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EU asks WhatsApp to play fair on private data

The EU Commission has urged Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp to let users know what it was doing with their private data. “WhatsApp must ensure that users understand what they agree to and how their personal data is used,” EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders said in a statement on Thursday. “I expect from WhatsApp to fully comply with EU rules that protect consumers and their privacy.”

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South Africa rushes to dehorn rhinos to protect them from poachers | Climate

Rhino horn cutting in South Africa
Dehorning of a black rhinoceros in a private game reserve located near the Kruger National Park in Phalabora, South Africa, in 2020.Kim Ludbrook (efe)

Rhino poaching in South Africa is on the rise, with the number of rhinos killed jumping from 448 in 2022 to 499 last year. The issue is taking an especially heavy toll on KwaZulu-Natal province, where authorities have adopted a radical measure, deciding to cut off rhino horns in a bid to save the animals’ lives. The operation began on April 8, but was not announced to the media until last Tuesday.

“With enormous regret, the organization has decided to dehorn, something that goes against what we defend, But the persistent threat posed by poachers makes drastic new measures necessary to protect our rhinos,” said Sihle Mkhize, the head of the Ezemvelo agency that is tasked with nature conservation in KwaZulu-Natal.

There are some 27,000 rhinoceroses of five different species left in the world, and South Africa is one of their last sanctuaries: thousands of tourists travel to the country’s nature reserves every year to see the imposing animal. However, the survival of the rhino is seriously threatened by poachers who kill them to remove their horn, which used in traditional Asian medicine for its supposed therapeutic effects — which have been proven to be nonexistent — or as a decorative element, with the horns going for a high price on the black market. In 2023 alone, 499 were killed in South Africa, two out of three (325) in the Kwazulu-Natal region, according to the South African Ministry of Environment.

Cutting off rhino horns is not a new measure. It began to be adopted in Zimbabwe and Namibia at the end of the 1980s, and in 2014, it spread to certain regions of South Africa with positive results. A key example is the Kruger National Park, where it was applied to 70% of the rhino population in the 2022-2023 period. However, this has pushed poachers to places where the animals still have their horns. This is the case of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi reserve in Kwazulu-Natal, created in 1895 precisely to preserve rhinos, where 95% of the animals hunted in 2023 in the entire region were killed.

The procedure is complex. The animal has to first be sedated (usually a dart is fired at it from a helicopter). Then its eyes and ears must be covered so that it feels as little as possible. The horn is then cut with a chainsaw, leaving between 10 and 15 centimeters at the base. Horns are made up of a mix of calcium, melanin and keratin, and have a structure similar to horse hooves. The procedure is painless for the rhino and is over in about 15 minutes. The problem is that, since the horn grows to 12 centimeters a year, it must be cut again after between 18 and 24 months if the animal is to be saved from poachers. Kruger National Park estimates that each operation costs around €400 ($430).

Although Zimbabwean authorities previously claimed that cutting off the horns of rhinos has no negative impact on the animals, recent research indicates otherwise. A study published in 2023 in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which coordinated by Professor Vanessa Duthé from the University of Neuchatel, shows that the process changes their behavior: dehorned rhinos decrease their home range and interact less with other rhinos.

After exhaustively following 368 black rhinos for 15 years in 10 South African reserves, Dr Duthé and her colleagues concluded that dehorning effectively protects against poaching and does not increase the rate of natural deaths. However, they did observe that dehorned animals reduced their home range by up to 45% and were much less likely to encounter other rhinos. “They are definitely aware of not having their horns anymore; they must be. So, we think it’s a confidence matter,” Duthé said in an interview for a PNAS podcast. “They probably feel a lot more vulnerable, and they decrease this explorative behavior that they usually have with horns […] and stay in the more central parts of their home ranges. Specifically for these big dominant males that patrol actively, they will just reduce those patrols.”

In the expert’s opinion, dehorning could lead the rhinos into what she calls “ecological traps.” In other words, the rhinos reduce their home range and have access to fewer resources than if they kept their horns. But Duthé says that there are no indications that the growth of the population as a whole would be affected and that the long-term effects are yet to be determined, since genetic studies would be necessary.

