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Finding out who your friends are



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A gray-haired man walks through an office lobby holding a coffee cup, staring ahead as he passes the entryway.

He appears unaware that he’s being tracked by a network of cameras that can detect not only where he has been but also who has been with him.

Surveillance technology has long been able to identify you. Now, with help from artificial intelligence, it’s trying to figure out who your friends are.

With a few clicks, this “co-appearance” or “correlation analysis” software can find anyone who has appeared on surveillance frames within a few minutes of the gray-haired male over the last month, strip out those who may have been near him a time or two, and zero in on a man who has appeared 14 times. The software can instantaneously mark potential interactions between the two men, now deemed likely associates, on a searchable calendar.

Vintra, the San Jose-based company that showed off the technology in an industry video presentation last year, sells the co-appearance feature as part of an array of video analysis tools. The firm boasts on its website about relationships with the San Francisco 49ers and a Florida police department. The Internal Revenue Service and additional police departments across the country have paid for Vintra’s services, according to a government contracting database.

Although co-appearance technology is already used by authoritarian regimes such as China’s, Vintra seems to be the first company marketing it in the West, industry specialists say.

But the firm is one of many testing new AI and surveillance applications with little public scrutiny and few formal safeguards against invasions of privacy. In January, for example, New York state officials criticized the firm that owns Madison Square Garden for using facial recognition technology to ban employees of law firms that have sued the company from attending events at the arena.

Industry experts and watchdogs say that if the co-appearance tool is not in use now—and one analyst expressed certainty that it is—it will probably become more reliable and more widely available as artificial intelligence capabilities advance.

None of the entities that do business with Vintra that were contacted by The Times acknowledged using the co-appearance feature in Vintra’s software package. But some did not explicitly rule it out.

China’s government, which has been the most aggressive in using surveillance and AI to control its population, uses co-appearance searches to spot protesters and dissidents by merging video with a vast network of databases, something Vintra and its clients would not be able to do, said Conor Healy, director of government research for IPVM, the surveillance research group that hosted Vintra’s presentation last year. Vintra’s technology could be used to create “a more basic version” of the Chinese government’s capabilities, he said.

Some state and local governments in the U.S. restrict the use of facial recognition, especially in policing, but no federal law applies. No laws expressly prohibit police from using co-appearance searches such as Vintra’s, “but it’s an open question” whether doing so would violate constitutionally protected rights of free assembly and protections against unauthorized searches, according to Clare Garvie, a specialist in surveillance technology with the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Few states have any restrictions on how private entities use facial recognition.

The Los Angeles Police Department ended a predictive policing program, known as PredPol, in 2020 amid criticism that it was not stopping crime and led to heavier policing of Black and Latino neighborhoods. The program used AI to analyze vast troves of data, including suspected gang affiliations, in an effort to predict in real time where property crimes might happen.

In the absence of national laws, many police departments and private companies have to weigh the balance of security and privacy on their own.

“This is the Orwellian future come to life,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. “A deeply alarming surveillance state where you’re tracked, marked and categorized for use by public- and private-sector entities—that you have no knowledge of.”

Markey plans to reintroduce a bill in the coming weeks that would halt the use of facial recognition and biometric technologies by federal law enforcement and require local and state governments to ban them as a condition of winning federal grants.

For now, some departments say they don’t have to make a choice because of reliability concerns. But as technology advances, they will.

Vintra executives did not return multiple calls and emails from The Times.

But the company’s chief executive, Brent Boekestein, was expansive about potential uses of the technology during the video presentation with IPVM.

“You can go up here and create a target, based off of this guy, and then see who this guy’s hanging out with,” Boekestein said. “You can really start building out a network.”

He added that “96% of the time, there’s no event that security’s interested in but there’s always information that the system is generating.”

Four agencies that share the San Jose transit station used in Vintra’s presentation denied that their cameras were used to make the company’s video.

Two companies listed on Vintra’s website, the 49ers and Moderna, the drug company that produced one of the most widely used COVID-19 vaccines, did not respond to emails.

Several police departments acknowledged working with Vintra, but none would explicitly say they had performed a co-appearance search.

Brian Jackson, assistant chief of police in Lincoln, Neb., said his department uses Vintra software to save time analyzing hours of video by searching quickly for patterns such as blue cars and other objects that match descriptions used to solve specific crimes. But the cameras his department links into —including Ring cameras and those used by businesses—aren’t good enough to match faces, he said.

“There are limitations. It’s not a magic technology,” he said. “It requires precise inputs for good outputs.”

Jarod Kasner, an assistant chief in Kent, Washington, said his department uses Vintra software. He said he was not aware of the co-appearance feature and would have to consider whether it was legal in his state, one of a few that restricts the use of facial recognition.

“We’re always looking for technology that can assist us because it’s a force multiplier” for a department that struggles with staffing issues, he said. But “we just want to make sure we’re within the boundaries to make sure we are doing it right and professionally.”

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office in Florida said it uses Vintra software only on suspects and not “to track people or vehicles who are not suspected of any criminal activity.”

The Sacramento Police Department said in an email that it uses Vintra software “sparingly, if at all” but would not specify whether it had ever used the co-appearance feature.

“We are in the process of reviewing our Vintra contract and whether to continue using its service,” the department said in a statement, which also said it could not point to instances in which the software helped solve crimes.

The IRS said in a statement that it uses Vintra software “to more efficiently review lengthy video footage for evidence while conducting criminal investigations.” Officials would not say whether the IRS used the co-appearance tool or where it had cameras posted, only that it followed “established agency protocols and procedures.”

