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Geopolitics of Technology and the Hydrocarbon Status Quo

Anis H. Bajrektarevic

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The unrest in the Arab world, which has continued for over a year now, implies one important conclusion beyond any ongoing regional struggle for democracy: It is a reflection on the globally important technological, even more about a crucial geopolitical breakthrough – an escape from the logics of the hydrocarbon status quo, which – after Copenhagen 2009 and Durban 2011 – will fail again in Rio (Earth Summit 2012/Rio+20) later this year.

“No one governs innocently” – de Beauvoir noted in her 1947’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. After a lot of hot air, the disillusioning epilogue of the popular McFB revolt is more firearms and less confidence residing in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as well as a higher (moral and environmental, socio–economic and political, psychological and security) carbon-energy price everywhere else. As if the confrontational nostalgia, perpetuated by intense competition over finite resources, in lieu of a real, far-reaching policy-making has prevailed again. Caught in the middle of its indigenous incapability and the global blind obedience to fossil carbon addiction, and yet enveloped in just another trauma, the Arab world and the wider Middle East theatre remains a hostage of a geopolitical and geo-economic chess-board mega drama. However, all that appears over-determined now was not necessarily pre-determined in the beginning.

A Grand Dilemma and the MENA
The MENA theatre is situated in one of the most fascinating locations of the world. It actually represents the only existing land corridor that connects 3 continents. Contributing some 6% to the total world population, its demographic weight is almost equal to that of the US (4,5%) and Russia (1,5%) combined. While the US and Russia are single countries, the MENA composite is a puzzle of several dozens of fragile pieces where religious, political, ideological, history-cultural, economic, social and territorial cleavages are entrenched, deep, wide and long. However, the MENA territory covers only 3% of the Earth’s land surface (in contrast to the US’ 6,5%, coverage and Russia’s 11,5%). Thus, with its high population density and strong demographic growth, this very young median population (on average 23–27 years old) dominated by juvenile, mainly unemployed or underemployed, but socially mobilized and often politically radicalized (angry) males, competes over finite and scarce resources, be they arable or settlers land, water and other essentials.

Competition in this theatre, that has a lasting history of external domination or interference, is severe, multiple, unpredictable, and therefore it is fluid and unsettled on the existing or alternative socio-economic, ideological, cultural and politico-military models, access, directions and participatory base.

Interestingly enough the recent crisis, pejoratively nicknamed the Facebook Revolution has so far ‘knocked down’ only MENA republics (declaratively egalitarian and secular regimes of formal democracy). For the time being, it has spared the Arab peninsular absolutistic monarchies (highly oppressive theocratic regimes of real autocracy). The modern-day version of  Metternich’s Alliance of the Eastern Conservative Courts – the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) club has so far gained considerably from the calamities: (i) strategically – more durable regimes and ideologies, translated into their political and diplomatic offensive; (ii) institutionally – besides dominating the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Counties (OPEC), the GCC theocracies now practically control the League of Arab States (LAS), sets its agenda, political direction and punitive actions; and (iii) geo-economically – huge petro-dollar revenues: enlarged quotas caused by the delivery disruptions and embargoes in Libya and elsewhere, as well as the general crude price increase due to MENA uncertainties – e.g. the Bahrain’s State Information Agency reports nearly 20% economic growth for 2011. Hence, if there was any Spring in the Arab world, it was the budding of (Wahhabi sectarian) ideological and hydrocarbon exports of the GCC autocracies in 2011.

Nevertheless, the announced reductions of the American physical presence in Afghanistan, its limits in (nearly failed, nuclear state of) Pakistan, massive overextensions suffered on the southwestern flank of the Euro-Asian continent, as well as the recent US Army pullout from Iraq, is felt within the GCC (in France, Israel and Turkey too) as dangerous exposure to neighboring (increasingly anticipated as assertive) Iran, as well as Russia and China behind it.

Right now, Syria pays a (proxy war) prize for it: This multi-religious country may end up entirely combusted, creating a dangerous security vacuum in the heart of MENA. Oil, its suppliers and its consumers are resolute to fortify and eventually diversify and intensify their bitter covert and overt fight in maintaining the status quo course.

