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Technology through the lens of occupational hazards and risks

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The premise of occupational safety and health – my field of specialization — is that work should do no harm to health and in the best of worlds, should support it. But discerning whether technology and new forms of work are doing harm or doing good can often be tricky.

Let me give a personal example:

Early in my career, I was the first attorney in my office to ask for a part-time schedule to balance my new responsibilities as a parent with my work responsibilities. It was agreed that I would be in the office three days a week – while my work load never allowed me to work only three days a week, my new schedule made it possible to work around my children’s schedules on the days I was not in the office.

In theory it sounded great. But the reality was that it did not sit well with expectations of colleagues and clients. I quickly learned that people would wait a day for me to return their calls or to meet with them, but they were not willing to wait two days. So I worked at the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. But even limiting my absence from the office to only one day at a time, I would arrive in the morning to a fistful of slips for the calls I had missed the previous day, and files on my desk with notes that began with “since you were not in the office today . . . .”

Thankfully, shortly after I began my part-time schedule, my office introduced the latest technological innovation – voicemail. As a result, my relationship with the receptionist improved dramatically since she no longer needed to take dozens of messages for me, but I still had a voicemail box full of calls to return, and people who didn’t appreciate the time it took me to get back to them. Then came the next technological innovation, the ability to retrieve voicemail messages from my home phone. I could now return calls from home while children were napping. My being in the office or not being in the office became less obvious and made the idea of me working a part-time schedule more palatable, particularly to my boss.

Then, in rapid succession came computers, mobile phones and the ability to return voice, text and email messages, which meant I could work at my desk or in my car waiting for my son to finish his music lesson.

But eventually, it also meant the work-life balance I had tried to achieve became a juggling act to keep all the “work and life” balls in the air simultaneously. And somewhere along this timeline of innovation, technology went from supporting my health to most likely harming it.

Assessing whether technology is a hazard that causes harm or increases risk of harm is complex and more often than not it has much to do with the choices made about how it is used.

Technology’s ability to minimize risk is often clear – as for example using a robot instead of person to enter a confined space with a high density of monoxide carbon. But in other circumstances, whether it meets the standard of “do no harm” and when it crosses the line from supporting health to harming it, is less salient.

In certain instances technology is being used to enable what looks like a new business model but when unmasked is an all too familiar exploitative one.

Just because we may feel outdated by the acceleration of technological innovation doesn’t mean the principles of decent work are also outdated.

We need to adapt our application of those principles to the world technology enables, and we also need to insist on the accountability of innovators and users of technology to protect the health and safety of workers. It isn’t good enough to say that technological innovations can be used for good or for bad, we must insist that innovative talent tip the scales to the good.

ILO

Nancy Leppink, Chief of the ILO’s Labour Administration, Labour Inspection and Occupational Safety and Health Branch

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An Effort to Create A Stronger and Sustainable Food Security Using Technology

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Two decades ago, the prospect of consuming lab-grown meat created from meatless ingredients might sound absurd and out of the question. But apparently, today’s technological development has made all of this possible. In recent years, the growth of the food tech industry has been increasing at unprecedented speed. We’ve known SuperMeat – a Tel Aviv-based company that created chicken meat directly from cells, ensuring a sustainable and animal-friendly process. Innovo Pro is committed to bringing novel plant-based protein components to the global food industry to develop healthy, flavorful, safe, and sustainable food products. Even giant fast food companies such as Burger King and McDonald’s have started allocating funds to be invested in food technology to bring vegetable meat onto their table. 

Amid the global food security being challenged by the environmental crisis, the expansion of food tech companies and increasing investment in it has brought a spark of hope to avoid future food crisis threats and eventually achieve Sustainable Development Goals 2: to end hunger and all form of malnutrition. The involvement of technology in developing food supply chains creates an opportunity to extend food usage and, at the same time, reduce waste of food products, resulting in a more sustainable food system. Not only does it generate an immense heterogenous food diversification, but the impact of technology adoption ranges from nutrient improvement and personalized diets to food traceability and environment-friendly packaging. Indeed, the food revolution is underway, and the possibility of altering food consumption behavior that could enhance food security looks promising these days.

