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Stay updated on technology, economy, politics, energy, science and social issues.

GARI's Weekly News Digest serves as an overview of what happened put into the context of everything else. We incorporate more sectors than any other news source, notably politics, science, economy, environment, energy, technology, society, innovation and more.

Antonio Oraldi, This week's digest writer, GARI
Caitlyn Boitnott, contributor, GARI

July 26th, 2019

Fifty years later...

The moon has always been a dear companion of human life. Archeological evidence shows that calendars were based on it as far as 35,000 years ago, long before the first written language. More recently, on 20th July 1969, we even landed on the moon, marking a new step into human technological and existential possibilities. Indeed, wherever there is potential for grandeur, there is political interest: fifty years ago, the Cold War was at its height and the US overcame the Soviet Union in the moon race (if surprisingly for some, given that the latter were the first to reach space, some reasons explored are here).

But the moon is still very much of interest today. After calling off a mission 55 minutes before launch last week, India has now successfully started it. The aim is to land in 48 days on the lunar south pole to conduct scientific experiments. In case you missed it, this is a brief explanatory map of the contemporary political moon race. As times change, also the moon race changes. Now it is not merely political actors, but also business giants who participate: in particular, science-fiction like ambitions unite Musk and Bezos in what is often a personal rivalry, which reflects their will of space dominance through SpaceX and Blue Origin respectively. This is how a 21st century moon base might look like.

One of the most stunning developments from 1969 certainly concerns the increasing capabilities of AI. This week, Microsoft announced a $1bn investment as part of a partnership with Musk’s OpenAI. The enterprise involves working at the development of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) - a state in which machines are able to learn tasks approximately as human beings do. It is believed that this could help solving pressing issues in health care and climate change. While many AI researchers believe that AGI is unachievable, the move is certainly risky, yet worth looking at. 

Microsoft has also recently inaugurated “AI for Cultural Heritage”, the fourth portfolio of its “AI for Good” Programme. In this case, the technology most often associated with the future is being used to preserve and enrich aspects of past heritage, like endangered languages. In virtue of AI, technology is even losing its status of mere tool, as many consider technological objects authentic companions. The rise of virtual assistants as well as the introduction of humanoid robots in healthcare and domestic contexts contributed to the growth of ‘Empathetic AI’. According to recent comments by experts, moreover, new deep learnings methods could be successfully implemented to crack one of biology’s greatest challenges: predicting the 3D structures of proteins from their amino-acid sequences, which grounds the understanding of a protein’s function. 

So much for AI. I do not know whether Neil Armstrong may have conceived of the Internet in 1969 and its potential uses (including the circulation of wild theories on the moon landing). One of these concerns authoritarian regimes. During the past week, Kazakhstan’s government adopted the ‘man-in-the-middle’ scheme, through which all HTTPS traffic inside the country can be intercepted. Every Internet user in the country had to install certificates that bypass HTTPS’ encryption, privacy and security services. According to MIT Review, the government is also a customer of Israeli NSO group, renowned for selling hacking technology to world governments.

Meanwhile, as we gradually come back to Earth, we can notice that Britain has a new Prime Minister. Boris Johnson (or “BoJo”), one of the strongest pro-Brexit campaigners, is now in charge of delivering Brexit by 31st October, as he promised. The decision was taken by 160,000 members of the Conservative Party, who elected Johnson as leader of the Party. Trump hailed the advent of ‘a really good man’ to 10 Downing Street. Besides obvious stylistic similarities, however, there may be deeper policy differences among the two concerning Iran, China and Huawei.

At the start of the week, Trump met with Pakistan’s PM Khan. After the US Administration removed aid for over $1bn due to Pakistan’s alleged ties with extremist groups, Trump opened to the idea of restoring it. The core of a successful cooperation between the countries now centres around a peaceful resolution of the war in Afghanistan, he said. Peace negotiations are now on the table, after the historic meeting in Qatar between the Afghani government and Talibans. At the same time, however, almost every day there are new casualties in the country.

On Wednesday, Puerto Rico Governor Rosselló announced his resignation after days of demonstrations. The publication of nearly 900 pages of messages between Rossellò and his advisors where they ridiculed their own supporters and other disadvantaged people was the tip of the iceberg after years of unemployment, austerity measures and devastation due to Hurricane Maria. Some see this as a chance to rethink the US territorial power structure. On the same day, Former U.S. Special Counsel Muller testified to Congress about his investigation over Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Here are the highlights. Technology can bring us to the moon, but it also gives us small sparkles of unpredictability like live stream police press conferences with cat filters. (p.s: Muller’s testimony was live streamed here, but without the cat filter).

NEWS BITES

Emerging technologies:  On Tuesday, United Parcel Service Inc (UPS.N) launched its drone delivery subsidiary. The world’s largest package delivery firm said it has applied for the Federal Aviation Administration certificates to expand its business in the emergent drone delivery industry.

AgriScience: In new research published on Monday, the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have discovered the specific gene that controls an important symbiotic relationship between plants and soil fungi. This could lead to the development of bioenergy and food crops that resist harsh growing conditions.

