New York, Aug 15 (AP/UNB) — Facebook has paid contractors to transcribe audio clips from users of its Messenger service, raising privacy concerns for a company with a history of privacy lapses.
The practice was, until recently, common in the tech industry. Companies say the use of humans helps improve their services. But users aren't typically aware that humans and not just computers are reviewing audio.
Transcriptions done by humans raise bigger concerns because of the potential of rogue employees or contractors leaking details. The practice at Google emerged after some of its Dutch language audio snippets were leaked. More than 1,000 recordings were obtained by Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS, which noted that some contained sensitive personal conversations — as well as information that identified the person speaking.
"We feel we have some control over machines," said Jamie Winterton, director of strategy at Arizona State University's Global Security Initiative. "You have no control over humans that way. There's no way once a human knows something to drag that piece of data to the recycling bin."
Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy privacy-advocacy group, said it's bad enough that Facebook uses artificial intelligence as part of its data-monitoring activities. He said the use of humans as well is "even more alarming."
Tim Bajarin, tech columnist and president of Creative Strategies, said it's a bigger problem when humans use the information beyond its intended purpose.
Facebook said audio snippets reviewed by contractors were masked so as not to reveal anyone's identity. It said it stopped the practice a week ago. The development was reported earlier by Bloomberg.
Google said it suspended doing this worldwide while it investigates the Dutch leaks. Apple has also suspended its use of humans for the Siri digital assistant, though it plans to bring them back after seeking explicit permission from users. Amazon said it still uses humans, but users can decline, or opt out, of the human transcriptions.
A report from tech news site Motherboard last week said Microsoft also uses human transcribers with some Skype conversations and commands spoken to Microsoft's digital assistant, Cortana. Microsoft said in a statement that it has safeguards such as stripping identifying data and requiring non-disclosure agreements with contractors and their employees. Yet details leaked to Motherboard.
After the Motherboard report, Microsoft said it "could do a better job" explaining that humans listen to the conversations. It updated its frequently asked questions for Skype to say that using the translation service "may include transcription of audio recordings by Microsoft employees and vendors."
It makes sense to use human transcribers to train artificial intelligence systems, Winterton said. But the issue is that companies are leading people to believe that only machines are listening to audio, causing miscommunication and distrust, she said.
The companies' privacy policies — usually long, dense documents — often permit the use of customer data to improve products and services, but the language can be opaque.
"We collect the content, communications and other information you provide when you use our Products, including when you sign up for an account, create or share content, and message or communicate with others," Facebook's data-use policy reads . It does not mention audio or voice specifically or using transcribers.
Bajarin said tech companies need to use multiple methods to refine artificial intelligence software, as digital voice assistants and voice-to-text technology are still new. But he said being more clear about the human involvement is "the very least" companies could do.
"They should be very clear on what their policies are and if consumer messages or whatever it is are going to be seen," he said. "If humans are part of the process for analysis that needs to be stated as well."
Irish data-protection regulators say they're seeking more details from Facebook to assess compliance with European data regulations. The agency's statement says it's also had "ongoing engagement with Google, Apple and Microsoft" over the issue, though Amazon wasn't mentioned.
Facebook is already under scrutiny for a variety of other ways it has misused user data. It agreed to a $5 billion fine to settle a U.S. Federal Trade Commission probe of its privacy practices.
Greeley, Aug 14 (AP/UNB) — A drone soared over a blazing hot cornfield in northeastern Colorado on a recent morning, snapping images with an infrared camera to help researchers decide how much water they would give the crops the next day.
After a brief, snaking flight above the field, the drone landed and the researchers removed a handful of memory cards. Back at their computers, they analyzed the images for signs the corn was stressed from a lack of water.
This U.S. Department of Agriculture station outside Greeley and other sites across the Southwest are experimenting with drones, specialized cameras and other technology to squeeze the most out of every drop of water in the Colorado River — a vital but beleaguered waterway that serves an estimated 40 million people.
Remote sensors measure soil moisture and relay the readings by Wi-Fi. Cellphone apps collect data from agricultural weather stations and calculate how much water different crops are consuming. Researchers deliberately cut back on water for some crops, trying to get the best harvest with the least amount of moisture — a practice called deficit irrigation.
In the future, tiny needles attached to plants could directly measure how much water they contain and signal irrigation systems to automatically switch on or off.
"It's like almost every month somebody's coming up with something here and there," said Don Ackley, water management supervisor for the Coachella Valley Water District in Southern California. "You almost can't keep up with it."
