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A Brave New World without Work

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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the soon-to-come widespread introduction of robots and artificial intelligence (AI)? Endless queues of people waiting to get unemployment benefits? Skynet drones ploughing the sky over burnt-out slums? Or the opposite: idleness and equality provided by the labour of mechanical slaves? In all likelihood the reality will be less flashy, though that doesn’t mean we should ignore the social consequences of the technological changes taking place before our very eyes.

Revolution on the March

The Fourth Industrial Revolution with its robotics, bio and nanotechnologies, 3D printing, Internet of things, genetics, and artificial intelligence is rapidly spreading across the world [1]. The coming technological changes will have direct consequences for a number of existing professions and promise in the very least to transform the labour market in developed countries.

The high speed of change (suffice it to say that 10 of the most popular professions of 2010 did not exist in 2004) makes it difficult to predict the impact on society. In this regard, the assessments of experts and international organizations range from optimistic to alarmist. However, even if we were to eliminate the most extreme case scenarios, we could still say with certainty that a fundamental restructuring of the global economy, comparable to the one that took place in the 18th–19th centuries during the First Industrial Revolution, awaits us in the foreseeable future.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Future of Jobs report, 65% of today’s primary school students will have hitherto unheard-of professions. McKinsey came to the same conclusion, highlighting in their report that at the current level of technological development, 30% of the functions of 60% of professions can be automated. M. Osborne and C. Frey of Oxford University give an even more pessimistic forecast. According to their research, 47% of jobs in the US risk being automated within 20 years.

Who will robots replace?

What professions are at risk? First at risk is, of course, unskilled labour. The Osborne and Frey study found clerks, data entry workers, librarians, machine operators, plumbers, sales specialists, and equipment adjusters among others to be those most vulnerable.

According to WEF, from 2015 to 2020, job reductions will have the greatest effect on office professions (4.91%) and the manufacturing sector (1.63%). Employment in areas such as design, entertainment, construction, and sales should also decline by 1%. In turn, the most significant growth in jobs is predictably expected in the field of computer technology (3.21%), architectural and engineering specialties (2.71%), and management (just under 1%).

Predictably, professions related to transport risk automation in the medium term. The development of self-driving vehicles could radically change both the passenger and freight traffic markets. In the US alone, 8.7 million people are employed in the long-distance freight traffic industry. If you take into account all of the business operations connected to trucking (motels, roadside cafes, etc.), the number increases to 15 million or about 10% of the country’s labour force. Reductions in passenger transport and the public transport sector are likely to be even more significant. It is also probable that self-guiding technologies will be introduced into sea freight traffic in the near future. The development of artificial intelligence should also bring down hard times on lawyers, teachers, miners, middle management, and journalists among others.

It can be said that on the whole, employment will gradually move from services to other sectors of the economy, many of which have yet to be created. The possibility is a confirmation of the revolutionary nature of the changes that are taking place rather than something unique. Before the First Industrial Revolution, over 70% of the population was occupied with agriculture, whereas nowadays the number hovers around a few percent in developed countries. The percentage of those employed in manufacturing continued to grow until the mid-twentieth century, though it has now fallen to 24% in the EU and 19% in the US (27% in Russia) as a result of the Digital Revolution. Meanwhile, although there are fewer workers, production volume continues to rise steadily. It would now appear to be time to automate services.

The Golden Age of Engineers and Psychiatrists?

Professions associated with intellectual work or direct personal contact with clients are least likely to suffer in the short term. According to the study from Oxford University, professions least susceptible to automation include various jobs in medicine and psychology, as well as coaches, social workers, programmers, engineers, representatives of higher management and creative professionals.

In other words, those whose work requires a creative approach and is not limited to the performance of predictable combinations will be best prepared to deal with the new reality. If we were to speak of engineers in this regard, it would have to be clarified that design engineers are generally safe, while operating engineers, on the contrary, are at risk.

