blind eye to home extremists on the far-right, mentioned Guariglia, who holds a doctorate within the historical past of police surveillance.

“Each traditionally talking, and in present occasions, we have seen the quantity of surveillance that has been marshaled particularly in opposition to teams preventing for racial justice elevated exponentially than from what we have seen being monitored on the appropriate,” Guariglia mentioned.

The FBI pushed again on this evaluation. “The FBI aggressively investigates threats posed by home violent extremists,” a bureau spokesperson wrote in an announcement. “We don’t examine ideology and we don’t examine specific instances based mostly on the political opinions of the people concerned.”

Are there sufficient sources to do the work?

The FBI is not the one legislation enforcement company doing social media exploitation.

The bureau’s SOMEX workforce is a part of a constellation of social media evaluation that has occurred throughout the nationwide safety equipment over the few years. The Division of Homeland Safety has its personal SOMEX workforce plus social media analysts at dozens of “fusion facilities” throughout the U.S. sharing intelligence with native, state and federal legislation enforcement, mentioned Mike Sena, govt director of a type of fusion facilities, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Heart.

The FBI additionally works to coach and help native police departments of their social media exploitation efforts, a tactic that got here to gentle earlier this yr in a report by the Intercept, which detailed how the bureau offered the Chicago Police Division with pretend social media accounts to analyze demonstrators outraged on the Floyd homicide by law enforcement officials in 2020.

The San Bernardino terrorist assault in 2015 turned out to be a “proof of idea” on the efficacy of social media evaluation, Hetherington mentioned, when reporting from Fb to a fusion middle social media analyst helped the FBI rapidly establish the folks concerned.

However utilizing social media evaluation to establish future crimes, somewhat than analysis previous ones, is a broader internet. That federal effort to forestall crimes continues to be small given the size of the web, Sena mentioned.

“Most individuals can be shocked in America,” Sena mentioned. “There is a small variety of of us making an attempt to cope with these threats which can be enormous.”

Sena and Hetherington instructed U.S. TODAY that after the ACLU of California publicized legislation enforcement’s use of economic software program to “monitor activists and protesters” in 2016, many firms stopped promoting their software program to legislation enforcement or minimized their capability to make use of it to trace on-line exercise.

In consequence, Sena mentioned, “our individuals are manually doing issues, they’re doing the work, however they’re having to work 10 occasions as laborious as they used to.”

That is why businesses plan to convey their groups collectively, a minimum of nearly, to interrupt up siloes and keep away from duplication, Sena mentioned. One byproduct of this effort, he mentioned, will probably be fewer blindspots or gaps that can be utilized to accuse legislation enforcement of bias.

“Even in case you’re being proactive, it is principally strolling with a teaspoon at a river and making an attempt to place that in a bucket,” Sena mentioned. “We’re not getting all the pieces, but it surely’s higher than nothing.”

However German argues in his report that almost all of social media exploitation work is definitely counterproductive. The sheer quantity of ideas generated by contractors and the FBI’s personal analysts leads to an “info overload,” German writes.

“Clearly, the a number of types of social media monitoring that the FBI and different legislation enforcement businesses performed previous to January 6 was not useful in getting ready for the assault,” the report states. “But after the Capitol rebel, the FBI invested an extra $27 million into social media monitoring software program, successfully doubling down on a failed methodology.”

Ongoing funding in social media exploitation

These efforts proceed even within the weeks for the reason that Mar-a-Lago search and backlash.

Three days after the FBI executed its Aug. 8 search warrant on Mar-a-Lago and was inundated by right-wing threats, Ricky Shiffer, a 42-year-old Navy veteran, walked into the FBI workplace in Cincinnati armed with a nail gun and an AR-15 rifle.

As U.S. TODAY reported, Shiffer had spent the final 9 days of his life ranting on Reality Social, the social media firm based by Trump. His tons of of posts included specific threats in opposition to the federal authorities together with “Kill F.B.I. on sight.”

When his assault failed, Shiffer fled north alongside rural highways and right into a standoff the place was finally shot and killed.

The FBI mentioned in an announcement that it had been knowledgeable of Shiffer however that “the knowledge didn’t include a selected and credible menace.”

Wray instructed the company in a message the day after that assault that the FBI’s safety division can be adjusting its “safety posture accordingly.”

A $32,400 contract permitted Monday—after dialogue that began weeks earlier than the search of Mar-a-Lago, Hetherington mentioned—notes that the company will rent the Hetherington Group to coach its brokers on SOMEX later this month.

In line with a doc the bureau filed to justify making the acquisition with out opening it as much as bidding, “it’s a direct must increase and broaden the social media information for the NTOS SOMEX workforce.” The FBI wrote that the coaching can present it with experience within the “forces and elements that result in the radicalization of terrorism particularly white supremacy extremism.”

That doc was filed Aug. 11, the identical day Shiffer carried a nail gun into an FBI workplace, then fled into the Ohio cornfields.

It was additionally the identical day Adam Bies was logging submit after submit on Gab.

‘Why do not you ship them my threats’

As Bies tapped out his messages, he wasn’t simply talking to his 1,600 followers. In line with court docket paperwork, he additionally intentionally tagged Gab founder Andrew Torba in his posts, goading him to report Bies to the federal authorities.

“Why do not you ship them my threats in order that they’d a minimum of have one thing credible to point out on Fox Information,” Bies wrote within the submit. “Simply scrub my timeline for the posts you did not delete after you threatened to ban me.”

Additionally watching Bies’ posts was a third-party media monitoring and evaluation agency, the Center East Media Analysis Institute. MEMRI reduce its enamel monitoring Center Japanese media for English-speaking audiences, however over the past three years has expanded to real-time social media monitoring, particularly for threats from white supremacists and different homegrown extremists.

“We’re persistently in communication with (legislation enforcement and authorities) businesses on the native, state and nationwide degree, and offering” them with actionable intelligence, mentioned Simon Purdue, director of MEMRI’s Home Terror Menace Monitor workforce. “Having folks like us helps velocity issues alongside.”