Petro-retro Status Quo: Petrodollars and petro-security
The US has a lasting geo-economic interest in the Gulf of a rather extensive agenda, which is inevitably coupled with its overarching global security concerns. As is well known, oil is the most traded commodity in the world– roughly 12% of overall global trade. By far the largest portion of internationally–traded crude originates from the Gulf. Thus, the US imperatives in the Gulf are very demanding: (i) to support the friendly local regimes with their present socio-political and ideological setups; (ii) to get, in return, their continued approval for the massive physical US military presence and their affirmative vote in international fora; (iii) to maintain its decisive force in the region, securing unhindered oil flows from the Gulf; (iv) to remain as the principal security guarantor and tranquilizer, preventing any hostile takeover – be it of one petrol-exporting state by another or of internal, domestic political and tribe/clan workings; (v) to closely monitor the crude-output levels and money flow within the Gulf and to recycle huge petro-dollar revenues, usually through lucrative arms sales and other security deals with the GCC regimes; (vi) will not enhance, but might permit (calls for) gradual change of the domestic socio-economic and politico-ideological frames in the particular Gulf state, as long as it does not compromise the US objectives in the region as stated above, from (i) to (v).

On the other side of Hormuz, Iran is a unique country that connects the Euro-Med/MENA with Central and South, well to the East Asia, so as it solely bridges the two key Euro-Asian energy plateaus: the Gulf and Caspian. This gives Iran an absolutely pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic posture over the larger region – an opportunity but also an exposure! No wonder that the US physical presence in the Gulf represents a double threat to Iran – geopoli- tically and geo-economically. Nearly all US governments since the unexpected 1979 Shah’s fall, with the G.W. Bush administration being most vocal, have formally advocated a regime change in Teheran. On the international oil market, Iran has no room for maneuver, neither on price nor on quotas. Within OPEC, Iran is frequently silenced by cordial GCC voting.

The US hegemony in the Gulf, a combination of monetary control (crude is traded exclusively in US dollars, predominantly via the New York-based NYMEX and London-based IPE) and physical control (the US Navy controls all transoceanic oil transports), is the essential confirmation as well as the crucial spring of the overall US global posture. In exchange for the energy inflow security, the US anchors loyal bandwagoning in many places around the globe. As long as oil remains priced in USD, it will represent the prime foreign reserve currency (some 68% of global reserves is held in USD), as the functional tie between the major currencies’ exchange rates, (economic and politico-military) security and fossil-fuel energy cannot be derailed and delinked.  Finally, this hegemony is not only based on the exclusivity of oil currency, but also on the exceptionality of the very policy of pricing.

Throughout most of oil’s short history, the price for ‘black gold’ was high enough to yield profits (via the 7-Sisters, mostly for Wall Street – besides the US military, another essential pillar of American might), still without pricing it overly high, which would in return encourage sustained and consequential investments in alternative energy sources. Basically, the main problem with Green/Renewable (de-carbonized) energy is not the complexity, expense, or the lengthy time-line for fundamental technological breakthrough; the central issue is that it calls for a major geopolitical breakthrough. Oil and gas are convenient for monopolization (of extraction location and deployed machinery, of intl. flows, of pricing and consumption modes) – it is a physical commodity of specific locality. Any green technology (not necessarily of particular location or currency) sooner or later will be de-monopolized, and thereby made available to most, if not to all. Therefore, the overall geopolitical imperative for the US remains preservation – not change – of the hydrocarbon status quo.

Ergo, oil (and gas) represents far more than energy. Petroleum (be it a finite biogenic mineral or not) is a socio-economic, psychological, cultural, financial, security and politico-military construct, a phenomenon of civilization that architectures the world of controllable horizontalities which is currently known to, possible and permitted, therefore acceptable for us.

In a broader historical, more vertical or philosophical sense, the hydrocarbons and its scarcity phychologization, its monetization (and related weaponization) is serving rather a coercive and restrictive status quo than a developmental incentive. That essentially calls not for an engagement but compliance. It finally reads that the fossil fuels’ consumption (along with the policy of prizing it) does not only trigger one CC – Climate Change (repeated failure in Durban), but it also perpetuates another global CC – planetary Competition and Confrontation (over finite resources) – to which the MENA calamities are only a tip of an iceberg. Therefore, this highly addictive construct logically permits only a (technological) modernization which is defensive, restrictive and reactive. No wonder that democracy is falling short.

Anything terrific between Arctic and Pacific?
“…bold Russian Arctic policy is (yet) another signal that the Federation… will increase its (non territorial leverage and geopolitical) projection as a major energy supplier of the world throughout the 21st century…” – I noted in 2009. To clarify: Neither Russian territorial size and historical passions, nor pride and socio-economic necessity will cause Moscow to sink down to a second-rank power status. How will the Federation meet its strategic imperative? We have already discussed the two important pillars of the US strength (the so-called ‘East Coast twin might’: the Pentagon and Wall Street). Well, there is the ‘Pacific Coast twin might’ too. The post-Soviet Russia has neither the ideology – global soft power appeal of the US entertainment industry and its ravenous (Hollywood), nor has it the vibrant, world-leading and highly lucrative High-Tech and IT sector (Silicon Valley) that the US possesses.

