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Robots wander the halls in Jiangsu’s new futuristic environmental monitoring centre

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“Oh, here comes one now,” the engineer says, pointing up. In a blink, a capsule about the size of a paint can has shot across the ceiling in a pneumatic tube. Inside is a sample of soil collected from one of hundreds of monitoring spots across Jiangsu province, on China’s central eastern coast.

The capsule lands in a device like a vending machine, and a lab technician swipes his key card to lift it out. Here on the 8th floor of the Jiangsu Environmental Monitoring Centre, he’ll test the sample for the presence of volatile organic compounds. Certain compounds are extremely poisonous and can cause liver, brain and kidney damage. They can also be extremely difficult to detect without complex equipment and processes.

Other samples of the soil have been delivered throughout the building for other tests. Pollutants such as volatile organic compounds or heavy metals may have found their way into the soil through industrial waste, contaminated groundwater or other methods. The Centre is working to identify and prevent risks to health and the environment from soil, air and water pollution.

The pneumatic tubes also ship the air samples around the 11-floor complex. In contrast to the steampunk conveyance of the tubes, water samples are shuttled around on the backs of autonomous shin-high robots.

Just outside the soil lab, one of them is impatiently trying to navigate around a visiting group of students who have accidentally blocked its path. The robot inches forward. Suddenly, it sees a gap in the forest of legs and whirs off down the hall to deliver its cargo. Absentminded students are hardly an obstacle. The little robot will even navigate stairs on its own.

Robots and pneumatic tubes may seem only a novelty, but they are part of a larger system of automation that China’s most densely populated province hopes will help them proactively neutralize environmental problems.

The automation is anything but a gimmick. Jiangsu has spent over US$120 million (CNY840 million) on retooling their monitoring efforts, rolling out advanced remote sensors and lab equipment in early 2019. Jiangsu is now the first province in China to have automatic air quality monitoring stations in every county and city. Over 200 stations are gathering data from sensors located across the province—even on drones and unmanned ships. This data is fed into a custom US$4.3 million (CNY30 million) monitoring and analysis programme that allows the Centre to predict environmental conditions. They release monthly results and a weekly forecast to the public, available on a website, app and through other media.

“Talk about the environment has reached a fever pitch, but it’s critical we back this up with action.” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment. “Here in Jiangsu we have a massive investment in the environment and the well-being of the 80 million people living here. It’s leadership and it’s what we need more of.”

The weekly forecasts don’t only inform the public. They inform government policy. When air quality is forecasted to worsen to a certain level, colour codes are issued and the government implements predetermined controls to rein in pollutants. A specific list of companies may have to reduce production for low-level yellow alerts. At orange, certain vehicles will be prohibited from the roads. In an extreme red code situation, steel and cement plants may have to reduce output or shut down entirely and construction can be halted to reduce dust.

These worst-case scenarios are rare. Last year there were only a handful of yellow and orange codes. Even so, Wei Cheng, Director of the Centre, is not dismissive of the problem. “Air pollution is a challenge for all humankind,” he says.

But he is hopeful. “I’m confident that air and water pollution will be improved. As President Xi has said, it’s a shared future. We need to pull together resources to tackle this problem we all face. All countries should do their utmost to protect the environment.”

UN Environment

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Artificial intelligence and moral issues. Towards transhumanism?

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As artificial intelligence travels through the solar system and gets to explore the heliosphere (enclosing the planets), it will adapt by making decisions that enable it to do its job. Many people in the field of astrobiology are in favour of the so-called post-biological cosmos vision. Is it because of the desire to conquer space that we humans are sowing the seeds of our own destruction in favour of artificial intelligence? Or are we unconsciously following some sort of master plan in which flesh and blood beings are destined to become extinct and be hybridised by silicon and synthetic materials? As for the mind, memory, consciousness, could there also be a place for humans in a robot’s brain? Should our mortal shells be replaced by something more robust and durable, could we still consider ourselves human?