Jay Stanley, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who first highlighted Vintra’s video presentation last year in a blog post, said he is not surprised some companies and departments are cagey about its use. In his experience, police departments often deploy new technology “without telling, let alone asking, permission of democratic overseers like city councils.”

The software could be abused to monitor personal and political associations, including with potential intimate partners, labor activists, anti-police groups or partisan rivals, Stanley warned.

Danielle VanZandt, who analyzes Vintra for the market research firm Frost & Sullivan, said the technology is already in use. Because she has reviewed confidential documents from Vintra and other companies, she is under nondisclosure agreements that prohibit her from discussing individual companies and governments that may be using the software.

Retailers, which are already gathering vast data on people who walk into their stores, are also testing the software to determine “what else can it tell me?” VanZandt said.

That could include identifying family members of a bank’s best customers to ensure they are treated well, a use that raises the possibility that those without wealth or family connections will get less attention.

“Those bias concerns are huge in the industry” and are actively being addressed through standards and testing, VanZandt said.

Not everyone believes this technology will be widely adopted. Law enforcement and corporate security agents often discover they can use less invasive technologies to obtain similar information, said Florian Matusek of Genetec, a video analytics company that works with Vintra. That includes scanning ticket entry systems and cellphone data that have unique features but are not tied to individuals.

“There’s a big difference between, like product sheets and demo videos and actually things being deployed in the field,” Matusek said. “Users often find that other technology can solve their problem just as well without going through or jumping through all the hoops of installing cameras or dealing with privacy regulation.”

Matusek said he did not know of any Genetec clients that were using co-appearance, which his company does not provide. But he could not rule it out.

2023 Los Angeles Times.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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AI ‘brain’ created from core materials for OLED TVs



AI “brain” created from core materials for OLED TVs
Structure of the proposed AI synaptic device. Two oxide semiconductor transistors are connected; one for writing and the other for reading. Credit: POSTECH

ChatGPT’s impact extends beyond the education sector and is causing significant changes in other areas. The AI language model is recognized for its ability to perform various tasks, including paper writing, translation, coding, and more, all through question-and-answer-based interactions.

The AI system relies on deep learning, which requires extensive training to minimize errors, resulting in frequent data transfers between memory and processors. However, traditional digital computer systems’ von Neumann architecture separates the storage and computation of information, resulting in increased power consumption and significant delays in AI computations. Researchers have developed semiconductor technologies suitable for AI applications to address this challenge.

A research team at POSTECH, led by Professor Yoonyoung Chung (Department of Electrical Engineering, Department of Semiconductor Engineering), Professor Seyoung Kim (Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Department of Semiconductor Engineering), and Ph.D. candidate Seongmin Park (Department of Electrical Engineering), has developed a high-performance AI semiconductor device using indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO), an oxide semiconductor widely used in OLED displays.

The new device has proven to be excellent in terms of performance and power efficiency.

AI “brain” created from core materials for OLED TVs
AI synaptic device operation using oxide semiconductors. The conductance of the read transistor can be controlled by charging/discharging the storage node through the write transistor. Once weight updates are complete; the programmed weights are maintained as the writing transistor is turned off. Credit: POSTECH

Efficient AI operations, such as those of ChatGPT, require computations to occur within the memory responsible for storing information. Unfortunately, previous AI semiconductor technologies were limited in meeting all the requirements, such as linear and symmetric programming and uniformity, to improve AI accuracy.

The research team sought IGZO as a key material for AI computations that could be mass-produced and provide uniformity, durability, and computing accuracy. This compound comprises four atoms in a fixed ratio of indium, gallium, zinc, and oxygen and has excellent electron mobility and leakage current properties, which have made it a backplane of the OLED display.

Using this material, the researchers developed a novel synapse device composed of two transistors interconnected through a storage node. The precise control of this node’s charging and discharging speed has enabled the AI semiconductor to meet the diverse performance metrics required for high-level performance.

AI “brain” created from core materials for OLED TVs
Input voltage-dependent potentiation-depression characteristics of the proposed artificial synapse devices. The brain-inspired synapse device based on an oxide semiconductor exhibits excellent linearity and symmetry during the potentiation and depression, while the output current linearly varies with the number of input pulses. The output current is nearly proportional to the input voltage, making it possible to perform AI training and inference tasks with high accuracy and extremely low power consumption. Credit: POSTECH

Furthermore, applying synaptic devices to a large-scale AI system requires the output current of synaptic devices to be minimized. The researchers confirmed the possibility of utilizing the ultra-thin film insulators inside the transistors to control the current, making them suitable for large-scale AI.

The researchers used the newly developed synaptic device to train and classify handwritten data, achieving a high accuracy of over 98%, which verifies its potential application in high-accuracy AI systems in the future.

AI “brain” created from core materials for OLED TVs
Simulation results of MNIST classification using IGZO 2T synaptic devices. High linear and symmetric weight programming characteristics of AI synaptic devices based on oxide semiconductors enable accurate training processes that minimize errors in artificial intelligence systems. In a simulation of random handwriting recognition, these devices achieved an inference accuracy of approximately 98%, which is nearly identical to the accuracy of ideal mathematical calculations. Credit: POSTECH

Professor Chung explained, “The significance of my research team’s achievement is that we overcame the limitations of conventional AI semiconductor technologies that focused solely on material development. To do this, we utilized materials already in mass production. Furthermore, Linear and symmetrical programming characteristics were obtained through a new structure using two transistors as one synaptic device. Thus, our successful development and application of this new AI semiconductor technology show great potential to improve the efficiency and accuracy of AI.”

This study was published inAdvanced Electronic Materials .

