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UK start-up behind algae-based packaging bids for Earthshot glory

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UK start-up Notpla makes naturally degrading -- and even edible -- packaging from seaweed and other marine plants
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A British start-up founded by two ex-students from France and Spain, crafting biodegradable packaging from marine plants, is aiming to seal royal approval this week when Prince William unveils his latest Earthshot prizes.

Notpla — whose mantra is “we make packaging disappear” — is competing with 14 other firms for five prestigious awards, to be dished out by the prince and a star-studded cast at a ceremony in US city Boston on Friday.

In its second year, the initiative to reward innovative efforts to combat climate change will then be broadcast on UK and US television on Sunday and Monday, respectively, as well as online.

The five winners will each receive a £1 million ($1.2 million) grant. 

The co-creator of Notpla, which rather than using environmentally damaging plastics makes various naturally degrading — and even edible — packaging from seaweed and other marine plants, says they have already felt the competition’s benefits.

“Just being there is a massive boost to our visibility,” French co-founder Pierre Paslier, 35, told AFP.

“So that’s already a huge asset to be part of the finalists and I think that if we win, it’s just going to be that on a much larger scale.”

Together with fellow former Royal College of Art student and co-founder Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, 38, the duo began their eco-business adventure in a small London kitchen. 

They were intent on finding natural alternatives to petrochemicals-based packaging, sampling a variety of materials from tapioca seeds to other starches. 

– Seaweed ‘family’ –

“Eventually, we found seaweed,” explained Paslier, a former packaging engineer at French cosmetics giant L’Oreal who created Notpla with Gonzalez in 2014. 

“Now we have a flexible film, we make seaweed paper, we have rigid materials. So it’s really the beginning of a family of seaweed-based technologies that hopefully can help us stop using so much plastic.”

He said their early kitchen exploits had eventually led to the secretly-formulated “Ooho” creation.

An edible bubble membrane made from seaweed — holding water, sports drinks or other flavoured liquids including cocktails and sauces — it is marketed as a replacement for single-use plastic cups, bottles and sachets. 

Tasting like a gelatinous candy, it can be consumed whole — like a cherry tomato — or from a larger sachet, making it ideal at sporting events and festivals.

It has been widely used at marathons across the UK, including the 2019 London run.

Viral online interest has helped attract the attention of investors, with Notpla expanding rapidly to boast more than 60 employees and finding itself on the verge of manufacturing its products on an industrial scale.

Production of “Ooho” takes place at the firm’s offices in a large warehouse, a stone’s throw from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. 

Notpla’s growing young team also has laboratories there as it continues to develop new algae-based products.

– ‘Very renewable’ –

Among the more recent results: a naturally biodegradable coating protecting takeaway food boxes from grease and liquids. 

The company now supplies industry giant Just Eat in Britain and five other European countries. 

It also provided the packaging for all the food sold during the final of the women’s European football championships at London’s Wembley Stadium in July. 

Another of its new innovations is a transparent package for dry goods, such as pasta. 

Paslier noted that although his products may currently cost more than plastic alternatives, the latter’s sales price fails to account for “the impact on societal ecosystems, health for humans or for marine life”.

“This is basically going to be paid for [by] the next generations and that doesn’t come into the price of plastic that you buy on the market today,” he added.

“So what we want is to be the most affordable, sustainable packaging solution that takes into account its whole lifetime costs.”

Paslier believes seaweed can become the most affordable packaging option, in large part due to its fast growth rate which can top one metre (3.3 feet) a day in the lab.

“It’s a very, very renewable resource,” he added, noting it doesn’t require any fresh water or fertilisers.

Its emergence is undoubtedly timely.

A recent OECD report found, at the current rate, worldwide plastic waste will triple by 2060 to one billion tonnes per year, much of which will pollute the oceans and threaten many species. 

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Threat of US ban surges after TikTok lambasted in Congress

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A US TikTok ban will depend on passage of legislation called the RESTRICT ACT, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate this month
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A US ban of Chinese-owned TikTok, the country’s most popular social media for young people, seems increasingly inevitable a day after the brutal grilling of its CEO by Washington lawmakers from across the political divide.

But the Biden administration will have to move carefully in denying 150 million young Americans their favorite platform over its links to China, especially after a previous effort by then president Donald Trump was struck down by a US court.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew endured a barrage of questions — and was often harshly cut off — by US lawmakers who made their belief quite clear that the app best known for sharing jokes and dance routines was a threat to US national security as well as being a danger to mental health.

In a tweet, TikTok executive Vanessa Pappas deplored a hearing “rooted in xenophobia”.  

With both Republicans and Democrats against him at Congress, Chew must now confront a White House ultimatum that TikTok either sever ties with ByteDance, its China-based owners, or get banned in America.

A ban will depend on passage of legislation called the RESTRICT ACT, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate this month that gives the US Commerce Department powers to ban foreign technology that threatens national security.

When asked about Chew’s tumultuous hearing, spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre repeated the White House’s support of the legislation, which is just one of several proposals by Congress to ban or squeeze TikTok.

– ‘Prove a negative’ –

The sell-or-get banned order tears up 2.5 years of negotiations between the White House and Tiktok to find a way for the company to keep running under its current ownership while satisfying national security concerns.

Those talks resulted in a proposal by TikTok called Project Texas in which the personal data of US users stays in the United States and would be inaccessible to Chinese law or oversight.

But the White House turned sour on the idea after officials from the FBI and the Justice Department said that the vulnerabilities to China would remain.