Three key factors are keeping automation away from the creative professions. To successfully perform their tasks, artificial intelligence must possess intuition and an ability to manipulate material objects (touch) and make use of creative and social intelligence. Technology at its current level of development does not actually allow for the resolution of these problems. However, as strong AI continues to develop, the range of jobs available to it will invariably increase as well. It will expand the limits of automation that have already been achieved with existing technologies and will make it possible for computers to make managerial decisions and even, perhaps, engage in creative activity. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that in the medium or long term, machines might successfully replace writers and artists along with engineers and managers. Furthermore, precedents do exist for AI’s successfully composing literary texts.

Thus, it is quite conceivable that the majority of the labour force will find itself back in school in the foreseeable future. The problem, however, is that no one really knows what to study. It has been estimated, that as many as 85% of the professions that will be in demand in 2030 do not yet exist. Even in developed countries, the education systems have yet to adapt to the new reality.

What will become of our country and of us?

Today, most researchers have little doubt that developed countries will successfully adapt to the changes coming one way or another (which does not rule out the possibility of social tension and growth in income inequality). New technologies could help create additional jobs to replace those that have been lost, as it was not long ago following the rapid development of the Internet. It is assumed that the new professions will be more creative and better paid.

A new balance will gradually be established in the labour market. The nature of manufacturing will also change. The development of automation and 3D printing will make it possible to create efficient local production facilities focused on the specific needs of consumers. This will facilitate the return of a part of production from developing countries to developed (so-called reshoring).

In turn, the consequences of automation could be much more negative for countries of the third world. The percentage of non-skilled jobs in developing countries decreased by 8% between 1995 and 2012. Reshoring could significantly accelerate this process in the short term. Since the proportion of people engaged in low-skilled work in low and middle-income countries is much higher, the growth of unemployment would threaten to become a major global problem. The situation would be further aggravated by the underdevelopment of labour protection institutions in these countries.

It must be noted that risks of this sort are endemic to Russia as well. Despite the significantly higher level of education of its citizens in comparison to that in developing countries, the Russian economy could hardly be called high-tech. A significant part of the working population is engaged in routine low-skilled labour, and productivity remains low as well. At the present time, Russia lags significantly behind other developed countries in regards to this indicator (and behind the US by more than 100%), and according to some estimates falls below the world average. What’s more, factory jobs are not the only ones at stake – an army of many millions of bureaucrats and clerks is also under threat of redundancy as a result of digitalization.

Another disaster waiting to happen to the Russian economy is related to outdated industry and the decline of domestic engineering. At present, institutions of higher education produce mainly operational engineers trained to maintain tools and machines. What’s more, even the limited innovative potential of Russian engineers is not needed by Russian industry.

Furthermore, it cannot be ruled out that in the near future Russia will launch a massive programme to introduce robotic automation and artificial intelligence. All the more since it fits in perfectly with the desire to modernize and digitalize the national economy repeatedly spoken of by the Russian leadership. Because of the lack of a strong trade union movement and the prevalence of hybrid and grey forms of employment, labour automation could lead to much more severe social consequences in Russia than in Western countries. Finally, it is entirely possible that the catch-me-if-you-can nature of such modernization will result in Russia introducing more primitive technologies than in more developed countries. Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine and RIAC Member Fyodor Lukyanov cleverly described a similar scenario in his article.

Saving the Rank and File

Ways to reduce the social consequences of labour automation have long been at the heart discussions surrounding the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the development of AI. The Robot Tax is one measure being considered. Microsoft Founder Bill Gates supports the idea and has proposed collecting income tax and social payments on robot labour to slow down the pace of automation. “Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level,” he declared in an interview for the Internet publication Quartz. It is his opinion that the funds received from payments of this sort should be used by governments to create social security systems for those who have lost their jobs as a result of automation.