MEMRI alerted the FBI, in line with a later legal grievance. The FBI contacted Gab, who handed over Bies’ subscriber info and Web Protocol logs for his laptop connection. Quickly, brokers have been exterior his Mercer County dwelling.

After a 30 or 40 minute stand-off at his dwelling, Bies finally emerged carrying an assault rifle, an FBI agent testified in court docket. Brokers instructed him a number of occasions to drop the weapon, which he finally did.

Had he not finished so, the agent testified, in line with native media stories, “It might have ended in another way.”

Bies’ son left the home safely. Inside the house, brokers discovered 12 different weapons and a compound bow. Bies was taken into custody and charged beneath a legislation that covers making threats in opposition to a federal legislation enforcement officer.

He has pleaded not responsible and is being held awaiting trial.

US plans for fake social media run afoul of Facebook rules

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Mechanical engineers lend fresh insight into battery-based desalination technology



A chemical analog to Prussian blue, the intense blue pigment used in Hokusai’s woodblock print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” is being utilized in an updated saltwater desalination technique. Mechanical engineers at U. of I. are using it in a new electrode equipped with flow channels to make the desalination process more effective and efficient. Credit: After Katsushika Hokusai, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To achieve more effective saltwater desalination in a new study, mechanical engineers have focused on fluid movement rather than new materials. By adding microchannels to the inside of battery-like electrodes made of Prussian blue—an intense blue pigment often used in art that also has special chemical properties—researchers increased the extent of seawater desalination five times over their non-channeled counterparts to reach salinity levels below the freshwater threshold.

The study, led by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign mechanical engineering and science professor Kyle Smith and graduate student Vu Do, used a chemical analog to Prussian blue. The findings are poised for applications in desalination, energy conversion and storage, CO2 conversion and capture, environmental remediation, and resource and nutrient recovery.

The study is published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

“In previous work, we predicted desalination could be performed using this method, but nobody had validated seawater-level desalination in the lab,” Smith said. “In the interim, we learned that in addition to the specific kind of material used in the electrodes, the system’s configuration also matters.”

Mechanical engineers lend fresh insight into battery-based desalination technology
The team used laser-engraved microchannels to improve flow within their new electrodes. Pictured are views of a single microchannel from above, left, and the side, right. Credit: Smith research group, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The researchers said the Prussian blue analog material works by taking hold of positively charged ions like sodium within the pigment’s crystal structure. However, it can turn into a bit of a traplike structure, where the ions easily enter but become ensnared in a maze of tiny, charged molecular-scale pore spaces inside the electrode. The team found that they would need to use a specialized apparatus to perform complex valve switching and current synchronization inside the flow cell to keep continuous desalination going, without which the system’s efficiency is hampered.

By engraving multiple 100-micrometer wide channels—the approximate width of a human hair—onto the 5-centimeter-sized electrode, the researchers can provide the fluids with a clear path to pass through without losing the ability to pluck salt ions out of the water, the researchers said.

The setup used for this study can desalinate laboratory-prepared seawater at a rate of milliliters over the course of hours, so the team’s next step is to scale up, the researchers said.

Mechanical engineers lend fresh insight into battery-based desalination technology
Professor Kyle Smith, left, and graduate students Irwin Loud and Vu Do. Credit: Michelle Hassel

“The goal of the Navy grant used to fund this study is to desalinate two to four gallons per hour—using diesel fuel as a power source—to provide a portable device to supply water to military troops in small expeditionary units,” Smith said. “Of course, our group is interested in much broader applications for these battery-like devices, but scaling up will be an essential step to getting there.”

“One remarkable aspect of this study is the mechanical engineering edge that we provide,” Do said. “In the research community, there’s a lot of emphasis on materials and their chemistry. But we’ve shown that fluid mechanics of the system matter a lot to get the most out of a great material when you integrate it appropriately.”

Smith research group members Irwin Loud and Erik Reale also contributed to the study.

More information:
Vu Quoc Do et al, Embedded, micro-interdigitated flow fields in high areal-loading intercalation electrodes towards seawater desalination and beyond, Energy & Environmental Science (2023). DOI: 10.1039/D3EE01302B

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Carbon neutral heat beneath our feet ‘could supply large parts of UK’



Council areas with a currently mapped aquifer at a depth of 4 km, scaled by estimated temperature (°C). Credit: GEOTHERMAL ENERGY OPPORTUNITIES OF THE U.K (2023).

New research from some of our leading energy experts has shown that the UK sits on underground heat capable of providing sustainable, carbon-neutral heating and cooling for large areas of the nation.

Harnessing this natural resource would diversify and strengthen the UK’s heat supply as well as bring opportunities for economic growth to regions of the UK.

Geothermal heat

The study was led by researchers from Durham Energy Institute (DEI), and commissioned by Kieran Mullan, Member of Parliament for Crewe and Nantwich.

It built on an earlier study from the DEI which recognized geothermal heat as a source of ultra-low carbon and secure form of energy. This study estimated that deep geothermal resources could provide all the UK’s heat demand for at least 100 years.

The research identified the opportunity to exploit sustainable geothermal energy to displace gas usage in the UK and improve energy security.

It assessed and ranked the geothermal potential of individual council areas in the UK and demonstrate that many of the more populated areas of the UK also have high geothermal potential.

The research concluded that investment is needed to understand of the UK’s deep subsurface and reduce the uncertainty for future geothermal exploration and developments.

The report from this research confirmed that geothermal energy has a significant role in the energy mix for the UK’s energy transition to deliver a secure, low-carbon energy future.

Findings inform MP’s report

The findings from this research informed Dr. Kieran Mullan’s report Dig Deep Opportunities To Level Up Through Deep Geothermal Heat & Energy On The Way To Net Zero.

A purpose of this report is to specific localities where the opportunity for deep geothermal exploration is greatest.

Analysis of the research identifies 45 high potential sites in the UK with the presence of hot water stored in rocks deep underground suitable for deep geothermal plants.

Delivering the UK’s net zero ambitions

The report considers that deep geothermal heat can be cost competitive with the Green Gas Support Scheme and Nuclear identifies that a tariff-based approach as the most effective way to kickstart a UK deep geothermal sector.

