South Africa Cannabis Ruling Leads to Pot-Themed Products

Now that South Africa’s highest court has relaxed the nation’s laws on marijuana, local entrepreneurs are trying to cash in on the popular herb. Among the latest entries to the market: several highly popular cannabis-laced alcohol products, which deliver the unique taste, though without the signature high. Marijuana activists say this could just be the beginning and that the famous plant could do much more for the national economy. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

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Amazon’s ‘National Landing’ Leads to Confusion and Jokes

Place names in Arlington County have never been a simple matter. A major fight broke out when National Airport was named for Ronald Reagan in 1998. A fight continues over whether to name a park next to the airport for Nancy Reagan. And in the 1920s, the Postal Service refused to establish a post office in Arlington because the street names were so confusing and haphazard.

So it is fitting that as Arlington officials celebrated Amazon’s decision to locate a new headquarters in the area, there was a bit of confusion over the place name.

Amazon announced Tuesday that it was coming to National Landing, a place people had not heard of because it doesn’t exist. Economic development officials who were wooing the online retailing giant came up with the name as a way to describe the multiple neighborhoods that were being offered as a site.

Those neighborhoods — Crystal City and Pentagon City in Arlington County, and Potomac Yard in the city of Alexandria — span multiple jurisdictions, so the name allowed Alexandria and Arlington to work cooperatively without marketing one locality over another.

Unfortunately, because the yearlong process of wooing Amazon had been so secretive, the moniker that had become so commonplace in the economic-development discussions had zero recognition among the general public. So Amazon’s use of the name in its big announcement left people scratching their heads.

Some people confused it with National Harbor, a new development in Maryland that has attracted one of the biggest casinos on the East Coast. Comedian Remy Munasifi, who made his name poking fun at Arlington in a YouTube rap that has been viewed more than 2 million times, suggested that Arlington National Cemetery would soon be renamed “Kindle Shores.”

Rep. Don Beyer, whose congressional district encompasses the neighborhoods, got in on the act when he suggested that the location of a new $1 billion graduate campus be dubbed “Hokie Landing.” The campus was a key incentive offered to Amazon by Virginia, which promised to double the number of students who graduate each year with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and related fields.

No official steps were ever taken to rename the region, and local officials have made clear they have no intention of trying to rename Crystal City or any other neighborhood.

In a tweet posted by Arlington Economic Development on Thursday, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz explained that National Landing was simply “a way to avoid saying, ‘Parts of Arlington, parts of Alexandria.’ ”

Christina Winn, director of business investment for Arlington Economic Development, said officials never imagined “there would be so much conversation” about the concept. Winn said there’s no intention to supplant or override the name of Crystal City, which draws its name from a big chandelier in one of the first apartment buildings to go up in the area in the 1960s.

Still, she said, if Arlington and Alexandria team up on another economic-development pitch in the future, she said that the moniker might be revived.

“It worked once,” she said.

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Tech Firm Pays Refugees to Train AI Algorithms

Companies could help refugees rebuild their lives by paying them to boost artificial intelligence (AI) using their phones and giving them digital skills, a tech nonprofit said Thursday.

REFUNITE has developed an app, LevelApp, which is being piloted in Uganda to allow people who have been uprooted by conflict to earn instant money by “training” algorithms for AI.

Wars, persecution and other violence have uprooted a record 68.5 million people, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

People forced to flee their homes lose their livelihoods and struggle to create a source of income, REFUNITE co-chief executive Chris Mikkelsen told the Trust Conference in London.

“This provides refugees with a foothold in the global gig economy,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s two-day event, which focuses on a host of human rights issues.

$20 a day for AI work

A refugee in Uganda currently earning $1.25 a day doing basic tasks or menial jobs could make up to $20 a day doing simple AI labeling work on their phones, Mikkelsen said.

REFUNITE says the app could be particularly beneficial for women as the work can be done from the home and is more lucrative than traditional sources of income such as crafts.

The cash could enable refugees to buy livestock, educate children and access health care, leaving them less dependant on aid and helping them recover faster, according to Mikkelsen.

The work would also allow them to build digital skills they could take with them when they returned home, REFUNITE says.

“This would give them the ability to rebuild a life … and the dignity of no longer having to rely solely on charity,” Mikkelsen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Teaching the machines

AI is the development of computer systems that can perform tasks that normally require human intelligence.

