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Google Bets Big on Hardware With HTC Buy


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Photo Courtesy: Flickr

Google is biting off a big piece of device manufacturer HTC for $1.1 billion to expand its efforts to build phones, speakers and other gadgets equipped with its arsenal of digital services.

The deal announced Thursday underscores how serious Google is becoming about designing its own family of devices to compete against Apple and Amazon in a high-stakes battle to become the technological hub of people’s lives.

Over the past decade, Google had focused on giving away its Android operating system to an array of device makers, including Taiwan’s HTC, to ensure people would keep using its ubiquitous search engine, email, maps, YouTube video service and other software on smartphones and other pieces of hardware.

But that changed last year when Google stamped its brand on a smartphone and internet-connected speaker. HTC manufactured the Pixel phones that Google designed last year, perhaps paving the way for this deal to unfold.

Although Android powers about four out of every five smartphones and other mobile devices in the world, the software can be altered in ways that result in Google’s services being de-emphasized or left out completely from the pre-installed set of apps.

That fragmentation threatens to undercut Google’s ability to increase the ad sales that bring in most of the revenue to its corporate parent, Alphabet Inc., as people spend more and more time on smartphones and other devices instead of personal computers.

Apple’s iPhone and other hardware products are also particularly popular among affluent consumers prized by advertisers, giving Google another incentive to develop its own high-priced phone as a mobile platform for its products and ads.

Google also wants to build more internet-connected devices designed primarily for home usage, such as its voice-controlled speaker that’s trying to catch up with Amazon’s Echo. The Home speaker includes a digital concierge, called Google Assistant, that answers questions and helps manage people’s lives, much like the Alexa in Amazon’s Echo.

The purchase is a gamble on several fronts for Google and Alphabet.

Google’s previous forays into hardware haven’t panned out to be big winners so far. It paid $12.5 billion for smartphone maker Motorola Mobility five years ago only to sell it to Lenovo Group for less than $3 billion after struggling to make a dent in the market. And in 2014, Google paid more than $3 billion for home device maker Nest Labs, which is still struggling to make money under Alphabet’s ownership.

Expanding into hardware also threatens to alienate Samsung Electronics, Huawei and other device makers that Google relies on to distribute its Android software.

News Courtesy:VOA NEWS

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Tesla Starts Production of Solar Cells in Buffalo, New York


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Photo:Flickr

Tesla Inc. is starting production of the cells for its solar roof tiles at its factory in Buffalo, New York.

The company has already begun installing its solar roofs, which look like regular roofs but are made of glass tiles. But until now, it has been making them on a small scale near its vehicle factory in Fremont, California.

Tesla’s Chief Technical Officer, JB Straubel, says the company now has several hundred workers and machinery installed in its 1.2 million-square-foot factory in Buffalo.

“By the end of this year we will have the ramp-up of solar roof modules started in a substantial way,” Straubel told The Associated Press Thursday. “This is an interim milestone that we’re pretty proud of.”

The Buffalo plant was originally begun by Silevo, a solar panel startup, on the site of an old steel mill. Solar panel maker SolarCity Corp. bought Silevo in 2014. Then Tesla acquired SolarCity for around $2 billion late last year.

SolarCity was run by cousins of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who sat on SolarCity’s board.

“This factory, and the opportunity to build solar modules and cells in the U.S., was part of why this project made sense,” Straubel said.

Tesla’s partner, Panasonic Corp., will make the photovoltaic cells, which look similar to computer chips. Tesla workers will combine the cells into modules that fit into the roof tiles. The tiles will eventually be made in Buffalo as well, along with more traditional solar panels. Panasonic is also working with Tesla at its Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada.

Straubel says Tesla eventually hopes to reach 2 gigawatts of cell production annually at the Buffalo plant. That’s higher than its initial target of 1 gigawatt by 2019. Straubel said Tesla has been working on making the factory more efficient.

One gigawatt is equivalent to the annual output of a large nuclear or coal-fired power plant, Straubel said, “so it’s like we’re eliminating one of those every single year.”

Straubel wouldn’t say how many customers have ordered solar roof tiles, but said demand is strong and it will take Tesla through the end of next year to meet its current orders. Both he and Musk have had the tiles installed on their roofs.

Tesla shares were up less than 1 percent to $355.65 in afternoon trading.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi Reportedly to Lead Uber


Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has been named Uber’s top executive, taking the difficult job of mending the dysfunctional ride-hailing giant and turning it from money-losing behemoth to a profitable company.