More information:
Seongmin Park et al, Highly Linear and Symmetric Analog Neuromorphic Synapse Based on Metal Oxide Semiconductor Transistors with Self‐Assembled Monolayer for High‐Precision Neural Network Computation, Advanced Electronic Materials (2022). DOI: 10.1002/aelm.202200554

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New treatment process can improve biorefinery sustainability



Wastewater to energy: New treatment process can improve biorefinery sustainability
Graphical abstract. Credit: ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering (2023). DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.2c07139

Wastewater from biorefineries that convert plants into fuel is full of organic materials that cannot be efficiently treated with conventional wastewater systems, making it costly and energy-intensive to manage.

However, those rich organic materials are an untapped source of chemical energy that can be recovered as valuable products, including biogas, a clean-burning renewable fuel.

A study by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI) found that recovering resources from wastewater can substantially improve the economic and environmental sustainability of second-generation biorefineries, supporting the transition to a sustainable, plant-based biofuels and bioproducts industry.

The CABBI team designed a process that simultaneously treats wastewater and recovers biogas energy that could generate revenue for biorefineries—while lowering costs and greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional treatment systems.

The work, published in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, united researchers from all three CABBI themes—Feedstock Production, Conversion, and Sustainability—who are developing plant-based alternatives to petroleum for fuels and chemical products.

With a “plants as factories” model, they aim to produce biofuels, biochemicals, and foundation molecules directly in plant leaves and stems; develop unique tools, yeasts, and processing methods to convert them into high-value bioproducts, such as biodiesel, organic acids, lubricants, and alcohols; and assess the economic and ecological sustainability of CABBI feedstocks, biofuels and bioproducts, from the field to the biorefinery to the bioeconomy.

The wastewater study was led by two CABBI Sustainability researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: Jeremy Guest, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE); and Research Scientist Yalin Li of the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE).

CABBI co-authors included Vijay Singh, Conversion researcher, Deputy Director for Science & Technology, and Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) at Illinois; and Feedstock Production researcher Fredy Altpeter, Professor of Agronomy at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida.

Wastewater to energy: New treatment process can improve biorefinery sustainability
Comparative system diagram of (A) the conventional wastewater treatment (WWT) process and (B) the high-rate process proposed in this study. Gray blocks indicate unit operations that are used in the existing design or shared between the existing and new designs; blue blocks are unit operations only used in the new design. The polishing filter (outlined in a dashed line) was excluded from 1G biorefineries (i.e., only included in 2G biorefineries) due to the lower COD content of wastewater streams from 1G biorefineries. Credit: ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering (2023). DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.2c07139

Second-generation biorefineries that process miscanthus, corn stover, or other non-food feedstocks have the potential to produce biofuels and bioproducts with much lower environmental impact than those from fossil fuels or first-generation biorefineries, which use corn and other edible crops. But these second-generation biorefineries still face financial hurdles that prevent their successful deployment in the real world.

If not properly managed, biorefineries can require a prohibitive amount of water and generate a large wastewater stream. To produce fuel and valuable biochemicals from plant biomass, biorefineries can use up to 10 liters of water per liter of biofuel produced, based on a previous CABBI study. The resulting wastewater has high concentrations of organic material—sugars, residual fermentation products, process byproducts, or other chemicals—making it difficult to reuse.

But those prior analyses are often based on conventional, low-rate wastewater treatment technologies that are expensive, energy-intensive, and require a huge physical footprint—which, depending on the size of the plant, could be equivalent to 30 football fields or more. Low-rate conventional treatment systems use large aerobic reactors, which consume large amounts of electricity for aeration, and convert the organic materials from the wastewater to carbon dioxide without creating valuable products.

The CABBI team designed a high-rate anaerobic-dominant wastewater process that largely eliminated aeration, saving electricity, and instead incorporated emerging technologies, including internal circulation and anaerobic membrane bioreactors to recover the embedded energy in the organic materials as biogas.

For their design, they used experimental data from wastewater generated by the processing of sugarcane and oilcane cultivated by the Altpeter group for CABBI’s Feedstocks to Fuels project. The process extracts the plant’s oils and then generates ethanol from plant sugars through fermentation by yeasts. The Singh group provided spent fermentation broth, after the ethanol was extracted, and collaborators from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile determined how much methane could be produced from the real samples.

Using their open-source software BioSTEAM, the researchers then simulated the integration of the new wastewater treatment process into seven biorefinery designs, covering a wide range of feedstocks and biofuels/bioproducts. Through techno-economic analysis and life cycle assessment (TEA-LCA) enabled by BioSTEAM, they found that the new process could substantially reduce the capital cost and energy usage of biorefineries, improving their financial viability and reducing their environmental impact.

The process could efficiently convert organic contaminants in biorefinery wastewater to biogas, achieving simultaneous energy recovery and wastewater treatment. It would reduce energy consumption, operating costs, and greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional treatment systems.

“Through proper management processes, wastewater can be a potential source of revenue for biorefineries while improving the environmental sustainability of biofuels and bioproducts,” Li said.

The wastewater treatment process designed in this study can substantially improve the financial viability of second-generation biorefineries while reducing their environmental impacts, thus contributing to society’s transition to a circular bioeconomy—and CABBI’s mission to support a viable, sustainable domestic biofuels and bioproducts industry using plant biomass.

