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Google’s Marketing of Children’s Apps Misleads Parents, Consumer Groups Say

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A group of 22 children’s and consumer organizations is calling for a federal investigation into Google’s marketing of children’s apps in its Google Play store, just the latest in a series of rebukes by experts about how the company handles technology aimed at youngsters.

Google has promoted the “Family” section of its Play store as a place where parents can find age-appropriate apps for children. But in a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission filed on Wednesday, the advocacy groups said the company’s endorsement of the apps was misleading. The groups said that some apps in that section contained content unsuitable for children, showed ads for casino games for adults or pushed youngsters into watching video ads and making in-app purchases.

The groups also said some apps appeared to violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law that prohibits sites and apps for children from collecting phone numbers, precise location, photographs, persistent tracking identifiers and other personal information from children under 13 without verifiable consent from a parent. The complaint cited an investigation by The New York Times in September that found some children’s apps collected precise location information and tracking identifiers without verifiable parental permission.

Google has come under mounting scrutiny for its promotion of children’s apps in its Play store. In April, cybersecurity researchers reported that more than half of about 6,000 free Android children’s apps they tested shared personal data in ways that may violate the children’s privacy law. In September, the attorney general of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against Google and other companies over children’s apps. The complaint said that Google had violated a state law on unfair practices by marketing certain children’s apps as family-friendly even when the company knew the apps failed to comply with its own policies on children’s apps.

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In an app called New Girl in High School for children ages 6-12, researchers found an ad for a game involving beer, the complaint said.CreditBrent Lewis for The New York Times
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Beer in the ads for New Girl at School.CreditBrent Lewis for The New York Times

In early October, two Democratic senators called for a federal investigation to examine how app stores like Google Play vet the apps they categorize as child-friendly and ensure they comply with the privacy law. And on Wednesday morning those senators — Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ed Markey of Massachusetts — along with Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, sent another letter to the chairman of the F.T.C. pressing for “a comprehensive investigation into the Google Play store and its compliance” with children’s privacy and advertising rules.

“There are massive, at-scale problems with Android apps for children,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a children’s advocacy group in Boston that led the latest complaint along with the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit in Washington. “Google is failing to do the proper vetting of apps in the family section,” he said.

Google said that it removed thousands of apps from its Designed for Families program this year when it found policy violations, and had begun to take action on the apps cited in the consumer groups’ complaint.

“Parents want their children to be safe online, and we work hard to protect them,” said Aaron Stein, a Google spokesman. “Apps in our Designed for Families program have to comply with strict policies on content, privacy and advertising, and we take action on any policy violations that we find.”

A few years ago, Google introduced Designed for Families, a program that enables developers of Android apps to “showcase trusted, high-quality and age-appropriate content for the whole family.” To be eligible for the program, Google says developers must meet criteria like ensuring that their apps comply with the federal privacy law and contain age-appropriate content and ads for children.

But the groups’ complaint and the New Mexico attorney general’s lawsuit argue that Google misled consumers by promoting the apps as trustworthy while failing to enforce its own requirements for the Designed for Families program.

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In their testing, the consumer groups found ads for casino games in a children’s app called Dentist Games for Kids, labeled as for children age 8 and under.CreditBrent Lewis for The New York Times

Among other criticisms, the complaint says that Dentist Games for Kids, an app for children 8 and under in the Play store, showed ads for adult casino games with names like Blackjack 21: Blackjackist and Double Wins Slots — Free Vegas Casino. It also says some apps include risky or inappropriate content, citing Ear Doctor Clinic Kids Games, an app that “tells children to use scissors to cut the hair around and inside an infected ear,” the complaint said. (On Wednesday morning, the app was not available in the Play store.)

The Times had similar findings when testing several children’s apps in the Play store this week. One app, Smart Games for Kids for Free, a free animated game for children 8 and under that has been downloaded more than a million times, asked for access to a player’s smartphone photos, media, files and location without seeking parental permission.

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The complaint says an app called Ear Doctor Clinic Kids Games included inappropriate content that “tells children to use scissors to cut the hair around and inside an infected ear.”CreditBrent Lewis for The New York Times

The app also showed ads for casino games, “cheap international calling” and the Spotify streaming music service, which does not allow children under 13 to have accounts. It also nearly continuously displayed an ad for in-app purchases.

Devgame Kids, a developer in Estonia that is behind the children’s app, did not immediately return an email seeking comment

Mr. Stein, the Google spokesman, said: “We take these issues very seriously and continue to work hard to remove any content that is inappropriately aimed at children from our platform.”

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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal

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A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist

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Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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