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Picture Courtesy: Pexels

Uber’s fractured eight-member board voted to hire Khosrowshahi late Sunday, capping three days of meetings and the withdrawal of once-top candidate Jeffery Immelt, former CEO and still chairman of General Electric, two people briefed on the decision said. They didn’t want to be identified because the decision had not been officially announced as of Sunday night.

Khosrowshahi has been CEO of Expedia since August of 2015. The online booking site is one of the largest travel agencies in the world.

Self-driving cars

He’ll replace ousted CEO Travis Kalanick and faces the difficult task of changing Uber’s culture that has included sexual harassment and allegations of deceit and corporate espionage. Uber also is losing millions every quarter as it continues to expand and invest in self-driving cars.

The company currently is being run by a 14-person group of managers and is without multiple top executive positions that will be filled by Khosrowshahi.

Khosrowshahi has served as a member of Expedia’s board since it was spun off from IAC/InterActiveCorp. two years ago. An engineer who trained at Brown University, Khosrowshahi helped to expand IAC’s travel brands which were combined into Expedia, the company’s website says. He also serves on the boards of Fanatics Inc. and The New York Times Co.

Many problems to solve

He immediately will face troubles on many fronts, including having to deal with multiple board factions that had once pushed Immelt and Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman. Several factions of the board are suing each other.

Whitman, an investor in Uber, denied multiple times publicly that she was interested in the job. Although she spoke to some board members remotely Friday night, they could not guarantee an end to their infighting or that Kalanick would not become board chairman, said another person with knowledge of the board discussions. That person also didn’t want to be identified because board discussions are supposed to be private.

Khosrowshahi also must bring together a messy culture that an outside law firm found was rampant with sexual harassment and bullying of employees. He also must deal with driver discontent, although Uber already has started to fix that by allowing riders to tip drivers through its app.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

Sudanese Children of IS Militants Released in Libya


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Image used for only representational purposes only Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Four children from Sudan whose parents are believed to have been killed fighting for Islamic State in the Libyan city of Sirte last year were handed over to the Sudanese consul on Sunday for return to their country.

Sirte was a stronghold for Islamic State from 2015-2016, when Libyan forces backed by U.S. air strikes ousted the ultra-hardline group. Hundreds of foreign militants joined Islamic State in Sirte.

Dozens of women and children detained towards the end of the fighting have been held in Misrata, the city from which the military campaign in Sirte was led.

They include nationals of Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Senegal, Chad, and Niger. Twenty-one Libyan children have been handed back to their families.

In June, eight children were handed over to the Sudanese authorities and returned to Sudan. Eleven other Sudanese women and children are still in Misrata.

The Red Crescent’s head of psychological support in Misrata, Salah Abuzreba, appealed to all countries “that haven’t responded until this moment to receive those children as a human act, so they can be returned to their relatives”.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

 

‘Use the Force, Disney’: Obi-Wan Kenobi to Get his Own ‘Star Wars’ Movie


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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Walt Disney Co. is developing a “Star Wars” standalone movie based on the beloved character of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise and noble Jedi master, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety reported Thursday.

The Hollywood trade publications cited unnamed sources as saying that the project was in the early stages of development by Disney and Lucasfilm.

The project has no script yet, but British filmmaker Stephen Daldry, best known for 2000’s ballet movie “Billy Elliott,” is in early talks to direct it, the publications said.

Disney declined to comment.

Han Solo movie, too

Disney bought “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ Lucasfilm in 2012 in a $4 billion deal and announced a new trilogy of films following the space saga as well as three standalone “Star Wars” projects that focus on stories outside of the central tale of the Skywalker family.

Disney debuted the first standalone “Star Wars” story with 2016’s “Rogue One,” which featured new characters and a storyline tied loosely to the ongoing saga.

A Han Solo movie is in production featuring a younger version of the freewheeling space smuggler played by Harrison Ford in the original “Star Wars” trilogy of films.

Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, who portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones,” poses with Star Wars character Darth Vader and Storm Troopers in background at the Los Angeles charity premiere of the film, May 12, 2002, in Hollywood.

Who will play Kenobi?

Kenobi, a recluse played by the late British actor Alec Guinness, was the mentor to Luke Skywalker and introduced the young warrior to the Force in the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977. Kenobi was later killed by his old pupil, the evil Darth Vader.

Actor Ewan McGregor played the character in the second trilogy of “Star Wars” films from 1999 to 2005. The Hollywood Reporter said no actor was attached to the standalone project.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Disney’s first installment of the new trilogy in the revamped franchise, brought back beloved characters Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo as well as introducing a new generation. It took in more than $2 billion at the world box office after its 2015 release.

