GE faces potential fines for failing job creation promises made to France

June 18th, 2018 no comment

In 2014, US-based GE acquired Alstom’s power and electrical grid operations, including its gas turbine operations. It edged out a rival offer from Siemens and acquired the business under a $12.4bn (£10.9bn) agreement, which also committed GE to creating 1,000 net new jobs by the end of 2018.

However, according to the French Finance Ministry, GE had created just 323 net new jobs by the end of April 2018. John Flannery, CEO of GE, told Bruno Le Maire, the Finance Minister, that its earlier stated target is now “out of reach” due to challenging market conditions.

GE has been struggling. Only months after closing its deal to acquire Alstom, GE announced cuts of 6,500 European jobs in power supply and a further 12,000 jobs in December 2017. Today, it announced a further 1,200 job cuts in Switzerland.

A spokesperson for the French government said that if GE does not end up creating 1,000 jobs at Alstom, it should be fined for each job it pledged and failed to create. Under the acquisition deal, GE was threatened with a fine of €50,000 (£44,000) for each job it promised but failed to create. If GE continues to struggle with its power generation business and fails to create a significant number more jobs at Alstom, it could face fines of tens of millions of euros.

According to La Maire, GE must, “Take all necessary measures to comply to the best of its abilities” with the terms of its deal.

“Sanctions must set an example. €50,000 should be applied by the end of the year if GE does not stick to its commitments,” said Benjamin Griveaux, a government spokesperson, speaking on French national television and reported by Reuters. “When you make commitments to the government, you respect them.”

If the end of the year comes and GE’s pledge remains unfulfilled, the business-friendly government of Emmanuel Macron will be forced to make a decision as to whether or take the unprecedented step of fining GE under the conditions agreed on by the previous, left-of-centre government.

CCTV could send passers-by personalised messages by watching their gait

June 15th, 2018 no comment

This is a process known as ‘private human addressing’. Previously, attempts to deliver personal messages to passers-by – essentially the digital version of note passing – were complicated by the impossibility of sending a message without knowing some details of their device, such as their IP address or MAC address.

However, the system – known as Phade – developed at Purdue works around this problem by picking up the patterns of a person’s motion from public cameras and using this as identifying information for communication.

Phade receives real-time video streams from public cameras, in which it can track individuals. The system then builds a ‘packet’ by creating a personalised message, linking it to the target’s ‘address code’ and broadcasting it. When nearby devices receive this packet, they use their own sensors to generate its address code. If the device belongs to the intended recipient, the address codes will match and the message will be shown to the device’s user.

This system’s context-aware messaging capabilities set it aside from Bluetooth-based beacons.

“Our technology enables public cameras to send customised messages to targets without any prior registration,” said Professor He Wang, the Purdue University computer scientist who led development of the Phade system. “Our system serves as a bridge to connect surveillance cameras and people and protects targets’ privacy.”

While rolling out the system in the real world could spark Orwellian fears of being followed and identifiable wherever you go, the team behind Phade say that they have kept privacy in mind while designing it. The system keeps personal sensing data without their own devices and this data is blurred in order to remove identifiable details (this fading process led to the system being christened Phade).

The researchers suggest that it could be used in enclosed spaces such as museums and galleries, where visitors can be sent messages containing extra messages about the exhibits they are viewing; in shopping centres, to offer discount coupons and product information, or in future cashier-free shops similar to the experimental Amazon Go shop.

Alternatively, the system could be used to deliver safety messages to passers-by. While permanent threats can be labelled clearly with low-tech signs, Phade could be used to alert the public to fleeting threats.

“Phade may also be used by government agencies to enhance public safety,” said Siyuan Cao, a PhD student who helped develop Phade. “For example, the government can deploy cameras in high crime or high accident areas and warn specific users about potential threats, such as suspicious followers.”

Cathode breakthrough promises tripling in capacity for lithium-ion batteries

June 15th, 2018 no comment

The cathode was developed in a research collaboration led by scientists at the University of Maryland (UMD), the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and the US Army Research Lab.

“Lithium-ion batteries consist of an anode and a cathode,” said Xiulin Fan, a scientist at UMD and one of the lead authors of the paper.

“Compared to the large capacity of the commercial graphite anodes used in lithium-ion batteries, the capacity of the cathodes is far more limited. Cathode materials are always the bottleneck for further improving the energy density of lithium-ion batteries.”

