Elon Musk’s Latest Target: Brain-computer Interfaces

Tech billionaire Elon Musk is announcing a new venture called Neuralink focused on linking brains to computers.

The company plans to develop brain implants that can treat neural disorders —  and that may one day be powerful enough to put humanity on a more even footing with possible future superintelligent computers, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing unnamed sources.

Musk, a founder of both the electric-car company Tesla Motors and the private space-exploration firm SpaceX, has become an outspoken doomsayer about the threat artificial intelligence might one day pose to the human race.

Continued growth in AI cognitive capabilities, he and like-minded critics suggest, could lead to machines that can outthink and outmaneuver humans with whom they might have little in common.

In a tweet Tuesday, Musk gave few details beyond confirming Neuralink’s name and tersely noting the “existential risk” of failing to pursue direct brain-interface work.


Stimulating the brain

Some neuroscientists and futurists, however, caution against making overly broad claims for neural interfaces.

Hooking a brain up directly to electronics is itself not new. Doctors implant electrodes in brains to deliver stimulation for treating such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and chronic pain. In experiments, implanted sensors have let paralyzed people use brain signals to operate computers and move robotic arms. Last year , researchers reported that a man regained some movement in his own hand with a brain implant.

Musk’s proposal goes beyond this. Although nothing is developed yet, the company wants to build on those existing medical treatments as well as one day work on surgeries that could improve cognitive functioning, according to the Journal article.

Neuralink is not the only company working on artificial intelligence for the brain. Entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who sold his previous payments startup Braintree to PayPal for $800 million, last year started Kernel, a company working on “advanced neural interfaces” to treat disease and extend cognition.

Risk of overhype

Neuroscientists posit that the technology that Neuralink and Kernel are working on may indeed come to pass, though it’s likely to take much longer than the four or five years Musk has predicted. Brain surgery remains a risky endeavor; implants can shift in place, limiting their useful lifetime; and patients with implanted electrodes face a steep learning curve being trained how to use them.

“It’s a few decades down the road,” said Blake Richards, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto. “Certainly within the 21st century, assuming society doesn’t implode, that is completely possible.”

Amy Webb, CEO of Future Today Institute, pointed out that the Neuralink announcement is part of a much larger field of human-machine interface research, dating back over a decade, performed at the University of Washington, Duke University and elsewhere.

Too much hype from one “buzzy” announcement like Neuralink, she said, could lead to another “AI Winter.” That’s a reference to the overhype of AI during the Cold War, which was followed by a backlash and reduced research funding when its big promises didn’t materialize.

“The challenge is, it’s good to talk about potential,” Webb said. “But the problem is if we fail to achieve that potential and don’t start seeing all these cool devices and medical applications we’ve been talking about then investors start losing their enthusiasm, taking funding out and putting it elsewhere.”

Samsung Plans to Sell Refurbished Galaxy Note 7s

Tech giant Samsung Electronics plans to sell refurbished versions of the Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, the company said late on Monday, signaling the return of the model pulled from markets last year because of fire-prone batteries.

Samsung’s Note 7s were permanently scrapped in October after some phones self-combusted, prompting a global recall roughly two months after the launch of the near-$900 devices.

A subsequent investigation found manufacturing problems in batteries supplied by two companies — Samsung SDI Co and Amperex Technology.

Analysis from Samsung and independent researchers found no other problems in the Note 7 devices except the batteries, raising speculation that Samsung will recoup some of its losses by selling refurbished Note 7s.

A person familiar with the matter told Reuters in January that it was considering the possibility of selling refurbished versions of the device or reusing some parts.

Samsung’s announcement that revamped Note 7s will go back on sale, however, surprised some with the timing – only days before it launches its new S8 smartphone on Wednesday in the United States, its first new premium phone since the debacle last year.

Under pressure to turn its image around after the burning battery scandal, Samsung had previously not commented on its plans for recovered phones.

“Regarding the Galaxy Note 7 devices as refurbished phones or rental phones, applicability is dependent upon consultations with regulatory authorities and carriers as well as due consideration of local demand,” Samsung said in a statement.

South Korea’s Electronic Times newspaper, citing unnamed sources, said on Tuesday that Samsung will start selling refurbished Note 7s in its home country in July or August and will aim to sell between 400,000 and 500,000 of the Note 7s using safe batteries.

Samsung said in a statement to Reuters that the company has not set specifics on refurbished Note 7 sales plans, including what markets and when they would go on sale, though it also said it does not plan to sell refurbished Note 7s in India or the United States.

The company said refurbished Note 7s will be equipped with new batteries that have gone through Samsung’s new battery safety measures.

