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‘Innovation is in Our DNA,’ US President Barack Obama Announces Research and Innovation Funding

During the conference, Obama shared a fist-bump, a gesture of greeting, with Nathan Copeland, a paralyzed man with a robotic arm

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President Barack Obama sits in a flight simulator during a tour of innovation projects at the White House Frontiers Conference at University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016, as NASA astronaut Dr. Serena Aunon-Chancellor watches. VOA

“I’m a nerd,” U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday, speaking at a science and technology conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I’m a science geek. … I don’t make any apologies for it.”

The president got laughter and applause for his comment. He had an audience full of science geeks.

Pittsburgh, once seen as an industrial metropolis in decline, has forged a new reputation as a hub for technological innovation, particularly robotics. Despite cold, rainy weather, a conference focused on science and a visit by the president generated excitement on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, where the conference was held.

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The White House, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh co-hosted the one-day Frontiers Conference, where Obama and other attendees got a chance to examine a Boeing space flight simulator and a SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft that has carried cargo to the International Space Station.

“Cool stuff,” Obama said. He told his audience good-naturedly that he “stuck the landing” while trying out the flight simulator.

Five frontiers

The conference, co-hosted by Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, was the backdrop for the president’s announcement of about $300 million the White House is contributing to research and development.

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The conference addressed five frontiers of innovation: health care and precision medicine; technology and data-driven improvements to communities; artificial intelligence; climate change; and space exploration.

Some of the funding is set to go into a White House report on the future of artificial intelligence, exploring its possibilities and the questions it raises for society and public policy.

The deep-space exploration project will support the president’s goal of sending humans to the planet Mars by 2030.

The Obama administration is putting $16 million into a large-scale public health study and $165 million into projects using data to solve quality-of-life issues, such as traffic congestion. Projects known as the Police Data Initiative and the Data-Driven Justice Initiative will get support for their efforts to improve the U.S. criminal justice system.

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Obama warned against resistance to scientific innovation, taking a swipe at climate change naysayers when he warned against people who “willfully ignored facts or stick their heads in the sand.”

Some of the White House funding announced Thursday will go toward collecting and processing climate data, as well as education initiatives to help citizens and organizations respond to the problem of climate change.

“This conference is about pushing boundaries for what’s possible,” he said in his remarks. “There’s nothing we can’t do.”

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Nathan Copeland, who demonstrates how he can control a robotic arm and feel when the robotic hand is touched. Dr. Jennifer Collinger, one of Copeland's doctors, watches. VOA
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Nathan Copeland, who demonstrates how he can control a robotic arm and feel when the robotic hand is touched. Dr. Jennifer Collinger, one of Copeland’s doctors, watches. VOA

The president got a roar of applause while talking about inclusiveness in science education and opportunity.

“We are the nation that just had six of our scientists and researchers win Nobel prizes,” he said. “And every one of them was an immigrant.”

During the conference, Obama shared a fist-bump, a gesture of greeting, with Nathan Copeland, a paralyzed man with a robotic arm. Copeland can feel sensation in the arm and control it with his mind, thanks to scientific innovation.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week that the conference is meant to be a milepost rather than a one-time event, designed to inspire people to continue making scientific progress.

“There will be a followup,” he said.

New technology hubs

Pittsburgh, in its new incarnation as a technology hub, serves as the federal agency headquarters for cyberdefense, robotics, software engineering and energy research.

Carnegie Robotics, a network that designs robotics systems for its clients, moved into a former steel supply company building in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 2015 and quickly began expanding.

President Barack Obama fist-bumps with Nathan Copeland during a tour of innovation projects at the White House Frontiers Conference at University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. VOA
President Barack Obama fist-bumps with Nathan Copeland during a tour of innovation projects at the White House Frontiers Conference at University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Oct. 13, 2016. VOA

Company CEO Steve DiAntonio told local media that there are now 40 robotics companies in Pittsburgh, twice as many as there were four years ago. The number of robotics employees has tripled in that time.

Obama noted that Pittsburgh is not the only urban area to have revitalized by cultivating new research and technology industries. He also cited Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Cincinnati, Ohio, among urban areas that reinvented themselves.

“Doubling down on science, tech and innovation” helped those places “create amazing new jobs and opportunities,” Obama said. “Innovation is in our DNA. Science has always been central to our progress.”

The conference was closed to the general public, but that didn’t stop a swarm of Carnegie Mellon students from gathering near Obama’s motorcade, hoping to catch a glimpse or a photo of the president as he headed out of town. (VOA)

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Elon Musk Unveils Plans to put Humans on Mars by 2024

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Elon Musk
Elon Musk, founder, CEO and lead designer at SpaceX. voa

Adelaide, Sep 29: Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX on Friday unveiled its plans to put humans on Mars as early as 2024.

