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Science and society: Mind the gap

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International regulations are failing to keep up with the mind-boggling pace of new scientific discoveries and potential “cowboy” applications.

As we go about our daily lives we never quite know what is around the corner. Is there anything we are doing—a technology we are using–which could one day cause us harm or threaten our existence?

When scientists discovered the ozone layer was being depleted, policymakers eventually heeded the dire warnings of damage to the environment and human health, and a global agreement was reached to take remedial action.

Science is double-edged in that it can bring enormous benefits to humans, but at the same time it can create things we did not intend, with harmful consequences.

Today, scientists are using new tools like 3D printing, artificial intelligence and increasingly powerful computers, microscopes and satellites to better understand our world. They are discovering possible solutions to challenges we know about and are uncovering emerging challenges.

While innovative science holds out the possibility of solving many of the climate change and ecosystems challenges we face, we must be careful not to unleash a Frankenstein. Thus, it is important that society at large understands the global implications of new discoveries and governments agree on regulations in line with the precautionary principle.

Under this principle, stringent risk assessment and the inclusion of diverse stakeholder perspectives should be applied in the development and handling of innovative applications and products. The precautionary principle states that when human activities may lead to unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, action should be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

Part of UN Environment’s work is horizon-scanning for the latest discoveries with potentially global implications. To this end, it works with scientists and organizations across the world to highlight the most important emerging challenges for decision-makers in government, business and civil society and provide them with the knowledge and options to act quickly.

At the micro-level, there have been some amazing discoveries recently. Take seed preservation, which is vital given that the world is losing plant species at an unprecedented rate, with about one in five thought to be at risk of extinction.

The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation requires that 75 per cent of threatened plant species be conserved ex situ by 2020. But seed banking (where seeds are dried and stored in a vault at minus 20°C) is not an option for many threatened plants such as oak, chestnut and avocado trees. These trees have desiccation-sensitive seeds which are killed if dried. According to models published in the journal Nature Plants, 36 per cent of critically endangered plant species, 33 per cent of all trees and about 10 per cent of medicinal plants fall into this category.

So alternative techniques are needed. Researchers are investigating cryopreservation for these hard-to-store seeds, which include staples such as coffee and cocoa. Cryopreservation involves removing the plant embryo from the rest of the seed, then freezing it at very low temperatures in liquid nitrogen.

Meanwhile in the United States, scientists have demonstrated how they can generate small quantities of electricity from a mushroom covered in bacteria.

Researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology in the United States used 3D printing to attach clusters of energy-producing bugs to the cap of a button mushroom. They made the mushroom “bionic” by supercharging it with 3D-printed clusters of cyanobacteria (a group of photosynthetic bacteria) that generate electricity, and swirls of graphene nanoribbons that can collect the current. The mushroom, a fungus, provides an environment in which the cyanobacteria can last several days longer than on a silicone and dead mushroom as suitable controls. Such discoveries herald the possibility of harnessing bacteria in new ways for clean energy generation in the future.

Synthetic biology

One challenge identified by UN Environment and partners is the advanced genetic-engineering technology known as synthetic biology. Did you know that scientists can modify microorganisms like E. coli by rewriting their genetic code to turn them into tiny living factories that produce biofuel? Or that Baker’s yeast can also be reprogrammed to derive an antimalarial drug called artemisinin, which is normally sourced from the sweet wormwood plant?

Synthetic biology is defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity as a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.

However, the intentional or accidental release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment could have significant negative impacts on both human and environmental health.

Synthetic biology has been identified as an emerging issue with potentially global implications. As such, it will feature alongside governance of geo-engineering, permafrost peatlands, maladaptation (actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes), the circular economy of nitrogen, and landscape connectivity in UN Environment’s flagship Frontiers Report due to be released in March 2019.

UN Environment

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Say “hello” with the sixth generation of mobile network (6G)

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The recent introduction of 5G across the globe  has directed the interests of telecom experts to the development of the “6G network.” The 6G network is expected to be 100x faster than the max speed of 5G (more than the data rate of 1000 Gbps), has higher reliability, and lower latency compared with 5G. With such an upgrade, it will bring the concept of “Ambient Internet of Everything (AIoE),” providing a better connectivity experience to users.

