Study: Farmers Face Climate Change Threat to Their Farms, Incomes

About 76% of farmers are worried about the future impact of climate change, while 71% say it already has had an impact on their farms and incomes, a recent survey by life science company Bayer Group found.

Researchers interviewed 800 farmers in eight countries — Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Kenya, Ukraine and the United States — and said that 568 of those farmers have witnessed the impact of climate change directly on their farms.

About 80% of them have experienced heat effects and anticipate reduced yields in the coming years.

Rodrigo Santos, president of the Crop Science Division at Bayer, said that despite the impact of climate change on farming communities, there will be more demand for food harvested from less land in the coming years.

“We need to produce 50% more food … with 20% less land per capita than we do today,” Santos said.

“Climate change for us, when we live in the cities, is one thing, but for the farmers it is impacting their yields, it’s impacting their production, it’s impacting their ability to produce food and feed,” he said.

The report said that 73% of farmers interviewed in Kenya, for instance, have faced drought. Persistent droughts in the East African nation have resulted in crop losses and livestock deaths.

The report highlights that 1 in every 6 farmers worldwide suffered a nearly 16% loss of income due to adverse weather conditions over the past two years.

Unpredictable weather patterns and insufficient seed varieties exacerbated food insecurity in Africa, according to experts.

The head of Africa Agribusiness International Finance Corp. at the World Bank, Yosuke Kotsuji, said the continent needs to adopt new farm technologies faster.

“The headache is how to scale technology dissemination,” he said. “The way you and I can farm — next door we can get quite different results.”

According to experts, older African farmers encounter difficulties when it comes to embracing technologies, unlike their younger counterparts on the continent.

Most farmers surveyed mentioned that they either currently implement or plan to adopt methods that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, over 50% of them are striving to enhance biodiversity.

Doaa Abdel-Motaal, a senior counselor at the World Trade Organization, said there is a need to facilitate the easy movement of food in different countries to fight food insecurity.

“We also need to take into account the fact that the climate crisis is progressing and there will be more climate calamities, unfortunately, in different parts of the globe,” Abdel-Motaal said. “So allowing food to move from country A to country B to counter those calamities so that countries don’t starve is absolutely essential.

“Where countries find themselves on the map is no more than an accident of geography. There are some countries that are completely dependent on imported food for their food security,” he said.

Farmers worry about escalating fertilizer costs, energy prices and fluctuations in prices and income, the report said.

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Arizona Governor: Taiwan Firm’s Semiconductor Plant Back on Schedule

Earlier this year, Taiwanese semiconductor giant TSMC announced that it was delaying the opening of a computer chip plant in the U.S. state of Arizona because of a shortage of specialized workers. But during a visit to Taiwan this week, Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs told officials that the project is back on schedule and should have no further delays. From Phoenix, Arizona, Levi Stallings has our story.

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The Fall Equinox Is Here; What Does That Mean?

Fall is in the air — officially.

The equinox arrives on Saturday, marking the start of the fall season for the Northern Hemisphere.

But what does that actually mean? Here’s what to know about how we split up the year using the Earth’s orbit.

What is the equinox?

As the Earth travels around the sun, it does so at an angle.

For most of the year, the Earth’s axis is tilted either toward or away from the sun. That means the sun’s warmth and light fall unequally on the northern and southern halves of the planet.

During the equinox, the Earth’s axis and its orbit line up so that both hemispheres get an equal amount of sunlight.

The word equinox comes from two Latin words meaning equal and night. That’s because on the equinox, day and night last almost the same amount of time — though one may get a few extra minutes, depending on where you are on the planet.

The Northern Hemisphere’s spring — or vernal — equinox can land between March 19 and 21, depending on the year. Its fall – or autumnal — equinox can land between Sept. 21 and 24.

What is the solstice?

The solstices mark the times during the year when the Earth is seeing its strongest tilt toward or away from the sun. This means the hemispheres are getting very different amounts of sunlight — and days and nights are at their most unequal.

During the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice, the upper half of the Earth is tilted in toward the sun, creating the longest day and shortest night of the year. This solstice falls between June 20 and 22.

Meanwhile, at the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning away from the sun — leading to the shortest day and longest night of the year. The winter solstice falls between December 20 and 23.

What’s the difference between meteorological and astronomical seasons?

These are just two different ways to carve up the year.

Meteorological seasons are defined by the weather. They break down the year into three-month seasons based on annual temperature cycles. By that calendar, spring starts on March 1, summer on June 1, fall on Sept. 1 and winter on Dec. 1.

Astronomical seasons depend on how the Earth moves around the sun.

Equinoxes, when the sun lands equally on both hemispheres, mark the start of spring and autumn. Solstices, when the Earth sees its strongest tilt toward or away from the sun, kick off summer and winter.

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 UNGA Approves Agreement with 5-Year Goal to End Tuberculosis

U.N. member nations Friday approved a “political declaration” that establishes a plan to end tuberculosis around the world in the next five years.

The plan, engineered by the World Health Organization (WHO), was approved during the U.N. General Assembly’s high-level meeting on tuberculosis in New York. It sets a goal that includes reaching 90% of the world’s population with TB prevention services, using a WHO-recommended TB rapid test for initial diagnosis, and licensing at least one new TB vaccine by 2027.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – who led the meeting – says many of the targets established at the first high-level tuberculosis meeting in 2018 were not met, mainly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He says the goal of treating 44 million people with TB fell short by about 10 million people, and the goal of reaching 30 million people with preventive treatment fell short by about half.

The target of funding providing $2 billion for research also fell short by about half between 2018 and 2020.

TB remains one of the world’s most deadly infectious diseases, the WHO chief says, killing more than a million people a year while infecting more than 10 million.

Tedros says there are also about 500,000 drug-resistant TB cases each year.

The WHO reports new cases and deaths from TB rose between 2020 and 2021 – the peak years of the pandemic – but adds that coordinated efforts since then have seen some improvement in the numbers.

As it did with COVID-19 during the pandemic, the WHO has also launched a TB vaccine accelerator program designed to speed up the development, testing and authorization of new TB vaccines.

The WHO says there is currently only one licensed TB vaccine, and while it has proved to be moderately effective in preventing severe TB in infants, it inadequately protects adolescents and adults, who account for 90% of TB transmission globally.

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Australia to Examine National COVID-19 Response

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese Thursday announced the government will conduct a yearlong inquiry into the country’s approach to COVID-19, but opposition politicians say the limited scope and powers of the inquiry will make it “a complete waste of time.”   

International border closures made Australia a fortress for much of the pandemic.  It had some of the world’s longest and toughest lockdowns.

Australian efforts to contain the virus were some of the most restrictive in the world, with residents of Melbourne spending more time in lockdowns than almost any other urban area. 

An inquiry, announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will look at the health and economic issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic and bureaucratic obstacles to responding to it. 

Three independent experts, to be appointed by the government, will examine vaccinations, the availability of personal protective equipment and public health campaigns as well as financial support for businesses and individuals.   

Albanese told reporters Thursday that an independent inquiry will help to prepare Australia for the next pandemic.

“It was a time where Australians joined together,” said Albanese. “They made sacrifices. We need to examine what went right, what could be done better with a focus on the future because the health experts and the science tells us that this pandemic is not likely to be the last one.”

The federal inquiry follows up to 20 other state probes into COVID-19 in Australia.

Experts hope the new inquiry will provide a comprehensive nationwide assessment of Australia’s response to the pandemic.

Nancy Baxter, head of the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Australia must be prepared for the next global virus outbreak.

“The focus of this should be on what we do differently in the next pandemic or what we do similarly,” said Baxter. “We need to learn.  Unfortunately, we will likely face another pandemic in our lifetime and so we need to be able to face that in a better way than we did COVID-19.”  

Only federal government decisions, not those of state and territory authorities, will be scrutinized.  Opposition lawmakers have said the probe therefore will not go far enough.  

