Sentient Office Buildings Adjust to Workers’ Personal Comfort and Well Being

Office workers often complain that the building is either too hot or too cold. Now, engineers and architects are working on creating “sentient buildings” that can cater to the personal needs and well being of each employee in the hopes of increasing productivity. VOA’S Elizabeth Lee has this report from Los Angeles.

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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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US Lawmaker Says Facebook Cannot Be Trusted to Regulate Itself

Democratic U.S. Representative David Cicilline, expected to become the next chairman of House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, said on Wednesday that Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself and Congress should take action.

Cicilline, citing a report in the New York Times on Facebook’s efforts to deal with a series of crises, said on Twitter: “This staggering report makes clear that @Facebook executives will always put their massive profits ahead of the interests of their customers.”

“It is long past time for us to take action,” he said. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said a year ago that the company would put its “community” before profit, and it has doubled its staff focused on safety and security issues since then. Spending also has increased on developing automated tools to catch propaganda and material that violates the company’s posting policies.

​Other initiatives have brought increased transparency about the administrators of pages and purchasers of ads on Facebook. Some critics, including lawmakers and users, still contend that Facebook’s bolstered systems and processes are prone to errors and that only laws will result in better performance. The New York Times said Zuckerberg and the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, ignored warning signs that the social media company could be “exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe.” And when the warning signs became evident, they “sought to conceal them from public view.”

“We’ve known for some time that @Facebook chose to turn a blind eye to the spread of hate speech and Russian propaganda on its platform,” said Cicilline, who will likely take the reins of the subcommittee on regulatory reform, commercial and antitrust law when the new, Democratic-controlled Congress is seated in January.

“Now we know that once they knew the truth, top @Facebook executives did everything they could to hide it from the public by using a playbook of suppressing opposition and propagating conspiracy theories,” he said.

“Next January, Congress should get to work enacting new laws to hold concentrated economic power to account, address the corrupting influence of corporate money in our democracy, and restore the rights of Americans,” Cicilline 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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Poll: Safety, Time Are Women’s Biggest Transportation Concerns

Safety is the biggest concern for women using public and private transport in five of the world’s biggest commuter cities, according to a global poll released Thursday as improving city access for women becomes a major focus globally. 

A Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of 1,000 women in London, New York, Mexico City, Tokyo and Cairo found 52 percent of respondents overall cited safety as their main worry, with women in Mexico City the most fearful about safety. 

Almost three in every four women in Mexico City lacked confidence they could travel without facing sexual harassment and abuse or sexual violence, with Cairo coming a close second. 

The ratio was one in four women in the other three cities. 

The time it took to travel around the city — with studies showing women often take more complex routes with more stops than men because of household and child care duties — was named as the second-biggest concern, cited by 33 percent of women. 

Time was the biggest worry for women in New York, with two-thirds saying it influenced their decision to take or stay in a job, while the cost of transport concerned women in London most, with nearly three in four women saying it was expensive. 

The poll came as city authorities have been looking at ways to ensure women have safe, efficient transport to reach jobs, education and health care. The cities are seeking to tackle inequality and poverty and boost their economies by getting more women into the workforce. 

The poll also came amid growing concern in the #MeToo climate that transport networks are magnets for sexual predators who use rush-hour crushes to hide behavior and as an excuse if caught. 

“It is very rare to find a group of women in any city who don’t have concerns about safety, and it is important for planners to think about that when designing a transport system,” said Jemilah Magnusson, spokeswoman for the U.S.-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. 

“Most transport systems focus on the solo male commuter traveling at peak hours from home and work, but women have different trip patterns. … Women must be involved in planning transit to meet their needs.” 

Laws and smartphones 

The survey, conducted Aug. 13-24 and supported by Uber, asked 200 women in each of five of the world’s largest commuter cities with underground train networks in different cultural regions about safety, time spent traveling and cost, among other issues. 

A recent International Labor Organization study said limited access to and safety of transport were estimated to be the greatest obstacles to women’s role in the labor force in developing countries, reducing probable participation by 16.5 percent. 

Transport authorities and experts said moves to improve transport for women had become a major issue in recent years because of safety concerns and congestion. 