More information:
Yalin Li et al, Design of a High-Rate Wastewater Treatment Process for Energy and Water Recovery at Biorefineries, ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering (2023). DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.2c07139

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Intel co-founder, philanthropist Gordon Moore dies at 94



Intel co-founder, philanthropist Gordon Moore dies at 94
Gordon Moore, the legendary Intel Corp. co-founder who predicted the growth of the semiconductor industry, smiles during a news conference, Thursday, May 24, 2001, in Santa Clara, Calif. Moore, the Intel Corp. co-founder who set the breakneck pace of progress in the digital age with a simple 1965 prediction of how quickly engineers would boost the capacity of computer chips, has died. He was 94. Intel and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation say Moore died Friday, March 24, 2023 at his home in Hawaii. Credit: AP Photo/Ben Margot, File

Gordon Moore, the Intel Corp. co-founder who set the breakneck pace of progress in the digital age with a simple 1965 prediction of how quickly engineers would boost the capacity of computer chips, has died. He was 94.

Moore died Friday at his home in Hawaii, according to Intel and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Moore, who held a Ph.D. in chemistry and physics, made his famous observation—now known as “Moore’s Law”—three years before he helped start Intel in 1968. It appeared among a number of articles about the future written for the now-defunct Electronics magazine by experts in various fields.

The prediction, which Moore said he plotted out on graph paper based on what had been happening with chips at the time, said the capacity and complexity of integrated circuits would double every year.

Strictly speaking, Moore’s observation referred to the doubling of transistors on a semiconductor. But over the years, it has been applied to hard drives, computer monitors and other electronic devices, holding that roughly every 18 months a new generation of products makes their predecessors obsolete.

It became a standard for the tech industry’s progress and innovation.

“It’s the human spirit. It’s what made Silicon Valley,” Carver Mead, a retired California Institute of Technology computer scientist who coined the term “Moore’s Law” in the early 1970s, said in 2005. “It’s the real thing.”

Intel co-founder, philanthropist Gordon Moore dies at 94
Intel Corp. founder and chairman emeritus, Gordon Moore, smiles as he tours during the dedication of the new Gordon and Betty Moore Material Research building at Stanford University on the Stanford, Calif., campus, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2000. Moore, the Intel Corp. co-founder who set the breakneck pace of progress in the digital age with a simple 1965 prediction of how quickly engineers would boost the capacity of computer chips, has died. He was 94. Intel and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation say Moore died Friday, March 24, 2023 at his home in Hawaii. Credit: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File

Moore later became known for his philanthropy when he and his wife established the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which focuses on environmental conservation, science, patient care and projects in the San Francisco Bay area. It has donated more than $5.1 billion to charitable causes since its founding in 2000.

“Those of us who have met and worked with Gordon will forever be inspired by his wisdom, humility and generosity,” foundation president Harvey Fineberg said in a statement.

Intel Chairman Frank Yeary called Moore a brilliant scientist and a leading American entrepreneur.

“It is impossible to imagine the world we live in today, with computing so essential to our lives, without the contributions of Gordon Moore,” he said.

In his book “Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary,” author David Brock called him “the most important thinker and doer in the story of silicon electronics.”

Moore was born in San Francisco on Jan. 3, 1929, and grew up in the tiny nearby coastal town of Pescadero. As a boy, he took a liking to chemistry sets. He attended San Jose State University, then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in chemistry.

Intel co-founder, philanthropist Gordon Moore dies at 94
Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore smiles next to a wall at Intel headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., Wednesday, March 9, 2005. Moore, the Intel Corp. co-founder who set the breakneck pace of progress in the digital age with a simple 1965 prediction of how quickly engineers would boost the capacity of computer chips, has died. He was 94. Intel and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation say Moore died Friday, March 24, 2023 at his home in Hawaii. Credit: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File

After getting his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1954, he worked briefly as a researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

His entry into microchips began when he went to work for William Shockley, who in 1956 shared the Nobel Prize for physics for his work inventing the transistor. Less than two years later, Moore and seven colleagues left Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory after growing tired of its namesake’s management practices.

The defection by the “traitorous eight,” as the group came to be called, planted the seeds for Silicon Valley’s renegade culture, in which engineers who disagreed with their colleagues didn’t hesitate to become competitors.

The Shockley defectors in 1957 created Fairchild Semiconductor, which became one of the first companies to manufacture the integrated circuit, a refinement of the transistor.

Fairchild supplied the chips that went into the first computers that astronauts used aboard spacecraft.

In 1968, Moore and Robert Noyce, one of the eight engineers who left Shockley, again struck out on their own. With $500,000 of their own money and the backing of venture capitalist Arthur Rock, they founded Intel, a name based on joining the words “integrated” and “electronics.”

Intel co-founder, philanthropist Gordon Moore dies at 94
Physicist Stephen Hawking, left, looks at a new custom-built computer designed especially for him with Dr. Gordon Moore of the Intel Corporation in the library of The Issac Newton Institute of Mathematics in Cambridge, England, Thursday, March 20, 1997. Moore, the Intel Corp. co-founder who set the breakneck pace of progress in the digital age with a simple 1965 prediction of how quickly engineers would boost the capacity of computer chips, has died. He was 94. Intel and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation say Moore died Friday, March 24, 2023 at his home in Hawaii. Credit: AP Photo, File

Moore became Intel’s chief executive in 1975. His tenure as CEO ended in 1987, thought he remained chairman for another 10 years. He was chairman emeritus from 1997 to 2006.

He received the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2002.

Despite his wealth and acclaim, Moore remained known for his modesty. In 2005, he referred to Moore’s Law as “a lucky guess that got a lot more publicity than it deserved.”

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Betty, sons Kenneth and Steven, and four grandchildren.

© 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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EU, Germany reach deal on fossil fuel car phaseout plan



The EU plans to effectively impose electric vehicles by the middle of the next decade
The EU plans to effectively impose electric vehicles by the middle of the next decade.

The European Union and Germany on Saturday said they had struck a deal after a dispute over the planned phaseout by 2035 of the sale of cars using fossil fuels.