Albanese has not said whether the inquiry would have powers to force political leaders to testify. 

The expert panel has been given a year for its work. 

Over the past week, more than 5,000 cases were reported across the country, according to official data but Australian authorities say the virus’s impact on the health system is fading.   

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School Shooting Survivor Develops App That Seeks to Help People Heal

Kai Koerber was a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when a gunman killed 14 students and three staff members there on Valentine’s Day in 2018.

Seeing his peers — and himself — struggle with returning to normal, he wanted to do something to help people manage their emotions on their own terms.

While some of his classmates at the Parkland, Florida, school have worked on advocating for gun control, entered politics or simply taken a step back to heal and focus on their studies, Koerber’s background in technology — he’d originally wanted to be a rocket scientist — led him in a different direction: to build a smartphone app.

The result was Joy: AI Wellness Platform, which uses artificial intelligence to suggest bite-sized mindfulness activities for people based on how they are feeling. The algorithm Koerber’s team built is designed to recognize how people feel from the sounds of their voices — regardless of the words or language they speak.

“In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the first thing that came to mind after we’ve experienced this horrible, traumatic event — how are we going to personally recover?” he said. “It’s great to say OK, we’re going to build a better legal infrastructure to prevent gun sales, increased background checks, all the legislative things. But people really weren’t thinking about … the mental health side of things.”

Like many of his peers, Koerber said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for a “very long time” and only recently has it gotten a little better.

“So, when I came to Cal, I was like, ‘Let me just start a research team that builds some groundbreaking AI and see if that’s possible,’” said the 23-year-old, who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley earlier this year. “The idea was to provide a platform to people who were struggling with, let’s say sadness, grief, anger … to be able to get a mindfulness practice or wellness practice on the go that meets our emotional needs on the go.”

He said it was important to offer activities that can be done quickly, sometimes lasting just a few seconds, wherever the user might be.

Mohammed Zareef-Mustafa, a former classmate of Koerber’s who’s been using the app for a few months, said the voice-emotion recognition part is “different than anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“I use the app about three times a week, because the practices are short and easy to get into. It really helps me quickly de-stress before I have to do things, like job interviews,” he said.

To use Joy, you simply speak into the app. The AI is supposed to recognize how you are feeling from your voice, then suggest short activities.

It doesn’t always get your mood right, so it’s possible to manually pick your disposition. Let’s say you are feeling “neutral” at the moment. The app suggests several activities, such as 15-second exercise called “mindful consumption” that encourages you to “think about all the lives and beings involved in producing what you eat or use that day.”

Yet another activity helps you practice making an effective apology. Feeling sad? A suggestion pops up asking you to track how many times you’ve laughed over a seven-day period and tally it up at the end of the week to see what moments gave you a sense of joy, purpose or satisfaction.

The iPhone app is available for an $8 monthly subscription, with a discount if you subscribe for a whole year. It’s a work in progress, and as it goes with AI, the more people use it, the more accurate it becomes.

A plethora of wellness apps on the market claim to help people with mental health issues, but it’s not always clear whether they work, said Colin Walsh, a professor of biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt University who has studied the use of AI in suicide prevention. According to Walsh, it is feasible to take someone’s voice and glean some aspects of their emotional state.

“The challenge is if you as a user feel like it’s not really representing what you think your current state is like, that’s an issue,” he said. “There should be some mechanism by which that feedback can go back.”

The stakes also matter. Facebook, for instance, faced criticism for its suicide prevention tool, which used AI (as well as humans) to flag users who may be contemplating suicide, and — in some serious cases — contact law enforcement to check on the person. But if the stakes are lower, Walsh said, if the technology is simply directing someone to spend some time outside, it’s unlikely to cause harm.

Koerber said people tend to forget, after mass shootings, that survivors don’t just “bounce back right away” from the trauma they experienced. It takes years to recover.

“This is something that people carry with them, in some way, shape or form, for the rest of their lives,” he said.

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UN Chief Underscores Little Time Left to Avert Climate Crisis

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned a climate summit of world leaders on Wednesday there is not much time left to avert an environmental catastrophe.

“We must make up for time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels,” Guterres told world leaders at the start of the daylong General Assembly symposium at United Nations headquarters in New York.

After Guterres’ opening remarks, heads of state representing 34 nations were set to speak on the importance of sustainability, including Brazil, Pakistan, South Africa, Canada, the European Union and Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation imperiled by rising sea levels. Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva withdrew after falling ill. His environment minister was expected to speak in his place.

The two largest economies that also are the biggest polluters — the United States and China — were noticeably left off the speakers’ list. Only nations who planned to increase their pledges to slash emissions were invited to the podium. U.S. Special Envoy on Climate John Kerry was in attendance.

Guterres said that the global shift from fossil fuels to renewables is underway, but that progress is decades overdue. The harms of climate change, he said, are hitting the developing world the hardest, and the Global North is mostly to blame.

“Many of the poorest nations have every right to be angry, angry that they are suffering from a climate crisis they did nothing to create, angry that promised finance has not been materialized, angry that their borrowing costs are sky-high,” the U.N. chief said.

Guterres said he is optimistic that the climate summit will help persuade some of the richest countries and corporations to meet the U.N.’s worldwide target of net-zero emissions by 2050. He said he is hopeful the powers that be take sharp action and invest more in the future of renewable energy.

But the focus was not solely on curbing pollution in the wealthiest echelons of the Global North.

Kenyan President William Ruto urged countries in the Global South to pool together their trillions of dollars in collective resources to independently finance climate initiatives.

“Neither Africa nor the developing world stands in need of charity from developed countries,” he said.

Ruto floated another progressive idea in his address: a universal tax on the sale of fossil fuels.

The climate summit also featured executives from Allianz, the travel insurer, as well as numerous key global lenders, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Additionally, the mayor of London and the governor of California were set to speak.

A U.N. report released earlier this month noted global temperatures are on track to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average in the next decade, an increase widely recognized as a tipping point in the battle to reverse climate change.

Some information for this story was provided by Reuters.

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Report: Increase in Chinese-Language Malware Could ‘Challenge’ Russian Dominance of Cybercrime

For decades, Russian and eastern European hackers have dominated the cybercrime underworld. These days they may face a challenge from a new contender: China. 

Researchers at cybersecurity firm Proofpoint say they have detected an increase in the spread of Chinese language malware through email campaigns since early 2023, signaling a surge in Chinese cybercrime activity and a new trend in the global threat landscape. 

“We basically went from drought to flood here,” said Selena Larson, senior threat intelligence analyst at Proofpoint and one of the authors of a new Proofpoint report on Chinese malware.  

The increase, Larson said, could be due to several factors. 

“There might be increased availability, there might be an ease of access to some of this malware, (and there might be) just increased activity by Chinese-speaking cybercrime threat actors as a whole,” Larson said in an interview. 

While Russian-speaking actors continue to dominate cybercrime networks, the Proofpoint report says the recent surge in Chinese language malware “may challenge the dominance that the Russian-speaking cybercrime market has on the threat landscape.” 

Malware delivered via email

The hackers behind the Chinese campaigns use a type of malicious software known as a Remote Access Trojan, or RAT.  This malware is delivered via email and allows the cybercriminals to access a computer from a remote location and steal data or perform other malicious actions. 

The Chinese language malware, contained in fake invoices sent to unsuspecting businesses and other targets, is linked to suspected Chinese cybercrime operations, according to Proofpoint.  

The cybercriminals have used several types of malware to carry out hacking operations.  

One of them, called Sainbox, targeted dozens of companies, mostly in the manufacturing and technology sectors, in May. Other recently identified malware, dubbed ValleyRAT, was deployed in at least six hacking campaigns in 2023.  

“Campaigns are generally low-volume and are typically sent to global organizations with operations in China,” the report says.   

