Stepping into 2019: The world has the tools to address its fundamental problems

Today marks the end of 2018, leaving a host of issue unresolved and uncertainty for the future. Tomorrow, comes in a new year. The year 2019 has to be one where we really reset priorities with a do-it-ourselves attitude. Look less to government and more within. Forget hindsight, in 2019, let’s get our foresight and vision right for 2020. A year of massive changes will be on us tomorrow leading us to another millennial milestone. Embrace it. Happy New Year!

Christmas Eve marked the 50th anniversary of a spectacular photograph famously called Earthrise. It is a picture taken by American astronaut Bill Anders on the Apollo 8 mission showing the Earth rising over a barren lunar landscape. A resplendent blue, the Earth is the only colourful planet against the backdrop of a vast cosmic blackness. On this globe, you see no walls and no boundaries – just churning blue oceans interspersed with irregular landmass.

The Apollo 8 mission was not tasked with photographing the Earth. The astronauts in fact joke about violating protocol because their instruction was to shoot the lunar surface as they orbited the Moon for the first time. But they found the first sight of Earth from the Moon so captivating that they deviated from their mission and captured what eventually became one of the most influential photos of all time. It told us of the wonder that is our planet.

Notably in their banter, the astronauts do not talk of America the beautiful or United States being the greatest country on Earth, though the US moonshot, which preceded the Apollo 11 lunar landing the next year, came at the height of the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union. Their awe is primal and universal – on behalf of humankind. Much like the physicist Robert Oppenheimer citing from the Rig Veda on first beholding nuclear fission, they quote Genesis 1:3 – And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.

There have been many Earthrise photos in subsequent years. They all show much the same sight with increasing clarity and resolution: no boundaries and no walls on Planet Earth, save for land and sea. Yet, on our terra firma, all one hears is divisive talk. Of walls and fences, of barriers and boundaries, of fringes and frontiers. The few civilisations recorded in humankind’s meagre 5,000-year history, a mere blip in the cosmic drama of nearly 15 billion years, have devolved into 195 countries, edging towards 200. More may be on the cards.

Merriam-Webster dictionary has revealed that nationalism is the #1 most looked up word in 2018. Oxford Dictionary has declared “toxic” as the word of 2018. “Toxic added many strings to its poisoned bow becoming an intoxicating descriptor for the year’s most talked about topics. It is the sheer scope of its application, as found by our research, that made toxic the stand-out choice for the Word of the Year title,” Oxford said, explaining that there was a 45% rise in the number of times the word was looked up.

Clearly, toxic nationalism has been the subject du jour lately from the United States to India to Europe to far corners of the world. Add to this the annual brew of religious strife, social disharmony, endemic poverty, ceaseless epidemics, and environmental degradation, it is widely accepted that the world is becoming a worse place every year. Nostalgia for the years gone by is an industry. Whatever happened to the promise of a new world at the cusp of the millennium?

Yet, as many sociologists, anthropologists and futurists argue on the basis of hard data, the world is actually becoming a better place every single day, month and year, and 2018 was no exception. Amid the plethora of headlines marking rise of nationalism and xenophobia, backsliding on treaties and agreements, and renewed proliferation of WMDs, the world quietly made progress. Poverty declined, wealth increased (albeit horribly skewed and uneven), there were advances in medicine, healthcare and education, newer technologies came into use, efficiencies improved, and women were more empowered, although there is a long way to go.

If this did not make people sufficiently happy, put it down to rising aspirations and that little part in the human brain called amygdala that has been hard-wired and fine-tuned for negativity. Besides, it’s hard to make a case for the Earth as a better place when demagogues are constantly dividing people and demonising segments of what is essentially one race. Post-truth, a term that gained currency in 2016, realised its full potential in the US, India, and many other countries in 2018 with ruling dispensations plying “alternate facts” and revisionist history, a torrent of toxic twaddle parlayed through social media to those whose critical faculties remained suspended or were subverted.

Meanwhile, “nationalist” governments continued to fool the masses with vanity projects and solutions bordering on inanity – ever higher walls and even taller statues among them. In a stratospheric caper going beyond statues and busts, India will spend Rs 10,000 crore to put three astronauts in space to do what the US and Soviet Union did 50+ years ago. Absurdly, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania wants to spend anywhere from $18 billion to $25 billion for a border wall; cartoons depicting $18 ladders and underground tunnels to get over and under the $18 billion wall have not dissuaded him.

Amid such farce, the world now has the tools to address many of its fundamental problems; they are often at our fingertips. Education and healthcare, areas where governments are abdicating responsibilities, are a few keystrokes away. Energy and transportation efficiencies and solutions are there for the taking. None of this is rocket science; a lot of it is in your hands. Unless you are in a totalitarian state, you have more access to information and therefore more power than ever before.

China- the ultimate authoritarian seducer

The China model aims for unprecedented totalitarianism. China employs millions to monitor the internet and media to observe and punish anything the regime doesn’t like. President of China Xi Jinping has declared that the world should adopt China’s “new type of political party system” and “the Chinese solution for tackling the problems facing mankind.” –

As China and the United States escalate their trade talks (or trade war), China is carving a disturbing global role that goes well beyond trade malfeasance.

China has emerged as an old threat revived, the authoritarian seducer. The latest Human Freedom Index, published by Canada’s Fraser Institute, the U.S. Cato Institute and Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, shows that China uses all the seducer’s tools — charm, money, power, bribery, threats and violence.

China’s leaders, nationalistic media and acolytes around the world promote the repressive “China model” as a triumph to be adopted across the globe.