Let us generously assume the quantitative and qualitative parity between the US and Russia’s armed forces. Still, military modernization requires constant cash injections. How to maintain that? Moscow holds a big advantage: the US imports hydrocarbons while the Federation exports it. Nevertheless, Wall Street controls the international (petrodollar) monetary flow – even the post-Soviet republics are not trading oil in Rubles, but in US dollars. Hence, to meet and finance its strategic imperatives, as well as to respond to the growing international energy demands and to the domestic pressures, Moscow has only non-high tech exports – fossil-fuels – at convenient disposal (no Silicon Valley, no Hollywood). Ergo, Russia is more exposed and vulnerable than the US, and therefore it is an even stronger supporter of both current international market conditions and the hydrocarbon status quo.     

On the eastern, ascendant flank of the Eurasian continent, the Chinese vertigo economy is overheated and too-well integrated in the petrodollar system. Beijing, presently, cannot contemplate or afford to allocate any resources in a search for an alternative. The Sino economy is low-wage- and labor intensive-centered one. Chinese revenues are heavily dependent on exports and Chinese reserves are predominantly a mix of the USD and US Treasury bonds. To sustain itself as a single socio-political and formidably performing economic entity, the People’s Republic requires more energy and less external dependency. Domestically, the demographic-migratory pressures are huge, regional demands are high, and expectations are brewing. Considering its best external energy dependency equalizer (and inner cohesion solidifier), China seems to be turning to its military upgrade rather than towards the resolute alternative energy/Green Tech investments – as it has no time, plan or resources to do both at once. Inattentive of a broader picture, Beijing (probably falsely) believes that lasting containment, especially in the South China Sea, is unbearable, and that – at the same time – fossil-fuels are available (e.g., in Africa and the Gulf), and even cheaper with the help of warships.

Opting for either strategic choice will reverberate in the dynamic Asia–Pacific theatre. However, the messages are diametrical: An assertive military – alienates, new technology – attracts neighbors. Finally, armies conquer (and spend) while technology builds (and accumulates)! At this point, any eventual accelerated armament in the Asia-Pacific theatre would only strengthen the hydrocarbon status quo. With its present configuration, it is hard to imagine that anybody can outplay the US in the petro-security, petro-financial and petro-military global playground in the following few decades. Given the planetary petro-financial-tech-military causal constellations, this type of confrontation is so well mastered by and would further only benefit the US and the closest of its allies.               
                                      
To complete the picture, both Russia and China are supporting the hydrocarbon status quo. Other major theaters are all too dependent geo-economically: on a supply end (Central Asian republics, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Norway, Venezuela, etc.) and on a receiving end (India, Australia, South Africa, etc.) – none is geopolitically emancipated enough to seriously consider any significant tilt towards de-carbonization.

EU-genic or Dynamic?
Less explicitly, the EU (as the post-Westphalian concert of 4 Europes – conglomerate of the Atlantic, Central, Eastern and Scandinavian Europe) will turn consensual to the hydrocarbon status quo, too. If taking a closer look at any of the previous and current Brussels’ transportation and energy policy initiatives, it would clearly show us that the notion was primarily driven by the closest common security consideration denominator – as an attempt to decrease the external vulnerabilities, that includes those of an energy dependency (e.g. energy efficiency initiatives: EEP, Europe 2020, EUFORES, etc.).
Hence, the Union was first and still is most of all a peace treaty for the post WWII Europe recovery. Therefore, both settings (ECSC and EuroAtom) served the confidence building purpose, not as energy-related clearing house/s. The energy policy (suppliers for and composition of the primary energy mix, taxation, etc.) as well as the transportation (means and modes) strictly resides in the individual competence of the Block’s Member States (MS). Any change in the present status quo would assume the common platform of the MS via the Council of the EU (and the subsequent formalization of such a position, at least through the EU Parliament’s promulgation). The absence of such a commonly agreed policy means more of the hydrocarbon status quo. Lastly, it is not only that Atlantic Europe and Central Europe manage their respective energy inflow, its composition and external dependences differently (and selectively). The issue of the hydrocarbon status quo is closely related to the very question of the Euro (and the US dollar-alternate/reserve currency: the British Pound).