It could bring science fiction, shown in movies such as “Star Wars and Avengers”, to reality, from flying automobiles to edge devices, and from real-time holograms to internet-connected human bodies and brains — the potential is endless.

Apart from boosting speed, 6G will come with a host of innovative features to experience next-generation communication network, thus, improving connectivity in artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and so on. It is expected to have a major impact on industries such as Media and Telecom, Automotive, Manufacturing, and Healthcare.

Although there is still a lot of ongoing research around the 6G network connectivity, it is at least a decade away from its commercialization. However, companies are constantly researching on adding features in 6G networks to take the first-mover advantage. Below are some of the key developments by companies in the 6G arena:

ThemeDescription
Partnership between LG,These players have recently come together to
Keysight Technologies, and the collaborate in developing technologies related to
Korea Advanced Institute of terahertz — a key frequency band for 6G
Science & Technology (KAIST) communications
(South Korea’s leading researchThey have targeted to complete 6G research by
university)  •2024 LG mentioned that its “6G network is expected to be commercialized in 2029”
Partnership between SamsungBoth are already working closely on the THz
Electronics and the University of phased array module development to explore 6G
California, Santa Barbara use cases and deployment scenarios
(UCSB)In fact, they recently demonstrated an end-to-end 140GHz wireless link on next-generation 6G technology using a fully digital beamforming solution
Research Facility set up byThe centre would invest time and efforts in the
Vodafone Germany in Dresden development of future 6G systems in the areas of connected agriculture, automation, OpenRan and much more

Not just organizations but governments across the globe are also racing to gear up for the 6G network. Alliances are formed by the government bodies to move ahead in the 6G race.

Being in the leading position, China launched its satellite last year to test airwaves for potential 6G transmission. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology has formed two teams to oversee the research and study of 6G connectivity.

United States Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), including tech leaders such as Google, Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung Electronics, and AT&T, was exclusively formed to manage North America’s progress toward 6G. The alliance has the vision to achieve North American 6G wireless leadership.

The US and Japan have collaboratively invested $4.5 billion for the development of 6G. The government bodies from both countries said that they want to strengthen digital technology in ICT and next-generation mobile networks.

The US also formed alliances with the Republic of Korea to work on emerging connectivity technologies such as 5G and 6G. Both President Biden and President Moon have committed to collaborate on developing open, efficient, and transparent 5G and 6G network architectures using Open-RAN technology.

South Korea is planning to launch over 100 mini-satellites and 14 low earth orbit communication satellites in the next decade. It aims to set up a satellite communication network and get ready for 6G in the field of marine traffic and test autonomous ship control systems.

However, political battles and technological rivalries might be intense for 6G commercialization, and it could be certainly between the US and China, as it is happening for 5G deployment.

It would be too early to comment on the market dynamics of the 6G network, but it is expected to be influenced by government bodies, organizations, and academic sectors.

So far, there have been five generations of communication network, with the current industry focus on the fifth generation of mobile network, and by the next decade focus will be on its succeeding network — 6G. It will fulfill the limitation of 5G, especially in the practical application of AI. The 6G network’s minimal latency and optimal data rate are expected to transform the Telecommunication sector while boosting the performance and functionality of connected devices.

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Disintegrating Big Tech: What Future Holds for the American Technology Giants’?