“The objective of introducing refurbished devices is solely to reduce and minimize any environmental impact,” it said.

The company estimated that it took a profit hit of $5.5 billion over three quarters because of the Note 7’s troubles. It had sold more than 3 million of the phones before taking the model off the market.

Samsung also plans to recover and use or sell reusable components such as chips and camera modules, as well as rare metals such as copper, gold, nickel and silver from Note 7 devices it opts not to sell as refurbished products.

Environment rights group Greenpeace and others had urged Samsung to come up with environmentally friendly ways to deal with the recovered Note 7s. Greenpeace said in a separate statement on Monday that it welcomed Samsung’s decision and that the company should carry out its plans in a verifiable manner.

No Wi-Fi, No Internet, No Problem

Broadband access in the United States is not universal, with a longtime digital divide beween urban and rural areas.

But in one small town just four hours from Washington, D.C., there’s no internet service at all.

The town of Green Bank, West Virginia, is the site of the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, so internet connections and anything else that can create electromagnetic waves, such as microwave ovens, are banned.

It becomes apparent in Green Bank that visitors have to navigate the old-fashioned way: by reading road signs. That’s because GPS comes to a screeching halt as you approach this West Virginia town, which has two churches, an elementary school, a library and the world’s largest radio telescope.

Sherry, who manages the largest store in Green Bank, was born here so the lack of internet access is normal for her.

“Yes, we are different. Many would say that we live the old-fashioned way, in the past. But for us, it’s just the way of life that we have always lived,” Sherry said.

On her store wall, an artifact from the past … a phone attached to a wall jack … the only way to call someone in Green Bank.

No modern wireless conveniences, such as smartphones, are usable here.

Green Bank is frozen in time, somewhere in the 1950s, because there’s a 33,000-square-kilometer zone of silence due to the telescope. Cellphone towers are forbidden.

But that’s OK for residents because there are several payphones.

The closer you get to the telescope, the greater the restrictions. There’s a 16-kilometer radius around the observatory where radio-controlled items, even toys, cannot be used. Compliance with these conditions is strictly enforced.

Jonah Bauserman acts as a “technical” policeman. If he suspects there’s an unauthorized signal, he drives to the house and inspects it for prohibited devices.

“This equipment allows me to catch even the weakest signals that could affect the telescope,” Bauserman said.

Telescope employees even work in a special room — much like a sarcophagus — that blocks electromagnetic waves from leaving the interior.​

“Here imagine a submarine, water cannot get inside, and so this room is an electric submarine. No electromagnetic waves can get into this room, just as you can’t go beyond it,” Michael Holstein, an observatory officer, said.

The job of these scientists is to minimize the impact of outside interference on the radio telescope.

Only once a week, when there’s regularly scheduled maintenance, some prohibited devices are allowed near the telescope, Holstein said.

The size of a football field, the telescope is so sensitive it could pick up signals sent from an alien world. And scientists can’t wait for that to happen.

“All the signals that we now receive with the help of telescopes are signals that come from cosmic objects — stars, galaxies. We have not yet received anything from intelligent civilizations,” scientist Richard Lynch said.

Local people respect the work of the scientists. And they are more than happy to live life Wi-Fi free.

“When we want to meet friends, we just call each other on a wire phone. //// And instead of sitting in front of your screen, we talk, we go fishing, to the mountains,” resident Sherry said.

For the latest news, residents read the weekly local newspaper. When she’s looking for a phone number, Sherry reaches for the phone book.

And instead of Facebook, Sherry enjoys daily conversations with her customers. In this town, everyone knows each other and communication is face to face.

Facebook’s Messenger App to Allow Live Location-sharing

Facebook Inc will add a feature to its Messenger app Monday to allow users to share their locations, the company said, ramping up competition with tools offered by Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google Maps.

The company has found that one of the most used phrases on Messenger as people talk to friends and family is “How far away are you?” or some variation, Stan Chudnovsky, head of product for Messenger, said in an interview.

“It happens to be what people are saying, what they’re interested in the most,” he said.

Sharing location information will be optional, he said, but it will also be live, so that once a user shares the information with a friend, the friend will be able to watch the user’s movement for up to 60 minutes.

Messenger was once part of the core Facebook smartphone app, but the company broke it out as a separate app in 2014 and has since invested in frequent changes to build a service distinct from the massive social network.

Google Maps said last week that it was adding a similar feature, an attempt to boost engagement on a product of increasing strategic importance to that company.

The close proximity of the announcements tells Facebook “that we’re working on the right things,” Chudnovsky said.

The Messages app on Apple’s iPhone has such a feature, too.

