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The Cyber Gulag revisited & Debate reloaded

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Is there life after Facebook? Or after the Spring-ing ‘revolution’? Now, when Wall Street is occupied, how will we occupy ourselves? Could we google protest, tweet discontent, arming  ourselves with all the mobile launcher gadgets powered by the micro & soft, touch screen & scream tech, then upload promenades, block a tragedy and avoid farce, and eventually download pure happiness – happily ever after? … Pimp my revolution, Date my resolution …

Through the pain of sobriety, the protesters all across the MENA, Euro-Med and overseas are learning that neither globalization nor the McFB way of life (mostly spent in the large, air-conditioned shopping-malls) is a shortcut to development; that free trade is not a virtue, but an instrument; that liberalism is not a state of mind but a well-doctrinated ideology, and finally that the social media networks are only a communication tool, not a replacement for indepen- dent critical thinking or for the collapsed cross-generational contract. “We are the suckers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones – and the eternally disappointed ones…”

Machines run on binary-coded algorithms (predictability of human behavior cyber-providers) can neither compensate for an empathic human touch nor can they replace the wonders of socio-emotional interactions of individuals in a real time-space. Sociableness is neither of linear, one-directional dynamics à la Running Sushi, nor can it be a 3-size simplified and instant portable like the Starbucks coffee. Personal relations are lived, not utilized by a mouse click. Human integrity is self-molested (brutalized) and self-reduced (trivialized) to a lame shop-window commodity, which is purchasable 24/7 by ‘poking’ on the photo of someone’s personal profile. And, likies are available to give a rating for ‘displayed commodities’.

MORPHEUS TO NEO:
Your appearance now is what we call ‘residual self-image’.
It is the mental projection of your digital self.
TRINITY TO NEO:
The Matrix cannot tell you who you are, but who you are seems to be at least
in some sense related to whom you think you are in the Matrix.

MORPHEUS TO NEO:
You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees, because he’s expecting to wake up.
Ironically, this is not far from the truth…
Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

This grotesque of self-imposed cyber gulag, called ‘social media networks’ might end up like smoking of the 21st century. In early 20th century, smoking was cool, sexy, brave, rebellious, liberating and most of all: social. As such it was glorified and promoted by that time Western press, film and other entertainment industries. However, as soon as the physical and mental exposures and distortion, as well as the dependency, submissiveness and heavy-addiction have been credibly verified, smoking was barred from all public places, from children and elderly, schools and hospitals. First opposing for some decades, the tobacco industry was eventually forced to visibly and clearly state warnings about all hazards associated with its products. Today, smoking is proscribed in the OECD countries, ghettoized, and effectively confined to the specially designated glass-boxes with powerful ventilations systems and sensitive fire-alarms. The developing world will maybe follow, one day, successfully. As for the OECD states and media networks: London/UK’s tweet and loot nights of early August 2011 and NY feed, occupy and camp autumn days of 2011 are an indication enough.

Misled by a quick triumphalism of the social-media cheerleaders and TV reporter–nomads, the international news agencies have definitely confused the two: revolt and revolution. As they later missed to co-relate a massive EU bail-outing and the UK loot-outing. Negotiating on the coined “Euro-zone debt crisis” (debt bound economies) without restaging the forgotten Lisbon strategy (knowledge-based societies) is simply a lame talk about form without any substance – it is a grand bargain about control via austerity, not a vision of prosperity.

The very precursor of the so-called Arab Spring was the winter of the (still unsettled) global financial crisis with its severe impact felt or misused locally. Consequently, the Arab unrests started as a social, not political, public revolt over high unemployment and soaring costs of living (Tunisia and Egypt), over the inter-tribal inequalities (Libya, Bahrain), or over a combination of all factors (Yemen and Syria). Besides publicly ‘crucifying’ a couple of scapegoats, it has then failed to bring about structural change (r/evolution), and is paradoxically ending up with more debts, ever higher living costs, and more unemployment than before the real or fabricated austerity measures were imposed in a response to the mounting global financial crisis. Finally, it is not clear whether these popular revolts have been preempted (or diverted by hacktivists), and at the end, scrutinized and criminalized.

How does the Arab ‘Spring’ correlate with the UK/London (looting) ‘Summer’ and the Wall Street (walking charade) ‘Autumn’? Well, the difference between a dialectic and cyclical history is a distance between success and fall: The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 (that interestingly enough also included the non-petrol exporting republics of Egypt, Syria and Tunisia) was an attempt at political emancipation. In the aftermath of the Oil Shock that the Embargo subsequently triggered, the Arab states have found themselves within ever stronger external financial and politico-military dependencies… History also rounds up the virtuality, (of) taxation and representation. No taxation without representation! – isn’t it?!

