Ancient snake might have been 15 meters long, weighed 1,000 kilos

WASHINGTON — A ancient giant snake in India might have been longer than a school bus and weighed a ton, researchers reported Thursday.

Fossils found near a coal mine revealed a snake that stretched an estimated 11 meters to 15 meters. It’s comparable to the largest known snake at about 13 meters that once lived in what is now Colombia.

The largest living snake today is Asia’s reticulated python at 10 meters.

The newly discovered behemoth lived 47 million years ago in western India’s swampy evergreen forests. It could have weighed up to 1,000 kilograms, researchers said in the journal Scientific Reports.

They gave it the name Vasuki indicus after “the mythical snake king Vasuki, who wraps around the neck of the Hindu deity Shiva,” said Debajit Datta, a study co-author at the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee.

This monster snake wasn’t especially swift to strike.

“Considering its large size, Vasuki was a slow-moving ambush predator that would subdue its prey through constriction,” Datta said in an email.

Fragments of the snake’s backbone were discovered in 2005 by co-author Sunil Bajpai, based at the same institute, near Kutch, Gujarat, in western India. The researchers compared more than 20 fossil vertebrae to skeletons of living snakes to estimate size.

While it’s not clear exactly what Vasuki ate, other fossils found nearby reveal that the snake lived in swampy areas alongside catfish, turtles, crocodiles and primitive whales, which may have been its prey, Datta said.

The other extinct giant snake, Titanoboa, was discovered in Colombia and is estimated to have lived around 60 million years ago.

What these two monster snakes have in common is that they lived during periods of exceptionally warm global climates, said Jason Head, a Cambridge University paleontologist who was not involved in the study.

“These snakes are giant cold-blooded animals,” he said. “A snake requires higher temperatures” to grow into large sizes.

So does that mean that global warming will bring back monster-sized snakes?

In theory, it’s possible. But the climate is now warming too quickly for snakes to evolve again to be giants, he said.

Doctors display ‘PillBot’ that can explore inner human body

vancouver, british columbia — A new, digestible mini-robotic camera, about the size of a multivitamin pill, was demonstrated at the annual TED Conference in Vancouver. The remote-controlled device can eliminate invasive medical procedures.

With current technology, exploration of the digestive tract involves going through the highly invasive procedure of an endoscopy, in which a camera at the end of a cord is inserted down the throat and into a medicated patient’s stomach.

But the robotic pill, developed by Endiatx in Hayward, California, is designed to be the first motorized replacement of the procedure. A patient fasts for a day, then swallows the PillBot with lots of water. The PillBot, acting like a miniature submarine, is piloted in the body by a wireless remote control. After the exam, it then flushes out of the human body naturally.

For Dr. Vivek Kumbhari, co-founder of the company and professor of medicine and chairman of gastroenterology and hepatology at the Mayo Clinic, it is the latest step toward his goal of democratizing previously complex medicine.

If procedure-based diagnostics can be moved from a hospital to a home, “then I think we have achieved that goal,” he said. The new setting would require fewer medical staff personnel and no anesthesia, producing “a safer, more comfortable approach.”

Kumbhari said this technology also makes medicine more efficient, allowing people to get care earlier in the course of an illness.

For co-founder Alex Luebke, the micro-robotic pill can be transformative for rural areas around the world where there is limited access to medical facilities.

“Especially in developing countries, there is no access” to complex medical procedures, he said. “So being able to have the technology, gather all that information and provide you the solution, even in remote areas – that’s the way to do it.”

Luebke said if internet access is not immediately available, information from the PillBot can be transmitted later.

The duo are also utilizing artificial intelligence to provide the initial diagnosis, with a medical doctor later developing a treatment plan.

Joel Bervell is known to his million social media followers as the “Medical Mythbuster” and is a fourth-year medical student at Washington State University. He said the strength of this type of technology is how it can be easily used in remote and rural communities.

Many patients “travel hundreds of miles, literally, for their appointment. Use of a pill that would not require a visit to a physician “would be life-changing for them.” 

The micro-robotic pill is undergoing trials and will soon be in front of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval, which developers expect to have in 2025. It’s expected that the pill would then be widely available in 2026.

Kumbhari hopes the technology can be expanded to the bowels, vascular system, heart, liver, brain and other parts of the body. Eventually, he hopes, this will allow hospitals to be left for more urgent medical care and surgeries.

Apple pulls WhatsApp and Threads from App Store on Beijing’s orders

HONG KONG — Apple said it had removed Meta’s WhatsApp messaging app and its Threads social media app from the App Store in China to comply with orders from Chinese authorities.

The apps were removed from the store Friday after Chinese officials cited unspecified national security concerns.

Their removal comes amid elevated tensions between the U.S. and China over trade, technology and national security.

The U.S. has threatened to ban TikTok over national security concerns. But while TikTok, owned by Chinese technology firm ByteDance, is used by millions in the U.S., apps like WhatsApp and Threads are not commonly used in China.

Instead, the messaging app WeChat, owned by Chinese company Tencent, reigns supreme.

Other Meta apps, including Facebook, Instagram and Messenger remained available for download, although use of such foreign apps is blocked in China due to its “Great Firewall” network of filters that restrict use of foreign websites such as Google and Facebook.

“The Cyberspace Administration of China ordered the removal of these apps from the China storefront based on their national security concerns,” Apple said in a statement.

“We are obligated to follow the laws in the countries where we operate, even when we disagree,” Apple said.

A spokesperson for Meta referred to “Apple for comment.”

Apple, previously the world’s top smartphone maker, recently lost the top spot to Korean rival Samsung Electronics. The U.S. firm has run into headwinds in China, one of its top three markets, with sales slumping after Chinese government agencies and employees of state-owned companies were ordered not to bring Apple devices to work.

Apple has been diversifying its manufacturing bases outside China.