The email subjects and content are usually written in Chinese, and are typically related to invoices, payments, and new products, according to the report.  

The targeted users have Chinese names spelled with Chinese characters, or corporate email addresses linked to businesses operating in China, the report says.  

Larson said the proliferation of Chinese-language malware suggests cybercrime remains lucrative and attractive to actors beyond eastern Europe.  

“It may indicate Chinese speakers who conduct cybercrime operations might want to maybe take a larger slice of the financial gain,” Larson said. 

Cybercrime hurts economy 

Cybercrime is a booming industry that poses a grave threat to the global economy.  The FBI estimates cybercriminals inflicted potential losses of more than $10 billion in 2022, a 43% increase from the previous year.

While China is accused of carrying out state-sponsored cyberattacks against the United States, most of the ransomware attacks and other cybercrime in recent years have been chalked up to eastern European groups.   

Proofpoint is not the only cybersecurity firm reporting on Chinese-language malware in recent months. 

In February, digital security firm ESET said it had identified a malware campaign that targeted Chinese speakers in Southeast and East Asia by buying misleading ads that appeared in Google search results.

The campaign used the malware known as Sainbox or FatalRAT, the type that Proofpoint said it had detected in 20 campaigns this year. 

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Biden Administration Announces $600M to Produce COVID Tests, Will Reopen Website to Order Them

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it is providing $600 million in funding to produce new at-home COVID-19 tests and is restarting a website allowing Americans to again order up to four free tests per household — aiming to prevent possible shortages during a rise in coronavirus cases that has typically come during colder months.

The Department of Health and Human Services says orders can be placed at starting September 25, and that no-cost tests will be delivered for free by the United States Postal Service.

Twelve manufacturers that employ hundreds of people in seven states have been awarded funding and will produce 200 million over-the-counter tests to replenish federal stockpiles for government use, in addition to producing enough tests to meet demand for tests ordered online, the department said.

Federal officials said that will help guard against supply chain issues that sparked some shortages of at-home COVID tests made overseas during past surges in coronavirus cases.

Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, said the website will remain functional to receive orders through the holidays and “we reserve the right to keep it open even longer if we’re starting to see an increase in cases.”

“If there is a demand for these tests, we want to make sure that they’re made available to the American people for free in this way,” O’Connell said. “But, at this point, our focus is getting through the holidays and making sure folks can take a test if they’re going to see Grandma for Thanksgiving.”

The tests are designed to detect COVID variants currently circulating and are intended for use by the end of the year. But they will include instructions on how to verify extended expiration dates, the department said.

The initiative follows four previous rounds where federal officials and the U.S. Postal Service provided more than 755 million tests for free to homes nationwide.

It is also meant to complement ongoing federal efforts to provide free COVID tests to long-term care facilities, schools, low-income senior housing, uninsured individuals and underserved communities which are already distributing 4 million per week and have distributed 500 million tests to date, the department said.

O’Connell said manufacturers would be able to spread out the 200 million tests they will produce for federal use over 18 months. That means that, as demand for home tests rises via the website or at U.S. retailers when COVID cases increase around the country, producers can focus on meeting those orders — but that they will then have an additional outlet for the tests they produce during period when demand declines.

“We’ve seen every winter, as people move indoors into heated spaces, away from the outside that, over each of the seasons that COVID’s been a concern, that we have seen cases go up,” O’Connell said.

She added that also “there’s always an opportunity or chance for another variant to come” but “we’re not anticipating that.”

“That’s not why we’re doing this,” O’Connell said. “We’re doing this for the fall and winter season ahead and the potential for an increase in cases as a result.”

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said that the “Biden-Harris Administration, in partnership with domestic manufacturers, has made great strides in addressing vulnerabilities in the U.S. supply chain by reducing our reliance on overseas manufacturing.”

“These critical investments will strengthen our nation’s production levels of domestic at-home COVID-19 rapid tests and help mitigate the spread of the virus,” Becerra said in a statement.

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German Proposal for Huawei Curbs Triggers Telecom Operator Backlash

Germany’s interior ministry has proposed forcing telecommunications operators to curb their use of equipment made by China’s Huawei and ZTE, a government official said Wednesday, sparking warnings of likely disruption and possible legal action.

The interior ministry wants to impose the changes to 5G networks after a review highlighted Germany’s reliance on the two Chinese suppliers, as Berlin reassesses its relationship with a country it dubs both a partner and a systemic rival.

Telecom operators swiftly criticized the proposals, while Huawei Germany rejected what it called the “politicization” of cyber security in the country.

“Such an approach will have a negative impact on the digital transformation in Germany, inhibit innovation and significantly increase construction and operating costs for network operators,” it said in a statement.

Germany’s interior ministry has designed a staggered approach to try to limit disruption as operators remove all critical components from Chinese vendors in their 5G core networks by 2026, the government official said.

They should also reduce the share of Chinese components in their RAN and transport networks by October 1, 2026, to a maximum of 25%, said the official, who declined to be named.

The interior ministry and Chinese embassy did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

‘A major U-turn’

Deutsche Telekom called the deadline unrealistic, comparing it to Britain’s attempts to impose restrictions on Huawei, while Telefonica Deutschland said it would consider seeking damages as well as legal action.

“This represents a major U-turn,” said Paolo Pescatore, an analyst at PP Foresight. “Germany has been much slower than other countries in removing and replacing Huawei.”

Pescatore said the phaseout would take significant investment and be challenging given the ambitious timeframe.

“This will be a major headache for telcos. It could hold back 5G rollout and potentially lead to higher prices for users as well as dealing with disruption in any service issues.”

The interior ministry wants to present its approach to cabinet next week but could face resistance. A digital ministry spokesperson said no decision had been made yet.

The Huawei issue reflects a realization in Berlin that it may need tough political measures to force German companies to reduce their strategic dependencies on Asia’s rising superpower.

An analysis by the IW Institute showed German direct investment in China in the first half of this year remained close to its 2022 record high.

Chinese components not forbidden

Germany is considered a laggard in implementing the European Union’s toolbox of security measures for 5G networks, and Huawei accounts for 59% of Germany’s 5G RAN networks, according to a survey by telecoms consultancy Strand Consult.

Last week, the government said in response to a parliamentary inquiry that it had so far not forbidden the use of any new Chinese critical components in 5G networks.

While some countries like the United States have agreed to compensate telecoms operators billions of dollars for phasing out Chinese gear in 5G, Berlin has underscored that current legislation does not require it to provide compensation.

Juergen Gruetzner, managing director of the VATM industry association, told Reuters a transition period of six to eight years would be needed to avoid extra costs and achieve the phaseout.

“Simply upgrading and retrofitting tens of thousands of mobile phone masts is not technically possible. We are already working at full capacity,” he said. “All the capacity we have at the moment is needed to build 5G and fiber networks.”

The interior ministry plan foresees Chinese tech not being used at all in especially sensitive regions such as the capital Berlin, home of the federal government, the official said — a distinction that Strand Consult called “arbitrary.”

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Musk’s Neuralink to Start Human Trial of Brain Implant

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s brain-chip startup Neuralink said on Tuesday it has received approval from an independent review board to begin recruitment for the first human trial of its brain implant for paralysis patients. 

Those with paralysis due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis may qualify for the study, Neuralink said, but did not reveal how many participants would be enrolled in the trial, which will take about six years to complete. 

The study will use a robot to surgically place a brain-computer interface implant in a region of the brain that controls the intention to move, Neuralink said, adding that its initial goal is to enable people to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone. 

The company, which had earlier hoped to receive approval to implant its device in 10 patients, was negotiating a lower number of patients with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after the agency raised safety concerns, according to current and former employees. It is not known how many patients the FDA ultimately approved. 

Musk has grand ambitions for Neuralink, saying it would facilitate speedy surgical insertions of its chip devices to treat conditions such as obesity, autism, depression and schizophrenia.  