A landmark deal to prohibit new sales of fossil fuel cars from 2035 is key to the bloc’s ambitious plan to become a “climate-neutral” economy by 2050, with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

But in an unprecedented move earlier this month, leading car producer Germany blocked the agreement at the last minute after it had already been approved under the traditional EU legislative process.

Berlin demanded that Brussels provide assurances the law would allow the sales of new cars with combustion engines that run on synthetic fuels, the focus of the breakthrough announced on Saturday.

“We have found an agreement with Germany on the future use of efuels in cars,” EU environment commissioner Frans Timmermans said on Twitter.

“We will work now on getting the CO2-standards for cars regulation adopted as soon as possible.”

German Transport Minister Volker Wissing said on Twitter that vehicles with combustion engines could continue to be registered after 2035 if they only use fuels that are neutral in their CO2 emissions.

Weeks-long negotiations between the European Commission and Germany to break the impasse centered on Berlin’s desire for a stronger commitment on synthetic fuels than that presented in the initial text.

The synthetic fuels Germany wanted an exemption for are still under development and produced using low-carbon electricity. The technology is unproven, but German manufacturers hope it will lead to the extended use of combustion engines.

Environmental NGOs have disputed the value of synthetic fuels in the automotive sector’s transition towards clean energy sources, saying they are too expensive, polluting and energy-intensive.

Some industry experts have expressed doubt over whether vehicles powered by synthetic fuels can compete in a market against electric cars that are expected to become cheaper over time.

Audi boss Markus Duesmann told the Der Spiegel weekly that synthetic fuels “will not play an important role in the medium-term future of passenger cars”, even if they prove to be helpful in the green transition.

Domestic politics at play

Some observers saw domestic political calculations behind Germany’s initial move to block the deal, which ruffled the feathers of some of Berlin’s EU partners.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats form a coalition government with the Greens and the liberal FDP party, which initiated the move.

The FDP, which has lost five regional elections in a row, is struggling in national polling and hoped to gain the support of voters hostile to a ban on combustion engines.

Scholz was seen as acting to maintain the unity of the coalition by aligning with the FDP position against the Greens.

Fellow major car manufacturer Italy, Poland and Hungary joined Germany in a small alliance against the combustion engine ban.

The EU aims to reduce CO2 emissions from new vehicles to zero, with the planned combustion engine plan effectively imposing electric vehicles from the middle of the next decade.

The industry has anticipated the new EU rules by massively investing in electric vehicles in recent years.

© 2023 AFP

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Apple enjoys ‘symbiotic’ relationship with China, Cook says



Apple enjoys a 'symbiotic' relationship with China, although tensions between Beijing and Washington have affected its supply ch
Apple enjoys a ‘symbiotic’ relationship with China, although tensions between Beijing and Washington have affected its supply chain, the company’s CEO Tim Cook said.

Apple enjoys a “symbiotic” relationship with China, CEO Tim Cook said on Saturday, as the iPhone giant looks to move production out of the country.

Cook, who is in China to attend the high-profile China Development Forum, said “Apple and China grew together,” during an interview on the role of technology in education.

“This has been a symbiotic kind of relationship that I think we both enjoyed,” he said at the state-run event attended by top government officials and corporate leaders.

Cook’s visit comes as Apple, the world’s biggest company by market value, is trying to move production out of China.

Last year, Apple sales were hit by curtailed production at factories as a result of China’s zero-COVID policy.

US export controls on high-tech components are also threatening the company’s supply chain.

Cook did not address supply chain issues during his discussion.

Instead, he focused on the need to bridge the education gap between urban and rural schools and encouraged young people to learn programming and critical thinking skills.

He also pledged to increase Apple’s spending on its rural education program in China to 100 million yuan ($15 million).

Cook visited an Apple Store in downtown Beijing on Friday, and a photo of him posing for a selfie with singer Huang Ling has gone viral on Chinese social media.

© 2023 AFP

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S. Korea’s crypto ‘genius’ turned disgraced fugitive



Do Kwon: S. Korea's crypto 'genius' turned disgraced fugitive
Do Kwon was arrested Thursday in Montenegro after being caught trying to catch a flight using fake Costa Rican travel documents.

Once hailed as a genius, South Korean entrepreneur Do Kwon—now facing multiple criminal charges over his failed cryptocurrency—was a brash industry figure whose fame disintegrated into global notoriety.

After months on the run, the 31-year-old, whose full name is Kwon Do-hyung, was arrested Thursday in Montenegro after being caught trying to catch a flight using fake Costa Rican travel documents.

He is accused of fraud over the dramatic implosion last year of his company Terraform Labs, which wiped out about $40 billion of investors’ money and shook global crypto markets.

Immediately after his arrest the United States hit him with a slew of charges over what they called a “multi-billion-dollar crypto asset securities fraud” and South Korea, where he faces separate charges, said it wants to extradite him.

The cryptocurrency he created, an “algorithmic stablecoin” called Terra, was in reality a glorified Ponzi scheme, experts say.

Yet as recently as March 2022, Kwon was being described in glowing South Korean media reports as a “genius” as thousands of private investors lined up to pour cash into his company.

“Kwon and his story are a product of our times,” Cho Dong-keun, an economics professor emeritus at Myongji University, told AFP.

“He knew how to win the hearts of those who so desperately wanted to make a fortune in one stroke. He also knew how to exploit their anxiety and turn it into massive profits.”

Elite connections

Born in 1991, Kwon attended South Korea’s elite Daewon Foreign Language High School where, according to a book he wrote about his school days, he founded an English-language student paper and competed in various English debating championships.

He went on to major in computer science at Stanford University in the US, and reportedly interned at Apple and Microsoft before returning to Asia to start his own business.