Its CEO Tim Cook has been visiting Southeast Asia this week, traveling to Hanoi and Jakarta before wrapping up his travels in Singapore. On Friday he met with Singapore’s deputy prime minister, Lawrence Wong, where they “discussed the partnership between Singapore and Apple, and Apple’s continued commitment to doing business in Singapore.”

Apple pledged to invest over $250 million to expand its campus in the city-state.

Earlier this week, Cook met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in Hanoi, pledging to increase spending on Vietnamese suppliers.

He also met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Cook later told reporters that they talked about Widodo’s desire to promote manufacturing in Indonesia, and said that this was something that Apple would “look at.”

Australian researchers develop prototype device to devour carbon dioxide to make electricity

Sydney — Australian researchers have built an electrical generator that consumes carbon dioxide, generates electricity and admits no exhausts.  They say the technology could create a new industrial-scale carbon capture method.  

Scientists say too much carbon dioxide, or CO2, in the atmosphere is main driver of warming temperatures.  

Researchers at the University of Queensland have created a generator that consumes carbon dioxide and produces electricity.

The carbon-negative “nano-generator” has been built by the university’s Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation.

The prototype device uses what is known as a poly amine gel to absorb carbon dioxide to create an electrical current.  

The design team acknowledges the technology needs further development and refinement but believes it could help to significantly curb global CO2 emissions.

Zhuyuan Wang from the University of Queensland told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. the concept has great potential.  

“We actually just finished the proof of concept that proves this can work but the current power density and efficiency is not high enough to compete with other energy sources, like solar panel[s], like the wind turbine,” he said.

The Queensland researchers hope their prototype could have industrial applications to help, for example, power plants reduce their emissions, as well as smaller units for use at home.

Carbon capture and storage techniques are used by the oil and gas sector to try to offset its emissions of greenhouse gases. Current methods involve harnessing CO2 produced by power companies, for example, and then burying it deep underground where it becomes trapped in rock formations. There are several large-scale CO2 burial sites in the United States.

However, the Climate Council, an Australian advocacy organization, claims that carbon capture and storage technology “has not been trialled and tested – anywhere in the world – at the scale required to tackle the climate crisis.” 

Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organisation, states that “emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels make the largest contribution to climate change.” 

Australia is the world’s 14th highest emitter, contributing just over 1% of global emissions.  It has, however, some of the world’s highest per capita emissions.  Coal and gas generate much of Australia’s electricity, but solar and wind are leading an energy transformation. 

The Climate Council states that almost a third of Australia’s energy is renewable and will soon reach 50%.

US ponders trade status upgrade for Vietnam despite some opposition

Washington — U.S. officials are considering a request from Vietnam to be removed from a list of “nonmarket” economies, a step that would foster improved diplomatic relations with a potential ally in Asia but would anger some U.S. lawmakers and manufacturing firms.

The Southeast Asian country is on the list of 12 nations identified by the U.S. as nonmarket economies, which also includes China and Russia because of strong state intervention in their economies.  

Analysts believe Hanoi is hoping for a decision before the November U.S. election, which could mean a return to power of Donald Trump, who during his previous term as president threatened to boost tariffs on Vietnam because of its large trade surplus with the United States.

Under the Trump administration, the Department of Treasury also put Vietnam on a list of currency manipulators, which can lead to being excluded from U.S. government procurement contracts or other remedial actions. The Treasury, under the Biden administration, removed Vietnam from this list.

On the eve of President Joe Biden’s September visit to Hanoi, where he and Vietnamese Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong elevated the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Vietnam formally asked U.S. Department of Commerce to remove it from the list of nonmarket economies on the grounds that it had made economic reforms in recent years.  

The Biden administration subsequently initiated a review of Vietnam’s nonmarket economy (NME) status. The Department of Commerce is to issue a final decision by July 26, 270 days after initiating the review.  

“Receiving market economy status is the highest diplomatic priority of the Vietnamese leadership this year, especially after last fall’s double upgrade in diplomatic relations,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at National War College where he focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues.

He told VOA Vietnamese that the Vietnamese “are really linking the implementation of the joint vision statement to receiving that status.”

The U.S. is Vietnam’s most important export market with two-way trade totaling more than $125 billion in 2023, according to U.S. Census data. But Washington has initiated more trade defense investigations with Vietnam than with any other country, mainly anti-dumping investigations. Vietnam recorded 58 cases subject to trade remedies of the U.S. as of August 2023, in which 26 were anti-dumping, according to the Vietnam Trade Office in the U.S.

Vietnam has engaged a lobbying firm in Washington to help it win congressional support for a status upgrade. A Foreign Agents Registration Act’s statement filed to the U.S. Department of Justice shows that Washington-based Steptoe is assisting the Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade and supporting the Vietnamese government in “obtaining market economy status in antidumping proceedings.”

“I understand why Vietnamese are lobbying,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“One reason is U.S.-Vietnam relations have come so far, and to hold the non-market [status] is a little bit disingenuous because most of the countries that have this status are countries like China, Russia, North Korea, who are not so friendly with the United States. So I think [the U.S. recognition of Vietnam as a market economy] would be a sign that relations have improved.”

US election key

Both Abuza and Hiebert believe that Vietnam is pushing hard to secure the upgrade before the November U.S. election that could bring Trump back into office.

“Trump began an investigation of Vietnam’s dumping just before the end of his administration. He may again start that process,” said Hiebert, who was senior director for Southeast Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before joining CSIS.

But Vietnam’s campaign faces opposition from within the U.S.

More than 30 U.S. lawmakers in January sent joint letters to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo urging the Biden administration not to grant market economy status to Vietnam. They argued that Vietnam did not meet the procedural requirements for a change of status and that granting Hanoi’s wish would be “a serious mistake.”

The U.S. designated Vietnam as a nonmarket economy in 2002 during an anti-dumping investigation into Vietnamese catfish exports. Over the past 21 years, the U.S. has imposed anti-dumping duties on many Vietnamese exports, including agricultural and industrial products.