“It’s hard for TikTok to prove a negative ‘No, we’re not turning over any data to the Chinese government.’ Look at how skeptical our European partners are about US companies where we have a strong legal system,” said Michael Daniel, executive director of the Cyber Threat Alliance, a non-governmental organization dedicated to cybersecurity.

Presently, the White House’s preferred solution is that TikTok sever ties with ByteDance either through a sale or a spin-off.

“My understanding is that what has been… insisted on is the divestment of Tiktok by the parent company,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday.

But that option is riddled with difficulties, with many experts saying that Tiktok cannot function without ByteDance, which develops the app’s industry-leading technology.

“ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok and the golden jewel algorithm at the center of this security debate is a hot button issue that will not necessarily be solved just by a spin-off or sale of the assets,” said Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities.

Proving the point, China has ruled out giving the go-ahead for a TikTok sale, citing its own laws to protect sensitive technology from foreign buyers.

That leaves a ban which would see the full might of the US government crush TikTok to the undeniable benefit of domestic rivals Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.

They currently trail TikTok, which is the most popular social media in the United States.

– Snapchat wins –

TikTok’s demise “will clearly benefit Meta and Snapchat front and center in the eyes of Wall Street,” said Ives, who believes the saga will play out for the rest of the year.

One unknown is whether a death sentence for TikTok will cost Washington politically among young voters.

Through a ban, “a democracy will be taking steps that impede the ability of young Americans to express themselves and earn a livelihood,” said Sarah Kreps, professor of government at Cornell University.

The lawmakers putting the Tiktok CEO over the coals minimized the danger of political blowback.

“I want to say this to all the teenagers… who think we’re just old and out of touch,” said representative Dan Crenshaw, a Republican. 

“You may not care that your data is being accessed now, but there will be one day when you do care about it,” he said.

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US state to require parental consent for social media

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The western US state of Utah will require social media sites to gain parental consent for minors' accounts beginning in March 2024
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Utah on Thursday became the first US state to require social media sites to get parental consent for accounts used by under-18s, placing the burden on platforms like Instagram and TikTok to verify the age of their users.

The law, which takes effect March 2024, was brought in response to fears over growing youth addiction to social media, and to security risks such as online bullying, exploitation, and collection of children’s personal data.

But it has prompted warnings from tech firms and civil liberties groups that it could curtail access to online resources for marginalized teens, and have far-reaching implications for free speech.

“We’re no longer willing to let social media companies continue to harm the mental health of our youth,” tweeted Spencer Cox, governor of the western US state, who signed two related bills at a ceremony Thursday.

The bills also require social media firms to grant parents full access to their children’s accounts, and to create a default “curfew” blocking overnight access to children’s accounts. 

They set out fines for social media companies if they target users under 18 with “addictive algorithms,” and make it easier for parents to sue social media companies for financial, physical or emotional harm.

“We hope that this is just the first step in many bills that we’ll see across the nation, and hopefully taken on by the federal government,” said state representative Jordan Teuscher, who co-sponsored the bill.

Michael McKell, a Republican member of Utah’s Senate who also sponsored the bill, said it was a “bipartisan” effort, and praised President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address, in which he raised the issue.

Biden last month called on US lawmakers to restrict how social media companies advertise to children and collect their data, as he accused Big Tech of conducting a “for profit” experiment on the nation’s youth.

California has already introduced online safety laws including strict default privacy settings for minors, but the Utah law goes further.

Lawmakers in states such as Ohio and Connecticut are working on similar bills.

Platforms including Instagram and TikTok have introduced more controls for parents, such as messaging limits and time caps.

At Thursday’s ceremony in Utah, McKell pointed to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which he said highlighted the toll social media apps can have on young minds.

“The impact on our daughters — and I have two daughters — it was incredibly troubling,” he said. 

“Thirty percent of our daughters from ninth grade to 12th grade had seriously contemplated suicide. That’s startling.”

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Google opens chatbot Bard for testing in US and UK

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Google has been scrambling to counter the threat posed to its money-making online search engine by Microsoft blazing ahead with the addition of generative artificial intelligence technology into its rival Bing
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Google on Tuesday invited people in the United States and Britain to test its AI chatbot, known as Bard, as it scrambles to catch up with Microsoft-backed ChatGPT.

Bard, ChatGPT and other similar apps churn out essays, poems or computing code on command, though they come with warnings that the information they create can be incorrect or inappropriate.

People wishing to play with Bard can sign up on a waiting list at bard.google.com website, distinctly separate from the tech giant’s search engine.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a tweet that the move is an “early experiment” allowing people to collaborate with generative artificial intelligence (AI).

“We’ve learned a lot so far by testing Bard, and the next critical step in improving it is to get feedback from more people,” Google vice presidents Sissie Hsiao and Eli Collins said in a blog post.

“We continue to see that the more people use them, the better LLMs (large language models) get at predicting what responses might be helpful.”

As exciting as chatbots are, they have their faults, Hsiao and Collins cautioned.

They can incorporate real-world biases, stereotypes or inaccuracies in responses, according to the vice presidents.

Google has adopted a more cautious rollout of generative AI in contrast to Microsoft that has chosen to swiftly make the products available to consumers despite reports of problems.

ChatGPT’s OpenAI is backed by Microsoft, which earlier this year said it would finance the research company to the tune of billions of dollars.

OpenAI recently released a long-awaited update of its AI technology that it said would be safer and more accurate than its predecessor.

Much of the new model’s firepower is now available to the general public via ChatGPT Plus, OpenAI’s paid subscription plan and on an AI-powered version of Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

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