Cheaters Beware: ChatGPT Maker Releases AI Detection Tool 

The maker of ChatGPT is trying to curb its reputation as a freewheeling cheating machine with a new tool that can help teachers detect if a student or artificial intelligence wrote that homework.

The new AI Text Classifier launched Tuesday by OpenAI follows a weeks-long discussion at schools and colleges over fears that ChatGPT’s ability to write just about anything on command could fuel academic dishonesty and hinder learning.

OpenAI cautions that its new tool – like others already available – is not foolproof. The method for detecting AI-written text “is imperfect and it will be wrong sometimes,” said Jan Leike, head of OpenAI’s alignment team tasked to make its systems safer.

“Because of that, it shouldn’t be solely relied upon when making decisions,” Leike said.

Teenagers and college students were among the millions of people who began experimenting with ChatGPT after it launched November 30 as a free application on OpenAI’s website. And while many found ways to use it creatively and harmlessly, the ease with which it could answer take-home test questions and assist with other assignments sparked a panic among some educators.

By the time schools opened for the new year, New York City, Los Angeles and other big public school districts began to block its use in classrooms and on school devices.

The Seattle Public Schools district initially blocked ChatGPT on all school devices in December but then opened access to educators who want to use it as a teaching tool, said Tim Robinson, the district spokesman.

“We can’t afford to ignore it,” Robinson said.

The district is also discussing possibly expanding the use of ChatGPT into classrooms to let teachers use it to train students to be better critical thinkers and to let students use the application as a “personal tutor” or to help generate new ideas when working on an assignment, Robinson said.

School districts around the country say they are seeing the conversation around ChatGPT evolve quickly.

“The initial reaction was ‘OMG, how are we going to stem the tide of all the cheating that will happen with ChatGPT,'” said Devin Page, a technology specialist with the Calvert County Public School District in Maryland. Now there is a growing realization that “this is the future” and blocking it is not the solution, he said.

“I think we would be naïve if we were not aware of the dangers this tool poses, but we also would fail to serve our students if we ban them and us from using it for all its potential power,” said Page, who thinks districts like his own will eventually unblock ChatGPT, especially once the company’s detection service is in place.

OpenAI emphasized the limitations of its detection tool in a blog post Tuesday, but said that in addition to deterring plagiarism, it could help to detect automated disinformation campaigns and other misuse of AI to mimic humans.

The longer a passage of text, the better the tool is at detecting if an AI or human wrote something. Type in any text — a college admissions essay, or a literary analysis of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” — and the tool will label it as either “very unlikely, unlikely, unclear if it is, possibly, or likely” AI-generated.

But much like ChatGPT itself, which was trained on a huge trove of digitized books, newspapers and online writings but often confidently spits out falsehoods or nonsense, it’s not easy to interpret how it came up with a result.

“We don’t fundamentally know what kind of pattern it pays attention to, or how it works internally,” Leike said. “There’s really not much we could say at this point about how the classifier actually works.”

“Like many other technologies, it may be that one district decides that it’s inappropriate for use in their classrooms,” said OpenAI policy researcher Lama Ahmad. “We don’t really push them one way or another.”


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Huawei Latest Target of US Crackdown on China Tech

China says it is “deeply concerned” over reports that the United States is moving to further restrict sales of American technology to Huawei, a tech company that U.S. officials have long singled out as a threat to national security for its alleged support of Beijing’s espionage efforts.

As first reported by the Financial Times, the U.S. Department of Commerce has informed American firms that it will no longer issue licenses for technology exports to Huawei, thereby isolating the Shenzen-based company from supplies it needs to make its products.

The White House and Commerce Department have not responded to VOA’s request for confirmation of the reports. But observers say the move may be the latest tactic in the Biden administration’s geoeconomics strategy as it comes under increasing Republican pressure to outcompete China. 

The crackdown on Chinese companies began under the Trump administration, which in 2019 added Huawei to an export blacklist but made exceptions for some American firms, including Qualcomm and Intel, to provide non-5G technology licenses.

Since taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden has taken an even more aggressive stance than his predecessor, Donald Trump. Now the Biden administration appears to be heading toward a total ban on all tech exports to Huawei, said Sam Howell, who researches quantum information science at the Center for a New American Security’s Technology and National Security program.

“These new restrictions from what we understand so far would include items below the 5G level,” she told VOA. “So 4G items, Wi-Fi 6 and [Wi-Fi] 7, artificial intelligence, high performance computing and cloud capabilities as well.”

Should the Commerce Department follow through with the ban, there will likely be pushback from U.S. companies whose revenues will be directly affected, Howell said. Currently Intel and Qualcomm still sell chips used in laptops and phones manufactured by Huawei.

Huawei and Beijing have denied that they are a threat to other countries’ national security. Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning accused Washington of “overstretching the concept of national security and abusing state power” to suppress Chinese competitors.

“Such practices are contrary to the principles of market economy” and are “blatant technological hegemony,” Mao said. 

Outcompeting Chinese tech

The latest U.S. move on Huawei is part of a U.S. effort to outcompete China in the cutting-edge technology sector.

In October, Biden imposed sweeping restrictions on providing advanced semiconductors and chipmaking equipment to Chinese companies, seeking to maintain dominance particularly on the most advanced chips. His administration is rallying allies behind the effort, including the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – home to leading companies that play key roles in the industry’s supply chain.