The first country to resort to this measure is South Korea, which introduced an indirect tax on robots in August 2017. The European Union also discussed the introduction of a similar tax, though the clause proposed by Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats Representative Mady Delvaux was rejected by the European Parliament was rejected by the European Parliament because it could slow the development of innovations. At the same time, the parliament approved the resolution itself, which calls for granting robots the status of legal entities.

A universal basic income could also soften the effect of rising unemployment and inequality. Elon Musk supports the initiative together with numerous other businessmen and experts. At the same time, a lack of work to afford one the opportunity to fulfil one’s potential poses a significant social risk. Significant unemployment, even in the absence of poverty, can contribute to the marginalization of the population and the growth of crime – the first jobs to go are those of low-skilled employees, who are unlikely to spend all of their permanent free time engaged in yoga and self-improvement activities.

Possible ways of mitigating the consequences of the upcoming restructuring of the world economy include a change in the nature of employment. Technological changes and expanding access to the Internet allow more and more people to work remotely. Thus, some of those who lose their jobs will be able to find themselves a place in the new economy without having to change their place of residence.

Some believe that automation will increase and not reduce the total number of jobs by accelerating the pace of economic development over the long term. Amazon is one example of how automation has not resulted in staff reduction. While increasing the number of robots employed in its warehouses from 1,400 to 45,000, it has managed to retain the same number of jobs. It has also been noted that automation is becoming increasingly necessary due to a decrease in the working-age population (primarily in developed countries).

It should be noted that these measures are all limited in nature and hardly correspond to the scale of changes that stand to be swept in by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To avoid mass unemployment and social instability, governments must develop comprehensive short-term strategies for adapting the population to the new reality. It is very likely that new programs will be needed to retrain citizens en masse for new professions.

Russia is no exception here; on the contrary, it is of vital importance that our country reform its education system in the near future, especially as regards technical education. It is equally important to develop targeted support programs for those parts of the population that are most vulnerable to automation and digitalization. Moreover, it would seem advisable to make use of existing experience to mitigate the social consequences of factory closures in Russian single-industry towns. If we continue to move as sluggishly as we are moving at present, we risk turning into a kind of reserve for yesterday’s technologies with a population becoming ever more rapidly marginalized.

First published in our partner RIAC

[1] Marsh, P. The New Industrial Revolution. Consumers, Globalization, and the End of Mass Production. M.: Gaidar Institute Press, 2015.

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Elon Musk’s “City-State” on Mars: An International Problem

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The private space industry is booming with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic all designing spacecraft to transport people into the cosmos. Elon Musk is the closest to launching a space faring program, with near-term plans to send humans to the Moon and Mars. In October 2020, Musk, a genius billionaire, quietly declared the independence of a new country on Mars. Musk claimed he will have humans on Mars to start building the new “free” “city-state” by 2026. He also declared the new “country” will not “recognize the laws of Earth.” 

All three tech billionaires currently face few obstacles to implement their plans. However, one obstacle for all of them will be navigating international law. Musk already appears to be exploiting many soft spots in international politics, which are no competitor to a ruthless tech titan. Musk’s plans are an urgent international problem that requires a new multi-national solution.

Musk’s Declarations About Mars

For decades, Musk has spoken about his desire for humans to become “interplanetary.”  Musk founded SpaceX in 2001 with his PayPal fortune and the goal to put humans on Mars.  After Russia rejected his offer of $20 million to buy several intercontinental ballistic missiles, Musk began manufacturing and launching his own rockets. Musk plans to start sending humans to Mars by 2026 and then shuttling thousands of people between Earth and Mars before 2030. Muskplans to create a city on Mars by 2050 and then a completely self-sufficient city of a million people on Mars by the end of the century.