In 2018, he co-founded Terraform Labs with Daniel Shin—who is linked to South Korea’s elite Samsung family through his uncle—and developed the TerraUSD and Luna currencies.

He quickly rose to fame, partly thanks to Shin’s connections, successfully branding himself as a young industry luminary.

TerraUSD was marketed as a “stablecoin”, a type of cryptocurrency which is typically pegged to stable assets such as the US dollar to prevent drastic price fluctuations.

In 2019, he featured in Forbes’ 30 under 30 Asia list.

Forbes wrote that Kwon’s “price-stable cryptocurrency, or stablecoin, attracted 40 million users to work with the company at launch in January 2018”.

“With the aim of building a blockchain-based payment system, Terra has raised $32 million from crypto-giants such as Binance,” it said.

‘S Korean Elizabeth Holmes’

But experts had long warned Kwon’s model was fundamentally flawed, with some outright calling it a Ponzi scheme.

Unlike other stablecoins backed by real-world assets such as cash or gold, TerraUSD was algorithmic—pegged only to sister currency Luna, using maths and incentive mechanisms to maintain their peg.

“Algorithmic stablecoins like Terra/Luna were doomed from the very beginning,” Christian Catalini, founder of MIT’s Cryptoeconomics Lab, told AFP.

“Things can work for a while, while the ecosystem is growing, but are destined to run into a death spiral at some point.”

A full investigation of Kwon should help clarify what happened when Terra/Luna collapsed, he said, adding this was necessary to improve the crypto industry as a whole.

“We need to make sure that bad actors are not able to use the technology to design scams and perpetuate other forms of fraud or financial crime,” he said.

Kwon’s impressive rise and precipitous fall are now being compared to those of convicted American fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of the medical technology startup Theranos.

Kwon “is just like Holmes, another elite who went to Stanford”, the Korea Economic Daily newspaper wrote.

Cory Klippsten, CEO of crypto trading app Swan.com, made a similar parallel on Twitter last year.

Kwon had “major Elizabeth Holmes vibes”, he wrote ahead of the collapse. “Creepy levels of cockiness on display, 99.99% of the time means fraud.”

Kwon slipped out of South Korea before disaster struck in May last year, and has effectively been in hiding ever since—even as he claimed on Twitter that he was not “on the run”.

South Korea eventually revoked his passport, and asked Interpol to place him on the red notice list.

“A responsible adult and entrepreneur would have stayed and explained,” professor Cho at Myongji University said.

“The fact that he tried to avoid authorities by even using forged passports shows his character.”

© 2023 AFP

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Recycling of fruit waste into a solar absorber for water desalination



Recycling of fruit waste into solar absorber for water desalination
Assistant Professor Edison Ang Huixiang (left) and his PhD student, Marliyana Aizudin (right) from National Institute of Education/Nanyang Technological University Singapore, turn fruit waste into value-added MXene materials for solar desalination. Credit: NIE/NTU Singapore

Scientists from the National Institute of Education/Nanyang Technological University of Singapore developed a method for converting fruit wastes such as coconut husks, orange peels, and banana peels into a solar absorber made of MXene for efficient water desalination process.

Singapore produces over 20,000 tons of fruit waste annually, the majority of which comes from the fruit juicing sector, which uses 50% of the fruit but discards the rest as trash, such as fruit peel. This gave Dr. Edison Ang inspiration. He sees wealth where others perceive waste since wastes are free resources that may be used to create valuable products, like MXene in this example.

A type of material known as MXene has outstanding light-to-heat conversion capabilities and can be utilized to build solar stills for the treatment of water using clean, renewable solar energy. This solar still can be made portable and set up easily in rural areas with limited access to electricity.

Fruit wastes were used to create MXene materials through a two-step carbonization process, and these materials were employed to create a solar absorber in a solar still for water desalination. This work has been featured in the 2022 Young Chemists theme collection in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

The key findings of the paper are:

  • MXenes derived from fruit wastes demonstrate excellent light-to-heat conversion efficiency, with a rate of 90%. This is nearly 30% higher than that of the commercial solar absorber, which means that it is more effective at converting solar energy into heat energy.
  • The use of fruit waste as a source of raw materials for MXene production can significantly reduce the cost of the material. In this study, the MXene material was less expensive than commercial alternatives because one of the reactant sources was obtained for free from fruit waste.
  • The homemade solar still prototype that utilized MXene material showed a significant improvement in the water production rate, with an increase of approximately 50% over the existing solar still.
  • The purified water produced by the homemade solar still prototype met the World Health Organization (WHO) drinking water standard. This indicates that the MXene-based solar still can produce clean drinking water that is safe for human consumption.

The main focus of Dr. Edison’s research is to develop innovative and cost-effective methods to turn organic wastes into useful materials for solar stills that purify water. Graphite was successfully made from plastic trash in a prior study by his team, and this work was published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

Both investigations showed that organic wastes can be turned into two-dimensional (2D) materials with higher values like graphite and MXene. Additionally, its distinct honeycomb structure enhances the effectiveness of light-to-heat conversion, and the 2D structure’s interlayers offer numerous pathways for fast water production.

Recycling and reusing organic wastes and turning them into materials with value added, such as carbon, can lessen the negative effects of waste pollution while also lowering the cost of MXene or graphite materials and the mining of natural carbon resources. As a result, the economy and the environment will both gain significantly.

Finding suitable materials for eco-friendly and more efficient solar stills is the main challenge. Usually, non-organic impurities are mixed with organic wastes. As a result, there are only a few pure materials that can be produced using current technologies. Sorting out the different waste material types will require additional work, such as using machine learning and artificial intelligence together to enhance the quality of the waste management process.