The next film, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” is scheduled for release in December.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

Reverence for Robots: Japanese Workers Treasure Automation


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Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Thousands upon thousands of cans are filled with beer, capped and washed, wrapped into six-packs, and boxed at dizzying speeds — 1,500 a minute, to be exact — on humming conveyor belts that zip and wind in a sprawling factory near Tokyo.

Nary a soul is in sight in this picture-perfect image of Japanese automation.

The machines do all the heavy lifting at this plant run by Asahi Breweries, Japan’s top brewer. The human job is to make sure the machines do the work right, and to check on the quality the sensors are monitoring.

“Basically, nothing goes wrong. The lines are up and running 96 percent,” said Shinichi Uno, a manager at the plant. “Although machines make things, human beings oversee the machines.”

FILE – Asahi Breweries plant manager Shinichi Uno watches the production line at an Asahi Breweries factory in Moriya near Tokyo, May 29, 2017.

The debate over machines snatching jobs from people is muted in Japan, where birth rates have been sinking for decades, raising fears of a labor shortage. It would be hard to find a culture that celebrates robots more, evident in the popularity of companion robots for consumers, sold by the internet company SoftBank and Toyota Motor Corp, among others.

Japan, which forged a big push toward robotics starting in the 1990s, leads the world in robots per 10,000 workers in the automobile sector — 1,562, compared with 1,091 in the U.S. and 1,133 in Germany, according to a White House report submitted to Congress last year. Japan was also ahead in sectors outside automobiles at 219 robots per 10,000 workers, compared with 76 for the U.S. and 147 for Germany.

‘Lifetime employment’

One factor in Japan’s different take on automation is the “lifetime employment” system. Major Japanese companies generally retain workers, even if their abilities become outdated, and retrain them for other tasks, said Koichi Iwamoto, a senior fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry.

That system is starting to fray as Japan globalizes, but it’s still largely in use, Iwamoto said.

FILE – Asahi Breweries employees work at the central control room at a factory in Moriya near Tokyo, May 29, 2017.

Although data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show digitalization reduces demand for mid-level routine tasks — such as running assembly lines — while boosting demand for low- and high-skilled jobs, that trend has been less pronounced in Japan than in the U.S.

The OECD data, which studied shifts from 2002 to 2014, showed employment trends remained almost unchanged for Japan.

That means companies in Japan weren’t resorting as aggressively as those in the U.S. to robots to replace humans. Clerical workers, for instance, were keeping their jobs, although their jobs could be done better, in theory, by computers.

That kind of resistance to adopting digital technology for services also is reflected in how Japanese society has so far opted to keep taxis instead of shifting to online ride hailing and shuttle services.

‘Human harmony with machines’

Still, automation has progressed in Japan to the extent the nation has now entered what Iwamoto called a “reflective stage,” in which “human harmony with machines” is being pursued, he said.

“Some tasks may be better performed by people, after all,” said Iwamoto.

FILE – Asahi Breweries employee Kiyoshi Sakai speaks during an interview at a factory in Moriya near Tokyo, May 29, 2017.

Kiyoshi Sakai, who has worked at Asahi for 29 years, recalls how, in the past, can caps had to be placed into machines by hand, a repetitive task that was hard not just on the body, but also the mind.

And so he is grateful for automation’s helping hand. Machines at the plant have become more than 50 percent smaller over the years. They are faster and more precise than three decades ago.

Gone are the days things used to go wrong all the time and human intervention was needed to get machines running properly again. Every 10 to 15 minutes, people used to have to go check on the products; there were no sensors back then.

Glitches are so few these days there is barely any reason to work up a sweat, he added with a smile.

Like many workers in Japan, Sakai doesn’t seem worried about his job disappearing. As the need for plant workers nose-dived with the advance of automation, he was promoted to the general affairs section, a common administrative department at Japanese companies.

“I remember the work being so hard. But when I think back, and it was all about delivering great beer to everyone, it makes me so proud,” said Sakai, who drinks beer every day.

“I have no regrets. This is a stable job.”

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

Hackers Demand Millions in Ransom for Stolen HBO Data


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Picture Courtesy: Genesis_3g/Pixabay

Hackers using the name “Mr. Smith” posted a fresh cache of stolen HBO files online Monday, and demanded that HBO pay a ransom of several million dollars to prevent further such releases.

The data dump included what appear to be scripts from five “Game of Thrones” episodes, including one upcoming episode, and a month’s worth of email from the account of Leslie Cohen, HBO’s vice president for film programming. There were also internal documents, including a report of legal claims against the network and job offer letters to top executives.