MORPHEUS TO NEO:
Welcome to the desert of the real! …How do you define ‘real’!?
If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain …
The world exists now only as a part of a neural interactive simulation that we call the Matrix.

CYPHER TO TRINITY:
If I had to choose between that and the Matrix … I choose the Matrix.

TRINITY:
The Matrix isn’t real?

CYPHER:
I disagree, Trinity. I think the Matrix can be more real than this world.

The Ancient world of the Roman Empire was one of the first legal systems to extensively practice the institute of the so-called Civic death. This savage, inhuman but effective sanction medieval Europe eagerly continued for centuries, before it was finally abolished by the post-Napoleonic age. What would be the modern equivalent to this Antique criminal law penalty? Imagine that instead of a fine or imprisonment, the convicted individual gets a sentence which bars him from any access to mobile phones, internet/FB and to shopping malls. Science fiction? Not really! That is exactly what the Prime Minister Cameron asked for in the British Parliament, as to put the London riots under control in August 2011.

CYPHER:
I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in my mouth,
the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious.
After nine years, do you know what I’ve realized?
Ignorance is bliss.

AGENT SMITH:
Then we have a deal?

CYPHER:
Reinsert me into the Matrix… I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing! You understand?
And I want to be rich… Someone important, like an actor… You can do that, right?

AGENT SMITH:
Whatever you want, Mr. Reagan.

For over ten years, Europe’s youth (in France, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Norway, Britain) is repeatedly sending us a powerful message on the perceived collapse of the cross-generational social contract. So far, the only consolidated response was the impressive build-up of the so-called ‘Wing/s front’. These movements, seemingly rightist political parties, are effectively exploiting mounting frustration of electorate over the main center-left and center-right political parties (that lost most of its traditional ideological platform and specific political content, but far too often co-habituating in a form of grand-coalitions across the EU), and the potent emotional charges related to ‘migration question’.

The history of Europe is a story of small hysterical nations, traditionally sensitive to the issue of otherness (as the ethnic, linguistic, religious or behaviorist minorities were misused far too many times in history by assertive neighbors all over the continent, or domestically presented as a Hassobjekt for the locally surfacing hardships). The present-day, aged but not restaged, EU is (in) a shadow of the grand taboo that Europe can produce everything but its own life. The ‘Old Continent’ is demographically sinking, while economically just keeping afloat. The cross-generational social contract is silently abandoned (as one of its main operative instruments – the Lisbon strategy – has been eroded, and finally lost its coherence). European youth feels it correctly, still does not express it right: The escapist, defeatist/rejectionist, retreating and confrontational anti-politics is on a rise in lieu of the visionary, dynamic far-reaching policies, aimed at the knowledge-based economy and solidarity-based society.

Imagine human beings living in an underground, cave like dwelling, with an Entrance
a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself.  They’ve
been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered,
able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their
heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them.
Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and
 the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front
of puppeteers above which they show their puppets … Then also imagine that there are
people along the wall, carrying all kind of artifacts that project above it – statues of
people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d
expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.

What is the possible message of the Arab ‘Spring’, London ‘Summer’ and the Wall street ‘Autumn’ for Asia in general and for Southeast Asia (SEA) in particular? Well, there are few. The cross-generational social contract should be neither neglected, nor built on the over-consumerist, anti-intellectual, trivialized and brutalized McFB way of life. Equally alienating and dangerously inflammatory is the radicalization of the entering youth generation – be it a religious or political radicalization. There must be a third way! – especially for the newly arriving SEA middle class that is also rapidly urbanizing. The middle class formation and its urbanization is closely related to the identity-crisis, too. The forthcoming task of intellectuals is to offer the best ways for accommodation of these new arrivals and their integration. It is the political parties who should then promote those policies and best practices for the lasting benefit of all stake holders and the social cohesion which, not only “pleases the markets” and complies with the spooky and shadowy rating agencies but, stabilizes the entire nation.