World Bank reports have stressed that improving transport can have immediate positive results on women’s lives, be it through adding safety laws, including women in planning, or offering alternative transport, such as ride-hailing apps or bikes. 

The World Bank introduced gender as an issue for the first time this year at an annual conference on transforming transportation. 

Magnusson said including the issue of women and transport exploded into a major issue after the 2012 fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in Delhi shocked the world. 

“This was one story that brought out lots of other horror stories from women and really galvanized people,” said Magnusson, whose group promotes environmental and livable transport. 

This has led to a surge in women-only train carriages and taxi services, but just 47 percent of the women in the poll said this would improve women’s safety. 

Maria Jose Bermudez, 45, a cook who commutes three hours a day using public transport in Mexico City, said more needs to be done instead to educate men about women’s rights generally. 

“Women-only carriages don’t really solve the problem because the issue has to do with Mexico’s culture and how men treat women,” Bermudez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Coping with congestion 

Steve Swasey, spokesman for public transit app Moovit, said smartphones had triggered a “revolution” in mass transit with the emergence of ride-hailing apps and apps to use transport more efficiently by cutting wait times and avoiding bottlenecks. 

The Inter-American Development Bank found the higher the compliance with a transport schedule or the less congested, the lower the probability that a woman will be a crime victim. 

The Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found that 56 percent of women globally said ride-hailing apps had improved their ability to get around their cities. More than half of women in every city but Tokyo said these new forms of transport were helpful. 

“City roads are at full capacity, and there is not one major city where congestion is not a major concern,” Swasey said. “You can’t easily or quickly put more lanes on a bridge or rails in a tunnel … but you can use data to regulate the influx of traffic and change the way people use transport.” 

Magnusson said most cities were aware they should make transport more efficient and faster — but this could be a very politically unpopular move as it means cutting back on cars. 

“Taking lanes from cars to make bus lanes and bike lanes, and introducing new parking and restriction schemes, can stop cars going into cities and help speed up transport,” she said. 

 

“It is not about just one thing, but it is about creating a transport system that is fair and allows women to fully participate in society, but that in itself can be very threatening to many people.” 

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Draft Brexit Deal Ends Britain’s Easy Access to EU Financial Markets 

The United Kingdom and the European Union have agreed on a deal that will give London’s vast financial center only a basic level of access to the bloc’s markets after Brexit. 

The agreement will be based on the EU’s existing system of financial market access known as equivalence — a watered-down relationship that officials in Brussels have said all along is the best arrangement that Britain can expect. 

The EU grants equivalence to many countries and has so far not agreed to Britain’s demands for major concessions such as offering broader access and safeguards on withdrawing access, neither of which is mentioned in the draft deal. 

“It is appalling,” said Graham Bishop, a former banker and consultant who has advised EU institutions on financial services. The draft text “is particularly vague but emphasizes the EU’s ability to take decisions in its own interests. … This is code for the UK being a pure rule taker.” 

Britain’s decision to leave the EU has undermined London’s position as the leading international finance hub. Britain’s financial services sector, the biggest source of its exports and tax revenue, has been struggling to find a way to preserve the existing flow of trading after it leaves the EU. 

Many top bankers fear Brexit will slowly undermine London’s position. Global banks have already reorganized some operations ahead of Britain’s departure from the European Union, due on March 29. 

Currently, inside the EU, banks and insurers in Britain enjoy unfettered access to customers across the bloc in all financial activities. 

No commercial bank lending

Equivalence, however, covers a more limited range of business and excludes major activities such as commercial bank lending. Law firm Hogan Lovells has estimated that equivalence rules cover just a quarter of all EU cross-border financial services business. 

Such an arrangement would give Britain a similar level of access to the EU as major U.S. and Japanese firms, while tying it to many EU finance rules for years to come. 

Many bankers and politicians have been hoping London could secure a preferential deal giving it deep access to the bloc’s markets. 

Under current equivalence rules, access is patchy and can be cut off by the EU within 30 days in some cases. Britain had called for a far longer notice period. 