Musk is an eccentric guy and not everything he says should be taken seriously. However, it is clear Musk is serious about bringing humans to Mars. In 2017 and 2018, he published detailed plans for settling Mars.  In October 2020, Musk published a terms of service agreement for beta customers of his new Starlink wireless internet service. The agreement included a very specific note about the governance of Mars. In Starlink’s “Pre-Order Agreement,” under “Governing Law,” the contract states,

“For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”

Further, in December 2020Musk began selling off all of his possessions to help fund the city on Mars. A SpaceX attorney even stated he is actively drafting a Martian constitution. There is every reason to think Musk will follow through.

Common Heritage of Mankind

Ultimately, a city on Mars would simply be an extension of Earth, though separated by a different kind of sea. National jurisdiction and sovereignty are always limited in several areas: outer space, international airspace, international waters, international sea beds. All these areas are considered the “common heritage of mankind” (CHM). These are areas where activities are expected to be carried out in the collective interests of all states and benefits are expected to be shared equitably. Space exploration is a priority for many nations, as well as for the scientific community. There is zealous global interest in space travel, studying celestial objects, and even operating scientific laboratories in space and on planets.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) explained in Article II that outer space is not “subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This provision is referred to as the non-appropriation principle. The policy rationale is to dis-incentivize states from “reenacting terrestrial land rushes” and taking boundary disputes into space. Scholars argue that the outer space non-appropriation principle has passed into customary international law.

In this sense, Mars is equivalent to the high seas. According to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, “international waters” belong to everyone and no one. There is a history of rogue actors declaring “new nations” in domestic and international waters; a phenomenon often referred to as “seasteading.” None of these “nations” have ever been recognized as legitimate. The U.K. rejected a British man’s declaration that a WWII platform was now the “Principality of Sealand.” Italy rejected the “Republic of Rose Island” off its coast and eventually destroyed the “nation” with dynamite. U.S. courts have rejected seasteading as well, deciding that artificial islands on the coast of Florida were under U.S. jurisdiction. 

Private Property Rights in Space

International law is clear about private property rights in space – there are none. Private property rights can only be created by a state on the property over which the state has sovereignty. The 110 countries that have ratified the OST are not allowed to create private property rights. The OST is ratified by all states with space programs and reflects the consensus of resolutions of the U.N. General Assembly on the topic.

Under the OST, states are also liable for the activities of non-state actors, whether they are private corporations or international organizations. States must ensure private activities conform to the obligations of the OST. It is up to each party state to create their own domestic legislation to effectuate this. The U.S. created the ability of private citizens to go into space with proper government authorization and supervision through several pieces of domestic legislation. However, while the OST requires “continuing supervision” by nations of private actors while in space, U.S. laws omit regulating activities in space, instead focusing on launches and reentry.

In the early 2000s, the U.S. adjudicated one case of private property rights.  In 2003, Gregory Nemitz registered a claim of real property rights for the entirety of an asteroid. After NASA landed a spacecraft on the asteroid, Nemitz submitted an invoice to NASA for parking and storage fees. NASA’s general counsel denied Nemitz’ claim and Nemitz appealed in court. The court found there are no private property rights in space; thus, there was no basis for compensation.

However, the U.S. pivoted its non-appropriation policy in 2015 with the SPACE Act, where U.S. Congress “created” private property rights for resources in space. Backers of the SPACE Act compared it to the Homestead Act of 1862 (which the idea of “seasteading” is based on).  In 2017, the U.S. National Space Council proclaimed that outer space is not the common heritage of mankind. Then in 2020, NASA announced the Artemis Accords: new principles for the use of outer space including further solidifying private property rights in space. Nine other countries have signed on. Finally, in 2020 President Trump discussed space settlements during the State of the Union, saying, “now we must embrace the next frontier: America’s Manifest Destiny in the stars.”Following this trajectory (homesteading, Manifest Destiny, etc.), it seems possible the U.S. might actually support some of Musk’s plans for Mars if his actions bring more imperialistic value to the U.S. government than logistical headache. However, it seems unlikely the U.S. would support Musk creating a separate nation.

