Musk Says He Gets OK to Start Work on New York-Washington ‘Hyperloop’

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk on Thursday said he had received “verbal” approval to start building a high-speed underground transport system linking New York and Washington that could cut travel time between the cities to about half an hour.

Musk, the chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc. and rocket company SpaceX, is seeking to revolutionize transportation by sending passengers and cargo packed into pods through an intercity system of giant vacuum tubes known as the “hyperloop.”

He recently started a project, the Boring Company, to build transport tunnels for the system, which he says would be far faster than current high-speed trains and use electromagnetic propulsion.

In tweets on Thursday, Musk said he had “Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.”

Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train currently takes nearly three hours to cover the distance between the two cities, assuming no delays.

Without clarifying, Musk also tweeted that a first set of tunnels would be to “alleviate greater LA [Los Angeles] urban congestion,” adding that the company would “probably” do a loop from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and another in Texas.

“City center to city center in each case, with up to a dozen or more entry/exit elevators in each city,” he wrote.

Musk acknowledged there was still a “lot of work” to do before formal approval was granted, but said he was optimistic.

Signaling that Musk’s tweets may be premature, the press secretary for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted a reply: “This is news to City Hall.”

Last month, Musk tweeted that he had “promising conversations” about a tunnel network with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

By traveling in vacuum tubes on magnetic cushions, hyperloop trains would avoid being slowed down by air pressure or the friction of wheels on rails, making them faster and cheaper to operate, supporters say. A number of startups have begun to develop the technology, despite concerns about the cost and practicality.

On its website, the Boring Company says its goal is to lower costs by a factor of 10 or more. Some tunneling projects today cost as much as $1 billion per mile, the company said.

In 2013, Musk said a hyperloop between Los Angeles and San Francisco would cost less than $6 billion and take seven to 10 years for completion.

Major infrastructure projects typically require complex approval from various levels of government and likely would cost billions of dollars.

President Donald Trump in March met with Musk, who raised the Boring Company idea then, White House officials said. Musk also talked about his plans to launch a mission to Mars.

White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn in April praised the idea of Musk using tunnels to speed rail transit on the densely populated East Coast of the United States and also to cut traffic congestion in Los Angeles.

In a statement, the White House said it had had “promising conversations to date” with Musk and was committed to “transformative infrastructure projects.”

The Boring Company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Amid VPN Crackdown, China Eyes Upgrades to Great Firewall

A Chinese telecoms carrier said it had begun closing virtual private networks (VPNs) and other tools that can bypass the so-called Great Firewall, which state

authorities use to filter and block traffic between Chinese and overseas servers.

A spokesman for Guangzhou Huoyun Information Technology Ltd, which operates in around 20 cities across China, told Reuters the company received a directive from authorities to start blocking services from midday on Tuesday.

Enlisting telecom firms will extend China’s control of its cyberspace – which it believes should mimic real-world border controls and be subject to the same laws as sovereign states.

While the Great Firewall blocks access to overseas sites, much like a border control, the telecoms firms can filter and censor online access at a more granular level, in the home and on smartphones.

“The telcos have methods at their disposal that the Great Firewall may not,” said Philip Molter, Chief Technology Officer at Golden Frog, which operates VyprVPN, a popular VPN in China.

“Because these routers deal with far less traffic, they can block more aggressively using more resource intensive methods.”

The telecoms firms have taken up their new filtering roles under a law introduced in January, and set to come into full effect next March. Experts say this could lead to increasingly targeted attacks on VPNs, one of the few tools Chinese can use to access overseas internet services.

A member of China-based anti-censorship site GreatFire.org, who goes by the pseudonym of Charlie Smith, said the authorities were shifting the responsibility to the telecoms firms.

“This is a major step towards closing whatever windows are still left open,” he said.

New attacks

The latest moves come after dozens of popular China-based VPNs have been shut down in recent weeks, and there have been rolling attacks on overseas VPNs.