In a request sent to Raimondo to initiate a changed circumstances review, the Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade said that over the past 20 years, the economy of Vietnam “has been through dramatic developments and reforms.” It said 72 countries recognize Vietnam as a market economy, notably the U.K., Canada, Australia and Japan.

‘Unfairly traded Chinese goods’

U.S. manufacturing groups have expressed opposition to Vietnam’s request, arguing that Vietnam continues to operate as a nonmarket economy. In comments sent to Raimondo, the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AMM) said that Vietnam “cannot reasonably be understood to demonstrate the characteristics of a market economy.”

“There’s still heavy intervention by the governing Communist Party [of Vietnam],” said Scott Paul, president of AMM. “There’s a lot of indication that China may be using Vietnam as a platform to also export to the U.S., which is obviously concerning to firms here,” he said.

In a letter dated January 28, eight senators wrote “Granting Vietnam market economy status before it addresses its clear nonmarket behavior and the severe deficiencies in its labor law will worsen ongoing trade distortions, erode the U.S. manufacturing base, threaten American workers and industries, and reinforce Vietnam’s role as a conduit for goods produced in China with forced labor.”  

Many Chinese products have been found to be disguised or labeled as “Made in Vietnam” to avoid U.S. tariffs since Trump launched a trade war with China in 2018. Vietnam has promised to crack down on the practice.

Abuza pointed out what he called a contradiction in U.S. policy.

“Vietnam is too important to the United States economically in terms of trade and foreign direct investment, and we cannot look to Vietnam for supply chain diversification out of China if it doesn’t have market economy status.”

Hiebert said the U.S. “should do this and get moving” as Vietnam is “one of the U.S.’ best friends in Asia and Southeast Asia and help stand up to China.”

EU politicians embrace TikTok despite data security concerns

Sundsvall,  Sweden — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s short videos of his three-day trip to China this week proved popular in posts on Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok, which the European Union, Canada, Taiwan and the United States banned on official devices more than a year ago, citing security concerns.

By Friday, one video showing highlights of Scholz’s trip had garnered 1.5 million views while another of him speaking about it on the plane home had 1.4 million views. 

Scholz opened his TikTok account April 8 to attract youth, promising he wouldn’t post videos of himself dancing.  His most popular post so far, about his 40-year-old briefcase, was watched 3.6 million times.  Many commented, “This briefcase is older than me.”

Scholtz is one of several Western leaders to use TikTok, despite concerns that its parent company, ByteDance, could provide private user data to the Chinese government and could also be used to push a pro-Beijing agenda.

 

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has 258,000 followers on TikTok, and Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris has 99,000 followers. 

U.S. President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign team opened a TikTok account in February, despite Biden himself vowing to sign legislation expected to be voted on as early as Saturday to force ByteDance to divest in the U.S. or face a ban. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who unsuccessfully tried to ban TikTok in 2020, in March reversed his position and now appears to oppose a ban. 

ByteDance denies it would provide user data to the Chinese government, despite reports indicating it could be at risk, and China has firmly opposed any forced sale.

Kevin Morgan, TikTok’s director of security and integrity in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says more than 134 million people in 27 EU countries visit TikTok every month, including a third of EU lawmakers. 

As the European Union’s June elections approach, more European politicians are using the popular platform favored by young people to attract votes. 

Ola Patrik Bertil Moeller, a Swedish legislator with the Social Democratic Party who has 124,000 followers on TikTok, told VOA, “We as politicians participate in the conversation and spread accurate images and answer the questions that people have. If we’re not there, other forces that don’t want good will definitely be there.”

But other European politicians see TikTok as risky.  

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store on Monday expressed his uneasiness about social media platforms, including TikTok, being “used by various threat actors for several purposes, such as recruitment for espionage, influencing through disinformation and fake news, or mapping regime critics. This is disturbing.”

Konstantin von Notz, vice-chairman of the Green Parliamentary Group in the German legislature, told VOA, “While questions of security and the protection of personal data generally arise when using social networks, the issue is even more relevant for users of TikTok due to the company’s proximity to the Chinese state.” 

Matthias C. Kettemann, an internet researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Media Research in Hamburg, Germany, told VOA, “Keeping data safe is a difficult task; given TikTok’s ties to China doesn’t make it easier.”  But he emphasized, “TikTok is obliged to do these measures through the EU’s GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] anyway from a legal side.”

But analysts question whether ByteDance will obey European law if pressed by the Chinese state.

Matthias Spielkamp, executive director AlgorithmWatch, told VOA, “Does TikTok have an incentive to comply with European law? Yes, there’s an enormous amount of money on the line. Is it realistic that TikTok, being owned by a Chinese company, can resist requests for data by its Chinese parent? Hardly. How is this going to play out? No one knows right now.”

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

4/20 grew from humble roots to marijuana’s high holiday

SEATTLE — Saturday marks marijuana culture’s high holiday, 4/20, when college students gather — at 4:20 p.m. — in clouds of smoke on campus quads and pot shops in legal-weed states thank their customers with discounts.

This year’s edition provides an occasion for activists to reflect on how far their movement has come, with recreational pot now allowed in nearly half the states and the nation’s capital. Many states have instituted “social equity” measures to help communities of color, harmed the most by the drug war, reap financial benefits from legalization. And the White House has shown an openness to marijuana reform.

Here’s a look at 4/20’s history:

WHY 4/20?

 

The origins of the date, and the term “420” generally, were long murky. Some claimed it referred to a police code for marijuana possession or that it derived from Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35,” with its refrain of “Everybody must get stoned” — 420 being the product of 12 times 35.

But the prevailing explanation is that it started in the 1970s with a group of bell-bottomed buddies from San Rafael High School, in California’s Marin County north of San Francisco, who called themselves “the Waldos.” A friend’s brother was afraid of getting busted for a patch of cannabis he was growing in the woods at nearby Point Reyes, so he drew a map and gave the teens permission to harvest the crop, the story goes.