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The United States lawmakers in June 2021 introduced five bills pertaining to Antitrust regulations for the purpose of curbing and curtailing the tremendous power in the hands of few big tech companies. The bills after being enacted will specifically deal with antitrust intricacies surrounding big technology giants across the nation. That means this bill is meant only for selected entities which fulfill the criteria of being a dominant technology enterprise. The entity must have a market capitalization of more than USD 600 Billion and it has to serve at least 50 Million U.S users or 1,00,000 U.S business each month. By terms of market capitalization, only 10 companies in the world come under this categorization namely – Apple (USD 2.3 Trillion), Microsoft (USD 2 Trillion), Saudi Aramco (USD 1.9 Trillion), Amazon (USD 1.7 Trillion), Alphabet (USD 1.5 Trillion), Facebook (USD 0.9 Trillion), Tencent Holdings (USD 0.8 Trillion), Tesla (USD 0.7 Trillion), Alibaba Group (0.7 Trillion),  Berkshire Hathaway (USD 0.6 Trillion). The bipartite proposal comes under the motto “A Stronger Online Economy: Opportunity, Innovation, Choice” and was a result of 16-month long investigation conducted by Antitrust sub-committee of House Judiciary Committee under the leadership of Democratic Party Representative for Rhode Island David Cicilline (who also happens to be Antitrust Subcommittee chairman) in collaboration with Republican Ken Buck into some of the biggest tech corporations in the United States such as Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook. The announcement of the proposed legislation was done by David Cicilline via his official twitter account through which he laid down in short the purpose of this bill. Ken Buck also exhibited his excitement towards the legalization of this bill. Various other legislative members took to twitter to stand up for the bill like representative Joe Neguse expressed his support in favour of the bill. The senator from Minnesota Amy Klobuchar (famous for her antitrust expertise) also tweeted the passing of the bill by the senate. The investigation concluded that these entities are dominant in their respective relevant markets. For instance, Facebook holds the monopoly status in social media applications while Google is a dominant entity in internet search market and Amazon is the biggest e-commerce platform having stronghold in retail online market. The regulators were of the view that these big corporations hold excessive power and act as a gatekeeper in their respective relevant markets thereby manipulating the market as per their whims and wishes. They charge exorbitant prices, eliminate small enterprises, coerce tough contractual obligations, draw out valuable data and use it for monetary gains. This as a result is causing harm, to small competitors, consumers and the overall market & prevailing economic conditions in general. They are also alleged for breaking laws and taking aggressive steps to maintain their monopoly status.  As a matter of fact the five bills delve into the various antitrust arenas like big data, mergers and anti-competitive behaviour allegedly exhibited by these companies among others. So, let’s get down to each of these bills.

BILLS

1.American Choice and Innovation Online Act – Led by David Cicilline, this act will keep a check on companies which try to manipulate market for their own good or for promoting their own products. Apart from this it will also prevent companies from excluding other products which fall in their line of business, discriminating between similarly placed business users, restricting business users’ access to services and violating any of the provisions stipulated in this act. In case of non-compliance of the provisions of this act, the penalty is stipulated at a fine of upto 15% of the company’s United States revenue for the previous calendar year or 30% of the company’s United States revenue for any line of business affected by the unlawful conduct.

2.Platform Competition and Opportunity Act – Led by Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, this act will stop big dominant entities from merging with smaller competitors or acquiring them. Basically the provisions mentioned therein will proscribe collaboration or alliance of such entities which compete with each other, fall in the same relevant market and the merger/acquisition of which will create a risk of forming a dominant entity in that relevant market. This act will make it tougher for entities to snap up their competitors for the ultimate purpose of killing the competition.

3.Ending Platform Monopolies Act – Led by Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington DC, this can be construed as the most important bill among all the 5 bills. This act will prohibit the company from unfairly favoring its own product over competitors on its platform. For instance, Google gives its own services greatest priority at the top of a search results page — the reason Google Maps and reviews appear first on searches for local businesses and YouTube tops those for music or video. Further, it was observed by the lawmakers that these dominant companies often steer away users to their own products instead of showing the true search results as asked. The provisions contained in this act would prevent this self-preferencing habit of entities to avoid creation of any conflict of interest.

4.The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act – Led by Representative Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania, this act provides a hassle-free option for users and consumers to switch to other platforms or applications. The provisions therein mandate the companies to provide a transparent third-party accessible interface for the purpose of secure data transfer and interoperability with competitor entities. This is done keeping in mind the ease of changing platform in case of modifications in privacy policy or better features by the rival. The act specifically proscribes gathering user data through interoperability interface except for privacy and security reasons.

