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They promised us Martian colonies; instead, we got Facebook

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The advent of the digitization changes the values of the society, especially as an apparatus of power, not as a real benefit to humanity.

Everyone talks about digitalization. When I browse the science and technology section in newspapers, I mostly find articles on smartphones, clouds, and social media. And I realize that the entertainment industry has become the technological progress engine nowadays.

For purposes of illustration: by 2019, California invested around 75 billion USD in venture capital, more than a half of it across the US, distributed between more than 2,300 startups. That is substantial. But if you take a closer look, the picture changes. More than a half of that goes into software development, with only about 20 percent allocated for life sciences and almost nothing for significant engineering. The buzz words are always the same: “cloud” something, “smart” something, “AI” something, “blockchain” something. In the meantime, the more aloof the claim, the higher the probability of funding, even if the real innovative benefit to humanity is negligible.

The situation is not better in other technology centers, including those in Europe. So in the end, we have cases like Theranos which turn out to be fraud machines on a large scale. We have the Binary Options scam startups in Tel Aviv which plundered the savings of people from half a continent. Or Wirecard in Germany suspected of operating one of the largest cloud platforms for money laundering.

If not based on a robust fraudulent scheme, the business models of such “cloud” something, “smart” something, “AI” something, “blockchain” something companies are actually ailing right from the start. Most users are not willing to pay money to use their platforms. That’s why the tech giants have come up with an idea: they pretend to believe in the dream of free use –and users pay with their private data.

Just imagine that we are back in the year 1990 when sending letters and making phone calls were still relatively expensive matters. The representative of a new telecommunications company stands at your door and says: “We have a super offer for you. You will never have to pay for long-distance calls again, we will also deliver every letter for free. But we will record everything you say or write. Furthermore, we reserve the right to analyze this information, share it with others, sell it, and besides–if we don’t like specific content –to delete it.” It’s clear what you would have said or done at the time to such a representative.

Today, we embrace the digital monitoring of society because we see this as a new normality. The sin was committed in 2004 when Google went public after the dotcom bubble burst. Even in the 1990s, search engines and social networks were still underpinned by the best intentions. They were meant to connect people, help share knowledge, create common grounds, and make money. It was about indexing websites while preserving the informational self-determination of the individual. Then it became clear that little money could be earned that way. And so began the indexing –the profiling – of users, i.e., people of flesh and blood.

The new tech companies collect all the data about our searching, writing, reading, walking, breathing, eating, paying, liking, loving, disliking, laughing, and purchasing behavior. This is called the Big Data. They can use that information to track us and sell us things. Or to monitor our thoughts and sell us lies. Or to surveil our opinion and manipulate us. Or they can resell the data and the analyzed profiles to third parties, including governmental organizations and political parties.

Artificial Intelligence plays a dominant role in this user profiling, monitoring, and surveillance business, since it delivers the techniques for it. Some computer scientists involved in Artificial Intelligence development enthusiastically say: “When computational learning ability meets large amounts of data, the quantity should one day turn into quality.” In other words, intelligence that learns on its own is actually created. Maybe so, but we are a long way from that.

Neural networks in AI remain classification and correlation machines. They detect patterns in data, for example, faces on billions of pictures. From such patterns, findings can be derived which, in turn, can be interpreted and used by humans. Yet, first of all, this has nothing to do with intelligence in the genuine sense of the word. It has nothing to do with the ability of an organism to independently create a model and to make decisions to adapt and thus to survive on its basis. If still more computing power meets more data, then we get better correlations, better pattern recognition, but not intelligence.

In 2012, the world’s fastest supercomputer was running at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. It simulated a neural network with the complexity of a human brain with 530 billion neurons and 137 trillion synapses. The machine required eight megawatts of power but was 1,500 times slower than a human brain. Consequently, it would need 12 gigawatts to simulate an average human brain in real-time (let us say, that of an acumen of Omar Simpson). That is the power of about 15 to 20 nuclear reactors or 100 coal-fired power plants. Greta Thunberg will be glad to hear it! We will never, ever create artificial intelligence with the existing computer architectures.

The tech giants, from Facebook to Google, and the technological centers pursuing the buzz of the “cloud” something, “smart” something, “AI” something, “blockchain” something are making our lives difficult with their practices. The Silicon Valley and other comparable innovation centers promised us Martian and Moon colonies. They promised us luxurious interplanetary vessels populated with androids to do our housework and sexy cyborgs to entertain us with brilliant conversations. Instead, we received smartphones with preinstalled Facebook apps or other similar social media platforms. And in certain cases we got industrial robots that are taking away our jobs. Or algorithms running on supercomputers that automatically invest our hard-earned pensions into the technological innovation of the “somethings”. Or computational propaganda bots that trigger chain reactions of posts in social networks by publishing messages of ideology or hate or investment advice. The list of innovations that we got is long.