U.S. officials say export restrictions on chips are necessary because China can use semiconductors to advance their military systems, including weapons of mass destruction, and commit human rights abuses. 

The October restrictions follow the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which Biden signed into law in August and that restricts companies receiving U.S. subsidies from investing in and expanding cutting-edge chipmaking facilities in China. It also provides $52 billion to strengthen the domestic semiconductor industry.

Beijing has invested heavily in its own semiconductor sector, with plans to invest $1.4 trillion in advanced technologies in a bid to achieve 70% self-sufficiency in semiconductors by 2025. 

TikTok a target

TikTok, a social media application owned by the Chinese company ByteDance that has built a massive following especially among American youth, is also under U.S. lawmakers’ scrutiny due to suspicion that it could be used as a tool of Chinese foreign espionage or influence.

CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23 to testify about TikTok’s “consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on kids, and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.”

Lawmakers are divided on whether to ban or allow the popular app, which has been downloaded onto about 100 million U.S. smartphones, or force its sale to an American buyer.

Earlier in January, Congress set up the House Select Committee on China, tasked with dealing with legislation to combat the dangers of a rising China.


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Delay in Reforms Puts Pakistan’s Economy in Crisis

Pakistan is facing a severe economic crisis. Prices of staples like food and fuel are skyrocketing. The country must repay billions in external debt, but its foreign reserves are so low it can barely afford to buy a few weeks’ worth of imports. As the government tries to revive stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund to unlock much-needed assistance, Sarah Zaman looks at how delaying reforms has brought Pakistan to the brink of economic disaster.


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US Treasury to Increase Borrowing Amid Debt Ceiling Standoff

The Treasury Department said Monday it plans to increase its borrowing during the first three months of 2023, even as the federal government is bumping up against a $31.4 trillion limit on its legal borrowing authority. 

The U.S. plans to borrow $932 billion during the January-to-March quarter. That’s $353 billion more than projected last October, due to a lower beginning-of-quarter cash balance and projections of lower-than-expected income tax receipts and higher spending. 

The increased borrowing will take place as Democrats and the White House push for Congress to increase the federal debt limit. President Joe Biden wants the cap raised without any preconditions. The new House Republican majority is seeking to secure spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit increase. 

Treasury officials say the debate over the debt ceiling poses a risk to the U.S. financial position. 

“Even just the threat that the U.S. government might fail to meet its obligations may cause severe harm to the economy by eroding household and business confidence, injecting volatility into financial markets, and raising the cost of capital — among other negative impacts,” Ben Harris, Treasury’s assistant secretary for economic policy, said in a statement. 

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month, said the department had begun resorting to “extraordinary measures” to avoid a federal government default. She said it’s “critical that Congress act in a timely manner” to raise or suspend the debt limit. 

In a letter to House and Senate leaders, Yellen said her actions will buy time until Congress can pass legislation that will either raise the nation’s borrowing authority or suspend the limit for a period of time. She said it is unlikely that cash and extraordinary measures will be exhausted before early June. 

New House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will meet with Biden at the White House this week to discuss the debt limit. 

McCarthy told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday: “I want to sit down together, work out an agreement that we can move forward to put us on a path to balance — and at the same time not put any of our debt in jeopardy at the same time.” 


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Economic Dividend or Disadvantage as India Becomes World’s Most Populous Country This Year

India’s population is set to surpass China’s sometime this year according to the United Nations. Experts say while this represents an opportunity to reap a demographic dividend, much will depend on how India leverages its numbers, especially its massive population of young people. Anjana Pasricha has a report from New Delhi.


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House Speaker McCarthy Optimistic on US Debt Deal

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy promised Sunday the United States would not default on its national debts as the country approaches its $31.4 trillion spending limit in June but said the government cannot continue to annually spend more than it collects in taxes.

McCarthy, leader of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” show that he will meet with Democratic President Joe Biden on Wednesday, the first discussions in what could be protracted debt ceiling talks over several months.

The U.S. must raise its debt ceiling before it runs out of money to pay bills it has already incurred. Biden and Democrats want a “clean” approval to raise the debt ceiling not tied to future spending, while Republicans have called for limits on new spending to curb yearly deficits, chronic overspending that often totals more than $1 trillion annually.

“We’re not going to default,” McCarthy said.

The U.S. has never defaulted on its debts, such as on Treasury notes sold to China, Japan and individual Americans, but its credit rating was downgraded in 2011 when Democratic President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans sparred at length over the country’s spending before eventually reaching a 10-year agreement.

Now, McCarthy said, the country’s debt totals 120% of its national economic output, with the debt significantly added to in recent years for two main reasons, the national tax cuts Republicans approved under former President Donald Trump and unfunded coronavirus aid relief approved under both Trump and Biden.

“We haven’t been in this place to debt since World War II,” McCarthy said. “So, we can’t continue down this path. And I don’t think there’s anyone in America who doesn’t agree that there’s some wasteful Washington spending that we can eliminate.”

“So, I want to sit down together, work out an agreement that we can move forward, to put us on a path to balance — at the same time, not put any — any of our debt in jeopardy at the same time,” he said. “We shouldn’t just print more money; we should balance our budget. So, I want to look at every single department. Where can we become more efficient, more effective, and more accountable?”

McCarthy, like Biden, ruled out cuts to two of the most popular government programs, pensions and health care for older Americans, respectively known as Social Security and Medicare.