5.Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act – Led by Representative Joe Neguse of Colorado, this act aims to provide a greater monetary support and resources to the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice so that as to help them efficiently perform the work they are supposed to perform. The fees is stipulated as per the total combined valuation or size of the transaction. If the combined valuation is USD 92 Million to 184 Million, then the fee would be between USD 30,000 to 40,000. If the valuation is between USD 184 Million to 919 Million, then fees would be USD 1,00,000 to 1,25,000. And if the merger value crosses more than USD 919 Million, the fees would be USD 2,50,000 to 2,80,000. Thus it will serve the purpose of greater flexibility, collection of required intel and operational resources by boosting the fund for these two US antitrust enforcers/regulators. 

MAIN OBJECTIVE BEHIND THIS STEP

The main objective behind such initiative is to level the playing field for all the players (whether small or big) and ensure these dominant technology players play by the same rules. The main target of these proposed legislations are those technology enterprises which come under the category of dominant position. It aims at the most profitable ventures of all these tech companies including Amazon’s The lawmakers want to break big tech, split it into various pieces, dismantle their structure and prevent them from unfairly favoring their own products over the competitors on their platforms. Also, by way of this legislation the big technology enterprises will face a huge difficulty in merging or forming alliances with competitors no matter their size.

CONCLUSION

Considering the stringent provisions and ever-increasing scrutiny, these bills hold the power to shake the tech behemoths from deep beneath their structures. The bills are now in preliminary stage and hence will be sent to House Judiciary Committee and after that to both the House i.e Senate (Upper House) and House of Representatives (Lower House). If passed by both these houses, then the President Joe Biden will sign the bill making it a law of the land at United States. The final voting will be held on June 23rd 2021. Post legalization this bill would reshape the governance and operation of tech companies so that there is strict abidance of the prescribed rules and regulations. This move could revolutionize the United States technology industry in a manner never seen before.

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To Protect Democracies, Digital Resiliency Efforts Are Needed Now

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Across the globe, more than three billion people have no internet access. But with the increased availability of smart phones and other projects such as SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet system, that soon will change. To be sure, this unprecedented level of connectivity has the power to be a boon for democratic advancement and economic development. However, without pre-emptive action, it will likely result in the ills we’ve seen with rapid connectivity elsewhere that threaten democratic norms, institutions, and governance. Authoritarians have an answer to these problems: more control. Democracies need an answer too: building pre-emptive digital resilience and preparedness.

Democracies have been consistently caught off guard by rapid digitization. The disruption of information ecosystems has amplified political and economic inequity, leading to various information disorders such as disinformation, declining trust in journalism, increasing social toxicity and dissatisfaction with government, etc. In Myanmar, for example, internet connectivity empowered individuals, but rampant hate speech also facilitated the military’s campaign against the Rohingya. In the Philippines and Brazil, authoritarian populists have used social media to exploit their publics, foment hate, and win elections.

In attempting to manage the consequences of rapid digitization, governments are increasingly eliciting from the authoritarian playbook – implementing haphazard social media and cyber laws, surveillance, and censorship to the detriment of political freedoms. Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2020 report outlined a “dismal year for internet freedom” and showed countries like Brazil, Nigeria, Turkey, and Kyrgyzstan following China’s model of blocking internet services and conducting pervasive monitoring on their people’s virtual activities.

Democracies have not provided clear answers to rapid digitization, despite the fact that successes in countries like Finland and Taiwan demonstrate that the internet can – if combined with a thoughtful, pre-emptive, whole of society approach – actively strengthen social cohesion and democratic governance. The introduction of digital infrastructure must be accompanied by digital literacy campaigns. Governments need to be trained in cybersecurity, online communication, and on key policy issues such as open data and privacy. Civil society, especially those working with local communities and marginalized populations, need to be involved early in national digital coordination plans in order to reach more people and to ensure digital inclusion is a core consideration of these plans. These plans should include mobilization of digital safety campaigns, education initiatives, and digital skills trainings. 

To be sure, taking a pro-active, coordinated approach will require resources and time. Embracing the transparency that comes with digitization and the sheer amount of data available might also seem daunting at the beginning. However, countries and communities soon to come online are in advantageous positions to learn from other countries’ mistakes and better understand the opportunities, risks, and threats that digitization brings. There is no reason for them to experience the same negative effects of rapid digitization that we’ve been observing for years. It is better to invest upfront than be left dealing with the democratic backsliding gripping Myanmar, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and many other countries today.

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