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Alphabet spinoff Sandbox AQ raises $500mn for cyber security, other quantum work

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Alphabet spinoff Sandbox AQ raises $500mn for cyber security, other quantum work

Sandbox AQ, a startup spun off from Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) last year, said on Tuesday it raised $500 million as it helps customers prepare for a quantum computing future.

Quantum computers, whose processors run based on quantum physics, could one day carry out certain calculations millions of times quicker than today’s fastest super computers, yet they remain years away from making a big change, such as breaking encryption.

But as hackers can harvest data today and wait to decrypt them when the quantum computers are ready, the National Institute of Standards and Technology under the US Commerce Department selected new cryptography standards last year that could better withstand quantum computers.

The US government has set quantum computing as one of the key technologies important for national security.

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Sandbox AQ’s software scans companies’ systems to identify which parts use the old cryptography, identifies which need to be replaced urgently, and sets out to fortify the encryption of the enterprise, said CEO Jack Hidary.
“Right now you have a lot of banks and pharma companies and governments still using these old protocols,” said Hidary. “The average bank takes five to seven years to migrate over. … Now, hopefully they’ll do their important customer private information first.”

Sandbox also has a business selling powerful simulation software to accelerate development of drugs and materials.

The simulation does not currently need quantum computers to work, said Hidary. He said in the last 18 months chips that do artificial intelligence work have become powerful enough to run some of the math for quantum physics. When quantum computers are ready, that work would speed up even further.

Sandbox AQ is also using existing types of sensors based on quantum physics. These have long been MRI machines, for instance, and Sandbox has created a prototype machine to monitor the heart. It can also be used to monitor slight local changes in the earth’s magnetic field, making navigation systems much more precise, he said.

Last month Sandbox AQ said it won a contract with the US Air Force to research these quantum navigation technologies

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Former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt is the startup’s chairman as well as investor. Other investors include Breyer Capital, T. Rowe Price funds and Salesforce.com Inc (CRM.N) founder Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures.

Schmidt in a statement said Sandbox AQ has already signed up more than 15 enterprise and government customers and is partnering with 30 universities to train PhDs and other talent needed.

Some of the team and inspiration for Sandbox originated at Alphabet in 2016. But the Google parent is not a shareholder as Hidary said he wanted the company to be independent to work with the other major cloud companies as well.

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Lab-grown diamonds put natural gems under pressure

Lab-grown diamonds put natural gems under pressure

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Lab-grown diamonds put natural gems under pressure

The glittering diamonds sparkle the same but there are key differences: mined natural gems are more than a billion years old, while laboratory-made rocks are new and cost less than half the price.

Man-made gems are reshaping the $89 billion global diamond jewellery market, especially in the west Indian city of Surat where 90 percent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished.

In Smit Patel’s gleaming lab, technicians drop crystal diamond “seed” slices into reactors mimicking the extreme pressure far underground.

“Once the customer sees it for herself, they are sold. I believe this is the future,” said Patel, director of Greenlab Diamonds and the third generation of his family to deal in diamonds.

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From seed to ring-ready jewels, his team takes less than eight weeks to produce a diamond virtually indistinguishable from a mined gem.

“It’s the same product, it’s the same chemical, the same optical properties,” Patel said.

Gas, heat, pressure

Lab-grown diamond exports from India tripled in value between 2019 and 2022, while export volumes rose by 25 percent between April and October 2023, up from 15 percent in the same period a year earlier, according to the latest industry data.

“We’ve grown at 400 percent year on year in volume,” Patel told AFP.

Reactors in labs such as Patel’s are pumped full of carbon-containing gases such as methane and the crystal grows under heat and pressure.

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Rough diamonds are then taken to another facility where hundreds of workers design, cut and polish the stones.

The global market share by value of lab-grown gems rocketed from 3.5 percent in 2018 to 18.5 percent in 2023, New York-based industry analyst Paul Zimnisky told AFP, and will likely exceed 20 percent this year.

That has heaped pressure on an industry already racked by geopolitical turmoil and slumping demand.

– ‘Clean’ stones –

Machine-made diamonds were first developed in the early 1950s but it took technological leaps to create a commercially viable process less than a decade ago.

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Producers boast that their gems come at a lower carbon cost, although there are questions about whether the energy-intensive process is any better for the environment.

Patel said his lab uses solar energy from the local grid, although others suck up electricity from carbon-heavy sources.

And while mined gem sellers say “conflict diamonds” from war zones are kept off the market through the international Kimberley Process certification scheme, lab producers argue their facilities guarantee a clean record.