And Canada is a target. For example, wealthy developer Ted Jiancheng Zhou, with deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party, has become a major donor to Canadian politicians at all levels of government, raising security concerns about Chinese influence in Canadian politics.

Last year, President Xi Jinping declared that the world should adopt China’s “new type of political party system” and “the Chinese solution for tackling the problems facing mankind.” China’s media piled on damning the “chaos” of democracy and praising the Chinese model’s ability to solve “all sorts of problems.”

The “new” model has global fans. Canadian political scientist Daniel Bell, who has taught at top U.S. and Chinese universities, has argued that China’s repressive meritocracy often produces better results than democracy and freedom.

Yet the China model aims for unprecedented totalitarianism. China employs millions to monitor the internet and media. Digital cameras are everywhere, armed with increasingly sophisticated facial recognition tools to observe and punish anything the regime doesn’t like. Thousands of journalists, lawyers, dissidents and others have been tossed in jail.

Most disturbing is the social-credit system. It will monitor every aspect of an individual’s life and punish anything, no matter how trivial, the regime doesn’t like. Already, China has blocked 15 million citizens from train and airline trips. For those with low social-credit scores, “everywhere is limited and it is difficult to move,” the regime brags.

The suppression of Muslim Uighurs terrifies. About a million are interned in re-education concentration camps. Executions and torture appear plentiful.

China employs its great military, economic and seductive power to advance repression internationally. Its military, with a budget three-and-a-half times that of Russia’s, aggressively enforces China’s claim to virtually all the South China Sea, threatening economic freedom globally. The world’s most important trade routes pass through the sea.

This could foreshadow horrors to come. Xi has ordered the military to “prepare for war” in the South China Sea. The most dangerous flashpoint is Taiwan, which China claims as a renegade province. China openly threatens invasion and devastation. Officials boast of military strength and ability to overwhelm Taiwan’s defences quickly and brutally, initiated with missile barrages to kill thousands of civilians, according to China’s military doctrine.

In Canada, Zhou, according to Chinese media, is honorary chair of the Federation of Chinese Canadians for the Promotion of Chinese National Reunification, which supports China’s aim of absorbing Taiwan and extinguishing freedom.

And Chinese ambitions go beyond its neighbourhood. It subverts press freedom internationally by attacking Chinese language media globally, through economic means and by threats against family still in China. For example, China arrested the wife of Chinese-American reporter Xiaoping Chen when she passed through an airport in southern China. “Honestly, I never thought they would kidnap my wife,” Chen lamented. Senior Canadian diplomatic officials told me security forces frequently investigate threats to Chinese in Canada who question Communist Party rule.

China’s “road and belt” project is used to extend its economic power, charm and bribe dictators, promote its model and create debt traps that give China unprecedented influence including building forward military installations in places such as Sri Lanka that threaten the sovereignty of free countries. Chinese companies control 76 ports in 35 countries.

The regime dominates the “private” sector to advance its goals. Even foreign firms, along with all Chinese companies, must establish powerful communist committees that exercise authority in all aspects of activity and report back to communist authorities. Chinese law requires companies “to support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work.”

Lest anyone think China’s ambitions are limited to just most of the world, China has declared itself a “near Arctic power.” It’s building Arctic-able military resources and using powerful tools to create debt traps and influence on countries that border the Arctic.

China’s success is fragile and likely ephemeral. As with China now, for decades many in the West praised the success of the Soviet Union until it was proved a tragic sham. Yet communism spread globally before the lie was exposed.

Those who believe in freedom and democracy must be on guard against the re-emergence of this old threat with its seductive authoritarians.

X-Mas Special: Let’s Kindle the Christmas Light Of Love

 Billions of people worldwide are about to celebrate another Christmas Day. It’s the world’s favorite holiday. People of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds celebrate it. Yet at the same time, spending sprees and extreme materialism increase drastically at this time of year. We see shoppers trampling one another to grab the last discount item. With increased debt comes more drunkenness, accidents, divorce, family disruption and crime than at any other time of year. These are the alarming fruits of Christmas observance.

What is Christmas all about? Have you ever asked yourself what God thinks about this observance? It is important to get God’s perspective. What does the Bible say about Christmas? Early Christians did not celebrate Christmas. The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “Early Christians did not observe birthdays, not even Christ’s birth. The Catholic theologian Origen, A.D. 185–232, acknowledged that ‘In the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate the birthday.’”

In fact, people began celebrating on Christmas day long before Christ was born. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge writes: “The pagan festival with its riot and merrymaking was so popular that Christians were glad of an excuse to continue its celebration with little change in spirit and manner. … Christian preachers of the West and the Near East protested against the unseemly frivolity with which Christ’s birthday was celebrated, while Christians of Mesopotamia accused the Western brethren of idolatry and sun worship for adopting as Christian this pagan festival.”

Nowhere in the Bible is Christmas worship advocated. The more you dig into Christmas, the less it appears to have anything to do with Christ. The Bible does not tell us the exact day Christ was born. But it gives us enough information to deduce that it could not possibly have been on December 25. Giving gifts to friends, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, decorations and baubles—none of these are biblical traditions.

Does this matter? If we take and use these traditions to worship Christ, isn’t that a good thing? Again, what does the Bible say? We can know the answer—the Bible addresses it specifically. Jeremiah wrote, “For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not …” (Jeremiah 10:3-5). Jeremiah wrote his biblical book in the seventh century B.C.

The Christmas tree tradition existed for 600 years before Jesus Christ’s human birth! Jeremiah said this tradition is “vain,” meaning “empty” or “unsatisfactory.” Why? He spends the next few verses telling us: “Who would not fear thee, O King of nations? … But the Lord is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king: at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his indignation. … He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heavens by his discretion. When he uttereth his voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens, and he causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth; he maketh lightnings with rain, and bringeth forth the wind out of his treasures” (verses 7-13). Jesus Christ is a great, awesome, all-powerful God Being. He is real, living and active in the world.