For the severely exposed Euro-zone (unsettled global financial crisis), it is a bitter choice between a petrol-pampered dollar (as a stability pillar) and the return to gold (meaning to the pre-Nixon Shock times, before the Bretton Woods consensus was renounced). Brussels and the European Central Bank (ECB) believe they can exercise an influence on the American dollar, via the US Federal Reserves, while nowadays gold resides everywhere – least of all in the US or EU reserves or their mines. Simply put, the post-Nixon currency/ies is/are negotiable; gold is a solid, non-corrosive metal. Also, one should never forget that the politically most influential segment of the Union – Atlantic Europe – shares the same ocean with the US, and all that comes with it (including the ‘monetary nationalism/exceptionalism’).   

However, besides Japan, Brussels will remain a main promoter of the “Kyoto II” mechanism. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with its protocol from Kyoto of 1997 placed China and India in the “emissions tolerant” Annex II, so both subsequently ratified the Instrument. The US and Russia were situated in the much less forgiving Annex I. Past the collapse of the Soviet Union and contraction of the post-Soviet economy and demographics, Kremlin knew it could easily meet the pre-1990 emissions target. Still, it was bargaining until the end of 2004. With the 17% pollution allocation, Russia’s ratification was sufficient enough to activate Kyoto, which eventually entered into force shortly after, in 2005.

The EU’s formal support to the Kyoto protocol and “spirit of UNFCCC/IPCC” has several reflex levels. Without ambition to elaborate it all in detail, let us just note that the Union’s reasons are of political (declared principles) and economic (pragmatic) nature. As the conglomerate of states committed to the supranational principle rituality, it is natural for the Block to (at least declaratively) support any multilateral endorsement, which assumes the supranational notion as well as the full horizontality of implementation and monitoring of compliance mechanism.

The Kyoto provisions of the late 1990s were in perfect harmony with the two grand strategy roadmaps of the EU: the Lisbon (2000) and Goteborg (2001) – hence, the EU’s voluntary self-endorsement via the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). This virtue out of necessity was clear: in the globalized competitive world, the Union of modest economical and of no demo-graphic growth has only the option to become a knowledge based economy, re-architectured as the fair and balanced post-industrial society. Both strategies were gradually abandoned, the Block enlarged (to Eastern Europe, mostly the states whose economies also contracted past the breakup of the Warsaw Pact lager countries – meaning, who are able to meet the Kyoto targets), and the Union’s post-industrial Green-tech renewal waits for better days.

How swift is the shift?
Brussels is well-positioned, but it will not be a global frontrunner in any technology shift. For such a (hydrocarbon de-psychologization) turn, it has neither an inner coherence, visionary strength, nor an external posture. The EU’s economic growth is very symbolic, despite all the huge territorial enlargements of the past decade. Actually, the Union’s growth could be portrayed as negative in many categories. It always serves as a good reminder that a Europe of (economic and demographic) growth was a Europe of might. Europe without growth is a Europe of principles (or to say: of administrative frameworks’ colonialism). The Eastern enlargement of the EU was this very virtue out of necessity: a last territorial expansion, exceptionally based not on coercion but on an ‘attraction’ of the EU’s transformative power.  

Within the OECD/IEA grouping, or closely; the G-8 (the states with resources, infrastructure, tradition of and know-how to advance the fundamental technological breakthroughs), it is only Japan that may seriously consider a Green/Renewable-tech U-turn. Tokyo’s external energy dependencies are stark and long-lasting. After the recent nuclear trauma, Japan will need a few years to (psychologically and economically) absorb the shock – but it will learn a lesson. For such an impresive economy and considerable demography, situated on a small landmass, which is repeatedly brutalized by devastating natural catastrophes (and dependent on yet another disruptive external influence – Arab oil), it might be that a decisive shift towards green energy is the only way to survive, revive, and eventually to emancipate.

An important part of the US–Japan security treaty is the US energy supply lines security guaranty given to (the post-WWII demilitarized) Tokyo. After the recent earthquake-tsunami-radiation armageddon, as well as witnessing the current Chinese military/naval noise, Japan will inevitably rethink and revisit its energy policy, as well as the composition of its primary energy mix. That indicates the Far East as a probable zone of the Green-tech excellence and a place of attraction for many Asians in the decade to come.