In May, the company said it had received clearance from the FDA for its first-in-human clinical trial, when it was already under federal scrutiny for its handling of animal testing. 

Even if the BCI device proves to be safe for human use, it would still potentially take more than a decade for the startup to secure commercial use clearance for it, according to experts. 

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Sponsor an Ocean? Tiny Island Nation of Niue Has Novel Plan to Protect Pacific

The tiny Pacific island nation of Niue has come up with a novel plan to protect its vast and pristine territorial waters — it will get sponsors to pay.

Under the plan, which was being launched by Niue’s Prime Minister Dalton Tagelagi on Tuesday in New York, individuals or companies can pay $148 to protect 1 square kilometer (about 250 acres) of ocean from threats such as illegal fishing and plastic waste for a period of 20 years.

Niue hopes to raise more than $18 million from the scheme by selling 127,000 square-kilometer units, representing the 40% of its waters that form a no-take marine protected area.

In an interview with The Associated Press before the launch, Tagelagi said his people have always had a close connection with the sea.

“Niue is just one island in the middle of the big blue ocean,” Tagelagi said. “We are surrounded by the ocean, and we live off the ocean. That’s our livelihood.”

He said Niueans inherited and learned about the ocean from their forefathers, and they want to be able to pass it on to the next generation in sustainable health.

Most fishing in Niue is to sustain local people, although there are some small-scale commercial operations and occasional offshore industrial-scale fishing, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Because of all the illegal fishing and all the other activities at the moment, we thought that we should be taking the lead, to teach others that we’ve got to protect the ocean,” Tagelagi said.

Unregulated fishing can deplete fish stocks, which then cannot replenish, while plastics can be ingested by or entangle marine wildlife. Human-caused climate change has also led to warmer and more acidic oceans, altering ecosystems for underwater species.

Niue is also especially vulnerable to rising sea levels threatening its land and freshwater, and the island is at risk of more intense tropical storms charged by warmer air and waters.

With a population of just 1,700 people, Niue acknowledges it needs outside help. It’s one of the smallest countries in the world, dwarfed by an ocean territory 1,200 times larger than its land mass.

Under the plan, the sponsorship money — called Ocean Conservation Commitments — will be administered by a charitable trust.

Niue will buy 1,700 sponsorship units, representing one for each of its citizens. Other launch donors include philanthropist Lyna Lam and her husband Chris Larsen, who co-founded blockchain company Ripple, and U.S.-based nonprofit Conservation International, which helped set up some technical aspects of the scheme.

Maël Imirizaldu, marine biologist and regional leader with Conservation International, said one problem with the conventional approach to ocean conservation funding was the need for places like Niue to constantly seek new funding on a project-by-project basis.

“The main idea was to try and switch that, to change the priority and actually help them have funding so they can plan for the next 10 years, 15 years, 20 years,” Imirizaldu said.

Simon Thrush, a professor of marine science at New Zealand’s University of Auckland who was not involved in the plan, said it sounded positive.

“It’s a good idea,” Thrush said, adding that as long as the plan was thoroughly vetted and guaranteed over the long term, “I’d be up for it.”

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Google Plans to Incorporate Its Bard Chatbot Into Its Apps

Google announced Tuesday that its Bard chatbot would be integrated into Gmail, YouTube and other applications in a push to broaden Alphabet’s user experience.

Google has spent years refining its generative AI without immediate plans to release a chatbot, until OpenAI unveiled ChatGPT late last year and partnered with Microsoft to popularize the cutting-edge tool. Google scrambled to put together its response: Bard.

Google cleared hurdles earlier this year to release Bard across the globe in dozens of languages, squeaking past European regulators who raised questions about the chatbot’s effect on data security.

The search engine giant is now waging a campaign to win public support.

These new updates — Bard extensions — represent the company’s most ambitious attempt at popularizing generative AI. Going forward, Bard can work as a plug-in with Google Drive, Gmail, YouTube and more.

A user might ask Bard to distill a string of lengthy and confusing emails into a pithy summary or order the chatbot to find the quickest route to an address using Google Maps.

The plug-in can be used by students and professionals who might want Bard to scour dense PDFs and Google Docs and return a list of bullet points.

A common criticism of chatbots is their inaccuracy and apparent ability to falsify information. Computer scientists call this flaw “hallucinations.” The Bard plug-in will include a button to fact-check the chatbot’s answers against search engine results in real time to determine if Bard is “hallucinating.”

Generative AI combs vast databases for linguistic patterns and other information in a process known as data-scraping. Data-scraping is what empowers Bard and ChatGPT to create unique, humanlike answers to queries in an instant. Essentially, chatbots imitate what is already available on the internet.

Activists have long worried that companies might train their chatbots on unsuspecting users’ personal information. Google said that Bard will access private data only with permission.

Google also said that any data-scraping it might perform on what users have stored in their personal Docs, Drive or Gmail accounts would not be used in targeted advertising or training Bard. Nor would private content be accessible to Google employees.

“You’re always in control of your privacy settings when deciding how you want to use these extensions, and you can turn them off at any time,” Google said in a blog post.

The Bard extensions come after Microsoft similarly incorporated ChatGPT into Bing earlier this year but ultimately failed to gain ground in its war on Google’s search engine dominance.

According to market analytics, ChatGPT, Bard’s top competitor, has been suffering marked declines in its user base as mania over generative AI has waned in recent months. Google is hoping to capitalize on ChatGPT’s losses and for Bard to catch up.

Some information for this story came from Agence France-Presse.

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Britain Invites China to Its Global AI Summit

Britain has invited China to its global artificial intelligence summit in November, with foreign minister James Cleverly saying the risks of the technology could not be contained if one of its leading players was absent.

“We cannot keep the UK public safe from the risks of AI if we exclude one of the leading nations in AI tech,” Cleverly said in a statement on Tuesday.  

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants Britain to become a global leader in AI regulation and the summit on Nov. 1-2 will bring together governments, tech companies and academics to discuss the risks posed by the powerful new technology.

Britain said the event would touch on topics such as how AI could undermine biosecurity as well as how the technology could be used for public good, for example in safer transport.  

Cleverly, who last month became the most senior minister to visit China in five years, has argued for deeper engagement with Beijing, saying it would be a mistake to try to isolate the world’s second largest economy and Chinese help was needed in areas such as climate change and economic instability.

“The UK’s approach to China is to protect our institutions and infrastructure, align with partners and engage where it is in the UK’s national interest,” Cleverly said on Tuesday.  

London is trying to improve ties with Beijing but there has been growing anxiety about Chinese activity in Britain in recent weeks after it was revealed that a parliamentary researcher was arrested in March on suspicion of spying for China.

The Chinese embassy in London was not immediately able to say if China would attend the AI summit.

Britain has appointed tech expert Matt Clifford and former senior diplomat Jonathan Black to lead preparations for the summit.  

The Financial Times reported that government officials want a less “draconian” approach to regulating the technology, compared with the European Union’s wide-sweeping AI Act.  

Under the incoming EU legislation, organizations using AI systems deemed “high risk” will be expected to complete rigorous risk assessments, log their activities, and make sensitive internal data available to authorities upon request.  

Clifford told Reuters last month that he hoped the UK summit would set the tone for future international debates on AI regulation.

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WHO: Hundreds of Children Die in Sudan Health Crisis

Measles, diarrhea and malnutrition, among other preventable diseases, kill about 100 children every month in Sudan where armed conflicts have uprooted more than five million people from their homes, according to the United Nations.

Between May 15 and September 14, at least 1,200 children under the age of five died from a deadly combination of a suspected measles outbreak and high malnutrition in nine camps for internally displaced people in Sudan’s White Nile state.

There have also been reports of cholera, dengue, and malaria cases emerging in various parts of the country, sparking concerns about the looming threat of epidemics.