Christmas gets our focus on Jesus Christ as a helpless little baby. Christmas causes its observers to move away from the essential understanding of our great living God! In that same chapter, Jeremiah showed how we should act before this powerful living God: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing” (verses 23-24). Jeremiah didn’t decide for himself whether or not to keep Christmas.

He didn’t rely on human reasoning to determine his life’s course. He actively sought God’s perspective, direction and correction. He recognized the need for God’s power. Paul described the last days in an epistle to Timothy as a time of unmatched selfishness and evil. He also painted a picture of the prevailing religious practices: “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away” (2 Timothy 3:5). You need to educate yourself about this holiday to ensure you have the right view of God the Father and Jesus Christ. There is power in true religion! It is the power to conquer Satan, become born sons of God, and rule with Jesus Christ for all eternity! The hidden danger in Christmas is that it distracts us from this power.

When the world is facing violence, selfishness and unimaginable cruelty with loss of reason, understanding and good sense, let us not confine our celebration of Christmas to cakes, candles, carols and parties. Let us remember the rich legacy of Christ, carried forward for the last two thousand years, to shower peace and love, and promote human fraternity.

Jesus Christ enthused people to spread divine love and human kindness. He substituted the prevailing God-fearing attitude with God-loving mysticism; rather than insist on religious injunctions he favoured spontaneous flow of the milk of human kindness. He proclaimed the truth by saying, that the “Kingdom of God is within you.”

Traditional celebration of Christmas on the occasion of the advent of Jesus Christ is no longer confined to the Christian community. In fact, by paying reverential homage to the prophets, saints and sages of all religions, we elevate the level of discourse and understanding and also benefit from blessings showered from all faith leaders, helping us to attain peace and prosperity. Rabindranath Tagore believed that unblemished joy in life flows only from love and wisdom. And the legacy of Christ comprises the light of unconditional love and divine wisdom.

Let us celebrate Christmas with Christ-consciousness consisting of spiritual wisdom, sublime devotion, divine joy and love for all. Out of his realisation of essential divinity flowed his miraculous love even for his tormentors, for he firmly believed that God is love. Which is why he said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” His path ensures peace and ultimate liberation. His unique teachings spontaneously flowed from his loving heart and constant oneness with the heavenly Father. Christmas means that each Yuletide season, he comes to every one of us in a new way. Sometimes we are taken aback by the way Jesus allows us to find pathways to him that we never suspected existed before.

Jesus is also friend, rock, fortress, our refuge in times of trouble. Sometimes he lifts a sad heart here, he wipes a tear away there, and talks to us as if we were children. He is, after all, the Good Shepherd.

If Jesus becomes the centre, our priorities change. We are no longer after self-recognition and self-praise. Rather, we seek hidden ways of pleasing him and serving him in many ways. Our orientation in life also changes. Goals and ambitions are important if they motivate us to serve others, especially the needy. Christmas as an experience is Jesus coming to each one of us in a unique way. For some he speaks through family and friends. For others he comes in the form of strangers, who we welcome to share our hearth.

The power of Jesus is also manifest in Christmas – the power that is visible in the least among us. That is why this Christmas I would like to reach out to Jesus as he is present in the universe today. We will find him in the helpless, the housebound, the old, the sick, the dying, in babies, young children, in those weary with toil, in the lowly, the migrants, and also in those who may be leaders and men and women of vision.

I will pray for the special grace, to see Jesus as he really is, not in the extrapolated portraits of him only painted by others, but the reality of him occupying centre place in my heart. He did say, ‘the Kingdom of God is within you.’

We can readily serve God by opening our hearts to love and placing the ‘Kingdom of God’ before everything else. This celestial love makes us absolutely selfless with a grand expansion of self. Jesus said, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength and with all thy mind and love thy neighbours as thyself.” When love is at the core, it expands its horizons to the degree of infinity and exhibits empathy for all.

Such depth of spiritual feeling accepts everything as cosmic will, “Let Thy will be done.” We must first ‘seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness.’ Surrender to the Almighty extinguishes the flame of desires and thereby frees us of human bondage in the body-mind complex. Wisdom of the heart filled with fearless love accepts everything as divine design, coming from the hands of God, whether pleasant or otherwise.

His first commandment was to develop unconditional love for God and also love for neighbours as an extension of oneself. By neighbours, he meant entire humanity. Such mystic love enables complete self-effacement and absolute surrender to the cosmic will, “Let Thy will be done.” This is the culmination of spiritual wisdom and divine love.

Jesus Christ prescribed the panacea for humanity. Light enters freely, in any open space. So, all we need to do is to keep our hearts open for entry of the said light of love and wisdom to enable us to enter the ‘Kingdom of Heaven” within and rest in unwavering peace. We will thereby facilitate the resurrection of Christ within. (This is the transcript of the message that I gave on Christmas as a live comment, that is also available on my Youtube channel: Dr. Lamba’s Awakening Call. The transcript is being published at the suggestion of some friends. The link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufDBbMEvLl8&t=2s)

The Myth of Property

The idea of property has a close association of our sense of self, our ego — Once upon a time there was the sage who possessed nothing in the world except a piece of cloth that he tied about his waist. One day as he was walking down the road, the cloth got stuck on a thorny bush and it pulled away from his body. As he was about to catch the cloth to hide his nakedness, the sage asked himself, “Isn’t the act of holding onto the cloth attachment? As a hermit have I not renounced the world? By holding onto the cloth does it not mean that I still cling to certain material possessions? Am I then a true ascetic?”

