Leading the News
Amazon To Fund Year-Long Alexa Fellowship.
Reuters (3/2, Dastin) yesterday reported on a newly launched program from Amazon established to help students create new skills for its digital assistant Alexa. According to the report, the e-commerce company revealed it will fund a “year-long doctoral fellowship” at Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, University of Southern California and Canada’s University of Waterloo, aimed at helping students “tackle complex technology problems in class on Alexa, like how to convert text to speech or process conversation.” In an interview with VP of worldwide corporate development at Amazon, Doug Boom, he said, “‘We want Alexa to be a great sandbox’ for students.” Boom is also quoted in GeekWire (3/2, Levy) yesterday, citing an excerpt from a blog post discussing Amazon’s plan to spark more Alexa-based innovation. He wrote, “Our teams here at Amazon are working hard to unlock that potential, but innovation requires a collective effort, from large companies like ours to two-person startups, and from casual hobbyists to major academic institutions.” Worldnews EasyBranches (3/2) and Venture Beat (3/2, Johnson) feature similar coverage on the Alexa fund. Elsewhere, Business Insider (3/2, Smith) reports more broadly on how voice assistants have gradually transformed the relationship between consumers and web-connected devices, as technological advances continue to improve the ability for AIs to “perform a range of tasks,” particularly in natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning. Some of that involves enhancing basic functions, such as making responses both faster and more accurate, while others aim to widen the overal scope of actions consumers can access via digital assistants. As for what’s next in the industry, Campaign (UK) (3/2, Craig) spoke to two executives on what the future looks like for AI. Xaxis’ global president Nicholas Bidon shared his belief that continued advances in artificial intelligence will have the largest impact on “programmatic” capabilities, especially from a marketing perspective. “Now programmatic is the enabler of that dream of one-to-one marketing – where you can reach billions of people with an understanding of what their individual needs might be, so you can customise the message. If we do it well, it will make more effective ads for brands and a more rewarding and interesting experience for consumers.”
Maine Bill Aims To Tackle “Shortage Of Engineers.”
The AP (3/2) reports Maine state senator Amy Volk (R) “says the southern part of her state might face a shortage of engineers and the Legislature should consider opportunities to reverse the trend.” Volk has introduced bill that “would require the University of Maine System to study the engineering workforce and the applied research and technical assistance needs of Maine businesses.”
College Student Creates Recycling App For Amazon Alexa.
Minaret (3/2) reports on a University of Texas student, Connor Zazzo, creating a new recycling application for Amazon Alexa. The application is designed to pose a number of recycling questions to Amazon’s smart speaker, and offers the ability to ask about a “variety of materials” – upon which Alexa will tell users “where each item can be properly disposed.” Department of communication chair Stephanie Tripp says, “Connor has used his time in the class to research recycling policies and facilities in the area, research the kinds of questions people typically ask about recycling and to program the Alexa skill. Connor is interested in encouraging people to recycle, but he noticed as a UT student living off campus that it can be tough to figure out all of the city’s recycling rules.” Zazzo is also quoted in the piece discussing his goals for the app going forward, adding, “the more feedback I get, the better the skill will become and the easier it will be to recycle any waste.”
NYTimes Op-Ed: DeVos Has Significant Power Over HBCUs.
In an op-ed in the New York Times (3/2, Toldson, Subscription Publication), Ivory A. Toldson, a professor at Howard University, president of Quality Education for Minorities, and former director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, writes that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “deserved the hammering she received for her widely reviled comments characterizing historically black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.s) as early examples of ‘school choice.’” Toldson says this is just “a distraction,” however, saying that HBCUs’ fate will “hinge not on her words, but on her decisions about their funding.” Toldson notes that DeVos is now at the helm of “the federal agency that is responsible for roughly three-fourths of the annual federal revenue to H.B.C.U.s,” saying this “power will allow her to determine how the schools fare under the Trump administration.”
Congress Considering Giving Companies Tax Breaks To Pay Employees’ Student Debt.
