Scientists Use DNA of Dust to Trace Where an Object’s Been

Clothing, medicine and other items in one’s environment all have genetic markers, or fingerprints, that provide clues to where they came from, according to scientists.

Researchers are analyzing the microorganisms in dust particles that land on surfaces and are using artificial intelligence to read and classify the unique genetic codes of the microbes that vary from place to place.

“It is the collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa that are present in any environment,” said Jessica Green, microbial systems expert and co-founder of Phylagen, a company that is building a microbial map of the world. Phylagen is collecting dust from different places and turning it into data by studying the DNA of the microscopic organisms in the particles.

​Exposing labor abuses

Phylagen says its findings will provide real world applications. The California-based company says one application involves companies that outsource the manufacturing of products, such as clothing.

According to Human Rights Watch, unauthorized subcontracting of facilities in the apparel industry occurs often, and it is in these places that some of the worse labor abuses happen.

Phylagen is digitizing the genome of different locations by working in more than 40 countries and sampling the dust in hundreds of factories. The goal is to create a database so the microbes on each product can be traced.

“We sample the DNA of the products, and then, we use machine learning algorithms to map what is on the product with the factory, and can therefore verify for brands that their goods are made by their trusted suppliers in factories where you have good labor conditions, good environmental conditions versus unauthorized facilities which can be really detrimental,” Green said.

Tracking diseases, ships

With a database of distinct microbial DNA, Green said other possible future uses could include predicting the outbreak of disease and helping law enforcement track the movement of ships, since shipping logs can be falsified. Even counterfeit medicines could be traced as the database of microbial information grows, she said.

“We can sequence the DNA of seized counterfeit pills, cluster together pills that have similar microbial signatures and then use that to help both pharmaceutical companies and the government, the U.S. government, gain some intelligence about how many different sources of these manufacturing facilities are there,” Green said.

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Vietnam’s Tech Futurists Lay Out Economic Alternatives

Nations racing to develop 5G technology that is fast enough to power the next stage of innovation range from South Korea to Finland, but a young contender wants to jump into the game: Vietnam.

The Southeast Asian country announced with much fanfare this month that a test of fifth generation telecommunications technology, in the form of a phone call, was successful.

The call to test 5G matters, not just for the internet, but for Vietnam’s goal of building a digital economy.

That future economy could be filled with deliveries by drone, machine learning to detect cyber attacks, and digital health records — or the economy could stick to traditional businesses like agriculture and tourism, as a new government report lays out.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology jointly launched a report on the digital economy with its Australian counterpart Wednesday, laying out four possible scenarios. Each scenario is at a different level of digitalization, depending on how thoroughly Vietnam adopts new technology.

“I request industries and provinces to improve their awareness of, and responsibility in, steering the science and technology development, and continue to strengthen the relevant legal and policy framework,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in a speech.

“It is critical to focus on the development of the national innovation system,” he added, “putting the businesses at the heart of this system while promoting the linkages among research institutes, universities, and businesses to create and accumulate intellectual assets to fuel economic development in a rapid, inclusive, and sustainable manner.”

In the report titled “Vietnam’s Future Digital Economy: Toward 2030 and 2045,” the four scenarios offer a blueprint for policymakers.

In the first option, the country reaches its full technological potential in the next two decades, with smart cities, high productivity, and high-skilled talent in an economy geared toward services.

In the second scenario, little has changed in that time, with the economy relying on cash and low-wage labor to export farmed goods and natural resources.

Those are the two extremes, while the two remaining scenarios fall somewhere in between, depending on whether Vietnam is more technology consumer or exporter.

“The next wave of digital technologies — artificial intelligence, blockchain, the internet of things, and platforms and cloud-based services — has the potential to transform Vietnam into Asia’s next high-performing economy,” said Lucy Cameron, the lead author of the report. “Vietnam will need to seize these substantial opportunities while carefully navigating a number of risks.”

There are signs the digital technology is already catching on in Vietnam.

Besides the research and development of 5G, companies are using robots in their warehouses, like the country’s largest dairy, Vinamilk, and DB Schenker, a German logistics firm operating in Vietnam. FPT, a domestic electronics business, used artificial intelligence to create a chat bot and made it available to third-party software developers. The gaming startup VNG is introducing virtual reality to its players.

It is not all good news. The rise of ride-hailing apps has been linked to a drop in the use of public transit around the world, and that is happening in Vietnam, too. Local press recently reported a decline in bus use, while the increase of ride hailing has led to clogged city streets.

Even in a best case scenario, there are four potential drawbacks to an increasingly connected Vietnam, according to the report, which is supported by CSIRO’s Data61, the data and digital specialist arm of Australia’s national science agency. They include more threats to cyber security, higher borrowing to fund infrastructure and technological spending, a shortage of technical talent, and reliance on external companies for products and services.

How far Vietnam takes its technological evolution, of course, is up to Vietnam.