Scientists at UMD synthesised a new cathode material, a modified and engineered form of iron trifluoride (FeF3), which is composed of cost-effective and environmentally benign elements: iron and fluorine.

Researchers have been interested in using chemical compounds like FeF3 in lithium-ion batteries because they offer inherently higher capacities than traditional cathode materials.

“The materials normally used in lithium-ion batteries are based on intercalation chemistry,” said Enyuan Hu, a chemist at Brookhaven and one of the lead authors of the paper.

“This type of chemical reaction is very efficient; however, it only transfers a single electron, so the cathode capacity is limited. Some compounds like FeF3 are capable of transferring multiple electrons through a more complex reaction mechanism, called a conversion reaction.”

Despite FeF3’s potential to increase cathode capacity, the compound has not historically worked well in lithium-ion batteries due to three complications with its conversion reaction: poor energy efficiency (hysteresis), a slow reaction rate, and side reactions that can cause poor cycling life.

To overcome these challenges, the scientists added cobalt and oxygen atoms to FeF3 nanorods through a process called chemical substitution. This allowed the scientists to manipulate the reaction pathway and make it more “reversible.”

“When lithium ions are inserted into FeF3, the material is converted to iron and lithium fluoride,” said Sooyeon Hwang, a co-author of the paper and a scientist at Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN). “However, the reaction is not fully reversible. After substituting with cobalt and oxygen, the main framework of the cathode material is better maintained and the reaction becomes more reversible.”

First at CFN, the researchers used a powerful beam of electrons to look at the FeF3 nanorods at a resolution of 0.1 nanometers, a technique called transmission electron microscopy (TEM).

The TEM experiment enabled the researchers to determine the exact size of the nanoparticles in the cathode structure and analyse how the structure changed between different phases of the charge-discharge process. They saw a faster reaction speed for the substituted nanorods.

“We also performed advanced computational approaches based on density functional theory to decipher the reaction mechanism at an atomic scale,” said Xiao Ji, a scientist at UMD and co-author of the paper. “This approach revealed that chemical substitution shifted the reaction to a highly reversible state by reducing the particle size of iron and stabilising the rocksalt phase.”

Scientists at UMD say this research strategy could be applied to other high-energy conversion materials and future studies may use the approach to improve other battery systems.

Underwater earthquake monitoring network bolted on to existing fibre network

June 14th, 2018 no comment

Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRiM) detected earthquakes using land-based and underwater fibre-optic links of lengths up to 535km and ranging from 25 to 18,500km from the earthquake’s epicentre.

Optical fibre has previously been used to transmit data between earthquake-detecting devices, but in the new method the fibre itself is used for detection.

Whilst approximately 70 per cent of the surface of the Earth is covered by water, the large majority of earthquake monitoring stations are on land because it is too costly to install them on the sea bottom.

A network of seafloor stations large enough to cover most of the Earth’s waters is estimated to cost between $700m and $1bn. A large fraction of underwater earthquakes go undetected, limiting our ability to investigate the Earth’s interior.

The researchers used the land-based and undersea cables as ‘acoustic sensors’ – detecting earthquake-induced vibrations along the length of the cable.

By using this technique on the existing undersea telecommunications network, a global network for underwater earthquake monitoring could be implemented, without the need to install additional devices on the seafloor.

The undersea cable network, which currently accounts for over one million km of optical fibre, already spans the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and is rapidly expanding due to an exponential rise in mobile services and the Internet.

Taking advantage of this vast network could enable the detection of huge numbers of underwater earthquakes that are currently missed as well as furthering our understanding of the Earth’s interior.

By integrating this approach with the current seismometer-based networks, the global earthquake monitoring infrastructure could be significantly expanded and strengthened, on both land and sea. Utilising the existing cable infrastructure means that the associated costs will be substantially lower than installing new sensors on the seafloor.

In the future, the technique could potentially even be used to ensure precious life-saving warning time in the event of tsunamis caused by underwater earthquakes, or even changes in volcanic structure.

Giuseppe Marra, Senior Research Scientist at NPL and lead author on the paper, said: “Detecting underwater earthquakes is crucial to understanding how our planet works, but installing a large array of ocean bottom sensors is a very challenging and expensive task.

“We have now discovered there is a solution at hand, which relies on existing infrastructure rather than on new installations. A great new tool for research in geophysics and other areas of science. 