It is being used in a vast array of products from driverless cars to agricultural robots that can identify and eradicate weeds and computers able to identify cancers.

In order to “teach” machines to mimic human intelligence, people must repeatedly label images and other data until the algorithm can detect patterns without human intervention.

REFUNITE, based in California, is testing the app in Uganda where it has launched a pilot project involving 5,000 refugees, mainly form South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. It hopes to scale up to 25,000 refugees within two years.

Mikkelsen said the initiative was a win-win as it would also benefit companies by slashing costs.

Another tech company, DeepBrain Chain, has committed to paying 200 refugees for a test period of six months, he said.

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Facebook CEO Details Company Battle with Hate Speech, Violent Content

Facebook says it is getting better at proactively removing hate speech and changing the incentives that result in the most sensational and provocative content becoming the most popular on the site.

The company has done so, it says, by ramping up its operations so that computers can review and make quick decisions on large amounts of content with thousands of reviewers making more nuanced decisions.

In the future, if a person disagrees with Facebook’s decision, he or she will be able to appeal to an independent review board.

Facebook “shouldn’t be making so many important decisions about free expression and safety on our own,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a call with reporters Thursday.

But as Zuckerberg detailed what the company has accomplished in recent months to crack down on spam, hate speech and violent content, he also acknowledged that Facebook has far to go.

“There are issues you never fix,” he said. “There’s going to be ongoing content issues.”

Company’s actions

In the call, Zuckerberg addressed a recent story in The New York Times that detailed how the company fought back during some of its biggest controversies over the past two years, such as the revelation of how the network was used by Russian operatives in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

The Times story suggested that company executives first dismissed early concerns about foreign operatives, then tried to deflect public attention away from Facebook once the news came out.

Zuckerberg said the firm made mistakes and was slow to understand the enormity of the issues it faced. “But to suggest that we didn’t want to know is simply untrue,” he said.

Zuckerberg also said he didn’t know the firm had hired Definers Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that spread negative information about Facebook competitors as the social networking firm was in the midst of one scandal after another. Facebook severed its relationship with the firm.

“It may be normal in Washington, but it’s not the kind of thing I want Facebook associated with, which is why we won’t be doing it,” Zuckerberg said.

The firm posted a rebuttal to the Times story.

Content removed

Facebook said it is getting better at proactively finding and removing content such as spam, violent posts and hate speech. The company said it removed or took other action on 15.4 million pieces of violent content between June and September of this year, about double what it removed in the prior three months.

But Zuckerberg and other executives said Facebook still has more work to do in places such as Myanmar. In the third quarter, the firm said it proactively identified 63 percent of the hate speech it removed, up from 13 percent in the last quarter of 2017. At least 100 Burmese language experts are reviewing content, the firm said.

One issue that continues to dog Facebook is that some of the most popular content is also the most sensational and provocative. Facebook said it now penalizes what it calls “borderline content” so it gets less distribution and engagement.

“By fixing this incentive problem in our services, we believe it’ll create a virtuous cycle: by reducing sensationalism of all forms, we’ll create a healthier, less-polarized discourse where more people feel safe participating,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post. 

Critics of the company, however, said Zuckerberg hasn’t gone far enough to address the inherent problems of Facebook, which has 2 billion users.

“We have a man-made, for-profit, simultaneous communication space, marketplace and battle space and that it is, as a result, designed not to reward veracity or morality but virality,” said Peter W. Singer, strategist and senior fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, at an event Thursday in Washington, D.C.

VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

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Climate Change, Steel, Migration Bedevil G20 Communique

Climate change, steel and migration have emerged as sticking points in the final communique that world leaders will issue at the end of the Group of 20 summit in Argentina later this month, an Argentine government official said on Thursday.

Those issues were the “most complicated” areas of discussion, said Argentina’s Pedro Villagra Delgado, the lead organizer, or “sherpa,” for the summit of leaders from key industrialized and developing economies. 

But he told a press briefing he was optimistic these issues would be resolved in time.

The G20 communique is a non-binding agreement on key international policy issues and will be presented at the conclusion of the two-day summit, which begins on Nov. 30.

Climate goals concern United States

Villagra Delgado said the United States was resistant to including language that outlined guidelines for climate goals in the document.

After withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement last year, the United States broke with other G20 member countries who have pledged to end coal usage and take steps to reach the goals outlined in the accord.