The upside is that if Facebook would vanish from the face of the earth tomorrow, what would be the consequences for humanity? None! Except for the tears of loneliness flowing on empty screens among social media addicts. But one thing is clear: the advent of the digitization changes the values of the society and the quality of life as much as the advent of plastic did. Its long-term benefits are ambiguous. The responsibility for these innovations is enormous, certainly, not as a “technical means”, but as an instrument of power and power itself .It is through the culture of digitization that the spirit of a new power will manifest itself. There is no doubt (you can already judge by the early signs today) that digitization will be authoritarian and repressive like no other culture in the world.

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Science & Technology

Cybersecurity depends on the user

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Businesses and pharmaceutical companies have become prime targets for cyber criminals. For many employees switching to work from home has made them more vulnerable to cyber attacks. Amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic the focus is shifting on digital hygiene and training. These are top issues outlined by the participants of a round table which  took place at TASS Press Center under the title “Cybersecurity: new threats and protection against them”.

At present, a large number of high-tech medical equipment is connected to the Internet. Given that medical institutions are not used to new threats, they often fall prey to cyber criminals. At times, hospitals have to pay ransom in order to restart the equipment vital for patients’ lives.  The participants in the round table cited yet more tragic cases when the ambulance equipment glitch forced the driver to head for other hospitals, which means that patients in critical condition may not make it there.

Cyber threats have been haunting not only the  medical industry. President of Check Point Software Technologies in Russia and CIS Vasily Diaghilev has singled out 3 key challenges in the new reality. Firstly, the decision-taking time limit has shortened considerably, — the market proved unprepared for this (unlike in the past, when months were given to elaborate decisions on cyber security, now a mere days are given to do so). Secondly, the criminal groups which had to go online as well, were provided with new financing to “work” in the cyber sphere. Thirdly, user vulnerability went up due to a wide variety of hacking methods.

Alexei Novikov, Director of Security at Positive Technologies, disagrees with such a view. The transition to online work has increased the number of vulnerabilities making it possible for the criminals to find new loops. Hence cyber security has come to depend on the competence of particular individuals. Earlier, information security was guaranteed “along the perimeter of corporate network”. Now, when practically everyone is working from home, family members have got access to the data too. In  addition, employees often connect  their  personal “smart devices” of the  Internet of  things to their corporate networks.

Experts who took part in the round table provided specific recommendations as to how to boost digital security. Founder and General Director of Zecurion Alexei Raevsky warned companies which are not supposed to store loads of data against doing so. Alexei Raevsky described all the data (for example, for electronic passes), which they collect on a regular basis in the conditions of a quarantine, as a “time bomb”. Vasily Diaghilev has urged individuals to refrain from using (and called on companies to impose restrictions on this practice on a mandatory basis) corporate passwords on external servers, in addition, he recommended coding corporate data, and in order to secure protection against destructive files, he advises to switch to the safe pdf-format in paperwork. “Info security should enter mass market as a taxi – a kind of digital security outsourcing”, — Lev Matveev, Chairman of the Board of “SearchInfoorm”, member of the Association of Software Manufacturers “Russoft”, says. Besides, he recommended including VPN-apps and services into public (free) WiFi-networks.

From our partner International Affairs

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Top 10 Emerging Technologies to Watch in 2020

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From virtual patients to pain-free needles, synthesizing whole-genomes, and digital medicine, these top 10 emerging technologies are transforming our post-COVID-19 lives. An international steering group of experts singled out these and other emerging technologies as the ones most likely to impact the world in the next three to five years.

For example, a Swiss group was able to synthesize the entire COVID-19 genome by reproducing the genetic sequence uploaded by Chinese scientists. They were essentially teleporting the virus into their laboratory for study without waiting for physical samples. The ability to write our genome will inevitably help doctors to cure genetic diseases.

As we now move to clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine, virtual patients, instead of living humans, could help identify successful vaccine candidates, reduce costs, and speed up research. It would also prevent the testing of imperfect vaccine candidates on living volunteers.

While the outbreak unfolded, dozens of medical apps and bots were developed, expanding the digital medicine landscape. These apps could detect depression and provided counselling. Bots answered over 200 million inquiries about COVID symptoms and treatments. COVID-19 will continue to shape our lives, and these emerging technologies could fill the gaps created by the pandemic.

The list also includes new technologies that can help combat climate change by tackling major polluting industries. These new green technologies include innovative planes, new concrete formulations and using sunlight to power refineries.

Top 10 technologies to make the list are:

Virtual Patients

Virtual patients, instead of living humans, could make vaccine trials quicker and inexpensive. This technology would significantly reduce the number of human subjects needed for experimentation.

Microneedles for Painless Injections and Tests

These tiny needles promise pain-free injections and blood testing. Microneedles do not touch nerve endings. Since the process does not need costly equipment or a lot of training, they can be used in areas that do not normally receive cutting-edge medical technologies.

Whole-Genome Synthesis

Whole-genome synthesizing will transform cell engineering. The ability to write our genome will inevitably help doctors to cure genetic diseases.

Digital Medicine

Digital medicine is a collection of apps that detect and monitor the mental and physical health of patients. These apps and bots can enhance traditional medicine and provide support to patients with limited access to healthcare.