But he added, “I want to look at every single dollar we’re spending, no matter where it’s being spent. I want to eliminate waste wherever it is.”

He compared government spending to an American family’s budget, saying, “Every family does this. What is – what has happened with the debt limit is you reached your credit card limit. Should we just continue to raise the limit? Or should we look at what we’re spending?”


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Is Tipping Getting Out of Control? Many US Consumers Say Yes

Across the U.S., there’s a silent frustration brewing about an age-old practice that many say is getting out of hand: tipping.

Some fed-up consumers are posting rants on social media complaining about tip requests at drive-thrus, while others say they’re tired of being asked to leave a gratuity for a muffin or a simple cup of coffee at their neighborhood bakery. What’s next, they wonder — are we going to be tipping our doctors and dentists, too?

As more businesses adopt digital payment methods, customers are automatically being prompted to leave a gratuity — many times as high as 30% — at places they normally wouldn’t. And some say it has become more frustrating as the price of items has skyrocketed due to inflation, which eased to 6.5% in December but still remains painfully high.

“Suddenly, these screens are at every establishment we encounter. They’re popping up online as well for online orders. And I fear that there is no end,” said etiquette expert Thomas Farley, who considers the whole thing somewhat of “an invasion.”

Unlike tip jars that shoppers can easily ignore if they don’t have spare change, experts say the digital requests can produce social pressure and are more difficult to bypass. And your generosity, or lack thereof, can be laid bare for anyone close enough to glance at the screen — including the workers themselves.

Dylan Schenker is one of them. The 38-year-old earns about $400 a month in tips, which provides a helpful supplement to his $15 hourly wage as a barista at Philadelphia café located inside a restaurant. Most of those tips come from consumers who order coffee drinks or interact with the café for other things, such as carryout orders. The gratuity helps cover his monthly rent and eases some of his burdens while he attends graduate school and juggles his job.

Schenker says it’s hard to sympathize with consumers who are able to afford pricey coffee drinks but complain about tipping. And he often feels demoralized when people don’t leave behind anything extra — especially if they’re regulars.

“Tipping is about making sure the people who are performing that service for you are getting paid what they’re owed,” said Schenker, who’s been working in the service industry for roughly 18 years.

Traditionally, consumers have taken pride in being good tippers at places like restaurants, which typically pay their workers lower than the minimum wage in expectation they’ll make up the difference in tips. But academics who study the topic say many consumers are now feeling irritated by automatic tip requests at coffee shops and other counter service eateries where tipping has not typically been expected, workers make at least the minimum wage and service is usually limited.

“People do not like unsolicited advice,” said Ismail Karabas, a marketing professor at Murray State University who studies tipping. “They don’t like to be asked for things, especially at the wrong time.”

Some of the requests can also come from odd places. Clarissa Moore, a 35-year-old who works as a supervisor at a utility company in Pennsylvania, said even her mortgage company has been asking for tips lately. Typically, she’s happy to leave a gratuity at restaurants, and sometimes at coffee shops and other fast-food places when the service is good. But, Moore said she believes consumers shouldn’t be asked to tip nearly everywhere they go — and it shouldn’t be something that’s expected of them.

“It makes you feel bad. You feel like you have to do it because they’re asking you to do it,” she said. “But then you have to think about the position that puts people in. They’re paying for something that they really don’t want to pay for, or they’re tipping when they really don’t want to tip — or can’t afford to tip — because they don’t want to feel bad.”

In the book “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” authors Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning advise consumers to tip on ride-shares, like Uber and Lyft, as well as food and beverages, including alcohol. But they also write that it’s up to each person to choose how much to tip at a café or a take-out food service, and that consumers shouldn’t feel embarrassed about choosing the lowest suggested tip amount, and don’t have to explain themselves if they don’t tip.

Digital payment methods have been around for a number of years, though experts say the pandemic has accelerated the trend towards more tipping. Michael Lynn, a consumer behavior professor at Cornell University, said consumers were more generous with tips during the early days of the pandemic in an effort to show support for restaurants and other businesses that were hard hit by COVID-19. Many people genuinely wanted to help out and felt sympathetic to workers who held jobs that put them more at risk of catching the virus, Lynn said.

Tips at full-service restaurants grew by 25.3% in the third quarter of 2022, while gratuities at quick or counter service restaurants went up 16.7% compared to the same time in 2021, according to Square, one of the biggest companies operating digital payment methods. Data provided by the company shows continuous growth for the same period since 2019.

As tip requests have become more common, some businesses are advertising it in their job postings to lure in more workers even though the extra money isn’t always guaranteed.

In December, Starbucks rolled out a new tipping option on credit and debit card transactions at its stores, something a group organizing the company’s hourly workers had called for. Since then, a Starbucks spokesperson said nearly half of credit and debit card transactions have included a gratuity, which – along with tips received through cash and the Starbucks app – are distributed based on the number of hours a barista worked on the days the tips were received.

Karabas, the Murray State professor, says some customers, like those who’ve worked in the service industry in the past, want to tip workers at quick service businesses and wouldn’t be irritated by the automatic requests. But for others, research shows they might be less likely to come back to a particular business if they are feeling irritated by the requests, he said.

The final tab might also impact how customers react. Karabas said in the research he did with other academics, they manipulated the payment amounts and found that when the check was high, consumers no longer felt as irritated by the tip requests. That suggests the best time for a coffee shop to ask for that 20% tip, for example, might be on four or five orders of coffee, not a small cup that costs $4.