Such environmental and humanitarian claims have helped make lab-grown stones a popular choice for engagement rings.

In February 2023, 17 percent of diamond engagement rings sold in the United States — the world’s biggest consumer of natural stones — used lab-grown gems, according to industry analyst Edahn Golan.

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By Golan’s assessment, it is now 36 percent. This has partly been made possible by hundreds of companies in China and India, both among the largest producers of man-made stones.

‘Perfect storm’

Indian lab diamond makers exported 4.04 million carats between April and October 2023, a 42 percent year-on-year increase, according to India’s Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC).

In contrast, natural diamond companies in India reported a more than 25 percent drop, to 11.3 million carats, over the same period.

While natural diamond sales during the Covid-19 pandemic surged as affluent shoppers sought to brighten lockdowns with luxury purchases, demand dropped when economies reopened. Top companies were left holding expensive excess stock.

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Ajesh Mehta from D.Navinchandra Exports, whose group is one of global diamond giant De Beers Group’s authorised buyers, or “sightholders”, said it was the worst slump in his 30-year career.

“This is a totally different kind of lack of demand,” Mehta told AFP. “Everything came like a perfect storm.”

Factors other than competition from lab-grown rivals included slowing economic growth in the all-important US and China markets, as well as oversupply and sanctions against Russian rough-cut diamonds.

India’s natural diamond industry was forced into a rare voluntary import ban on rough diamonds in October. “We had to press the reset button,” Mehta said. “Otherwise people would panic.”

At least five Indian sightholders told AFP that the De Beers Group had cut prices by between 10 and 25 percent for different categories of diamonds at the first sale of its year, when buyers restock after the US holiday season.

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‘No monopoly’

The lab-grown industry has had its problems, too. Supply has skyrocketed and prices have dropped drastically, with wholesale prices down by 58 percent in 2023 alone, according to Golan’s analysis.

Retailers in Surat told AFP the price of a lower-quality one-carat polished stone had fallen from $2,400 in 2022 to a little over $1,000 in 2023.

WD Lab Grown Diamonds, the second-biggest US producer of the man-made stones, filed for bankruptcy in October. But Patel argues that falling prices will spur demand.

“We knew that prices would come down, because there’s no monopoly in this industry,” he said. Customers in a jewellery showroom in India’s commercial capital Mumbai appeared to agree.

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“A mined diamond would be five times more expensive,” said 29-year-old Lekha Prabhakar. “If you want something you want to wear daily… a lab-grown diamond works. I really like that.” 

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Wind-powered Dutch ship sets sail for greener future

Wind-powered Dutch ship sets sail for greener future

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Wind-powered Dutch ship sets sail for greener future

The world’s first chemical tanker ship fitted with massive rigid aluminium “sails” has left Rotterdam, its owner hoping to plot a route to bringing down the shipping industry’s huge carbon footprint.

The MT Chemical Challenger, a 16,000-tonne chemicals transporter set sail from Antwerp for Istanbul on Friday, and will undergo sea trials along the way.

Built in Japan and kitted out with four giant 16-metre-high (52 foot, 6 inch) sails similar to aircraft wings, the tanker’s owners hope to cut fuel consumption by 10 to 20 percent as the sails will allow the ship’s captain to throttle back on the engine.

“As an avid sailor myself, I have been thinking for a long time how we can make our industry more sustainable,” said Niels Grotz, chief executive of Chemship, which operates a fleet of chemical tanker vessels mainly between US ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern Mediterranean.

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“Today we launch our first wind-assisted chemical tanker, which we hope will serve as an example to the rest of the world,” Grotz told AFP at the ship’s unveiling.

Global shipping — which burns diesel and other bunker fuels — contributed around 2.0 percent of the world’s carbon emissions in 2022, the International Energy Agency said.

New guidelines by the International Maritime Organisation said shipping emissions needed to be cut by at least 40 percent by 2030 and down to zero by around 2050 if the Paris Climate Accords are to be achieved.

“Shipping has always been extremely competitive and it will be a struggle to reach these targets,” admitted Grotz, who added the company was unlikely to “make money” on its latest project.

“But we have to bring down CO2 emissions — and we decided we’re not just going to sit and wait for something magical to happen.”

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“With the sails on this ship we’re expecting a yearly reduction of some 850 tonnes. That’s the same output as around 500 cars annually,” Chemship added in a statement.