Current Global Food Security Challenge

Food security is not a static concept. Since it was brought up in the mid-1970s, there have been changes towards the notion reflecting the development of policy thinking and its complexity. World Food Conference firstly defined food security as the availability at all times of adequate world food supply of basic foodstuff to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices. This definition more or less emphasizes the dimension of food supply at both global and national levels and price stability. In recent years, the meaning of food security has been evolving, and it has started including human rights dimensions. Food security is not only about its physical availability but also accessibility, utility, and sustainability. It is explicitly concerned with sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets an individual’s dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Food security has become a prominent global issue, especially with the increasing food demands due to the rocketing global population. The current food system is said to be unable to ensure food sustainability and eliminate hunger worldwide. In 2020, The World Programme anticipated that 690 million people or 8.9 percent of the global population, did not have enough food to be healthy. Moreover, the pandemic covid-19 has exacerbated food insecurity and hunger in 2021 as the number of people going hungry in 93 countries amounted to 957 million people. This escalated percentage indicates that achieving zero hunger goals by 2030 proved extremely challenging with the current system. 

As our food supply is dominated by agricultural and livestock products, which are climate-sensitive, its security is also being challenged by climate crisis and industrialization. The rising global temperature invokes environmental problems such as extreme weather, drought, and more frequent natural disaster, which directly impact agricultural and livestock productivity. The current industrialization pace has also decreased productive land due to land transfer for factory construction. It means that there would be fewer lands that can be used to produce food sources. As a result, 50 percent of food production is at risk, and around 21 percent of agricultural output has been lost since 1960. These challenges would need to be addressed; otherwise, food scarcity in the future would be inevitable. Despite pessimism about global food security, technology comes with ground-breaking solutions that look heartening. 

Securing Food Supply via Technology: How is it Possible?

The rapid growth of technology has changed the rule of the game in numerous sectors. When we are nearly desperate to maintain the stability of food supply amid declining agricultural and livestock productivity to fulfil the continuously growing demand, technology offers innovative ways out. Several innovations involving technology and science are expected to play a significant role in addressing concerns related to the four dimensions of food security, including availability, access, utilization, and sustainability. The emergence of multiple start-ups, such as Farming 4.0 that integrate digital solutions into farming systems is one example of how technology could enlarge the availability of food supply. International initiatives such as Nutritious Maize or Pan Africa Bean Research Alliance tries to conduct genetic modifications to create plan variant that is more adaptable to climate change – more tolerant to drought, herbicides or diseases, and higher yield. All these efforts are made to construct a way agriculture could produce more using less. 

Technology adoption is gaining popularity, and its development is noticeable in various dimensions of food production. Not only is it affecting agricultural sectors, but different new menus are also coming onto the table, creating more diverse food options. Biotechnology finds a way to make gene-edited food, which is considered a giant leap in strengthening food security. Meat, eggs, and other protein sources are now possible to be produced in the lab, and it started to gain higher demands, disrupting the traditional food market. Its growing popularity made start-ups like Beyond Meat increasing in values by fivefold in less than two months after being listed on NASDAQ. Non-dairy milk produced from plants such as almond, soy, or coconut successfully secures a place alongside traditional dairy milk. Mainly, in the US, plant-based milk valuation is growing by 60 percent and claims around 12.5 percent of market shares. 

It must be admitted that technology which was once perceived as the opponent of nature – has made all the innovations above possible. Even though those discoveries are mostly still in development and not yet applied globally, the prospect of what technology can do related to food supply is promising. Technology made it possible to genetically modify plants so they can adapt to environmental changes. It helps create more nutritious food sources. And more importantly, the innovation made so far, are trying to address the concern of creating more sustainable food security. In the end, reflecting on how technology works with the food dimension recently, it looks like achieving zero hunger by 2030 is still a viable goal.

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Competition in 5G Communication Network and the Future of Warfare

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The present era is experiencing a shift from 4G (4th Generation) to 5G (5th Generation) networked communication. This shift will radically change all civil and defence communications. In future warfare, it is expected to develop an atmosphere of information or ‘infosphere’ for sharing real-time intelligence characterised by high-speed, low latency and increased bandwidth networks. This potential of 5G is believed to significantly impact the character and future of war. It will enable an agile and fast data communication service that will support the entire battlefield network in integrated and all-domain warfare. This support will allow the speedy transfer of all types of visual and textual data and information from one domain to another, increasing the speed of war. 5G would not only connect all domains of the battleground, but it would also link disconnected networks through network slicing. This will enable remote operations with more private, secure, and restricted access. Due to the super-fast speed of the 5G network, it can afford to carry out multiple isolated functions side-by-side. 