As this realisation dawned on him, he let go of the cloth. The cloth remained on the thorny bush and he became a naked ascetic.

This story comes to us from the Jain traditions and it speaks of the Digambar, or the sky clad monk. The one who has no clothes because he has given up attachment to all things.

This draws our attention to the notion of property. Humans are the only creature who have the concept of property. Animals have territory. They fiercely defend their foraging and hunting grounds from rivals to ensure their survival. However, they are not able to bequeath it to their children. Animals do not inherit property, they must fight for it. The strongest wins. There is no concept of justice in the jungle, no law, no regulatory body.

Humans, however, have constructed the idea of property. A land can belong to an individual or a community and this creates the concept of possessive pronouns, such as mine, yours, his, hers, theirs, and most conflicts happen because of the tensions between what I consider mine and what I consider yours. Thus the idea of property has a close association of our sense of self, our ego.

This notion of property is maintained either through force or by a regulatory authority. For example, the lands of American and Australia were claimed by European immigrants by sheer force. Later, authority over the land was established by Royal Decree and then by the governments established. It completely invalidated reclaim of land by the indigenous tribes who had lived there for thousands of years. This has led to a great conflict and a deep sense of injustice amongst indigenous communities around the world.

In modern society, the right to property is a natural law that is essential to human civilisation. Tribal societies usually do not have the right to individual property, there is collective property. Property belongs to a community and not to an individual, but this creates huge issues, especially when people try to buy tribal land and the land belongs to the whole community and not to any particular individual.

In tribal societies, any property, such as a necklace or bangle that was on the body of a human being could be taken by another member of the tribe. The only property that could not be shared is a tattoo or a scar. This is why scarring or tattooing is an integral part of tribal society, for this is the only property that you can take after death.

The notion of property is the greatest myth of human civilisation. It is a fiction that everyone believes in and so is now seen as ‘fact’. It is not a natural phenomenon but a cultural concept enforced by various forces that benefit the members of a society.

Human beings have always wondered what happens to them after death, and property allows a kind of an illusion of immortality. One tends to believe that even though what one is dies, what one owns survives mortality. This gives property a great importance and therefore people build a lot of property and put their names on it which will carry on even after their death. It creates legacy.

In some oldest societies, property was established by burying the dead in the claimed land. By declaring that ancestors were buried in the land, tribal societies affirmed their right over it. Tombs are thus built to establish ownership on a piece of land. In societies that denounce the idea of property and valued detachment from property, mortal remains were not buried but cremated, and the ashes thrown in the river, indicating that one did not have ownership on any piece of land.

Without the myth of property, human civilisation perhaps cannot exist. It is the fundamental myth of cultures and this plays a key role in the Ramayana and Mahabharata where we continuously see property disputes, between brothers like Vali and Sugriva fighting over Kishkinda, Ravana and Kuber fighting over Lanka, Pandavas and Kauravas fighting over Kurukshetra. This conflict over property defines human society, for most human beings identify their own worth with what they possess. If you think property is truth, then know that you are trapped in myth, or delightful realm of what Hindu sages called maya.

A New Africa-Europe Alliance

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Rwandan President Paul Kagame participated in the High-Level Forum Africa-Europe in Vienna on December 18. More than 50 official delegations from member states of the African Union and the European Union attended the forum, along with 1,000 innovators and representatives of companies and start-ups from Africa and Europe. The theme of the meeting was “Taking cooperation to the digital age.”

Chancellor Kurz currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, and President Kagame is the chairman of the African Union, which consists of 55 African countries.

The high-level meeting in Austria is seen as the first step of “a new Africa-Europe alliance,” according to the EU’s summary paper on the meeting. The joint projects created at the forum will extend the cooperation between the two continents to areas beyond their common challenge of migration. Among other things, Europe promised higher investments and cooperation in the sectors of African agriculture, financial technologies, start-ups, sustainable energies and education.

Why is Europe so interested in Africa? In the next decade, Africa’s resources will be an important consideration not only for Africa, but also for the powers that control or influence African nations. The African continent is rich in precious metals, gems, ivory, wood, natural gas and oil. Due to a lack of technology, education and infrastructure, many of these resources lie untapped or unused. As the store of available resources in the developed world nears exhaustion, the West’s dependence on imports rises. Thus Africa has become a battleground for the world’s major powers.

Europe knows investing in Africa means investing in the future. The number of well-educated workers in Africa is estimated to grow by 15 to 20 million annually over the next three decades. European investments now target this growing workforce to ensure that their local deployment will be productive.

So far, Europe’s trade relationships with African nations have been conditional, depending on how well those nations uphold human rights. Unlike Europe, China has ignored some nations’ human rights violations and has made major strides in exploiting Africa’s resources. But Europe is now ready to do the same. Kurz emphasized that Europe “can’t leave Africa to the Chinese.” The Austrian chancellor is not the only one who believes that Europe has to change its approach when it comes to Africa.

Guttenberg Advocates Europe in Africa

When the joint forum took place, former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was also in Vienna, and he discussed the same topics with Austrian Finance Minister Hartwig Löger. Löger had invited Guttenberg to the traditional Finance Ministry event, Finanz im Dialog, which was held on the top floor of the Finance Ministry. The theme of the night was “Brave new Europe? How can the old Continent meet the challenges of global competition?”

At the event, Guttenberg criticized Europe’s response to China’s progress in Africa. He said that rather than meeting these decisive global developments, “the U.S. and Europe have been too busy with themselves. … Europe has been looking at Africa for far too long out of a developmental political nostalgia, instead of realizing that China in particular also sees strong political power potential in Africa.”

