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Digital Societies: From Social Media to Star Wars

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The rise of digital societies around the globe is the natural by-product of humankind’s insistence on efficiency, which started with the industrial revolution, when automatization displaced most manual methods of production. While mobile phones and credit cards already seem like inventions of the past, some other efficiency-driven products, such as online education platforms (e.g. Coursera) and virtual job markets, are still in the process of supplanting their traditional counterparts.

One of the leading trademarks of digital societies is social media, which facilitates the information outpouring, ranging from personal opinions to news pieces, of the unprecedented magnitude. As informative instruments, social media platforms not only complement other traditional forms of media, such as newspapers and TV, but in certain demographics, specifically the youth, completely supplant them. According to the 2019 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, at least 50% of young adults (18–24) come across news stories via social media, compared to one-third of adults over 55.

Given the high effectiveness level of social media in reaching a vast number of individuals in a brief period of time, many political figures, including heads of state, frequently use such platforms to communicate directly with their supporters and to spread their political and personal messages. US President Donald Trump, for example, tweets 10–12 times on a typical day. As the White House Press Secretary has said, Trump’s tweets are to be considered as official presidential statements. As social media, on the one hand, has increasingly become a political tool in recent years and, on the other hand, most of the world’s population is home, spending most of their time online amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the question of social media regulation is more relevant now than it has ever been.

According to the 2019 Free Speech and the Regulation of Social Media Content Report of the Congressional Research Service, governmental restrictions on the social media sites’ ability to moderate user contents can be analyzed through three possible frameworks. First, treating social media sites as state actors like company towns whose conduct, even in the absence of legislative regulation, the Constitution itself constrains. Second, viewing social media sites as special industries like broadcasting and telecommunication, which the Court has historically regulated to more extent in terms of neutral content. Third, perceiving social media sites as news editors whose editorial decisions, in general, receive the full protection of the First Amendment that guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition.

The optimal regulation option would be integrating all three frameworks, so that the Internet authority of social networking technologies, especially from security and privacy standpoints, is subject to constitutional checks and balances, user contents deviate from the neutral medium within a reasonable range, and users are not afraid of censorship. If any particular framework is more heavily applied, the aspect of social media that is the most relevant to the chosen framework becomes disproportionately drawn out, which disrupts the holistic perception of social media. It can also create the forbidden fruit effect, for example, constantly censoring certain material only surges the public’s interest in it. In any case, state regulations imposed on social media must be exclusively policy-oriented without compromising the open flow of communication and the free exchange of information, leaving all sorts of moral judgment up to society.

Governments also need to find a balance between upholding the principles of free speech and protecting citizens, especially those belonging to minority groups, from hate speech. This balance is particularly tricky in the context of socio-political movements, as the shared morality sensitivities of those who support the given movement and of those against it tend to fall on the opposing ends of the political correctness spectrum. One of the most prominent faces of the #MeToo and #Time’s Up movements, American actress and activist Rose McGowen, for example, was suspended from Twitter after a strong-worded tweet addressed at Hollywood star Ben Affleck, whom she deemed complicit in the sexual abuse culture pervasive in the film industry.

Beyond politics and social movements, the issue of social media regulation is even more heated in the case of a teen suicide caused by derogatory and hateful online messages. Examining this very topic in her book Social Media and Morality: Losing Our Self Control, sociologist Lisa S. Nelson argues that social media has burdened us with “an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds…making us more immoral than schizophrenic in the process (p. 154).”

Although social media has broadened interpersonal interactions in technical dimensions, it has degenerated the human moral compass through the networked time that breaks down both spatial distance and embeddedness in the clocked time, establishing a virtual reality devoid of the gravity of consciousness. In this reality, personal agency-informing normative reasons to act demand less self-reflection and justification and favour unrestrained reactive attitudes, sustaining the unparalleled diminishment of lived experiences of others versus ‘I.’

Nevertheless, as the world is becoming more and more volatile, be it due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis or various political conflicts, such as the Syrian civil war, humankind is ready to take the demand for efficiency further than ever before, including exploring alternative, that is more efficient, forms of warfare on top of those of citizenship.

One such potential form of warfare is space-based. The militarization of space, which uses the outer domain to gather information from satellites for strategic, planning, and surveillance purposes, such as locating sites of undisclosed nuclear facilities, began simultaneously with the technological domination of space by then rivals the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The looming weaponization of space, on the other hand, will make a more direct utilization of space as a dimension for military attacks carried out by space-based weapons systems directed at both the orbit itself and back to the Earth. It can be argued, therefore, that space weaponization is space militarization at its most efficient, demonstrating a belligerent aspect of the constant push for more efficiency in digitally advanced societies.