Commercial Li-ion batteries, which are used in everything from smartphones to electric vehicles, are known to be made with graphite as a key component. MXenes, which are naturally conductive like graphite and have a 2D structure, are useful for storing charges in batteries and may soon be used in the manufacture of batteries. The MXene made from fruit waste therefore has potential uses that go far beyond water purification.

More information:
Marliyana Aizudin et al, Sustainable development of graphitic carbon nanosheets from plastic wastes with efficient photothermal energy conversion for enhanced solar evaporation, Journal of Materials Chemistry A (2022). DOI: 10.1039/D2TA02092K

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How AI can reveal corporate tax avoidance



Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Are the words used in annual reports a key to unlocking the secrets of corporate tax avoidance?

When it comes to spotting corporate tax dodgers, words can be as useful as numbers. Recent research from Texas McCombs finds that careful reading of text can offer new insights into how companies are trying to avoid taxes—activities that may not be apparent from financial numbers alone.

Dean and Accounting Professor Lillian Mills and her co-author, Kelvin Law of Nanyang Technological University, examined 18 years’ worth of U.S. multinational companies’ annual reports, ones that discussed their business activities in foreign countries, including tax havens. The researchers covered a total of 183,061 reports.

The team used natural language processing (NLP) to analyze the text and identify patterns and word choices that might reveal what kind of activities companies were conducting in tax havens. The computer analysis uncovered clues about these activities.

For example, suppose a U.S. pharmaceutical company has developed a successful drug for treating heart disease, generating a high profit margin. The company owns intellectual property (IP) for the specific formula of the drug and indicates it has “established a subsidiary in Panama to handle manufacturing and production,” using the patented formula. By routing profits from the sale of the heart disease drug through the use of IP in a country known for low tax rates, the company is able to pay lower taxes through the subsidiary in the tax haven.

The word “manufacturing” is one of about 80 words the computer looks for to suggest operations that might be avoiding taxes. Others include “purchasing,” “importing,” “warehouses,” and “distributors.”

Although there is no sure way to detect all instances of tax avoidance, Mills says, close attention to word choices in an annual report can reveal several kinds of insights that numbers might not:

New metrics. A new set of measures in the study assesses not only whether a company has a subsidiary in a tax haven country, but whether it’s an active subsidiary. The new measures are three times as effective as existing ones for predicting that a company is avoiding taxes.

Undisclosed operations. Machine learning techniques can identify companies that may have tax haven operations but do not disclose them in annual reports.

Higher tax avoidance. Nondisclosers flagged by machine learning have lower effective tax rates than other companies.

“Using AI to analyze text data could be a powerful tool for both regulators and investors to detect corporate tax avoidance,” Mills says.

“That information could especially help regulators other than the IRS, who don’t have access to companies’ tax returns. It could guide them in looking at publicly available data to find companies that might be using abusive profit-shifting strategies in tax havens.”

More information:
Kelvin K. F. Law et al, Taxes and Haven Activities: Evidence from Linguistic Cues, The Accounting Review (2021). DOI: 10.2308/TAR-2020-0163

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Corporate investment could improve climate-tech innovation



wind farm
Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Corporate investments in climate-tech start-ups are a growing but overlooked aspect of energy innovation. According to a new report from Morgan Edwards, a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and her lead co-author at University of Maryland, these investments should be more fully considered as methods to advance climate technology. The report was published in Joule.

Start-up companies have the potential to rapidly commercialize innovation, but they don’t always have the resources to make such ventures successful. Corporations, on the other hand, tend to have the resources that start-ups lack, like access to global markets and supply chains, manufacturing facilities and experience across the energy system.

While corporations are often strategic investors motivated by profits, they can also be motivated to expand existing business models, gain innovation insights, and meet environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments. When well-resourced corporations invest in start-ups, they can have an outsized influence on which start-ups succeed and grow, therefore shaping climate technology trajectories.

“We will need a whole host of new technologies to transition to a net-zero or net-negative emissions economy. Many innovations are currently in development but not yet mature,” says Edwards, who holds a joint position in the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at UW–Madison. “Finding the right mix of corporate, private, and public investments will be critical to getting these technologies to market quickly and encouraging new innovations.”

In 2021, corporate investments in climate technology totaled over $11 billion, flowing to more than 460 start-ups, representing a quarter of all public and private investment dollars. This number has grown considerably since the Paris Agreement began in 2016 but still leaves a sizeable gap for governments to step in and incentivize investment in climate-tech that aligns with long-term climate and societal goals.

Kavita Surana, lead co-author with Edwards and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, says this gap needs to be a larger point of emphasis moving forward to make necessary advances in climate technology.

“Corporations and the choices they make investing in climate-tech start-ups are particularly important as they tend to focus on technologies closer to reaching widespread adoption compared to public or other private investors. However, their role in climate change innovation has been overlooked to this point in our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change,” says Surana, who is also an associate faculty member at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna.

The paper’s team of researchers investigated a dataset of 6,996 climate-tech start-ups from North America, Europe, and Israel that were founded between 2005 and 2021. They also looked at 9,749 investors who participated in 33,698 investment deals.

Among the paper’s findings, the research team observed that corporate investors are most active in later investment stages when technologies are closer to market deployment.

They also found that corporate investment in climate-tech start-ups is highly concentrated, with a few large corporations like Shell, Alphabet, and Samsung playing an outsized role. Between 2016 and 2021, these large companies each invested in over 25 climate-tech start-ups. A handful of companies, including Amazon, Ford, and Alphabet, each invested over $1 billion.

Investments were also concentrated in certain technologies. For example, fuel cell and hydrogen technologies received a much higher percentage of corporate investment than other sectors like marine and hydropower, nuclear, and biomass generations. These sectors also receive little funding from other private sources, suggesting that public investment may be necessary to fill the gap.