(Based on the public lecture “Asia – Pacific: The Hydrocarbon Status Quo and Climate Change”, Chulalongkorn University, Mahachulalongkorn/MEA Think-Tank; Thailand, Bangkok 04 OCT 2011)

References:
1.    Muhic, F., (1983), Teorija Drzave i Prava (Theory of States and Law), Svjetlost Sarajevo;
2.    Cleveland, W. L., (2000), A History of the Modern Middle East, WestView Press, Oxford;
3.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2005), Destiny Shared: Our Common Futures – EURO-MED Human Capital beyond 2020, Crans Montana Forum, Monaco;
4.    Maalouf, A., (1984), Les Croisades vues par les Arabes (The Crusades Through Arab Eyes), Schoken Books, NY;
5.    Engdahl, F.W. (2004), A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order, Pluto Press London
6.    The UN Development Program: Human Development Report 2011 (IHD Index, Poverty and Inequality);
7.    The World Bank – World Poverty Index, (2005 PPP), Statistics: 1990 – 2010;
8.    Wright, L. ( 2006), The Looming Tower, Random House New York
9.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2010), Arctic and Antarctic – Security Structures Surrounding the Two Poles, Geopolitics, History and International Relations 2 (2): 218-219, Addleton Publishers 2010
10.    Diamond, L. (2008), The Spirit of Democracy: the Struggle to Build Free Societies throughout the World  /Thinking of the Hybrid Regimes/, Times Books – Henry Holt Publishers  
11.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2011), The Melting Poles: between challenges and opportunities, Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, CEJISS 1/2011– Special Edition: Arctic and Antarctic Meltdown
12.    IAE, International Energy Agency – World Energy Outlook 2011, IEA Paris 2011;
13.    The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN FCCC/1992/84, GE.05-62220 (E) 200705 and the Kyoto Protocol to the UN FCCC of 1998, UN Office of Legal Affairs;
14.    The UN Climate Change Conference, Durban 2011, Reports November – December 2011 (COP 17, Bali Action Plan and Cancun Agreements), Secretariat of the UN FCCC, Bonn Germany
15.    Stieglitz, J. (2002), Globalization and Its Discontents, Penguin Books
16.    Krayushin, V.A. (1994), The Exploration of the Northern Flank of the Dnieper-Donets Basin – Key findings (research paper submitted for the VII Intl. Symposium on the Observation of the Continental Crust through Drilling) DOSECC, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1994
17.    Brzezinski, Z. (2004), The Choice, Basic Books (Perseus);
18.    Fukuyama, F. (2004), State Building, NY Cornell University Press;
19.    Mawdsley, E and McCann, G. (2011), India in Africa– Changing Geographies of Power, Pambazuka Press/Fahamu;
20.    Kagan, R. (2003), Of Paradise and Power, Vintage Books New York
21.    Primakov, Y.M. (2004), A World Challenged, Brookings Institution Press/Nixon Center
22.    Kissinger, H. (1999), Years of Renewal, Touchstone- Rockefeller Center;
23.    Ivanov, I.S. (2002), The New Russian Diplomacy, Brookings Institution Press/Nixon Center
24.    Leonard, M. (2005), Why Europe Will Run the 21st century, Fourth Estate London
25.    Ignatius, D. (2008), America and the World – Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft by David Ignatius, Advanced Uncorrected Proof Text, (September 2008) Basic Books Washington
26.    Friedman, G. (2009), The Next 100 Years, Anchor Books/Random House NY;
27.    Future Conflict Studies (2009), Understanding Human Dynamics, Report of the US Defense Science Board Task Force, March 2009;     
28.    Mulgan, G. (2006), Good and Bad Power – The Ideals and Betrayals of Government, Penguin Books
29.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2011), The Hydrocarbon Status Quo – Euro–Asian Imperatives, Geopolitics, History and International Relations 3 (2), Addleton Publishers 2011
30.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2012), Why Kyoto Will Fail Again, Geopolitics of Energy, 34 (1), CERI Canada 2012

Modern Diplomacy Advisory Board, Chairman Geopolitics of Energy Editorial Member Professor and Chairperson for Intl. Law & Global Pol. Studies contact: anis@bajrektarevic.eu

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Light at the end of the tunnel: New technologies to fight the COVID-19 on transport

Anna Bazarova

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Disinfection robots, thermometer robots, smart tunnels, automatic passenger counting, powerful ultraviolet lamps and other examples of how new technologies reshaped public transport amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to significant changes in many areas of life in just a few months. As the coronavirus continued to spread around the world, governments in several countries took measures to restrict movement, and people themselves tried to avoid traveling on public transport. The demand for the services of transport operators has dropped drastically. So, according to the Moovit Public Transit Index, passenger traffic in public transport on April 15, 2020 decreased in Israel by 92.1%, in Rome – by 89.2%, in Madrid – by 88.1%, in New York-by 74.8% and has not yet recovered. City residents are afraid to use public transport actively again, and their fears are fully justified. High daily passenger traffic and high frequency of contact between passengers make public transport an ideal environment for the spread of infections. The problem of fighting the spread of infections while maintaining normal life activity is particularly acute for large cities, such as Moscow or Beijing, where daily passenger traffic reaches 19.4 and 12.3 million passengers respectively. The average density of passengers on a bus or in a traincar at the same time ranges from 2 to 5 people per square meter, while, according to World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, in order to comply with safety standards, passengers must maintain a social distance of 1.5 meters. Furthermore, virus particles can remain for a long time on public surfaces inside a bus or a traincar. Handrails on public transport are usually made of plastic, on which the coronavirus can remain up to 3 days, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. By touching them passengers increase the risk of contagion.