Researchers and farmers are running similar experiments in arid regions around the world. The need is especially pressing in seven U.S. states that rely on the Colorado River: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The river has plenty of water this summer after an unusually snowy winter in the mountains of the U.S. West. But climatologists warn the river's long-term outlook is uncertain at best and dire at worst, and competition for water will only intensify as the population grows and the climate changes.
The World Resources Institute says the seven Colorado River states have some of the highest levels of water stress in the nation, based on the percentage of available supplies they use in a year. New Mexico was the only state in the nation under extremely high water stress.
The federal government will release a closely watched projection Thursday on whether the Colorado River system has enough water to meet all the demands of downstream states in future years.
The river supplies more than 7,000 square miles (18,000 square kilometers) of farmland and supports a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry, including a significant share of the nation's winter vegetables, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages most of the big dams and reservoirs in the Western states.
The Pacific Institute, an environmental group, says the river also irrigates about 700 square miles (1,820 square kilometers) in Mexico.
Agriculture uses 57% to 70% of the system's water in the U.S., researchers say. The problem facing policymakers is how to divert some of that to meet the needs of growing cities without drying up farms, ranches and the environment.
The researchers' goal is understanding crops, soil and weather so completely that farmers know exactly when and how much to irrigate.
"We call it precision agriculture, precision irrigation," said Huihui Zhang, a Department of Agriculture engineer who conducts experiments at the Greeley research farm. "Right amount at the right time at the right location."
The Palo Verde Irrigation District in Southern California is trying deficit irrigation on alfalfa, the most widely grown crop in the Colorado River Basin.
Alfalfa, which is harvested as hay to feed horses and cattle, can be cut and baled several times a year in some climates. The Palo Verde district is experimenting with reduced water for the midsummer crop, which requires more irrigation but produces lower yields.
Sensors placed over the test plots indirectly measure how much water the plants are using, and the harvested crop is weighed to determine the yield.
"The question then becomes, what's the economic value of the lost crop versus the economic value of the saved water?" said Bart Fisher, a third-generation farmer and a member of the irrigation district board.
Blaine Carian, who grows grapes, lemons and dates in Coachella, California, already uses deficit irrigation. He said withholding water at key times improves the flavor of his grapes by speeding up the production of sugar.
He also uses on-farm weather stations and soil moisture monitors, keeping track of the data on his cellphone. His drip and micro-spray irrigation systems deliver water directly to the base of a plant or its roots instead of saturating an entire field.
For Carian and many other farmers, the appeal of technology is as much about economics as saving water.
"The conservation's just a byproduct. We're getting better crops, and we are, in general, saving money," he said.
But researchers say water-saving technology could determine whether some farms can stay in business at all, especially in Arizona, which faces cuts in its portion of Colorado River water under a drought contingency plan the seven states hammered out this year.
Drone-mounted cameras and yield monitors — which measure the density of crops like corn and wheat as they pass through harvesting equipment — can show a farmer which land is productive and which is not, said Ed Martin, a professor and extension specialist at the University of Arizona.
"If we're going to take stuff out of production because we don't have enough water, I think these technologies could help identify which ones you should be taking out," Martin said.
Each technology has benefits and limits, said Kendall DeJonge, another Agriculture Department engineer who does research at the Greeley farm.
Soil moisture monitors measure a single point, but a farm has a range of conditions and soil types. Infrared images can spot thirsty crops, but only after they need water. Agricultural weather stations provide a wealth of data on the recent past, but they can't predict the future.
"All of these things are tools in the toolbox," DeJonge said. "None of them are a silver bullet."
Washington, Aug 13 (Xinhua/UNB) -- The US scientists have mapped a part of the molecular machinery that helps the brain maintain long-term memories, providing new targets against Alzheimer's disease characterized by memory loss.
The study published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, outlined how a protein called CPEB3 primes neurons to store memories that stand the test of time in mouse cells.
The findings offered a never-before-seen view into one of the brain's most universal and basic cellular functions.
"At its core, memory is a biological process, not unlike a heartbeat. With today's study, we've shed new light on the molecular underpinnings behind our brain's ability to make, keep and recall memories over the course of our lives," said the study's co-senior author Eric Kandel, professor of brain science at Columbia University.
Kandel's team found in a previous study that CPEB3 plays a critical role in strengthening synapses, the connection points where tiny branches of neurons connect to each other when all memories are made.
When they prevented mice from making CPEB3, those animals could form a new memory but could not keep it intact, according to the researchers.
