In the last 20 years, rapid economic growth in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) has reduced poverty and brought prosperity to many of its 420 million people.
Much of the growth has relied on natural resources, which generate up to half of the total wealth in some GMS countries.
But the “grow-now-clean-up-later” approach has worsened environmental degradation due to air, water and soil pollution, deforestation, overuse of natural resources and production of vast quantities of waste.
All six GMS countries—Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC, specifically, Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam—have improved their management of natural resources and ecosystem services.
For example, all are shifting from using fossil fuels for energy. The PRC is phasing out coal plants and generating far more energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar and water than any other country. Thailand has the largest solar capacity in Southeast Asia.
In 2006, the Core Environment Program (CEP) was launched under the GMS Economic Cooperation Program administered by ADB.
The CEP has so far invested $50 million to help GMS countries improve environmental policies and planning processes, build climate resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from freight transport.
It has also raised $98 million for biodiversity conservation and helped create 2.6 million hectares of biodiversity corridors.
Still, much more needs to be done. We have yet to turn the tide on environmental degradation and pollution. A changing climate makes that challenge even harder.
Technology holds the key. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already underway. Artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, robotics, nanotechnologies and other exciting advances are rapidly reshaping economies and communities.
Their emergence makes it more important than ever that GMS countries ensure their policies not only keep pace with technological developments, but encourage them.
Emerging technologies can help ensure that future growth is “green” – a win-win for the environment and the economy. These technologies are more affordable and many green policies will eventually pay for themselves.
They are cleaner and help countries use natural resources, including land, water and energy, more efficiently. The result will be more sustainable infrastructure, reduced pollution and better waste management.
For example, recent advances have reduced the price gap between renewable and fossil fuel-derived energy, making renewables more competitive. Localized renewable energy mini-grids and enhanced battery capacity have proven more effective in delivering electricity than large power distribution networks requiring large capital investments and higher maintenance costs.
Modern communications can now reach remote areas at relatively low cost, connecting communities with services and producers with customers. Many small- and medium-sized enterprises in the GMS which lacked access to finance and markets can now trade in regional markets and receive electronic payments.
New and emerging technologies are already improving environmental management. Drones, remote sensing and WebGIS systems are being used to ensure fishery and forestry activities are sustainable.
In Viet Nam, plans to scale nationally a WebGIS platform for forest monitoring will better protect millions of hectares of important forest areas.
Farm management software is being applied in countries including the PRC and Myanmar to improve productivity through efficient use of land and water. Early warning and simulation data analytics, based on information from satellites and drones, is making communities better prepared for disaster.
New bioengineering techniques are climate proofing infrastructure and protecting local communities in Viet Nam and elsewhere.
Waste and pollution—byproducts of the subregion’s rapidly expanding cities—can be tackled by electric vehicles, fuel-efficient technologies and automated traffic management systems, which also help countries achieve their greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Technologies to transform solid waste into usable energy sources are advancing rapidly and will help clean up the subregion’s urban centers, reduce pollution and mitigate climate change.
The challenge facing GMS countries is how to scale up the emerging technologies that meet their development priorities. Private sector involvement and financing will be crucial.
But governments can pave the way by ensuring their policies and regulations encourage innovation and welcome technological change.
Technology isn’t the only ingredient of green growth. More traditional approaches such as biodiversity conservation and environmental governance must also be scaled up and enhanced.
The traditional and the technological can go hand in hand as the GMS shifts toward cleaner, greener growth. The GMS Core Environment Program will play an important role under its new five-year strategy that has prepared a pipeline of environmental projects and prioritized two regional green growth investment projects totaling $540 million.
It is also creating a new marketplace for the exchange of ideas and expertise on green practices and technologies.
By working together, the subregion and its development partners can build even greater prosperity at reduced cost to the environment.
First published in ADB
The Promise of Blockchain in Mega Sport Events
Authors: Dr. Aiman Erbad and Dr. Mohamed Abdallah
Amid the excitement and anticipation of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022TM, sport remains a business. Like other global industries, the adoption of technology innovations is driving greater efficiency and transparency to generate benefits for sports organizations, leagues, clubs, and fans.
