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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.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Elon Musk’s “City-State” on Mars: An International Problem

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The private space industry is booming with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic all designing spacecraft to transport people into the cosmos. Elon Musk is the closest to launching a space faring program, with near-term plans to send humans to the Moon and Mars. In October 2020, Musk, a genius billionaire, quietly declared the independence of a new country on Mars. Musk claimed he will have humans on Mars to start building the new “free” “city-state” by 2026. He also declared the new “country” will not “recognize the laws of Earth.” 

All three tech billionaires currently face few obstacles to implement their plans. However, one obstacle for all of them will be navigating international law. Musk already appears to be exploiting many soft spots in international politics, which are no competitor to a ruthless tech titan. Musk’s plans are an urgent international problem that requires a new multi-national solution.

Musk’s Declarations About Mars

For decades, Musk has spoken about his desire for humans to become “interplanetary.”  Musk founded SpaceX in 2001 with his PayPal fortune and the goal to put humans on Mars.  After Russia rejected his offer of $20 million to buy several intercontinental ballistic missiles, Musk began manufacturing and launching his own rockets. Musk plans to start sending humans to Mars by 2026 and then shuttling thousands of people between Earth and Mars before 2030. Muskplans to create a city on Mars by 2050 and then a completely self-sufficient city of a million people on Mars by the end of the century.

Musk is an eccentric guy and not everything he says should be taken seriously. However, it is clear Musk is serious about bringing humans to Mars. In 2017 and 2018, he published detailed plans for settling Mars.  In October 2020, Musk published a terms of service agreement for beta customers of his new Starlink wireless internet service. The agreement included a very specific note about the governance of Mars. In Starlink’s “Pre-Order Agreement,” under “Governing Law,” the contract states,

“For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”

Further, in December 2020Musk began selling off all of his possessions to help fund the city on Mars. A SpaceX attorney even stated he is actively drafting a Martian constitution. There is every reason to think Musk will follow through.

Common Heritage of Mankind

Ultimately, a city on Mars would simply be an extension of Earth, though separated by a different kind of sea. National jurisdiction and sovereignty are always limited in several areas: outer space, international airspace, international waters, international sea beds. All these areas are considered the “common heritage of mankind” (CHM). These are areas where activities are expected to be carried out in the collective interests of all states and benefits are expected to be shared equitably. Space exploration is a priority for many nations, as well as for the scientific community. There is zealous global interest in space travel, studying celestial objects, and even operating scientific laboratories in space and on planets.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) explained in Article II that outer space is not “subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This provision is referred to as the non-appropriation principle. The policy rationale is to dis-incentivize states from “reenacting terrestrial land rushes” and taking boundary disputes into space. Scholars argue that the outer space non-appropriation principle has passed into customary international law.

In this sense, Mars is equivalent to the high seas. According to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, “international waters” belong to everyone and no one. There is a history of rogue actors declaring “new nations” in domestic and international waters; a phenomenon often referred to as “seasteading.” None of these “nations” have ever been recognized as legitimate. The U.K. rejected a British man’s declaration that a WWII platform was now the “Principality of Sealand.” Italy rejected the “Republic of Rose Island” off its coast and eventually destroyed the “nation” with dynamite. U.S. courts have rejected seasteading as well, deciding that artificial islands on the coast of Florida were under U.S. jurisdiction. 

Private Property Rights in Space

International law is clear about private property rights in space – there are none. Private property rights can only be created by a state on the property over which the state has sovereignty. The 110 countries that have ratified the OST are not allowed to create private property rights. The OST is ratified by all states with space programs and reflects the consensus of resolutions of the U.N. General Assembly on the topic.

Under the OST, states are also liable for the activities of non-state actors, whether they are private corporations or international organizations. States must ensure private activities conform to the obligations of the OST. It is up to each party state to create their own domestic legislation to effectuate this. The U.S. created the ability of private citizens to go into space with proper government authorization and supervision through several pieces of domestic legislation. However, while the OST requires “continuing supervision” by nations of private actors while in space, U.S. laws omit regulating activities in space, instead focusing on launches and reentry.