Both the Kruger program and the one that has begun to be implemented in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi reserve are supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The program is also supported by the majority of conservationists, who consider it an unfortunate but necessary measure in the face of the rise in poaching. The Ezemvelo agency said that the dehorning operation is part of a raft of decisions that includes investing €2.5 million in a sophisticated fencing system around the reserve, doubling the number of agents from 45 to 88, installing trackers in all vehicles, improving relations with nearby communities, and increasing aerial surveillance of helicopters and equipping them with night vision.

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Aviation and Telecom Industries Reach Compromise on 5G Deployment

The Voice Of EU | In a significant development, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest mobile network operators in the United States, have agreed to delay the deployment of 5G services following requests from the aviation industry and the Biden administration. This decision marks a crucial compromise in the long-standing dispute between the two industries, which had raised concerns over the potential interference of 5G with flight signals.
The aviation industry, led by United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, had been vocal about the risks of 5G deployment, citing concerns over the safety of flight operations. Kirby had urged AT&T and Verizon to delay their plans, warning that proceeding with the deployment would be a “catastrophic failure of government.” The US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue further highlighted the need for a solution.
In response, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) head Steve Dickson sent a letter to the mobile networks, requesting a two-week delay to reassess the potential risks. Initially, AT&T and Verizon were hesitant, citing the aviation industry’s two-year preparation window. However, they eventually agreed to the short delay, pushing the deployment to January 19.
The crux of the issue lies in the potential interference between 5G signals and flight equipment, particularly radar altimeters. The C-Band spectrum used by 5G networks is close to the frequencies employed by these critical safety devices. The FAA requires accurate and reliable radar altimeters to ensure safe flight operations.

Airlines in the US have been at loggerheads with mobile networks over the deployment of 5G and its potential impact on flight safety.

Despite the concerns, both the FAA and the telecoms industry agree that 5G mobile networks and airline travel can coexist safely. In fact, they already do in nearly 40 countries where US airlines operate regularly. The key lies in reducing power levels around airports and fostering cross-industry collaboration prior to deployment.
The FAA has been working to find a solution in the United States, and the additional two-week delay will allow for further assessment and preparation. AT&T and Verizon have also agreed to not operate 5G base stations along runways for six months, similar to restrictions imposed in France.
President Joe Biden hailed the decision to delay as “a significant step in the right direction.” The European Union Aviation Safety Agency and South Korea have also reported no unsafe interference with radio waves since the deployment of 5G in their regions.
As the aviation and telecom industries continue to work together, it is clear that safe coexistence is possible. The delay in 5G deployment is a crucial step towards finding a solution that prioritizes both safety and innovation. With ongoing collaboration and technical assessments, the United States can join the growing list of countries where 5G and airlines coexist without issue.

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From Retail To Transport: How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Is Changing Every Corner Of The Economy

How A.I. Is Changing The Economy

The high profile race to enhance their search products has underscored the importance of artificial intelligence to Google and Microsoft – and the rest of the economy, too. Two of the world’s largest tech companies announced plans for AI-enhanced search this month, ratcheting up a tussle for supremacy in the artificial intelligence space. However, the debut of Google’s new chatbot, Bard, was scuppered when an error appeared, knocking $163bn (£137bn) off the parent company Alphabet’s share price. The stock’s plunge showed how crucial investors think AI could be to Google’s future.

However, the increasing prominence of AI has implications for every corner of the economy. From retail to transport, here’s how AI promises to usher in a wave of change across industries.

Farming

Monitoring weather patterns, managing pests and disease, working out the need for extra irrigation, or even which crops to grow where: many farmers believe agriculture is fertile ground for artificial intelligence.

Many food producers are using AI to collect and analyse data in their efforts to improve productivity and profitability.

AI’s capacity for combining and analysing large datasets is already supplying farmers with real-time information on how to improve the health of their crops and increase yields. Drones and in-ground sensors can play a role in observing growing crops and soil conditions across hundreds of acres of land, including checking whether they need more water, fertiliser or herbicide and whether they are being affected by disease or destroyed by animals.

Ali Capper, who grows apples and hops at her family farm on the border of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, has invested in new technology, including automated orchard sprayers, to use alongside the digital soil mapping she has employed since 2017.