The Washington Post (3/2, Douglas-Gabriel) reports that a bill in Congress with bipartisan support “would give companies a tax break for providing employees up to $5,250 a year to repay education debt, while sparing employees from being taxed on the money.” The intention is partially to save the government money on student loan defaults. The Post reports that the bill dovetails with “a trend of companies offering student loan repayment benefits as a way to compete for talent.”
MarketWatch (3/2) paints the bill as a rare bipartisan initiative in the current climate, and explains that it would “likely help a large swath of 20-something professionals manage their debt and perhaps save more for retirement or buying a home.” However, “it may do little to curb the broader $1.3 trillion student loan problem” because it “doesn’t target those who struggle the most with their student debt — typically those who graduate without a degree and/or may not have found a decent-paying job — and it doesn’t address some of the major factors behind the rising cost of college, like state disinvestment in higher education.”
Professor Calls For Greater Investment In Engineering Education.
In an op-ed in the Seattle Times (3/2), Michael B. Bragg, the Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of Engineering at University of Washington, writes that though the number of students graduating from high school with a strong interest in the STEM fields is on the rise, “we don’t have the capacity in our universities to provide these students with the education required to qualify for a bow wave of engineering jobs.” He writes that colleges in Washington state have been “working together for several years to solve this challenge and our progress has been good. But we need to do better.” He calls for increased investment in engineering education as a driver of economic progress in the state.
Research and Development
New Cyber Crime Lab Opens In California.
The San Luis Obispo (CA) Tribune (3/1) reports that the California National Guard, the San Louis Obispo County District Attorney’s office, and Cal Poly have partnered to open the new Central Coast Cyber Forensic Lab, which “houses everything law enforcement agencies need to produce critical digital evidence.” KEYT-TV Santa Barbara, CA (3/1) reports that the lab provides “a new way to fight cyber criminals.” The piece notes that the lab is part of the California Cyber Training Complex, and “will provide a shared home to forensics investigators across the county.” KCBX-FM San Luis Obispo, CA (3/1) and KSBY-TV San Luis Obispo, CA (3/1) also cover this story.
South African 3D-Printing Program In Talks With Airbus, Boeing.
Reuters (3/2, Roelf) reports that the South African government-backed Aeroswift research project, which is “developing the world’s largest” 3D printing machine for producing titanium aircraft parts, is negotiating with Airbus and Boeing to produce components by 2019. The project has produced three titanium demonstrator parts using its additive layer manufacturing technology. Airbus has been providing Aeroswift development support, and Airbus Vice President for International Cooperation Simon Ward said that the manufacturer is in discussions about “how best to commercialize the process.”
Engineering and Public Policy
Study Of Surface Mining Impact On Health Set To Begin..
The Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader (3/2, Estep) reports that a national science panel is set to examine whether “living near surface coal mines” increases “the risk of health problems.” The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement “commissioned the study last August, but there has been concern among supporters about whether it would go forward under the Trump Administration.” However, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has “scheduled a public meeting for March 7 to discuss its plan to research the potential link between health risks and living near surface mining and associated reclamation operations.”
EPA Withdraws Obama Rule That Oil, Natural Gas Companies Report Methane Emissions.
The AP (3/2, Daly) reports the EPA is withdrawing an Obama Administration request that oil and natural gas companies provide information on methane emissions at oil and gas operations. EPA Administrator Pruitt said the withdrawal is effective immediately and he wants to examine the need for the information the agency has been collecting. The EPA, according to the Washington Post (3/2, Mooney, Dennis), “cited a letter sent by the attorneys general of several conservative and oil-producing states complaining the information request” moves the Obama Administration’s agenda forward and supports “the imposition of burdensome climate rules on existing sites, the cost and expense of which will be enormous.” Pruitt said in a statement that the withdrawal “will reduce burdens on businesses while we take a closer look at the need for additional information from this industry.”
Amazon Plans 15 Rooftop Solar Projects At US Warehouses.