The proof of this is a series of fairly recent experiments that seem to suggest that robots will not only be able to acquire human consciousness but also reproduce it. Ottawa, Canada, June 2017: Carlton University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering announced the development of a technology that would revolutionise the future of space travel. Engineers hope to create a 3D printer that will one day be able to build structures on the moon using only minerals from there, but probably even more shocking is the fact that it will have the ability to self-replicate.

As man goes ever further in his attempts to colonise space, technology is being developed – as mentioned – through which a 3D printer can self-replicate using materials collected on the surface of a specific celestial body. In this way, printers will be able to double in number from time to time. This would mean that by using artificial intelligence and 3D printing, installations and bases can be created on celestial bodies, including satellites, planets and asteroids.

Although there are strong doubts that mankind will be able to develop a technology that makes machines capable of self-replicating in the near future, there is a project known as RepRap that has been going on since 2005 to design a 3D printer that can make everyday objects and even create some spare parts. 3D printing is a huge step forward for the development of scientific progress. What is even more incredible, however, is that this type of printer is capable of reproducing itself and we are therefore dealing with a technology that is capable of surpassing its own purpose and will also be able to build better machines that are faster and more powerful.

In the 1940s – over 20 years before man set foot on the moon – the Hungarian scientist John von Neumann (1903-57) – one of the greatest mathematicians in modern history and one of the prominent scientific personalities of the 20th century, as well as creator of the game theory – believed that self-replicating machines would enable man to venture beyond our solar system to explore the entire galaxy.

According to Japanese-born astrophysicist Michio Kaku – a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard University: “Man is led to believe that, in order to explore the stars, you need a huge spaceship, but this is not the case. The most effective way to explore the galaxy with so many planets is to send a small probe like John von Neumann’s”.

Von Neumann’s probe is a self-replicating machine that explores space and uses materials collected in the universe to create identical copies of itself. For example, if a probe is sent to Jupiter, once it gets to its destination it will collect material from that planet to give birth to the next generation of itself. At that juncture, the new probe will continue its journey to other worlds, and once it reaches its destination, it will in turn collect material to self-replicate again and again. In this way, the chances of reaching the edge of the heliosphere will increase exponentially. Many believe that one of the obstacles of interplanetary space travel is the time it would take a spacecraft to travel from one place to another. However – apart from the help of warp drive and wormholes (faster-than light travels according to the Einstein-Rosen bridge theory) – at that juncture, instead of spaceships full of humans, could not the universe be explored and populated with probes like von Neumann’s? We now know that flesh and blood people are not suitable for space travel. Exploration scientists have been working for decades on the project of turning mankind into mechanical or transhuman beings in order to create an entire cloned race of robots.

Transhumanism is a philosophical and intellectual movement that advocates improving the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies that can greatly enhance longevity and cognition. It also predicts the inevitability of such technologies in the future.

In essence, it will be possible to upload our consciousness (in the form of digital information) onto a computer and transmit data to a specific location in space, as we shall see later.

In the 17th century, the French philosopher Descartes developed the concept of mind-body dualism, according to which human consciousness is not produced by the body, but is distinct from it: the body and mind of a human being, therefore, do not interact with each other because they are two separate things.

While observing – with perplexity – the progress and horrors of the industrial revolution, on June 13, 1863 the English author Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote in the Christchurch (New Zealand) newspaper, The Press, a prophetic letter to the editor entitled Darwin Among the Machines, in which – inter alia – he stated with great foresight and vision:

The views of machinery which we are thus feebly indicating will suggest the solution of one of the greatest and most mysterious questions of the day. We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race. Inferior in power, inferior in that moral quality of self-control, we shall look up to them as the acme of all that the best and wisest man can ever dare to aim at. No evil passions, no jealousy, no avarice, no impure desires will disturb the serene might of those glorious creatures. […]. We take it that when the state of things shall have arrived which we have been above attempting to describe, man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man. He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state. […] Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question. Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.” (Samuel Butler, A First Year in Canterbury Settlement With Other Early Essays, A.C. Fifield, London 1941, pp. 182-185).