Some commenters have pondered why Musk provided the Starlink/Mars clause so early (well before any of his employees or customers have traveled to Mars). The prohibition of private property ownership in space appears to have already become customary international law – or is at least on the cusp of crystallizing. Musk will want to say that from his country’s original declaration of independence, he has always been a persistent objector to the prohibition of private property rights on Mars. This strategy would make financial sense, as Martian private property rights would reassure Earth-based investors.

Deconstructing Musk’s Plans for Mars

Musk elaborated in 2020 that he plans for his government to be a direct democracy. Commentators have questioned why Musk would choose that form of government, which may be terribly ineffective in response to resource scarcity and constant danger. Further, Musk has become well known as a CEO who will happily violate labor laws, health codes, and pollution regulations back on Earth in furtherance of his company’s financial bottom line. That does not sound like someone who will actually enact or uphold direct democracy.

So, what exactly is Musk up to? It is not occupation because Mars is not populated and Musk is not a state. It is not discovery because Mars is not terra nullius (available land that no one has claimed yet)and again Musk is a private actor. It is not filibustering (a private individual waging private wars against existing countries, i.e., William Walker: another deranged San Francisco Bay Area-based entrepreneur) because even though Musk is a private actor, he is not conquering. Musk’s actions are similar to seasteading (the concept of establishing new countries in international waters); however, as discussed, seasteading has never resulted in a recognized claim to a new country. The closest comparison to what he is doing is probably secession.

It is possible for new states to be created through secession from existing states. Today, the international community disfavors unilateral secession. Under international law, secession is more likely to be accepted if it is in pursuance of self-determination, democratic governance, and has the support of the people of the would-be state.

Musk could argue he is pursuing democratic goals and has the consent of his people (his Starlink customers: over 700,000 of whom already agreed to the contract). Musk can say he should be allowed to secede from the United States because his state will be even more democratic (direct democracy instead of representative democracy). He may even be able to posture himself as escaping human rights violations in the U.S., citing the recent international outcry about systemic racial injustices in the U.S.

However, Musk will have a harder time navigating domestic law as a citizen of the United States. The U.S. is a “perpetual union” that not allow unilateral secession. Musk will not be allowed to secede per domestic laws. When a secession attempt fails, there are other options. Musk, like other actors with the capacity to go into space, will be bound by the laws of the state to which he is a citizen. This means there is a risk that international commercial enterprises like SpaceX will engage in “jurisdiction shopping” for countries with lenient outer space regulations and perhaps even states who never signed the OST. These companies will search for administrations whose licensing and supervisory requirements may be deficient, defective, or intentionally inadequate.

As a final contingency, Musk is saddling up with a U.S. state with its own notorious rebellious streak. Musk is building a rocket production plant and the first fully commercial launch facility capable of launching spacecraft for long-term space travel in Boca Chica, Texas. It is obvious why Musk chose Texas. First, it is close to the equator for launch logistics. Second, it is still in the U.S. for the purposes of trades and permits. Finally, Texas has an adversarial relationship with the federal government and already attempted to secede from the U.S. (and secession is still a popular talking point). If any state would support a U.S.-state based secession attempt to support Musk, it is Texas.

In March 2021, Musk announced he is “creating the city of Starbase, Texas” on currently unincorporated land in Boca Chica, located in southern Texas near the Mexican border. The top county official protested Musk’s declaration, saying, “Sending a Tweet doesn’t make it so… If SpaceX and Elon Musk would like to pursue down this path, they must abide by all state incorporation statutes. The county is also already anticipating litigation against SpaceX for violating agreements with the county around permits and security.

Many commentors are asking why Musk so desperately wants this specific village. Musk’s new “city” is not simply “near the Mexican Border,” it is on it. Boca Chica borders the Gulf of Mexico to the east, Brownsville Ship Channel to the north, and the Rio Grande River and Mexico to the south. If Musk felt he needed a “free city-state” on Earth, to support his “free city-state” on Mars, it seems within the realm of possibilities he could attempt to secede “Starbase” from the U.S. and create his own country (which barely shares a land boundary with the U.S.). He already unilaterally and illegally declared a new city there.