Ali Capper inspects the blossom on her apple trees at Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire
Ali Capper sees AI advantages for the environment. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

“Many agri-tech innovations will help us to be kinder to the farmed environment as well as more efficient and profitable,” Capper said.

In the face of labour shortages, especially acute since Brexit, farmers have long hoped that advances in robotics – “agribots” – will help to make sure crops get picked on time. A lack of workers led to £60m of food wasted in 2022 alone, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

While four-armed robots, designed for the delicate work of picking soft fruits, are being developed, robots with the dexterity of the human hand, capable of picking at speed without damaging fruit such as raspberries, may be a decade away from widespread use. Nonetheless, automation has already changed some of the most laborious jobs in farming, from drilling seeds to spraying and watering crops.

Media companies have embraced machine learning to boost subscriptions and advertising and to help make decisions about what stories to promote.

News organisations are hiring data scientists on six-figure salaries to pull together data to track customers and guide them towards particular products, while also providing workers with tools to take the grunt work out of finding and writing stories.

Lisa Gibbs, the director of news partnerships at the Associated Press, said in a London School of Economics study that her organisation could “find news faster and break news faster” with the aid of AI.

Media organisations are using data analysts to create targeted content that generates higher subscriptions and advertising revenues.

Energy

There are possible AI applications in every corner of the energy industry: from predicting and identifying faults at power plants to using weather forecasts to plan offshore windfarm projects.

With tight margins in a sector where almost 30 companies have gone bust during the energy crisis, retail energy suppliers are expected to increase the use of AI to cut down call times. Chatbots are used to ask basic questions before customers speak to a human adviser.

Ultimately, suppliers envisage AI will play a central role in future “smart grids”, allowing supply and demand to be more closely aligned, with a new generation of devices from smart meters and electric vehicles to solar panels and heat pumps able to improve efficiency. Jobs for engineers, meter readers and supply analysts are most under threat.

AI is also valuable to track carbon emissions. Boston Consulting Group has estimated that applying AI to multinational companies’ sustainability plans could be worth $1.3tn to $2.6tn through additional revenues and cost savings by 2030. Late last year, the government launched a £1.5m programme to study the use of AI to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions.

Manufacturing

Manufacturing veterans know all too well how automation can sweep through an industry. In 2019, the UK’s Office for National Statistics said almost two-thirds of metalworking machine operatives were at risk.

An intelligent production base at Great Wall Motors in south-west China.
An intelligent production base at Great Wall Motors in south-west China. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Part of the automation drive is for efficiency. Machine learning algorithms are already being deployed on the burgeoning piles of data produced within big factories for “predictive maintenance” – replacing parts before they fail and potentially requiring fewer technicians.

But the rapid rise of generative artificial intelligence suggests it will not only be people on factory lines who will be affected. Generative AI is already being used to design products much more quickly, test them virtually as a “digital twin”, and manufacture them much more quickly. Combined with innovations such as 3D printing, this could lower development costs dramatically and would require fewer engineers in aerospace, automotive and consumer electronics.

One logical end is something like the Star Trek replicator, a bot that designs and makes whatever its user desires from a text prompt – without human involvement.

Government

Running the country means the government collects vast amounts of personal and business data, all of which could be plugged into artificial intelligence and machine learning systems to improve the efficiency of policymaking and delivery of services. Everything from bin collections, call centres and analysis of data to prioritise spending could be targeted for improvement. However, it is not without challenges and controversy – not least for how algorithms are held to account.

The former head of the civil service, Mark Sedwill, has said greater use of AI and automation will probably lead to a reduction in headcount.

Some councils are building computer models using personal data to help predict child abuse and intervene before it can happen, while Blackpool council is using AI-powered satellite images to help fix potholes.

There is concern in government that AI systems can build in human biases, risking the perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination. Meanwhile, relying on computer models has stoked fear in the past that some public priorities are overlooked, including investment in the north of England and green projects.

More use of AI could improve efficiency but authorities will need to carefully check its effects. As the postwar US president Harry Truman said: “When you have an efficient government, you have a dictatorship.”