Guttenberg also emphasized that Europe has the ability to be much more involved in Africa, but it has so far lacked the will to use it. “Through the industry that we have in Europe, we have huge opportunities” for economic growth, Guttenberg said. Europe’s economic strength, industrial might and geographical proximity to the African continent put it in the ideal position to become Africa’s most important trading partner.

While Austria has been paving the way recently for this increased cooperation between the two continents, the industrial powerhouse of Germany will ultimately determine the success of the endeavor. Although Germany is currently in a major leadership crisis, Austria’s finance minister is already looking to Baron Guttenberg for direction. Austria as a whole might soon do the same.

As Britain and America fade out of Africa and into the sunset of superpowers past, Europe positions itself to march in. Germany in particular will corporately “reinvade” its old African colonial possessions, pillaging resources to feed the furnaces and drive the machinery that will turn out tools of war for a remilitarizing imperialist power.

The situation in Africa is about to turn in Europe’s favor. Europe will take over many nations in Africa and the Middle East militarily and economically. Europe will then be troubled by “tidings from the east,” referring to China and other Asiatic nations. While there will likely be a brief cooperation between the two rising empires in Europe and Asia as they unite against America, they will eventually clash violently.

Sunday Special: Digital Technology Recreates Your Dead Loved Ones

 We need to start preparing for the future of death and grief, before it’s suddenly sprung upon us. You wake up, get ready for work, have some toast and coffee with your spouse, then wave goodbye. It’s your typical workday. There is, however, something unusual: your beloved has been dead for many years. You didn’t have breakfast with your spouse – but rather with a simulation of your spouse.

The simulation lives in a virtual environment, perhaps accessed by a device such as the Oculus Rift. A digital bereavement company has captured and analysed torrents of data about your husband to create a digital likeness. His voice, his gait, his idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, the undulations of his laugh – all are replicated with near-perfect similitude. Spending time with your digitally reborn spouse has become a part of your daily routine.

Death is often viewed as the great leveller that marks the cessation of experience. But perhaps this needn’t be the case. Even if the dead can’t interact with us anymore, we can still interact with a simulation of them. It was the death of my father that inspired me to embark on a project to make this fantasy a reality.

Two hundred years ago, most people didn’t have access to a picture of their dearly departed, and a few decades ago the same could be said for any film of a person. Yet, soon, simulations could be able to accurately imitate those who have died so that we can continue to interact with them as if they continued to live. As emerging technologies conspire to make simulations of the dead a part of our lives, this possibility is no longer the realm of science fiction.

With smartphones, the quantified-self movement and massive online data collection, one can get a passably accurate view of how a person behaves. This type of data collection would be the basis of creating simulations of the deceased. Humans have a natural tendency to ascribe agency – indeed personality – to animate objects, so creating a convincing simulation might not be as hard as it first seems. Consider Eliza, a computer program with a few lines of code created in the 1960s which could convince people that they were talking to a psychotherapist. And bots have been getting more sophisticated still ever since.

One immediate objection is that a simulation is never going to be as rich as the real thing. But this is akin to saying that a chess program is not going to be able to play chess in the same artful manner that a human champion does. While IBM’s Deep Blue had an exhaustive search-based chess-playing architecture that was less than elegant, it did accomplish the task of defeating the greatest chess grandmaster who ever lived.

If our hypothetical simulation can pass the deceased person’s version of the Turing test, then we have accomplished the task of having experiences of the dead. Don’t get hung up on ascribing intelligence or consciousness to the software. If the only goal is to have the experience of interacting with a person who is now deceased, then the metaphysics of personal identity is irrelevant. Will such a system have a soul? Will it be conscious? At best, these question are irrelevant and, at worst, they distract us from actually attempting to build simulations. My project focuses on making experiences of a deceased person possible – but not necessarily experiences with the deceased.

Simulations can be thought of as the next step in the evolution of bereavement. Whether it is by writing eulogies, building memorials, creating tombs or simply keeping a photograph on the nightstand, cultures have different ways of remembering and mourning – but they always do remember and mourn. One of the great appeals of religion is the promise of reunion with the departed in one form or another. Simulations hold the possibility that the living are no longer permanently cut off from the dead.

These simulations will also change how we relate to the living. Imagine if you didn’t have to say goodbye forever to anyone (that is, until you yourself die). A friend’s death would be met with bereavement and deep sadness, of course. But at any moment in the future you would still be able to spend time laughing and reminiscing with a simulation so similar to your friend that it would be difficult to tell the two apart.

At the same time, a world where you can interact freely with idealised simulations of other people could have a deleterious effect on real-world relationships. Why interact with your petulant uncle in real life when you can interact with an idealised, and much more fun, version of him in the digital world? After all, bots can be muted and their bothersome traits simply deleted. Why bother with the living if the dead can provide comfort and personality tailored to our whims?

New and unexpected patterns of behaviour might also emerge. Perhaps simulations will allow people to hold grudges even after a person has died, continuing to combat a bot that is only ever a click away. Alternatively, one might wait for the other’s demise and let go of grudges later on so that they can deal with a more pleasant version of that person. The only difference is that it will not be a person that they are interacting with but rather a simulacra.

If we don’t start a discussion about the possibility and viability of simulations of the deceased now, then they will be thrust upon us when we’re not ready for them in the near future. The road will be fraught with moral dilemmas and questions about the human condition. Soon, the line that divides the living from the dead might not be so clear. 

Finding WuWei in the future of your work

Even as young professionals and students waiting to enter the job market wonder which career path to follow, it is imperative that they remember or learn about the wisdom of the world’s thinkers. They should especially read the works of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher born over 2,000 years ago.