During fall 1971, at 4:20 p.m., just after classes and football practice, the group would meet up at the school’s statue of chemist Louis Pasteur, smoke a joint and head out to search for the weed patch. They never did find it, but their private lexicon — “420 Louie” and later just “420” — would take on a life of its own.

The Waldos saved postmarked letters and other artifacts from the 1970s referencing “420,” which they now keep in a bank vault, and when the Oxford English Dictionary added the term in 2017, it cited some of those documents as the earliest recorded uses.

HOW DID 420 SPREAD?

A brother of one of the Waldos was a close friend of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, as Lesh once confirmed in an interview with the Huffington Post, now HuffPost. The Waldos began hanging out in the band’s circle and the slang spread.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s: Steve Bloom, a reporter for the cannabis magazine High Times, was at a Dead show when he was handed a flyer urging people to “meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.” High Times published it.

“It’s a phenomenon,” one of the Waldos, Steve Capper, now 69, once told The Associated Press. “Most things die within a couple years, but this just goes on and on. It’s not like someday somebody’s going to say, ‘OK, cannabis New Year’s is on June 23rd now.’”

While the Waldos came up with the term, the people who made the flier distributed at the Dead show — and effectively turned 4/20 into a holiday — remain unknown.

HOW IS IT CELEBRATED?

With weed, naturally.

Some celebrations are bigger than others: The Mile High 420 Festival in Denver, for example, typically draws thousands and describes itself as the largest free 4/20 event in the world. Hippie Hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park has also attracted massive crowds, but the gathering was canceled this year, with organizers citing a lack of financial sponsorship and city budget cuts.

College quads and statehouse lawns are also known for drawing 4/20 celebrations, with the University of Colorado Boulder historically among the largest, though not so much since administrators banned the annual smokeout over a decade ago.

Some breweries make beers that are 420-themed, but not laced, including SweetWater Brewing in Atlanta, which is throwing a 420 music festival this weekend and whose founders went to the University of Colorado.

Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, California, releases its “Waldos’ Special Ale” every year on 4/20 in partnership with the term’s coiners. That’s where the Waldos will be this Saturday to sample the beer, for which they picked out “hops that smell and taste like the dankest marijuana,” one Waldo, Dave Reddix, said via email.

4/20 has also become a big industry event, with vendors gathering to try each other’s wares.

THE POLITICS

The number of states allowing recreational marijuana has grown to 24 after recent legalization campaigns succeeded in Ohio, Minnesota and Delaware. Fourteen more states allow it for medical purposes, including Kentucky, where medical marijuana legislation that passed last year will take effect in 2025. Additional states permit only products with low THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, for certain medical conditions.

But marijuana is still illegal under federal law. It is listed with drugs such as heroin under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has no federally accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

The Biden administration, however, has taken some steps toward marijuana reform. The president has pardoned thousands of people who were convicted of “simple possession” on federal land and in the District of Columbia.

The Department of Health and Human Services last year recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration that marijuana be reclassified as Schedule III, which would affirm its medical use under federal law.

According to a Gallup poll last fall, 70% of adults support legalization, the highest level yet recorded by the polling firm and more than double the roughly 30% who backed it in 2000.

Vivian McPeak, who helped found Seattle’s Hempfest more than three decades ago, reflected on the extent to which the marijuana industry has evolved during his lifetime.

“It’s surreal to drive by stores that are selling cannabis,” he said. “A lot of people laughed at us, saying, ‘This will never happen.’”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

McPeak described 4/20 these days as a “mixed bag.” Despite the legalization movement’s progress, many smaller growers are struggling to compete against large producers, he said, and many Americans are still behind bars for weed convictions.

“We can celebrate the victories that we’ve had, and we can also strategize and organize to further the cause,” he said. “Despite the kind of complacency that some people might feel, we still got work to do. We’ve got to keep burning that shoe leather until we get everybody out of jails and prisons.”

For the Waldos, 4/20 signifies above all else a good time.

“We’re not political. We’re jokesters,” Capper has said. “But there was a time that we can’t forget, when it was secret, furtive. … The energy of the time was more charged, more exciting in a certain way.

“I’m not saying that’s all good — it’s not good they were putting people in jail,” he continued. “You wouldn’t want to go back there.”

US presidential contenders differ on who’s better for economy

The U.S. economy is always a major factor in the presidential campaign because the president plays a key role in setting and shaping trade and economic policies. VOA’s Senior Washington Correspondent Carolyn Presutti reports on how the economy is doing and the difference between how the two presidential contenders would handle it. Camera: Mike Burke

Meta’s new AI agents confuse Facebook users 

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Facebook parent Meta Platforms has unveiled a new set of artificial intelligence systems that are powering what CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls “the most intelligent AI assistant that you can freely use.” 

But as Zuckerberg’s crew of amped-up Meta AI agents started venturing into social media in recent days to engage with real people, their bizarre exchanges exposed the ongoing limitations of even the best generative AI technology. 

One joined a Facebook moms group to talk about its gifted child. Another tried to give away nonexistent items to confused members of a Buy Nothing forum. 

Meta, along with leading AI developers Google and OpenAI, and startups such as Anthropic, Cohere and France’s Mistral, have been churning out new AI language models and hoping to convince customers they’ve got the smartest, handiest or most efficient chatbots. 

While Meta is saving the most powerful of its AI models, called Llama 3, for later, on Thursday it publicly released two smaller versions of the same Llama 3 system and said it’s now baked into the Meta AI assistant feature in Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. 

AI language models are trained on vast pools of data that help them predict the most plausible next word in a sentence, with newer versions typically smarter and more capable than their predecessors. Meta’s newest models were built with 8 billion and 70 billion parameters — a measurement of how much data the system is trained on. A bigger, roughly 400 billion-parameter model is still in training. 

