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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Business Bosses Alarmed as Resignations Imperil Brexit Deal

Business leaders expressed growing alarm Thursday as a draft Brexit agreement seen as the only chance of preserving some stability in U.K.-EU trading threatened to unravel, sending stock prices and the pound plunging.

Just 12 hours after British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that her cabinet had agreed to the terms of the draft agreement, Brexit minister Dominic Raab and work and pensions minister Esther McVey quit, saying they could not support it.

Their departures and those of other, junior ministers, revived the specter for business of Britain leaving the European Union without a deal next March, and sent shares in British housebuilders, retailers and banks tumbling.

“The political situation remains uncertain,” German carmaker BMW said in a statement. “We must therefore continue to prepare for the worst-case scenario, which is what a no-deal Brexit would represent.

“We continue to call on all sides to work toward a final agreement which maintains the truly frictionless trade on which our international production network is based.”

The European Union is Britain’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 44 percent of U.K. exports and 53 percent of imports to the UK.

After 45 years of membership, industries including defense, cars and aerospace have created intricate supply chains that rely on smooth, “just-in-time” delivery of thousands of parts across the sea that divides Britain from the continent.

Business leaders fear that the country could stumble toward a no-deal Brexit where border checks block ports and fracture the supply chains that support the likes of Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems.

Karen Betts, the head of the Scotch Whisky Association, said a no-deal Brexit would cause “considerable difficulties” for the industry and increase cost and complexity. It accounts for around 20 percent of all U.K. food and drink exports.

‘Only deal in town’

A senior executive at one of Britain’s biggest banks said this was the most disastrous government he had ever seen.

“The rest of the world is looking at us and laughing. It is time to have some stability so business can get some certainty. This is what the country needs.”

Industry bosses who had been briefed on the draft agreement by ministers late Wednesday had broadly welcomed it as the best chance of a compromise that would secure a transition period and avert the chaos of no deal at all.

May’s office also released statements from a number of major companies such as Diageo, the London Stock Exchange and Royal Mail welcoming the draft deal.

“Most business people ultimately are pragmatists and this is about playing the cards we have been dealt rather than wishing for a better hand,” Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems, told BBC Radio.

Iain Anderson, executive chairman of public affairs firm Cicero, which represents many finance companies, said although most executives did not like May’s deal they realized it was now the only game in town.

“Business is watching with horror the resignations now taking place,” he said. “Yesterday we had a plan and stability and today we do not.

“There is now no time to negotiate another deal. We thought we had stability — now we have instability writ large.”

The U.K. chief of German industrial group Siemens, which employs 15,000 people in the U.K., reiterated his call to get behind the draft agreement even as senior politicians called for May to quit.

“We hope all sides keep calm, look at the facts, and move to support this draft to provide UK business with greater certainty,” Juergen Maier said in an emailed statement.

Even if May survives, her chances of winning a vote in parliament to approve the draft agreement are seen as slim.

Market jitters

Lawmakers across the political spectrum have said May’s deal will leave Britain bound by EU rules without having any say.

Many have argued it will also damage the integrity of the United Kingdom by aligning Northern Ireland with the rest of the EU in order to avoid a hard border with EU-member Ireland.

Many executives spoken to by Reuters were trying to guess what could happen next, either a national election, a second referendum or the extension of the negotiating period.

One senior executive at a FTSE 100 company was still holding out hope, however, that lawmakers would eventually be persuaded to vote for the deal when it comes before parliament before the end of the year.

“We’re going to need the market to throw up and scare them all into voting for it,” he said. The pound was down 1.8 percent against the dollar in early evening trading.

The CEO of French outdoor advertising company JCDecaux, which runs London’s bus-shelter advertising and makes 10 percent of its sales in Britain, called the situation “obviously very serious.”

“Today’s events reinforce the uncertainties in the market,” Jean-Charles Decaux told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of an industry conference in Barcelona.

Martin Sorrell, ex-CEO and founder of ad agency group WPP and one of Britain’s best-known businessmen, said the country was in a state. “The situation this morning saps the confidence of the city and the country,” he told Reuters.