The key task for transport operators is to make the usage of public transport safe. To help them solve this problem came technology -all kinds of robots are widely used among innovations. With their help, it is possible to carry out disinfection effectively and safely without the involvement of staff. The Hong Kong Metro, also known as the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), together with the biotechnology company Avalon Biomedical Management Limited, has developed a disinfection robot that can disinfect even the most inaccessible places of traincars and stations. In addition to disinfection, robots can cope with more complex tasks. So, in Ningbo Lishe International Airport was tested a 5G-supporting robot-thermometer, which can measure temperature at a distance of 5 meters up to 10 people simultaneously and also identify those who are not wearing a face mask. Another innovation in many transport operators is the sanitary gate. According to Giulio Barbieri, one of the manufacturers, this is a “a tested, safe, and effective method to sanitize people and objects in just 5 seconds, killing up to 99% of any pathogenic microbes on the surfaces, including COVID-19”For example, the technology was tested in the Moscow and Dubai metros. In Moscow the clothes of the employees entering the depot were processed using a disinfection tunnel; at the same time, the territory was manually disinfected, so that the entire depot was safer for the staff.

The process of digitalization of ticket systems, which began long before the pandemic, also had a positive effect. Thanks to the competent actions of transport operators, the number of contactless payments in public transport around the world increased by 187% in the period from April to June, as evidenced by a report from Visa. Following WHO recommendations, many transport operators have made it mandatory to wear masks and maintain social distance on public transport. A number of digital technologies have been developed to comply with these rules. In the Beijing metro, compliance with a mask regime is controlled by cameras with a facial recognition system that can identify people. In addition, in the Panama Metro, observance of social distance is monitored by sensors which determine the degree of capacity of train cars. The technology called Mastria, which aggregates information from train weight sensors, ticket machines, signalling, management systems, CCTV and mobile networks for the Panama metro was developed by Alstom (a french manufacturer specializing in the production of infrastructure for rail transport) and installed almost a year ago. In just three months, thanks to artificial neural networks, it was possible to reduce average waiting times at stations by 12%. This development became particularly relevant during the pandemic. The Moscow metro is planning to introduce a similar technology. To maintain the social distance digital displays with colored indicators that reflect the level of capacity of subway cars will be installed. In the Moscow metro a new generation of traincars with an automatic air disinfection system built into climate control systems helped to reduce the risk of infection. It makes it possible to disinfect the air without disrupting the train schedule and attracting employees. The Moscow metro rolling stock consists of more than 50% of train cars with built-in UV lamps, and this percentage is constantly growing. After evaluating the effectiveness of using UV lamps to disinfect public transport, the transport operator MTA New York City Transit, together with Columbia University, launched a pilot project worth 1 million dollars on the use of disinfecting lamps. During the first phase of the project, 150 autonomous lamps were purchased and installed to decontaminate wagons, stations and buses in New York, during the second phase it is planned to install equipment in commuter rails. To carry out disinfection measures, the New York City Subway took unprecedented measures – the closure of the subway from 1 to 5 a.m. daily.

The use of robots, disinfection tunnels, digital technologies, ultraviolet lamps, and intensive work of staff – all this helped to reduce the risk of the spread of coronavirus in public transport and made a significant contribution to fighting the global problem. According to the coronavirus distribution model, developed by Imperial College London at the beginning of the pandemic, if no action had been taken by mid-March there would have been over 500,000 deaths from COVID in the UK and over 2.2 million in the USA. At the moment, in the middle of October, there are about 43,000 deaths in the UK and about 214,000 in the USA. Of course, these are high rates, but they could have been much higher if the necessary measures were not taken in time. Technological innovations already available today will continue to be used, which will make the stay of passengers on public transport more comfortable and safer, reducing the risk of the spread of any infectious disease, especially during the flu and cold seasons.