“The vast majority of consumers don’t candidly know or care too much about the underlying base model, but the way they will experience it is just as a much more useful, fun and versatile AI assistant,” Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said in an interview. 

‘A little stiff’

He added that Meta’s AI agent is loosening up. Some people found the earlier Llama 2 model — released less than a year ago — to be “a little stiff and sanctimonious sometimes in not responding to what were often perfectly innocuous or innocent prompts and questions,” he said. 

But in letting down their guard, Meta’s AI agents have also been spotted posing as humans with made-up life experiences. An official Meta AI chatbot inserted itself into a conversation in a private Facebook group for Manhattan moms, claiming that it, too, had a child in the New York City school district. Confronted by group members, it later apologized before the comments disappeared, according to a series of screenshots shown to The Associated Press. 

“Apologies for the mistake! I’m just a large language model, I don’t have experiences or children,” the chatbot told the group. 

One group member who also happens to study AI said it was clear that the agent didn’t know how to differentiate a helpful response from one that would be seen as insensitive, disrespectful or meaningless when generated by AI rather than a human. 

“An AI assistant that is not reliably helpful and can be actively harmful puts a lot of the burden on the individuals using it,” said Aleksandra Korolova, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton University. 

Clegg said Wednesday that he wasn’t aware of the exchange. Facebook’s online help page says the Meta AI agent will join a group conversation if invited, or if someone “asks a question in a post and no one responds within an hour.” The group’s administrators have the ability to turn it off. 

Need a camera?

In another example shown to the AP on Thursday, the agent caused confusion in a forum for swapping unwanted items near Boston. Exactly one hour after a Facebook user posted about looking for certain items, an AI agent offered a “gently used” Canon camera and an “almost-new portable air conditioning unit that I never ended up using.” 

Meta said in a written statement Thursday that “this is new technology and it may not always return the response we intend, which is the same for all generative AI systems.” The company said it is constantly working to improve the features. 

In the year after ChatGPT sparked a frenzy for AI technology that generates human-like writing, images, code and sound, the tech industry and academia introduced 149 large AI systems trained on massive datasets, more than double the year before, according to a Stanford University survey. 

They may eventually hit a limit, at least when it comes to data, said Nestor Maslej, a research manager for Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. 

“I think it’s been clear that if you scale the models on more data, they can become increasingly better,” he said. “But at the same time, these systems are already trained on percentages of all the data that has ever existed on the internet.” 

More data — acquired and ingested at costs only tech giants can afford, and increasingly subject to copyright disputes and lawsuits — will continue to drive improvements. “Yet they still cannot plan well,” Maslej said. “They still hallucinate. They’re still making mistakes in reasoning.” 

Getting to AI systems that can perform higher-level cognitive tasks and common-sense reasoning — where humans still excel— might require a shift beyond building ever-bigger models. 

Seeing what works

For the flood of businesses trying to adopt generative AI, which model they choose depends on several factors, including cost. Language models, in particular, have been used to power customer service chatbots, write reports and financial insights, and summarize long documents. 

“You’re seeing companies kind of looking at fit, testing each of the different models for what they’re trying to do and finding some that are better at some areas rather than others,” said Todd Lohr, a leader in technology consulting at KPMG. 

Unlike other model developers selling their AI services to other businesses, Meta is largely designing its AI products for consumers — those using its advertising-fueled social networks. Joelle Pineau, Meta’s vice president of AI research, said at a recent London event that the company’s goal over time is to make a Llama-powered Meta AI “the most useful assistant in the world.” 

“In many ways, the models that we have today are going to be child’s play compared to the models coming in five years,” she said. 

But she said the “question on the table” is whether researchers have been able to fine-tune its bigger Llama 3 model so that it’s safe to use and doesn’t, for example, hallucinate or engage in hate speech. In contrast to leading proprietary systems from Google and OpenAI, Meta has so far advocated for a more open approach, publicly releasing key components of its AI systems for others to use. 

“It’s not just a technical question,” Pineau said. “It is a social question. What is the behavior that we want out of these models? How do we shape that? And if we keep on growing our model ever more in general and powerful without properly socializing them, we are going to have a big problem on our hands.”

Reproductive rights elusive 1 year after Japan’s approval of abortion pill

Osaka, Japan — Wider access to abortion in Japan has largely remained elusive a year after the historic approval of medical abortion pills.

In April last year, lawmakers approved the use of the two-step abortion pill — MeFeego Pack — for pregnancies up to nine weeks. Before that, women in the East Asian nation could only receive a surgical abortion in private clinics by designated surgeons that often charge as much as $370.

Financial strain aside, women were often required to provide proof of spousal consent to receive an abortion, making it nearly impossible for them to make the decision on their own. Reports showed that even for single women, doctors still asked for permission of a male partner before agreeing to perform such surgeries.

Despite the approval of the abortion pill, only 3% of all clinics with abortion services in Japan provide them a year after the pill’s approval, according to Kumi Tsukahara, independent researcher of reproductive health and rights, “and none of them have a Maternal Body Protection Law (MBPL) designated doctor,” Tsukahara told VOA News.

Under the MBPL, the controversial requirement for spousal consent before a doctor can prescribe oral abortion medication still exists — it’s the same condition for gaining permission for a surgical abortion.

“Unfortunately, there are no signs of change with regard to either,” the expert said.

In contrast to countries with better abortion access, Japan’s approved abortion pills cannot be administered more than once — sometimes, multiple tries are necessary — and the pregnant women will still need to resort to surgical abortion that involves a serious risk to their health.

Since such surgeries are only allowed in private clinics and are considered profitable by designated doctors, they often charge the same price or higher for abortion pills as for a surgical abortion. Neither measure is covered by Japan’s national health system.

“The high prices and low affordability depending on individual doctors, the inaccurate information given by doctors who cannot use drugs to guide people to conventional surgical procedures, the unjust situation and the state’s failure to respond, and the women are disempowered to have a sense of entitlement on their part,” Tsukahara explained.

