Tech Show Displays Ways VR, AI Edging into People’s Lives

Inside the sprawling Acer stall at Computex Taipei, Asia’s largest tech show, staff displayed a laptop computer that’s ready for virtual reality play yet thinner than most PCs for gaming.  At the same exhibition, the Taiwanese tech hardware maker showed how its internet cloud uses artificial intelligence to predict what customers will do when shopping and allow the shop to make decisions accordingly.

VR and AI usher in a new world of technology

Acer was riding two major new themes at the annual show: virtual reality, often abbreviated to VR, and artificial intelligence, or AI.

Demand from gamers, a lucrative market of people willing to pay more than $10,000 for a personal computer (PC), is driving the VR side, compelling Acer and its peers to install new lines of processors that support immersive, 3D play with headgear and hand controls.

“You can see that the company is moving into more gaming centric, VR, new experience innovation,” said Vincent Lin, senior director of Acer’s global product marketing. “Not all gaming notebooks or not all notebooks are VR ready. There are certain requirements needed to be VR ready. VR, certainly it’s a growth area. It’s supposed to like grow five times or something over next 3 years.”

Revenue is forecast to rise quickly

Silicon Valley investment advisory firm Digi-Capital forecasts a surge in global revenue from $20 billion this year to $108 billion in 2021 in virtual reality technology and a similar technology known as augmented reality. 

The anticipation of growth inspired 60 Computex exhibitors to show games, gear or PCs that support virtual reality. The technology that first popped into public view in the 1980s is normally aimed now at computer gamers, though scientific researchers have used VR as well as the related augmented reality to model processes they can’t duplicate in real life. 

Near Acer’s stall, Computex visitors donned thick, black head-mounted goggles to race cars or fire at things, yelling in excitement through the dimly lit booths as they tested new products. 

PCs will be thinner, quieter and quicker to support VR

Developers were excited about Nvidia’s newly announced graphics processors that are designed to make PCs thinner and quieter. They also noticed the seventh update of Intel’s Core i5 processor, which stands to make PCs faster.

At one stall, Hong Kong developer Zotac showed off backpacks that can hold a gamer’s VR hardware system to prevent any tripping over wires – which might happen to someone immersed in a 3D scenario and unable to see the real floor.

“Right now the way the virtual reality equipment is made, you’re tethered to a system. That means you have to worry about tripping over cables, wrapping them around yourself as well,” Zotac product marketer Buu Ly said. “With our VR backpack, that removes those barriers so you are more free to experience VR the way it was supposed to be experienced.”

AI attracting much interest this year

Artificial intelligence also made its way into the show, where about 1,600 exhibitors occupied 5,010 booths, this year as companies test a relatively new technology that teaches computers to make decisions based on patterns they detect through analysis of user commands. 

Voice-activated assistants on mobile phones use artificial intelligence by searching the phone for requested information, even sending commands across apps to get answers.

Computex organizers have not tallied the number of exhibitors showing AI technology, but analysts in Taipei say a number are pursuing servers that can speed up development of AI functions allowed by the likes of Nvidia’s Jetson TX computer processing module.

With a compound annual growth rate of 63 percent from 2016 to 2022, the artificial intelligence market should be worth $16.06 billion by 2022, according to forecasts by the research firm Markets and Markets.

“AI has caught much of the spotlight in various exhibitions around the world and has become one of major deployment highlights for many companies in recent years,” said Ray Han, industry analyst with the Marketing Intelligence & Consulting Institute in Taipei. “The next battlefield will lie on platforms or chips.”

Internet of things

One contender is Socionext, a Japanese developer that has developed a processor partly for AI and the Internet of things, or IoT, which means using phones or PCs to control other electronic objects. Five customers are evaluating whether to install the chip, said Fumitaka Shiraishi, a Socionext business project management group member. 

“Our chip is a processor chip, so not too specific for AI but also suitable for AI because of the low power,” Shiraishi said. 

Artificial intelligence can help the Internet of things by picking the most relevant points from vast fields of data collected.

“In the future five years, I think IoT devices also need to judge some information — not just sensing,” Shiraishi said. 

