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News Items. 23 July 2019.
By John Ellis
1. Microsoft has pumped $1 billion into Silicon Valley’s most ambitious artificial intelligence research group in pursuit of the ultimate AI dream: a vast, artificial human brain that can run on Microsoft’s globe-spanning cloud computing system. The cash infusion spells a new lease of life for OpenAI, which was set up four years ago by tech luminaries including Elon Musk and Peter Thiel out of a concern that AI would end up destroying the human race. OpenAI believes it is about “five orders of magnitude” away from being able to build a neural network as big as the human brain — implying a computer that is 100,000 times more powerful than today’s systems.
2. The National Security Agency will create a cybersecurity directorate later this year as part of a wider effort to align the agency’s offensive and defensive operations more closely, U.S. officials said. Anne Neuberger has been tapped to lead the new directorate, slated to become operational Oct. 1. The creation of the directorate and selection of Ms. Neuberger come during a broader fusion of NSA’s offensive and defensive portfolios.
3. Congressional and White House negotiators reached a deal to increase federal spending and raise the government’s borrowing limit, securing a bipartisan compromise to avoid a looming fiscal crisis and pushing the next budget debate past the 2020 election. The deal for more than $2.7 trillion in spending over two years, which must still pass both chambers of Congress and needs President Trump’s signature, would suspend the debt ceiling until the end of July 2021. It also raises spending by nearly $50 billion next fiscal year above current levels.
4. US negotiators led by trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are likely to fly to China next week for the first face-to-face talks since President Xi Jinping and US counterpart Donald Trump agreed to a trade war ceasefire at the end of June, according to a source who is familiar with the matter.
5. China’s state media aired images from the aftermath of Hong Kong’s latest antigovernment protests, a change in tack that appears aimed at fanning public anger against the demonstrations, as Beijing signaled support for a stronger crackdown by authorities in the city. In a related story, China accused U.S. officials on Tuesday of being behind violent protests in Hong Kong and advised them to remove their “black hands” from the territory. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying made the comment at a news briefing in Beijing, when asked about the Hong Kong protests.
6. China’s push to gain a bigger foothold in U.S. public transit systems could derail in Congress, which is moving to bar use of federal funds to buy Chinese buses and railcars.The effort threatens to further fray trade talks with China, which wants to become a global player in transport and is already fuming over the U.S. decision to blacklist telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co. Advocates say the ban is needed to protect an American industry from subsidized Chinese competition. They also claim cameras, location trackers and other gear in Chinese buses and trains could provide surveillance and strategic information to China’s authoritarian government.
7. The European Union is keen to work with Washington to reform the World Trade Organization and cooperate on common challenges to global trade, but will retaliate if Washington makes good on its threat to raise car tariffs, a top EU official said on Monday. Sabine Weyand, the European Commission’s director general of trade and former deputy Brexit negotiator, said Brussels would not be bullied by the threat of sanctions that it views as illegal under World Trade Organization rules.
8. Boris Johnson is expected to be crowned Conservative leader today, but he stands to inherit a party deeply divided on Brexit, its parliamentary majority on the brink of disappearing, and MPs on alert for an early general election. Allies of Mr Johnson, the Eurosceptic former foreign secretary, hope that their candidate will secure between 60 and 65 per cent of the vote when the result of the Tory leadership contest is announced.
9. Britain’s economy might already be in recession and is “vulnerable” as it heads towards the Halloween Brexit deadline, a leading economic think-tank warned on Monday. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimated that the economy was likely to have contracted in the second quarter of this year and, with little apparent momentum, there was a distinct possibility it could contract again in the third quarter.
10. Spain’s far-left Unidas Podemos party said on Tuesday it would not back acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in a confirmation vote later in the day, making Mr. Sanchez all but certain to lose the first round but leaving his fate beyond that in limbo. Sanchez, who won the most seats in an election in April but fell short of an absolute majority, has faced three months of difficult coalition talks with Podemos, seen as natural allies of his center-left Socialists. While he was likely to fail to win Tuesday’s first round vote, he could still be confirmed in a second round two days later, provided Podemos and the Socialists overcome their differences to strike a deal by that time.
11. The Saudi defense ministry said on Friday that King Salman had agreed to host American troops as tensions soar between Iran and the west following a series of incidents in the Gulf, the latest being Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker. Unlike in 1990, the Saudi announcement has not triggered any domestic backlash, a sign of how Saudi Arabia and its relations with the US are changing.
12. Last Thursday, nearly a month after Iran shot a $220 million US drone out of the sky, the US Marine Corps took down an Iranian UAV of its own. But the significance lies less in heightened tensions in the region than it does in the weapon of choice. The strike marks the first reported successful use of the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System, an energy weapon that blasts not artillery or lasers but radio signals.
13. After nearly seven years of failing to win fundamental patents on the genome-editing technology CRISPR, a unit of one of the world’s largest life sciences companies has thrown a Hail Mary: Late last Friday, MilliporeSigma petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark office to open an interference proceeding between CRISPR-Cas9 patents that it applied for way back in 2012 and patents that the University of California has applied for or been awarded.
14. Before the 1980s, corporations rarely repurchased shares of their own stock. When they started to, it was typically a defensive move intended to fend off raiders, who were drawn to cash piles on a company’s balance sheet. By contrast, according to Federal Reserve data compiled by Goldman Sachs, over the past nine years, corporations have put more money into their own stocks—an astonishing $3.8 trillion—than every other type of investor (individuals, mutual funds, pension funds, foreign investors) combined. A study by the research firm Fortuna Advisors found that, five years out, the stocks of companies that engaged in heavy buybacks performed worse for shareholders than the stocks of companies that didn’t.
15. Facebook's expected settlement with U.S. regulators will create a board committee to help ensure senior-level scrutiny of the company’s privacy-related efforts. The Federal Trade Commission is expected as soon as this week to announce a settlement with the tech giant over its privacy practices, according to people familiar with the matter. The settlement, which includes a roughly $5 billion fine and other requirements of Facebook, would end a lengthy probe into whether the company kept its promises to protect user data. As part of the agreement, Facebook plans to form a new board committee focused on privacy oversight.
16. Hundreds of thousands of people swept through the capital of Puerto Rico yesterday, shutting down a major highway and paralyzing much of the city in the latest in a series of furious protests over the island’s embattled governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló. The protest was one of the largest ever seen on the island, as Puerto Ricans streamed into the capital on buses — and some on planes from the mainland — in a spontaneous eruption of fury over the years of recession, mismanagement, natural disaster and corruption that have fueled a recent exodus
18. As President Trump presses his attacks against "The Squad," suggesting they are unpatriotic and should leave the country, many voters in Port Huron, Michigan are embracing his “America — Love It or Leave It” message, saying they do not see it as racist. And though they dismiss Mr. Trump’s Twitter broadsides as excessive or juvenile, they voiced strong support for his re-election and expressed their own misgivings about the four women.
19. The Trump administration is moving to end food stamp benefits for 3 million people with proposed new regulations curtailing the leeway of states to automatically enroll residents who receive welfare benefits. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said state governments “have misused this flexibility.”
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