“We made the first detection of seismic events whilst running frequency metrology experiments not designed to detect earthquakes. I am delighted to see two scientific areas, frequency metrology and seismology, meeting in such an unexpected way.”

Senators demand FCC provide explanation for cyber attack claims

June 14th, 2018 no comment

Earlier this month, Gizmodo revealed that internal emails demonstrate that the FCC had deliberately fed journalists misleading information implying that its website was brought down by distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDOS): a type of attack which involves flooding a service with a mass of requests, causing it to overload and fail.

The controversy is the latest relating to the FCC’s handling of its repeal of net neutrality regulations.

Net neutrality is the principle that all web content should be treated equally. Following incidents of internet service providers (ISPs) treating content differently in order to gain an edge over rivals – such as by charging customers more to access a rival’s app – the Obama administration introduced regulations preventing ISPs creating fast lanes or slow lanes for content, or blocking it entirely.

After being appointed FCC chairman by President Donald Trump in January 2017, former ISP lawyer Ajit Pai has set about dismantling these regulations, eventually succeeding with a 3-2 vote in December 2017 in spite of overwhelming public support for maintaining the regulations.

The repeal process was marred with controversies, many of which relate to the online public consultation process, which attracted nearly 24 million comments. A study by the Pew Research Centre found that 94 per cent of comments were submitted multiple times, with significant use of bots and false identities used to leave anti-net neutrality comments.

In a Gizmodo report published earlier this month, the FCC was accused of fabricating two cyber attacks in order to downplay shows of popular support for net neutrality regulations, which caused its comments section to crash amid the surge in traffic to its website.

The incidents followed net neutrality-themed episodes of comedian John Oliver’s satirical news show ‘Last Week Tonight’ (HBO) in which Oliver urged his viewers to visit the FCC website and leave comments promoting the stronger option for net neutrality regulation in 2014, and defending the regulations during their repeal in 2017.

Notably, in a segment broadcast on 7 May 2017, Oliver directed viewers to the FCC website’s comments sections via a memorable URL, GoFCCYourself.com.

While the 2014 outage was confirmed by the former leadership to have been due to a surge in traffic following Oliver’s broadcast, following a similar incident in 2017, FCC chief information officer David Bray told journalists that the 2014 outage was due to a cyber attack (allegedly covered up for security reasons) and strongly implied that a similar attack had coincided with Oliver’s 2017 plea.

So far, no evidence has been presented to support these claims.

Now, Democratic Senators Brian Schatz and Ron Wyden have written a letter to the FCC asking for clarity on the “alleged cyber attacks”. The Senators have demanded answers to their questions by 27 June, giving the agency two weeks to explain their explanations.

Schatz and Wyden have asked whether the FCC definitely classes the incidents as DDOS attacks and whether any third-parties had investigated the incidents and concluded that the outages were caused by DDOS attacks. If so, the Senators ask why no investigation was conducted into the cyber attacks, and whether the FCC was collaborating with the Government Accountability Office to ensure that its website is secure against malicious attacks.

The FCC did not respond immediately to request for comment.

Republicans and Democrats band together to reverse ZTE deal

June 13th, 2018 no comment

ZTE and fellow telecommunications manufacturer Huawei have come under severe criticism in the US for suspected ties to the Chinese government, potentially enabling state surveillance of Huawei and ZTE phone users. In March 2017, ZTE pleaded guilty to illegally exporting US technology to Iran and North Korea in violation of trade sanctions and was slapped with a record-breaking $1.2bn (£900m) fine by the US department of commerce.

In April 2018, ZTE was found to have failed to fulfil the requirements necessary for it to continue working with US companies. The department of commerce subsequently placed a ban on exports to ZTE for seven years. ZTE relies on US manufacturers to produce components for a quarter of its recent phone models.

However, this ban was swiftly overturned by President Donald Trump, reportedly as a favour to Chinese President Xi Jinping. ZTE agreed to pay a total fine of $1.4bn (£1.05bn) and to change its management team in order to continue operating. Earlier this week, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro said that ZTE had one final chance to operate responsibly before the ban would be reapplied. This could lead the company to shut down if it is not able to source components from other supplies and redesign its models.

However, many US lawmakers are deeply unimpressed by the White House’s concessions to the company, which many believe is a national security risk that should not be allowed to resume trading with US companies.

A bipartisan group of US senators has put forward a renewed ban on trading with ZTE, Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies in an amendment to the 2019 National Defense Authorisation Act. The amendment will also prevent loans or subsidies being provided to these companies.