No doubt, just as the cyber-autistic McFB way of life is the same in any European and Middle Eastern city, so are the radical, wing politics! Have you spotted any critical difference between the rhetoric of Norwegian serial killer Breivik and the Al Qaida Wahhabi ‘Islamists’? “Just like Jihadi warriors are the plum tree of Ummah, we will be the plum tree for Europe and for Christianity”– many news agencies reported these as words allegedly written by the Christian Jihadist Anders Behring. The European (right-wing) parties opposing e.g. Muslim immigration are nothing but the mirror image of the MENA’s Islamist parties. In both cases, there are: (i) Socio-political outsiders (without much of an coherence, integrity and autonomy) that are denouncing the main, status quo, parties as a ‘corrupt establishment’; (ii) Extensively exploiting domestic economic shortcomings (e.g. unemployment, social inequalities, etc.), but they themselves do nothing essential to reverse the trend; (iii) Making ethnic and religious appeals (preaching the return to tradition), attacking foreign influences in their societies and otherwise ‘culturally purifying’ population; (iv) Generally doing better in local rather than in national elections (the ‘Rightists’ win on the national elections only when no other effective alternative exists to challenge the governing party/coalition block); (v) More emotionally charged populist movements than serious political parties of the solid socio-economic and socio-political program (per definition, these parties have very poor governing score).

NEO:
What is this place?

MORPHEUS:
More important than ‘what’ is when!

NEO:
When?

MORPHEUS:
You believe that it is the year 1999…
I can’t tell you exactly what year it is, because we honestly do not know…

So far, the Middle Eastern/MENA and European political establishments responded to these developments in similar fashion: (i) the Middle East: became more sectarian Islamic in its orientation, symbols, practices; (ii) the EU/Europe: mainstream (center) parties adopted rhetorics and promoted the measures advocated by the right-wing, anti-immigrant parties.
The calamities all over the EU and Euro-Mediterranean zone are showing us how dangerous, disastrous, and short-sighted these (anti-politics) policies of exclusion are.
Is Southeast Asia able to prevent its own Middle Eastern ‘Spring’, London ‘Summer’ and
‘Occupying Autumn’ social-cohesion ‘Fukushima-Daiichhi-like’ meltdown?

The Arab world’s population growth is considerably higher than its economic growth. This means that besides the grave indigenous political and regional security problems, domestic disparities, unemployment, pauperization and inequalities are on the sharp rise. Past the prime age of the “baby boomer” generation, Europe suffers the worrying negative demographic growth and rapid ageing. The EU replacement ratio is between 1,3 and 1,7 (and is afloat only due to steady and silent but massive naturalizations all across Europe over the last decade). The EU’s economic growth is very symbolic, despite huge territorial enlargements in the past decade. Actually, the EU’s growth in many categories could be portrayed as negative.

Ergo, both regions are in a socio-economic retreat, naturally reflected in their political defensive. To reverse the trend, both regions would need an extra effort (which is not presently lurking on the horizon).  

CAPTAIN TO AUTO (SHIP’s COMPUTER):
That’s all I’ve ever done! That’s all anyone on this blasted ship has ever done. Nothing! Nothing!!

AUTO TO CAPTAIN:
On the Axiom, you will survive.

CAPTAIN:
I don’t want to survive. I want to live.

AUTO:
…must follow my directive.

WALL-E:
Dirrrr-ect-ti-veee?… Eveeee!

EVE:
Waaaalll-eeee!… Wall-E!

WALL-E:
Ta-dah!

Finally, what is the karma and dharma of current financial crisis? Where is a thin line between too big to fail (so, bail) and too heavy to fly (but, expensive to buy)? Is the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ a spontaneous outcry, a stress-eliminator walk (usually recommended by medics), a camping charade overrun by a bluffing demagogue of anti-corporate populists and mid-term elections opportunists? Is this in fact a Woodstock-remake TV show, just another US exporting item? Or is it the (only way out for domestically needed) solution? Is OWS a mix of all, or none of these?
AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
Did you know that the First Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? … It was a disaster. (… entire crops were lost.)

MOUSE TO NEO:
To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.

CYPHER:
Ignorance is bliss!

Revelation 21:4, KING JAMES BIBLE
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

MORPHEUS TO NEO:
Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged, many of them so inert, so hopelessly dependent…

IVAN, in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully
as to find someone to worship.

AGENT SMITH TO MORPHEUS:
Some believe that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world,
but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.
The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.   

GARCIN, In Sartre’s No Exit:
Hell is – other people.

Sagan is very precise and instructive: “If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further… Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant…”

As one of the exceptionally few world regions, Southeast Asia so far holds both what is otherwise missing in the other two mentioned theaters – stabilized demographic growth and an impressive economic growth. However, the demographic and economic growth poses an additional environmental stress, which – if not under check – may result in confrontational domestic policies and practices aimed at to maximize a grab for finite, scarce resources.