Some consumers might continue to shrug off the tip requests regardless of the amount.

“If you work for a company, it’s that company’s job to pay you for doing work for them,” said Mike Janavey, a footwear and clothing designer who lives in New York City. “They’re not supposed to be juicing consumers that are already spending money there to pay their employees.”

Schenker, the Philadelphia barista, agrees — to a certain extent.

“The onus should absolutely be on the owners, but that doesn’t change overnight,” he said. “And this is the best thing we have right now.”


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As Children in US Study Online, Apps Watch Their Every Move 

For New York teacher Michael Flanagan, the pandemic was a crash course in new technology — rushing out laptops to stay-at-home students and shifting hectic school life online.

Students are long back at school, but the technology has lived on, and with it has come a new generation of apps that monitor the pupils online, sometimes round the clock and even on down days shared with family and friends at home.

The programs scan students’ online activity, social media posts and more — aiming to keep them focused, detect mental health problems and flag up any potential for violence.

“You can’t unring the bell,” said Flanagan, who teaches social studies and economics. “Everybody has a device.”

The new trend for tracking, however, has raised fears that some of the apps may target minority pupils, while others have outed LGBT+ students without their consent, and many are used to instill discipline as much as deliver care.

So Flanagan has parted ways with many of his colleagues and won’t use such apps to monitor his students online.

He recalled seeing a demo of one such program, GoGuardian, in which a teacher showed — in real time — what one student was doing on his computer. The child was at home, on a day off.

Such scrutiny raised a big red flag for Flanagan.

“I have a school-issued device, and I know that there’s no expectation of privacy. But I’m a grown man — these kids don’t know that,” he said.

A New York City Department of Education spokesperson said that the use of GoGuardian Teacher “is only for teachers to see what’s on the student’s screen in the moment, provide refocusing prompts, and limit access to inappropriate content.”

Valued at more than $1 billion, GoGuardian — one of a handful of high-profile apps in the market — is now monitoring more than 22 million students, including in the New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles public systems.

Globally, the education technology sector is expected to grow by $133 billion from 2021 to 2026, market researcher Technavio said last year.

Parents expect schools to keep children safe in classrooms or on field trips, and schools also “have a responsibility to keep students safe in digital spaces and on school-issued devices,” GoGuardian said in a statement.

The company says it “provides educators with the ability to protect students from harmful or explicit content”.

Nowadays, online monitoring “is just part of the school environment,” said Jamie Gorosh, policy counsel with the Future of Privacy Forum, a watchdog group.

And even as schools move beyond the pandemic, “it doesn’t look like we’re going back,” she said.

Guns and depression

A key priority for monitoring is to keep students engaged in their academic work, but it also taps into fast-rising concerns over school violence and children’s mental health, which medical groups in 2021 termed a national emergency.

According to federal data released this month, 82% of schools now train staff on how to spot mental health problems, up from 60% in 2018; 65% have confidential threat-reporting systems, up 15% in the same period.

In a survey last year by the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), 89% of teachers reported their schools were monitoring student online activity.

Yet it is not clear that the software creates safer schools.

Gorosh cited May’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead in a school that had invested heavily in monitoring tech.

Some worry the tracking apps could actively cause harm.

The CDT report, for instance, found that while administrators overwhelmingly say the purpose of monitoring software is student safety, “it’s being used far more commonly for disciplinary purposes … and we’re seeing a discrepancy falling along racial lines,” said Elizabeth Laird, director of CDT’s Equity in Civic Technology program.

The programs’ use of artificial intelligence to scan for keywords has also outed LGBT+ students without their consent, she said, noting that 29% of students who identify as LGBT+ said they or someone they knew had experienced this.

And more than a third of teachers said their schools send alerts automatically to law enforcement outside school hours.

“The stated purpose is to keep students safe, and here we have set up a system that is routinizing law enforcement access to this information and finding reasons for them to go into students’ homes,” Laird said.

‘Preyed upon’

A report by federal lawmakers last year into four companies making student monitoring software found that none had made efforts to see if the programs disproportionately targeted marginalized students.

“Students should not be surveilled on the same platforms they use for their schooling,” Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, one of the report’s co-authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement.

“As school districts work to incorporate technology in the classroom, we must ensure children and teenagers are not preyed upon by a web of targeted advertising or intrusive monitoring of any kind.”

The Department of Education has committed to releasing guidelines around the use of AI early this year.

A spokesperson said the agency was “committed to protecting the civil rights of all students.”

Aside from the ethical questions around spying on children, many parents are frustrated by the lack of transparency.

“We need more clarity on whether data is being collected, especially sensitive data. You should have at least notification, and probably consent,” said Cassie Creswell, head of Illinois Families for Public Schools, an advocacy group.

Creswell, who has a daughter in a Chicago public school, said several parents have been sent alerts about their children’s online searches, despite not having been asked or told about the monitoring in the first place.

Another child had faced repeated warnings not to play a particular game — even though the student was playing it at home on the family computer, she said.

Creswell and others acknowledge that the issues monitoring aims to address — bullying, depression, violence — are real and need tackling, but question whether technology is the answer.

“If we’re talking about self-harm monitoring, is this the best way to approach the issue?” said Gorosh.

Pointing to evidence suggesting AI is imperfect in capturing the warning signs, she said increased funding for school counselors could be more narrowly tailored to the problem.