Researchers at the College of Science and Engineering (CSE), Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), make the case for adopting blockchain-powered solutions in delivering seamless sport mega events by outlining some of the top use cases.
“Blockchain can solve many real-world problems,” explains Dr. Mohamed Abdallah, Associate Professor in the Division of Information and Computing Technology (ICT) at CSE.
“For mega sport events, the benefits can be exceptional. Because of its transparent data structure, blockchain can facilitate secure and reliable data exchange at the individual, institutional, or national systems level as needed, without the need for intermediaries to ensure mutual trust and the authenticity of the data exchanged.”
The chaos of the UEFA Champions League final between English team Liverpool and Spanish club Real Madrid in May 2022, which resulted from the illegal distribution of non-validated tickets, is likely to have accelerated the recognition of blockchain’s benefits for the sport industry. The ensuing government inquiry unequivocally called for using blockchain for ticketing to prevent a similar fiasco at future events. A closer look at the nature of this cutting-edge technology reveals why.
How blockchain works
By its functional nature, a blockchain is a distributed (or shared) digital ledger that stores encrypted blocks of transaction data securely chained together in chronological order. Unlike other ledgers or databases, blockchain combines unique security features based on cryptographic techniques and its chronological chain structure.
In its standard form, blockchain provides immutability (data entered is permanently recorded), transparency (data is visible to everyone involved), and decentralization (all computers in the network have a copy of the blockchain to collectively maintain control). These features facilitate a tamper-proof, reliable way of storing, exchanging, and tracking information.
A key use case for mega events: preventing ticketing scandals
Dr. Abdallah and Dr. Aiman Erbad, Associate Professor and Head of ICT at CSE, add their expert voices to arguments that the UEFA Champions League final chaos could have been prevented using a blockchain platform with a self-enforcing contract capability to facilitate a secure ticket purchase process.
In practical terms, tickets can be stored on the blockchain denoted with unique cryptographic tokens. Each ticket can be linked to the authentic owner, providing traceability and accountability that prevents forgery. In this way, it can effectively reduce the impact of bots and/or scammers buying large numbers of tickets for illegal resale.
Using blockchain-based “smart contract” technology, ticketing entities can set the required resale rules to ensure a fair and secure market. These digital contracts can facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers while maintaining data accountability and traceability.
A related use case is storing the chain of ticket ownership. These records cannot be forged since changes are verified and tracked, ensuring data integrity. It can help customers validate the authenticity of tickets to avoid being trapped by ticketing scams.
Other use cases in sport
Blockchain-powered fan engagement is a growing use case for the sports industry. Several professional leagues and clubs are using blockchain to establish trustworthy fan databases that facilitate the distribution of “fan tokens”. With the status of a digital asset (created on a blockchain), the tokens can be redeemed by fans for rewards such as VIP experiences or ticket promotions. The increased fan engagement can potentially create new revenue streams for clubs; for example, incentivizing them to attend more events in person. Fan tokens have been rolled out by professional sports teams all over the world, including Paris Saint-Germain and FC Barcelona.
In another use case, the market for sports collectibles and memorabilia can leverage blockchain to establish trust and traceability. Experts have warned that fraud is rampant in the sports collectibles and memorabilia market. Blockchain can ensure the authenticity of special items through the use of digital identities.
CSE’s own blockchain-based applications
CSE faculty members are developing innovative use cases for blockchain in a range of applied settings.
“Our research focuses on the applicability of blockchain in solving real-world problems, such as securing data access in healthcare and decentralized trading,” says Dr. Erbad.
“We also study the technical aspects of blockchain to enhance its security, privacy, and efficiency. We have investigated the possibility of reducing energy consumption in public blockchains and developed an energy-efficient consensus algorithm. In other areas, we have also investigated using artificial intelligence in combination with blockchain smart contracts, called Rational Contracts, to provide smart resource trading with optimal prices in smart city applications.”
