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Artificial intelligence: Between myth and reality

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Are machines likely to become smarter than humans? No, says Jean-Gabriel Ganascia: this is a myth inspired by science fiction. The computer scientist walks us through the major milestones in artificial intelligence (AI), reviews the most recent technical advances, and discusses the ethical questions that require increasingly urgent answers.

A scientific discipline, AI officially began in 1956, during a summer workshop organized by four American researchers – John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Nathaniel Rochester and Claude Shannon – at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, United States. Since then, the term “artificial intelligence”, probably first coined to create a striking impact, has become so popular that today everyone has heard of it. This application of computer science has continued to expand over the years, and the technologies it has spawned have contributed greatly to changing the world over the past sixty years.

However, the success of the term AI is sometimes based on a misunderstanding, when it is used to refer to an artificial entity endowed with intelligence and which, as a result, would compete with human beings. This idea, which refers to ancient myths and legends, like that of the golem [from Jewish folklore, an image endowed with life], have recently been revived by contemporary personalities including the British physicist Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), American entrepreneur Elon Musk, American futurist Ray Kurzweil, and  proponents of what we now call Strong AI or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). We will not discuss this second meaning here, because at least for now, it can only be ascribed to a fertile imagination, inspired more by science fiction than by any tangible scientific reality confirmed by experiments and empirical observations.

For McCarthy, Minsky, and the other researchers of the Dartmouth Summer Research Project (link is external)on Artificial Intelligence, AI was initially intended to simulate each of the different faculties of intelligence – human, animal, plant, social or phylogenetic – using machines. More precisely, this scientific discipline was based on the conjecture that all cognitive functions – especially learning, reasoning, computation, perception, memorization, and even scientific discovery or artistic creativity – can be described with such precision that it would be possible to programme a computer to reproduce them. In the more than sixty years that AI has existed, there has been nothing to disprove or irrefutably prove this conjecture, which remains both open and full of potential.

Uneven progress

In the course of its short existence, AI has undergone many changes. These can be summarized in six stages.

The time of the prophets

First of all, in the euphoria of AI’s origins and early successes, the researchers had given free range to their imagination, indulging in certain reckless pronouncements for which they were heavily criticized later. For instance, in 1958, American  political scientist and economist Herbert A. Simon – who received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1978 – had declared that, within ten years, machines would become world chess champions if they were not barred from international competitions.

The dark years

By the mid-1960s, progress seemed to be slow in coming. A 10-year-old child beat a computer at a chess game in 1965, and a report commissioned by the US Senate in 1966 described the intrinsic limitations of machine translation. AI got bad press for about a decade.

Semantic AI

The work went on nevertheless, but the research was given new direction. It focused on the psychology of memory and the mechanisms of understanding – with attempts to simulate these on computers – and on the role of knowledge in reasoning. This gave rise to techniques for the semantic representation of knowledge, which developed considerably in the mid-1970s, and also led to the development of expert systems, so called because they use the knowledge of skilled specialists to reproduce their thought processes. Expert systems raised enormous hopes in the early 1980s with a whole range of applications, including medical diagnosis.

Neo-connectionism and machine learning

Technical improvements led to the development of machine learning algorithms, which allowed  computers to accumulate knowledge and to automatically reprogramme themselves, using their own experiences.

This led to the development of industrial applications (fingerprint identification, speech recognition, etc.), where techniques from AI, computer science, artificial life and other disciplines were combined to produce hybrid systems.

From AI to human-machine interfaces

Starting in the late 1990s, AI was coupled with robotics and human-machine interfaces to produce intelligent agents that suggested the presence of feelings and emotions. This gave rise, among other things, to the calculation of emotions (affective computing), which evaluates the reactions of a subject feeling emotions and reproduces them on a machine, and especially to the development of conversational agents (chatbots).

Renaissance of AI

Since 2010, the power of machines has made it possible to exploit  enormous quantities of data (big data) with deep learning techniques, based on the use of formal neural networks. A range of very successful applications in several areas – including speech and image recognition, natural language comprehension and autonomous cars – are leading to an AI renaissance.

Applications

Many achievements using AI techniques surpass human capabilities – in 1997, a computer programme defeated the reigning world chess champion, and more recently, in 2016, other computer programmes have beaten the world’s best Go [an ancient Chinese board game] players and some top poker players. Computers are proving, or helping to prove, mathematical theorems; knowledge is being automatically constructed from huge masses of data, in terabytes (1012 bytes), or even petabytes (1015 bytes), using machine learning techniques.

As a result, machines can recognize speech and transcribe it – just like typists did in the past. Computers can accurately identify faces or fingerprints from among tens of millions, or understand texts written in natural languages. Using machine learning techniques, cars drive themselves; machines are better than dermatologists at diagnosing melanomas using photographs of skin moles  taken with mobile phone cameras; robots are fighting wars instead of humans; and factory production lines are becoming increasingly automated.

Scientists are also using AI techniques to determine the function of certain biological macromolecules, especially proteins and genomes, from the sequences of their constituents ‒ amino acids for proteins, bases for genomes. More generally, all the sciences are undergoing a major epistemological rupture with in silico experiments – named so because they are carried out by computers from massive quantities of data, using powerful processors whose cores are made of silicon. In this way, they differ from in vivo experiments, performed on living matter, and above all, from in vitro experiments, carried out in glass test-tubes.

Today, AI applications affect almost all fields of activity – particularly in the industry, banking, insurance, health and defence sectors. Several routine tasks are now automated, transforming many trades and eventually eliminating some.

What are the ethical risks?

With AI, most dimensions of intelligence ‒ except perhaps humour ‒ are subject to rational analysis and reconstruction, using computers. Moreover, machines are exceeding our cognitive faculties in most fields, raising fears of ethical risks. These risks fall into three categories – the scarcity of work, because it can be carried out by machines instead of humans; the consequences for the autonomy of the individual, particularly in terms of freedom and security; and the overtaking of humanity, which would be replaced by more “intelligent” machines.

However, if we examine the reality, we see that work (done by humans) is not disappearing – quite the contrary – but it is changing and calling for new skills. Similarly, an individual’s autonomy and  freedom are not inevitably undermined by the development of AI – so long as we remain vigilant in the face of technological intrusions into our private lives.

Finally, contrary to what some people claim, machines pose no existential threat to humanity. Their autonomy is purely technological, in that it corresponds only to material chains of causality that go from the taking of information to decision-making. On the other hand, machines have no moral autonomy, because even if they do confuse and mislead us in the process of making decisions, they do not have a will of their own and remain subjugated to the objectives that we have assigned to them.

Source: UNESCO

French computer scientist Jean-Gabriel Ganascia is a professor at Sorbonne University Paris. He is also a researcher at LIP6 the computer science laboratory at the Sorbonne, a fellow of the European Association for Artificial Intelligence a member of the Institut Universitaire de France and chairman of the ethics committee of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS Paris. His current research interests include machine learning, symbolic data fusion, computational ethics, computer ethics and digital humanities.

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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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