Hence, be the outside world Kantian or Hobbesian (be it driven by the sense of higher civilizational mission and common ASEAN destiny, or by the pragmatic need to strengthen the nation’s position), all necessary means are here! To register its future claims, the SEA – as well as any other theater – have to demonstrate its lasting and decisive will now.

Tentatively, we can cluster that will around three main tasks:

(i)    Prosperity: Support to all three sides of the knowledge triangle: research (creation of knowledge); development/innovation (application of knowledge); education (dissemination of knowledge), as well as the promotion of life itself;
(ii)    Solidarity: Human dimension enhancement through promotion of cohesion policies, including the full respect of authenticity as well as the  preservation and promotion of indigenous socio-cultural and environmental diversities;
(iii)    Security: Enhancing the human-centered (socio-economic) safety, based on free- dom, justice and inclusive collective (environmental and socio-political) security.
This opportunity should be understood as history’s call – which both invites and obliges at the same time. Or, as Hegel reminds us that since: “reason is purposive activity…” the state should be: “…the actuality of the ethical Idea, of concrete freedom…” for all. An effective long-range prosperity, solidarity as well as (external or internal) security cannot be based on confrontational (nostalgia of) ‘religious’ radicalism and other ideological collisions. Clearly, it cannot rest on the escapist consumerism, corrosive socio-economic egoism and exclusion, restriction and denial, but only on promotion and inclusion. Simply, it needs to be centered on a pro-active, participatory policy not a reactive, dismissive one.  

TRUMAN:
Who are you?

CRISTOF:
I’m the Creator
…of a TV show that gives hope and joy, inspiration to millions.

TRUMAN:
Then who am I?

CRISTOF:
You are the star.

CRISTOF:
I know you better than you know yourself.

TRUMAN:
You never had a camera in my head!

Post Scriptum

NEO TO AGENT SMITH:
…You can’t scare me with this Gestapo crap. I know my rights…
I want my phone-call.

AGENT SMITH TO NEO:
Mr. Anderson, you disappoint me…
Tell me, what good is a phone-call if you’re unable to speak?

Note:
An early, shorter version of Is there life after Facebook?, the so-called fb1,article appeared at first in China (Beijing, the 4th Media) on 12th August 2011. Is there life after Facebook? – The Cyber Gulag revisited & Debate reloaded, the so-called fb2, article was an extended version of that text published by the Addleton Publishers, New York, RCP 10 (2), 2011.

The present text is an expanded, unpublished version that includes SEA and elaborates on OWS for the first time in this article. It is exclusively prepared for the International Media Conference in Paris, France (23–25 November 2011).  

References:

1.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2003), Beyond the Cyberpunk of negative utopia, Reader for the Research colloquia: Alternative Futures, Helsinki, Finland
2.    Kirkpatrick, D. (2010), The Facebook Effect, Simon & Schuster
3.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2011), No Asian century without the pan-Asian Institution, Post Script  THC, Jakarta 8:3
4.    Heidegger, M. (1927), Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), Max Niemeyer Verlag Tübingen (page: 37)
5.    Dostoyevsky, F.M., (1880), Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov), (Chapter 5), Bantam Classics
6.    Huxley, A. (1932), Brave New World,  A Flamingo Modern Classics 1994 (page: 82)
7.    Nietzsche, F. (1886), Jenseits von Gut und Böse; Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft (Beyond Good and Evil) (page 199), Druck u. Verlag von C.G. Neumann, Leipzig
8.    Fromm, E. (1956), The Art of Loving, Perennial Classics, (page: 79 and page: 80).
9.    The Matrix Movie, written and directed by the Wachowski brothers (1999). According to the movie script; all quoted dialogues refer to the first motion picture of the Matrix trilogy (1999-2003)
10.    Pariser, E., (2011), The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Penguin (page: 43)
11.    Khanthong, T. (2011), Overdrive: Conveniently Ignoring the Truth, The Nation – Thailand (page 13A, 07 X 11)
12.    Plato  Republic, (trans. Grube, G.M.E.), 2nd Ed. Rev. C.D.C. Reeve, Indianapolis, Indiana: Huckett Publishing Co., 1992 (514a1 – 515a3)
13.    Dante, A. (1321), La Divina Commedia (The Devine Comedy), The NAL, Penguin Group /first published, 1954/  
14.    Goethe, J.W. (1808), Faust, Anchor Books Editions 1961 (page: 73, Der Tragödie erster Teil)
15.    NIC – National Intelligence Council (2008), Mapping the Global Future – Disruptive Civil Technologies (STwP Impacts on US Interests out to 2025), Conference proceedings April 2008  
16.    Tim Lister, Europe’s resurgent far right focuses on immigration, multiculturalism, CNN (July 24, 2011)
17.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2005), Destiny Shared: Our Common Futures – EURO-MED Human Capital beyond 2020, Crans Montana Forum, Monaco
18.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2005), Towards the Creation of the OSCE Task Force on Human Capital, Documents of the 13th OSCE Economic Forum, Prague, Czech Republic
19.    Youngs, R. (2010), Europe’s Decline and Fall – The Struggle against Global Irrelevance, Profile Books    
20.    WALL-E (2008), written by Andrew Stanton and Pate Docter, directed by Andrew Stanton. All quoted dialogues taken from the official movie’s script    
21.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2010) The JHA Diplomacy: Palermo Convention, 10 Years After, GHIR – Geopolitics, History and Intl Relation (3:1/2011) (page:32)
22.    Friedman, G. (2009), The Next 100 Years, Anchor Books/Random House NY
23.    Sartre, J.–P. (1944), Huis Clos (No Exit), Vintage International (Random House 1989)
24.    The Truman Show, written by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir in 1998. All quoted dialogues taken from the official movie’s script
25.    Hegel, G.W.F. (1807), Phänomenologie des Geistes (The Phenomenology of Mind), Oxford University Press, 1977 (page: 25 VII)
26.    Sagan, C. (1980), Cosmos Random House, NY /Carl Sagan Productions Inc. (page: 327).  