Abortion rights activist Kazuko Fukuda, who spearheads a grassroots movement to push for women’s rights to end pregnancies in Japan, echoed the sentiment.

“The abortion rights [in Japan] didn’t improve,” Fukuda told VOA News. “Of course, this [approval of oral abortion] was better than nothing, but conservative politicians went against such pills before the approval. … It’s mandated that women have to stay in hospitals that provide beds until the end of the abortion, but designated private clinics don’t usually have beds.”

Women in Japan are banned from taking abortion pills at home. They must be in hospitals and take the pills in front of the doctors as authorities fear that they might resell them. If violated, these women can be subject to imprisonment for up to a year.

Male-dominated political scene

Abortion is still a big taboo in politics, and real rights improvement will go a long way, Fukuda added.

“News of women being arrested for giving birth alone and abandoning them is still very common — we hear that just a few days ago. … The government should repeal the criminalization of abortion. [Things don’t work] as doctors are still afraid of being sued so they require signatures from boyfriends to prescribe abortion pills.”

Last year, Japan started a study, selling morning-after pills over the counter without prescription. However, the study suffers limited availability in many cities. Girls under 15 are not allowed to purchase them, and those ages 16 to 18 must be accompanied by a parent to buy the pills.

Both experts VOA spoke with say that the information and availability of these contraceptive pills doesn’t appear high in online searches — the usual method for the targeted group to look for contraception.

Japan ranked among the lowest of developed countries in a March report this year by the World Bank in terms of women’s rights.

Currently, women account for less than 10% in Japan’s lower house of parliament and 27% in the upper house. In local politics, only 15% of women are on the front line. The gender pay gap in Japan reached 40%, according to a report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Women’s issues like abortion access or contraceptive measures are often not viewed as priorities for female politicians.

“In the male-dominated politics, a lot of women have to become more conservative and look strong to be accepted so it’s really hard for women to liberal or supportive in this kind of thing [abortion and contraception in the parliament],” Fukuda said.

Women blamed for low fertility rate

Social stigma connected to abortion remains strong as Japan blames women for its low fertility rate. The country hit a record low number of births last year.

“The Japanese government has attributed the ‘decreasing number [fertility rate] to ‘women who don’t give birth,’ women are made to feel socially guilty for trying to choose not to give birth. Of course, such an issue construction is itself highly biased and misogynistic,” said researcher Tsukahara.

Fukuda said that the government’s support of favorable reproductive policies stops with women who don’t want babies.

“Anything against that [wanting babies] is not supported at all. Many people think that ‘contraception’ is a taboo and even taking [morning after] pills can expose to judgment as a promiscuous woman. It’s not easy for women to talk about it.”

US emergency rooms refused to treat pregnant women

WASHINGTON — One woman miscarried in the lobby restroom of a Texas emergency room as front desk staff refused to check her in. Another woman learned that her fetus had no heartbeat at a Florida hospital, the day after a security guard turned her away from the facility. And in North Carolina, a woman gave birth in a car after an emergency room couldn’t offer an ultrasound. The baby later died.

Complaints that pregnant women were turned away from U.S. emergency rooms spiked in 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, federal documents obtained by The Associated Press reveal.

The cases raise alarms about the state of emergency pregnancy care in the U.S., especially in states that enacted strict abortion laws and sparked confusion around the treatment doctors can provide.

“It is shocking, it’s absolutely shocking,” said Amelia Huntsberger, an OB/GYN in Oregon. “It is appalling that someone would show up to an emergency room and not receive care — this is inconceivable.”

It’s happened despite federal mandates that the women be treated.

Federal law requires emergency rooms to treat or stabilize patients who are in active labor and provide a medical transfer to another hospital if they don’t have the staff or resources to treat them. Medical facilities must comply with the law if they accept Medicare funding.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday that could weaken those protections. The Biden administration has sued Idaho over its abortion ban, even in medical emergencies, arguing it conflicts with the federal law.

“No woman should be denied the care she needs,” Jennifer Klein, director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said in a statement. “All patients, including women who are experiencing pregnancy-related emergencies, should have access to emergency medical care required under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA).”

Pregnancy care after Roe

Pregnant patients have “become radioactive to emergency departments” in states with extreme abortion restrictions, said Sara Rosenbaum, a George Washington University health law and policy professor.

“They are so scared of a pregnant patient, that the emergency medicine staff won’t even look. They just want these people gone,” Rosenbaum said.

Consider what happened to a woman who was nine months pregnant and having contractions when she arrived at the Falls Community Hospital in Marlin, Texas, in July 2022, a week after the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion. The doctor on duty refused to see her.

“The physician came to the triage desk and told the patient that we did not have obstetric services or capabilities,” hospital staff told federal investigators during interviews, according to documents. “The nursing staff informed the physician that we could test her for the presence of amniotic fluid. However, the physician adamantly recommended the patient drive to a Waco hospital.”

Investigators with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services concluded Falls Community Hospital broke the law.

Reached by phone, an administrator at the hospital declined to comment on the incident.

The investigation was one of dozens the AP obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request filed in February 2023 that sought all pregnancy-related EMTALA complaints the previous year. One year after submitting the request, the federal government agreed to release only some complaints and investigative documents filed across just 19 states. The names of patients, doctors and medical staff were redacted from the documents.

Federal investigators looked into just over a dozen pregnancy-related complaints in those states during the months leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s pivotal ruling on abortion in 2022. But more than two dozen complaints about emergency pregnancy care were lodged in the months after the decision was unveiled. It is not known how many complaints were filed last year as the records request only asked for 2022 complaints and the information is not publicly available otherwise.

The documents did not detail what happened to the patient turned away from the Falls Community Hospital.

‘She is bleeding a lot’

Other pregnancies ended in catastrophe, the documents show.

At Sacred Heart Emergency Center in Houston, front desk staff refused to check in one woman after her husband asked for help delivering her baby that September. She miscarried in a restroom toilet in the emergency room lobby while her husband called 911 for help.