In the early 2000s, the U.S. adjudicated one case of private property rights.  In 2003, Gregory Nemitz registered a claim of real property rights for the entirety of an asteroid. After NASA landed a spacecraft on the asteroid, Nemitz submitted an invoice to NASA for parking and storage fees. NASA’s general counsel denied Nemitz’ claim and Nemitz appealed in court. The court found there are no private property rights in space; thus, there was no basis for compensation.

However, the U.S. pivoted its non-appropriation policy in 2015 with the SPACE Act, where U.S. Congress “created” private property rights for resources in space. Backers of the SPACE Act compared it to the Homestead Act of 1862 (which the idea of “seasteading” is based on).  In 2017, the U.S. National Space Council proclaimed that outer space is not the common heritage of mankind. Then in 2020, NASA announced the Artemis Accords: new principles for the use of outer space including further solidifying private property rights in space. Nine other countries have signed on. Finally, in 2020 President Trump discussed space settlements during the State of the Union, saying, “now we must embrace the next frontier: America’s Manifest Destiny in the stars.”Following this trajectory (homesteading, Manifest Destiny, etc.), it seems possible the U.S. might actually support some of Musk’s plans for Mars if his actions bring more imperialistic value to the U.S. government than logistical headache. However, it seems unlikely the U.S. would support Musk creating a separate nation.

Some commenters have pondered why Musk provided the Starlink/Mars clause so early (well before any of his employees or customers have traveled to Mars). The prohibition of private property ownership in space appears to have already become customary international law – or is at least on the cusp of crystallizing. Musk will want to say that from his country’s original declaration of independence, he has always been a persistent objector to the prohibition of private property rights on Mars. This strategy would make financial sense, as Martian private property rights would reassure Earth-based investors.

Deconstructing Musk’s Plans for Mars

Musk elaborated in 2020 that he plans for his government to be a direct democracy. Commentators have questioned why Musk would choose that form of government, which may be terribly ineffective in response to resource scarcity and constant danger. Further, Musk has become well known as a CEO who will happily violate labor laws, health codes, and pollution regulations back on Earth in furtherance of his company’s financial bottom line. That does not sound like someone who will actually enact or uphold direct democracy.

So, what exactly is Musk up to? It is not occupation because Mars is not populated and Musk is not a state. It is not discovery because Mars is not terra nullius (available land that no one has claimed yet)and again Musk is a private actor. It is not filibustering (a private individual waging private wars against existing countries, i.e., William Walker: another deranged San Francisco Bay Area-based entrepreneur) because even though Musk is a private actor, he is not conquering. Musk’s actions are similar to seasteading (the concept of establishing new countries in international waters); however, as discussed, seasteading has never resulted in a recognized claim to a new country. The closest comparison to what he is doing is probably secession.

It is possible for new states to be created through secession from existing states. Today, the international community disfavors unilateral secession. Under international law, secession is more likely to be accepted if it is in pursuance of self-determination, democratic governance, and has the support of the people of the would-be state.

Musk could argue he is pursuing democratic goals and has the consent of his people (his Starlink customers: over 700,000 of whom already agreed to the contract). Musk can say he should be allowed to secede from the United States because his state will be even more democratic (direct democracy instead of representative democracy). He may even be able to posture himself as escaping human rights violations in the U.S., citing the recent international outcry about systemic racial injustices in the U.S.

However, Musk will have a harder time navigating domestic law as a citizen of the United States. The U.S. is a “perpetual union” that not allow unilateral secession. Musk will not be allowed to secede per domestic laws. When a secession attempt fails, there are other options. Musk, like other actors with the capacity to go into space, will be bound by the laws of the state to which he is a citizen. This means there is a risk that international commercial enterprises like SpaceX will engage in “jurisdiction shopping” for countries with lenient outer space regulations and perhaps even states who never signed the OST. These companies will search for administrations whose licensing and supervisory requirements may be deficient, defective, or intentionally inadequate.

As a final contingency, Musk is saddling up with a U.S. state with its own notorious rebellious streak. Musk is building a rocket production plant and the first fully commercial launch facility capable of launching spacecraft for long-term space travel in Boca Chica, Texas. It is obvious why Musk chose Texas. First, it is close to the equator for launch logistics. Second, it is still in the U.S. for the purposes of trades and permits. Finally, Texas has an adversarial relationship with the federal government and already attempted to secede from the U.S. (and secession is still a popular talking point). If any state would support a U.S.-state based secession attempt to support Musk, it is Texas.