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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Digital Child’s Play: protecting children from the impacts of AI

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UNICEF has developed policy guidance to protect children from the potential impacts of AI. UNICEF/ Diefaga

Artificial intelligence has been used in products targeting children for several years, but legislation protecting them from the potential impacts of the technology is still in its infancy. Ahead of a global forum on AI for children, UN News spoke to two UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) experts about the need for improved policy protection.

Children are already interacting with AI technologies in many different ways: they are embedded in toys, virtual assistants, video games, and adaptive learning software. Their impact on children’s lives is profound, yet UNICEF found that, when it comes to AI policies and practices, children’s rights are an afterthought, at best.

In response, the UN children’s agency has developed draft Policy Guidance on AI for Children to promote children’s rights, and raise awareness of how AI systems can uphold or undermine these rights.

Conor Lennon from UN News asked Jasmina Byrne, Policy Chief at the UNICEF Global Insights team, and Steven Vosloo, a UNICEF data, research and policy specialist, about the importance of putting children at the centre of AI-related policies.
AI Technology will fundamentally change society.

Steven Vosloo At UNICEF we saw that AI was a very hot topic, and something that would fundamentally change society and the economy, particularly for the coming generations. But when we looked at national AI strategies, and corporate policies and guidelines, we realized that not enough attention was being paid to children, and to how AI impacts them. 

So, we began an extensive consultation process, speaking to experts around the world, and almost 250 children, in five countries. That process led to our draft guidance document and, after we released it, we invited governments, organizations and companies to pilot it. We’re developing case studies around the guidance, so that we can share the lessons learned.

Jasmina Byrne AI has been in development for many decades. It is neither harmful nor benevolent on its own. It’s the application of these technologies that makes them either beneficial or harmful.

There are many positive applications of AI that can be used in in education for personalized learning. It can be used in healthcare, language simulation and processing, and it is being used to support children with disabilities.

And we use it at UNICEF. For example, it helps us to predict the spread of disease, and improve poverty estimations. But there are also many risks that are associated with the use of AI technologies. 

Children interact with digital technologies all the time, but they’re not aware, and many adults are not aware, that many of the toys or platforms they use are powered by artificial intelligence. That’s why we felt that there has to be a special consideration given to children and because of their special vulnerabilities.

Privacy and the profit motive

Steven Vosloo The AI could be using natural language processing to understand words and instructions, and so it’s collecting a lot of data from that child, including intimate conversations, and that data is being stored in the cloud, often on commercial servers. So, there are privacy concerns.

We also know of instances where these types of toys were hacked, and they were banned in Germany, because they were considered to be safe enough.

Around a third of all online users are children. We often find that younger children are using social media platforms or video sharing platforms that weren’t designed with them in mind.

They are often designed for maximum engagement, and are built on a certain level of profiling based on data sets that may not represent children.

Predictive analytics and profiling are particularly relevant when dealing with children: AI may profile children in a way that puts them in a certain bucket, and this may determine what kind of educational opportunities they have in the future, or what benefits parents can access for children. So, the AI is not just impacting them today, but it could set their whole life course on a different direction.