It concludes that with the right support, it is possible that by 2050 the UK could have 360 geothermal plants producing 15,000 GWh annually.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak welcomed the report, saying it was excellent and would help the Government consider whether there is a bigger role for geothermal energy.

Economic benefit for North East England

For North East England the likely greatest potential exploitation opportunities for deep geothermal exploration are in County Durham, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Newcastle upon Tyne, North Tyneside, and Redcar and Cleveland.

The report recognizes the contribution that developing a deep geothermal industry will make to the North Sea transition. The technology and skills set associated with the traditional drilling and geological expertise the oil and gas sector in the North Sea are transferable to this new industry.

This would bring to jobs and skills to Redcar and Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, and Northumberland, thereby improving the economic resilience of these communities.

More information:
Main report: www.drkieranmullan.org.uk/site … les/2023-06/Appendix%202%20Geothermal%20Energy%20Opportunities%20of%20the%20UK%202023.pdf

MP’s report: www.drkieranmullan.org.uk/site … uk/files/2023-06/Dig%20Deep%20June%202023.pdf

Provided by
Durham University

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Senators call on TikTok CEO to explain ‘inaccurate’ statements about how company manages US data



Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., left, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., right speak during a hearing, Oct. 5, 2021, in Washington. The two U.S. senators are asking TikTok to explain what they called “misleading or inaccurate” statements about how it stores and provides access to U.S. user data. In a letter sent Tuesday, June 6, 2023 to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, U.S. Sens Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn cited recent news reports from Forbes and The New York Times that raised questions about how the company some handles sensitive U.S. user information. Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

Two U.S. senators are asking TikTok to explain what they called “misleading or inaccurate” responses about how it stores and provides access to U.S. user data after recent news reports raised questions about how the Chinese-owned social media platform handles some sensitive information.

In a letter sent Tuesday to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn cited a report from Forbes that said TikTok had stored financial information of U.S. content creators who get paid by the company—including their Social Security numbers and tax IDs—on China-based servers.

The senators also cited another report from The New York Times, published in late May, that said TikTok employees regularly shared user information, such as driver’s licenses information of some American users, on an internal messaging app called Lark that employees from TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, could easily access.

Forbes first reported Wednesday on the letter.

TikTok spokesperson Alex Haurek said, “”We are reviewing the letter. We remain confident in the accuracy of our testimony and responses to Congress.”

TikTok has said servers that contain U.S. user data have been physically stored in Virginia and Singapore, where its headquartered. But who can access that data—and from where—is an ongoing question.

Chew, the company’s CEO, said at a congressional hearing in March that access to the data was provided “as-required” to engineers globally for business purposes. He also said some ByteDance employees still maintained access to some U.S. user data, but that would end once Project Texas—the company’s plan to siphon off U.S. user data from China—was completed.

The popular social media app has been under scrutiny from Western governments, who’ve been wary of the company’s Chinese ownership and have prohibited its use on government issued devices. Earlier this year, the Biden administration threated to ban the platform nationwide if the company’s Chinese owners don’t sell their stakes.

To assuage concerns from U.S. lawmakers, TikTok has been touting its Project Texas plan to store U.S. user data on servers owned and maintained by the software giant Oracle. Last year, the company said it began directing all U.S. user traffic to those servers but also continued to back up data on its own servers.

Chew said the company began deleting all historic U.S. user data from non-Oracle servers in March, and the process expected to be completed this year.

In their letter, the senators also said the recent news reports appear to contradict testimonies from another TikTok official about where U.S. user data is stored.

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‘AI doctor’ better at predicting patient outcomes, including death



An army critical care nurse, tends to a Covid-19 patient on a ventilator; a predictive AI tool could soon help doctors better understand the likelihood of key patient outcomes.

Artificial intelligence has proven itself useful in reading medical imaging and even shown it can pass doctors’ licensing exams.

Now, a new AI tool has demonstrated the ability to read physicians’ notes and accurately anticipate patients’ risk of death, readmission to hospital, and other outcomes important to their care.

Designed by a team at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, the software is currently in use at the university’s affiliated hospitals throughout New York, with the hope that it will become a standard part of health care.

A study on its predictive value was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Lead author Eric Oermann, an NYU neurosurgeon and computer scientist, told AFP that while non-AI predictive models have been around in medicine for a long time, they were hardly used in practice because the data they needed requires cumbersome reorganization and formatting.

But “one thing that’s common in medicine everywhere, is physicians write notes about what they’ve seen in clinic, what they’ve discussed with patients,” he said.

“So our basic insight was, can we start with medical notes as our source of data, and then build predictive models on top of it?”

The large language model, called NYUTron, was trained on millions of clinical notes from the health records of 387,000 people who received care within NYU Langone hospitals between January 2011 and May 2020.

These included any records written by doctors, such as patient progress notes, radiology reports and discharge instructions, resulting in a 4.1-billion-word corpus.

One of the key challenges for the software was interpreting the natural language that physicians write in, which varies greatly among individuals, including in the abbreviations they choose.

By looking back at records of what happened, researchers were able to calculate how often the software’s predictions turned out to be accurate.

They also tested the tool in live environments, training it on the records from, for example, a hospital in Manhattan then seeing how it fared in a Brooklyn hospital, with different patient demographics.

Not a substitute for humans

Overall, NYUTron identified an unnerving 95 percent of people who died in hospital before they were discharged, and 80 percent of patients who would be readmitted within 30 days.

It outperformed most doctors on its predictions, as well as the non-AI computer models used today.

But, to the team’s surprise, “the most senior physician who’s actually a very famous physician, he had superhuman performance, better than the model,” said Oermann.

“The sweet spot for technology and medicine isn’t that it’s going to always deliver necessarily superhuman results, but it’s going to really bring up that baseline.”

NYUTron also correctly estimated 79 percent of patients’ actual length of stay, 87 percent of cases where patients were denied coverage by insurance, and 89 percent of cases where a patient’s primary disease was accompanied by additional conditions.

AI will never be a substitute for the physician-patient relationship, said Oermann. Rather, they will help “provide more information for physicians seamlessly at the point-of-care so they can make more informed decisions.”