Electric Aviation

Electric propulsion motors would eliminate direct carbon emissions. This technology could also reduce fuel costs by up to 90%, maintenance by up to 50% and noise by nearly 70%. Currently, about 170 electric airplane projects are underway.

Lower-Carbon Cement

Concrete, the most widely used human-made material, shapes much of our built world. If cement production were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter after China and the US. Researchers are working on lower-carbon approaches by changing the recipe, using different materials, and using carbon capture and storage technologies.

Sun-Powered Chemistry

This approach uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide waste into needed chemicals manufactured from fossil fuel. This approach could reduce emissions in two ways – by using unwanted gas as raw material and using sunlight as the source of energy instead of fossil fuels.

Green Hydrogen

Current methods of producing hydrogen are not environmentally efficient. Green hydrogen, produced through electrolysis, has no by-product, unlike current processes. Green hydrogen could transform industries that require high-energy fuel.

Spatial Computing

“Spatial computing” will bring together raise reality apps and sensors to facilitate human-machine and machine-machine interactions to a new level. It combines these capabilities and controls objects’ movements and interactions, allowing a person to navigate the digital and physical world.

Quantum Sensing

Quantum sensors enable autonomous vehicles that can “see” around corners, underwater navigation systems, early-warning systems for volcanic activity and earthquakes, and portable scanners that monitor a person’s brain activity during daily life.

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Can ‘Open Science’ speed up the search for a COVID-19 vaccine? 5 things you need to know

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The UN is calling for authoritative scientific information and research to be made freely available, to accelerate research into an effective vaccine against the COVID-19 virus, help counter misinformation, and “unlock the full potential of science”.

Arguing that no-one is safe until everyone is safe, the World Health Organization (WHO) has, for several months, been urging countries and scientists to collaborate, in a bid to bring the pandemic under control. This has involved the creation, alongside governments, scientists, foundations, the private sector and other partners, of a groundbreaking platform to accelerate the development of tests, treatments and vaccines.

In October, the head of the agency, Tedros Ghebreyesus Adhanom, alongside human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, and Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of science, culture and education agency UNESCO, issued a call for “Open Science”, describing it as a “fundamental matter of human rights”, and arguing for cutting-edge technologies and discoveries to be available for those who need them most.

But what exactly does Open Science mean, and why does the UN insist on making it more widespread?

1) What is ‘Open Science’?

Open Science has been described as a growing movement aimed at making the scientific process more transparent and inclusive by making scientific knowledge, methods, data and evidence freely available and accessible for everyone.

The Open Science movement has emerged from the scientific community and has rapidly spread across nations. Investors, entrepreneurs, policy makers and citizens are joining this call.

However, the agency also warns that, in the fragmented scientific and policy environment, a global understanding of the meaning, opportunities and challenges of Open Science is still missing.

2) Why is Open Science important?

Open Science facilitates scientific collaboration and the sharing of information for the benefit of science and society, creating more and better scientific knowledge, and spreading it to the wider population.

UNESCO has described Open Science as a “true game changer”: by making information widely available, more people can benefit from scientific and technological innovation.

3) Why is it needed now?

Because, in a world that is more inter-connected than ever before, many of today’s challenges do not respect political or geographic borders, and strong international scientific collaboration is essential to overcome the problems. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example.

We also have the tools to make it happen: with digitalization becoming ever more widespread, it is far easier than ever before to share scientific knowledge and data, which are needed to enable decisions that can lead to overcoming global challenges to be based on reliable evidence.

4) What is the impact of Open Science on the pandemic?

In this global health emergency, thanks to international collaboration, scientists have improved their understanding of the coronavirus with unprecedented speed and openness, embracing the principles of Open Science. Journals, universities, private labs, and data repositories have joined the movement, allowing open access to data and information: some 115,000 publications have released information related to the virus and the pandemic, and more than 80 per cent of them can be viewed, for free, by the general public.

Early in the pandemic, for example, Chinese scientists readily shared the genome of the virus, jumpstarting all following research into the virus, and the diagnostic testing, treatments, and vaccines that have since been developed.

Finally, the crisis has underlined the urgent need to bring science closer to decision making and to society as a whole. Fighting misinformation and promoting evidence-based decision-making, supported by well-informed citizens, has proven to be of vital importance in the fight against COVID 19.

5) What is the UN doing to promote Open Science?

To ensure that Open Science truly meets its potential, and benefits both developed and developing countries, UNESCO is taking the lead in building a global consensus on values and principles for Open Science that are relevant for every scientists and every person independently of their place of origin, gender, age or economic and social background.

The future UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science is expected to be the international instrument to set the right and just standards for Open Science globally, which fulfil the human right to science and leave no one behind.  

In a statement released on World Science Day for Peace and Development, celebrated on 10 November, Ms. Azoulay said that widening the scope of Open Science will help science to “unlock its full potential”, making it more effective and diverse by “enabling anyone to contribute, but also to bring its objectives in line with the needs of society, by developing scientific literacy in an informed citizenry who take responsibility and are involved in collective decision-making”.

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