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The Download, Feb 1, 2017: Energy Research Threats, AI Assistants With Screens, and Scented VR

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February 1, 2017

Three Things You Need to Know Today

What’s at Stake as Trump Takes Aim at Energy Research
Clean energy researchers are bracing for federal funding cuts that could stunt the development of sustainable technologies. These past two weeks, rumors have swirled about the Trump administration’s desire to radically downsize the Department of Energy and its research programs. Some reports have claimed that the administration may seek to entirely eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy program, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and the Office of Fossil Energy, which is focused on carbon capture and storage. It is, of course, hard to say what the future holds. But reporting by our own James Temple reveals that “there's a general consensus that the White House and Congressional Republicans will push for sizable cuts to the renewable energy and environmental research efforts that steadily grew under President Obama. It's just a question of where, how deep, and what will ultimately pass.” Here, he explains what’s at stake.

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Why AI Home Assistants Need a Screen
You may control your home with your voice, but having it speak back is often impractical. Asking Amazon’s Alexa to play a specific song, for instance, is a joy. But if you’re not sure what to listen to, the voice-only system can feel limiting. At the same time, voice assistant apps grow in number but go unused because people simply forget about them. Speaking to the Download, Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu, explained that, while a 2016 study by Stanford researchers and his own team showed that speech input is three times quicker than typing on mobile devices, “the fastest way for a machine to get information to you is via a screen.” He continued: “Say you want to order takeout. Imagine a voice that reads out: ‘Here are the top twenty restaurants in your area. Number one …’ This would be insanely slow!” No surprise, then, that Baidu has been working on a smart assistant device called Little Fish that includes a screen, and Amazon is also rumored to be developing a similar piece of hardware. The AI assistant revolution, it seems, may be televised.

Silicon Valley Fights the Immigration Ban—Cautiously
Several tech giants have now backed a legal challenge to President Trump's immigration policy, but others are still carefully mulling the ramifications of such actions. The BBC reports that Amazon, Microsoft, and Expedia have all lent support to a lawsuit filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson which hopes to show that the immigration ban is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has been so heavily inundated with funding—racking up $24 million since the weekend—that it’s teamed up with Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator to work out how best to use the money. But read many of the statements issued by the tech elite, and you’ll notice that they've criticized the policy but not the administration—because they're nervous about what might happen. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal (paywall), former Google executive Wesley Chan neatly framed the predicament: “The practical matter is, you’re running a company worth billions of dollars and they’re the regulators, so what choice do you have.”

Ten Fascinating Things

01. David Ishee is a Mississippi kennel operator with a passion for gene-editing. But his attempts to upgrade Dalmatians have landed him in the FDA’s doghouse.

02. How we could harness the Sun to keep our buildings cool.

03. Boston Dynamics usually makes robots with legs. But it’s also been experimenting with wheels, and the results are quite incredible.

04. Reached by a mind-reading device, deeply paralyzed patients who cannot usually communicate have told researchers that they want to live.

05. Gene drives, which release GM versions of creatures into existing populations, could help eradicate disease. But evolution could render them ineffective.

06. Why Trump’s SCOTUS pick needs to understand technology.

07. Next on Amazon’s list of attempts to muscle in on the freight industry: an air cargo hub in Kentucky worth $1.5 billion.

08. Insider trading isn’t limited to Wall Street. People are increasingly taking to the dark Web to sell confidential corporate information.

09. Apple’s focus for the near future doesn’t appear to be cars, watches, or the next big computing device. Instead, it plans to focus on apps and media.

10. A DARPA-funded paper-airplane drone could be used to cheaply distribute drugs at a moment’s notice.

Quote of the Day

"I almost ate a foam doughnut the other day because a virtual-reality experiment had me convinced it was real.”

— Our own Rachel Metz explains what happens when you add scent to VR.

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