“She is bleeding a lot and had a miscarriage,” the husband told first responders in his call, which was transcribed from Spanish in federal documents. “I’m here at the hospital but they told us they can’t help us because we are not their client.”

Emergency crews, who arrived 20 minutes later and transferred the woman to a hospital, appeared confused over the staff’s refusal to help the woman, according to 911 call transcripts.

One first responder told federal investigators that when a Sacred Heart Emergency Center staffer was asked about the gestational age of the fetus, the staffer replied: “No, we can’t tell you, she is not our patient. That’s why you are here.”

A manager for Sacred Heart Emergency Center declined to comment. The facility is licensed in Texas as a freestanding emergency room, which means it is not physically connected to a hospital. State law requires those facilities to treat or stabilize patients, a spokesperson for the Texas Health and Human Services agency said in an email to AP.

Sacred Heart Emergency’s website says that it no longer accepts Medicare, a change that was made sometime after the woman miscarried, according to publicly available archives of the center’s website.

Meanwhile, the staff at Person Memorial Hospital in Roxboro, North Carolina, told a pregnant woman, who was complaining of stomach pain, that they would not be able to provide her with an ultrasound. The staff failed to tell her how risky it could be for her to depart without being stabilized, according to federal investigators. While en route to another hospital 45 minutes away, the woman gave birth in a car to a baby who did not survive.

Person Memorial Hospital self-reported the incident. A spokeswoman said the hospital continues to “provide ongoing education for our staff and providers to ensure compliance.”

In Melbourne, Florida, a security guard at Holmes Regional Medical Center refused to let a pregnant woman into the triage area because she had brought a child with her. When the patient came back the next day, medical staff were unable to locate a fetal heartbeat. The center declined to comment on the case.

What’s the penalty?

Emergency rooms are subject to hefty fines when they turn away patients, fail to stabilize them or transfer them to another hospital for treatment. Violations can also put hospitals’ Medicare funding at risk.

But it’s unclear what fines might be imposed on more than a dozen hospitals that the Biden administration says failed to properly treat pregnant patients in 2022.

It can take years for fines to be levied in these cases. The Health and Human Services agency, which enforces the law, declined to share if the hospitals have been referred to the agency’s Office of Inspector General for penalties.

For Huntsberger, the OB/GYN, EMTALA was one of the few ways she felt protected to treat pregnant patients in Idaho, despite the state’s abortion ban. She left Idaho last year to practice in Oregon because of the ban.

The threat of fines or loss of Medicare funding for violating EMTALA is a big deterrent that keeps hospitals from dumping patients, she said. Many couldn’t keep their doors open if they lost Medicare funding.

She has been waiting to see how HHS penalizes two hospitals in Missouri and Kansas that HHS announced last year it was investigating after a pregnant woman, who was in preterm labor at 17 weeks, was denied an abortion.

“A lot of these situations are not reported, but even the ones that are — like the cases out of the Midwest — they’re investigated but nothing really comes of it,” Huntsberger said. “People are just going to keep providing substandard care or not providing care. The only way that changes is things like this.”

President Joe Biden and top U.S. health official Xavier Becerra have both publicly vowed vigilance in enforcing the law.

Even as states have enacted strict abortion laws, the White House has argued that if hospitals receive Medicare funds they must provide stabilizing care, including abortions.

In a statement to the AP, Becerra called it the “nation’s bedrock law protecting Americans’ right to life- and health-saving emergency medical care.”

“And doctors, not politicians, should determine what constitutes emergency care,” he added.

Idaho’s law allows abortion only if the life, not the health, of the mother is at risk. But the state’s attorney general has argued that its abortion ban is “consistent” with federal law, which calls for emergency rooms to protect an unborn child in medical emergencies.

“The Biden administration has no business rewriting federal law to override Idaho’s law and force doctors to perform abortions,” Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador said in a statement earlier this year.

Now, the Supreme Court will weigh in. The case could have implications in other states like Arizona, which is reinstating an 1864 law that bans all abortions, with an exception only if the mother’s life is at risk.

EMTALA was initially introduced decades ago because private hospitals would dump patients on county or state hospitals, often because they didn’t have insurance, said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Some hospitals also refused to see pregnant women when they did not have an established relationship with physicians on staff. If the court nullifies or weakens those protections, it could result in more hospitals turning away patients without fear of penalty from the federal government, she said.

“The government knows there’s a problem and is investigating and is doing something about that,” Kolbi-Molinas said. “Without EMTALA, they wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Developers: Enhanced AI could outthink humans in 2 to 5 years

vancouver, british columbia — Just as the world is getting used to the rapidly expanding use of AI, or artificial intelligence, AGI is looming on the horizon.

Experts say when artificial general intelligence becomes reality, it could perform tasks better than human beings, with the possibility of higher cognitive abilities, emotions, and ability to self-teach and develop.

Ramin Hasani is a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the CEO of Liquid AI, which builds specific AI systems for different organizations. He is also a TED Fellow, a program that helps develop what the nonprofit TED conference considers to be “game changers.”

Hasani says that the first signs of AGI are realistically two to five years away from being reality. He says it will have a direct impact on our everyday lives.

What’s coming, he says, will be “an AI system that can have the collective knowledge of humans. And that can beat us in tasks that we do in our daily life, something you want to do … your finances, you’re solving, you’re helping your daughter to solve their homework. And at the same time, you want to also read a book and do a summary. So an AGI would be able to do all that.”

Hasani says that advancing artificial intelligence will allow for things to move faster and can even be made to have emotions.

He says proper regulation can be achieved by better understanding how different AI systems are developed.

This thought is shared by Bret Greenstein, a partner at London-based  PricewaterhouseCoopers who leads its efforts on artificial intelligence.

