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The Download, Jan 18, 2017: Obama’s Climate Payout, Uber Tech Rivalry, and Electronic Genes

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January 18, 2017

Three Things You Need to Know Today

Obama's Last-Chance Climate Donation (That Won't Be Enough)
President Obama has made a last-ditch effort to ensure that global climate initiatives remain on track, but a Republican Congress may already be preparing to make environmental rule changes. Last night, Obama made a $500 million contribution to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, which was established to help poor countries embrace clean energy and cope with global warming. As part of the Paris climate agreement, the U.S. promised to commit $3 billion to the fund, but Donald Trump has promised to stop making the payments. Even if he does, this last-minute donation means that the U.S. will have contributed $1 billion. But come Friday, some of Obama's other efforts are likely to be eroded. The first environmental policies in the sights of the Republican Congress, reckons the Washington Post, will be rules that prevent coal-mining companies from polluting water sources, along with recent limits placed on emissions from oil and gas operations. Is now a good time to point out that some areas of the U.S. are warming faster than most other parts of the planet?

How Alexa’s Diet of Data Will Feed Amazon's Success
Every day, millions of people tell Amazon their most immediate desires as they talk to its smart assistant, Alexa. And that provides the company with one of the most wonderful resources of the modern age: data. “There are millions of these [Alexa devices] in households, and they’re not collecting dust,” said Nikko Strom, an AI expert and founding member of the Amazon team that built Alexa, at a conference last week. “We get an insane amount of data coming in that we can work on.” Our own Tom Simonite investigates what Amazon is doing with all that information, and explains how it could give the company a huge edge on other firms that are building smart home assistants.

Tech Giant Patents Echo Uber’s Autonomous Ambitions
Right now, Uber appears to be leading the charge to develop autonomous taxis and delivery vehicles—but a pair of new patents show that tech giants like Amazon and Google have no intention of being left behind. While Google is already trialling a small ride-sharing service in San Francisco, a newly published patent describes how it plans to pair self-driving vehicles with ride-hailing apps. The problem it tries to overcome: how to negotiate a pickup location if an autonomous car can’t safely or accurately navigate to the passenger like a human driver could. Meanwhile, a patent filed by Amazon describes a way for autonomous vehicles to cope with reversible lanes, where traffic flow changes direction based on demand. That adds to rumors that Amazon could be working on its own self-driving delivery vehicle plans, perhaps like Uber’s autonomous 18-wheelers, as part of its overarching vision to take on more of its own delivery logistics.

Six Fascinating Things

1. Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg donned a suit to testify about the intellectual property behind Facebook’s VR company Oculus. He got a little bit testy.

2. How do you take the Internet to 23 million people? In the southern Indian state of Telangana, it all starts with a 5-foot-deep trench.

3. Imagine if your doctor’s office was like an Apple Store mashed up with a fancy gym. That’s the reality at health startup Forward—if you pay $149 per month.

4. According to Bloomberg, the top three most innovative economies are: (1) South Korea, (2) Sweden, and (3) Germany. (The U.S. just squeaked into the top 10.)

5. India’s first GM food crop should have been approved last year. But a lawsuit claiming that scientists misled the nation is delaying the plant's arrival in fields.

6. Biologists can now switch genes inside bacteria on and off using electrical signals. The logical next step: living electronic components.


Quote of the Day

"For most of our businesses and companies, it will not be man or machine ... it will be a symbiotic relationship. Our purpose is to augment and really be in service of what humans do.”

— IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty, explains to a World Economic Forum panel in Davos that automation may not be the job killer that it’s often touted to be. Last week a study by McKinsey & Company predicted that robots will devour jobs more slowly than expected.

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