In March 2021, Musk announced he is “creating the city of Starbase, Texas” on currently unincorporated land in Boca Chica, located in southern Texas near the Mexican border. The top county official protested Musk’s declaration, saying, “Sending a Tweet doesn’t make it so… If SpaceX and Elon Musk would like to pursue down this path, they must abide by all state incorporation statutes. The county is also already anticipating litigation against SpaceX for violating agreements with the county around permits and security.

Many commentors are asking why Musk so desperately wants this specific village. Musk’s new “city” is not simply “near the Mexican Border,” it is on it. Boca Chica borders the Gulf of Mexico to the east, Brownsville Ship Channel to the north, and the Rio Grande River and Mexico to the south. If Musk felt he needed a “free city-state” on Earth, to support his “free city-state” on Mars, it seems within the realm of possibilities he could attempt to secede “Starbase” from the U.S. and create his own country (which barely shares a land boundary with the U.S.). He already unilaterally and illegally declared a new city there.

Musk is already in violation of federal laws. SpaceX was denied a safety waiver by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December 2020 due to Boca Chica-based launch plans that exceeded maximum public safety risk, but following the permit denial, Musk proceeded anyway and the launch ended in a “fireball” explosion. The FAA delayed the next test planned for January 2021 until an investigation could be completed. A former FAA official noted the lack of FAA enforcement against Musk was “puzzling.” Even after mysteriously avoiding any penalties, Musk, upset about the delay, claimed the FAA was “a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.

Musk already bought out most Boca Chica residents and has allegedly been bullying the remaining few with property damage, trespassing, offers of over triple the value of their property, and threats of vague “other measures” if they do not accept. Once the last residents are forced out, a secession attempt then would only involve resistance by the local and federal governments. Is Musk capable of violent measures? Apparently, Musk and SpaceX employees have been spending time at a nearby shooting range. Further, neighbors have grown accustom to sirens warning them when Musk and company are about to do something that could (and sometimes does) cause imminent physical harm, and then evacuating or taking cover. Not to mention the “fireball” incident. Violence seems within the realm of possibilities.

Musk will likely offer financial incentives for Texas to tolerate his activities. He has already promised$30 million to local governments. Musk has also entwined himself with the federal government to the point of mutually assured destruction. SpaceX secured a $2.9 billion contract with NASA for the upcoming Moon missions (though currently contested by Jeff Bezos) and is already heavily involved with other NASA projects.  NASA has become very dependent on SpaceX and Musk.

With all of this in play and no intervention, the compromise will likely be Texas and the U.S. tolerating Musk’s “Starbase” as a semi-autonomous region. Then, Musk’s Starbase “succeeds” as a semi-autonomous region and extends its territory to Mars as a non-member of the OST. This results in the politics of Musk’s presence on Mars having no precedent, no established legal standards, and no established political principles for analysis.

Conclusion

Soon, the largest obstacle to reign in Musk will be the distance to Mars. Will it really be worth launching a billion-dollar interplanetary mission to make an arrest? Mars is several months away at its closest. It will be prohibitively expensive to reign Musk in after the fact. In 2019, a space law conference discussed governance of commercial activities in outer space and found the world is at an “inflection point” and needs to establish global standards of accountability for private actors. The keynote speaker stressed the importance of governance, not simply governments. She looked to the success of the International Space Station as inspiration.

Considering this, a multi-national consortium should be created to regulate all activities on Mars. The consortium should be established in such a way that even the resources required for long-term interstellar travel are regulated in order to prevent rogue actors from working outside the system to control space access and resources, which are instead intended to be shared with all of humanity. At this point, a security council resolution on the topic may also be prudent.

Musk’s plans are just the beginning. There are two other ultra-wealthy titans of industry behind him and plenty more to come. Musk is just the first and most reckless. The international community must act now. The future of space may be speculative, but the issues are urgent. Space is for everyone. We all must partner together to ensure it remains that way.