The Seattle Times (3/2) reports that Amazon says it will place solar systems in 15 fulfillment and “sortation” centers in the US this year, aiming to have system at 50 facilities worldwide by 2020. Amazon has about 95 warehouses and distribution centers and 29 regional sortation centers in the US, with another 149 facilities outside the US, according to logistics consultancy MWPVL International. The move comes “amid a race among corporate behemoths, from Google to Wal-Mart, to embrace green power,” and the latest move alone “may push Amazon into the ranks of the top 10 corporate users of solar power.”
Green Group Criticizes Maine’s New Net-metering Rules.
Drawing from The Portland Press Herald, the AP (3/2) reports the Natural Resources Council of Maine criticized the Maine Public Utilities Commission for net-metering policy changes. Calling the rule “some of the most extreme anti-solar elements in the nation,” the group said it will “pursue every opportunity” to walk them back.
Two Wind Firms Sign Deals With Uptake Technologies To Enhance Wind Farm Performance.
Crain’s Chicago Business (3/2) reports Uptake Technologies has signed long-term contracts with Berkshire Hathaway-owned MidAmerican Energy Company and BHE Renewables. MidAmerican and BHE “are using Uptake’s technology to improve performance and maintenance of wind-farm equipment.” Terms of the deal were not disclosed. The Chicago Tribune (3/2) reports Uptake “uses sensors to collect mass amounts of data from machinery,” which it analyzes for potential malfunctions and inefficiencies. Uptake applies its data analytics to six sectors and according to one source it is valued at $2 billion.
Opposition To Wind Power Growing In Oklahoma.
ClimateWire (3/2, Benjamin Storrow, Daniel Cusick, Subscription Publication) reports on the growth of wind power in Oklahoma and subsequent growth in opposition to it. Wind industry leaders “find themselves facing a torrent of anti-wind legislation in Oklahoma City,” where up to 88 bills concerning wind development have been filed in the opening days of the legislative session. The measures range from advanced notification for new developments to a 0.5-cent-per-kilowatt-hour tax on wind power backed by Gov. Mary Fallin.
AIAA’s Magnus Tells Students To Pursue Their Dreams.
The Springfield (VA) Connection (3/2, Forbush) provides coverage of AIAA Executive Director Sandy Magnus’ visit to Chesterbrook Elementary School in McLean on February 23 for National Engineers Week. Magnus recounted her path to fulfilling her dream of becoming a NASA astronaut, and told students to discover and pursue their own dreams.
Multi-Media Technologist Introduces Approachable Materials To Engineering Kits.
NBC News (3/2) tells the story of multi-media technologist Fawn Qui, who left Amazon and entered the TED residency program to work on “a project focused on the creative side of technology.” She says she wants to make engineering more engaging for young students “by incorporating materials like paper and fabric” into kits that usually rely on hard plastic parts and look like a robot.
Streamwood, Illinois STEM Team Progresses To National Competition.
The AP (3/2) reports a team of 16 Streamwood High School students’ “microgeneration” wind power project won the Illinois Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, and the students will compete this spring for one of 10 national finalist spots and prizes up to $200,000. The students’ mentor, engineering teacher, and three-year veteran, Matt Erbach, says he hopes this year the team will win the national competition.
Apple Losing Classroom Tech Market Dominance.
The New York Times (3/2, Singer, Subscription Publication) reports that over the past few years, Apple products such as iPads and Mac notebooks have “steadily lost ground to Chromebooks, inexpensive laptops that run on Google’s Chrome operating system.” Apple devices “have now reached a new low, falling to third place behind both Google-powered laptops and Microsoft Windows devices, according to a report released on Thursday by Futuresource Consulting, a research company.”
Thursday’s Lead Stories
• Researchers Take Step Toward Use Of Cryopreserved Tissues, Organs For Transplantation.
• Study: HBCUs Graduate More Low-Income Students Than Other Colleges.
• University Of Dayton Researcher Gets NSF Grant To Study Cellular Models.
• Trump Signs Bills Meant To Help Women In STEM Fields.
• Japan Seeks To Have 20% Of Cars To Be Autonomous In 2030.
• Samsung Discloses It Paid $215M In Acquisition Of Viv Labs.
• USGS: 3.5 Million People Live In Areas Of Seismic Risk.