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Scientists Build Microbial Map to Trace Where an Object Has Been

Scientists say they have new ways of tracking where clothing, medicines and other items are made, making it harder for unscrupulous businesses to sell items that don’t work or violate laws. The new tools are made possible by using machine learning to profile the unique DNA combinations of invisible microbes that vary from place to place. This technology was highlighted at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, as VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reports.

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Spotting Fires from the Earth, Air and Space

Wildfires are often discovered by aircraft pilots, drivers or spotters in observation towers. Increasingly, remote sensors — on the ground, in the air and on board satellites — are alerting authorities when fires break out, and experts say technology will increasingly be a part of the future of firefighting.

A blaze that raged last August in a canyon near Los Angeles threatened vital communications links. Remote cameras gave firefighters crucial information to save the installations, said Troy Whitman of Southern California Edison, an electric utility company. 

Whitman serves as a liaison with firefighting agencies, and he shares information from a new camera network that Edison installed throughout much of its service area. Those 13 million hectares are challenging, he said, “mountains, deserts, very remote areas where fires may not be detected for minutes, sometimes even days in the forest if it’s a lightning strike.”

Electronic lookouts

More than 100 cameras provide a view of 60 percent of the company’s service area in Southern and Central California. More cameras are on their way, all monitored in an operations center in suburban Los Angeles, where remote spotters watch computer monitors and meteorologists track weather data from remote sensing stations.

Fires up and down the U.S. West Coast are getting fiercer, and 10 of California’s 20 most destructive blazes have occurred since 2015.

A California report last month, “Wildfires and Climate Change,” said the state’s fire season has become nearly year-round, and one-quarter of the California’s population lives in fire-prone areas. 

“Climate is changing,” said Brian Chen, who manages Edison’s wildfire mitigation efforts. “We’ve had many years of drought leading up to this, which has caused millions of trees across the state to die or be weakened because of disease,” he added. “We’ve also had a history of fire suppression policy, which has not kept our forests healthy,” he said.

More residents are also living closer to wilderness areas, in places like Paradise, a once idyllic northern California town destroyed by wildfire in November. At least 85 people died and 14,000 homes were destroyed by the so-called Camp Fire, which investigators announced Wednesday was sparked by the transmission lines of another utility, Pacific Gas and Electric.

At least half of the state’s most destructive 20 fires have been caused by power lines or electrical equipment, and spread because they started in isolated areas that were difficult for firefighters to reach. California fire officials say electrical mishaps account for a smaller proportion of all wildfires, and blame others on careless debris burning, out-of-control campfires, arson or smoking.

Southern California Edison is upgrading its infrastructure, replacing bare transmission lines with insulated cables. Pacific Gas and Electric also plans to install new cameras and weather stations. Both companies face lawsuits over recent wildfires, and Pacific Gas and Electric filed for bankruptcy in January, facing billions of dollars in claims.

Destructive fires are also tracked by NASA, the U.S. space agency, which also monitors the health of our planet using “aircraft observations … from manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft,” said Vince Ambrosia of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He says the main focus today, however, is on satellite data retrieved by NASA and its partners, including the European Space Agency, and shared with the public and global firefighters. 

The information helps before, during and after a wildfire.

“We can do active fire detection,” said Natasha Stavros of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We can also do observations of the type of vegetation that’s there,” she said, assessing moisture content and how readily vegetation will burn.

She says an instrument called GEDI has been sent to the International Space Station to measure levels of biomass, the trees and brush that provide fuel for fires, by monitoring how forests store and release carbon. Other satellites track the height of flames and the spread of smoke and other pollutants.

Airborne and space-based sensors provide real-time data, and NASA and its partner agencies have built a “long-term collection library … going back to the 1980s to look at transitioning stages of wildfires throughout our last 50 years or so,” Ambrosia said.

Experts say that fire is part of nature’s ecosystem, but fire season is getting longer and fires more intense, and remote sensing helps firefighters deal with the challenge. The last month’s California report on wildfires recommends increased use of advanced imaging from the air and space, artificial intelligence to enhance data analysis, and a more comprehensive approach to fire prevention and response.

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Tracking Fires from the Earth, Air and Space

Wildfires are often discovered by aircraft pilots, drivers or spotters in observation towers but also increasingly by remote sensors, which alert authorities to fire outbreaks. Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles that a new ground-based camera system and satellites in space are helping firefighters to monitor wildfires.

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Internet Sensation Grumpy Cat Has Died at Age 7

Her owners say Grumpy Cat, whose sourpuss demeanor became an internet sensation, has died at age 7.

Posting on social media Friday, Grumpy Cat’s owners wrote that she experienced complications from a urinary tract infection and “passed away peacefully” Tuesday “in the arms of her mommy.”

Her owners said “Grumpy Cat has helped millions of people smile all around the world — even when times were tough.”