5G would also enhance the operational capacity of autonomous military systems such as drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Presently, the capabilities of autonomous military systems are restricted due to their limited onboard processing and data storage capacity; however, with 5G-enabled autonomous military systems, large sets of data, such as terrain maps stored on the cloud, can be downloaded in milliseconds. It is also expected that 5G might initiate the move towards fully autonomous systems due to accelerated networked response and action time. The improved real-time data, collected by the independent system in an autonomous military system through various networked sources and sensors, would be infused with AI and machine learning algorithms to identify, locate, and engage the target without human supervision. Due to such capability of 5G, many countries have shown progress in this arena.

The United States (US) and China have been competing to take the lead in 5G technologies. The major 5G telecoms in the US have deployed their initial nationwide networks. On the other hand, all cities in China and 87% of its rural areas have a 5G network. The Chinese defence forces are now focused on benefitting from 6G communication technologies to adapt to the demands of future warfare. 

The US is expected to deploy 5G on its Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) as these are crucial points for collecting intelligence for launching and defending attacks.  US troops also have access to 5G-enabled Android Team Awareness Kits that display data on a tablet or smartphone.  Similarly, Chinese troops have also been provided with gadgets that will allow tracking of troops, terrain and intelligence on battlegrounds. China has also deployed 5G on the China-India border to monitor Indian military activities.

India has launched an initiative called 5G India (5Gi). Under this initiative, India has given the responsibility to establish end-to-end 5G test beds to research centres such as the Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWiT) and the Society for Applied Microwave Electronics Engineering & Research (SAMEER), technical universities such as Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kanpur and Bombay and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.  The country is proactive in developing indigenous 5G communication networks. For this, it has provided competitive grants and has created a 5G Alliance Fund that would provide necessary financial assistance for 5G evolution. The Indian Army is also working to develop and deploy 5G networks to improve communication for its frontline forces, which could have implications for Pakistan.

The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication has laid a roadmap for 5G in Pakistan. The Pakistani telecom operators, including PTCL, Telenor, Zong and Jazz, have successfully tested 5G in Pakistan. 5G was expected to be launched in 2023; however, progress were delayed due to political instability in the country. According to a study by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), the exorbitant tax on phones and lack of availability of 5G enabled phones in Pakistan might hinder the evolution of 5G. Pakistan has also collaborated with China to facilitate the launch of 5G technology. China’s technological support and the efforts of the telecom industry has been the key force behind 5G success in Pakistan. A similar roadmap can be adapted for other emerging technologies such as AI, cyber and space.

5G is a leap forward in complex communication networks. Although it will significantly enhance communication speed, it will neither diminish nor eliminate the importance of 4G and 3G networks. Instead, 5G will support other emerging technologies such as Cloud, Quantum Computing, the Internet of Things, etc. Each decade, the world will upgrade its generation of networks such as 6G and 7G. The deployment of 5G networks is the need of the hour, given the growing demand for connectivity. Therefore, this is a step in the right direction, and Pakistan must also get on board to quickly set up 5G network towers in the country.

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The Development of Artificial Intelligence in China: Talent creation and comparison with U.S.

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In the process of developing and implementing AI technology, we need to be pragmatic and orderly. AI education intensifies the driving force for developing the related technology and industry, and it is also the fundamental guarantee for nurturing and cultivating high-quality AI talents and for the sustainable development of related technology and industry. China’s AI education initially created a subject teaching system, and curricula and courses at different levels were offered in universities such as computer science, intelligent science and technology, electronic information and automation. The existing problems of AI development in China and the basic construction of AI are inseparable from the education and training of AI experts. Only by nurturing and cultivating a sufficient number of high-quality AI talents can the smooth development of AI in China be ensured, so that it can climb to the top of international AI.

In terms of AI talent training, the State, Commissions, Ministries, and Departments have made and are making the following noteworthy suggestions:

1) increase AI talent training as a national educational priority.