Jasmina Byrne Last year this was big news in the UK. The Government used an algorithm to predict the final grades of high schoolers. And because the data that was input in the algorithms was skewed towards children from private schools, their results were really appalling, and they really discriminated against a lot of children who were from minority communities. So, they had to abandon that system. 

That’s just one example of how, if algorithms are based on data that is biased, it can actually have a really negative consequences for children.

‘It’s a digital life now’

Steven Vosloo We really hope that our recommendations will filter down to the people who are actually writing the code. The policy guidance has been aimed at a broad audience, from the governments and policymakers who are increasingly setting strategies and beginning to think about regulating AI, and the private sector that it often develops these AI systems.

We do see competing interests: the decisions around AI systems often have to balance a profit incentive versus an ethical one. What we advocate for is a commitment to responsible AI that comes from the top: not just at the level of the data scientist or software developer, from top management and senior government ministers.

Jasmina Byrne The data footprint that children leave by using digital technology is commercialized and used by third parties for their own profit and for their own gain. They’re often targeted by ads that are not really appropriate for them. This is something that we’ve been really closely following and monitoring.

However, I would say that there is now more political appetite to address these issues, and we are working to put get them on the agenda of policymakers.

Governments need to think and puts children at the centre of all their policy-making around frontier digital technologies. If we don’t think about them and their needs. Then we are really missing great opportunities.

Steven Vosloo The Scottish Government released their AI strategy in March and they officially adopted the UNICEF policy guidance on AI for children. And part of that was because the government as a whole has adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child into law. Children’s lives are not really online or offline anymore. And it’s a digital life now.

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How digital technology and innovation can help protect the planet

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As a thick haze descended over New Delhi last month, air quality monitors across the Indian capital began to paint a grim picture.

The smoke, fed by the seasonal burning of crops in northern India, was causing levels of the toxic particle PM 2.5 to spike, a trend residents could track in real time on the Global Environment Monitoring System for Air (GEMS Air) website.

By early November, GEMS Air showed that concentrations of PM 2.5 outside New Delhi’s iconic India Gate were ‘hazardous’ to human health. In an industrial area north of the Indian capital, the air was 50 times more polluted.

GEMS Air is one of several new digital tools used by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to track the state of the environment in real time at the global, national and local levels. In the years to come, a digital ecosystem of data platforms will be crucial to helping the world understand and combat a host of environmental hazards, from air pollution to methane emissions, say experts.

“Various private and public sector actors are harnessing data and digital technologies to accelerate global environmental action and fundamentally disrupt business as usual,” says David Jensen, the coordinator of UNEP’s digital transformation task force.

“These partnerships warrant the attention of the international community as they can contribute to systemic change at an unprecedented speed and scale.”

The world is facing what United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called a triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Experts say averting those catastrophes and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will require fundamentally transforming the global economy within a decade. It’s a task that would normally take generations. But a range of data and digital technologies are sweeping the planet with the potential to promote major structural transformations that will enhance environmental sustainability, climate action, nature protection and pollution prevention.

A new age

UNEP is contributing to that charge through a new programme on Digital Transformation and by co-championing the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability as part of the Secretary-General’s Digital Cooperation Roadmap.

UNEP studies show that for 68 per cent of the environment-related Sustainable Development Goal indicators, there is not enough data to assess progress. The digital initiatives leverage technology to halt the decline of the planet and accelerate sustainable finance, products, services, and lifestyles.

GEMS air was among the first of those programmes. Run by UNEP and Swiss technology company IQAir, it is the largest air pollution network in the world, covering some 5,000 cities. In 2020, over 50 million users accessed the platform and its data is being streamed into digital billboards to alert people about air quality risks in real time. In the future, the program aims to extend this capability directly into mobile phone health applications.

Building on lessons learned from GEMS Air, UNEP has developed three other lighthouse digital platforms to showcase the power of data and digital technologies, including cloud computing, earth observation and artificial intelligence.

Managing freshwater

One is the Freshwater Ecosystem Explorer, which provides a detailed look at the state of lakes and rivers in every country on Earth.

The fruit of a partnership between UNEP, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Google Earth Engine, it provides free and open data on permanent and seasonal surface waters, reservoirs, wetlands and mangroves.

“It is presented in a policy-friendly way so that citizens and governments can easily assess what is actually happening to the world’s freshwater resources,” says Stuart Crane, a UNEP freshwater expert. “That helps countries track their progress towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal Target 6.6.”