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The Coming Satellite Revolution: New Business Opportunities, Scenarios, and Threats

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With tens of thousands of satellites to be put into orbit in the next few years, a playfield that has seen just a handful of actors and a few hundred assets since the 1950s is dramatically changing. The new actors are expected to open their satellites to third-party applications. On the one hand, this would unleash new business opportunities, enabling the provision of brand-new services, as well as the optimization of existing ones. On the other hand, these very same applications, as well as state actors that undoubtedly will have an upper hand, could present a novel threat to the privacy and security of individuals, companies, and states.

By modern standards, satellite technology is not new. The first satellite was put into orbit in 1957 without the possibility of it being controlled from Earth, and it was nothing more than a simple radio transmitting from space. Foreseeable applications were limited: simply speeding up telecommunications – underwater cables were already providing trans-continental communications – and maybe TV broadcasting. While it was indeed a sci-fi achievement; humans had never reached orbit before, it came with (supposedly) limited, insubstantial applications for the general public, though its military applications (such as advanced surveillance and missiles launch detection) were already quite clear.

Fast forward less than 65 years, and satellites are a cornerstone of our way of life. Whenever you use assisted navigation technology, you are using a service provided by satellites. When you decide to go to the beach, it is because satellites have provided you assurance about the quality of the weather for the next 48-72 hours. Airplanes and ships rely on satellites for their communications, and the same is true when you are in a desert hundreds of kilometers away from any civilization. In the military, satellites are the cornerstone of modern warfare, providing sensing and communication capabilities in every possible scenario and geography. Though the best is yet to come.

Advancements in technology, in particular computing and miniaturization, but in high tech generally (including radio capabilities, the mathematics behind data transmission, and in materials science) have paved the way for never-before-seen types of satellites, such as CubeSat, a square-shaped satellite with a side of just 10 cm. Moreover, the relatively low cost, ease of management, and increased availability of vectors to place satellites in orbit (especially low earth orbit satellites, orbiting between 160 and 1,000 km from Earth) have opened the gates for a novel space race, motivated by the innumerable possible applications. Striking evidence of this race is SpaceX, an Elon Musk company that is deploying Starlink, a network of thousands of satellites (42,000 satellites are approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA). Or, similarly, think of Kuiper Systems LLC, a subsidiary of Amazon, that is planning to deploy over 3,200 satellites. To these two behemoths, one has to add the hundreds of startups that are planning to deploy their satellites or that already have them in orbit to experiment.

The interest in the field is evident in the Gulf region: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently launched the KhalifaSat Earth Observation imaging satellite and it also has a Space Center, established by the Dubai government to advance space science and advanced technology. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is launching its 16th satellite into space (the SGS-1), with the specific mission to “provide secure satellite communication on the Ka-band for the government of Saudi Arabia.”). Qatar relies on Es’hailSat – the Qatar Satellite Company, a communications satellite operator headquartered in Doha. Es’hailSat was established in 2010 with the goal of managing and developing Qatar’s presence in space. 

But what is the rationale behind this new space race? It is by and large the business and operating opportunities offered by satellites, and we can highlight a few.

Satellites for the Internet of Things (IoT): The diffusion of the IoT paradigm envisages 50+ billion newly installed devices, each requiring internet connectivity to generate their full expected value. In many settings (think of offshore platforms, harsh environments, and rural locations), the internet infrastructure is out of reach. That is where satellites come into play: they can act as the gateway to the internet for these low-end devices.

Precision agriculture: It is already possible to check for the healthiness of crops, harvest time, spot the very first cluster of illness, and optimize irrigation, via satellite. That translates into potential cost savings and increased revenue generation while helping to achieve sustainability and other development goals.

Security of the state: Satellites have a long history of successfully supporting intelligence, such as imagery recognition at borders, or providing a means for secure communications independent from ground infrastructure. The new application of satellites would be to support states’ economics, for instance checking for illegal fishing, illegal mining, or to control access to maritime exclusive economic interest zones, the latter being difficult to control with standard patrols, due to the distances and areas under the jurisdiction, but quite feasible if done via satellite.

Consumer business opportunities: The private sector can conceive previously unthinkable applications. For instance, a Japanese startup is placing into orbit satellites that could deliver a shower of small meteorites during big events (the equivalent of fireworks, but on steroids). Many more unforeseen business opportunities could develop when satellite constellations are deployed or made for hire.