Transport

Transport workers have stubbornly held on to their jobs since the first driverless trains were tested on the tube – a development that was met with “Robots take over” headlines six decades ago. However, they are still regarded as most vulnerable in the long term, according to a 2021 report by PwC for the business department forecasting that proportionately the biggest job losses in the next 20 years would come in the transport sector.

Nonetheless, drivers are far from expendable, and are demanding high salaries whether operating HGVs, buses or trains – even as the first autonomous buses are trialled in Scotland and Milton Keynes. Recent dreams of imminent robotaxis have yet to become widespread reality, and Uber says its London drivers earn £34 an hour. Pilotless planes are technically possible, although few might fancy them after Boeing’s software-led 737 Max disasters.

A National Highways van on a motorway.
A National Highways van films passing vehicles to catch those holding a mobile phone or not wearing a seatbelt. The footage is analysed using AI. Photograph: National Highways/PA

Transport for London uses AI to help traffic flow and forecast disruption, while train operators have used simulators or digital twins to check train paths, platforms and timetables. The Rail Safety and Standards Board is working with academics to use machine learning from high-resolution video to tackle leaves on the line. Similar AI and video projects in Australia could teach driverless trains to recognise a green light – or whether the movement on a remote track is an encroaching human or a nearby kangaroo.

But the next iterations of AI could be profoundly political, as the current rail dispute in Great Britain underlines. Network Rail is hoping to shed more than 1,000 jobs, arguing that automation could create a more efficient and safe inspection regime by using data to predict faults.

Financial services

The financial services sector is at greater risk of job losses from AI than other sectors, according to government forecasts, but experts say this is partly a matter of catch-up.

“Other industries have already made these cuts,” said Sarah Kocianski, an independent fintech consultant.

For example, banks and wealth managers will need fewer staff to onboard new clients as they automate more of their customer background checks and will rely more heavily on AI to detect and flag potential fraud and money-laundering risks.

They will also be able to feed new guidelines from regulators into those machine learning programmes, to flag any potential breaches or shortfalls in the company’s systems, rather than relying on humans to conduct an initial review.

But these systems will still require human oversight, not only to build and programme the technology but also to conduct additional checks and sort out more complex problems.

“A critical risk is that firms succumb to the temptation to trust AI to make smarter lending or insurance decisions without understanding the reasoning process, and over-rely on the AI system without properly stress-testing its fitness for purpose,” said Karishma Brahmbhatt, a data and technology lawyer at Allen & Overy.

Alongside booming demand for tech staff to build and monitor AI programmes, firms will be competing for higher-skilled staff who can do forensic work if they suspect fraud or error, or provide bespoke support to customers. “You need more tailored people but you need fewer people,” Kocianski said.

Retail

Almost a third of retail jobs could be displaced by technology by 2030 compared with 2017 levels, as automated tills, warehouse robotics and AI-based planning tools affect the UK’s biggest employer.

A robot and delivery drone working in an automatic warehouse.
A robot and delivery drone working in an automated warehouse. Photograph: Scharfsinn/Alamy

The most obvious change to any shopper is the rise in the use of self-checkouts and self-scanning systems in supermarkets in the last five years. Change was supercharged by the pandemic when labour became more expensive and difficult to find while shoppers became wary of interactions with staff.

Analysts at the advisory firm McKinsey have predicted that the number of cashiers could almost halve between 2017 and 2030 as these technologies are rolled out. Bryan Roberts at the industry body IGD said the majority of sales in most UK supermarkets are now rung up on self-scanning or automated tills.

The rise of labour costs has also led non-food retailers to give the technology a go. The Japanese-owned clothing chain Uniqlo introduced a system linked to radio frequency identification tags a few years ago.

The next step is the checkout-free store, led by Amazon Fresh, where cameras and shelf sensors mean that shoppers’ purchases are automatically registered on an app on their phone enabling them to just walk out and pay later.

Technology doesn’t stop at the till. Retailers are experimenting with robotic or AI-powered systems to spot gaps on shelves – with Marks & Spencer trialling a system that uses fixed cameras. Others have experimented with Dalek-type machines that cruise up and down the aisles.

Electronic labels on shelves, so prices can be changed automatically from head office, alongside AI-led technology to guide buying decisions and more robotics to pick and pack products in warehouses will also affect thousands of jobs.


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