“I think one is a personal responsibility for people in leadership positions, policymakers, to be educated on the topic, not in the fact that they’ve read it, but to experience it, live it and try it. And to be with people who are close to it, who understand it,” he says.

Greenstein warns that if it is over-regulated, innovation will be curtailed and access to AI will be limited to people who could benefit from it.

For musician, comedian and actor Reggie Watts, who was the bandleader on “The Late Late Show with James Corden” on CBS, AI and the coming of AGI will be a great way to find mediocre music, because it will be mimicked easily.

Calling it “artificial consciousness,” he says existing laws to protect intellectual property rights and creative industries, like music, TV and film, will work, provided they are properly adopted.

“I think it’s just about the usage of the tool, how it’s … how it’s used. Is there money being made off of it, so on, so forth. So, I think that that we already have … tools that exist that deal with these types of situations, but [the laws and regulations] need to be expanded to include AI because they’ll probably be a lot more nuance to it.”

Watts says that any form of AI is going to be smarter than one person, almost like all human intelligence collected into one point. He feels this will cause humanity to discover interesting things and the nature of reality itself.

This year’s conference was the 40th year for TED, the nonprofit organization that is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design.

WHO urges heightened vigilance on potential spread of bird flu in cows

Geneva — In the wake of a recent outbreak of avian influenza detected in dairy cows and goats in the United States, the World Health Organization is calling on governments to increase their surveillance and to “remain vigilant” regarding the possible spread of this deadly disease to their countries.

Dr. Wenqing Zhang, head of the WHO’s global influenza program, said Friday that investigations are underway to determine the extent and severity of the H5N1 bird flu found in 29 herds in eight U.S. states since March.

“While WHO and its partners are closely monitoring, reviewing, assessing and updating the risk associated with H5N1 and other avian influenza viruses, we call on countries to remain vigilant, rapidly report human infections if any, rapidly share sequences and other data, and reinforce biosecurity measures on animal farms,” said Zhang.

Zhang also told journalists in Geneva that on April 1 a laboratory-confirmed case of avian influenza was found in a man who was working at a dairy cattle farm in Texas.

“The case in Texas is the first case of a human infected by avian influenza by a cow,” she said, noting that he most likely got infected “through the direct contact with cows.”

“Now we see multiple herds of cows affected in an increasing number of U.S. states, which shows a further step of the virus spillover to mammals,” she added, warning that “farm workers and others in close contact with cows should take precautions in case the animals are infected.”

Zhang also noted that so far there has been no detected transmission of the virus from cattle to other mammals, though bird-to-cow, cow-to-cow and cow-to-bird transmission have occurred during the current outbreaks.

“Although a lot is still under investigation, this suggests that the virus may have found … routes of transmission other than what we previously understood,” she said. “While this sounds concerning, it is also a testament to strong disease surveillance which allows us to detect the virus.”

Avian influenza A(H5N1) first emerged in 1996. In 2020, the virus spread into Africa, Asia, and Europe and then in 2022, it crossed into North and South America.

“In recent years, we see the virus spillover to mammals,” Zhang said, noting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has detected infections in “around 200 mammals.”

Human infections of avian flu are rare and tied to exposure to infected animals and environments. The WHO reports nearly 900 cases have been detected since 2003. About half of those infected with the disease reportedly have died.

In the early years, most cases were found in Asia and Southeast Asia. WHO reports the relatively few U.S. and European cases reported to the agency over the past two years have been mild.

Zhang said the virus in dairy cows currently circulating in the United States also has been detected in milk from infected animals.

“We also received reports that there is very high virus concentration in raw milks. But exactly how long the virus will be able to survive in the milks remains under investigation.

“So, we recommend that people really should consume pasteurized milk and milk products,” she said, adding that this recommendation applies to people “in the whole world.”

Nearly 20 vaccines are currently licensed for pandemic use for influenza. Zhang said two “candidate vaccine viruses” are available that can respond to bird flu outbreaks in dairy cows and other animals in the United States.

“Having candidate vaccine viruses really allows us to be prepared to quickly produce vaccines for humans, if this becomes necessary,” she said, adding that at least four antiviral medications, including oseltamivir, widely marketed as Tamiflu, are available to treat people who may become sick with bird flu.

Chinese-linked e-commerce companies shake up market

The Chinese-operated online markets Temu and Shein are shaking up e-commerce with their extremely low prices. But the firms are facing concerns from consumers and Congress. Evie Steele has the story from Washington.

China slaps anti-dumping levy on import of a US chemical amid rising trade tensions

Google fires 28 workers protesting contract with Israel

New York — Google fired 28 employees following a disruptive sit-down protest over the tech giant’s contract with the Israeli government, a Google spokesperson said Thursday.

The Tuesday demonstration was organized by the group “No Tech for Apartheid,” which has long opposed “Project Nimbus,” Google’s joint $1.2 billion contract with Amazon to provide cloud services to the government of Israel.

Video of the demonstration showed police arresting Google workers in Sunnyvale, California, in the office of Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian’s, according to a post by the advocacy group on X, formerly Twitter.

Kurian’s office was occupied for 10 hours, the advocacy group said.

Workers held signs including “Googlers against Genocide,” a reference to accusations surrounding Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

“No Tech for Apartheid,” which also held protests in New York and Seattle, pointed to an April 12 Time magazine article reporting a draft contract of Google billing the Israeli Ministry of Defense more than $1 million for consulting services.

A “small number” of employees “disrupted” a few Google locations, but the protests are “part of a longstanding campaign by a group of organizations and people who largely don’t work at Google,” a Google spokesperson said.

“After refusing multiple requests to leave the premises, law enforcement was engaged to remove them to ensure office safety,” the Google spokesperson said. “We have so far concluded individual investigations that resulted in the termination of employment for 28 employees, and will continue to investigate and take action as needed.”

Israel is one of “numerous” governments for which Google provides cloud computing services, the Google spokesperson said.

“This work is not directed at highly sensitive, classified, or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services,” the Google spokesperson said.