Leading the News
Facebook Continues To Unveil Latest Projects At Second Day Of F8.
On the second day of Facebook’s F8 developer’s conference in San Jose, California, the head of the company’s Building 8 hardware research lab, Regina Dugan, revealed the company is working on technology that can predict a user’s thoughts, allowing for hands-free, brain-to-computer-to-brain communication. Coverage of F8 focused on this announcement, as well as Facebook’s projects related to VR/AR and improved connectivity.
USA Today (4/19, Swartz) reports this “direct brain interface,” as the company describes it, would allow users to “type directly from your brain…with the speed and flexibility of voice and the privacy of text,” Dugan said. With over 60 scientists working on it, the project seeks to achieve 100-words-per-minute typing speeds but is still years away from reality, Dugan said. Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg “has shown a predilection for telepathy,” consumer analysts are skeptical about how the public would receive such technology, which Dugan couched in Facebook’s ongoing connectivity and AR/VR projects.
BBC News (UK) (4/19, Lee) reports Dugan said, “You have many thoughts; you choose to share some of them,” but Facebook is “not talking about decoding your random thoughts. … We’re talking about decoding those words. A silent speech interface – one with all the speed and flexibility of voice.” Giving an example of another application for future Facebook technology that involves tactile communication, Dugan suggested that “One day, not so far away, it may be possible for me to think in Mandarin, and you to feel it instantly in Spanish.”
TechCrunch (4/19, Constine) reports “Eventually, brain-computer interfaces could let people control augmented reality and virtual reality experiences with their mind instead of a screen or controller.” TechCrunch says Facebook’s headquarters has “a special Area 404 wing…with tons of mechanical engineering equipment to help Dugan’s team quickly prototype new hardware,” but “until now, nobody really knew what Building 8 was.” Likewise, Business Insider (4/19, Heath), which was among the first outlets to report on Building 8, notes that “little had been publicly revealed about Building 8 until Wednesday.”
NBC News (4/19) reports Facebook has unveiled “a series of ambitious research projects designed to help humans communicate using new and startling technologies,” including “systems that will allow people to type using their thoughts — or hear through their skin.” Facebook says the research is part of its mission of “connecting the human race” and is being conducted by “the company’s year-old hardware group, known as Building 8.”
Opinion: Proposed California Legislation To Refinance Student Loans Will Have Limited Effect.
Forbes (4/19, Clements) contributor Nick Clements writes that California Treasurer John Chiang introduced legislation this week that would create a $25 million fund to enable “graduates to refinance loans at favorable rates from lenders.” This “first-loss protection fund to secure lenders” would absorb the “first 10% of losses suffered on loans covered through the program.” Clements says that a fund that covers just 10 percent of the default “has a number of issues that will limit its effectiveness.” He says the loss protection “does not go as far as it seems” and that those in “the most need will receive no help from this.” A 10 percent reduction in loss severity of student loans will not help people “who overpaid for degrees of questionable value (especially for-profit schools), and people who dropped out of college after acquiring debt.” The single biggest problem, Clements says, is that “a college degree should not cost as much as its done.” Ultimately, “any proposal that makes debt more affordable does not deal with the core issue of cost.”
Minnesota Bill Would Make Some College Fees Optional.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune (4/19, Golden) reports that a bill in the Minnesota legislature would make fees for “health and recreation centers, school newspapers, student government, collegiate athletics and other campus groups” optional. The language is an amendment to a broader higher education funding bill. Sponsor state Rep. Drew Christensen (R) says such fees “are unfair to students who don’t want to participate in those activities,” but college “administrators and students say making the fees optional could just push those charges onto tuition bills, or threaten the livelihood of vital student groups and services.”
Some Colleges Revamping Libraries For Digital Age.
The Los Angeles Times (4/19, Watanabe) runs a piece describing UC Berkeley’s “newly remodeled undergraduate library,” which “is modern and sleek, with its top two floors featuring low-slung couches, a futuristic nap pod, and meeting spaces with glass walls made to be written on and colorful furniture meant to be moved.” There are no books on the top two floors, and the redesign was intended to “create more space for students to study, recharge and collaborate on group projects — a staple of college work today.” The article focuses on how the “digital revolution is dramatically changing [libraries] use on college campuses. From coast to coast, UC Berkeley to Harvard University, libraries are removing rows of steel shelving, stashing the books they held in other campus locations and discarding duplicates to make way for open study spaces.”