According to Lao Tzu, things which happen according to a natural order of the Universe, happen effortlessly. Each human being is imparted with a special gift. Internships, apprenticeships, and training are especially useful in finding those special gifts you may be endowed with.

Working a few days or even a few weeks on a project will help you discover whether you are truly suited for that profession. It will help you discover your Tao.

Companies like Google already allow employees to work 20% of their weekly time on a passion project. Gmail and Google Maps are a result of that time. In all matters of work, young professionals should remember something about Lao Tzu’s Taoism.

The Chinese philosopher implies that human beings should not do anything which doesn’t have Wu Wei for them. Even if you’re getting the work or employment, it may be just an illusion – and would bring unhappiness in the end.

As the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs summarized beautifully – “keep looking for it till you find your love – in all matters of the heart – be it work or your loved one.” So in my belief, all the free time young people gather – should be spent in looking for that ‘One’ work – than anything else.

Or as Taoism says in the concept of Wu Wei just like Krishna in Bhagavad Gita – that only those things should be done – which give a feeling of in-action.

These things will also bring a spontaneity to your action. If you love mechanics, you might work hours with spanners and wrenches and your mind will not feel tired performing that work, even if your body gets tired at the end of the day.

If you love writing, you might spend hours in the same work. But you will not feel a moment has passed.

A teacher of journalism told me that he had worked almost 25 years in the professional writing, making documentaries and teaching people. But he had hardly worked a ‘single day’ in his life.

If you love building houses or masonry, you might spend hours in the ‘hard work’ but you would have hardly worked a single day. It goes on for various professions such as carpentry, electricians, sportspersons, computer programming, teachers, artists, actors, or medical professionals.

The easiest thing to decide upon which job to undertake – as a career – is to visualize a work that you would continue to enjoy doing – even after you have retired – just because you enjoy it.

So if you enjoy being employed in a services business – such as a restaurant, a bank, grocery shop, or a tailoring business, regardless of that fact that customers come to you or not, and you just enjoy the work in itself – you are following the concept of Wu Wei – it will make you happy eternally.

And gradually you would become so proficient in that profession that it will become an ‘art’ for you.

The idea is to find business or work that gives you that feeling and keeps you in the ‘Zone’.

When you fall into that Zone – it will be the unconsciousness performing that work – and you will work wonders for yourself, the planet and the human consciousness.

As the wisdom of Taoism says – as long as there is not a ‘You’ doing that work, you are closer home – than the day you were born. To find ‘Home’ is to find that ‘Zone’.

And till that time that you don’t find that work, it’s best to keep looking and keep searching.

The search will make you as a professional self-aware. It will be a journey which will always yield a meaningful result.

There could be questions. What about arranging money for food first? And shelter? And clothes?

Here could be a small tip for young professionals. During your quest, you can keep working odd jobs – but you would have started on that path and the journey of self-discovery.

And one day either you will quit, get fired, or simply have moved in on to your ‘Home’ zone.

You would have connected to the source file in your consciousness or a DNA strand that contains your purpose on this world – and fulfill that grand design.

And ultimately you would be given that work to perform as you that the earth and its organisms are one super consciousness – which connect with each other and send signals on what one needs.

The internet and the social networks are just fulfilling that grand design of global interconnectedness, which always existed from time immemorial in this Universe.

Even as you search for the ultimate goal, it will make your life easier on both counts.

You will be constantly pursuing your dream as well as gaining the wisdom what’s wrong in your current employment and what’s the one job that you would love to perform.

Entrepreneurship is most often than not, is born from the principle of Wu Wei. Entrepreneurship is hard enough. And to do something which a human being does not like wilfully 24x7x365 is almost impossible.

Entrepreneurs thus either die in that journey or they find a Zone where they just love the journey even if it doesn’t yield a single dollar of profit for months altogether. It might look foolish but it is not.

They finally marry their business with the needs of the customer and find the right zone. Profits eventually flow and it becomes an organisation employing hundreds, and sometimes thousands.

Only once you empty the bottle of old water can the freshwater or elixir of life can get in. Windows get opened when a door gets shut – you should just know which window to open.

There are some entrepreneurs who even after years of hard work are still creating a buzz – just because they are following the concept of Wu Wei. They keep on moving from one work to another which excites them.

Many professionals and employees love to undertake projects that excite them and thus work on their own will – even as they may look employed from the outside.

Follow this path, and you will never have worked a day in your life

China’s Secret Plan to Militarize the ‘Belt and Road’

Projects in Pakistan that China long insisted were purely for peaceful purposes are becoming more overtly military in nature, confirming fears that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is intended partly to boost Chinese military power.

Since 2013, China has been building the bri, a chain of infrastructure development projects in more than 60 countries. From the earliest days, Pakistan was a bri darling, with China spending some $60 billion to build a deepwater port on the country’s southern coast and linking it by 2,000 miles of road and rail up to the China-Pakistan border. Chinese officials have long insisted that in Pakistan and all other participating nations, the trillion-dollar briis purely for peaceful purposes.

But the New York Times reported on December 19 that it had reviewed confidential documents regarding China’s bri-related activities in Pakistan, revealing that “China is for the first time explicitly tying a Belt and Road proposal to its military ambitions.”

The documents show that a special bri economic zone will expand Pakistan’s construction of Chinese fighter jets and that the two sides will jointly build navigation systems, weaponry and other military hardware in facilities in Pakistan. The plans also call for boosting China-Pakistan cooperation in space, a frontier China has been actively militarizing in recent years.