John Von Neumann argued he started from Descartes’ theory and Butler’s assertions to arrive at the assertion that self-replicating machines need to be used to explore other planets. However, Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok stated: “If we were to create an artificial life form and if it developed, evolved and grew, it could become superior to modern man. This would create a moral problem, since human beings tend to worship what they believe is greater than themselves.”

Are we probably close to a new phase in human evolution during which we will become transhuman? Prof. Kaku replied: “I think that by the end of the century we will be able to digitise consciousness. Everything known about man such as personality, memories, emotions, and even the nerve pathways will be digitised. What will it be used for? To place our consciousness on a laser beam and direct it into the sky: in a second, human consciousness will arrive on a specific celestial body where it will be downloaded into a central system and then inserted into a mechanical avatar. I call it laser transfer”.

If the technology of transhumanism is successful, the content of our brain will soon be stored in the cloud. Hence, as the human civilisation prepares for the next phase of its evolution, will those we consider human beings become extinct or transhuman? That is, with intelligence developed in AI-driven cybernetic bodies. Numerous scholars deny this possibility, arguing that a human being is more than a mix of flesh and bones. Man means thought, ideas and especially feelings that make him a being different from any of his fellows and all other living creatures in the universe. This awareness should reassure and motivate us as we prepare to fulfil mankind’s ultimate destiny, i.e. to turn ourselves into a future generation that will explore worlds for now far away from us.

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American Big Tech: No Rules

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Over the past few years, a long-term trend towards the regulation of technology giants has clearly emerged in many countries throughout the world. Interestingly, attempts to curb Big Tech are being made in the United States itself, where corporate headquarters are located. The Big 5 tech companies are well-known to everyone—Microsoft, Amazon, Meta (banned in Russia), Alphabet and Apple. From small IT companies, they quickly grew into corporate giants; their total capitalisation today is approximately $8 trillion (more than the GDP of most G20 countries). The concern of American regulators about the power of corporations arose not so much because of their unprecedented economic growth, but because of their ability to influence domestic politics, censor presidents, promote fake news, and so on.

No laws, no rules

Traditionally, Americans have been less eager to put pressure on Big Tech than, for example, the Europeans, who introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018; it was followed by the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Service Act (DSA).

In the United States, there is no law that protects the personal data of users at the federal level; regulation is carried out only at the level of individual states. California, Virginia, Utah and Colorado have adopted their own privacy laws. Florida and Texas have social media laws that aim to punish internet platforms for censoring conservative views.

Dozens of federal privacy data protection and security bills have been defeated without bipartisan support.

One of the few areas where US legislators have reached a consensus is protection of children’s online privacy. This bill largely repeats many of the points of the DSA, such as establishing requirements for the transparency of algorithms and forcing companies to oversee their products.

It is also worth mentioning the accession of the USA in May 2021 to an international initiative to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content on the Internet (Christchurch Call), but this call is not legally binding.

Perhaps all the successes of the US in the “pacification” of Big Tech are limited to the abovementioned steps.

As for the antimonopoly legislation, it is becoming tougher, but it is also being applied very selectively. The numbers speak for themselves: there have been 750 mergers in the high technology sector in the last 20 years.

Thus, we can conclude that today in the United States, there is still no comprehensive regulation of digital platforms.

Causes of Regulatory Inertia

There are several reasons for America’s soft attitude towards the dominant companies: First, the intellectual basis of U.S. antitrust policy over the past 40 years has largely been based on the ideas of the Chicago school of economics, according to which it is inappropriate for the state to overregulate companies if they show economic efficiency and do not violate the interests of consumers. The main inspirer of the Chicago school, Robert Bork, has many followers, so lawsuits filed by the Federal Trade Commission or individual state prosecutors often end in nothing. For example, in June 2021, the court dismissed two antitrust lawsuits against Facebook: claims against Facebook related to the acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram by the company, which could have forced it to sell these assets. These were filed in December 2020 by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a group of attorneys general from 48 states. U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled that the FTC’s lawsuit was “not legally sound” because it does not provide enough evidence to support claims of Facebook’s monopoly position in the social media market.