Within the hippocampus, which is the brain's memory center, CPEB3 is produced at regular intervals inside the centers of neurons. Kandel's team found that once CPEB3 is produced it is transferred to P bodies, chambers that keep CPEB3 dormant and ready for use.
P bodies do not have a physical barrier to contain CPEB3 and it is the difference in densities holds P bodies together, according to the study.
Once laden with dormant CPEB3, P bodies leave a neuron's center and travel down its branches toward the synapses. When an animal begins to form a memory, the P bodies dissolve, releasing CPEB3 into synapses to help create the memory, according to the study.
CPEB3, also present in the human brain, represents a potential to play a role in treating neurodegenerative diseases.
"By continuing to build this understanding, we could one day develop useful methods to boost CPEB3 in a way that prevents synaptic degradation, thus slowing memory loss," said the paper's co-senior author Luana Fioriti, who works in the Kandel lab.
Washington, Aug 13 (AP/UNB) — Two of four experimental Ebola drugs being tested in Congo seem to be saving lives, international health authorities announced Monday.
The preliminary findings prompted an early halt to a major study on the drugs and a decision to prioritize their use in the African country, where a yearlong outbreak has killed more than 1,800 people.
The early results mark "some very good news," said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which helped fund the study. With these drugs, "we may be able to improve the survival of people with Ebola."
The two drugs — one developed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and the other by NIH researchers — are antibodies that work by blocking the virus.
While research shows there is an effective albeit experimental vaccine against Ebola — one now being used in Congo — no studies have signaled which of several potential treatments were best to try once people became sick. During the West Africa Ebola epidemic several years ago, studies showed a hint that another antibody mixture named ZMapp worked, but not clear proof.
So with the current outbreak in Congo, researchers compared ZMapp to three other drugs — Regeneron's compound, the NIH's called mAb114 and an antiviral drug named remdesivir.
On Friday, independent study monitors reviewed how the first several hundred patients in the Congo study were faring — and found enough difference to call an early halt to the trial. The panel determined that the Regeneron compound clearly was working better than the rest, and the NIH antibody wasn't far behind, Fauci explained. Next, researchers will do further study to nail down how well those two compounds work.
The data is preliminary, Fauci stressed. But in the study, significantly fewer people died among those given the Regeneron drug or the NIH's — about 30% compared to half who received ZMapp. More striking, when patients sought care early — before too much virus was in their bloodstream — mortality was just 6% with the Regeneron drug and 11% with the NIH compound, compared to about 24% for ZMapp, he said.
Among people who receive no care in the current outbreak, about three-fourths die, said Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization. All of Congo's Ebola treatment units have access to the two drugs, he added, saying he was hopeful that the news would persuade more patients to seek care — as soon as symptoms appear.
Tackling Congo's outbreak has been complicated both by conflict in the region and because many people don't believe Ebola is real and choose to stay at home when they're sick, which spurs spread of the virus.
"Getting people into care more quickly is absolutely vital," Ryan said. "The fact that we have very clear evidence now on the effectiveness of the drugs, we need to get that message out to communities."
Fauci said Regeneron and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, which has licensed the NIH compound, told authorities enough doses are readily available.
One issue researchers will have to analyze: Occasionally people who receive the Ebola vaccine still become sick, including some in the treatment study, which raises the question of whether their earlier protection inflated the drugs' survival numbers.
Alaska, Aug 12 (AP/UNB) — Alaska scientists say the chances of a polar bear encounter have increased after research reveals the bears are arriving on shore earlier and staying on land longer, a report said.
Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey found changes in sea ice habitat have coincided with evidence that polar bears' use of land is increasing, the Anchorage Daily News reported Saturday.
The polar bears come to land from the Beaufort Sea during the ice-melt season, when the sea ice breaks up in the summer and refreezes in the fall, scientists said.
The average duration of the ice-melt season has increased by 36 days since the late 1990s, researchers said.
The bears are arriving "a little bit ahead of schedule," said Todd Atwood, a research wildlife biologist leading the U.S. Geological Survey's polar bear research program.
Polar bears usually come to shore in mid-August, but residents have reported sightings as early as May in Kaktovik, a small town about 640 miles (1,030 kilometers) north of Anchorage, biologists said.
Resident Annie Tikluk was one of the few who encountered a bear Monday before neighbors scared it off.
Tikluk said her daughter and two nieces were playing outside when "I saw the bear and ran out."
"The main issue is that bears in the southern Beaufort are now using land to an extent they haven't used it historically," Atwood said. "And increasing activities in the Arctic, particularly those related to development, the main consideration going forward is probably going to be how bears and humans are sharing those spaces."