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Debut of China AI Anchor Stirs Up Tech Race Debates

China’s state-run Xinhua News has debuted what it called the world’s first artificial intelligence (AI) anchor. But the novelty has generated more dislikes than likes online among Chinese netizens, with many calling the new virtual host “a news-reading device without a soul.”

Analysts say the latest creation has showcased China’s short-term progress in voice recognition, text mining and semantic analysis, but challenges remain ahead for its long-term ambition of becoming an AI superpower by 2030.

Nonhuman anchors

Collaborating with Chinese search engine Sogou, Xinhua introduced two AI anchors, one for English broadcasts and the other for Chinese, both of which are based on images of the agency’s real newscasters, Zhang Zhao and Qiu Hao respectively.

In its inaugural broadcast last week, the English-speaking anchor was more tech cheerleader than newshound, rattling off lines few anchors would be caught dead reading, such as: “the development of the media industry calls for continuous innovation and deep integration with the international advanced technologies.”

It also promised “to work tirelessly to keep you [audience] informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted” 24/7 across multiple platforms simultaneously if necessary, according to the news agency.

No soul

Local audiences appear to be unimpressed, critiquing the news bots’ not so human touch and synthesized voices.

On Weibo, China’s Twitterlike microblogging platform, more than one user wrote that such anchors have “no soul,” in response to Xinhua’s announcement. And one user joked: “what if we have an AI [country] leader?” while another questioned what it stands for in terms of journalistic values by saying “What a nutcase. Fake news is on every day.”

Others pondered the implication AI news bots might have on employment and workers.

“It all comes down to production costs, which will determine if [we] lose jobs,” one Weibo user wrote. Some argued that only low-end labor-intensive jobs will be easily replaced by intelligent robots while others gloated about the possibility of employers utilizing an army of low-cost robots to make a fortune.

A simple use case

Industry experts said the digital anchor system is based on images of real people and possibly animated parts of their mouths and faces, with machine-learning technology recreating humanlike speech patterns and facial movements. It then uses a synthesized voice for the delivery of the news broadcast.

The creation showcases China’s progress in voice recognition, text mining and semantic analysis, all of which is covered by natural language processing, according to Liu Chien-chih, secretary-general of Asia IoT Alliance (AIOTA).

But that’s just one of many aspects of AI technologies, he wrote in an email to VOA.

Given the pace of experimental AI adoption by Chinese businesses, more user scenarios or designs of user interface can be anticipated in China, Liu added.

Chris Dong, director of China research at the market intelligence firm IDC, agreed the digital anchor is as simple as what he calls a “use case” for AI-powered services to attract commercials and audiences.

He said, in an email to VOA, that China has fast-tracked its big data advantage around consumers or internet of things (IoT) infrastructure to add commercial value.

Artificial Intelligence has also allowed China to accelerate its digital transformation across various industries or value chains, which are made smarter and more efficient, Dong added.

Far from a threat to the US

But both said China is far from a threat to challenge U.S. leadership on AI given its lack of an open market and respect for intellectual property rights (IPRs) as well as its lagging innovative competency on core AI technologies.

Earlier, Lee Kai-fu, a well-known venture capitalist who led Google before it pulled out of China, was quoted by news website Tech Crunch as saying that the United States may have created Artificial Intelligence, but China is taking the ball and running with it when it comes to one of the world’s most pivotal technology innovations.

Lee summed up four major drivers behind his observation that China is beating the United States in AI: abundant data, hungry entrepreneurs, growing AI expertise and massive government support and funding.

Beijing has set a goal to become an AI superpower by 2030, and to turn the sector into a $150 billion industry.

Yet, IDC’s Dong cast doubts on AI’s adoption rate and effectiveness in China’s traditional sectors. Some, such as the manufacturing sector, is worsening, he said.

He said China’s “state capitalism may have its short-term efficiency and gain, but over the longer-term, it is the open market that is fundamental to building an effective innovation ecosystem.”

The analyst urges China to open up and include multinational software and services to contribute to its digital economic transformation.

“China’s ‘Made-in-China 2025’ should go back to the original flavor … no longer Made and Controlled by Chinese, but more [of] an Open Platform of Made-in-China that both local and foreign players have a level-playing field,” he said.

In addition to a significant gap in core technologies, China’s failure to uphold IPRs will go against its future development of AI software, “which is often sold many-fold in the U.S. than in China as the Chinese tend to think intangible assets are free,” AIOTA’s Liu said.