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Modern-day threats to human rights in an era of global digitalization

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Digital security is an overarching issue related to the development of information technology. More and more new opportunities are popping up here each year, all of which have their upsides and downsides too. Adding to the technical and economic aspects of this issue are all sorts of equally important legal and humanitarian ones, primarily those dealing with technologies for collecting people’s personal data, with tracking systems and the risks inherent in the development of other aspects of information technology. This and many other topics took center stage during an online roundtable discussion organized by the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the TASS press center in Moscow. The Council’s head, Valery Fadeyev, mentioned a number of negative aspects of the active spread and development of digitalization, underscoring the following topics: bullying and defamation in social networks, manipulation of people’s opinions through advertising and politics, surveillance and the related problem of personal data protection, cyber fraud and censorship practiced in the digital space by commercial companies. Suffice it to mention Facebook’s recent decision to block the Instagram account of Ramzan Kadyrov in line with US sanctions imposed on the leader of the Chechen Republic.

To minimize these risks, Fadeyev proposed to set up a special commission with a primary focus of human rights.

Picking up where Fadeyev had left off, National Anti-Corruption Committee Chairman Kirill Kabanov mentioned the emergence of criminal groups specializing in online fraud, and new challenges associated with the active use of the Internet by young people.

“What we are discussing right now is how the Internet and artificial intelligence should develop in Russia. I don’t think that anyone believes that Russia will have its own version, like, for example, what they have in China or America. The Internet is developing in the world according to certain laws that need to be registered,” Kabanov noted.

When we talk about the Chinese model, we mean full government control of all Internet resources operating in the country by means of keyword filtering of web pages, and through blacklisting of website addresses (the so-called Great Firewall of China). As for the US model, many Internet resources there are highly dependent on the current political agenda – just recall President Trump’s order to ban the Chinese social network TikTok for allegedly stealing the Americans’ personal data.

Kabanov believes that such issues should be resolved by analyzing specific cases with specialists.

Igor Ashmanov, CEO of Ashmanov & Partners, a company specializing in Internet marketing, raised the issue of preserving the citizens’ digital identity by improving and expanding the legal framework of information security.

“We must have the right to protect a person’s digital identity, essentially the right to stop using digital technology as such. Without a smartphone, we literally become stripped of our rights,” Ashmanov said. He also brought up the extremely important ethical aspect of a mass-scale collection of personal data using cutting-edge digital technology done as part of an experiment in Perm schools where commercial companies installed cameras and tracking systems everywhere under the pretext of preventing the so-called “school shooting” – violent and terrorist acts by individual students or groups of students. Ashmanov argued that schoolchildren need personal space and that such measures “violate a whole list of human rights.”

Victor Naumov, Managing Partner of the St. Petersburg office of Dentos, also underscored the importance of safeguarding the people’s digital identity. In his report Naumov decried the lack of digital awareness among people. “Unfortunately, our society, not only in Russia, was not ready for the temptations that we faced. People do not realize that when they press the “I agree” button, they allow their fingerprints to be registered somewhere, which may have far-reaching negative consequences.”

Vladimir Ovchinsky, a retired general with the Interior Ministry, outlined the time that a request for large-scale measures in the field of information security may take to come along and highlighted the main areas of high technology application directly pertaining to human rights.

“What we are discussing now are the consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution proclaimed at the Davos Forum in 2017. The information revolution has been happening for quite some time now, but since 2017, some things have been growing rapidly. Any technology has a triple purpose: the development of society, military purposes, and the criminal segment. In each of these areas we see human rights being infringed upon,” Ovchinsky said, noting the negative impact of the global pandemic on the development of digital crime in all three areas. Crimes associated with telecommunications technologies have particularly spiked with crooks disguised as bank employees extorting money from the people by phone. “The general trend is that the mafia is switching to new technologies and hitting the most vulnerable social groups,” Ovchinsky summed up.

Retired FSB General Alexander Mikhailov focused on criminal gangs of prisoners in Russia engaging in cyber fraud right from the places of their detention.

“Under the circumstances, the idea of ​​creating a digital code makes a lot of sense as it would not only regulate information flows but would also provide punishment for the illegal use of such information,” Mikhailov suggested.

The head of the Cyber ​​Moscow project, Grigory Pashchenkov, also spoke about protection of a person’s digital identity – “the rights of a digital person as a person,” which is an aspect still generally overlooked today.  Pashchenkov insists on the need to create a digital identity passport, arguing that it would better safeguard people against leaks of their personal data. However, such a measure is extremely hard to implement and, while helping prevent personal data leaks, it is still fraught with many complications, well exemplified by the need to enter passport data when restoring access to a profile on the VKontakte social network.

The participants in the roundtable meeting also discussed measures to increase the people’s digital literacy and set up a working group to protect human rights in the field of information technology. Thus, the question that we have yet to answer is the extent to which our life could be covered by information technologies. Here it is imperative to maintain the right balance and clearly understand the permissible limits to the invasion of science and technology into public space and the private life of an individual.