Speaking on the final day of the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk made the announcement of the plans, reports Xinhua news agency.

Musk, who also serves as the CEO of automotive company Tesla, said SpaceX was aiming for cargo missions to the Red Planet in 2022 and crew with cargo by 2024.

He said that missions to Mars would be launched every two years from 2022 onwards with colonisation and terraforming to begin as soon as the first humans arrive in order to make it “a really nice place to be”.

“It’s about believing in the future, and thinking that the future will be better than the past,” Musk said.

SpaceX also announced its new BFR rocket on Friday.

“I can’t emphasise enough how profound this is, and how important this is,” Musk told the Congress as the keynote speaker on the final day.

The new BFR has the highest capacity payload of any rocket ever built, meaning it has the lowest launch cost, due to its status as a fully reusable rocket while also being the most powerful.

“It’s really crazy that we build these sophisticated rockets and then crash them every time we fire,” Musk said.

He said that the new BFR could carry a 40-carriage spaceship to Mars with two or three people occupying each carriage.

The rocket is capable of flying from Earth to the Moon and back without refuelling, making creating a base on the Moon, dubbed Moon Base Alpha, achievable in near future.

SpaceX intends for the new, scaled-down BFR to replace its other flagship rockets, the Dragon, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

Musk said the BFR could even be used for international flights on Earth, promising to cut most long-distance Earth flights to just half an hour.

He said the rocket could travel from New York City to Shanghai in 37 minutes at a maximum speed of 18,000 miles (28,968 km) per hour.

Funding for BFR development will come from SpaceX’s satellite and International Space Station (ISS) revenue.

SpaceX’s announcement came hours after Lockheed Martin revealed new technology that would see it land on Mars in partnership with NASA by 2030.

SpaceX estimated this year that a permanent, self-sustaining colony on Mars was 50 to 100 years away.(IANS)

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China’s Internet Censors Block ‘Winnie the Pooh’ Images on Social Media

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US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as he arrives for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit banquet in Beijing, Nov. 10, 2014. RFA
  • The image in question showed the Disney version of Pooh and Tigger alongside a photograph of Xi and former U.S. President Barack Obama
  • The meme wouldn’t be the first time ruling Chinese Communist Party has moved to crack down on any satire targeting the president
  • Cadres are also banned from posting about government business to either official and personal social media accounts without authorization

China, July 18, 2017: China’s internet censors appeared on Monday to have banned social media tweets containing a reference to Winnie the Pooh, after a satirical image drawing parallels between the cuddly bear and President Xi Jinping circulated online.

The image in question showed the Disney version of Pooh and Tigger alongside a photograph of Xi and former U.S. President Barack Obama during their “shirtsleeves summit” in June 2013.

“This photo has already been banned on Tencent,” user @Fantasy326_ tweeted on the Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo on Friday. “It won’t send, no matter how you use screenshots.”

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User @cha_mi said keywords linked to “Winnie the Pooh” had also been banned on Sina, but “Winnie the Pooh was banned” remained a top search query and hashtag on the platform on Friday.

Commentators appeared to have no doubts over the cause of the ban, however.

“Winnie the Pooh has been banned from the Chinese internet because President Xi Jinping has been compared to him on a number of occasions,” user@ñzan commented. “It is now a banned word.”

“The number of sensitive words in China just keeps on multiplying and becoming more diverse.”

The Financial Times said posts including the Chinese name of Winnie the Pooh were censored on Sina Weibo over the weekend, while a collection of animated gifs featuring the bear were removed from social messaging app WeChat.

The meme wouldn’t be the first time ruling Chinese Communist Party has moved to crack down on any satire targeting the president.

Kwon Pyong, an ethnic Korean from the northeastern province of Jilin, stood trial on Feb. 15 for subversion after he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with satirical nicknames for President Xi Jinping, including “Xitler.”

19th Party Congress

Commentators said censors are clamping down on any whiff of online dissent ahead of the 19th Party Congress later in the year, during which Xi will be looking to cement his status as a “core” party leader for the next five years of government.

Veteran media commentator Zhu Xinxin said Xi seems far more concerned about eradicating the slightest whiff of dissent or criticism than previous generations of leaders.

“There is no humor here, just an obsession with preserving a totally idealized version of the highest-ranking leaders,” Zhu said. “This sort of dictatorial culture elevates national leaders to the status of gods.”

But Zhu said Xi’s sensitivity seems to be a symptom of his fear that he hasn’t yet won an ongoing power struggle in the corridors of Zhongnanhai.

“He is terrified of that things might get out of hand, and that it could be open season for satirizing various party leaders,” he said. “That’s why nobody is allowed to say anything to undermine his power and authority.”

Xi’s administration has stepped up a campaign against dissenting opinions both online and in the country’s tightly controlled state media in recent months, warning officials in January to stay on message when using the social media app WeChat.