The research team’s policy recommendations include:

  • Using data-driven insights on corporate climate-tech investments and their outcomes to anticipate technological change and identify policy and regulatory gaps for emerging sectors and industries.
  • Incentivizing investments that support long-term climate solutions over short-term workarounds. This could help policymakers target the technologies that reduce emissions most efficiently.
  • Identifying and filling in gaps in corporate and private investment in key technologies and infrastructure. Policymakers need a more complete picture on the full investment landscape to keep balanced the portfolio of technologies needed for decarbonization.
  • Mobilizing and rewarding additional corporate and private finance to support climate-tech start-ups. Designing new public-private models that mobilize capital from corporations through rewards or accountability nudges can help advance corporate efforts to invest in climate and energy innovation.

Edwards, Surana and their team see this paper as a first step in being able to understand the relationship between corporate investors and climate-tech start-ups and eventually inform policy that can ensure beneficial climate and societal outcomes.

More information:
Kavita Surana et al, The role of corporate investment in start-ups for climate-tech innovation, Joule (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.joule.2023.02.017

Journal information:

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Ford’s Tenn. plant could make 500K electric pickups a year



Ford's Tenn. plant could make 500K electric pickups per year
Ford CEO Jim Farley talks about a new Ford electric pickup truck factory that is currently under construction in rural Tennessee on Friday, March 24, 2023 in Stanton, Tenn. Credit: AP Photo/Adrian Sainz

Ford said Friday that its assembly plant under construction in western Tennessee will be able to build up to 500,000 electric pickup trucks a year at full output, part of the automaker’s drive to produce 2 million electric vehicles worldwide annually by late 2026.

The company made the announcement as it provided updates on the so-called BlueOval City project at an event attended by Ford executives, project leaders, politicians and residents who live near the sprawling Tennessee site.

The Dearborn, Michigan, automaker announced the project in September of 2021 that would build the truck plant and a battery factory on 3,600 acres (1,460-hectares) in rural Stanton, located in Haywood County northeast of Memphis. Known as the Memphis Regional Megasite, the land designated by the state for industrial development sat unused for years before Ford moved in.

Ford’s assembly plant, and the battery plant run by South Korean battery maker SK On, will employ about 6,000 people with an investment of roughly $5.6 billion, Ford said.

The joint venture will also construct twin battery plants in Glendale, Kentucky, with an estimated $5.8 billion investment. The projects are expected to create more than 10,800 jobs and shift the automaker’s future manufacturing footprint toward the South while putting an emphasis on green energy.

Construction on the Tennessee site began last year. Ford plans to start production by 2025, and that timetable remains in place, company officials said

Construction is about 50% complete, said Donna Langford, Ford’s project manager. Media members who joined a bus tour of the site in the rain Friday saw steel skeletons of the massive, partially built structures that will house the battery plant and the truck assembly factory. Once finished, the site will also include a Tennessee Valley Authority substation to help power the plants and a Tennessee College of Applied Technology, where workforce training will take place.

The automaker said its second-generation electric truck is “code named Project T3,” and Ford CEO Jim Farley touted the truck’s simplified design and high-quality technology.

Ford did not release images of the new truck during the event, but it did display colorful drawings made by Tennessee schoolchildren with suggestions for its design—including some trucks that would fly.

In a reference to the fast and tough Star Wars ship, Farley said the new truck “is going to be like the Millennium Falcon, with a back porch attached.”

Speaking with reporters, Farley acknowledged that the Tennessee truck factory would be the most environmentally friendly new plant Ford has ever built.

“Not even close,” said Farley, adding later that “this is a new industrial revolution about clean, carbon neutral manufacturing.”

Ford says the plant is designed to be its first carbon-neutral vehicle manufacturing campus. It will have a 30% smaller general assembly footprint than traditional plants by simplifying sub-assemblies and reducing the number of stations on the line, Farley said.

“We shrunk the plant because we have less people, we have less stations,” Farley said.

Ford also said it will use recovered energy from the site to provide carbon-free heat for the assembly plant and save water by reducing evaporation from the site’s cooling towers.

Before landing the Ford project, Tennessee had invested more than $174 million in the unused Memphis megasite. Tennessee lawmakers have committed to spending nearly $900 million on state incentives, infrastructure upgrades and more as part of a sweeping plan with Ford. The agreement included $500 million in capital grant funds.

The lease essentially grants the land to Ford through December 2051. The rent is $1 for the entire lease term.

Some of the rural West Tennessee counties surrounding the plant hope it will help boost their economies.

With an economy based largely on farming, Haywood County saw its population shrink by 4.9% to 17,864 people from 2010 to 2020, one of 14 counties to lose population as Tennessee grew as a whole by 8.9%, according to census data.

The factory is expected to bring both small and large businesses to the area, including hotels, restaurants, health care facilities and suppliers for the plant, among others. Real estate values also could increase.

Ford’s leaders have pledged to help the communities near the plant. The Ford Motor Company Fund announced Friday it has awarded 17 grants of $75,000 to $100,000 each to fire departments, arts and parks conservancy groups, a community center, local governments and other organizations in six counties.

The $1.2 million grant program received 200 applications, said Mary Culler, president of the Ford Motor Company Fund.

“Those are the kinds of grass-roots, capital projects that these towns and municipalities are looking for,” Culler said.

As it seeks to develop its workforce in Tennessee, Ford said it has begun a talent development program that will support STEM instruction in K-12 schools, bring advanced manufacturing education to schools, and expand certification, dual-enrollment and internship opportunities for students.

© 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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