Data can be visualized using geospatial maps with accompanying informational graphics and downloaded at national, sub-national and river basin scales. Data are updated annually and depict long-term trends as well as annual and monthly records on freshwater coverage.

Combating climate change

UNEP is also using data-driven decision making to drive deep reductions in methane emissions through the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO). Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, responsible for at least a quarter of today’s global warming.

The observatory is designed to shine a light on the origins of methane emissions by collecting data from various sources, including satellites, ground-based sensors, corporate reporting and scientific studies.

The Global Methane Assessment published by UNEP and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) found that cutting human-caused methane by 45 per cent this decade would avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by the 2040s, and help prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, and 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally.

“The International Methane Emissions Observatory supports partners and institutions working on methane emissions reduction to scale-up action to the levels needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” says Manfredi Caltagirone, a UNEP methane emissions expert.

Through the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, the methane observatory works with petroleum companies to improve the accuracy and transparency of methane emissions reporting. Current member companies report assets covering over 30 per cent of oil and gas production globally. It also works with the scientific community to fund studies that provide robust, publicly available data.

Preserving nature

UNEP is also backing the United Nations Biodiversity Lab 2.0, a free, open-source platform that features data and more than 400 maps highlighting the extent of nature, the effects of climate change, and the scale of human development. Such spatial data help decision-makers put nature at the heart of sustainable development by allowing them to visualize the natural systems that hold back natural disasters, store planet-warming gasses, like carbon dioxide, and provide food and water to billions.

More than 61 countries have accessed data on the UN Biodiversity Lab as part of their national reporting to the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international accord designed to safeguard wildlife and nature. Version 2.0 of the lab was launched in October 2021 as a partnership between UNDP, UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the Convention on Biodiversity Secretariat and Impact Observatory. 

All of UNEP’s digital platforms are being federated into UNEP’s World Environment Situation Room, a digital ecosystem of data and analytics allowing users to monitor progress against key environmental Sustainable Development Goals and multi-lateral agreements at the global, regional and national levels.

“The technical ability to measure global environmental change—almost in real time—is essential for effective decision making,” says Jensen.

“It will have game-changing implications if this data can be streamed into the algorithms and platforms of the digital economy, where it can prompt users to make the personal changes so necessary to preserving the natural world and achieving net zero.”

UNEP

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Science & Technology

Housing needs, the Internet and cyberspace at the forefront in the UK and Italy

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Modern construction methods and smart technology can revolutionise the building process and the way we live.

Population growth and demographic changes have led to a global housing shortage. According to research carried out by the Heriot-Watt University National Housing Federation and by the Homeless Charity Crisis Organisation, the UK will face a shortage of four million housing units by the end of 2031. This means that approximately 340,000 new housing units will need to be built each year. The houses built shall meet the demands of home automation and increasing environmental constraints.

Traditional building technology is unlikely to meet this demand. It is relatively expensive and too slow in fulfilling the necessary procedures and complying with all rules and regulations. Furthermore, the quality and capabilities of traditional construction methods are also limited. The only solution is modular production based on the principles of factory automation. This solution uses cordless and battery-free controls and sensors to perfectly integrate with home automation.

Modular buildings are based on a combination of construction methods called Modern Method of Construction (MMC). They include the use of panelling systems and components, such as roof and floor boxes, precast concrete foundation components, prefabricated wiring, mechanical engineering composites and innovative technologies.

With the opening of several factories, the UK has started to use the MMC to build prefabricated and fully equipped houses in modular form, which can be loaded onto trucks for transport across the country. This type of on-site assembly enables the house to be completed in days rather than months, thus reducing costs significantly. Modular buildings have become popular in Europe. In Italy, a pioneering company is the RI Group of Trepuzzi (Lecce), which is also operating in the fields of logistics and services and building health care facilities, field hospitals and public offices, which are cost-effective and quick to construct.

The impact of modular construction is expected to be significant and factories producing up to five thousand houses per year could become the best builders in the sector.

The construction standards of these new technology houses are higher than those of traditional houses. Thanks to better insulation, the electricity bill could be only half that of a traditional house.

Modular houses have kitchens and bathrooms, and are equipped with power and lighting via power cables, which are also modular, and wireless controls, in addition to the increasingly important network and telecommunications infrastructure.

Structural and modular wiring are derived from commercial electrical and industrial installations to ensure efficient and minimal electrical installation work. As technology changes, this standard installation is adaptable and offers a high degree of flexibility.