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New Graphene Water Filter Makes Salt Water Drinkable

The United Nations predicts that by 2025 nearly two billion people will be living in places where there’s not enough water to go around. And since on average water makes up about 60% of the human body, not having it has a host of devastating effects that go way beyond just being thirsty. That’s why some new technology to turn saltwater into drinkable water holds so much promise, VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Forget Butterfly Nets; Today’s Naturalists Capture Specimens on Phones

Your smartphone can help scientists keep tabs on changes happening in the natural world. More than one hundred thousand citizen scientists around the globe are snapping pictures of all kinds of plants and animals using the iNaturalist app. It is giving researchers an unprecedented amount of information about what lives where, and how that is changing with humanity’s expanding footprint. Steve Baragona has details.

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Solar Power Lights Up Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan

Solar power is lighting up the night sky in Jordan and making life easier for the 20,000 Syrian refugees at a camp that once had no reliable source of electricity. Faith Lapidus reports.

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Vietnam to Sign Deals for Up to $17B in US Goods, Services

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said Tuesday that he would sign deals for U.S. goods and services worth $15 billion to $17 billion during his visit to Washington, mainly for high-technology products and for services.

“Vietnam will increase the import of high technologies and services from the United States, and on the occasion of this visit, many important deals will be made,” Phuc told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce dinner.

Phuc, who is due to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday at the end of a three-day visit to the United States, did not provide further details of the transactions.

GE Power Chief Executive Officer Steve Bolze told the dinner that General Electric Co. would sign deals worth about $6 billion with Vietnam, but also offered no details.

Phuc’s comments came after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer expressed concern about the rapid growth of the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam, saying this was a new challenge for the two countries and that he was looking to Phuc to help address it.

“Over the last decade, our bilateral trade deficit has risen from about $7 billion to nearly $32 billion,” Lighthizer said. “This concerning growth in our trade deficit presents new challenges and shows us that there is considerable potential to improve further our important trade relationship.”

Reducing deficits

Lighthizer and other Trump administration trade officials have pledged to work to reduce U.S. bilateral deficits with major trading partners. The $32 billion deficit with Vietnam last year — the sixth-largest U.S. trade deficit — reflects growing imports of Vietnamese semiconductors and other electronics products in addition to more traditional sectors such as footwear, apparel and furniture.

The trade issue has become a potential irritant in a relationship where Washington and Hanoi have stepped up security cooperation in recent years, given shared concerns about China’s increasingly assertive behavior in East Asia.

Phuc’s meeting with Trump makes him the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House under the new administration.

It reflected calls, letters, diplomatic contacts and lower-level visits that started long before Trump took office in Washington, where Vietnam retains a lobbyist at $30,000 a month.

Vietnam was disappointed when Trump ditched the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, in which Hanoi was expected to be one of the main beneficiaries, and focused U.S. trade policy on reducing deficits.

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Mexico to Review Rules of Origin to Help NAFTA Renegotiation

Mexico’s foreign minister says the country is “inevitably” set to review rules of origin when renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, giving a boost to President Donald Trump’s manufacturing push.

Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Videgaray said Tuesday at an event in Miami that NAFTA has allowed Mexican industry to enter the U.S. market with lax rules of origin. The rules dictate how much U.S. content a product assembled in Mexico must have in order to escape tariffs when being imported into the United States. Currently set at 62.5 percent for the auto industry, that number could increase.

“One part that must inevitably be reviewed is the chapter on rules of origin,” Videgaray said at the University of Miami. “Over time, the free trade agreement has sometimes been used — not always, of course, but sometimes — as a way to access the U.S. market perhaps with laxity in some ways of rules of origin.”

The Trump administration told Congress this month there would be 90 days of consultations on the renegotiation of the 23-year-old pact before beginning talks with Canada and Mexico. Annual trade of goods between Mexico and the U.S. was worth $525 billion in 2016, with the U.S. running a trade deficit of more than $63 billion.

The foreign minister said Mexico won’t entertain any talks on building a wall along the border. Videgaray maintained it is seen as an unfriendly sign and questioned its efficiency. Trump’s budget seeks $2.6 billion for border security technology, including money to design and build a wall along the southern border. Trump repeatedly promised voters during the campaign that Mexico would pay for a wall.