Trump H-1B Order Could Dampen Universities’ Overseas Recruiting.
The Chronicle of Higher Education (4/19) reports President Trump’s order this week to “target fraud and abuse in overseas guest-worker programs and increase federal oversight of the H-1B visa program for highly skilled foreigners” could “roil American campuses and their recruitment of international students.” Higher education “ranks third behind technology-related occupations as the largest industry sponsor of recipients of H-1B visas,” but college administrators are more concerned about “American colleges’ recruitment of students from abroad. For many international students, the opportunity to stay in the United States, even temporarily, after graduation and gain work experience is almost as valuable as an American degree itself.”
Research and Development
University Of Houston Students Conduct Weather Balloon Research In Alaska.
The Houston Chronicle (4/19, Hazen) reports a group of students from the University of Houston last month took part in the Undergraduate Student Instrument Project, spending “spent three weeks in Fairbanks, Alaska…conducting research by launching multiple weather balloons with different devices that they made into the atmosphere.” The students represented “different majors such as physics, biology, math, earth and atmospheric science, computer science, mechanical engineering, and petroleum and electrical engineering. The trip was funded by both UH and NASA.”
Africa Expands Coal Power Capabilities Despite Environmental Concerns.
The Washington Times (4/19, A1, Hill) reports “coal may be winning” the “war on coal” in Africa, as many countries have plans to expand their use and transport of coal for electricity. On a continent “hustling to catch up with the developed world” and where environmental concerns mostly come from white expatriates and foreign NGOs, the Times says coal is an “abundant resource.” John Owusu, a retired Ghanaian pro-clean energy engineer, said that Africans without electricity who worry about starvation “don’t lie awake wondering about the virtue of coal, gas or solar.” Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan defended Africa’s use of fossil fuels in the near term earlier this month, saying African governments should “harness every available energy option…so that no one is left behind.”
Fiber-Optics Makers See Decline Under Worries Of Chinese Slowdown.
Seeking Alpha (4/19) reports optical networking companies have seen impacts from concerns over a slowdown in China, following “similar concerns earlier this year about slowing orders from Chinese equipment makers after a hot 2016.” Finisar led the list of declining companies with a nine percent decline, followed by Lumentum, Emcore, Oclaro, and Applied Optoelectronics. Neophotonics is down 3.4% and Acacia is down 0.8%.
China’s FTTH Policy Leads To Rapid Expansion Of User Base. DigiTimes (TWN) (4/18, Hu) reports on the explosive growth of fiber-optic infrastructure in China since the establishment of the Broadband China policy in 2013, reporting that “the number of FTTH subscribers quickly increased to 227.7 million as of the end of 2016, accounting for 76.6% of all fixed-line broadband Internet-access subscribers.” Moreover, the 61 million FTTH subscribers in rural areas represents a 90-percent increase year-over-year, according to Digitimes Research.
Commentary: Tech Sector Needs To Focus More On Humanities.
In commentary for Fortune (4/19), Gadi Amit, president and principal designer of NewDealDesign, writes about the failure of GoogleGlass, arguing that the device’s “development gave little thought to its end-users and more so to the people immediately around them” and “lacked any consideration of the social values of privacy and decency among humans.” Amit writes that the social awkwardness of the device “should have been obvious to developers, but it wasn’t.” Amit argues that the tech sector needs to develop a greater appreciation for the humanities, saying “it is simply naïve to assume social or political accounting just won’t happen.”
Takata Air Bag Inflators Continue To Pose Danger In Used Cars.
The AP (4/19, Krisher, Ritter) reports 18-year-old Karina Dorado was nearly killed in Nevada on March 3 when “trachea was punctured by shrapnel from” a Takata air bag “inflator in an otherwise minor” car crash. Dorado’s 2002 Honda Accord was not included in the Takata recall, but had previously been “given a salvage title, repaired and resold in Las Vegas last spring.” Honda engineers believe the inflator had been removed from a 2001 Accord by a salvage yard and then installed in Dorado’s car during repairs. According to the AP, the incident “has exposed a hole in the government’s efforts to get dangerous Takata air bag inflators off the road,” as it is “perfectly legal under federal law for air bag assemblies or other parts subject to recall to be pulled out of wrecked cars and sold by junkyards to repair shops that may not even know the danger.”