More information:
Eric Karl Oermann, Health system scale language models are all-purpose prediction engines, Nature (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06160-y. www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-06160-y

© 2023 AFP

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Bottomless supply? Concerns of limited Canadian hydropower as U.S. seeks to decarbonize grid



dam generates power along the Manicouagan River north of Baie-Comeau, Quebec, June 22, 2010. Importing more of Canada’s historically abundant hydroelectricity is seen by some as a key component to making the U.S. electric grid carbon-free by 2035, as well as improving energy reliability and cost for American consumers. Credit: Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press via AP, File

Policymakers seeking to make the U.S. electric grid less reliant on fossil fuels have long looked north to Canada and its abundant surplus of hydropower, advocating for new transmission lines to bring more of that cheap, clean electricity south.

But with demand for green energy growing north of the border, too, there are new concerns that Canada’s hydro supply isn’t as bottomless as it once seemed.

A study published in May by the Montreal Economic Institute predicted that Quebec, now home to one of the world’s largest hydroelectric systems, will over the next decade fall short of the generating capacity needed to meet increasing demand for power in the province.

Some New England lawmakers are questioning the wisdom of plans to construct new transmission lines across their states, despite Canadian energy giant Hydro-Québec’s insistence it can still meet its energy obligations.

“They have their own energy needs,” Maine state Sen. Nicole Grohoski said of the Canadians. The Democrat said it is “overly optimistic” for policymakers to rely on Canadian hydropower. “There are industrial users up there that are already having issues and they’re not interested in investing in Quebec because they’re worried about power supply.”

Over decades, Hydro-Québec, which is owned by the Province of Quebec, has built a series of hydro-electric facilities, most in the northern reaches of the province. The dams’ construction and the subsequent flooding of areas behind them has drawn protests from indigenous groups and environmentalists on both sides of the border.

Bottomless supply? Concerns of limited Canadian hydropower as U.S. seeks to decarbonize grid
Quebec Premier Francois Legault delivers remarks during a ceremony, May 4, 2023, in Thurso, Quebec. Massachusetts legislators sent a letter to Legault questioning whether there will be enough electricity to power both the New England Clean Energy Connect line and the Champlain-Hudson Power Express line to New York City, which is currently under construction and expected to go into service in 2026, providing New York City with 20% of its power needs. Credit: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP

But in the process Hydro-Québec has become the largest producer of renewable energy in North America. It produces nearly half of all Canadian hydropower as well as a smaller number of wind and other renewable projects.

The capacity to generate electricity left the utility with extra power to sell in the energy-hungry U.S. There are already a number of transmission lines that carry power from Canada to the United States and more on the drawing board.

A line from the border down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to New York City is under construction. Authorities in Maine just gave approval to resume construction of a separate line from the border to Massachusetts.

There are also pending proposals for lines to reach southern New England through Vermont and New Hampshire.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, has been rallying his fellow New England governors to seek federal funding for transmission line projects. The push comes as billions of dollars are available for electric transmission line projects under President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law.

Bottomless supply? Concerns of limited Canadian hydropower as U.S. seeks to decarbonize grid
A homemade sign is posted on a telephone pole in protest of Central Maine Power’s controversial hydropower transmission corridor in Jackman, Maine, May 28, 2019. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection announced that construction of a transmission line could resume after state voters opposed the project in an election. Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

“We’ve got to speed things up when it comes to reliability and reserves and more carbon-free power,” Lamont said.

But Quebec is on its own quest to reduce use of planet-warming fuels. The province is hoping to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, while demand for hydropower is predicted to grow 14% over the next decade.

“No province now is in a position where they see huge surpluses of electricity that would be available for exports,” said Pierre-Oliver Pineau, an expert on Canadian energy policy and professor at HEC Montréal, the University of Montreal business school.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from Maine who oppose the proposed 145-mile (233-kilometer) New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line recently asked the governor of Massachusetts to review whether Hydro-Québec can still meet its energy obligations.

They also sent a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault questioning whether there will be enough electricity to power both that line and the Champlain-Hudson Power Express line, which is currently under construction. That line is intended to provide New York City with 20% of its power needs.

Bottomless supply? Concerns of limited Canadian hydropower as U.S. seeks to decarbonize grid
In this undated photo, two people ride horses along power lines owned by the Vermont Electric Power Company where they run through wildlife areas in Ferdinand, VT. Developers of the proposed and fully permitted 1,000 megawatt transmission line known as New England Clean Power Link, which would run from Quebec to southern New England through Vermont via Lake Champlain, are working to modify its approval to turn it into a bi-directional line. Credit: AP Photo/Wilson Ring, File

The Maine lawmakers said they worry new dams might need to be built, a process that could take years.

“Many people in New England have lived with a myth that Quebec has so much power that it doesn’t know what to do with it all,” the legislators said in a joint statement.

Local news has reported Jean-Hugues Lafleur, Hydro-Québec’s financial officer, said during an analyst call last month that the company could meet the energy demand when it signed the contract in 2018 and that “we still have enough energy to supply the New England region.”

Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes said hydropower is just one piece of the puzzle and that the New England states are also working together to decarbonize the electric system through other means, including offshore wind.

Hydro-Québec, meanwhile, has also expressed interest in transmission lines capable of moving power in both directions. Developers of the proposed 1,000-megawatt transmission line known as New England Clean Power Link, which would run from Quebec to southern New England through Vermont, are working to modify its approval to turn it into a bi-directional line.

  • Bottomless supply? Concerns of limited Canadian hydropower as U.S. seeks to decarbonize grid
    Workers for Northern Clearing pound stakes to mark land on an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor that has been recently widened to make way for new utility poles, near Bingham, Maine, April 26, 2021. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection announced that construction of a transmission line could resume after state voters opposed the project in an election. Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File
  • Bottomless supply? Concerns of limited Canadian hydropower as U.S. seeks to decarbonize grid
    Lineman Tyler Hunter, of Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, clears pine tree limbs from electric lines in a neighborhood of about 70 houses without power, March 15, 2023, in Windham, N.H. The state of New Hampshire has highlighted a new entrant into the northeast transmission mix by announcing plans for a 211-mile, 1,200 megawatt power line that would enter the United States at Canaan, Vermont, and follow a buried route south along a state highway until it crossed into New Hampshire where it would hook up to an existing power right-of-way. Credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File

“This modification would allow the line to be used as originally intended to move hydropower from Canada to New England, while also allowing the line to move loads such as off-shore wind generation from New England to Canada for storage and later use, which could materially help winter reliability in the region,” said June Tierney, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service.