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Genetic Secrets of Ancient Egypt Unwrapped

DNA from mummies found at a site once known for its cult to the Egyptian god of the afterlife is unwrapping intriguing insight into the people of ancient Egypt, including a surprise discovery that they had scant genetic ties to sub-Saharan Africa.

Scientists on Tuesday said they examined genome data from 90 mummies from the Abusir el-Malek archaeological site, located about 70 miles (115 km) south of Cairo, in the most sophisticated genetic study of ancient Egyptians ever conducted.

The DNA was extracted from the teeth and bones of mummies from a vast burial ground associated with the green-skinned god Osiris. The oldest were from about 1388 BC during the New Kingdom, a high point in ancient Egyptian influence and culture.

Genomes provide a surprise

The most recent were from about 426 AD, centuries after Egypt had become a Roman Empire province.

“There has been much discussion about the genetic ancestry of ancient Egyptians,” said archeogeneticist Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, who led the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Are modern Egyptians direct descendants of ancient Egyptians? Was there genetic continuity in Egypt through time? Did foreign invaders change the genetic makeup: for example, did Egyptians become more ‘European’ after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt?” Krause added. “Ancient DNA can address those questions.”

The genomes showed that, unlike modern Egyptians, ancient Egyptians had little to no genetic kinship with sub-Saharan populations, some of which like ancient Ethiopia were known to have had significant interactions with Egypt.

The closest genetic ties were to the peoples of the ancient Near East, spanning parts of Iraq and Turkey as well as Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Middle-class mummies

Egypt, located in North Africa at a crossroads of continents in the ancient Mediterranean world, for millennia boasted one of the most advanced civilizations in antiquity, known for military might, wondrous architecture including massive pyramids and imposing temples, art, hieroglyphs and a pantheon of deities.

Mummification was used to preserve the bodies of the dead for the afterlife. The mummies in the study were of middle-class people, not royalty.

The researchers found genetic continuity spanning the New Kingdom and Roman times, with the amount of sub-Saharan ancestry increasing substantially about 700 years ago, for unclear reasons.

“There was no detectable change for those 1,800 years of Egyptian history,” Krause said. “The big change happened between then and now.”

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Android Creator Unveils New Phone, Home Assistant Device

Andy Rubin, the co-creator of the Android mobile phone operating system, has launched a new company called Essential Products to sell a high-end smartphone and a home assistant device.

Palo Alto-based Essential said the new Essential Phone features an edge-to-edge screen, a titanium-and-ceramic case and dual cameras. The phone sells for $699 and will run the Android operating system. The price pits it against high-end smartphones including Apple Inc’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S8.

Essential also launched a household assistant called Home that looks like an angled hockey puck with a screen. The device will compete against the Amazon.com Echo and Alphabet’s Google Home speaker, which are powered by the Alexa and the Google Assistant voice services respectively.

Essential confirmed the Home device will let the user choose between Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri. It was not immediately clear how Siri would be available on Essential. While Amazon and Google have released the software needed to embed their assistants on devices they do not make, Apple has not done so.

Essential declined to elaborate on how it plans to embed Siri on the device, and Apple declined to comment.

The Essential Home takes a page from Apple’s privacy play book. Like an iPhone, the Home will do much of the processing for voice and image recognition on the device itself rather than sending data to remote servers.

Essential also said the Home device will communicate with home appliances like lights and thermostats directly over the home network, rather than sending data to remote servers.

Apple’s HomeKit system takes similar approach. Rubin, Essential’s CEO, co-founded Android and sold it to Google in 2005. He ran Google’s mobile efforts until 2013 before a brief stint running the firm’s robotics division. He left Google in 2014 to focus on starting hardware companies. Investors in Essential include Chinese tech company Tencent Holdings, iPhone contract manufacturer Foxconn, Redpoint Ventures and Altimeter Capital.

Essential plans to announce a ship date for the devices in the next few weeks. The company did not say whether it planned to sell the phone directly to customers online or in physical stores.

Essential for the first time revealed its staff on its website, listing Wolfgang Muller as head of channel sales.