Musk is already in violation of federal laws. SpaceX was denied a safety waiver by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December 2020 due to Boca Chica-based launch plans that exceeded maximum public safety risk, but following the permit denial, Musk proceeded anyway and the launch ended in a “fireball” explosion. The FAA delayed the next test planned for January 2021 until an investigation could be completed. A former FAA official noted the lack of FAA enforcement against Musk was “puzzling.” Even after mysteriously avoiding any penalties, Musk, upset about the delay, claimed the FAA was “a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.

Musk already bought out most Boca Chica residents and has allegedly been bullying the remaining few with property damage, trespassing, offers of over triple the value of their property, and threats of vague “other measures” if they do not accept. Once the last residents are forced out, a secession attempt then would only involve resistance by the local and federal governments. Is Musk capable of violent measures? Apparently, Musk and SpaceX employees have been spending time at a nearby shooting range. Further, neighbors have grown accustom to sirens warning them when Musk and company are about to do something that could (and sometimes does) cause imminent physical harm, and then evacuating or taking cover. Not to mention the “fireball” incident. Violence seems within the realm of possibilities.

Musk will likely offer financial incentives for Texas to tolerate his activities. He has already promised$30 million to local governments. Musk has also entwined himself with the federal government to the point of mutually assured destruction. SpaceX secured a $2.9 billion contract with NASA for the upcoming Moon missions (though currently contested by Jeff Bezos) and is already heavily involved with other NASA projects.  NASA has become very dependent on SpaceX and Musk.

With all of this in play and no intervention, the compromise will likely be Texas and the U.S. tolerating Musk’s “Starbase” as a semi-autonomous region. Then, Musk’s Starbase “succeeds” as a semi-autonomous region and extends its territory to Mars as a non-member of the OST. This results in the politics of Musk’s presence on Mars having no precedent, no established legal standards, and no established political principles for analysis.

Conclusion

Soon, the largest obstacle to reign in Musk will be the distance to Mars. Will it really be worth launching a billion-dollar interplanetary mission to make an arrest? Mars is several months away at its closest. It will be prohibitively expensive to reign Musk in after the fact. In 2019, a space law conference discussed governance of commercial activities in outer space and found the world is at an “inflection point” and needs to establish global standards of accountability for private actors. The keynote speaker stressed the importance of governance, not simply governments. She looked to the success of the International Space Station as inspiration.

Considering this, a multi-national consortium should be created to regulate all activities on Mars. The consortium should be established in such a way that even the resources required for long-term interstellar travel are regulated in order to prevent rogue actors from working outside the system to control space access and resources, which are instead intended to be shared with all of humanity. At this point, a security council resolution on the topic may also be prudent.

Musk’s plans are just the beginning. There are two other ultra-wealthy titans of industry behind him and plenty more to come. Musk is just the first and most reckless. The international community must act now. The future of space may be speculative, but the issues are urgent. Space is for everyone. We all must partner together to ensure it remains that way.

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The Coming Satellite Revolution: New Business Opportunities, Scenarios, and Threats

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With tens of thousands of satellites to be put into orbit in the next few years, a playfield that has seen just a handful of actors and a few hundred assets since the 1950s is dramatically changing. The new actors are expected to open their satellites to third-party applications. On the one hand, this would unleash new business opportunities, enabling the provision of brand-new services, as well as the optimization of existing ones. On the other hand, these very same applications, as well as state actors that undoubtedly will have an upper hand, could present a novel threat to the privacy and security of individuals, companies, and states.