Villagra Delgado also said China disagreed with the rest of the G20 countries on steel, but did not provide further details over the specifics of their disagreement.

The United States has skirmished with a number of its trading partners — including China — over steel, imposing a 25 percent duty on imports of steel and a tariff of 10 percent on aluminum.

Other countries objected to including language about immigration in the communique, Villagra Delgado said, but would not elaborate on which countries expressed concern.

WTO reform may be on table

Reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) may also be a topic of discussion at this month’s meeting, Villagra Delgado said, but added that specific issues to be discussed in the G20 sessions were still being worked out.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of the WTO, while China has claimed the 20-year-old organization’s dispute resolution mechanisms are outdated in the current global economy.

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Realistic Masks Made in Japan Find Demand from Tech, Car Companies

Super-realistic face masks made by a tiny company in rural Japan are in demand from the domestic tech and entertainment industries and from countries as far away as Saudi Arabia.

The 300,000-yen ($2,650) masks, made of resin and plastic by five employees at REAL-f Co., attempt to accurately duplicate an individual’s face down to fine wrinkles and skin texture.

Company founder Osamu Kitagawa came up with the idea while working at a printing machine manufacturer.

But it took him two years of experimentation before he found a way to use three-dimensional facial data from high-quality photographs to make the masks, and started selling them in 2011.

The company, based in the western prefecture of Shiga, receives about 100 orders every year from entertainment, automobile, technology and security companies, mainly in Japan.

For example, a Japanese car company ordered a mask of a sleeping face to improve its facial recognition technology to detect if a driver had dozed off, Kitagawa said.

“I am proud that my product is helping further development of facial recognition technology,” he added. “I hope that the developers would enhance face identification accuracy using these realistic masks.”

Kitagawa, 60, said he had also received orders from organizations linked to the Saudi government to create masks for the king and princes.

“I was told the masks were for portraits to be displayed in public areas,” he said.

Kitagawa said he works with clients carefully to ensure his products will not be used for illicit purposes and cause security risks, but added he could not rule out such threats.

He said his goal was to create 100 percent realistic masks, and he hoped to use softer materials, such as silicon, in the future.

“I would like these masks to be used for medical purposes, which is possible once they can be made using soft materials,” he said. “And as humanoid robots are being developed, I hope this will help developers to create [more realistic robots] at a low cost.”

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Ukraine PM Upbeat on IMF Loan Prospects

Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman expects to get new loans from the International Monetary Fund as early as December, once parliament passes a budget of stability that refrains from making pre-election populist moves, he said Thursday.

Securing IMF assistance will also unlock loans from the World Bank and the European Union. Groysman also said Ukraine was in negotiations with Washington for a new loan guarantee for sovereign debt.

Groysman negotiated a new deal with the IMF last month aimed at keeping finances on an even keel during a choppy election period next year. The new loans are contingent on his steering an IMF-compliant budget through parliament.

“This budget is a budget of stability and continuation of reforms,” Groysman said in an interview with Reuters. “This is fully consistent with our IMF program.”

“Yes. We are counting on a tranche in December,” he added, when asked about when IMF loans were expected, though he did not elaborate on the possible size of the loan.

Ukraine’s government approved a draft budget in September but it will typically undergo a slew of amendments before parliament finally approves it. 

Tax proposal dropped

Groysman said a proposal to change how companies are taxed — on withdrawn capital, rather than profits — had been dropped from the budget because of the IMF’s concerns.

He also said he would not bow to opposition parties’ demands to reverse a recent increase in household gas tariffs, a step that his government reluctantly took to qualify for more IMF assistance.

“Populism led to the weakness of Ukraine,” he said. “This should not be allowed.” 

The IMF and Kyiv’s foreign allies came to Ukraine’s rescue after it plunged into turmoil following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for separatist rebels occupying the eastern industrial Donbass region. 

The United States has also sold coal to plug a domestic shortage caused by rebels taking control of mines in the east. U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Ukraine this week. 

In response to a question about whether Ukraine would continue to buy coal from the United States and potentially also liquefied natural gas, Groysman said that “liquefied gas is very interesting for Ukraine. We talked about the whole spectrum of our cooperation in the energy sector.”

As for coal, he added, “we will buy it from our international partners until we cover the domestic deficit.” 

Washington has also previously issued loan guarantees for Ukrainian debt. Groysman said another such guarantee was “under discussion.” 

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