Pakistan is also shown to be the only foreign nation granted access to the military service of China’s Beidou satellite navigation system, enabling precision guidance for its aircraft, ships and weapons. “The cooperation is meant to be a blueprint for Beidou’s expansion to other Belt and Road nations,” the Times wrote, noting that linking up with Beidou could end brinations’ “reliance on the American military-run gps network that Chinese officials fear is monitored and manipulated by the United States.”

The confidential documents confirm “concerns of a host of nations who suspect the infrastructure initiative is really about helping China project armed might,” the Times wrote.

Michael Fuchs, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, agrees with this view, telling cnbc that the Times findings “should come as no real surprise.” Fuchs points out that despite Beijing’s assertions to the contrary, bri projects in locations such as Djibouti, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are “all about giving access to China’s military.”

The new report is only the latest evidence showing that China is rebalancing the world economy with the bri and related initiatives. China’s progress in this rebalancing act is part of a larger shift underway in the global power balance, which Geopolitical Futures wrote about on December 26, saying that “one era is ending and another will soon begin.” America “has spread itself thin, and the power gap between it and its rivals has narrowed,” it wrote. “Conventional wisdom is no longer conventional, and around the world there is a sense that everything, including U.S. hegemony, is in question.”

Geopolitical Futures said 2019 will be a year on edge that will undergo global transition to a new era that has yet to be defined.

For many decades, American and British power has brought stability to the world. But now power is shifting away from them and toward two main blocs of non-Israelite nations. One of these will revolve around Germany, and the other around Russia and China.

China’s increasing expansion of the BRI and related initiatives is shifting global power away from the Israelite nations and toward these other nations. The project’s increasingly overt military dimension makes the dangers of the shift plainer.

Weekend Special: Geoengineering to End the Debate over Climate Change

 Geoengineering, an emerging technology aimed at counteracting the effects of human-caused climate change, also has the potential to counteract political polarization over global warming, according to a new study.

Published in the journal Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the study found that participants — members of large, nationally representative samples in both the United States and England — displayed more open-mindedness toward evidence of climate change, and more agreement on the significance of such evidence, after learning of geoengineering.

“The result casts doubt on the claim that the advent of geoengineering could lull the public into complacency,” said Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School and a member of the research team that conducted the study.

“We found exactly the opposite: Members of the public who learned about geoengineering were more concerned and less polarized about global warming than those who were told of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a way to reduce climate change,” he said.

As defined by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), “geoengineering” refers to deliberate, large-scale manipulations of Earth’s environment in order to offset some of the harmful consequences of human-caused climate change. Potential examples include solar reflectors that would cool global temperatures by reflecting more sunlight away from the Earth and so-called “carbon scrubbers,” which would remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Both the NAS and the Royal Society, the preeminent association of expert scientists in the United Kingdom, have issued reports calling for stepped-up research on geoengineering, which also was identified as a necessary measure for counteracting the impact of global warming in the latest assessment report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In the study, researchers divided the 3,000 participants into groups, providing some with information on geoengineering and others with information on proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions. They instructed the participants to read and evaluate actual study findings offering evidence human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, was heating the Earth’s temperature and creating serious environmental risks including coastal flooding and drought.

“The participants who learned about geoengineering were less polarized about the validity of the evidence than were the ones who got information on carbon-emission limits,” said Kahan.

“In fact, the participants who read about carbon-emission limits were even more polarized than subjects in a control group, who read the information on the evidence of global warming without first learning about any potential policy responses,” he said.

This result was consistent with previous research on a dynamic known as “cultural cognition,” which describes the tendency of individuals to react dismissively to evidence of environmental risks when that evidence threatens their values or group identities.

“The information on geoengineering,” said Kahan, “helped to offset bias by revealing to those study participants with a pro-technology outlook that acknowledging evidence of global warming does not necessarily imply the ‘end of free markets’ or the ‘death of capitalism,’ a theme that some climate-change policy advocates emphasize.”

Kahan added that the significance of the research extended beyond the issue of whether the advent of geoengineering would stifle or promote public engagement with climate science.

“What’s important is that people assess information about science based not only on its content but on its cultural meaning or significance,” explained Kahan. “The study supports the conclusion that science communicators need to broadcast engaging signals along both the ‘content’ and ‘meaning’ channels if they want their message to get through.”

 Geo-engineer our way out of climate change?

New technologies may one day pull the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. But at what fresh cost?

With fires, storms, record-breaking temperatures and changes in the natural environment, there is growing evidence that our earth’s systems are becoming increasingly unstable. This has potentially catastrophic consequences.

Public debate often places climate risks in the context of “this century” or “by 2100”. But scientists are increasingly highlighting the risks of devastating and irreversible impacts in just 20 or 30 years. This is within our lifetimes, and certainly within our children’s.

These risks include:

Loss of nearly all corals, which support 25% of all ocean life (as documented in the recent film Chasing Coral)

Collapsing ice sheets, which will raise sea-levels, devastating coastal cities and low-lying countries

Warming oceans, which energize storms (to category 6 and higher), with damage that includes breaches of coastal nuclear reactors

Warming of the planet, caused by the greenhouse effect, is the primary stressor of many of these environmental challenges. Carbon dioxide and other pollutants present further complications, such as increasing ocean acidification.

450 parts per million

Humans have long affected their environment. But until we started burning fossil fuels in the mid-1800s, the amount of carbon we added to the air balanced the amount removed. However, over the past 150 years, CO2 emissions have far outpaced the subtractions. Our annual production of carbon is currently around 40 billion tonnes.

Scientists debate how much carbon can be safely stored in our atmosphere before exceeding safe operating limits. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates it to be around 300 billion tonnes, but many scientists suggest a much lower amount.