“Children younger than five are worst impacted, accounting for nearly 70% of all cases and 76% of all deaths,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

The U.N. warning comes as Sudan’s health sector is teetering on the brink of collapse, crippled by a severe lack of funding and essential resources.

“Health facilities are at breaking point, due to shortages of staff, life-saving medicine and critical equipment, exacerbating current outbreaks and causing unnecessary deaths,” the WHO said.

Ongoing-armed hostilities between Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which started in April, have generated and exacerbated humanitarian crises in the African country.

The conflict has taken an immense toll on Sudan’s civilian population, with the Health Ministry acknowledging over 1,500 civilian deaths since the conflict started.

However, aid agencies contend that the actual death toll far exceeds the officially reported figures.

Both warring factions, the SAF and RSF, have faced accusations of committing egregious acts of violence against civilians, including arbitrary detentions and killings.  

“The conflict has paralyzed the economy, pushing millions to the brink of poverty,” Volker Türk, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said last week.

“More than 7.4 million children are without safe drinking water and at least 700,000 are at risk of severe acute malnutrition,” he said.

Humanitarian appeal 

In May, the U.N. appealed for $2.57 billion in humanitarian assistance for 18 million people in Sudan.

However, the situation remains dire, with aid agencies estimating that more than 24 million Sudanese are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

As of September 19, the appeal has garnered $788 million, approximately 30% of the required funds, with the United States leading the list of donors with a contribution of $472.5 million.

“The world has the means and the money to prevent every one of these deaths from measles or malnutrition,” Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement on Tuesday.

“And yet dozens of children are dying every day — a result of this devastating conflict and a lack of global attention. We can prevent more deaths, but need money for the response, access to those in need, and above all, an end to the fighting,” he said, according to the statement. 

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Climate Change Impeding Fight Against AIDS, TB and Malaria

Climate change and conflict are hitting efforts to tackle three of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, the head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has warned.

International initiatives to fight the diseases have largely recovered after being badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Fund’s 2023 results report released on Monday.

But the increasing challenges of climate change and conflict mean the world is likely to miss the target of putting an end to AIDS, TB and malaria by 2030 without “extraordinary steps,” said Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund.

For example, malaria is spreading to highland parts of Africa that were previously too cold for the mosquito carrying the disease-causing parasite.

Extreme weather events like floods are overwhelming health services, displacing communities, causing upsurges in infection and interrupting treatment in many different places, the report said. In countries including Sudan, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Myanmar, simply reaching vulnerable communities has also been immensely challenging due to insecurity, it added.

There are positives, Sands said. For example, in 2022, 6.7 million people were treated for TB in the countries where the Global Fund invests, 1.4 million more people than in the previous year.

The Fund also helped provide 24.5 million people with antiretroviral therapy for HIV and distributed 220 million mosquito nets.

Sands added that innovative prevention and diagnostic tools also provided hope.

This week, there is a high-level meeting on TB at the U.N. General Assembly, and advocates hope for renewed focus on the disease.

The Global Fund has faced criticism from some TB experts for not allocating more of its budget to the disease, as it is the biggest killer of the three diseases the fund focuses on.

“There’s no doubt that the world needs to devote more resources towards fighting TB… but it is not as simple as comparing annual deaths from each disease,” said Sands. For example, he said, many countries with the highest burden of TB are middle-income countries that have more capacity to fund health services domestically.

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FBI Echoes Warning on Danger of Artificial Intelligence

Just as many in the United States are starting to explore how to use artificial intelligence to make their lives easier, U.S. adversaries and criminal gangs are moving forward with plans to exploit the technology at Americans’ expense.

FBI Director Christopher Wray issued the warning Monday, telling a cybersecurity conference in Washington that artificial intelligence, or AI, “is ripe for potential abuses.”

“Criminals and hostile foreign governments are already exploiting that technology,” Wray said, without sharing specifics.

“While generative AI can certainly save law-abiding citizens time by automating tasks, it can also make it easier for bad guys to do things like generate deepfakes and malicious code and can provide a tool for threat actors to develop increasingly powerful, sophisticated, customizable and scalable capabilities,” he said.

Wray said the FBI is working to identify and track those using AI to harm U.S. citizens but added that the bureau is being cautious about employing AI itself.

“To stay ahead of the threat at the FBI, we’re determining how we can ethically and legally leverage AI to do our jobs,” he said.

When contacted by VOA, the FBI declined to elaborate on its concerns about employing AI. Nor did the bureau say when or if it has used AI, even on a limited basis.

Other U.S. national security agencies, however, are currently making use of AI.

The Department of Homeland Security is using AI to combat fentanyl trafficking, counter child sexual exploitation and protect critical infrastructure, according to department officials, even as they roll out guidelines governing its use.

“Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement last Thursday. “Our department must continue to keep pace with this rapidly evolving technology, and do so in a way that is transparent and respectful of the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of everyone we serve.”

DHS has also issued directives aimed at preventing its use of AI from being skewed by biased learning models and databases, and to give U.S. citizens a choice of opting out of systems using facial recognition technology.

But across multiple U.S. departments and agencies, the fear of the potential damage AI could cause is growing.

FBI officials, for example, warned in July that violent extremists and terrorists have been experimenting with AI to more easily build explosives.

And they said a growing number of criminals appear to be gravitating to the technology to carry out everything from petty crimes to financial heists.

It is China, though, that is driving the bulk of the concern.

National Security Agency officials have warned that Beijing started using AI to disseminate propaganda via what they described as a fake news channel last year.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” David Frederick, the NSA’s assistant deputy director for China, told a cybersecurity summit earlier this month.

“[Artificial intelligence] will enable more effective malign influence operations,” he added.

Such concerns have been bolstered by private cybersecurity companies.

Microsoft, for example, warned earlier this month that Chinese-linked cyber actors have started using AI to produce “eye-catching content” for disinformation efforts that has been gaining traction with U.S. voters.

“We can expect China to continue to hone this technology over time, though it remains to be seen how and when it will deploy it at scale,” Microsoft said.

For its part, China has repeatedly denied allegations it is using AI improperly.

“In recent years, some western media and think tanks have accused China of using artificial intelligence to create fake social media accounts to spread so-called ‘pro-China’ information,” Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in an email, following the publication of the Microsoft report.

“Such remarks are full of prejudice and malicious speculation against China, which China firmly opposes,” Liu added.

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Bystanders Less Likely to Give Women CPR: Research

Bystanders are less likely to give life-saving CPR to women having a cardiac arrest in public than men, leading to more women dying from the common health emergency, researchers said Monday.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation combines mouth-to-mouth breathing and chest compressions to pump blood to the brain of people whose hearts have stopped beating, potentially staving off death until medical help arrives.

In research to be presented at a medical conference in Spain this week, but which has not yet been peer-reviewed, a team of Canadian doctors sought to understand how bystanders administer the procedure differently to men and women.

They looked at records of cardiac arrests that took place outside of hospitals in the United States and Canada between 2005 and 2015, which included nearly 40,000 patients. 

Overall, 54% of the patients received CPR from a bystander, the research said.

For cardiac arrests in a public place, such as in the street, 61% of women were given CPR by a bystander — compared to 68% of men. 

Alexis Cournoyer, an emergency physician at the Hopital du Sacre-Coeur de Montreal who conducted the research, told AFP that this gap “increases women’s mortality following a cardiac arrest — that’s for sure.”

Cardiac arrests are a leading cause of death, with more than 350,000 occurring in the U.S. alone every year, according to the American Heart Association.

Only around 10% of people who have a sudden cardiac arrest outside of a hospital survive, research has shown.

The researchers sought to find a reason for the gender gap.

One theory was that bystanders in public could be uncomfortable touching a women’s breast without consent, Cournoyer said.

The researchers looked into whether age could play a role, he added.

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Water-Starved Saudi Confronts Desalination’s Heavy Toll

Solar panels soak up blinding noontime rays that help power a water desalination facility in eastern Saudi Arabia, a step towards making the notoriously emissions-heavy process less environmentally taxing.