Party and government officials have been warned not to use the internet, social media, radio, television, newspapers, books, lectures, forums, reports, seminars and other means “to make off-message comments about central government policy and undermine party unity.”

Cadres are also banned from posting about government business to either official and personal social media accounts without authorization.

The new code of conduct banning “off-message” statements was likely approved by the last plenary session of the 18th Party Congress last October, which was held behind closed doors, political observers said.

That meeting also formally endorsed President Xi Jinping as a “core” leader of the ruling party at the current plenum, potentially putting him on a par with former paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, whose authority must never be challenged. (RFA)


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Can Flourishing Islamic State (ISIS) be Stopped in Afghanistan?

The truth about IS and Afghanistan is definitely no picnic

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Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.
Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016. The rise of IS in Afghanistan has become such a priority that U.S. and Afghan forces sometimes support the Taliban while battling IS, VOA
  • Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups
  • Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops
  • In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS

June 25, 2017: The Islamic State group is rapidly expanding in parts of Afghanistan, advancing militarily into areas where it once had a weak presence and strengthening its forces in core regions, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups.

Attacking IS has become such a priority in the country, that disparate forces sometimes join together in the ad-hoc fight, with Afghan and U.S. forces finding themselves inadvertently supporting the enemy Taliban in battling IS.

Confusion leads to mistakes

All too often, officials say, mistakes are made due to confusion on the ground.

Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops, provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani told VOA. The supplies were meant to help Afghan forces that are countering twin attacks by IS and Taliban militants but were used instead by IS.

“It’s not getting better in Afghanistan in terms of IS,” U.S. Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White told VOA this week. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.”

Reinforcements for the IS cause reportedly are streaming into isolated areas of the country from far and wide. There are reports of fighters from varied nationalities joining the ranks, including militants from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Central Asian neighbors.

Confusing scenarios

Still, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) as IS is known in Afghanistan remains a fragmented group composed of differing regional forces with different agendas in different parts of the country.

“IS-K is still conducting low-level recruiting and distribution of propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, but it does not have the ability or authority to conduct multiple operations across the country,” a recent Pentagon report said. But where it operates, IS is inflicting chaos and casualties and causing confusing scenarios for disparate opponents.

In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS. IS regained ground after a few days, leading to U.S. military air attacks on IS positions in conjunction with Afghan intelligence instructions and army operations.

IS fighters reportedly have fled from mountain caves of Tora Bora, where al-Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. attack in 2001.

Families displaced

IS fighters were also reportedly advancing in neighboring Khogyani district, displacing hundreds of families, according to district officials. It is one of several areas in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, where IS has been active for over two years.

Fierce clashes in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar last month left 21 Taliban fighters and seven IS militants dead, according to a provincial spokesman. At least three civilians who were caught in the crossfire were killed and five others wounded.

“IS has overpowered Taliban in some parts of Nangarhar because the Taliban dispatched its elite commando force called Sara Qeta (Red Brigade) to other parts of the country, including some northern provinces to contain the growing influence of IS there,” Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban expert in Kabul, told VOA.

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Recruiting unemployed youths

IS has also expanded in neighboring Kunar province, where, according to provincial police chief, it has a presence in at least eight districts and runs a training base, where foreign members of IS, train new recruits.

Hundreds of miles from Nangarhar, IS is attempting to establish a persistent presence in several northern provinces where it has found a fertile ground for attracting militants and recruiting unemployed youths, mostly between the age of 13 and 20.

IS has been able to draw its members from the Pakistani Taliban fighters, former Afghan Taliban, and other militants who “believe that associating with or pledging allegiance” to IS will further their interests, according to the Pentagon report.

Hundreds of militants have joined IS ranks in northern Jouzjan and Sar-e-Pul province where local militant commanders lead IS-affiliate groups in several districts.

Darzab district

Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek and former Taliban militant who joined IS a year ago, claims to have up to 500 members, including around 50 Uzbek nationals who are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — previously associated with al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan.

IS and Taliban are reportedly fighting over the control of Darzab district in Jouzjan which they stormed this week from two different directions and besieged scores of government forces. The Taliban has reportedly captured the center of the district while IS militants control the city outskirts.

Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including IS, the Pentagon said.

“In areas where the government has limited influence and control, IS attempts to emerge and expand there,” Ateequllah Amarkhail, an analysts and former Army general in Kabul told VOA.

Hit-and-hide strategy

IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in urban areas, however, with a hit-and-hide strategy that is proving effective. And it is engaging too in more skirmishes with U.S. forces that initially were sent to the country to help Afghan forces halt the spread of Taliban.

Three American service members based in eastern Afghanistan were killed in April during operations targeting IS militants, according to the Pentagon.

“ISIS-K remains a threat to Afghan and regional security, a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, and it retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks in urban centers,” the Pentagon said. (VOA)