Last month, the state of New Hampshire highlighted a new entrant into the northeast transmission mix by announcing plans for a 211-mile, 1,200-megawatt power line that would enter the United States at Canaan, Vermont, and follow a buried route south. If built, the $2 billion proposal would also be a bi-directional line.

“This project is also not dependent solely on hydropower—it would have the ability to deliver other forms of clean energy being generated in Canada—such as wind and solar power—to New England,” said a statement from the utility National Grid, which is proposing the line.

Kerrick Johnson, chief innovation and communication officer for the Vermont Electric Power Cooperative, which manages the state’s electric transmission system, said there’s a transformation underway of the electric production and distribution system across the world and including the Northeastern United States and eastern Canada.

“This is a new chapter in the shared-energy history of North America,” he said.

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Apple’s Vision Pro goggles unleash a mixed reality that could lead to more innovation and isolation



The Apple Vision Pro headset is displayed in a showroom on the Apple campus after it’s unveiling on Monday, June 5, 2023, in Cupertino, Calif. The Vision Pro is a high-priced headset that blends virtual reality with augmented reality that projects digital images on top of real-world settings. Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

Reporters are a skeptical bunch, so it was unusual to hear so many of them raving about their firsthand experience with Apple’s next Big Thing: the high-priced headset called Vision Pro, a device infused with totally virtual reality as well as augmented reality that projects digital images on top of real-world settings.

But after wearing the Vision Pro during a half-hour demonstration meticulously orchestrated by Apple, I joined the ranks of those blown away by all the impressive technology Apple has packed into the goggles-like headset. Still, that excitement was muted by a disquieting sense of having just passed through a gateway that eventually will lead society down another avenue of digital isolation.


But first the good stuff: Vision Pro is a highly sophisticated device that is fairly easy to set up and incredibly intuitive to use. The setup requires using an iPhone to automatically take some assessments of your eyes and ears. If you wear prescription glasses (I wear contacts) some additional calibration will be needed, but Apple promises that won’t be complicated.

Once that’s all done, you will quickly find that putting on the Vision Pro is also simple, thanks to a knob on the side that makes it easy to ensure a the headset fits comfortably. And unlike other headsets, the Vision Pro isn’t an awkward-looking piece of nerdware, although the goggles aren’t exactly chic, despite looking a bit like something you might see people wearing on a ski slope, jet fighter or race car.

Apple's Vision Pro goggles unleash a mixed reality that could lead to more innovation and isolation
The Apple Vision Pro headset is displayed in a showroom on the Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif., after it’s introduction at the company’s annual developers conference, Monday, June 5, 2023. The Vision Pro is a high-priced headset that blends virtual reality with augmented reality that projects digital images on top of real-world settings. Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

Controlling the Vision Pro is astoundingly easy. Users just press a button above the right goggle to pull up a virtual screen of apps, including familiar standbys for photos, messaging, phone calls, video streaming and web browsing. Opening an app just requires looking straight at it, then pinching a thumb and finger together. The same app can be closed with a finger pinch or can be moved to the side by holding two fingers together and moving them in the direction where you want to place it.

Not surprisingly, Apple’s well-curated demonstration cast the Vision Pro in the best-possible light. The headset clearly seems like it could be quite popular for business purposes, improving productivity, collaboration and video conferencing, especially in an era when more work is being done remotely.

Without causing the disorienting effects common in other virtual-reality headsets, the Vision Pro can immerse you in stunning visuals, 3-D displays of faraway places. It can insert you into videos of past memories recorded with one of the device’s 12 cameras (the demo included heartwarming scenes of a child’s birthday party and a campfire scene). It can make watching a 3-D movie, such as the latest Avatar film, feel like you are sitting in an IMAX theater while relaxing on your own couch. It can thrust you into surreal moments (at one point, I watched in wonder as a butterfly first shown in a virtual screen depicting a prehistoric era seemingly fluttered across the room and landed in my outstretched hand as I sat on a couch).

And the demo featured just enough glimpses of the way sporting events appear through the goggles to realize that the powers that be in professional and collegiate football, basketball, baseball and hockey are bound to find ways to incorporate the technology into subscription services that make viewers feel like they are sitting in the front row.

To Apple’s credit, the Vision Pro is also designed in a way that allows users to still see those around them, if they so choose.

Apple's Vision Pro goggles unleash a mixed reality that could lead to more innovation and isolation
The Apple Vision Pro headset is displayed in a showroom on the Apple campus after it’s unveiling on Monday, June 5, 2023, in Cupertino, Calif. The Vision Pro is a high-priced headset that blends virtual reality with augmented reality that projects digital images on top of real-world settings. Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File


My mixed feelings about Apple’s first foray into mixed reality ironically stems from just how well-designed the Vision Pro is by a company that has been behind this sort of game-changing technology on numerous occasions during the past 40 years, ranging from the Macintosh computer to the iPhone.

It feels like this may be another instance in which Apple has accomplished something that has eluded other tech companies by cracking the code to make both virtual- and augmented-reality more compelling and less disorienting than a variety of other ho-hum headsets have done over the past decade or so.

The only reason the Vision Pro isn’t going to be an immediate sensation is its cost. When it hits the U.S. market early next year, it will sell for $3,500, which makes it probable it will start out as a luxury item unaffordable to most households—especially because the headset isn’t going to supplant the need to buy a new iPhone or smartphone running on Android every few years.