Consumerist (4/19, Kieler) reports that no state or Federal agencies monitor the use of recalled parts in salvaged cars.
Advice For Safely Buying A Used Car. Because “salvage yards and repair shops can use potentially deadly Takata air bag inflators when they repair used cars,” the AP (4/19) advises its readers on how they can protect themselves when buying a use car. The AP suggests the following steps: check the car’s history to track major repairs; check the car’s title to see whether it has been salvaged or rebuilt; ask for receipts if a card has had extensive repairs, to ensure new parts were used; and get an inspection from “an independent mechanic to check for any signs that it’s been wrecked and repaired.”
Parks Associates: Voice Assistant Technology Growth More Than Doubles.
Retail Customer Experience (4/19) reports new research from the Parks Associates indicates “56 percent of U.S. broadband households enjoying using voice assistance to control smart home devices such as Amazon’s Echo and the Google Home.” Parks Associates research analyst Dina Abdelrazik said in a release, “In the past five years, voice control and voice-based technologies have experienced massive growth in the consumer market, igniting the competitive landscape among current and emerging smart home players. Voice interfaces are advancing due to continued improvements in machine learning and natural language processing, paired with the prevalence of portable devices. Apple increased consumer familiarity of voice control with its introduction of Siri in 2011, but the later-to-market Amazon Alexa has taken a clear lead in this category.”
Engineering and Public Policy
Christie Joins Booker In Urging Chao To View Aging New Jersey Transit Infrastructure.
POLITICO New York (4/19, Hutchins) reports that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie joined Sen. Cory Booker at a Wednesday news conference in which they called on the Transportation Secretary Chao “to come see the existing, century-old infrastructure that’s causing more and more headaches for the region’s commuters.” Politico says that “for a governor who still maintains a close relationship” with President Trump, it was “an odd look to be publicly raising concern about the administration’s commitment to the transportation program.” Chao’s office “did not respond to inquiries about whether she would accept the invitation to visit Penn Station in New York and ride through the two tubes that now carry Amtrak and NJ Transit trains under the Hudson River.”
Federal Court Kills Wind Project In Southeast Oregon.
The AP (4/19) reports the US District Court in Portland “has killed a large wind energy project in southeast Oregon over concerns about a declining sage grouse population that needs the area to breed.” The court “vacated plans for the project Tuesday, bringing an end to lengthy litigation over the proposal by Columbia Energy Partners.” The proposed project “was for wind energy development on roughly 10,500 acres of private land in Harney County near Steens Mountain.” The project had been approved by the US Bureau of Land Management.
Perry To Participate In Earth Day Texas Clean Energy Technology Forum.
The Dallas Morning News (4/19, Repko) reports Earth Day Texas annually “draws families, kids and adults from around the Dallas-Fort Worth area to Fair Park,” but “this year, event organizers are aiming for an additional audience: Investors.” Earth Day this year “is hosting a forum specifically geared toward family offices, high-net-worth individuals and foundations that may be interested in early-stage clean technology startups.” The E-Capital Summit “will teach potential investors about the emerging areas of green and energy-efficient technology.” Energy Secretary Rick Perry is scheduled to participate in the forum. The Bryan College Station (TX) Eagle (4/20) also reports that Energy Secretary Rick Perry will be among the notable participants attending this weekend’s Earth Day celebration in Dallas.
President Trump’s Vow To Revive Coal Industry Could Entail Rolling Back Pollution Restrictions.
The AP (4/19) reports that President Trump’s pledges to “reverse decades of decline” in the U.S. coal industry comes alongside efforts by the EPA to rollback restrictions on pollution from coal mines. Environmental groups are vowing to defend the restrictions in court if necessary. According to Graham McCahan, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund, “Virtually every power plant in America is already in compliance with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. Weakening them would be a serious threat to the safety of our food, air and water.”