The Jazlah plant in Jubail city applies the latest technological advances in a country that first turned to desalination more than a century ago, when Ottoman-era administrators enlisted filtration machines for hajj pilgrims menaced by drought and cholera.

Lacking lakes, rivers and regular rainfall, Saudi Arabia today relies instead on dozens of facilities that transform water from the Gulf and Red Sea into something potable, supplying cities and towns that otherwise would not survive.

But the kingdom’s growing desalination needs — fueled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dreams of presiding over a global business and tourism hub — risk clashing with its sustainability goals, including achieving net-zero emissions by 2060.

Projects like Jazlah, the first plant to integrate desalination with solar power on a large scale, are meant to ease that conflict: officials say the panels will help save around 60,000 tons of carbon emissions annually.

It is the type of innovation that must be scaled up fast, with Prince Mohammed targeting a population of 100 million people by 2040, up from 32.2 million today.

“Typically, the population grows, and then the quality of life of the population grows,” necessitating more and more water, said CEO Marco Arcelli of ACWA Power, which runs Jazlah.

Using desalination to keep pace is a “do or die” challenge, said historian Michael Christopher Low at the University of Utah, who has studied the kingdom’s struggle with water scarcity.

“This is existential for the Gulf states. So when anyone is sort of critical about what they’re doing in terms of ecological consequences, I shake my head a bit,” he said.

At the same time, he added, “there are limits” as to how green desalination can be.

Drinking the sea

The search for potable water bedeviled Saudi Arabia in the first decades after its founding in 1932, spurring geological surveys that contributed to the mapping of its massive oil reserves.

Prince Mohammed al-Faisal, a son of King Faisal whom Low has dubbed the “Water Prince,” at one point even explored the possibility of towing icebergs from Antarctica to quench the kingdom’s growing thirst, drawing widespread ridicule.

But Prince Mohammed also oversaw the birth of the kingdom’s modern desalination infrastructure beginning in 1970.

The national Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) now reports production capacity of 11.5 million cubic meters per day at 30 facilities.

That growth has come at a cost, especially at thermal plants running on fossil fuels.

By 2010, Saudi desalination facilities were consuming 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, more than 15 percent of today’s production.

The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture did not respond to AFP’s request for comment on current energy consumption at desalination plants.

Going forward, there is little doubt Saudi Arabia will be able to build the infrastructure required to produce the water it needs.

“They have already done it in some of the most challenging settings, like massively desalinating on the Red Sea and providing desalinated water up to the highlands of the holy cities in Mecca and Medina,” said Laurent Lambert of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

Going green?

The question is how much the environmental toll will continue to climb.

The SWCC says it wants to cut 37 million metric tons of carbon emissions by 2025.

This will be achieved largely by transitioning away from thermal plants to plants like Jazlah that use electricity-powered reverse osmosis.

Solar power, meanwhile, will expand to 770 megawatts from 120 megawatts today, according to the SWCC’s latest sustainability report, although the timeline is unclear.

“It’s still going to be energy-intensive, unfortunately, but energy-intensive compared to what?” Lambert said.

“Compared to countries which have naturally flowing water from major rivers or falling from the sky for free? Yeah, sure, it’s always going to be more.”

At desalination plants across the kingdom, Saudi employees understand just how crucial their work is to the population’s survival.

The Ras al-Khair plant produces 1.1 million cubic meters of water per day — 740,000 from thermal technology, the rest from reverse osmosis — and struggles to keep reserve tanks full because of high demand.

Much of the water goes to Riyadh, which requires 1.6 million cubic meters per day and could require as much as six million by the end of the decade, said an employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

Looking out over pipes that draw seawater from the Gulf into the plant, he described the work as high-stakes, with clear national security implications.

If the plant did not exist, he said, “Riyadh would die.”

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Families Challenge North Dakota’s Ban on Gender-Affirming Care for Children

Families and a pediatrician are challenging North Dakota’s law criminalizing gender-affirming care for minors, the latest lawsuit in many states with similar bans. 

Gender Justice on Thursday announced the state district court lawsuit in a news conference at the state Capitol in Bismarck. The lawsuit against the state attorney general and state’s attorneys of three counties seeks to immediately block the ban, which took effect in April, and to have a judge find it unconstitutional and stop the state from enforcing it. 

State lawmakers “have outlawed essential health care for these kids simply and exclusively because they are transgender,” Gender Justice attorney and North Dakota state director Christina Sambor told reporters. “They have stripped parents of their right to decide for themselves what’s best for their own children. They have made it a criminal offense for doctors to provide health care that can literally save children’s lives.” 

The bill that enacted the ban passed overwhelmingly earlier this year in North Dakota’s Republican-controlled Legislature. Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, who is running for president, signed the ban into law in April. It took effect immediately. 

“Going forward, thoughtful debate around these complex medical policies should demonstrate compassion and understanding for all North Dakota youth and their families,” Burgum said at the time. 

Tate Dolney, a plaintiff and 12-year-old transgender boy from Fargo, said gender-affirming care helped his confidence, happiness, schoolwork and relationships with others. 

“I was finally able to just be who I truly am,” the seventh-grader told reporters. “It has hurt me all over again to know that the lawmakers who have banned the health care don’t want this for me and want to take it all away from me and every other transgender and nonbinary kid who just wants to be left alone to live our lives in peace.” 

Mother Devon Dolney said Tate was previously severely depressed and angry, but with the care “went from being ashamed and uncomfortable with who he is to being confident and outspoken,” a “miraculous” change. 

North Dakota’s ban has led the family to travel farther for Tate’s appointments, now in neighboring Minnesota, she said. The family has considered moving out of North Dakota, she said. 

Politicians “have intruded on our lives and inserted themselves into decisions that they have no business being involved in,” father Robert Dolney said. 

The law exempts minors who were already receiving gender-affirming care and allows for treatment of “a minor born with a medically verifiable genetic disorder of sex development.” 

But the grandfather clause has led providers “to not even risk it, because that vague law doesn’t give them enough detail of exactly what they can and cannot do” — an element of the suit, Gender Justice Senior Staff Attorney Brittany Stewart said. 

North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley told The Associated Press he hadn’t seen the lawsuit’s filing, but his office “will evaluate it and take the appropriate course.” 

Bill sponsor and Republican state Rep. Bill Tveit told the AP that he brought the legislation to protect children. 

“I’ve talked to a number of people who are of age now and would transform back if they could, and they’re just really upset with their parents and the adults in their life that led them to do this, to have these surgeries,” Tveit said. He declined to identify the two people he said he talked to, but said one is a college student in Minnesota that he became acquainted with while working on the bill. 

North Dakota’s law criminalizes doctors’ performance of sex reassignment surgeries on minors with a felony charge, punishable up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a $20,000 fine. 

The law also includes a misdemeanor charge for health care providers who prescribe or give hormone treatments or puberty blockers to minors. That charge is punishable up to nearly a year’s incarceration and a $3,000 fine. 

Opponents of the bill said sex reassignment surgeries are not performed on minors in North Dakota, and the ban on gender-affirming care would harm transgender youth, who are at increased risk for depression, suicide and self-harm. 

At least 22 states have now enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, and most of those states face lawsuits. A federal judge struck down Arkansas’ ban as unconstitutional, and a federal judge has temporarily blocked a ban in Indiana.

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Somalia’s Digital ID Revolution: A Journey From Standstill to Progress

For more than three decades, Somalia’s digital identity system remained stagnant, untouched by the major technological changes sweeping the globe. That standstill is now coming to an end, says Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre.

In a historic move, Barre convened a two-day conference in Mogadishu on Saturday, marking the official return of civil registration and the issuance of national ID cards.

“Today marks a great day for Somalia as we finally lay the foundations of a reliable and all-inclusive national identification system that is recognized worldwide,” Barre said.