Apple's Vision Pro goggles unleash a mixed reality that could lead to more innovation and isolation
The Apple Vision Pro headset is displayed in a showroom on the Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif., after it’s introduction at the company’s annual developers conference, Monday, June 5, 2023. The Vision Pro is a high-priced headset that blends virtual reality with augmented reality that projects digital images on top of real-world settings. Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

The most likely scenario is that Vision Pro in some ways is Apple’s testbed for mixed reality that will encourage the development of more apps especially designed to take advantage of the technology. The next ripple effect will be an array of other products equipped with similarly compelling technology at lower price points that stand a better chance sucking more people—including children—into a realm that threatens to deepen screen addictions to the detriment of real-world interactions among humans.

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World’s first demonstration of terahertz signal transparent relay and switching



Concept of transparent relay and switching of terahertz-wave signals using direct terahertz–optical conversion and optical wavelength control. Credit: National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), Sumitomo Osaka Cement Co., Ltd., Nagoya Institute of Technology, and Waseda University

A team including researchers from the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology; Sumitomo Osaka Cement Co., Ltd.; Nagoya Institute of Technology; and Waseda University has jointly developed the world’s first system for the transparent relay, routing, and switching of high-speed terahertz-wave signals to different locations.

Direct conversion of a 32-Gb/s terahertz-wave signal in the 285-GHz band to an optical fiber and its transparent relay and switching to different access points in ultrashort time periods were successfully demonstrated.

The key technologies include a newly developed low-loss optical modulator for the direct conversion of terahertz-wave signals to optical signals and an adaptive fiber-wireless technology for the ultrafast switching of terahertz signals. The developed system overcomes the disadvantages of radio communications in the terahertz band, such as high free-space loss, weak penetration, and limited communication coverage, paving the way for the deployment of terahertz communications in beyond 5G and 6G networks.

The results of this demonstration were published as a post-deadline paper at the 2023 International Conference on Optical Fiber Communications (OFC 2023).

Terahertz background

Radio frequencies in the terahertz band are promising candidates for ultrahigh-data-rate communications in beyond 5G and 6G networks. A 160-GHz slot in the 275–450 GHz band was recently opened for mobile and fixed services. However, high free-space loss and weak penetration remain as bottlenecks, making it difficult to transmit signals over long distances, such as from outdoors to indoors or in environments with obstacles.

Transparent relay and routing of terahertz signals between different locations are crucial to overcoming these disadvantages and expanding communication coverage. However, these functions cannot be realized using current electronic technologies. In addition, the narrow beamwidth of terahertz signals makes it difficult to achieve uninterrupted communication when users are moving. Terahertz-signal switching between different directions and locations is crucial for maintaining communication with end users.

However, this critical issue has not yet been addressed using electronic or photonic technologies. It is also important to turn on and off the emission of terahertz signals at appropriate intervals to save energy and reduce interference.

Study achievements

In this study, the team demonstrated the first system for the transparent relay, routing, and switching of terahertz signals in the 285-GHz band utilizing two key technologies: (i) a newly developed low-loss optical modulator and (ii) an adaptive fiber–wireless technology using an ultrafast wavelength-tunable laser. In the system, terahertz signals are received and directly converted into optical signals using terahertz–optical conversion devices with low-loss optical modulators.

Lightwave signals from tunable lasers are input to the modulators, and wavelength routers are used to route the signals to different access points where specific wavelengths are assigned. At the access points, the modulated optical signals are converted back into terahertz signals using optical-terahertz converters. Terahertz signals can be switched to different access points by switching the wavelengths of the tunable lasers.

The tunable lasers can be independently controlled, and the number of access points that can simultaneously generate terahertz signals equals the number of active tunable lasers. Using the technologies developed in this study, the team successfully demonstrated the transparent relay and switching of terahertz signals in the 285-GHz band for the first time and achieved a transmission capacity of 32 Gb/s using a 4-quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) signal.

The possibility of switching the terahertz-wave signals in less than 10 μs was evaluated, confirming that uninterrupted communication can be attained in the terahertz band.

The system consists of the following key element technologies:

  • Direct conversion of terahertz signals to optical signals using a newly developed low-loss optical modulator. The team achieved this by performing Ti diffusion on the x-cut lithium niobate (LiNbO3 thickness: ≤ 100 µm) in the low dielectric constant layer for operation up to 330 GHz.
  • Ultrafast terahertz-signal switching by controlling the wavelengths of tunable lasers to route and distribute terahertz signals to different locations
  • 4-QAM OFDM signal transmission

By transparently relaying and distributing terahertz signals to different locations, high free-space and penetration losses of radio signals in the terahertz band can be overcome, and communication coverage can be significantly extended. In addition, by promptly routing and switching the signals to different directions/locations, communication can be maintained even when obstacles occur and/or users are moving.

Furthermore, by turning on and off the emission of terahertz-wave signals from access points at appropriate intervals, energy savings and interference reduction can be achieved. These features render the proposed system a promising solution for overcoming the bottlenecks of terahertz-wave communications and paving the way for its deployment in beyond 5G and 6G networks.

In the future, the researchers will study the terahertz-optical conversion device and fiber-wireless technology developed in this study to further increase the radio frequency and transmission capacity. In addition, they will promote international standardization and social implementation activities related to fiber-wireless and terahertz-wave communication systems.

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Basic energy access lags amid renewable opportunities, new report shows



Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

A new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the World Bank, and the World Health Organization (WHO), released today, finds that the world is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 for energy by 2030.

This year marks the halfway point for achieving SDGs by 2030. SDG 7 is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy. The goal includes reaching universal access to electricity and clean cooking, doubling historic levels of efficiency improvements, and substantially increasing the share of renewables in the global energy mix. Attaining this goal will have a deep impact on people’s health and well-being, helping to protect them from environmental and social risks such as air pollution, and expanding access to primary health care and services.

The 2023 edition of Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report warns that current efforts are not enough to achieve the SDG 7 on time. There has been some progress on specific elements of the SDG 7 agenda—for example, the increased rate of using renewables in the power sector—but progress is insufficient to reach the targets set forth in the SDGs.