The draft deal is likely to persuade banks, insurers and asset managers to stick with plans to move some activities to the EU to ensure they maintain access to the bloc’s markets. 

Britain is currently home to the world’s largest number of banks, and about 6 trillion euros ($6.79 trillion) or 37 percent of Europe’s financial assets are managed in the U.K. capital, almost twice the amount of its nearest rival, Paris. 

London also dominates Europe’s 5.2 trillion-euro investment banking industry. 

Rachel Kent, a lawyer at Hogan Lovells who has advised companies on future trading relations with the EU, said the draft deal did not rule out improved equivalence in the future. 

“I don’t see that any doors have been closed,” she said. “It is probably as much as we could hope for at this stage.” 

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Slave-Free Jeans Get Boost from ‘Markle Sparkle’ But Can Companies Back Ethical Vows?

When Meghan Markle wore a pair of “slave-free” jeans on a royal tour of Australia last month, she sparked a sales stampede and shone a spotlight on the growing number of companies aiming to meet public demand for products untainted by modern-day slavery.

Australia-based Outland Denim employs dozens of survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery and other vulnerable women in Cambodia to make its $200 (150 pounds) jeans that are stamped as ethically sourced and produced, and environmentally friendly.

Founder James Bartle said his social enterprise — a business seeking to make profit while doing good — set out from day one in 2011 to know exactly where their materials and workforce came from — which had meant limited quantities and higher prices.

But he said today’s more educated and demanding consumers were happy to spend more on goods that were not damaging the planet or fueling slavery, and the unexpected publicity from Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, could hugely boost this trend.

He said the company was totally surprised when the duchess stepped off a plane in the rural Australian city of Dubbo wearing their jeans which all contain a written thank-you message from the seamstress on an internal pocket.

“[She] made it OK to wear an ethically-made brand to the world … we can’t put a value on that,” Bartle said at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference on Wednesday.

“Every brand must stand for something. The public are sick and tired of marketing,” he said. “We wanted to create a sustainable model — to give genuine power to people to change their future through employment.”

Hard to prove

More companies are not only striving to clean up their supply chains but stamping their goods as slave-free.

Yet labor activists and academics say it is very difficult for any company to prove that its supply chain is entirely free of forced labor or abuses, and the public should be wary.

Dutch chocolate-maker Tony’s Chocolonely, stamps its goods with the slogan “100 percent slave-free” — despite sourcing cocoa beans from West Africa where two million children are estimated to work and reports of forced labor are rife.

The firm said it deals directly with local farming groups rather than international traders, and traces its supply chain fully, from the beans it buys to the finished product on sale.

“Unfortunately, too many companies only pay lip service in their strife to end abuses in their supply chain, instead of really making it part of their core business” said Arjen Boekhold, a “cocoa game changer” at Tony’s Chocolonely.

“Consumers will not pay extra for products which are not genuine in quality … or in efforts to end abuses or slavery,” added Boekhold, also a speaker at the London-based conference.

“People try to push us into an ethical corner … but we are the new normal,” he told a panel discussion on slave-free goods.

‘Seismic shift’ needed

About 25 million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labor, according to the United Nations, which in 2015 agreed to a global target of ending slavery in all forms by 2030.

While more companies are going public with their anti-slavery efforts, few can categorically say their products are untainted, said Andrew Crane, an academic at Bath University.

“This is very hard to prove, any such claims cannot be trusted by consumers,” the labor issues expert added. “Maybe we don’t need companies to say they are slave-free … but that they are trying to be and doing everything they can to achieve that.”

Many companies sign up to anti-slavery schemes or codes of conduct instead of directly dealing with their workers, yet such initiatives often fail to stop abuses, experts say.

A study by Sheffield University, revealed exclusively by Reuters in May, found some Indian tea plantations stamped slavery-free by groups including Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance were abusing and underpaying workers.

“There is no doubt that low prices and cheap products are driving a race to the bottom on labor standards,” said Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an alliance of trade unions, companies and charities promoting workers’ rights.

“But getting consumers to pay more for products will only scratch the surface of the problem unless it’s part of a seismic shift in the way goods and services are traded globally.”

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