Fostering the research ecosystem: Satellite technology inherently calls for a sustained rate of technology innovation. In Qatar, the scientific powerhouse for such a domain is Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), where frontier communication and computing technologies are developed, while related security and privacy threats, specifically relevant when dealing with high caliber assets like satellites, are assessed and needed countermeasures invented, tested, and deployed.

The new space race, or better yet, the race to own and operate a satellite constellation, seems a promising venture in many dimensions. From an economic perspective, satellite services promise brand new business opportunities. From a safety perspective, they are a cornerstone for safer transports and assisted navigation. When it comes to defense, satellites are going to play the dominant role aviation has had since World War II. Finally, this high-tech sector is key for the development of further technologies that have the potential to accelerate the rate of innovation and cross-fertilize different domains (think of communications, security, and materials). Overall, the satellite revolution can help a country such as Qatar advance robustly toward a knowledge-based economy, and reinforce the country’s presence in the segment of high value-added services and products, an objective the country is steadily progressing toward achieving.

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At Last A Malaria Vaccine and How It All Began

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A health worker vaccinates a man against the Ebola virus in Beni, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. (file photo) World Bank/Vincent Tremeau

This week marked a signal achievement.  A group from Oxford University announced the first acceptable vaccine ever against malaria.  One might be forgiven for wondering why it has taken so long when the covid-19 vaccines have taken just over a year … even whether it is a kind of economic apartheid given that malaria victims reside in the poorest countries of the world.

It turns out that the difficulties of making a malaria vaccine have been due to the complexity of the pathogen itself.  The malarial parasite has thousands of genes; by way of comparison, the coronavirus has about a dozen.  It means malaria requires a very high immune response to fight it off.  

A trial of the vaccine in Burkina Faso has yielded an efficacy of 77 percent for subjects given a high dose and 71 percent for the low-dose recipients.  The World Health Organization (WHO) had specified a goal of 75 percent for effective deployment in the population.  A previous vaccine demonstrated only 55 percent effectiveness.  The seriousness of the disease can be ascertained from the statistics.  In 2019, 229 million new malaria infections were recorded and 409 thousand people died.  Moreover, many who recover can be severely debilitated by recurring bouts of the disease.

Vaccination has an interesting history.  The story begins with Edward Jenner.  A country doctor with a keen and questioning mind, he had observed smallpox as a deadly and ravaging disease.  He also noticed that milkmaids never seemed to get it.  However, they had all had cowpox, a mild variant which at some time or another they would have caught from the cows they milked.

It was 1796 and Jenner desperate for a smallpox cure followed up his theory, of which he was now quite certain, with an experiment.  On May14, 1796 Jenner inoculated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of Jenner’s gardener.  He used scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow named Blossom.  Blossom’s hide now hangs in the library of St. George’s Hospital, Jenner’s alma mater. 

Phipps was inoculated on both arms with the cowpox material.  The result was a mild fever but nothing serious.  Next he inoculated Phipps with variolous material, a weakened form of smallpox bacteria often dried from powdered scabs.  No disease followed, even on repetition.  He followed this experiment with 23 additional subjects (for a round two dozen) with the same result.  They were all immune to smallpox.  Then he wrote about it. 

Not new to science, Edward Jenner had earlier published a careful study of the cuckoo and its habit of laying its eggs in others’ nests.  He observed how the newly hatched cuckoo pushed hatchlings and other eggs out of the nest.  The study was published resulting in his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  He was therefore well-suited to spread the word about immunization against smallpox through vaccination with cowpox. 

Truth be told, inoculation was not new.  People who had traveled to Constantinople reported on its use by Ottoman physicians.  And around Jenner’s time, there was a certain Johnny Notions, a self-taught healer, who used it in the Shetland Isles then being devastated by a smallpox epidemic.  Others had even used cowpox earlier.  But Jenner was able to rationally formalize and explain the procedure and to continue his efforts even though The Royal Society did not accept his initial paper.  Persistence pays and finally even Napoleon, with whom Britain was at war, awarded him a medal and had his own troops vaccinated. 

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