According to Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who co-authored the amendment, ZTE is a “repeat bad actor that should be put out of business”. He added, somewhat dramatically, that he believes that the death penalty would be an appropriate punishment for ZTE’s behaviour.

The amendment is due to be voted on in the Senate this week. If passed, it will then need to be combined with the House version of the bill. If the bill passes through Congress, it will fall into the hands of the President himself, whose signature is required to pass it into law.

ZTE shares resumed trading today, with 40 per cent wiped off their value.

Bailout of nuclear and coal plants won’t protect grid from hackers, critics say

June 12th, 2018 no comment

Recently, President Donald Trump ordered the department of energy to prepare to bailout coal and nuclear power plants in the US that will reach the end of their planned lifetimes in the coming years. According to the White House, allowing the ageing plants to close could leave the US more vulnerable to cyber attacks, as well as to extreme weather and physical attacks.

While most renewable-based plants are reliant on certain environmental conditions and gas facilities are continually fed by a pipeline, nuclear and coal power plants are often described as “fuel secure” due to storing enormous quantities of fuel on site. The White House has argued that these fuel-secure plants buttress the US energy infrastructure and should be retained.

However, critics have argued that the Trump administration is simply continuing to defend what Trump has described as “beautiful coal” rather than invest in the renewable energy facilities necessary for reducing America’s considerable carbon footprint.

“I don’t see where a policy of keeping open ageing infrastructure that would shut unless there was federal market intervention keeps us any safer from cyber attacks,” Professor Chris Bronk, a computer and information systems expert at the University of Houston, told Reuters.

Hackers seeking to cause havoc by targeting the US energy infrastructure have a range of options. According to Bronk, the coal power supply line is as susceptible to hackers and other threats and although nuclear facilities may be enormously well-protected targets, a potential incident involving the leaking of radioactive substances into their surroundings could be devastating.

Fears around the hacking of infrastructure have grown following incidents of cyber attacks and attempted cyber attacks on the infrastructure of Ukraine, Taiwan and other countries. In March, the White House accused the Kremlin of attempting to attack US nuclear, water and manufacturing infrastructure.

In January, UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson opined that a Kremlin-backed cyber attack could bring the country to its knees and cause “thousands and thousands and thousands” of deaths by crippling the national grid.

Bailout of nuclear and coal plants won’t protect grid from hackers, critics say

June 12th, 2018 no comment

Recently, President Donald Trump ordered the department of energy to prepare to bailout coal and nuclear power plants in the US that will reach the end of their planned lifetimes in the coming years. According to the White House, allowing the ageing plants to close could leave the US more vulnerable to cyber attacks, as well as to extreme weather and physical attacks.

While most renewable-based plants are reliant on certain environmental conditions and gas facilities are continually fed by a pipeline, nuclear and coal power plants are often described as “fuel secure” due to storing enormous quantities of fuel on site. The White House has argued that these fuel-secure plants buttress the US energy infrastructure and should be retained.

However, critics have argued that the Trump administration is simply continuing to defend what Trump has described as “beautiful coal” rather than invest in the renewable energy facilities necessary for reducing America’s considerable carbon footprint.

“I don’t see where a policy of keeping open ageing infrastructure that would shut unless there was federal market intervention keeps us any safer from cyber attacks,” Professor Chris Bronk, a computer and information systems expert at the University of Houston, told Reuters.

Hackers seeking to cause havoc by targeting the US energy infrastructure have a range of options. According to Bronk, the coal power supply line is as susceptible to hackers and other threats and although nuclear facilities may be enormously well-protected targets, a potential incident involving the leaking of radioactive substances into their surroundings could be devastating.

Fears around the hacking of infrastructure have grown following incidents of cyber attacks and attempted cyber attacks on the infrastructure of Ukraine, Taiwan and other countries. In March, the White House accused the Kremlin of attempting to attack US nuclear, water and manufacturing infrastructure.

In January, UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson opined that a Kremlin-backed cyber attack could bring the country to its knees and cause “thousands and thousands and thousands” of deaths by crippling the national grid.

5G report finds expectation building in the UK ahead of network launch

June 12th, 2018 no comment

The UK government’s Innovate UK commissioned the report from Digital Catapult, which provides a first-of-its-kind snapshot and barometer to help the government and industry assess 5G activity and deliver on the UK’s 5G Strategy.