By modern standards, satellite technology is not new. The first satellite was put into orbit in 1957 without the possibility of it being controlled from Earth, and it was nothing more than a simple radio transmitting from space. Foreseeable applications were limited: simply speeding up telecommunications – underwater cables were already providing trans-continental communications – and maybe TV broadcasting. While it was indeed a sci-fi achievement; humans had never reached orbit before, it came with (supposedly) limited, insubstantial applications for the general public, though its military applications (such as advanced surveillance and missiles launch detection) were already quite clear.

Fast forward less than 65 years, and satellites are a cornerstone of our way of life. Whenever you use assisted navigation technology, you are using a service provided by satellites. When you decide to go to the beach, it is because satellites have provided you assurance about the quality of the weather for the next 48-72 hours. Airplanes and ships rely on satellites for their communications, and the same is true when you are in a desert hundreds of kilometers away from any civilization. In the military, satellites are the cornerstone of modern warfare, providing sensing and communication capabilities in every possible scenario and geography. Though the best is yet to come.

Advancements in technology, in particular computing and miniaturization, but in high tech generally (including radio capabilities, the mathematics behind data transmission, and in materials science) have paved the way for never-before-seen types of satellites, such as CubeSat, a square-shaped satellite with a side of just 10 cm. Moreover, the relatively low cost, ease of management, and increased availability of vectors to place satellites in orbit (especially low earth orbit satellites, orbiting between 160 and 1,000 km from Earth) have opened the gates for a novel space race, motivated by the innumerable possible applications. Striking evidence of this race is SpaceX, an Elon Musk company that is deploying Starlink, a network of thousands of satellites (42,000 satellites are approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA). Or, similarly, think of Kuiper Systems LLC, a subsidiary of Amazon, that is planning to deploy over 3,200 satellites. To these two behemoths, one has to add the hundreds of startups that are planning to deploy their satellites or that already have them in orbit to experiment.

The interest in the field is evident in the Gulf region: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently launched the KhalifaSat Earth Observation imaging satellite and it also has a Space Center, established by the Dubai government to advance space science and advanced technology. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is launching its 16th satellite into space (the SGS-1), with the specific mission to “provide secure satellite communication on the Ka-band for the government of Saudi Arabia.”). Qatar relies on Es’hailSat – the Qatar Satellite Company, a communications satellite operator headquartered in Doha. Es’hailSat was established in 2010 with the goal of managing and developing Qatar’s presence in space. 

But what is the rationale behind this new space race? It is by and large the business and operating opportunities offered by satellites, and we can highlight a few.

Satellites for the Internet of Things (IoT): The diffusion of the IoT paradigm envisages 50+ billion newly installed devices, each requiring internet connectivity to generate their full expected value. In many settings (think of offshore platforms, harsh environments, and rural locations), the internet infrastructure is out of reach. That is where satellites come into play: they can act as the gateway to the internet for these low-end devices.

Precision agriculture: It is already possible to check for the healthiness of crops, harvest time, spot the very first cluster of illness, and optimize irrigation, via satellite. That translates into potential cost savings and increased revenue generation while helping to achieve sustainability and other development goals.

Security of the state: Satellites have a long history of successfully supporting intelligence, such as imagery recognition at borders, or providing a means for secure communications independent from ground infrastructure. The new application of satellites would be to support states’ economics, for instance checking for illegal fishing, illegal mining, or to control access to maritime exclusive economic interest zones, the latter being difficult to control with standard patrols, due to the distances and areas under the jurisdiction, but quite feasible if done via satellite.

Consumer business opportunities: The private sector can conceive previously unthinkable applications. For instance, a Japanese startup is placing into orbit satellites that could deliver a shower of small meteorites during big events (the equivalent of fireworks, but on steroids). Many more unforeseen business opportunities could develop when satellite constellations are deployed or made for hire.

Fostering the research ecosystem: Satellite technology inherently calls for a sustained rate of technology innovation. In Qatar, the scientific powerhouse for such a domain is Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), where frontier communication and computing technologies are developed, while related security and privacy threats, specifically relevant when dealing with high caliber assets like satellites, are assessed and needed countermeasures invented, tested, and deployed.