Muller previously ran North American retail operations for phone maker HTC, according to his LinkedIn profile, suggesting that Essential plans to sell phones through retail stores, carriers or both.

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Senate Democrats Ask Trump for Answers on China Trademarks

A group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday, requesting information about a raft of trademark approvals from China this year that they say may violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on gifts from foreign governments.

“China’s rapid approvals after years of court battles have raised questions as to whether the trademarks will prevent you from standing up to China on behalf of American workers and their businesses,” the eight senators, led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, wrote.

China’s most recent nod for a Trump trademark, covering clothing, came on May 6, bringing to 40 the number of marks China has granted or provisionally granted to the president and a related company, DTTM Operations LLC, since his inauguration. If there are no objections, provisional approvals are formally registered after 90 days. China has also rejected or partially rejected nine Trump trademarks since the inauguration.

Trademarks give the holder monopoly rights to a brand in a given market. In many jurisdictions, like China, they can also be filed defensively, to prevent squatters from using a name. Because trademarks are granted at the discretion of foreign governments and can be enormously valuable, they can be problematic for U.S. officials, who are barred by the emoluments clause of the constitution from accepting anything of value from foreign states without congressional approval.

In their letter, the senators were particularly interested in any special efforts Trump, his Chinese lawyers, or the U.S. Embassy in China, which sometimes advocates for U.S. firms, may have made to secure approval for the president’s trademarks. They cited an Associated Press report quoting one of Trump’s lawyers in China, Spring Chang, who said that “government relations are an important part of trademark strategy in China.”

Concern about favoritism is particularly sharp in China, where the courts and bureaucracy are designed to reflect the will of the ruling Communist Party. China has defended its handling of Trump’s intellectual property interests, saying it followed the law in processing his applications, though some trademark lawyers viewed the pace as unusually quick and well-coordinated. In addition, China approved one trademark for Trump-branded construction services after a 10-year legal battle that turned in his favor only after he declared his candidacy.

Alan Garten, chief legal officer of The Trump Organization, did not respond immediately to a request for comment. He has previously said that Trump’s trademark activity in China predates his election and noted that Trump has stepped away from managing his company. However, the president retains an ownership stake in his global branding and real estate empire.

In April, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, added “gratuitous Chinese trademarks” to its lawsuit against the president for alleged emoluments violations. Trump has dismissed the suit as without merit.

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Scientists ‘Supercharge’ Powerful Antibiotic

Scientists have tweaked a powerful antibiotic, called vancomycin, so it is once more powerful against life-threatening bacterial infections.  Researchers say the more powerful compound could eliminate the threat of antibiotic resistance for many years to come.

Antibiotic resistance, in which microbes no longer respond to drugs, is quickly becoming a global health emergency.  Of particular concern are so-called “superbugs,” a handful of pathogens that patients acquire in hospitals and other health care settings.  Patients recovering from surgery are particularly vulnerable to the resistant, hospital-borne infections, which put them at high risk of death.  

Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, modified vancomycin, invented 60 years ago and considered a last resort treatment against many of these infections.   They made a key change to its molecular structure, interfering with how the bacterium, enterococcus, makes protective cells walls.

In a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators describe how the change made vancomycin 1,000 times more effective against both drug-resistant enterococci and the original forms of the microorganism.

‘Total cures’

The modification is in addition to two previous changes made by the Scripps team that improved the drug’s potency, so less of it is needed to treat an infection.  

Lead researcher Dale Boger, who co-chairs the institution’s Department of Chemistry, said it is difficult for enterococcus to find a way around three independent mechanisms of action.  “Even if they found a solution to one of those,” said Boger, “the organisms would still be killed by the other two.”

The challenge now for researchers is to reduce the number of steps it takes in the lab to boost vancomycin’s effectiveness.  Having redesigned the antibiotic’s molecular structure, Boger called streamlining its production the “easy part.”

Even if researchers are unable to simplify the way the improvements are made, Boger said efforts to supercharge vancomycin are worth it for the antibiotic’s lifesaving powers, calling the drugs “total cures” against bacterial infection.

Given the growing failure of antibiotics to treat common infections, Boger said making the super-charged vancomycin molecule is important, even if it’s labor-intensive.

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