Second, Americans profess the “California model” of Internet governance, which also implies minimal government intervention in the affairs of Silicon Valley companies.

Third, one can note the close relationship between government structures and private business. Such a connection is provided both by the phenomenon of “revolving doors” (when civil servants go to work in corporations and vice versa), and by the active lobbying activities of corporations. The American “Tech five” actively interact with the US Congress and the European Parliament, allocating impressive amounts for lobbying and hiring personnel with political connections. In 2020, Big Tech’s total spending for these purposes in the US Congress amounted to more than $63 million.

Finally, given the fragmentation of the political and economic space, techno-economic blocs are being formed, which are precisely centred on such tech giants. They are the ones who provide America with economic and technological leadership, dominance and influence in the global digital space, which explains the cautious attitude of the authorities towards the industry.

Too much freedom…

At the same time, appetites for pacifying the tech giants are also growing in the United States. They stem from allegations of a variety of significant abuses. For example, the report of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, issued in October 2020, highlights the following violations: dissemination of disinformation and hatred, monopolisation of markets, violation of consumer rights.

Concerns about the political and economic power of dominant companies arose against the backdrop of declining wages, declining start-ups, declining productivity, increasing inequality and rising prices. In addition, some experts point out “concentrated corporate power actually harms workers, innovation, prosperity and sustainable democracy in general.” There are fears among some politicians and experts that the US economy has become too monopolised and, therefore, less attractive to the rest of the world, which reduces the ability of the United States to make a constructive contribution to the development of basic international standards in the field of competition and technology.

Another issue that worries the American establishment is content moderation. The 2020 presidential election and the storming of the US Capitol have shown the power of social media and its impact on the public consciousness. Joe Biden, like his predecessor Donald Trump, has threatened to reform or completely remove Section 230 from the text of the Communications Decency Act, according to which social networks are not “publishers” of information, and therefore are not responsible for the statements of third parties that use their services. While the issue of abolishing or reforming this section has not been resolved, 18 bills have already arisen around it from various members of Congress.

As mentioned above, there is no comprehensive regulation of tech giants in the United States, but this does not mean that they feel at ease on American soil and are not fined. Here we can recall a 2019 case, when the FTC fined Facebook a record $5 billion due to a data leak of millions of social network users to Cambridge Analytica, which advised Donald Trump’s headquarters. The fine was the largest in US history and, cumulatively, was almost five times (as of February 2021) more than all fines imposed by the EU under its Privacy Regulation (GDPR). In addition, a series of antitrust lawsuits against Google followed in late 2020. Thus, it is obvious that companies in some cases experience significant pressure from regulators.

From rhetoric to practical steps?

Washington Post columnists predicted that 2022 could be a watershed year in the regulation of Gatekeepers in the USA. However, if we sum up the interim results of the fight between Joe Biden and the tech giants, then progress is not so obvious yet. Of all the proposals currently before Congress, this is an antitrust bill (the American Innovation and Choice Online Act), which would prohibit Apple, Alphabet and Amazon from providing advantages to their own services and products presented in app stores and e-commerce platforms, to the detriment of those offered by their competitors. According to some experts, this bill has good prospects, and perhaps as early as this summer, it will be put to a vote.

The US authorities have demonstrated that they are not ignoring the problem and are responding to it. A June 9 presidential decree on combating monopoly practices, and the appointment of well-known critics of Big Tech to key positions such as Lina Khan (FTC Chair), Tim Wu (Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy), and Jonathan Kanter (Chair of the U.S. Justice Department’s Antitrust Division) are proof of this. The American government earns points for showing that it’s proactive. However, all of the aforementioned measures are only the first cautious steps.