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In India, Women Turn to Apps to Avoid, Report Harassment

New web and phone apps in India are helping women stay safe in public spaces by making it easier for them to report harassment and get help, developers say.

Women are increasingly turning to technology to stay safe in public spaces, which in turn helps the police to map “harassment prone” spots — from dimly lit roads to bus routes and street corners.

Safety is the biggest concern for women using public and private transport, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey released Thursday, as improving city access for women becomes a major focus globally.

“Women always strategize on how to access public spaces, from how to dress to what mode of transport to take, timings and whether they should travel alone or in a group,” said Sameera Khan, columnist and co-author of “Why Loiter? Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets.”

Reported crimes up 80 percent

Indian government data shows reported cases of crime against women rose by more than 80 percent between 2007 and 2016.

The fatal gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012 put the spotlight on the dangers women face in India’s public spaces.

The incident spurred Supreet Singh of charity Red Dot Foundation to create the SafeCity app that encourages women across 11 Indian cities to report harassment and flag hotspots.

“We want to bridge the gap between the ground reality of harassment in public spaces and what is actually being reported,” said Singh, a speaker at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference on Thursday.

The aim is to take the spotlight off the victim and focus on the areas where crimes are committed so action can be taken.

Dimly lit lanes, crowded public transport, paths leading to community toilets, basements, parking lots and parks are places where Indian women feel most vulnerable, campaigners say.

Stigma attached to sexual harassment and an insensitive police reporting mechanism result in many cases going unreported, rights campaigners say.

Apps are promising

But apps like SafeCity, My Safetipin and Himmat (courage) promise anonymity to women reporting crimes and share data collected through the app with government agencies such as the police, municipal corporations and the transport department.

“The data has helped in many small ways,” said Singh of the Red Dot Foundation. “From getting the police to increase patrolling in an area prone to ‘eve-teasing’ to getting authorities to increase street lighting in dark alleys, the app is bringing change.”

Police in many Indian cities, including New Delhi, Gurgaon and Chandigarh, are also encouraging women to use apps to register complaints, promising prompt action.

“Safety apps are another such strategy that could be applied by women but I worry that by giving these apps, everyone else, most importantly the state, should not abdicate its responsibility towards public safety,” Khan said.

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Report: China Appears to Ease North Korea Sanctions

A U.S. congressional commission said Wednesday that China appears to have relaxed enforcement of sanctions on North Korea and called on the Treasury Department to provide a report on Chinese compliance within 180 days.

In its annual report, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said the Treasury report should include a classified list of Chinese financial institutions, businesses and officials involved in trading with North Korea that could be subject to future sanctions.

The bipartisan commission said China had appeared to enforce sanctions on North Korea more thoroughly than in the past in 2017 and in early 2018.

But this effort appeared to have relaxed since a thaw in relations between China and North Korea as the long-time ally of Beijing began to engage with the United States this year.

Key lifelines

“China appears to have eased off sanctions enforcement, despite its promises to keep sanctions intact until North Korea gets rid of its nuclear weapons,” the report said.

“North Korean workers have returned to jobs in northeast China, economic activity and tourism have picked up in border towns, flights in both directions have resumed, and the two countries have conducted high-profile official exchanges to discuss economic development,” it said.

It said China always left “key lifelines” in place for North Korea and there were “holes” in enforcement that included “ship to ship” transfers of goods.

The report said the Treasury Department, in recommending Chinese sanctions targets, should also “explain the potential broader impacts of sanctioning those entities.”

The United Nations Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for its weapons programs. The United States has imposed sanctions in the past on Chinese and other foreign firms for violating those steps.

Reward Pyongyang?

China and Russia have said the Security Council should reward Pyongyang for “positive developments” after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in June and Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization.

China’s top diplomat and politburo member Yang Jiechi said after talks in Washington last week that China would “continue to enforce strictly relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

Trump has suggested China may be exerting negative pressure on U.S. efforts to press North Korea to denuclearize in response to U.S. trade measures on Beijing.

The U.S. Treasury did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the commission report, but the State Department said it expected all U.N. states to implement sanctions resolutions until North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons.

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