HBO, which previously acknowledged the theft of “proprietary information,” said it’s continuing to investigate and is working with police and cybersecurity experts. The network said Monday that it still doesn’t believe that its email system as a whole has been compromised.

This is the second data dump from the purported hacker. So far the HBO leaks have been limited, falling well short of the chaos inflicted on Sony in 2014. In that attack, hackers unearthed thousands of embarrassing emails and released personal information, including salaries and social security numbers, of nearly 50,000 current and former Sony employees.

Those behind the HBO hack claim to have more data, including scripts, upcoming episodes of HBO shows and movies, and information damaging to HBO.

In a video directed to HBO CEO Richard Plepler, “Mr. Smith” used white text on a black background to threaten further disclosures if HBO doesn’t pay up. To stop the leaks, the purported hackers demanded “our 6 month salary in bitcoin,” which they implied is at least $6 million.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

 

Big, Toothy Fish Found in Nevada Chomped Prey Like Sharks


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Photo Courtesy: http://www.rgj.com ( Reno Gazette-Journal,Nevada,USA)

A fossil found in northeastern Nevada shows a newly discovered fish species that scientists believe looked, and ate, like a shark.

The fossil is what remains of a bony, sharp-toothed fish that would have been about six-feet-long (1.83 meters) with long jaws and layers of sharp teeth.

The type of jaw and teeth on the fish suggest it would have chomped down on its prey before swallowing it whole, like a shark, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.

“The surprising find from Elko County in northeastern Nevada is one of the most completely preserved vertebrate remains from this time-period ever discovered in the United States,” said Carlo Romano of the University of Zurich, lead author of a Journal of Paleontology article about the find.

The fish, which researchers called Birgeria americana, predates Nevada’s most famous fossil, the Ichthyosaur, by more than 30 million years. The Ichthyosaur was a 55-foot-long (16.76 meters) reptile. One of the largest concentrations of Ichthyosaur fossils was found near Berlin, Nevada. The find led to the Ichthyosaur becoming Nevada’s state fossil.

Possible look of the newly discovered predatory fish species Birgeria americana with the fossil oft he skull shown at bottom right.

The Birgeria americana fossil finding is important because it sheds light on how quickly large, predator species evolved following the Earth’s third mass extinction that preceded the Triassic period about 250 million years ago.

The evidence shows the fish was alive and well about 1 million years after mass extinction 66 million years ago wiped out an estimated 90 percent of marine species.

It also shows a large fish was surviving in water previously thought to be too warm to support such life.

At the time, water near the equator, which is where land that became Nevada was positioned about 250 million years ago, could have been warmer than 96 degrees. “The eggs of today’s bony fish can no longer develop normally” at such a high temperature, researcher said.

Researchers learned of the fossil about five years ago after fossil collector Jim Jenks of West Jordan, Utah, stumbled upon it near Winecup Ranch north of Wells.

“It was just a very lucky find,” said Jenks, who was credited among the paper’s authors. “I happen to notice the teeth glinting in the sun. That is what caught my attention.”

Jenks turned the fish over to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, which has a large collection of fossils and connections with leading researchers.

Article Courtesy: VOA NEWS

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Apple’s Next Big Leap Might Be Into Augmented Reality


Apple’s iPhone may be ready for its next big act — as a springboard into “augmented reality,” a technology that projects life-like images into real-world settings viewed through a screen.

If you’ve heard about AR at all, it’s most likely because you’ve encountered “Pokemon Go,” in which players wander around neighborhoods trying to capture monsters only they can see on their phones. AR is also making its way into education and some industrial applications, such as product assembly and warehouse inventory management.

Now Apple is hoping to transform the technology from a geeky sideshow into a mass-market phenomenon. It’s embedding AR-ready technology into its iPhones later this year, potentially setting the stage for a rush of new apps that blur the line between reality and digital representation in new and imaginative ways.

“This is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told analysts during a Tuesday conference call. Many analysts agree. “This is the most important platform that Apple has created since the app store in 2008,” said Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research.

There’s just one catch: No one can yet point to a killer app for AR, at least beyond the year-old (and fading) fad of “Pokemon Go.” Instead, analysts argue more generally that AR creates enormous potential for new games, home-remodeling apps that let you visualize new furnishings and decor in an existing room, education, health care and more.

For the moment, though, we’re basically stuck with demos created by developers, including a “Star Wars”-like droid rolling past a dog that doesn’t realize it’s there; a digital replica of Houston on a table ; and a virtual tour of Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom.