In 2007, China experimented in this emerging field of warfare by completing a successful anti-satellite destruction test. If the country keeps pushing in this direction, of course, the USA and Russia will follow, generating an explicit disturbance in the mutually assured destruction scheme holding peace via deterrence among superpowers. Such a scenario is unfavourable for all three countries, yet Moscow and Beijing, who jointly proposed the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) Treaty, which builds on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and calls for the ban of “any kinds of weapons” orbiting in the space but allows for the ground-based systems directed at space (at the 2002 UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva), appear to strain more than Washington in this regard.

In 2019, US President Donald Trump signed the order to build a space force. To that end, defence officials requested an allocation of $304 million for the development of space-based weaponry, such as anti-ballistic missiles, defence lasers and neutral particle beams, excluding the budget that will be necessary to train the operating personnel. Yet in the dawning age of cyber technologies that enable the total occupation of a country without any bloodshed, investing in space weapons is particularly redundant alongside maintaining nuclear arsenals. Like the latter, though, the former is destined to persist, because efficiency has become not only synonymous with rationality (even if research suggests otherwise), but also a lust of its own in today’s society — Eros et Thanatos, at least Freud would agree.

In addition to highly efficient forms of warfare, modern technologies authorize digital citizenship. Although all implications of how the hegemony of the Internet has shifted individual participation and engagements with the state’s socio-cultural and polit-economic environment are yet to fully precipitate, online platforms can be clearly effective in revealing both systematic and single-instance corruption cases present at the top state echelons. WikiLeaks, an international non-profit organization that publishes news leaks and classified media provided by anonymous sources, for example, has disclosed such controversial information as the Afghanistan war expenditures and Hillary Clinton’s emails.

As efficiency-obsessed digital societies worldwide are headed towards the future in which Star Wars seem real, it is the ultimate collective duty of all citizens to monitor governments, which regulate technologies that shape lived experiences, especially social media.

From our partner RIAC

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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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The Dark Ghosts of Technology

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Last many decades, if accidently, we missed the boat on understanding equality, diversity and tolerance, nevertheless,  how obediently and intentionally we worshiped the technology no matter how dark or destructive a shape it morphed into; slaved to ‘dark-technology’ our faith remained untarnished and faith fortified that it will lead us as a smarter and successful nation.

How wrong can we get, how long in the spell, will we ever find ourselves again?

The dumb and dumber state of affairs; extreme and out of control technology has taken human-performances on ‘real-value-creation’ as hostage, crypto-corruption has overtaken economies, shiny chandeliers now only cast giant shadows, tribalism nurturing populism and  socio-economic-gibberish on social media narratives now as new intellectualism.

Only the mind is where critical thinking resides, not in some app.   

The most obvious missing link, is theabandonment of own deeper thinking. By ignoring critical thinking, and comfortably accepting our own programming, labeled as ‘artificial intelligence’ forgetting in AI there is nothing artificial just our own ‘ignorance’ repackaged and branded.  AI is not some runaway train; there is always a human-driver in the engine room, go check. When ‘mechanized-programming, sensationalized by Hollywood as ‘celestially-gifted-artificial-intelligence’ now corrupting global populace in assuming somehow we are in safe hands of some bionic era of robotized smartness. All designed and suited to sell undefined glittering crypto-economies under complex jargon with illusions of great progress. The shiny towers of glittering cities are already drowning in their own tent-cities.

A century ago, knowing how to use a pencil sharpener, stapler or a filing cabinet got us a job, today with 100+ miscellaneous, business or technology related items, little or nothing considered as big value-added gainers. Nevertheless, Covidians, the survivors of the covid-19 cruelties now like regimented disciples all lining up at the gates.  There never ever was such a universal gateway to a common frontier or such massive assembly of the largest mindshare in human history.

Some of the harsh lessons acquired while gasping during the pandemic were to isolate techno-logy with brain-ology.  Humankind needs humankind solutions, where progress is measured based on common goods. Humans will never be bulldozers but will move mountains. Without mind, we become just broken bodies, in desperate search for viagra-sunrises, cannabis-high-afternoons and opioid-sunsets dreaming of helicopter-monies.

Needed more is the mental-infrastructuring to cope with platform economies of global-age and not necessarily cemented-infrastructuring to manage railway crossings. The new world already left the station a while ago. Chase the brain, not the train.  How will all this new thinking affect the global populace and upcoming of 100 new National Elections, scheduled over the next 500 days? The world of Covidians is in one boat; the commonality of problems bringing them closer on key issues.

Newspapers across the world dying; finally, world-maps becoming mandatory readings of the day

Smart leadership must develop smart economies to create the real ‘need’ of the human mind and not just jobs, later rejected only as obsolete against robotization. Across the world, damaged economies are visible. Lack of pragmatic support to small medium businesses, micro-mega exports, mini-micro-manufacturing, upskilling, and reskilling of national citizenry are all clear measurements pointing as national failures. Unlimited rainfall of money will not save us, but the respectable national occupationalism will.  Study ‘population-rich-nations’ and new entrapments of ‘knowledge-rich-nations’ on Google and also join Expothon Worldwide on ‘global debate series’ on such topics.