Experience in industrial and commercial construction shows that traditional fixtures are labour-intensive, rather rigid and still expensive. In contrast, on-site prefabricated modular cabling and the IDC system combined with wireless controllers and sensors can be fully installed at low cost. These are proven technologies and are moving from commercial to domestic use scenarios.

With the help of CAD support for modular cabling, all power cables are laid in the ceiling or wall space. The installation of wireless energy harvesting equipment simplifies the installation process as no switches and duct installation are required. For the first electrical fixing through the wall, the cable takes less time because there is no need to coordinate the position of the switch with the wall bolts. The level of dependency of on-site installation activities has also been reduced. Sensors, switches and wireless energy harvesting controls can be installed anywhere in the building, even in hard-to-reach areas.

After installation, the principle of energy harvesting will be used. Switches and sensors are powered by the surrounding environment and there is no need to replace old batteries and other maintenance equipment. Moreover, this flexibility and this reliability enable the system to be expanded at any time.

The modular construction technology enables it to adapt to various types of houses and meet the needs of today’s life through flexible shapes and various exterior decorations. This is not exactly the same as the old prefabricated houses, “granted” in Italy to earthquake victims who have been waiting for years for a decent, civilised home.

By providing a range of traditional and modern exterior decorative panels, the roofline can also be customised to suit local customs and architecture.

Through the combination of innovative product technology and good design, the aim of the smart home is to provide security and comfort. The usual requirement is to place the light switch and dimmer (or potentiometer) in the most convenient place. Driven by the kinetic energy collected by the switch itself, they can be placed anywhere.

They do not require wiring, but can send wireless signals to the receiver inside or near lights or DIN-rail mounts (German Institute for Standardisation). In addition, there is no need to use batteries and no need to replace them. This saves all the inconvenience and environmental risks that can be caused by replacing batteries.

Since this type of equipment has reached a wide range of applications, lighting and home entertainment will choose battery-free products. Besides controlling brightness and colour, self-powered switches can also be used to control sound systems or blinds. A key application of the smart home is the switch that can turn off/on devices that do not use traditional electricity when leaving or coming back home.

Energy harvesting technology also supports other sensor-based applications. For example, self-powered sensors can be wirelessly connected to an intruder alarm. Furthermore, by installing light-activated touch sensors on windows, lighting and heating can be turned off when no one is at home.

Another source of energy is the temperature difference between the heating radiator and the surrounding environment. For example, this energy harvesting enables a self-powered heating valve to perform heating control via a room temperature controller according to specific conditions.

From factories to offices, from multifunctional buildings to smart homes, wireless energy harvesting technology has been tested in approximately one million buildings worldwide. Most sensors, switches and other self-powered energy-harvesting devices can communicate at a distance of up to 30 metres in a building and meet the EnOcean international wireless standard, which encrypts messages below 1 GHz by sending a short message.

There are also some self-powered devices that integrate EnOcean energy harvesting technology and can communicate directly with the lights via the well-known Bluetooth or Zigbee (wireless communication standard based on the IEEE 802.15.4 specification, maintained by the ZigBee Alliance). This makes it possible to use green, battery-free switches and solar sensors to flexibly control other applications, such as LED lights or speakers.

Now that wireless sensors for energy harvesting can frame data at home, it will be a huge step forward to aggregate information and perform useful analysis. They process data through the Internet of Things (IoT), which refers to the path in technological development whereby, through the Internet, potentially every object of everyday life can acquire its own identity in cyberspace. As mentioned above, the IoT is based on the idea of “smart” items which are interconnected to exchange the information they possess, collect and/or process.

It also uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to keep track of living patterns and activities in modular homes. Energy analysis is an application that can currently help homeowners further reduce energy consumption through AI.

Looking to the future, the combination of the IoT and AI will bring many benefits. Geographical data, weather and climate information, as well as activities, water and energy consumption and other factors will be very useful for planners, building organisations, builders and landlords.

Perceived architecture represents the next generation of sustainable building systems. Smart buildings will soon be able to integrate the IoT devices on their own, as well as generate large amounts of information and use it to optimise buildings. This provides a whole new dimension to the service and to the business and home economics model.

This is particularly relevant for the ageing population, as these smart technologies can radically change the lifestyles of the elderly people and their families. They are expected to bring transformative benefits in terms of health and well-being.

The key elements of such a home include smart, non-invasive and safe and secure connections with friends, family members, general practitioners, nurses and health care professionals, involving the care of residents. Technology based on battery-free sensors connected to the IoT will help prevent accidents at home, resulting from kitchens utensils and overflowing toilets, etc., and keep up with residents’ interactions with healthcare professionals.

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