Among CSE’s blockchain-based applications are a trading platform for electric vehicle charging in smart cities, a decentralized ride-sharing service, a privacy-preserving decentralized stock exchange platform, a scalable energy trading sealed-bid auction mechanism, real-time secure health data exchange system, and a cooperative spectrum management system for 5G networks.
A national blueprint for Qatar
CSE had a leading role in developing the Qatar National Blockchain Blueprint in collaboration with the Communications Regulatory Authority and Qatar University. The blueprint highlights how blockchain can advance Qatar’s innovative and growing IT sector.
Essential blockchain requirements and recommendations for building a solid regulatory framework drive its pivotal goal of facilitating blockchain’s adoption at the national level, in support of Qatar National Vision 2030 and Qatar National Development Strategy. To achieve this, the blueprint outlines the conditions and incentives each sector must provide for the level of technology adoption needed to allow start-ups, pilot projects, and new companies to emerge. The strategy is an important step for Qatar, its sports, and other leading industries, to reap the societal benefits of this innovative technology.
For more information on the work of the College of Science and Engineering, please visit cse.hbku.edu.qa. To know more about Qatar National Blockchain Blueprint, please visit: https://www.cra.gov.qa/document/national-blockchain-blueprint
Interesting archaeological discovery in Israel
An ancient scarab from three thousand years ago was surprisingly discovered during a school trip to Azor, near Tel Aviv, Israel. The scene depicted on the scarab probably represents the conferral of legitimate power and authority on a local ruler.
“We were wandering around, when I saw something that looked like a small toy on the ground,” told Gilad Stern of the Education Centre of the Israeli Antiquities Authorityntre, who was leading the school trip. “An inner voice told me: ‘Pick it up and turn it over.’ I was amazed: it was a scarab with a clearly engraved scene, the dream of every amateur archaeologist. The pupils were really enthusiastic!”.
The visit of the Rabin Middle School eight graders took place as part of a tour guide course organised by the Education Centre of the Israel Antiquities Authority for the third consecutive year. The course enables students to teach the residents of Azor about the local archaeological heritage.
The scarab was designed in the shape of the common dung beetle. The ancient Egyptians saw in the gesture of the tiny scarab, which rolls a ball of dung twice its size where it stores its future offspring, the embodiment of creation and regeneration, similar to the gesture of the Creator God.
According to Dr. Amir Golani, an expert of the Israeli Antiquities Authority specialized in the Bronze Age period, “the scarab was used as a seal and was a symbol of power and status. It could be inserted into a necklace or a ring. It is made of silicate earthenware covered with a bluish-green glaze. It could have fallen from the hands of an important and influential personage passing through the area, or it could have been deliberately buried in the ground with other objects and after thousands of years returned to the surface. It is difficult to determine the precise original context.”
The lower, flat part of the scarab seal depicts a figure seated on a chair in front of a standing figure, whose arm is raised above that of the seated person. The standing figure has an elongated head, which seems to represent the crown of an Egyptian pharaoh. It is possible that we are seeing here a snapshot of a scene in which the Egyptian pharaoh confers power and authority on a local Canaanite.
“This scene fundamentally reflects the geopolitical reality that prevailed in the Land of Canaan during the Late Bronze Age (approx. 1500-1000 BC), when local Canaanite rulers lived under Egypt’s political and cultural hegemony (and sometimes rebelled against it)” – said Dr. Golani. “It is therefore very likely that the seal dates back to the Late Bronze Age, when the local Canaanites were ruled by the Egyptian Empire”.
Scarab seals are indeed distinctly Egyptian, but their widespread use extended beyond the borders of ancient Egypt. Hundreds of scarabs were discovered in the Land of ancient Israel, mostly in tombs, but also in settlement layers. Some of them were imported from Egypt, many others were imitated in ancient Israel by local craftsmen under Egyptian influence. The level of workmanship of the particular scarab found is not typical of Egypt and may be a product of local craftsmen.