This week, users also reported partial blocks and delays in the encrypted messaging app WhatsApp, the latest western social media tool to be hit. And researchers found that messages related to Liu Xiaobo, a dissident and Nobel laureate who died

from cancer in custody last week, disappeared from local messaging apps.

VPN services say they are bracing for further blocks in the run-up to this autumn’s Communist Party Congress.

President Xi Jinping, who has overseen a marked sharpening of China’s cyberspace controls, including tough new data surveillance and censorship rules, is expected to consolidate his hold on power at the Congress, which takes place every five years.

The January regulations make telecoms providers and other internet service providers (ISPs) liable for filtering and blocking unlawful network tools, according to the Ministry of Information Industry and Technology (MIIT).

Beyond VPNs, experts say the telecoms firms could potentially bar a range of services, and even prevent mobile apps from being installed.

“Much of the usage we see from China is via mobile devices, so limitations on this kind of functionality would hit a large number of Chinese,” said Golden Frog’s Molter.

Yet, despite the ambitious plans, the authorities will likely struggle to put up the blanket safeguards necessary to cripple foreign VPNs by March, experts say.

“There’s been an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse with China and VPNs … we’re optimistic that VPNs will continue to be accessible from China for the foreseeable future,” said a spokesman for ExpressVPN, noting its user numbers continue to grow in China.

Small businesses

While VPNs with foreign servers, including VyprVPN and ExpressVPN, play cat-and-mouse with regulators, quickly patching blocks and developing workarounds, small business owners say they have been hard hit by the rapid loss of local VPNs.

“Our small logistics business has just imploded”, said one business owner on the Weibo microblogging site, adding she could no longer access foreign sites despite trying several new VPNs.

Large numbers of free or low-cost VPN services flourished in Chinese app stores in the 18 months or so prior to the recent blocks.

“The ministry says we must apply for a license … and we have to buy Chinese services,” one person operating a small online media site told Reuters, asking not to be named. “If the website touches on social and political news, we have to hand over the platform account passwords. Of course, if we still had a VPN this wouldn’t be the case.”

The MIIT did not respond to a request for comment. It said last week that the new measures were not intended to harm business interests, and has previously said it would allow businesses to operate VPNs licensed by the government.

“These newest measures are one more hurdle for Chinese users to jump, in what is turning out to be an extremely long steeplechase,” said GreatFire.org’s Smith.

China Unveils Plan to Become a World Leader in AI by 2025

China unveiled a national artificial intelligence (AI) development plan on Thursday, laying out its ambitions to build world-leading technology amid heightened international friction over applications of AI in military technology.

The value of the country’s core AI industries will exceed 150 billion yuan ($22.15 billion) by 2020 and 400 billion yuan ($59.07 billion) by 2025, the State Council said in a notice on Thursday.

“The situation with China on national security and international competition is complex… we must take initiative to firmly grasp this new stage of development for artificial intelligence and create a new competitive edge,” it said.

The plan comes as the United States is poised to bolster its scrutiny of investments, including artificial intelligence, over fears that countries including China could access technology of strategic military importance.

It follows a similar national AI development plan released by the U.S. in October last year.

The report says China aims to catch up to global leaders by rectifying existing issues including a lack of high-end computer chips and equipment, software and trained personnel.

It outlines strategic plans to strengthen links between private firms, research bodies and military bodies to promote mutual development in AI.

It also says it will increase the role of government in guiding development of AI with policy support and market regulation as well as developing AI safety assessments and control capabilities.

China has already begun investing heavily in artificial intelligence technology, including a mix of private and state-backed initiatives.

Several top Chinese firms have established research bases in the U.S., including Baidu Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd.

This year AI was named as a strategic technology by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in an annual report that lays out the most important leadership priorities.

Robot Swims Around Fukushima Reactor to Find Melted Fuel

An underwater robot entered a badly damaged reactor at Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant Wednesday, capturing images of the impact of its meltdown, including key structures that were torn and knocked out of place. 