“There are huge concerns,” she said. “But maybe technology isn’t the first step to answer some of those issues.”


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‘Whale Meat’ Vending Machines Push Sales in Japan

A Japanese whaling operator, after struggling for years to promote its products amid protests from conservationists, has found a new way to cultivate clientele and bolster sales: whale meat vending machines.

The Kujira (Whale) Store, an unmanned outlet that recently opened in the port town of Yokohama near Tokyo, houses three machines for whale sashimi, whale bacon, whale skin and whale steak, as well as canned whale meat. Prices range from 1,000 yen ($7.70) to 3,000 yen ($23).

The outlet features white vending machines decorated with cartoon whales and is the third location to launch in the Japanese capital region. It opened Tuesday after two others were introduced in Tokyo earlier this year as part of Kyodo Senpaku Co.’s new sales drive.

Whale meat has long been a source of controversy but sales in the new vending machines have quietly gotten off to a good start, the operator says. Anti-whaling protests have subsided since Japan in 2019 terminated its much-criticized research hunts in the Antarctic and resumed commercial whaling off the Japanese coasts.

Conservationists say they are worried the move could be a step toward expanded whaling.

“The issue is not the vending machines themselves but what they may lead to,” said Nanami Kurasawa, head of the Iruka & Kujira (Dolphin & Whale) Action Network.

Kurasawa noted the whaling operator is already asking for additional catches and to expand whaling outside of the designated waters.

Kyodo Senpaku hopes to set up vending machines at 100 locations nationwide in five years, company spokesperson Konomu Kubo told The Associated Press. A fourth is to open in Osaka next month.

The idea is to open vending machines near supermarkets, where whale meat is usually unavailable, to cultivate demand, a task crucial for the industry’s survival.

Major supermarket chains have largely stayed away from whale meat to avoid protests by anti-whaling groups and remain cautious even though harassment from activists has subsided, Kubo said.

“As a result, many consumers who want to eat it cannot find or buy whale meat. We launched vending machines at unmanned stores for those people,” he said.

Company officials say sales at the two Tokyo outlets have been significantly higher than expected, keeping staff busy replenishing products.

At the store in the Motomachi district of Yokohama, a posh shopping area near Chinatown, 61-year-old customer Mami Kashiwabara went straight for whale bacon, her father’s favorite. To her disappointment it was sold out, and she settled for frozen onomi, tail meat that is regarded as a rare delicacy.

Kashiwabara says she is aware of the whaling controversy, but that whale meat brings back her childhood memories of eating it at family dinners and school lunches.

“I don’t think it’s good to kill whales meaninglessly. But whale meat is part of Japanese food culture, and we can respect the lives of whales by appreciating their meat,” Kashiwabara said. “I would be happy if I can eat it.”

Kashiwabara said she planned to share her purchase of a 3,000 yen ($23) handy-size chunk, neatly wrapped in a freezer bag, with her husband over sake.

The meat mostly comes from whales caught off Japan’s northeastern coast.

Japan resumed commercial whaling in July 2019 after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, ending 30 years of what it called research whaling, which had been criticized by conservationists as a cover for commercial hunts banned by the IWC in 1988.

Under its commercial whaling in the Japanese exclusive economic zone, Japan last year caught 270 whales, less than 80% of the quota and fewer than the number it once hunted in the Antarctic and the northwestern Pacific in its research program.

The decline occurred because fewer minke whales were found along the coast. Kurasawa says the reason for the smaller catch should be examined to see if it is linked to overhunting or climate change.

While conservation groups condemned the resumption of commercial whaling, some see it as a way to let the government’s embattled and expensive whaling program adapt to changing times and tastes.

In a show of determination to keep the whaling industry alive in the coming decades, Kyodo Senpaku will construct a 6 billion yen ($46 million) new mother ship for launch next year to replace the aging Nisshin Maru.

But uncertainty remains.

Whaling is losing support in other whaling nations such as Iceland, where only one whaler remains.

Whales may also be moving away from the Japanese coasts due to a scarcity of saury, a staple of their diet, and other fish possibly due to the impact of climate change, Kubo said.

Whaling in Japan involves only a few hundred people and one operator and accounted for less than 0.1% of total meat consumption in recent years, according to Fisheries Agency data.

Still, conservative governing lawmakers staunchly support commercial whaling and consumption of the meat as part of Japan’s cultural tradition.

Conservationists say whale meat is no longer part of the daily diet in Japan, especially for younger generations.

Whale meat was an affordable source of protein during Japan’s undernourished years after World War II, with annual consumption peaking at 233,000 tons in 1962.

Whale was quickly replaced by other meats. The whale meat supply fell to 6,000 tons in 1986, the year before the moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the IWC banned the hunting of several whale species.

Under the research whaling, criticized as a cover for commercial hunts because the meat was sold on the market, Japan caught as many as 1,200 whales annually. It has since drastically cut back its catch after international protests escalated and whale meat supply and consumption slumped at home.

Annual meat supply had fluctuated in a range of 3,000-5,000 tons, including imports from Norway and Iceland. The amount further fell in 2019 to 2,000 tons, or 20 grams (less than 1 ounce) of whale meat per person a year, the Fisheries Agency statistics show.

Whaling officials attributed the shrinking supply in the past three years to the absence of imports due to the pandemic, and plan to nearly double this year’s supply with imports of more than 2,500 tons from Iceland.