Towards Efficient Matrix Multiplication
Algorithms have, over the years, helped mathematicians/scientists solve numerous fundamental operations. From the early use of simple algorithms by Egyptian, Greek, and Persian mathematicians to the shift towards more robust AI-enabled algorithms, their evolution has manifested incredible progress in the technological realm. While Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are extending their reach and contributions in various military and civilian domains, it is interesting to witness the application of the technology on itself, i.e., using ML to improve the effectiveness of its underlying algorithms.
Despite the increased familiarisation with algorithms over time, it remains fairly strenuous to find new algorithms that can prove reliable and accurate. Interestingly, ‘Discovering faster matrix multiplication algorithms with reinforcement learning,’ a recent study by DeepMind, a British AI subsidiary in London, published in Nature, has demonstrated some interesting findings in this regard. It revealed new shortcuts simulated by AI for faster mathematical calculations vis-à-vis matrix multiplication.
DeepMind developed an AI system called ‘AlphaTensor’, to expedite matrix multiplication. Matrix multiplication – which uses two grids of numbers multiplied together – is a simple algebraic expression often taught in high school. However, its ubiquitous use in the digital world and computing has considerable influence.
‘AlphaTensor’ was tasked with creating novel, correct, and efficient algorithms to carry out matrix multiplication with the least number of steps possible. The algorithm discovery process was treated as a single-player game. It used AlphaZero – the same AI agent which gained global traction when it displayed extraordinary intelligence in board games like Chess and Go.
AlphaTensor conceptualised the board into a 3-D array of numbers which, through a limited number of moves, tried to find the correct multiplication algorithms. It uses reinforcement learning, where the neural networks interact with the environment toward a specific goal. If the results are favourable, the internal parameters are updated. It also uses Tree Search, in which the ML explores the results of branching possibilities to choose the next action. It seeks to identify the most promising action at each step. The outcomes are used to sharpen neural networks, further helping the tree search, and providing more successes to learn from.
As per the paper’s findings, AlphaTensor discovered thousands of algorithms for various sizes for multiplication matrices, some of which were able to break decades-long computational efficiency records of the previously existing algorithms. They overshadowed the towering complexity of the best-known Strassen’s two-level algorithm for multiplying matrix. For example, AlphaTensor found an algorithm for solving a 4 x 4 matrice in 47 steps overperforming the Strassen algorithm, which used 49 steps for the same operation. Similarly, if a set of matrices was solved using 80 multiplication steps, AlphaTensor reduced it to only 76 steps. This development has caused quite a stir in the tech world as it is being claimed that a fifty-year old record has been broken in Computer Science.
However, the episode underlines some important implications. Given that matrix multiplication is a core component of the digital world, companies around the world have invested considerable time and resources in computer hardware for matrix multiplication. Since it is used across a wide range of domains, including computing, processing images, generating graphics, running simulations, digital communication, and neural networks etc. – to name a few, even minor improvements in matrix multiplication’s efficiency could have a notable and widespread impact in the concerned fields.
The findings manifest the potential of ML to solve even more complicated mathematical problems. The automatic discovery of algorithms via ML offers new capacities to surpass the existing best human-designed algorithms. It introduces new ML techniques, which have the potential to increase computing speed by 20 percent leading to much more feasible timelines. It is pertinent to mention that a lesser number of operations lead to not only lesser time but also less amount of energy spent.
The finding has presented a model to gamify ML to solve mathematical operations. It exhibited that AlphaZero is a potent algorithm that could be used beyond winning traditional games and be applied to solving complex mathematical operations/tasks.
This DeepMind discovery can pave the way for future research on understanding matrix multiplication algorithms and be an inspiration to use AI for algorithm discovery for other computing tasks and set the stage for a possible breakthrough in the field.
The increased efficiency of matrix multiplication has once again brought into light the ever-expanding potential of AI. To be fair, such developments do not infer that human programmers would be out of the job soon; rather, at least for now, it should be seen as an addition of an optimisation tool in the coder’s arsenal, which could lead to more innovative discoveries in the future with remarkable implications for the world.
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