Environment and human rights: A rare footage of a person belonging to the Amazonic Awá people has been drawing attention to the threat of illegal loggers, miners, and drug traffickers, as well as Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s opening of protected areas of the Amazonian rainforest to agribusiness and mining. While deforestation threatens the Amazonian tribes and the environment, European forests are actually growing.

Huawei: After being blacklisted by the US government, Huawei cut down more than 70% of jobs at Futurewei Technologies ’s research arm in the US.

Defence: This week, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the Russian Air Force jointly conducted a long-range aerial patrol for the first time.

Emerging commodities: On Monday, Toyota unveiled its new self-driving miniature shuttle to fetch equipment in Tokyo 2020 Olympics

What also happened...

                                                   The world of DeepFake

The term ‘DeepFake’ (the combination of ‘deep learning’ and ‘fake’) essentially refers to AI software capable of producing videos and audios which display real people in actions they never performed. As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, algorithms can create accurate replicas of actual voices, looks, movements and facial expressions. We are starting to see some implications. Two are the main types of concern: political and pornographic. DeepFakes notoriously targeted Obama and Zuckerberg saying things they never said, as well as some celebrities whose faces were inserted into pornographic videos. The creator of “DeepNude”, an app in which one can upload a picture of a woman who is then digitally undressed, has recently shut down the app after realising the negatives far outweigh the positives.

The issue of DeepFakes is met with increasing political concern. Recently, a video portraying a drunken and stammering Nancy Pelosi was shared by Trump’s Twitter account and by FOX News as if it was real. They used it (mistakenly?) as a reason to condemn her behavior and to call for her resignation. DeepFakes can be seen as the next step of ‘fake news’ - not a change in logic but an increment of intensity. Accordingly, the US Congress invited tech giants to pay great attention to the issue in light of the 2020 elections. A legitimate question also involves announcements with great political consequences: what would happen with DeepFakes displaying a head of State announcing an imminent nuclear attack? What is certain is that DeepFakes deserve some attention. While AI can itself help in detecting DeepFakes, the issue is raising broader concerns over technological regulation as well as the ethics of technology. 

                                                         Japanese whales

Japan has recently left the International Whaling Commission, the body concerned with whale conservation, and restored commercial whaling practices on July 1st, 2019. Here is a map of members of the IWC. After some species became almost extinct, the IWC introduced a moratorium on commercial whaling from 1985, which stands in place today. In objection to the moratorium, Norway and Iceland have been the only members to exercise limited forms of commercial whaling from 1993 onwards.

Restoring commercial whaling has led to international condemnation. But Japanese officials vindicated that they will not be told what to eat by other countries and that eating whales is part of their culture. They also said that it is more ethical to hunt animals who lived in freedom rather than growing them in captivity, whereas animalists and conservationists denounce either the cruel hunting methods or the hard conditions of these animals due to climate change and pollution.

But there’s also a larger sector of the Japanese economy who’s especially unhappy: whale watching. All in all, according to this analysis of Japanese food consumption data, whale meat will constitute a very niche market, comparable to horse meat, and targeted at older generations. Moreover, because the whaling industry is state-run, Japanese scholar Junko Sakuma thinks restoring hunts is a political move to gain votes from the electoral basis of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

LAST WEEK'S EVENTS
NEXT WEEK'S EVENTS
ANNIVERSARIES


23rd July, 1970: Qābūs bin Saʿīd Āl Saʿīd becomes Sultan of Oman. He is currently the longest serving leader in the Middle East and Arab world.



24th July, 1783: Birth of Simòn Bolìvar in Caracas


24th July, 1974: End of military dictatorship in Greece

25th July, 1957: Tunisia becomes a Republic with Bourguiba as first President


 

25th July, 1969: US President Richard Nixon declares Nixon Doctrine in the context of the Vietnam war.

Energy crisis in the Strait of Hormuz

by Caitlyn Boitnott

 

The Strait of Hormuz has recently been a site of military and political tensions. The situation is raising concerns surrounding the possibility of an energy crisis to slowly rise along the way. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the Strait of Hormuz is the most important oil chokepoint in the world, as approximately 25% of the world’s oil depends on it. Last year alone the daily flow of oil in the strait averaged around 21 million barrels per day. However, the rising political tensions in the region may lead to supply delays and higher shipping costs, thus leading to the prices of oil to increase. For example, just two weeks ago, after the United States shot down an Iranian drone, oil prices rose significantly in the Asian markets. Moreover, as last week Iran seized a British oil tanker, oil prices increased for the global benchmark on Monday (Brent crude, 0.7% to nearly $63 a barrel). 

The issue has been overlooked because there has not been a steady rise in oil prices for a long period of time, as some trends are showing a “spike, ease, and jump again” pattern. Some feel we have enough other oil sources around the world for prices to increase – mainly from Brazil and the United States – thus we should not need to stress this issue. However, as IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said, “having lots of supply does not mean that oil security is not important, and this very important incident reminds all of us, all actors in the markets once again, how important an issue oil security is.” This issue is not something that should be overlooked as oil is still one of the world’s most important sources of energy. Experts are suggesting that a ‘Regional Energy Security Framework’ should be implemented in this region to protect oil and liquefied natural gas as they are still crucial for energy in today’s world. The question to answer now is, what kind of regional security framework will be most effective and how can one be implemented?

GARI Network’s News

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Yours Sincerely,

GARI

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