The solution to the problem of tech sector regulation is complicated not only by the lobbying power of technology companies, but also by the fact that there is no unanimity in the US Congress regarding how narrow and rigid the rules should be. There are fierce debates between representatives of both parties on this issue.

It is hardly worth expecting the United States to quickly adopt something similar to the Digital Market Act, Digital Services Act or GDPR at the federal level. This should be seen as a matter for the more distant future; not just when a consensus emerges on the issue of regulation within the leading parties, but also when the current model of interaction between regulators and large private business has been completely revised.

Today, America lags behind its European peers in rule-making. It is likely that the global leadership of the EU in the field of technical regulation could potentially spur the US government to take more active steps. As experts note, such a “gap” leaves American companies exposed to other countries where they carry out their activities. The status of the US as a leader in the field of digital products and services is threatened when policies and rules in the digital marketplace are determined by other states.

From our partner RIAC

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Artificial intelligence and moral issues: The cyborg concept

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San Francisco, California, March 27, 2017. Entrepreneur Elon Musk, one of the masterminds behind projects such as Tesla and SpaceX, announced his next venture, namely Neuralink. The company aims to merge humans with electronics, creating what Musk calls the neural lace. It is a device that injected into the jugular vein would reach the brain and then unfold into a network of electrical connections connected directly to human neurons. The idea is to develop enhanced brain-computer interfaces to increase the extent to which the biological brain can interact and communicate with external computers. The neural lace will go down to the level of brain neurons: it will be a mesh that will be able to connect directly to brain matter and then connect with a computer. That human being will be a cyborg. The cyborg is a biological mix of man and machine.

Prof. Kaku wonders: “What drives us to merge with computers rather than compete with them? An inferiority complex? Nothing can prevent machines from becoming ever smarter until they are able to programme and make the robot themselves. This is the reason why humans try to take advantage of superhuman abilities”.

As we all know, although Elon Musk has made it clear what the dangers of creating an artificial intelligence that gets out of control are, he is also convinced that if the project is developed properly, humans will enjoy the power of an advanced computer technology, thus taking a step further than current biology. Nevertheless, while Neuralink technology is still at an embryonic stage, there are many people who insist that merging man and machine is not something so remote and are convinced that one way or another this has been happening for decades.

In 2002, Prof. Kevin Warwick – an engineer and Professor of cybernetics at Coventry University in the UK – demonstrated that a neural implant could not only be controlled by a prosthesis, but also by another human being.

In that same year, he and his wife had a set of electrodes – 100 each to be precise – implanted in their nervous system so that it could in turn be connected to a computer. Then all they did was connect the two nervous systems so that they could communicate with each other. Hence every time the wife closed her hand, the husband’s brain always received an impulse. If his wife opened and closed her hand three times in a row, he would receive three impulses. In this way they were able to connect two nervous systems. Who knows what might happen in the future.

Instead of talking and sending messages or emails, will we soon be able to communicate with each other? It is only a matter of time before cybernetic technology offers us an endless array of possible options. This would enable us to order something just by thinking; to listen to music directly in our brain or to search the Internet just by thinking about what we are interested in finding.

Prof. Kaku states: ‘We are heading to a new form of immortality, i.e. that of information technology. By digitalising all known information in our consciousness, then probably the soul becomes computerised. At that juncture the soul and information could be separated from the body and when the body dies the essence, soul and memory would live on indefinitely”.

In that case, humans will be about to replace body and mind, piece by piece, as they prepare to transform into cyborgs.

The marriage between man and machine has turned into something that is increasingly happening in the area of personal computers, tablets, mobile phones and even implants that provide an extraordinarily large amount of data ranging from a person’s vital signs to geolocation, from diet to recreational behaviour, etc.. We are therefore destined to merge with the machines we are creating. These technologies will help us make the leaps forward that can take us beyond our planet and the moon – as we will see more clearly later on. This is the future that awaits us: a future in which evolution will no longer take place by natural selection as Darwin’s theory maintains, but by human management. This will happen in the coming decades, in the short-term future.