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the robot, nicknamed “the Little Sunfish,” successfully completed the day’s work inside the primary containment vessel of the Unit 3 reactor at Fukushima, which was destroyed by a massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

TEPCO spokesman Takahiro Kimoto praised the work, saying the robot captured views of the underwater damage that had not been previously seen. However, the images contained no obvious sign of the melted nuclear fuel that researchers hope to locate, he said.

The robot was left inside the reactor near a structure called the pedestal, and is expected to go deeper inside for a fuller investigation Friday in hopes of finding the melted fuel.

“The damage to the structures was caused by the melted fuel or its heat,” Kimoto told a late-night news conference held nine hours after the probe ended its exploration earlier in the day.

‘The Little Sunfish’

The robot, about the size of a loaf of bread, is equipped with lights, maneuvers with five propellers and collects data with two cameras and a dosimeter. It is controlled remotely by a group of four operators.

The robot was co-developed by Toshiba Corp., the electronics and energy company charged with helping clean up the plant, and the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, a government-funded consortium.

It was on a mission to study the damage and find the fuel that experts say has melted, breached the core and mostly fallen to the bottom of the primary containment chamber, where it has been submerged by highly radioactive water as deep as 6 meters (20 feet).

The robot discovered that a grate platform that is supposed to be below the reactor core was missing and apparently was knocked down by melted fuel and other materials that fell from above, and that parts of a safety system called a control rod drive were also missing.

Robots key to mothballing plant

Remote-controlled robots are key to the decadeslong decommissioning of the damaged plant, but super-high levels of radiation and structural damage have hampered earlier probes at two other reactors at the plant.

Japanese officials say they want to determine preliminary methods for removing the melted nuclear fuel this summer and start work in 2021.

Scientists need to know the fuel’s exact location and understand the structural damage in each of the three wrecked reactors to work out the safest and most efficient ways to remove the fuel.

Two earlier robots failed

Robots tested earlier became stuck inside the two other reactors. A scorpion-shaped robot’s crawling function failed and it was left inside the plant’s Unit 2 containment vessel. A snake-shaped robot designed to clear debris for the scorpion probe was removed after two hours when its cameras failed because of radiation levels five times higher than anticipated.

The robot used Wednesday was designed to tolerate radiation of up to 200 sieverts, a level that can kill humans instantly.

Kimoto said the robot showed that the Unit 3 reactor chamber was “clearly more severely damaged” than Unit 2, which was explored by the scorpion probe.

Amazon Launches Shopping Social Network Spark for iOS

Amazon.com has launched a social feature called Spark that allows members to showcase and purchase products on its platforms, the retail giant’s first clear move into the world of social media.

Spark, which is currently only available for Amazon’s premium paying Prime members, encourages users to share photos and videos, just like popular social media platforms Instagram and Pinterest. The new feature publicly launched on Tuesday for use on mobile devices that use Apple’s iOS operating system.

Spark users can tag products on their posts that are available on Amazon and anyone browsing the feeds can instantly find and purchase them on the platform. Users can also respond to posts with “smiles,” equivalent to Facebook’s “likes.”

“We created Spark to allow customers to discover – and shop – stories and ideas from a community that likes what they like,” said an Amazon spokeswoman.

“When customers first visit Spark, they select at least five interests they’d like to follow and we’ll create a feed of relevant content contributed by others. Customers shop their feed by tapping on product links or photos with the shopping bag icon.”

Amazon has also invited publishers including paid influencers and bloggers to post on Spark. Their posts are identified with a sponsored hashtag.

Many Amazon users on social media called the service a cross between Instagram and Pinterest with a touch of e-commerce.

Brand strategist Jill Richardson (@jillfran8) said: “Been messing with #AmazonSpark all morning and I am LIVING. It’s like Pinterest, Instagram, and my credit card had a baby and it’s beautiful.”