After the official inauguration of the system Saturday by the prime minister in Mogadishu, the President of the Federal Republic of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was in the city of Dhusamareb commanding the fight against al-Shabab militants in central Somalia, received his national identification card.

“The ID card issuance was started by the president and the PM and it is part of a rollout in the country, which every Somali citizen is eligible to acquire,” a government statement said.

“It is a significant milestone in Somalia’s state-building journey. The national ID rollout is set to enhance security and address crucial national issues,” Mohamud said as he received his card. 

Digital identity systems, often referred to as eID, are the bedrock of Somalia’s new digital services. The government says they empower citizens to exercise their liberties and businesses to operate efficiently.

“Through this system, the government reaffirms its endeavor to ensure that Somali citizens enjoy equal rights with regard to the participation of all national commitments,” Barre said.   

Barre cited the need to combat security threats, terrorism and identity fraud as compelling reasons to introduce a national ID.

“This system will boost our businesses and economy, our banks, communication and Hawala money transfer systems. It will strictly deal with terror networks and the fight against extremism,” Barre said.

In a video message to the conference from the front line in central Somalia, Somalia’s minister of Interior, Federal Affairs and Reconciliation, Ahmed Moallim Fiqi, reiterated the importance of a reliable national ID for the government’s fight against al-Shabab militants.

“A national identification system is a powerful tool in our fight against extremism, providing a sense of belonging and identity to our citizens,” Fiqi said. “National ID is not only a piece of plastic, but it represents access to essential services like health care, education, elections and economic opportunities to the Somali people.”

In March, Somalia’s upper house passed the National Identification and Registration Authority Bill, which enables every Somali citizen to legally register their identity and gain access to the government and private services to which they are entitled.

Somali government officials, businessmen, members of civil society and international partners were among participants in the conference in Mogadishu.

Speakers at the conference included United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia Catriona Laing and the World Bank country manager, Kristina Svensson.

Those who spoke at the conference expressed optimism that the national ID will help in the fight against the al-Shabab terror group.

The story of Somalia’s digital identity resurgence finds its roots in the turbulent year 1991, when the national citizen registry collapsed. National unrest, instability, disorder and economic turmoil led to the downfall of government leadership and the disintegration of the registration system.

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UN: 700 Million People Don’t Know When — Or If — They Will Eat Again

A global hunger crisis has left more than 700 million people not knowing when or if they will eat again, and demand for food is rising relentlessly while humanitarian funding is drying up, the head of the United Nations food agency said Thursday.

World Food Program Executive Director Cindy McCain told the U.N. Security Council that because of the lack of funding, the agency has been forced to cut food rations for millions of people, and “more cuts are on the way.”

“We are now living with a series of concurrent and long-term crises that will continue to fuel global humanitarian needs,” she said. “This is the humanitarian community’s new reality — our new normal — and we will be dealing with the fallout for years to come.”

The WFP chief, the widow of the late U.S. senator John McCain, said the agency estimates that nearly 47 million people in over 50 countries are just one step from famine — and a staggering 45 million children younger than 5 are now estimated to suffer from acute malnutrition.

According to WFP estimates from 79 countries where the Rome-based agency operates, up to 783 million people — one in 10 of the world’s population — still go to bed hungry every night. More than 345 million people are facing high levels of food insecurity this year, an increase of almost 200 million people from early 2021 before the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency said.

At the root of the soaring numbers, WFP said, is “a deadly combination of conflict, economic shocks, climate extremes and soaring fertilizer prices.”

The economic fallout from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have pushed food prices out of the reach of millions of people across the world at the same time that high fertilizer prices have caused falling production of maize, rice, soybeans and wheat, the agency said.

“Our collective challenge is to ramp up the ambitious, multi-sectoral partnerships that will enable us to tackle hunger and poverty effectively, and reduce humanitarian needs over the long-term,” McCain urged business leaders at the council meeting focusing on humanitarian public-private partnerships. The aim is not just financing, but also finding innovative solutions to help the world’s neediest.

Michael Miebach, CEO of Mastercard, told the council that “humanitarian relief has long been the domain of government” and development institutions, and the private sector was seen as a source of financial donations for supplies.

“Money is still important, but companies can offer so much more,” he said. “The private sector stands ready to tackle the challenges at hand in partnership with the public sector.”

Miebach stressed that “business cannot succeed in a failing world” and humanitarian crises impact fellow citizens of the world. A business can use its expertise, he said, to strengthen infrastructure, “innovate new approaches and deliver solutions at scale” to improve humanitarian operations.

Jared Cohen, president of global affairs at Goldman Sachs, told the council that the revenue of many multinational companies rivals the GDP of some of the Group of 20 countries with the largest economies. And he said five American companies and many of their global counterparts have over 500,000 workers — more than the population of up to 20 U.N. member nations.

“Today’s global firms have responsibilities to our shareholders, clients, staff, communities, and the rules-based international order that makes it possible for us to do business,” he said.

Cohen said businesses can fulfill those responsibilities during crises first by not scrambling “to reinvent the wheel every time,” but by drawing on institutional memory and partnering with other firms and the public sector.

He said businesses also need “to act with speed and innovate in real time,” use local connections, and bring their expertise to the humanitarian response.

Lana Nusseibeh, the United Arab Emirates ambassador, said the U.N. appealed for over $54 billion this year, “and until now, 80% of those funds remain unfulfilled,” which shows that “we are facing a system in crisis.”

She said public-private partnerships that were once useful additions are now crucial to humanitarian work.

Over the past decade, Nusseibeh said, the UAE has been developing “a digital platform to support a government’s ability to better harness international support in the wake of natural disasters.” The UAE has also established a major humanitarian logistics hub and is working with U.N. agencies and private companies on new technologies to reach those in need, she said.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the funding gap has left the world’s most vulnerable people “in a moment of great peril.”

She said companies have stepped up, including in Haiti and Ukraine and to help refugees in the United States, but for too long, “we have turned to the private sector exclusively for financing.”

Businesses have shown “enormous generosity, but in 2023 we know they have so much more to offer. Their capacities, their know-how, and innovations are tremendously needed,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “The public sector must harness the expertise of the private sector and translate it into action.”

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India’s Nipah Virus Outbreak: What Do We Know So Far? 

Authorities in India are scrambling to contain a rare outbreak of Nipah, a virus spread from animals to humans that causes deadly fever and has a high mortality rate. Here is a look at what is known so far:

What is the Nipah virus? 

The first Nipah outbreak was recorded in 1998 after the virus spread among pig farmers in Malaysia. The virus is named after the village where it was discovered. 

Outbreaks are rare but Nipah has been listed by the World Health Organization — alongside Ebola, Zika and COVID-19 — as one of several diseases deserving of priority research because of their potential to cause a global epidemic. 

Nipah usually spreads to humans from animals or through contaminated food, but it can also be transmitted directly between people.  

Fruit bats are the natural carriers of the virus and have been identified as the most likely cause of subsequent outbreaks. 

Symptoms include intense fever, vomiting and a respiratory infection, but severe cases can involve seizures and brain inflammation that results in a coma. 

Patients have a mortality rate of between 40% and 75% depending on the public health response to the virus, the WHO says.

There is no vaccine for Nipah.

What has happened during previous outbreaks? 

The first Nipah outbreak killed more than 100 people in Malaysia and prompted the culling of 1 million pigs to try to contain the virus.  

It also spread to Singapore, with 11 cases and one death among slaughterhouse workers who had come into contact with pigs imported from Malaysia. 

Since then, the disease has mainly been recorded in Bangladesh and India, with both countries reporting their first outbreaks in 2001. 

Bangladesh has borne the brunt in recent years, with more than 100 people dying of Nipah since 2001.  

Two early outbreaks in India killed more than 50 people before they were brought under control. 

The southern state of Kerala has recorded two deaths from Nipah and four other confirmed cases since last month.  