The cat’s real name was Tarder Sauce, and she rose to fame after her photos were posted online in 2012. She had more than 2 million followers on Instagram and more than 1 million on Twitter.

Her website says her grumpy look was likely because she had a form of dwarfism.

Owner Tabatha Bundesen founded Grumpy Cat Limited, and the cat made numerous appearances, including commercials.

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Lawmakers Seek Probe on US Hacking Services Sold Globally

U.S. lawmakers are pushing legislation that would force the State Department to report what it is doing to control the spread of U.S. hacking tools around the world.

A bill passed in a House of Representatives’ appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday said Congress is “concerned” about the State Department’s ability to supervise U.S. companies that sell offensive cybersecurity products and know-how to other countries.

The proposed legislation, released on Wednesday, would direct the State Department to report to Congress how it decides whether to approve the sale of cyber capabilities abroad and to disclose any action it has taken to punish companies for violating its policies in the past year.

National security experts have grown increasingly concerned about the proliferation of U.S. hacking tools and technology.

The legislation follows a Reuters report in January which showed a U.S. defense contractor provided staff to a United Arab Emirates hacking unit called Project Raven. The UAE program utilized former U.S. intelligence operatives to target militants, human rights activists and journalists.

State Department officials granted permission to the U.S. contractor, Maryland-based CyberPoint International, to assist an Emirate intelligence agency in surveillance operations, but it is unclear how much they knew about its activities in the UAE.

Under U.S. law, companies selling cyber offensive products or services to foreign governments must first obtain permission from the State Department.The new measure was added to a State Department spending bill by Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat from Maryland and member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Ruppersberger said in an emailed statement he had been “particularly troubled by recent media reports” about the State Department’s approval process for the sale of cyberweapons and services.

CyberPoint’s Chief Executive Officer Karl Gumtow did not respond to a request for comment. He previously told Reuters that to his knowledge, CyberPoint employees never conducted hacking operations and always complied with U.S. laws.

The State Department has declined to comment on CyberPoint, but said in an emailed statement on Wednesday that it is “firmly committed to the robust and smart regulation of defense articles and services export” and before granting export licenses it weighs “political, military, economic, human rights, and arms control considerations.”

Robert Chesney, a national security law professor at the University of Texas, said the Reuters report raised an alarm over how Washington supervises the export of U.S. cyber capabilities.

“The Project Raven (story) perfectly well documents that there is reason to be concerned and it is Congress’ job to get to the bottom of it,” he said.

The bill is expected to be voted on by the full appropriations committee in the coming weeks before going onto the full House.

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China Fully Blocks All Versions of Wikipedia

Beijing has broadened its block of online encyclopedia Wikipedia to include all language editions, an internet censorship research group reported just weeks ahead of China’s most politically explosive anniversary.

According to a report by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), China started blocking all language editions of Wikipedia last month.

Previously, most editions of Wikipedia — besides the Chinese language version, which was reportedly blocked in 2015 — were available, OONI said in their report.

AFP could not open any of Wikipedia’s versions in China on Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, the content that really matters is Chinese-language content,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonym of one of the co-founders of Greatfire.org, which tracks online censorship in China.

“Blocking access to all language versions of Wikipedia for internet users in China is just symbolic,” he told AFP. “It symbolises the fear that the Chinese authorities have of the truth.”

Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation that operates Wikipedia, said it had not received any notices explaining the latest block.

According to the organisation, Wikipedia has been blocked intermittently in China since 2004.

“With the expansion of this block, millions of readers and volunteer editors, writers, academics, and researchers within China cannot access this resource or share their knowledge and achievements with the world,” Samantha Lien, communications manager at Wikimedia Foundation, told AFP over email.

“When one country, region, or culture cannot join the global conversation on Wikipedia, the entire world is poorer,” she said.

China’s online censorship apparatus — dubbed the “Great Firewall” — blocks a large number of foreign sites in the country, such as Google, Facebook, VOA, and The New York Times.

Topics that are deemed too “sensitive” are also scrubbed, such as the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters which will mark its 30th anniversary on June 4.

The expanded block of Wikipedia comes as Chinese authorities under Chinese President Xi Jinping ramp up online controls and crack down on Great Firewall circumvention tools, such as virtual private network (VPN) software.

In November, China’s cyberspace authority said it had “cleaned up” 9,800 accounts on Chinese social media platforms like messaging app WeChat and the Twitter-like Weibo that it accused of spreading “politically harmful” information and rumours.

Chinese Twitter users have also told AFP that they have experienced intimidation from local authorities — and even detention — for their tweets.

The latest move to block all versions of Wikipedia could be linked to online translation tools, which make it easy for Chinese users to read anything on Wikipedia, Smith said.

Images can also be considered taboo, he said.

“A picture is worth a thousand words, and there is no dearth of Tiananmen-related imagery on the Wikipedia website,” Smith added.

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