At Apple, the introduction of AR gets underway in September with the release of iOS 11, the next version of the operating system that powers hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads around the world

Tucked away in that release is an AR toolkit intended to help software developers create new AR apps.

Those apps, however, won’t work on just any Apple device — only the iPhone 6S and later models, including the hotly anticipated next-generation iPhone that Apple will release this fall. The 2017 iPad and iPad Pro will run AR apps as well.

Apple isn’t the only company betting big on AR. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talked up the technology at a company presentation in April, calling it a “really important technology that changes how we use our phones.” Apple rivals such as Google and Microsoft are also starting to deploy AR systems .

Apple has been looking for something to lessen its dependence on the iPhone since the 2011 death of its co-founder CEO Steve Jobs, the driving force behind the company’s innovation factory.

Cook thought he had come up with a revolutionary product when Apple began selling its smartwatch in 2015, but the Apple Watch remains a niche product.

For now, the iPhone remains Apple’s dominant product, accounting for 55 percent of Apple’s $45.4 billion in revenue during the three months ended in June. The total revenue represented a 7 percent increase from the same time last year. Apple earned $8.7 billion, up 12 percent from last year.

Tim Merel, managing director of technology consulting firm Digi-Capital, believes Apple’s entry into AR will catalyze the field. His firm expects AR to mushroom into an $83 billion market by 2021, up from $1.2 billion last year.

That estimate assumes that Apple and its rivals will expand beyond AR software to high-tech glasses and other devices, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens headset.

Craig Federighi, Senior Vice President Software Engineering speaks about “Augmented Reality” during Apple’s annual world wide developer conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, June 5, 2017.

For now, though, nothing appears better suited for interacting with AR than the smartphone. Google already makes AR software called Tango that debuted on one Lenovo smartphone last year and will be part of another high-end device from Asus this month.

But it will be years before Tango phones are as widely used as iPhones, or for that matter, iPads. Most of those devices are expected to become AR-ready when the free iOS 11 update hits next month.

Nearly 90 percent of Apple devices powered by iOS typically install the new software version when it comes out. Assuming that pattern holds true this fall, that will bring AR to about 300 million Apple devices that are already in people’s hands.

If the new software wins over more AR fans as Apple hopes, analysts figure that Apple will begin building AR-specific devices, too.

One obvious possibility might be some kind of AR glasses tethered to the iPhone, which would allow people to observe digital reality without having to look “through” a phone. Once technology allows, a standalone headset could render the iPhone unnecessary, at least for many applications.

Such a device could ultimately supplant the iPhone, although that isn’t likely to happen for five to 10 years, even by the most optimistic estimates.

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

 

Angelina Jolie ‘Upset’ Over Backlash to Cambodia Film Casting Process


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Photo Courtesy: Flickr

Angelina Jolie responded to growing backlash over the casting process for her latest film, saying she was “upset” that an improvised scene during auditions had been misconstrued as taking real money away from impoverished children.

In a Vanity Fair interview published last week about her film “First They Killed My Father,” Jolie described a game played by the casting directors with the young Cambodian children auditioning for the lead role of Loung Ung.

Jolie, a special envoy for the United Nations refugee agency, told Vanity Fair she looked for her lead star in orphanages, circuses and slum schools.

Jolie defends casting process

In the casting, a child was placed in front of money on a table, asked to think of what they needed it for and to snatch it away. Jolie would then pretend to catch them, and the child would have to lie about why they stole the money.

“I am upset that a pretend exercise in an improvisation, from an actual scene in the film, has been written about as if it was a real scenario,” Jolie, who directed the film, said in a statement on Sunday.

“The suggestion that real money was taken from a child during an audition is false and upsetting. I would be outraged myself if this had happened.”

Users on social media slammed Jolie’s casting game as cruel and exploiting impoverished children. Vanity Fair reporter Evgenia Peretz called the casting game “disturbing in its realism” in the profile, while Kayla Cobb at pop culture website Decider.com compared the game to a psychological thriller.

“Everyone should know better than to literally dangle money in front of impoverished children … no movie is worth psychologically traumatizing multiple children,” Cobb wrote.

Movie set during Khmer Rouge regime

“First They Killed My Father” is about the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime under which more than 1 million people died. It is due to be released globally and on Netflix in September.

Jolie said the young girl who won the part, Srey Moch, was chosen after “she became overwhelmed with emotion” when forced to give the money back, saying she needed the money to pay for her grandfather’s funeral.

“The children were not tricked or entrapped, as some have suggested,” Rithy Panh, a Cambodian producer on the film, said in a statement. “They understood very well that this was acting, and make believe.”

News Courtesy: VOA NEWS

 

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