Authorities there have closed some schools and instituted mass testing. 

This marks Kerala’s fourth recorded spate of Nipah cases in five years. The virus killed 17 people during the first instance in 2018.  

The state has stamped out previous outbreaks within weeks through widespread testing and strict isolation of those in contact with patients.

Are animal-to-human viruses becoming more frequent? 

Having first appeared thousands of years ago, zoonoses — diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans — have multiplied over the past 20 to 30 years. 

The growth of international travel has allowed them to spread more quickly. 

By occupying increasingly large areas of the planet, experts say, humans also contribute to disruption of the ecosystem and increase the likelihood of random virus mutations that are transmissible to humans. 

Industrial farming increases the risk of pathogens spreading among animals while deforestation heightens contact among wildlife, domestic animals and humans. 

By mixing more, species will transmit their viruses more, which will promote the emergence of new diseases potentially transmissible to humans. 

Climate change will push many animals to flee their ecosystems for more livable lands, a study published by the scientific journal Nature warned in 2022. 

According to estimates published in the journal Science in 2018, there are 1.7 million unknown viruses in mammals and birds, with 540,000 to 850,000 of them having the capacity to infect humans. 

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One American, Two Russians Blast Off in Russian Spacecraft to International Space Station

One American and two Russian space crew members blasted off Friday aboard a Russian spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a mission to the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara and Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub lifted off on the Roscosmos Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft at 8:44 p.m. local time. O’Hara will spend six months on the ISS while Kononenko and Chub will spend a year there.

Neither O’Hara nor Chub has ever flown to space before, but they will be flying with veteran cosmonaut and mission commander Kononenko, who has made the trip four times already. The trio should arrive at the ISS after a three-hour flight.

When they get to the ISS, their module will dock and when the hatches open they will be met by seven astronauts and cosmonauts from the U.S., Russia, Denmark and Japan. Later in September, three of the ISS crew will depart, including NASA astronaut Frank Rubio who will have been there for more than a year.

According to NASA, when mission commander Kononenko finishes his tour to space in a year’s time, he will hold the record for the person who has spent the longest amount of time — more than a thousand days — in space.

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Bangladesh Dengue Outbreak Kills 778 People

Bangladesh is struggling with a record outbreak of dengue fever, with experts saying a lack of a coordinated response is causing more deaths from the mosquito-transmitted disease. 

The World Health Organization recently warned that diseases such as dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever caused by mosquito-borne viruses are spreading faster and further because of climate change. 

So far this year, 778 people in Bangladesh have died and 157,172 have been infected, according to the government’s Directorate General Health Services. The U.N. children’s agency says the actual numbers are higher because many cases are not reported. 

The previous highest number of deaths was in 2022, when 281 people are reported to have died during the entire year. 

Dengue is common in tropical areas and causes high fevers, headaches, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain and, in the most serious cases, internal bleeding that leads to death. 

Mohammed Niatuzzaman, director of the state-run Mugda Medical College and Hospital in Dhaka, said Thursday that Bangladesh is struggling to cope with the outbreak because of a lack of a “sustainable policy” and because many do not know how to treat it. 

Outside Dhaka and other big cities, medical professionals including nurses need better training in handling dengue cases, he said. 

He said authorities should include groups like city corporations and local governments in the fight against dengue, and researchers should study how to prepare for future outbreaks. 

Some residents of Dhaka are unhappy with the authorities. 

“Our house is in an area which is at risk of dengue. It has a higher quantity of waste and garbage. I’m cautious and use a mosquito net. Despite that, my daughter caught dengue,” said Zakir Hassain, a resident of Dhaka’s Basabo area.

“What will happen to those who are unaware? If the city corporation or ward commissioner took more care and sprayed insecticides, then we could have avoided the dengue outbreak,” he said. 

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Hackers Say They Stole 6 Terabytes of Data From MGM, Caesars Casinos

The Scattered Spider hacking group said on Thursday it took six terabytes of data from the systems of multibillion-dollar casino operators MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment as both companies probed the breaches.

Speaking to Reuters via the messaging platform Telegram, a representative for the group said it did not plan to make the data public and declined to comment on whether it had asked the companies for ransom.

The group’s contact was provided to Reuters by a cybersecurity expert who runs an online repository of malware samples called “vx-underground,” and declined to be named. Caesars and MGM did not respond to requests for comment on the amount of data that was breached.

Caesars reported to regulators on Thursday it had found that on Sept. 7 hackers took data on a significant number of its loyalty program members, including “driver’s license numbers and/or Social Security numbers.” Earlier, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal reported that Caesars had paid ransom, but Caesars declined a Reuters request for comment on the matter.

Earlier, MGM said it was working with law enforcement on resolving a “cybersecurity issue.”

Scattered Spider, also known as UNC3944, is one of the most disruptive hacking outfits in the United States, according to Google’s Mandiant Intelligence.

Several security analysts have drawn attention to the group over the past year for its effective social engineering tactics. It is known to reach out to a target an organization’s information security teams by phone, pretending to be an employee needing their password reset.

“They tend to have most of the information they need before that call to the helpdesk – that is the last step,” said Marc Bleicher, a security analyst who has conducted forensic investigations into such hacks before.

Mandiant has linked Scattered Spider to over 100 intrusions in the last two years at companies ranging from gaming and technology firms to retailers, telecom and insurance firms, Charles Carmakal, chief technology officer at Mandiant told Reuters.

The group’s members appeared to be scattered across several Western countries, he added.

Caesars said the breach resulted from a “social engineering attack” on an IT vendor the company used. It didn’t quantify the financial impact.

Operations at MGM, one of the world’s largest casino and hotel operators, were still disrupted four days after news of the hack emerged. Social media posts had visuals of slot machines showing error messages at its Las Vegas casinos.

Some analysts believe Scattered Spider is a subgroup of the ALPHV, a ransomware hacking outfit that emerged in Nov. 2021, according to Mandiant.

The FBI said it was investigating the incidents at MGM and Caesars and declined further comment.

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NASA Selects New Director to Investigate UFOs

NASA said on Thursday it has selected a research director to investigate UFO sightings on the recommendation of an independent panel of experts. 

Administrator Bill Nelson, who made the announcement, has yet to identify the appointee. 

The unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP, is the official term for what most call UFOs — unidentified flying objects. The panel, which included physicists, astronomers and biologists, wouldn’t say whether eyewitness accounts of UAP prove the existence of life beyond our horizons. 

That’s still an open question, according to Nelson. “If you ask me do I believe there’s life in a universe that’s so vast that it’s hard for me to comprehend how big it is, my personal answer is, ‘Yes,'” he said. 

In his statement, Nelson conceded that “[NASA scientists] don’t know what these UAP are.” 

In 2021, the national intelligence director published a comprehensive report, sharing never-before-seen scientific data and military observations on coastal sightings of UAP. Some of the high-flying objects are said to outpace and outmaneuver even the best fighter jets, without any apparent thrust or flight control systems. 

UAP have mystified Americans since June 1947, when newspapers first reported that a metallic “flying saucer” appeared in the sky over mountain ranges in Washington state. Sensational accounts of UAP sightings have cropped up all over the world since, including the debunked Roswell, New Mexico incident that made headlines that same year.

For the better part of a century, conspiracy theorists have accused the government of withholding facts or even lying to the public. But Nelson promised that NASA’s incoming research director would disclose all UAP-related developments to “shift the conversation about UAP from sensationalism to science.”

The director will manage “centralized communications, resources and data analytical capabilities to establish a robust database for the evaluation of future UAP,” NASA said. 

The appointment comes as academics claim to be making inroads in the search for extraterrestrial life. In recent weeks, the controversial Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb recovered tiny meteorite fragments off the coast of Papua New Guinea. His team is evaluating whether the unusual metallic samples are bits of alien technology. 

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters. 

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