On Icarus (vol. 224, issue No. 1, May 2013) – a journal dedicated to the field of planetary sciences, and published under the auspices of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society – mathematician Vladimir Ščerbak and astrobiologist Maksim A. Makukov, both from Kazakhstan, published a study conducted on the human genome: The ‘Wow! signal’ of the terrestrial genetic code.

The conclusions of the study are shocking. There is allegedly a hidden code in our DNA containing precise mathematical patterns and an unknown symbolic language. Examination of the human genome reveals the presence of a sort of non-terrestrial imprint on our genetic code, which would function just like a mathematical code. The probability that this sequence may repeat nine times in the randomness of our genetic code – as “’assumed” by Darwin’s theory – is one in ten billion. The DNA certainly has origins that are not random and have nothing to do with the 19th century Darwin’s theories, tiredly repeated to this day.

Our genes have been artificially mutated, and if the theory of the two Kazakh scholars were true, the fact that man is inclined to turn into a cyborg would be perfectly plausible since he has a non-random intelligence that can join the artificial intelligence that, for the time being, is only the heritage of sophisticated computers or early attempts of humanoid robots. There is also the answer to Prof. Kaku’s question: for this reason, from time immemorial, humans have had a penchant for creating their own variants and improving them with cybernetics (programming robots with artificial intelligence), as well as being eager to merge with AI itself. Many scholars and experts agree that – in view of surviving, evolving and travelling across the cosmos – any intelligent species shall overcome the biological stage. This is because by leaving the earth’s atmosphere and trying to go further, much further, humans must be able to adapt to different environments, to places where the atmosphere is poisonous, or where the gravitational pull is much stronger or much weaker than on our planet.

The best answer to Prof. Kaku’s question is that humans are somehow compelled to create robots ever more like themselves not to satisfy their desire to outdo one another by creating intelligent creatures in their image, but to fulfil their destiny outside the earth. This is demonstrated by further clues and signs coming from an analysis of the latest technologies developed by man in anticipation of the next phase of his evolution in the outer space.

Science Robotics – the prestigious scientific journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science – published the article Robotic Space Exploration Agents (vol. 2, issue no. 7, June 2017), written by Steven Chien and Kiri L. Wagstaff, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. According to their theory, astronauts travelling through the space will very soon be replaced by robots, e.g. synthetic human beings capable of making autonomous decisions using artificial intelligence. Space is a very hostile environment for humans. There is strong radioactivity and moving in a vacuum is not so easy, while machines can move nimbly in space. The important thing is that the electronic circuits are protected from damage. It is therefore easier and cheaper for a machine to explore another planet or another solar system. It is believed that space exploration will be more machine-based than man-based. It will not be man who will explore space on a large scale: we will send machines with artificial intelligence that will not have acceleration problems since they will be able to travel outside the solar system using the acceleration of gravity. It would be very useful to have an intelligent system capable of communicating, for example, with Alpha Centauri – our nearest star system – since it would take 8 years and 133 days to send a signal to earth and receive a response. Hence why not use artificial intelligence to make decisions and work? Missions to Mars and Alpha Centauri guided by artificial intelligence could become a reality. NASA has been testing this technology as early as 1998 with the Deep Space 1 probe. It was sent to the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Using a system called AutoNav, the probe took photos of asteroids following its itinerary without any human support. The Mars rover is basically an autonomous terrestrial robot that travels around Mars collecting samples and transmitting information. It is a newly fielded autonomous system, which means that, as soon as artificial intelligence is sufficiently reliable to be deployed aboard a spacecraft, there will be a robotic spacecraft that can arrive on Mars. Once we send robotic spaceships programmed with artificial intelligence we will relinquish all possibility of control because it will be our “envoys” that will make decisions on the spot.

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