Facebook has been testing its change in Mexico, he said. It was ready as long ago as October, he added, but the company worked on it for five more months to minimize the impact on the battery life of phones.

Uber Resumes Self-Driving Car Program in San Francisco After Crash

Driverless vehicles operated by Uber Technologies Inc. were back on the road in San Francisco on Monday after one of its self-driving cars crashed in Arizona, the ride-hailing company said.

Uber’s autonomous vehicles in Arizona and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, remained grounded but were expected to be operating again soon, according to a spokeswoman for the company, who refused to be identified.

“We are resuming our development operations in San Francisco this morning,” she said in an email.

Uber’s San Francisco program is currently in development mode. It has two cars registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, but is not transporting passengers.

The spokeswoman said because of this, the company felt confident in putting the cars back on the road while it investigates the collision in Arizona.

On Friday, Uber suspended its pilot program in the three states. A human-driven vehicle “failed to yield” to an Uber vehicle while making a turn in Tempe, Arizona, said Josie Montenegro, a spokeswoman for the city’s police department.

“The vehicles collided, causing the autonomous vehicle to roll onto its side,” Montenegro said in an email. “There were no serious injuries.”

Two “safety” drivers were in the front seats of the Uber car, which was in self-driving mode at the time of the crash, Uber said on Friday, a standard requirement for its self-driving vehicles. The back seat was unoccupied.

Photos and a video posted on Twitter by Fresco News showed a Volvo SUV flipped on its side after an apparent collision involving two other, slightly damaged cars. Uber said the images appeared to be from the Tempe crash scene.





Britain Wants Social Media Sites Cleared of Jihadist Postings

Islamic State propagandists are seeking to capitalize on last week’s terror attack in London, which left five people dead and 40 injured, by flooding YouTube with hundreds of violent recruitment videos.

The online propaganda offensive comes as Britain demands social media companies scrub their sites of jihadist postings.

Amber Rudd, the country’s interior minister, has vowed to “call time” on internet firms allowing terrorists “a place to hide” and has summoned some of the leading social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, for what is being dubbed by British officials as “showdown talks” later this week.

Rudd says she is determined to stop extremists “using social media as their platform” for recruitment and for operational needs.

Britain’s security services are in a standoff with WhatsApp, which has refused to allow them access to the encrypted message the London attacker sent three minutes before he used an SUV to mow down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and stabbed to death a policeman outside the House of Commons.

British security services are powerless to read that final message, which might cast light on whether the attack was a “lone wolf” or one aided and directed by others. Police investigators believe the terrorist acted alone and have seen no evidence that he was associated with IS or al-Qaida.

WhatsApp, which has a billion users worldwide, employs “end to end encryption” for messages, which the company says prevents even its own technicians from reading people’s messages.

Officials want voluntary action

Rudd and other government ministers have launched a media onslaught, saying they are considering legislation to require online companies to take down extremist material. They argue this wouldn’t be necessary if the companies recognized their community responsibilities.

Rudd told the BBC that Facebook, Google and other companies should understand they are not just technology businesses, but also publishing platforms. “We have to have a situation where we can have our security services get into the terrorists’ communications,” she argued. “There should be no place for terrorists to hide.”

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson joined in the condemnation of social media and online companies. “I think it’s disgusting,” he told The Sunday Times. “They need to stop just making money out of prurient violent material.”

At a security conference last week in the United States, Johnson called for action.

“We are going to have to engage not just militarily, but also to stop the stuff on the internet that is corrupting and polluting so many people,” he said. “This is something that the internet companies and social media companies need to think about. They need to do more to take that stuff off their media — the incitements, the information about how to become a terrorist, the radicalizing sermons and messages. That needs to come down.”

Recruiting criminals

The furor over extremist use of the internet was fueled Monday by front-page articles in the Times and Daily Mail newspapers highlighting the IS propaganda videos posted on YouTube since last Wednesday’s slaughter in the British capital. The high-definition videos, some of which contained references to the London attack, include gory scenes of beheadings and “caliphate violence” carried out by child adherents of the terror group.

U.S. and European officials have long complained online companies are, in effect, aiding and abetting terrorism. A year ago in January, much of the U.S. national security leadership of the Obama administration sat down with Silicon Valley chiefs to discuss jihadist use of the internet to recruit and radicalize people and plot attacks.

Also last year, British spy chief, Robert Hannigan, singled out messaging apps as especially worrisome for the security services, saying they had become “the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals — precisely because they are highly encrypted.”

Some cooperation

After initial resistance to complaints from Western governments, Facebook, Google and Twitter have in recent months been more cooperative with authorities and have removed large amounts of extremist material. Twitter said in the second half of 2016 it suspended 376,890 accounts for violations related to promotion of terrorism.