Japan managed to get Iceland’s only remaining whaler to hunt fin whales exclusively for shipment to Japan, whaling officials said. Iceland caught only one minke whale in the 2021 season, according to the IWC.

Criticizing Iceland’s export to Japan, the International Fund for Animal Welfare said it “opposes all commercial whaling as it is inherently cruel.”

With uncertain outlook for imports, Kyodo Senpaku wants the government to raise Japan’s annual catch quota to levels that can supply about 5,000 tons, which Kubo describes as the threshold to maintain the industry.

“From a long-term perspective, I think it would be difficult to sustain the industry at the current supply levels,” Kubo said. “We must expand both supply and demand, which have both shrunk.”


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US, EU Launch Agreement on Artificial Intelligence

The United States and European Union announced Friday an agreement to speed up and enhance the use of artificial intelligence to improve agriculture, health care, emergency response, climate forecasting and the electric grid. 

A senior U.S. administration official, discussing the initiative shortly before the official announcement, called it the first sweeping AI agreement between the United States and Europe. Previously, agreements on the issue had been limited to specific areas such as enhancing privacy, the official said.  

AI modeling, which refers to machine-learning algorithms that use data to make logical decisions, could be used to improve the speed and efficiency of government operations and services.  

“The magic here is in building joint models [while] leaving data where it is,” the senior administration official said. “The U.S. data stays in the U.S. and European data stays there, but we can build a model that talks to the European and the U.S. data, because the more data and the more diverse data, the better the model.” 

The initiative will give governments greater access to more detailed and data-rich AI models, leading to more efficient emergency responses and electric grid management, and other benefits, the administration official said. 

Pointing to the electric grid, the official said the United States collects data on how electricity is being used, where it is generated, and how to balance the grid’s load so that weather changes do not knock it offline. 

Many European countries have similar data points they gather relating to their own grids, the official said. Under the new partnership, all that data would be harnessed into a common AI model that would produce better results for emergency managers, grid operators and others relying on AI to improve systems.  

The partnership is currently between the White House and the European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-member European Union. The senior administration official said other countries would be invited to join in the coming months.  


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The Challenges of Driving Electric in Indonesia

Buying an electric vehicle remains challenging for many consumers. High prices and limited access to charging stations can make it a difficult decision, especially in emerging markets like Indonesia. VOA’s Ahadian Utama reports. Camera: Ahadian Utama, Indra Yoga


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How Will We Know if the US Economy Is in a Recession?

WASHINGTON (AP) — The second consecutive quarter of economic growth that the government reported Thursday underscored that the nation isn’t in a recession despite high inflation and the Federal Reserve’s fastest pace of interest rate hikes in four decades.

Yet the U.S. economy is hardly in the clear. The solid growth in the October-December quarter will do little to alter the widespread view of economists that a recession is very likely sometime this year.

For now, the economy expanded at a 2.9% annual rate in the fourth quarter, though some of the underlying figures weren’t as healthy. Consumer spending, for example, grew at a slower pace than in the previous quarter, and business investment was weak. Last quarter’s growth was fueled by factors that won’t likely last. These include companies’ restocking of inventories and a drop in imports, which meant that more spending went to U.S.-made goods.

Increased borrowing rates and still-high inflation are expected to steadily weaken consumer and business spending. Businesses will likely pare expenses in response, which could lead to layoffs and higher unemployment. And a likely recession in the United Kingdom and slower growth in China will erode the revenue and profits of American corporations. Such trends are expected to cause a U.S. recession sometime in the coming months.

Still, there are reasons to expect that a recession, if it does come, will prove to be a comparatively mild one. Many employers, having struggled to hire after huge layoffs during the pandemic, may decide to retain most of their workforces even in a shrinking economy.

Six months of economic decline is a long-held informal definition of a recession. Yet nothing is simple in a post-pandemic economy in which growth was negative in the first half of last year but the job market remained robust, with ultra-low unemployment and healthy levels of hiring. The economy’s direction has confounded the Fed’s policymakers and many private economists ever since growth screeched to a halt in March 2020, when COVID-19 struck and 22 million Americans were suddenly thrown out of work.

Inflation, the economy’s biggest threat last year, is now showing signs of steadily declining. Used and new cars are becoming less expensive. Price increases for furniture, clothes and other physical goods are slowing.

Last year, the Fed raised its benchmark interest rate seven times, from zero to a range of 4.25% to 4.5%. The Fed’s policymakers have projected that they will keep raising their key rate until it tops 5%, which would be the highest level in 15 years. As borrowing costs swell, fewer Americans can afford a mortgage or an auto loan. Higher rates, combined with inflated prices, could deprive the economy of its main engine — healthy consumer spending.

Fed officials have made clear that they’re willing to tip the economy into a recession if necessary to defeat high inflation, and most economists believe them. Many analysts envision a recession beginning as early as the April-June quarter this year.

So what is the likelihood of a recession? Here are some questions and answers:

Why do many economists foresee a recession?

They expect the Fed’s aggressive rate hikes and high inflation to overwhelm consumers and businesses, forcing them to slow their spending and investment. Businesses will likely also have to cut jobs, causing spending to fall further.

Consumers have so far proved remarkably resilient in the face of higher rates and rising prices. Still, there are signs that their sturdiness is starting to crack.

Retail sales have dropped for two months in a row. The Fed’s so-called beige book, a collection of anecdotal reports from businesses around the country, shows that retailers are increasingly seeing consumers resist higher prices.