The global energy crisis is expected to stimulate the deployment of renewables and improve energy efficiency with several government policies pointing to increasing investment. However, IRENA estimates show that international public financial flows in support of clean energy in low- and middle-income countries have been decreasing since before the COVID-19 pandemic and funding is limited to a small number of countries. To meet SDG 7 targets and to ensure that people fully benefit from the socioeconomic gains of the shift to sustainable energy, it is necessary to structurally reform international public finance and define new opportunities to unlock investments.

The report also finds that mounting debt and rising energy prices are worsening the outlook for reaching universal access to clean cooking and electricity. Current projections estimate that 1.9 billion people will be without clean cooking and 660 million without electricity access in 2030 if we do not take further action and continue with current efforts.

These gaps will negatively impact the health of our most vulnerable populations and accelerate climate change. According to WHO, 3.2 million people die each year from illness caused by the use of polluting fuels and technologies, which increase exposure to toxic levels of household air pollution.

Key findings of the report

  • In 2010, 84% of the world’s population had access to electricity. This increased to 91% in 2021, meaning more than a billion people gained access over that period. However, the growth pace of access slowed in 2019–2021 compared to previous years. Rural electrification efforts contributed to this progress, but a large gap within urban areas remains.
  • In 2021, 567 million people in sub-Saharan Africa did not have access to electricity, accounting for more than 80% of the global population without access. The access deficit in the region stayed almost the same as in 2010.
  • The world remains off track to achieve universal access to clean cooking by 2030. Up to 2.3 billion people still use polluting fuels and technologies for cooking, largely in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The use of traditional biomass also means households spend up to 40 hours a week gathering firewood and cooking, which prohibits women from pursuing employment or participating in local decision-making bodies and children from going to school.
  • According to the 2019 WHO estimates, 3.2 million premature deaths each year were attributable to household air pollution created by using polluting fuels and technologies for cooking.
  • Renewable electricity use in global consumption has grown from 26.3% in 2019 to 28.2% in 2020, the largest single-year increase since the start of tracking progress for the SDGs.
  • Efforts to increase renewables’ share in heating and transport, which represent more than three quarters of global energy consumption, remain off target to achieve 1.5oC climate objectives.
  • Energy intensity—the measure of how much energy the global economy uses per dollar of GDP—improved from 2010 to 2020 by 1.8% annually. This is higher than the 1.2% improvement from the previous decades.
  • However, the rate of energy intensity improvement has slowed in recent years and dropped to 0.6% in 2020. This makes it the worst year for energy intensity improvement since the global financial crisis, albeit largely due to pandemic-related restrictions, which may indicate only a temporary setback. Annual improvements through 2030 must now average 3.4% to meet the SDG target 7.3.
  • International public financial flows in support of clean energy in developing countries stand at US $10.8 billion in 2021, 35% less than the 2010–2019 average and only about 40% of the 2017 peak of US $26.4 billion. In 2021, 19 countries received 80% of the commitments.

The report will be presented to top decision-makers at a special launch event on 11 July 2023 at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, ahead of the second SDG Summit in September 2023 in New York. The authors urge the international community and policymakers to safeguard the gains made toward achieving SDG 7, to advance structural reforms, and to maintain a strategic focus on the vulnerable countries needing the most support.

“The energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to have a profound impact on people all around the world. High energy prices have hit the most vulnerable hard, particularly those in developing economies. While the clean energy transition is moving faster than many think, there is still a great deal of work needed to deliver sustainable, secure and affordable access to modern energy services for the billions of people who live without it. Successful energy transitions rely on effective policies and technological innovation combined with large-scale mobilization of investment capital. The international community must leverage all these tools to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by the end of this decade,” said Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency.

“Cost-competitive renewable energy has yet again demonstrated remarkable resilience, but the poorest in the world are still largely unable to fully benefit from it. To realize SDG7 without compromising climate goals, we must bring about systemic change in the way international cooperation works. It is crucial that multilateral financial institutions direct financial flows more equitably around the world to support renewables deployment and related physical infrastructure development,” noted Francesco La Camera, Director-General, International Renewable Energy Agency.

“Despite advances towards sustainable energy targets at the mid-point of Agenda 2030, Goal 7 seems harder to reach than it was in 2015 and scaled-up action is necessary if we are to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. Access to electricity and clean cooking still display great regional disparities and should be the focus of action to ensure that no one is left behind. Investment needs to reach the least-developed countries and sub-Saharan Africa to ensure more equitable progress toward Goal 7,” remarked Stefan Schweinfest, United Nations Statistics Division.

“Despite a recent slowdown in the global pace of electrification, the number of people without electricity almost halved over the past decade, from 1.1 billion in 2010 down to 675 million in 2021. Nonetheless, additional efforts and measures must urgently be put in place to ensure that the poorest and hardest-to-reach people are not left behind. To reach universal access by 2030, the development community must scale up clean energy investments and policy support,” added Guangzhe Chen, Vice President for Infrastructure, World Bank.

“We must protect the next generation by acting now. Investing in clean and renewable solutions to support universal energy access is how we can make real change. Clean cooking technologies in homes and reliable electricity in health-care facilities can play a crucial role in protecting the health of our most vulnerable populations,” concluded Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, World Health Organization.

More information:
Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report

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Sponge helps robotic arms grasp delicate objects



Robot sponge. Credit: Tianqi Yue

A simple sponge has improved how robots grasp, scientists from the University of Bristol have found.   

This easy-to-make sponge-jamming device can help stiff robots handle delicate items carefully by mimicking the nuanced touch, or variable stiffness, of a human.

Robots can skip, jump and do somersaults, but they’re too rigid to hold an egg easily. Variable-stiffness devices are potential solutions for contact compliance on hard robots to reduce damage, or for improving the load capacity of soft robots.

This study, published at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2023, shows that variable stiffness can be achieved by a silicone sponge.

Lead author Tianqi Yue from Bristol’s Department of Engineering Mathematics explained, “Stiffness, also known as softness, is important in contact scenarios.”

“Robotic arms are too rigid so they cannot make such a soft human-like grasp on delicate objects, for example, an egg.”

“What makes humans different from robotic arms is that we have soft tissues enclosing rigid bones, which act as a natural mitigating mechanism.”