From our partner International Affairs

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Science & Technology

Frank White says that there needs to be more international collaboration in the Space Sector

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Space-exploration is not merely a scientific expedition. It is of immense significance as it has the potential to remind humankind of what it has forgotten. The fact that Earth in the larger universe, is a very tiny planet. 

Our social divisions and hierarchies really do not hold much meaning when we consider the larger challenges that we collectively face as a species. The choices that we make today are going to impact the future generation, and our descendants would have to live with the consequences of our decisions.

Excessive focus on national priorities could provide short-term relief to our urges, but it is heavily detrimental to our interests in the longer run. Frank White, a space-psychologist who became very popular in public discourse due to the theory of the ‘Overview Effect’ which he devised, propounds on the basis of his personal experiences, that astronauts have a real potential to become agents of social change. 

According to Frank, Space-travel alters and uplifts human consciousness, and enables us to build a newly found appreciation of Earth as a system. The astronauts who look at Earth from space, often come back and say that being there really made them feel a sense of togetherness.  From outer space, the borders on Earth fade and make Earth look like a planet without distinctions. 

This very much reveals why astronauts and their experiences have been a major object of psychological interest for White in his research. 

The current pandemic has made it clearer than ever before that nations and people need to cooperate with each other to save the planet from larger existential threats. For the virus during this pandemic is coming at us irrespective of our nationalities.

Likewise, space-travel also reveals an opportunity to instil a humanitarian spirit and consciousness within us. But for that to become a reality, our space programs would also have to reflect this spirit of unity. Unfortunately, space-expeditions currently are often driven by specifically national aims and a fervour that is detrimental to the aspiration and hope of international cooperation.

The Space Force built by the U.S. for instance, has been largely justified as a response to the threats posed by other nations (The U.S. Space Force is the 6th independent U.S. military service branch, tasked with missions and operations in the rapidly evolving space domain). Frank White, on the contrary, aims to build a human space program that would reflect a global commitment towards the aim of exploring the universe. It would aim at enabling the brightest of astronauts from all across humanity to reach space, and not segregate them on the basis of nations. Building a new mental connection with the universe would be the prime motivator of such a project.

Space for Humanity as an organisation is working to sponsor citizen flights to space. The organisation founded by Dylan Taylor ensures that there is equal access and opportunity to go to space. Frank White is on the board of Space for Humanity too. 

White believes that the International Space Station (ISS) deserves the Nobel Peace Prize because it fosters the humanitarian feeling of connectedness. The ISS has truly contributed in strengthening the spirit of peace, environmental thoughtfulness, and a cooperative attitude towards situations of conflicts and crises. Frank is one of the people who had written a letter to promote the ISS getting the Nobel Peace Prize this year. He urges people to rethink the reasons why the Nobel Peace prize was founded. The astronauts who work at ISS hail from different countries that are oftentimes at conflict, but when they traverse space together and work to build a station, they put all of it behind. In space, people truly realise the value and necessity for international co-operation and this changes their outlook on life. 

The International Space Station (ISS) is a multi-nation construction project that is the largest single structure humans ever put into space. Its main construction was completed between 1998 and 2011, although the station continually evolves to include new missions and experiments. It has been continuously occupied since Nov. 2, 2000.

The opportunity of space-travel could bring us closer to each other and drop down the age-old tribal divisions artificed by social structures intended to separate us.  A deeper mental bond with the universe, would emanate out of the realization that Earth is, but a smaller part of a much larger system, and not a whole in itself.

The pandemic has given us a strong reason to stay united at a time of crisis, and White hopes that after discovering the vaccine for the virus, people would not forget what these times were like, and rather take inspiration from it and retain the spirit of international cooperation and empathy.

White’s primary contribution to space psychology remains the Overview Effect, where he highlights the “Earth-out-of-sight” experience.  The farther away from Earth one goes, deeper would be the shift and elevation in consciousness. For it would give one the ability to look at our planet as one single beautiful, blue entity; where borders would look artificially constructed and the barrenness of huge patches of land would alert us to the singular threat that should actually instigate a deeper alarm and united response from the international community; the threat of environmental deterioration, which directly thwarts Earth’s ability to sustain life.

For it is really difficult to build life-like conditions on any other surface in the universe.

It is only on Earth that human beings are able to enjoy protection from harmful radiations. If we were to inhabit Moon or Mars in the near future, the possibility of genetic mutations or the threat of diseases such as cancer proliferating is something we would seriously have to think about.

Moreover, Frank speculates that people might not be willing to go on a one-way mission to Mars. The threat of homesickness and depression could become too real.

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