Pulling power

Grotz said the project to put sails on one of his chemical tankers — with others to follow — came when he and Dutch company Econowind, which specialises in building wind propulsion systems for ships, first put their heads together three years ago.

Last week the installation of the four sails was completed while the Chemical Challenger lay dockside in Rotterdam’s massive sprawling harbour.

Although not the first modern ship to be kitted out with rigid sails — last year British firm Cargill put a wind-assisted cargo ship to sea for instance — Chemship said their Chemical Challenger is the world’s first chemical tanker ship with sails.

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Built similar to an aeroplane wing, the rigid aluminium sails are equipped with a system of vents and holes to maximise airflow in winds of up to 61 kilometres (33 knots, 38 miles).

“This system called a ‘ventilated wingsail’ increases the wind’s power by five times — and gives the same power as an imaginary sail of around 30 by 30 metres,” said Rens Groot, sales manager at Econowind.

‘Modern day sailors’

Groot told AFP the installation of modern-day rigid sails on massive ships harked back to a time when sailing was the only way to move across the oceans.

Sails on ships are also reopening long-forgotten routes that fell out of favour as steam and fuel replaced wind power.

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“Once again, modern-day ‘sailors’ will have to look for the wind, for instance along the Brouwer route,” Groot said, referring to a sailing route around the Cape of Good Hope, first pioneered by Dutch explorer Hendrik Brouwer around 1611.

That route dips into the so-called “Roaring Forties” across the Indian Ocean before snaking north again along the Australian west coast to Asia.

It became compulsory a few years later for captains employed by the Dutch East India company on their way to the Netherlands’ colonies in today’s Indonesia.

“We are trying to find a way to bring nature back into technology,” said Groot. “Suddenly, you can feel a ship sailing again — just like in the olden days,” Groot said. 

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Tackling technology side effects: Govt crackdown on mobile phones in England schools

Tackling technology side effects: Govt crackdown on mobile phones in England schools

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Tackling technology side effects: Govt crackdown on mobile phones in England schools

Mobile phones are a necessity but also a nuisance, especially when it comes to children or even parents who can’t leave their handsets while spending time with their family members in the evening.

Imagine a desperate child trying to share his or her problems, but the father or the mother or the both are busy in chatting with friends or relatives using a variety of apps available through the mobile phones.

However, situation can worsen if a wife isn’t able to get the required attention from her husband the sole aim is to narrate the entire day’s story or list the regularly updated demands.

Similarly, some workers can’t escape their bosses who continue bombarding them with calls and messages even after the office hours. Barring a few countries like France and Spain, there is no escaping.

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But an overwhelming majority agree on limiting the mobile phones use by children. In this connection, the government is set to prohibit the mobile phone use in schools across England “as part of the government’s plan to minimise disruption and improve behaviour in classrooms”.

The move comes as latest UK government data finds around a third (29pc) of secondary school pupils reported mobile phones being used when they were not supposed to in most, or all, lessons.

A government press release says a new guidance regarding mobile phones in schools issued on Monday backs headteachers in prohibiting the use of mobile phones throughout the school day, including at break times.

“The move will bring England in line with steps taken by other countries who have restricted mobile phone use including France, Italy and Portugal.”

Many schools around the country are already prohibiting mobile phone use with great results. This guidance will ensure there is a consistent approach across all schools.

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“By the age of 12, 97 per cent of children have their own mobile phone, according to Ofcom. Using mobile phones in schools can lead to online bullying, distraction and classroom disruption which, in turn, can lead to lost learning time,” it added.

It also cited UNSECO which last year called for smartphones to be banned from schools as evidence showed it was linked to reduced educational performance and that excessive screen time had a negative impact on children’s wellbeing.

Schools will be supported to prohibit mobile phone use with examples of different approaches including banning phones from the school premises, handing in phones on arrival at school, and keeping phones securely locked away at school.

The guidance will respond to concerns from parents about mobile phones, with the latest data from ParentKind’s National Parent Survey, revealing that 44pc of parents are concerned about the amount of time their children spend on electronic devices, rising to 50pc of parents of secondary school children.

In his remarks, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said, “Schools are places for children to learn and mobile phones are, at a minimum, an unwanted distraction in the classroom.”

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According to Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan, growing up in today’s digital world provides immense opportunities but this should not come at the expense of our children’s wellbeing or education.

“That is why we have passed world leading legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world for young people to be online.”

Lead behaviour advisor to the department Tom Bennett said there was a strong and growing understanding of how damaging they can be for a child’s social and educational development.

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