Credit card debt is also rising — evidence that Americans are having to borrow more to maintain their spending levels, a trend that probably isn’t sustainable.

More than half the economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics say the likelihood of a recession this year is above 50%.

What are some signs that a recession may have begun?

The clearest signal would be a steady rise in job losses and a surge in unemployment. Claudia Sahm, an economist and former Fed staff member, has noted that since World War II, an increase in the unemployment rate of a half-percentage point over several months has always signaled a recession has begun.

Many economists monitor the number of people who seek unemployment benefits each week, a gauge that indicates whether layoffs are worsening. Weekly applications for jobless aid actually dropped last week to a historically low 190,000. Employers continue to add many jobs, causing the unemployment rate to fall in December to 3.5%, a half-century low, from 3.7%.

Any other signals to watch for?

Economists monitor changes in the interest payments, or yields, on different bonds for a recession signal known as an “inverted yield curve.” This occurs when the yield on the 10-year Treasury falls below the yield on a short-term Treasury, such as the three-month T-bill. That is unusual. Normally, longer-term bonds pay investors a richer yield in exchange for tying up their money for a longer period.

Inverted yield curves generally mean that investors foresee a recession that will compel the Fed to slash rates. Inverted curves often predate recessions. Still, it can take 18 to 24 months for a downturn to arrive after the yield curve inverts.

Ever since July, the yield on the two-year Treasury note has exceeded the 10-year yield, suggesting that markets expect a recession soon. And the three-month yield has also risen far above the 10-year, an inversion that has an even better track record at predicting recessions.

Who decides when a recession has started?

Recessions are officially declared by the obscure-sounding National Bureau of Economic Research, a group of economists whose Business Cycle Dating Committee defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months.”

The committee considers trends in hiring. It also assesses many other data points, including gauges of income, employment, inflation-adjusted spending, retail sales and factory output. It puts heavy weight on a measure of inflation-adjusted income that excludes government support payments like Social Security.

Yet the NBER typically doesn’t declare a recession until well after one has begun, sometimes for up to a year.

Does high inflation typically lead to a recession?

Not always. Inflation reached 4.7% in 2006, at that point the highest in 15 years, without causing a downturn. (The 2008-2009 recession that followed was caused by the bursting of the housing bubble).

But when it gets as high as it did last year — it reached a 40-year peak of 9.1% in June — a downturn becomes increasingly likely.

That’s for two reasons: First, the Fed will sharply raise borrowing costs when inflation gets that high. Higher rates then drag down the economy as consumers are less able to afford homes, cars and other major purchases.

High inflation also distorts the economy on its own. Consumer spending, adjusted for inflation, weakens. And businesses grow uncertain about the future economic outlook. Many of them pull back on their expansion plans and stop hiring. This can lead to higher unemployment as some people choose to leave jobs and aren’t replaced.


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With New Deep Sea Port, Nigeria’s Focus Turns to Better Road, Rail Connections 

Nigerian authorities have hailed the launch of a deepwater seaport in Lagos they say will create 300,000 jobs and reduce shipping bottlenecks. While the new port is expected to reduce losses due to congestion, shipping industry experts say Nigeria’s poor roads and rail connections to ports also must be improved.

The launch by President Mohammadu Buhari during his two-day visit this week to Lagos signaled his government’s effort to grow Nigeria’s economy through infrastructural development.

The 1.5-billion-dollar, Chinese-built Lekki Deep Sea Port sits on 90 hectares of land in the Lagos Free Trade Zone — the biggest port by size in West Africa.

Authorities say ships docking at the port could be up to four times the size of vessels at the state’s Tin Can and Apapa ports. They expect it will ease delays and congestion at ports and increase earnings by up to $360 billion in coming years.

Efioita Ephraim is a manager at Ports and Terminal Nigeria, Ltd.

“The current ports we have in the country are located along rivers, tributaries and that’s why there are limitations. It’s a welcome development to have an infrastructure like this in our country. With this, larger vessels will be able to berth at our ports and we shall be in competition with neighboring countries such as Cotonou [Benin],” said Ephraim.

Most of Nigeria’s seaports were built many decades ago and are either closed or operating below capacity.

Nigeria loses an estimated $1 billion a year to delays and bottlenecks at ports. To address the problem, the Nigerian Ports Authority launched an automated process for clearing cargo at ports.

Abiodun Gbadamosi is the former general manager of Nigeria’s western ports. He said the new deep sea port at Lagos will add to Nigeria’s economic progress and create jobs.

The country’s bureau of statistics says Nigeria’s unemployment rate is 33 percent.

“What Nigeria needs now are jobs, jobs and more jobs, and that’s going to go a very long way. It’s going to improve the commerce around that area. It’s highly commendable and it’s going to actually propel the state. Then Nigeria can now push forward the idea of being hub for the region,” he said.

Ephraim said authorities must improve road and rail accessibility to the area.

“If the items are to be conveyed out of the port and into the port by road, then I would expect the multimodal mode of transportation be encouraged to and from the Lekki deep sea port, rail water and road transportation.”

China is one of Nigeria’s biggest lenders and has been funding rail, road and power projects.

The first commercial vessel is expected to arrive in the port this Sunday.


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US Dismantles Ransomware Network Responsible for More Than $100 Million in Extortion

An international ransomware network that extorted more than $100 million from hundreds of victims around the world has been brought down following a monthslong infiltration by the FBI, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.