Not long ago, AI-related playful and recreational activities promoted a wave of AI technology to promote economic and social intelligence in China. AI talents are the top priority in the construction activity to do a good job in planning development, mastering key technologies and promotion. Implementing all this requires high-quality talents. With a view to meeting this social demand, we need to comprehensively plan the training of high-quality AI talents and provide a guarantee for China’s AI to enter a new period of opportunities for sustainable development.

We need to further improve the understanding of AI staff training, establish a comprehensive planning system to create experts and raise the level of preparation as a national educational priority.

2) Establish and standardise AI education at all levels.

According to market demand, we need to comprehensively standardise AI education at all levels and open various schools of a certain scale and proportion, including universities, vocational and technical colleges, AI institutes, technical schools. In China, the Ministry of Education comprehensively expands the current intelligent science and technology, as well as the professional environment, which supports its management. The same holds true for other major universities which are taking action to strengthen the academic teaching of AI, also through the establishment of post-graduate education in some related institutes, as well as spreading basic technologies to primary and secondary schools. The same applies to popular science courses, which provide various forms of extracurricular activities, as well as helping to nurture and cultivate the interest of students of all ages and schools. This is because the level of teachers, who standardise and organise the preparation of various teaching materials, has improved.

3) Multimodal and multi-channel training of high-quality AI talents.

Efforts are made in China to explore and search for various types of high-quality AI talents through multimodal and multi-channel ways, carrying out activities aimed at enhancing and perfecting market-oriented products, and having the experience to promote them. The competent government Departments provide relevant policy support, and State and private research institutes primarily carry out AI product innovation, so that AI science and technology staff perform their tasks comprehensively. Besides participating in research and development of AI products, the main task of schools and colleges is to provide high-quality knowledge resources at all levels Companies strive for excellence in the production of AI products, so that skilled technicians and workers can fully perform their roles. An incentive mechanism for AI experts is established to encourage a higher-level elite to stand out. University students, graduates and science and technology practitioners engaged in AI learning and development are encouraged to pursue AI technological innovation and entrepreneurship and provide the business fund support for their innovative ideas and prototype results.

4) Make full use of the Internet to nurture and cultivate AI talents.

Full use is made of the Internet technology to lend effective technical support to provide effective means for nurturing and cultivating AI talents. The high-level AI platform is used, in line with international standards, to create and improve the domestic AI network teaching platform, provide network education services for AI teaching at all levels, and offer auxiliary teaching tools for other courses.

Some scholars or entrepreneurs believe that China’s AI technology level is already comparable to that of the United States of America. We need to scientifically and objectively evaluate the existing results. We also need to fully reaffirm the achievements and fully understand the shortcomings. Overestimating the existing AI achievements in China is neither realistic nor conducive to the healthy development of this industry.

The United States of America is now the country with the highest overall level of AI technology. Analysing the gap in AI between China and the United States of America helps to maintain a clear understanding. Many experts in the field of AI have pointed out that following the US theory in AI has meant that such applications and innovations are making the industry catch up quickly and regain ground. However, there is still a big gap with the United States of America in terms of basic theoretical research.

There are very few people carrying out basic theoretical research on AI in China. For example, the United States of America places brain science and other neurosciences at the top of research, while China’s independent research and development capabilities in this area are relatively weak and there are gaps in discoveries and innovations. Furthermore, many articles on deep learning have been published in China, but little research is truly innovative in theory or has significant application value.

The Americans are already figuring out what the next AI will be, while such a study has not yet begun at full speed in China. This is the biggest challenge facing the country: it is a difficult problem, involving a wide range of aspects, which cannot be solved by one or two teams. This gap is largely due to the national academic evaluation system and the orientation of practical application. There is room for improving the university analysis criterion: it may take 5-15 years to fully catch up with the United States in the field of AI.

US companies invest a lot of money to train a group of pure high-level technical staff who, from the moment they obtain a PhD, will be recruited by companies and employed in research and development of pure AI technology. Not surprisingly, such an elite team, driven by scientific and technological interests and beliefs, is far ahead at world level in AI research. Few companies in China are willing to spend a lot of money to train a purely technical AI research team and there is also a lack of incentive mechanism within companies. The level of AI research in national universities is also far below the world-leading level. (11. continued)

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