The new space race, or better yet, the race to own and operate a satellite constellation, seems a promising venture in many dimensions. From an economic perspective, satellite services promise brand new business opportunities. From a safety perspective, they are a cornerstone for safer transports and assisted navigation. When it comes to defense, satellites are going to play the dominant role aviation has had since World War II. Finally, this high-tech sector is key for the development of further technologies that have the potential to accelerate the rate of innovation and cross-fertilize different domains (think of communications, security, and materials). Overall, the satellite revolution can help a country such as Qatar advance robustly toward a knowledge-based economy, and reinforce the country’s presence in the segment of high value-added services and products, an objective the country is steadily progressing toward achieving.

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At Last A Malaria Vaccine and How It All Began

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A health worker vaccinates a man against the Ebola virus in Beni, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. (file photo) World Bank/Vincent Tremeau

This week marked a signal achievement.  A group from Oxford University announced the first acceptable vaccine ever against malaria.  One might be forgiven for wondering why it has taken so long when the covid-19 vaccines have taken just over a year … even whether it is a kind of economic apartheid given that malaria victims reside in the poorest countries of the world.

It turns out that the difficulties of making a malaria vaccine have been due to the complexity of the pathogen itself.  The malarial parasite has thousands of genes; by way of comparison, the coronavirus has about a dozen.  It means malaria requires a very high immune response to fight it off.  

A trial of the vaccine in Burkina Faso has yielded an efficacy of 77 percent for subjects given a high dose and 71 percent for the low-dose recipients.  The World Health Organization (WHO) had specified a goal of 75 percent for effective deployment in the population.  A previous vaccine demonstrated only 55 percent effectiveness.  The seriousness of the disease can be ascertained from the statistics.  In 2019, 229 million new malaria infections were recorded and 409 thousand people died.  Moreover, many who recover can be severely debilitated by recurring bouts of the disease.

Vaccination has an interesting history.  The story begins with Edward Jenner.  A country doctor with a keen and questioning mind, he had observed smallpox as a deadly and ravaging disease.  He also noticed that milkmaids never seemed to get it.  However, they had all had cowpox, a mild variant which at some time or another they would have caught from the cows they milked.

It was 1796 and Jenner desperate for a smallpox cure followed up his theory, of which he was now quite certain, with an experiment.  On May14, 1796 Jenner inoculated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of Jenner’s gardener.  He used scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow named Blossom.  Blossom’s hide now hangs in the library of St. George’s Hospital, Jenner’s alma mater. 

Phipps was inoculated on both arms with the cowpox material.  The result was a mild fever but nothing serious.  Next he inoculated Phipps with variolous material, a weakened form of smallpox bacteria often dried from powdered scabs.  No disease followed, even on repetition.  He followed this experiment with 23 additional subjects (for a round two dozen) with the same result.  They were all immune to smallpox.  Then he wrote about it. 

Not new to science, Edward Jenner had earlier published a careful study of the cuckoo and its habit of laying its eggs in others’ nests.  He observed how the newly hatched cuckoo pushed hatchlings and other eggs out of the nest.  The study was published resulting in his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  He was therefore well-suited to spread the word about immunization against smallpox through vaccination with cowpox. 

Truth be told, inoculation was not new.  People who had traveled to Constantinople reported on its use by Ottoman physicians.  And around Jenner’s time, there was a certain Johnny Notions, a self-taught healer, who used it in the Shetland Isles then being devastated by a smallpox epidemic.  Others had even used cowpox earlier.  But Jenner was able to rationally formalize and explain the procedure and to continue his efforts even though The Royal Society did not accept his initial paper.  Persistence pays and finally even Napoleon, with whom Britain was at war, awarded him a medal and had his own troops vaccinated. 

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