Community manager Lucas Miller (@lucasmiller3) also tweeted: “So #amazonspark is going to be a dangerous pastime.

The app is already too easy to shop…” Amazon shares closed up 0.2 percent at $1,026.87 on Wednesday.

UN Experts Seek Halt to Use of Spyware in Mexico, Want Full Probe

U.N. human rights experts called on the government of Mexico on Wednesday to “cease the surveillance immediately” of activists and journalists and to conduct a fully impartial investigation into the illegal spying.

In the latest case, an international probe into the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Mexico was targeted with spying software sold to governments to fight criminals and terrorists, according to a report published last week.

Civilians in Mexico have been targeted by the software known as Pegasus, which Israeli company NSO Group only sells to governments, according to the report by Citizen Lab, a group of researchers based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

“We urge the Government to commit to cease the surveillance immediately,” the independent U.N. experts said in a joint statement demanding effective controls over the security and intelligence services.

“The allegations of surveillance, which represent a serious violation of the rights to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of association, are highly concerning and are evidence of the hostile and threatening environment that human rights defenders, social activists and journalists face in Mexico today,” they said.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has asked the attorney general’s office to investigate previous charges that the government spied on private citizens, saying he wanted to get to the bottom of the accusations that he called “false.”

“We are concerned about the alleged implication in the purchase and use of Pegasus of the same authorities that are now in charge of conducting the investigations”, the U.N. experts said. “In that sense, we call on the Government to take all the necessary steps to ensure the impartiality of the investigating organ.”

Citizen Lab said it had found a trace of the Pegasus software in a phone belonging to a group of experts backed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who investigated the 2014 disappearance of the students that marked one of Mexico’s worst atrocities.

The U.N. experts include those on human rights defenders, enforced disappearances, freedom of opinion, and the right to privacy.

Teen Robot Builders from 157 Countries Compete

Robots from around the world clashed in Washington, DC (this week, July 17-18). It’s part of a global competition bringing high school students together to learn tech, but also to learn to cooperate to solve important problems. VOA’s Steve Baragona reports.

Uber-style App ‘Careem’ Goes Off Beaten Track in Palestinian West Bank

Careem, a Middle Eastern rival to Uber, has become the first ride-hailing firm to operate in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Dubai-based Careem, whose name is a play on the Arabic word for generous or noble, launched in Ramallah in June, aiming to bring digital simplicity to the Palestinian territory.

There is certainly a market for easier ride-hailing among the nearly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, but the fact the mobile network is still 2G, that electronic payments are not the norm and that Israeli checkpoints are common, make using the service somewhat cumbersome.

Yet Careem is optimistic about the potential.

“We are planning to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars within the coming year in the (Palestinian) sector,” Kareem Zinaty, operations manager for the Levant region said. “After the investment, it is also an opportunity to create jobs.”

Careem, which launched in 2012 and now operates in 12 countries and more than 80 cities across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, has said it aims to provide work for one million people across the region by 2018.

Careem’s captains

While a version of Uber and Israeli app Gett already operate in Israel, they do not venture into Palestinian territory. Drivers are excited to work with Careem, which they hope will help boost their incomes, especially with unemployment in the West Bank running at nearly 20 percent.

“It’s a very wonderful opportunity,” said one of the more than 100 new drivers, known as “captains” by Careem. “Most of the people who use it are young and happy with the price.”

Palestinians have limited self rule in parts of the West Bank, which they want for a future state alongside East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Israel captured those areas in the 1967 Middle East war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but still occupies the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Under interim peace accords, Israel still controls 60 percent of the West Bank, where most of its settlements are located. Careem’s drivers have Palestinian license plates, meaning they usually cannot enter Israeli-controlled areas.

In 2015, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to expand 3G mobile access to the West Bank by 2016, but have yet to implement the agreement. In the meantime, the Ramallah municipality has set up public Wi-Fi in parts of the city center, allowing Apps like Careem to be used more easily.