Emergency meetings required; before relief funding expires, get ready with the fastest methodologies to create national occupationalism, at any costs, or prepare for fast waves of populism surrounded by almost broken systems. Bold nations need smart play; national debates and discussions on common sense ideas to create local grassroots prosperity and national mobilization of hidden talents of the citizenry to stand up to the global standard of competitive productivity of national goods and services.

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China and AI needs in the security field

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On the afternoon of December 11, 2020, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held the 26th Collective Study Session devoted to national security. On that occasion, the General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, Xi Jinping, stressed that the national security work was very important in the Party’s management of State affairs, as well as in ensuring that the country was prosperous and people lived in peace.

In view of strengthening national security, China needs to adhere to the general concept of national security; to seize and make good use of an important and propitious period at strategic level for the country’s development; to integrate national security into all aspects of the CPC and State’s activity and consider it in planning economic and social development. In other words, it needs to builda security model in view of promoting international security and world peace and offering strong guarantees for the construction of a modern socialist country.

In this regard, a new cycle of AI-driven technological revolution and industrial transformation is on the rise in the Middle Empire. Driven by new theories and technologies such as the Internet, mobile phone services, big data, supercomputing, sensor networks and brain science, AI offers new capabilities and functionalities such as cross-sectoral integration, human-machine collaboration, open intelligence and autonomous control. Economic development, social progress, global governance and other aspects have a major and far-reaching impact.

In recent years, China has deepened the AI significance and development prospects in many important fields. Accelerating the development of a new AI generation is an important strategic starting point for rising up to the challenge of global technological competition.

What is the current state of AI development in China? How are the current development trends? How will the safe, orderly and healthy development of the industry be oriented and led in the future?

The current gap between AI development and the international advanced level is not very wide, but the quality of enterprises must be “matched” with their quantity. For this reason, efforts are being made to expand application scenarios, by enhancing data and algorithm security.

The concept of third-generation AI is already advancing and progressing and there are hopes of solving the security problem through technical means other than policies and regulations-i.e. other than mere talk.

AI is a driving force for the new stages of technological revolution and industrial transformation. Accelerating the development of a new AI generation is a strategic issue for China to seize new opportunities in the organisation of industrial transformation.

It is commonly argued that AI has gone through two generations so far. AI1 is based on knowledge, also known as “symbolism”, while AI2 is based on data, big data, and their “deep learning”.

AI began to be developed in the 1950s with the famous Test of Alan Turing (1912-54), and in 1978 the first studies on AI started in China. In AI1, however, its progress was relatively small. The real progress has mainly been made over the last 20 years – hence AI2.

AI is known for the traditional information industry, typically Internet companies. This has acquired and accumulated a large number of users in the development process, and has then established corresponding patterns or profiles based on these acquisitions, i.e. the so-called “knowledge graph of user preferences”. Taking the delivery of some products as an example, tens or even hundreds of millions of data consisting of users’ and dealers’ positions, as well as information about the location of potential buyers, are incorporated into a database and then matched and optimised through AI algorithms: all this obviously enhances the efficacy of trade and the speed of delivery.

By upgrading traditional industries in this way, great benefits have been achieved. China is leading the way and is in the forefront in this respect: facial recognition, smart speakers, intelligent customer service, etc. In recent years, not only has an increasing number of companies started to apply AI, but AI itself has also become one of the professional directions about which candidates in university entrance exams are worried.

According to statistics, there are 40 AI companies in the world with a turnover of over one billion dollars, 20 of them in the United States and as many as 15 in China. In quantitative terms, China is firmly ranking second. It should be noted, however, that although these companies have high ratings, their profitability is still limited and most of them may even be loss-making.

The core AI sector should be independent of the information industry, but should increasingly open up to transport, medicine, urban fabric and industries led independently by AI technology. These sectors are already being developed in China.

China accounts for over a third of the world’s AI start-ups. And although the quantity is high, the quality still needs to be improved. First of all, the application scenarios are limited. Besides facial recognition, security, etc., other fields are not easy to use and are exposed to risks such as 1) data insecurity and 2) algorithm insecurity. These two aspects are currently the main factors limiting the development of the AI industry, which is in danger of being prey to hackers of known origin.

With regard to data insecurity, we know that the effect of AI applications depends to a large extent on data quality, which entails security problems such as the loss of privacy (i.e. State security). If the problem of privacy protection is not solved, the AI industry cannot develop in a healthy way, as it would be working for ‘unknown’ third parties.

When we log into a webpage and we are told that the most important thing for them is the surfers’ privacy, this is a lie as even teenage hackers know programs to violate it: at least China tells us about the laughableness of such politically correct statements.