But some services have resisted providing governments with encryption keys, or so-called back doors.

Apple has developed encryption keys that message users can use that are not possessed by the company. Apple’s chief executive, Timothy Cook, argued last year, “If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too.”

Silicon Valley chiefs say they fear violations of privacy and their priority is their customers, not national security, an argument that has resonated since former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of electronic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Last year, WhatsApp was blocked several times in Brazil for failing to hand over information relating to criminal investigations. 

Messages sent on a rival service by Telegram are also encrypted, but after bad publicity and immense pressure from Western governments, the company does provide a backdoor for security and law-enforcement agencies.

Not that access to encrypted communications always helps.

Sunday, it emerged that German police knew the Christmas market attacker in Berlin who drove a truck into a crowd of shoppers was planning a suicide attack. Police had intercepted his Telegram messages nine months before the attack.

A police recommendation that he be deported was declined by state government prosecutors because they feared the courts would reject the request.

Qatar Wealth Fund to Open Office in Silicon Valley

The Qatar Investment Authority, the Gulf Arab state’s acquisitive sovereign wealth fund, is setting up an office in San Francisco to manage its growing portfolio in the United States, the CEO of QIA said in London on Monday.

“Soon we will be opening an office in the Silicon Valley in San Francisco,” Sheikh Abdullah Bin Mohammed al-Thani told reporters at an investment conference.

The fund is one of the most active sovereign investors in the world, snapping up stakes in everything from real estate to luxury goods.

Much of its activity has traditionally been in Europe but the fund has said it is looking to diversify into Asia and the United States, announcing last year a plan to spend $20 billion in Asian investments over the next five years.

Trump Plans Office to Bring Business Ideas to Government

President Donald Trump is set to announce a new White House office run by his son-in-law that will seek to overhaul government functions using ideas from the business sector.

A senior administration official said Trump on Monday will announce the White House Office of American Innovation. The official sought anonymity to discuss the office in advance of the formal rollout.

The plans for the office were first reported by The Washington Post.

The innovation office will be led by Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, and will report directly to the president.

Among those working on the effort are National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, Dina Powell, senior counselor to the president for economic initiatives and deputy national security adviser, Chris Liddell, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and Reed Cordish, assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives. All have extensive business experience.

Trump is readying to announce the new office at a low point in his young administration, days after the Republican bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” imploded in the House of Representatives, revealing deep divides within GOP and fraying tensions at the White House.

This effort has been developing since shortly after the inauguration, the official said. The group has been meeting since then and started talking to CEOs from various sectors about ways to make changes to federal programs. Areas they hope to tackle include overhauling Veterans’ Affairs, improving workforce development and targeting opioid addiction.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is married to Kushner and has a West Wing office but no official job, will get involved on issues she is focused on, such as workforce development.

Chinese Court Rules in Favor of Apple in Patent Disputes

A Chinese court has ruled in favor of Apple in design patent disputes between the Cupertino, California company and a domestic phone-maker, overturning a ban on selling iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus phones in China, Xinhua news agency reported.

Last May, a Beijing patent regulator ordered Apple’s Chinese subsidiary and a local retailer Zoomflight to stop selling the iPhones after Shenzhen Baili Marketing Services lodged a complaint, claiming that the patent for the design of its mobile phone 100c was being infringed by the iPhone sales.

Apple and Zoomflight took the Beijing Intellectual Property Office’s ban to court.

The Beijing Intellectual Property Court on Friday revoked the ban, saying Apple and Zoomflight did not violate Shenzhen Baili’s design patent for 100c phones.

The court ruled that the regulator did not follow due procedures in ordering the ban while there was no sufficient proof to claim the designs constituted a violation of intellectual property rights.

Representatives of Beijing Intellectual Property Office and Shenzhen Baili said they would take time to decide whether to appeal the ruling, according to Xinhua.

In a related ruling, the same court denied a request by Apple to demand stripping Shenzhen Baili of its design patent for 100c phones.

Apple first filed the request to the Patent Reexamination Board of State Intellectual Property Office. The board rejected the request, but Apple lodged a lawsuit against the rejection.

The Beijing Intellectual Property Court on Friday ruled to maintain the board’s decision. It is unclear if Apple will appeal.

Could the ‘Internet of Skills’ Be the Next Technological Leap?

As the internet continues to drive innovative ideas, some scientists envision a world where people can digitize their skills and do their jobs from anywhere in the world with the next generation of optical and wireless technology. How this idea is executed was demonstrated at the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exhibition in Los Angeles. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details.