The group known as Hive targeted more than 1,500 victims, including hospitals, school districts and financial firms in more than 80 countries, the Justice Department said. Officials say the most recent victim in Florida was targeted about two weeks ago.

In a breakthrough, FBI agents armed with a court order infiltrated Hive’s computer networks in July 2022, covertly capturing its decryption keys and offering them to victims, saving the targets $130 million in ransom payments, officials said.

“Cybercrime is a constantly evolving threat. But as I have said before, the Justice Department will spare no resource to identify and bring to justice, anyone, anywhere, who targets the United States with a ransomware attack,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

Working with German and Dutch law enforcement, the FBI on Wednesday took down the servers that power the Hive network.

“Simply put, using lawful means, we hacked the hackers,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

While no arrests have been made in connection with the takedown, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that anybody involved with Hive should be concerned, because this investigation is very much ongoing.

“We’re engaged in what we call ‘joint sequenced operations’ … and that includes going after their infrastructure, going after their crypto and going after the people who work with them,” Wray said.

In a ransomware attack, hackers lock in a victim’s network and then demand payments in exchange for providing a decryption key.

Hive used a “ransomware-as-a-service” model where so-called “administrators” develop a malicious software strain and recruit “affiliates” to deploy them against victims.

Officials said Hive affiliates targeted critical U.S. infrastructure entities.

In August 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hive affiliates attacked a Midwest hospital’s network, preventing the medical facility from accepting any new patients, Garland said.

It was only able to recover the data after it paid a ransom.

Hive’s takedown is the latest in the Biden administration’s crackdown on ransomware attacks that are on the rise, costing businesses and organizations billions of dollars.

U.S. banks and financial institutions processed nearly $1.2 billion in suspected ransomware payments in 2021, more than double the amount in 2020, the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) reported in November.

Roughly 75% of the ransomware attacks reported in 2021 had a nexus to Russia, its proxies or persons acting on its behalf, according to FinCen.

The top five highest-grossing ransomware tools used in 2021 were connected to Russian cyber actors, according to FinCen.

Officials would not say whether Hive had any link to Russia.

The Biden administration views ransomware attacks not just as a “pocketbook issue” that affects ordinary Americans but increasingly as a growing national security threat that calls for a coordinated response.

Last year, the White House hosted a two-day international ransomware summit where participants from 36 countries agreed to create a fusion cell at the Regional Cyber Defense Center in Lithuania, followed by an International Counter Ransomware Task Force later this year.


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US Economy Showed Solid Growth at End of 2022

The U.S. economy cooled only slightly at the end of last year, advancing at an annualized 2.9% rate, the Department of Commerce reported Thursday, even as forecasters are suggesting a recession is possible later in 2023.

The growth in the October-to-December quarter dropped from a 3.2% advance in the third quarter, following a half year when the world’s biggest economy shrank.

For all of 2022, the economy grew by a solid, if unspectacular 2.1%, down from a robust 5.7% growth rate in 2021 when the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic was in full force.

Last year saw contrasting themes, including the fastest growth in consumer prices in four decades, pinching the wallets of Americans at all income levels.

Yet the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years was recorded, with hundreds of thousands of new jobs being added to payrolls every month. Separately, borrowing costs for businesses and consumer loans and home mortgages rose sharply as the country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, increased its benchmark interest rate seven times, an effort aimed at slowing economic growth and curbing inflation.

By the end of the year and into January, there were signs the economy was slowing, with some forecasters predicting a recession — meaning two straight quarters of economic decline in the coming months.

With higher interest rates, home buying and retail sales have dropped, while manufacturing output fell in November and December. The hiring of temporary workers is weakening, and major companies, especially in technology and media, are laying off thousands of workers. 

While the inflation rate in consumer prices has dropped, it remains high by historical standards — now at a 6.5% annualized rate, well above the 2% rate sought by Federal Reserve policymakers. It is likely to stay high through much of 2023.

The Fed is also planning more interest rate increases, albeit not likely as big as the ones it imposed in 2022. It is another factor that could curtail U.S. economic growth.

The White House and the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives are facing contentious negotiations over increasing the limit on the national debt, now at $31.4 trillion. The U.S. could reach the spending limit by early June.

If an agreement is not reached, the ensuing turmoil would roil world financial markets and the U.S. government’s credit rating could be cut, as occurred in 2011, the last time Congress and the White House quarreled significantly over increasing the debt limit. 


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Trump Reinstated to Facebook After 2-Year Ban

Facebook parent Meta is reinstating former President Donald Trump’s personal account after a two-year suspension following the January 6, 2021, insurrection. 

The company said in a blog post Wednesday it is adding “new guardrails” to ensure there are no “repeat offenders” who violate its rules. 

“In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation,” said Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, California. 

Trump, in a post on his own social media network, blasted Facebook’s decision to suspend his account as he praised his own site, Truth Social. 

“FACEBOOK, which has lost Billions of Dollars in value since “deplatforming” your favorite President, me, has just announced that they are reinstating my account. Such a thing should never again happen to a sitting President, or anybody else who is not deserving of retribution!” he wrote. 

He was suspended on January 7, a day after the deadly 2021 insurrection. Other social media companies also kicked him off their platforms, though he was recently reinstated on Twitter after Elon Musk took over the company. He has not tweeted. 

Banned from mainstream social media, Trump has been relying on Truth Social, which he launched after being blocked from Twitter. 


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