In addition to the immediate benefits for smartphones and mobile broadband, 5G could also prove to be a key technology for a number of future facing technologies such as driverless cars and IoT devices. 

While operators have not started constructing the infrastructure needed to make the networks a reality, they spent £1.4bn in April at spectrum auctions to secure the bandwidth that will be used for 5G. 

The report found that there are currently 39 academic institutions, 29 local authorities and 57 companies undertaking almost 200 5G-related activities in the UK.

The new projects are predominantly based in four areas of the economy: healthcare, transport, immersive technologies and manufacturing.

“These projects, activities and innovations indicate that the UK 5G ecosystem is gaining momentum,” Digital Catapult said.

Ian Campbell, Interim Executive Chair, Innovate UK, said: “This new report by Digital Catapult is the first to be undertaken in the UK and goes a long way to helping us understand how 5G development can help to create a world-leading digital economy for the UK.

“The Catapult, in its role as the country’s leading advanced digital technology innovation centre, is perfectly placed to understand how the UK can maximise the immense opportunities from 5G.”

Dritan Kaleshi, 5G Lead Technologist, Digital Catapult, said: “The vision of 5G is much wider than an evolution of mobile broadband networks. This research shows that there are huge opportunities for 5G to unlock major economic and societal benefits in the UK.

“With so much 5G activity, there is an excellent backdrop for innovative startups and scaleups to explore how 5G can be utilised and start to experiment in building the products, services and immersive experiences of the future.”

Digital Catapult was set up by the UK Government in 2011 to connect large established companies with startups working with artificial intelligence, immersive technologies and future networks.

It has created a large-scale 5G testbed in Brighton, which is the first national, non-academic trial network that will enable startups to develop new business models, products, services and experiences.

In other news, scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology have designed and fabricated a tiny, fast 28-GHz transceiver meant for stable high-speed 5G communications. The fabricated transceiver trumps previous designs in various regards by taking a new approach toward beam steering.

Hit me, ZTE, one more time, warns White House trade advisor

June 11th, 2018 no comment

Under these arrangements, ZTE will continue working with US companies. Due to its reliance on American-manufactured components, however, it could risk shutdown if it steps out of line once more.

ZTE, which is headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, is among the world’s largest telecommunications manufacturers and a major player in China’s smartphone market. The company – along with fellow telecomms giant Huawei – has come under criticism in the US for its alleged ties to the Chinese government, which could enable state surveillance of its smartphone users.

In March 2017, the company pleaded guilty to illegally selling US technology to Iran and North Korea, violating trade sanctions. ZTE was subsequently fined $1.2bn (£900m) by the US department of commerce in the largest such fine in US history.

In April 2018, the company was criticised for neglecting to reprimand the employees involved in the incident – a requirement for it to continue working with US companies – and even providing bonuses to 35 of the employees involved in the offence. Following its failure to comply, the department of commerce placed a seven-year ban on exports to ZTE.

In May, ZTE announced that it had suspended its main operating activities and was working to negotiate a reversal of the ban. Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly made a personal appeal to President Trump to show some leniency with ZTE and Trump later announced in a tweet that he was working to get ZTE “back into business” in the US. The decision to lift the sanctions has attracted criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, with a coalition of lawmakers pushing legislation to overturn the agreement, citing a threat to national security posed by ZTE.

Last week, Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, announced the terms of the deal: ZTE must pay a $1bn (£750m) fine and deposit $400m (£300m) as a suspended penalty before the export restrictions are lifted. It must also change its management team and submit to integration of a compliance team of within the company. ZTE agreed to the deal.

With at least a quarter of ZTE’s recent phone models using American components, the company will require a costly process of redesigning its products with parts sourced elsewhere if the ban comes back into effect. The strict ban has been characterised as a major blow in a trade dispute between the US and China, which some fear could bubble up into a trade war.

According to Navarro, the deal was a “personal favour” to Xi, which also helped to boost “goodwill” before Trump’s appearance at a summit in Singapore to discuss the future of the Korean Peninsula with Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un.

Navarro commented on Fox that: “It’s going to be three strikes, you’re out […] if they do one more additional thing, they will be shut down.”

“The President did this as a personal favour to the President of China as a way of showing some goodwill for bigger efforts such as the one here in Singapore [regarding North Korea],” said Navarro, who added that ZTE was a “bad actor”.