Greenwire (4/19, Subscription Publication) reports that “only last month,” EPA attorneys were defending the agency’s decision to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Now that the agenc is considering reversing its support for the emissions standards, the agency has asked the D.C. Circuit Court to postpone oral arguments in litigation challenging the emissions standards “on the grounds that the agency’s prior stance ‘may not necessarily reflect its ultimate position.”
Wind Energy To Power Sound Transit Light-Rail Trains.
The Seattle Times (4/19, Lindblom) reports, “Sound Transit is trading some fossil-fuel energy for wind power starting in 2019, for light-rail trains running through SeaTac.” Sound Transit will purchase “10 years of wind power to replace a dirtier mix of electricity where its trains run in SeaTac, the agency announced Tuesday.” The light rail’s power supply “currently comes from Puget Sound Energy, where coal and natural gas together provide 59 percent of the portfolio.” However “the contract for 2019-28 will replace those fossil fuels under PSE’s new Green Direct program.”
AWEA: US Wind Industry Employs Over 100,000.
The Washington Post (4/19, Dennis) reports that wind turbine technician “by a long shot” is “the fastest-growing occupation” in the US. The number of technicians, “a job with a median pay of about $51,000 a year, is set to more than double between 2014 and 2024,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is “a more rapid growth rate than that of physical therapists, financial advisers, home health aides and genetic counselors.” For the first time last year, over “100,000 people in the United States were employed in some manner by the wind industry, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the American Wind Energy Association.” Despite President Trump’s criticism of wind energy, Tom Kieran, AWEA’s chief executive, “said some members of the Trump administration, namely Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — the former Texas governor — have shown signs of support.” Kiernan said, “We are optimistic in working with them.”
AWEA: Minnesota A Top Wind Power State. The Minneapolis Star Tribune (4/19) reports according to data released in a report by the American Wind Energy Association, “Minnesota continues to be one of the top wind power states in 2016, and Xcel Energy the nation’s top wind energy utility.” The report found that “wind power had a strong year nationally, with generating capacity rising 11 percent or 8,203 megawatts.” Construction of wind farms “has been buoyed by a new round of federal tax credits combined with better technology that’s allowing wind turbines to generate more power.” Xcel CEO Ben Fowke said, “You have a unique opportunity to buy wind that is cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. … The fuel of the future is literally on sale today.”
PTI Engineered Plastics Uses In-House “Technical Academy.”
Plastics News (4/19, Vitick) reports that PTI Engineered Plastics Inc. CEO Mark Rathbone says that his company’s PTI Technical Academy, “started about three years ago to show young men and women that this is ‘not Grandpa’s factory,’” and instead shows people “they can get an enjoyable job and make good money as a skilled trades worker in the toolmaking or manufacturing business.” He said that “PTI has a turnover rate of less than 1 percent, and many workers have been with the company for 12 to 15 years.”
Louisiana Students To Compete In FIRST World Championships.
The Baton Rouge (LA) Advocate (4/19, Lewis) reports Redfish Robotics, a team of Slidell High School students, were “invited to demonstrate the possibilities of” robotic pizza delivery “to national Domino’s franchise holders at their annual convention in New Orleans.” The team will compete in the tech challenge division of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) World Championships.
NASA Holding Swarmathon.
The Albuquerque (NM) Journal (4/19, Dyer) reports on the NASA Swarmathon at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, in which college students “write computer code that enables ant-like robots to autonomously navigate an arena, finding and collecting small cubes,” a challenge seeking “to mimic the gathering of resources, such as ice, on the surface of Mars.”
Wednesday’s Lead Stories
• Industry Groups Pushing Pruitt To Use Private Lawyers To Fight Water Regulation.
• Syracuse University STEM Program Receives Nearly $1 Million NSF Grant.
• UC Irvine Professor Cautions Against Proposed Federal Science Program Cuts.
• WI Manufacturers Struggle To Fill Jobs.
• Corning, Verizon Agree To Billion-Dollar Fiber Optic Deal.
• Georgia Transportation Department Announces Early-Completion Incentives For I-85 Bridge Reconstruction.
• NSF Gives Texas College $1.2 Million Grant To Boost STEM Teacher Training.