The second important issue is the algorithm insecurity. The so-called insecure algorithm is a model that is used under specific conditions and will not work if the conditions are different. This is also called unrobustness, i.e. the algorithm vulnerability to the test environment.

Taking autonomous driving as an example, it is impossible to consider all scenarios during AI training and to deal with new emergencies when unexpected events occur. At the same time, this vulnerability also makes AI systems permeable to attacks, deception and frauds.

The problem of security in AI does not lie in politicians’ empty speeches and words, but needs to be solved from a technical viewpoint. This distinction is at the basis of AI3.

It has a development path that combines the first generation knowledge-based AI and the second generation data-driven AI. It uses the four elements – knowledge, data, algorithms and computing power – to establish a new theory and interpretable and robust methods for a safe, credible and reliable technology.

At the moment, the AI2 characterised by deep learning is still in a phase of growth and hence the question arises whether the industry can accept the concept of AI3 development.

As seen above, AI has been developing for over 70 years and now it seems to be a “prologue’.

Currently most people are not able to accept the concept of AI3 because everybody was hoping for further advances and steps forward in AI2. Everybody felt that AI could continue to develop by relying on learning and not on processing. The first steps of AI3 in China took place in early 2015 and in 2018.

The AI3 has to solve security problems from a technical viewpoint. Specifically, the approach consists in combining knowledge and data. Some related research has been carried out in China over the past four or five years and the results have also been applied at industrial level. The RealSecure data security platform and the RealSafe algorithm security platform are direct evidence of these successes.

What needs to be emphasised is that these activities can only solve particular security problems in specific circumstances. In other words, the problem of AI security has not yet found a fundamental solution, and it is likely to become a long-lasting topic without a definitive solution since – just to use a metaphor – once the lock is found, there is always an expert burglar. In the future, the field of AI security will be in a state of ongoing confrontation between external offence and internal defence – hence algorithms must be updated constantly and continuously.

The progression of AI3 will be a natural long-term process. Fortunately, however, there is an important AI characteristic – i.e. that every result put on the table always has great application value. This is also one of the important reasons why all countries attach great importance to AI development, as their national interest and real independence are at stake.

With changes taking place around the world and a global economy in deep recession due to Covid-19, the upcoming 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) of the People’s Republic of China will be the roadmap for achieving the country’s development goals in the midst of global turmoil.

As AI is included in the aforementioned plan, its development shall also tackle many “security bottlenecks”. Firstly, there is a wide gap in the innovation and application of AI in the field of network security, and many scenarios are still at the stage of academic exploration and research.

Secondly, AI itself lacks a systematic security assessment and there are severe risks in all software and hardware aspects. Furthermore, the research and innovation environment on AI security is not yet at its peak and the relevant Chinese domestic industry not yet at the top position, seeking more experience.

Since 2017, in response to the AI3 Development Plan issued by the State Council, 15 Ministries and Commissions including the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Development and Reform Commission, etc. have jointly established an innovation platform. This platform is made up of leading companies in the industry, focusing on open innovation in the AI segment.

At present, thanks to this platform, many achievements have been made in the field of security. As first team in the world to conduct research on AI infrastructure from a system implementation perspective, over 100 vulnerabilities have been found in the main machine learning frameworks and dependent components in China.

The number of vulnerabilities make Chinese researchers rank first in the world. At the same time, a future innovation plan -developed and released to open tens of billions of security big data – is being studied to promote the solution to those problems that need continuous updates.

The government’s working report promotes academic cooperation and pushes industry and universities to conduct innovative research into three aspects: a) AI algorithm security comparison; 2) AI infrastructure security detection; 3) AI applications in key cyberspace security scenarios.

By means of state-of-the-art theoretical and basic research, we also need to provide technical reserves for the construction of basic AI hardware and open source software platforms (i.e. programmes that are not protected by copyright and can be freely modified by users) and AI security detection platforms, so as to reduce the risks inherent in AI security technology and ensure the healthy development of AI itself.

With specific reference to security, on March 23 it was announced that the Chinese and Russian Foreign Ministers had signed a joint statement on various current global governance issues.

The statement stresses that the continued spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the evolution of the international scene, has caused a further imbalance in the global governance system and has affected the process of economic development while new global threats and challenges have emerged one after another and the world has entered a period of turbulent changes. The statement appeals to the international community to put aside differences, build consensus, strengthen coordination, preserve world peace and geostrategic stability, as well as promote the building of a more equitable, democratic and rational multipolar international order.

In view of ensuring all this, the independence enshrined by international law is obviously not enough, nor is the possession of nuclear deterrent. What is needed, instead, is the country’s absolute control of information security, which in turn orients and directs the weapon systems, the remote control of which is the greedy prey to the usual suspects.

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