Despite 2G’s slower service, Zinaty said their model was an opportunity for telecommunication companies to look into expanding services and technologies to better serve Palestinian start ups and businesses.

Story of Afghan Girls’ Team Just One of Many at Robotics Event

An international robotics competition in Washington was in its final day Tuesday, with teams of teenagers from more than 150 nations competing. The team getting the most attention at the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge was a squad of girls from Afghanistan who were twice rejected for U.S. visas before President Donald Trump intervened. But there are even more stories than there are teams. Here are a few:

Girl power

Sixty percent of the teams participating in the competition were founded, led or organized by women. Of the 830 teens participating, 209 were girls. And in addition to the Afghan squad, there were five other all-girl teams, from the United States, Ghana, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Vanuatu’s nickname: the “SMART Sistas.”

Samira Bader, 16, on the Jordanian team, said “it’s very difficult for us because everyone thinks” building robots is “only for boys.” She said her team wanted to prove that “girls can do it.”

The three-girl U.S. team included sisters Colleen and Katie Johnson of Everett, Washington, and Sanjna Ravichandar of Plainsboro, New Jersey.

Colleen Johnson, 16, said her team looked forward “to a day when an all-girls team is going to be no more special than an all-boys team or a co-ed team, just when that’s completely normal and accepted.”

The team competing from Brunei was also all female, though a male member previously worked on the project.

An unusual alliance

The United States and Russia were on the same side Tuesday. During the fourth round of the competition, the U.S. team was paired with teams from Russia and Sudan to work as an alliance.

The robots all the teams in the competition created were designed with the same kit of parts and did the same task: pick up and distinguish between blue and orange balls. To score points, teams deposited the blue balls, which represented water, and the orange balls, which represented contaminants, into different locations. Each three-nation alliance competed head to head in 2½-minute games.

Both U.S. and Russian teams paid their counterparts compliments after their game Tuesday. Russian team member Aleksandr Iliasov said of the U.S. team: “They cooperate well.” And U.S. team member Colleen Johnson called the Russian team’s robot “very innovative,” saying they had smartly used extra wheels and gears and zip ties to keep balls inside their robot.

Despite their good collaboration, U.S.-Russia-Sudan fell short, losing 40 to 20 to Zimbabwe, Moldova and Trinidad and Tobago.

A little help

The team from Iran got some help building their robot from American students. It turns out that the competition’s kit of robot parts, including wheels, brackets, sprockets, gears, pulleys and belts, was not approved for shipment to Iran because of sanctions involving technology exports to the country. So the competition recruited a robotics team at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Virginia, to help. Iran’s team designed the robot, and about five Marshall students built it in the United States.

The team explained on its competition web page that “our friends in Washington made our ideas as a robot.”

Because of the time difference between the countries, the three-member team and its mentor were sometimes up at midnight or 3 a.m. in Iran to talk to their collaborators.

Amin Dadkhah, 15, called working with the American students “a good and exciting experience for both of us.” Kirianna Baker, one of the U.S. students who built the robot, agreed. “Having a team across the world with a fresh set of eyes is very valuable,” she said.

A robot refugee

A group of three refugees from Syria competed as Team Refugee, also known as Team Hope. All three fled Syria to Lebanon three years ago because of violence in their country.

Mohamad Nabih Alkhateeb, Amar Kabour and Mahir Alisawaui named their robot “Robogee,” a combination of the words “robot” and “refugee.”

Alkhateeb, 17, and Kabour, 16, said they wanted to be robotics engineers, and Alisawui wanted to be a computer engineer. Kabour said it’s important to the team to win, to “tell the world” refugees are “here and they can do it.”

Alkhateeb also said that living as a refugee had been difficult, but he hoped to someday return home.

“I will go back after I have finished my education so I can rebuild Syria again,” he said.

Eleven million people — half the Syrian population — have been forced from their homes by the civil war.