“In this paper, we managed to develop a soft device with variable stiffness, to be mounted on the end robotic arm for making the robot-object contact safe.”

Robot sponge in action. Credit: Tianqi Yue

Silicone sponge is a cheap and easy-to-fabricate material. It is a porous elastomer just like the cleaning sponge used in everyday tasks.

By squeezing the sponge, the sponge stiffens which is why it can be transformed into a variable-stiffness device.

This device could be used in industrial robots in scenarios including gripping jellies, eggs and other fragile substances. It can also be used in service robots to make human-robot interaction safer.

Mr. Yue added, “We managed to use a sponge to make a cheap and nimble but effective device that can help robots achieve soft contact with objects. The great potential comes from its low cost and light weight.

“We believe this silicone-sponge based variable-stiffness device will provide a novel solution in industry and healthcare, for example, tunable-stiffness requirement on robotic polishing and ultrasound imaging.”

The team will now look at making the device achieve variable stiffness in multiple directions, including rotation.

More information:
Paper: “A Silicone-sponge-based Variable-stiffness Device” by Tianqi Yue at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2023.

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Why we trust calculators more than AI



Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Artificial intelligence may seem similar to a calculator but the relationship of humans with the former is not as serene as with the latter. We trust the results of computers, even if we don’t know exactly how it can arrive at the result of a complex operation in a short time, while the relationship with artificial intelligence (AI) generates discomfort in people. Why? The reason is that machines never stop learning and the more they perform new and unexpected tasks, hitherto entrusted to human intelligence, the more users distrust them, because they do not like to find their own prerogatives embodied in machines. This is what creates discomfort.

There is a fear of being overtaken by some super-intelligence and, staying in the economic sphere, of being replaced in the workplace by machines. And yet, we are immersed every day in algorithms and we deal with programs such as bots in our roles of telephone customers or bank savers. It is believed that bots are behind about 50% of internet traffic, that 40% of Wikipedia edits are the work of digital agents, without forgetting the presence on social networks of many accounts created by automated platforms and, last but not least, the boom in popular curiosity for ChatGPT, capable of producing written texts based on conversations with users.

In reality, “Algorithms work and evolve precisely because they no longer try to be intelligent. If anything, they can be seen as capable of communicating creatively and for informational purposes, but they are cannot be considered intelligent,” explains Elena Esposito, Full Professor of Sociology of Cultural and Communicative Processes at Bielefeld and Bologna. She recently put out the book “Comunicazione artificiale. Come gli algoritmi producono intelligenza sociale” (“Artificial communication. How algorithms produce social intelligence,” Bocconi University Press, 2022).

“In fact, the purpose with which algorithms are programmed is not to understand the data provided by our online behavior. The intention is to identify correlations between data and process them so that they are informative for users,” says Esposito, a student of Niklas Luhmann, who not by chance proposes to move from the definition of artificial intelligence to that of artificial communication, positing a new theoretical model to reiterate that the interlocutor with whom we interact is not a human being, but an algorithm. We need new rules and habits of behavior which, given the AI’s multiple areas of application, must be promoted by national and supranational institutions, as well as families and individuals alike, according to their respective realms of pertinence.

How can talking about artificial communication reduce the discomfort felt towards AI?

First, because I hypothesize that the analogy between the performance of algorithms and human intelligence, which generates this discomfort, is misleading. Furthermore, because it allows for the emergence of new insights on the challenges and paradoxes that recent technologies pose. The numerous positive aspects of algorithmic intelligence remain, from the availability of more information to the higher speed with which to find it, passing through the cost-effectiveness of the process. But we can also ask ourselves how the growing intervention of AI affects, for example, our conception of the public sphere and the maintenance of social cohesion, considering the progressive customization of the information and services offered to each individual person, without he or she having even asked for them.

This creates a bubble that is difficult to get out of. It becomes more difficult to realize that there may be something different from what you already know and decide whether you want to find it out or not. In other words, the individual no longer knows what others know and that common ground of shared information that makes everyone feel part of the societal whole decays. But social cohesion and markets themselves vitally depend on that common ground of shared. In addition, one may wonder what are the effects of the different versions of AI in specific fields such as education or, finally, how our perception of the relationship between reality and fiction changes. More and more often, in fact, we can intervene not only on reality but also on fiction, which is no longer the unalterable fiction of commercial movies or novel, by but an area with which we can interact and during the course of the story, such as for example it happens in video games.

The growing presence of AI in our lives changes our faculties? For example, in knowing how to remember and what to forget?

Let’s say that there is a new relationship between people and oblivion. In the past we mostly committed ourselves to remembering things and forgetting proceeded by itself, it intervened spontaneously to select the information that shouldn’t last over time. Now the difficulty is reversed and lies in remembering not to remember; you need to try harder to forget as all memories and information are preserved online. We can therefore reason on the final paradox we arrive at: to forget memories it is better to multiply them, to make one climb from the first place to the eleventh in the results of a search engine, since we know that people tend to read only the first few results.

Is it believable or illusory that machines can predict our future?

The future will forever be unwritten because it depends on human behavior, which is constantly changing. The future remains open, even if we can remember that AI offers a series of new tools to deal with the uncertainty of the future. However, if so far we have tried to anticipate it by relying on the calculation of probabilities, now the algorithms try to identify correlations between various possible configurations in the big data sets. And the correlations highlighted are not necessarily the most likely, even if the algorithms are partly based on probabilistic structures.

The result of trying to predict the future is that algorithms produce indications about the future that are obscure to humans, since they are unable to understand how they were generated. These are predictions that end up recalling the divinatory practices of the ancient world, with their sibylline and cryptic responses. Precisely the practices from which science had to move away from.

Big data, machine learning and bots, there are some of the terms that describe the hi-tech scenario in which we are immersed. The implications of these technologies currently unfolding in our lives are vast. Thus questions arise such as “Will we able to control something that we do not fully understand?” or “Aren’t the machines just getting too smart?”

Provided by
Bocconi University

Why we trust calculators more than AI (2023, June 6)
retrieved 6 June 2023
from https://techxplore.com/news/2023-06-ai.html

This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no
part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

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