Climate scientists believe that a CO2 concentration of 450 parts per million is likely to warm the climate by 2°C, the safe upper limit. By 2015, CO2 in the atmosphere rose to 400 parts per million. At our current rate of emissions, we will reach 450 ppm within 20 years.

Even if we achieve the Paris Agreement reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the gases that were generated over the past few decades will be absorbed back into the earth slowly, and will be at an elevated level in our atmosphere for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

To stay below the safe threshold of 2°C, the UN and IPCC plans entail removal of CO2 from the atmosphere using methods that do not exist yet (“negative emissions”).

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Some countries are developing plans for adapting to a warmer, more volatile planet. However, the cost of adaptation starts to rise rapidly as climate-linked incidents become more common.

The Paris Agreement and bold decisions by certain nations to expand renewable energy, introduce electric vehicles and deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals are powerful multilateral steps to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Will all of these efforts be enough? If not, do we have other options? (No, Mars is not an option yet.)

Adaptation to a warmer climate may not be a realistic long-term proposition for certain nations such as small island states and low-lying countries, given rising sea levels. We would still suffer the ecological loss of disappearing sensitive ecosystems, such as coral reefs.

During the agricultural, industrial and digital revolutions of the past 150 years, we have arguably been accidentally engineering the Earth’s system. We lit the planet where it was dark. We transplanted species, paved forests, emitted carbon, moved rivers and changed the Earth’s chemistry.

Could we now apply the advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to protect the natural systems we rely on?

 Intervening to stabilise the climate

In recent decades, scientists have proposed engineered interventions to counter the effects of climate change. These are called “climate interventions” or “geoengineering”. They are not long-term solutions, but could protect communities and ecosystems, buying time both to reduce emissions and for the climate to cool.

Such technologies fall into three categories: removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, reducing heat by reflecting sunlight, and intervening locally for a specific problem or system.

Greenhouse gas removal, or “negative emissions technology”, uses industrial air filters or even living organisms to capture greenhouse gases and convert them into energy or materials, or store them in the ground. Many of these exist only as proof-of-concepts, and will take decades to deploy at scale. Therefore they could only reduce the heating effect slowly over time.

“The only known means of reducing warming in a timespan of years-to-decades is to reflect additional sunlight away from Earth,” states leading climate researcher, Ken Caldeira.

The most promising means of reflecting sunlight are based on natural processes. They involve dispersing particles to make the stratosphere more reflective, or to brighten clouds. These will take a couple of decades to develop, but if viable, could reduce warming rapidly.

Local interventions range from genetically modifying plants and organisms for survival to cooling parts of the ocean to sustain corals or dampen hurricanes.

We do not have the means to implement any of these options yet.

A global governance effort for geoengineering?

Engineering the climate is not without risks, creating great plotlines for Hollywood blockbusters, and making environmental decisions even more complex.

Reflecting sunlight could alter regional rainfall patterns. Greenhouse-gas removal methods may harm natural ecosystems. We will need frameworks to assess these risks.

Yet as climate threats grow, a wider range of countries, and even other non-state actors, may develop interventions. We will need governance for decisions about when and how these tools might be used, and such decisions must be inclusive.

Experiments are safe on a small scale, and people will need to do them. We must ensure that such research is open, that safeguards are in place, and that findings can be verified.

Above all, we need options. While many are concerned about controlling geoengineering, these capabilities do not even exist yet, and are very hard to develop. We currently risk having no options at all.

It will take a decade of small-scale research and development to assess the feasibility and risks of these approaches, and another decade to scale any option for meaningful use.

We will need a new generation of Fourth Industrial Revolution platforms, such as satellites, drones, exascale computing, advances in bio-technology, to analyse the climate as we work to sustain it.

At present, we need a sufficient portfolio and pipeline of research and innovation. This ensures that if efforts to reduce emissions are not enough, we have options to protect ourselves, our ecosystems and our society, and leave an inhabitable world to future generations.

The Reality of Triple Talaq-Nemesis of Muslim Women

The government of India prompted by Supreme Court declared triple talaq illegal and now Council of Islamic Ideology has finally realised that the matter of three-in-one divorce is a matter worth examining. More often than not, it is really an act of oppression and is instrumental in making women an exploited lot. The act of pronouncing all three talaqs, or words of divorce, by the husband in one breath — and its destructive and tragic outcome — is due to the lack of knowledge of the injunctions about divorce in the Quran and Hadith.

Besides destroying a whole household, including young and innocent children, the one who is most upset by this happening is the husband himself. He often runs from mufti to mufti, trying to find a way out of this dark situation.

Prophet Muhammad said that a divorce is one of those halal, or permitted acts, which is most disliked by God (Abu Dawud). According to the Quran, if a husband and wife cannot get along, two arbitrators, one from each family, should provide counselling in an effort to avert the much-disliked talaq (4:35).

When all efforts have failed, steps can to be taken to bring about a divorce. Divorce can be broadly of two types: (i) talaqul sunnah, that which is based on the Quran and Hadith and (ii) talaqul badi, three-in-one divorce, though based on a heterodox innovation, will still be considered to have taken legal effect.

The lack of knowledge of injunctions about divorce leads to tragic outcomes.

When Hazrat Umar was the caliph, he used to punish those men severely who followed this method. The talaqul sunnah is further divided into the ahsan, or the best and most laudable, and the hasan, or the laudable. In all the above types, the divorce is revocable up to the second pronouncement, but becomes irrevocable after the third pronouncement of the words of divorce.

In the talaqul ahsan, or the best method, the husband pronounces the words in the presence of two witnesses, and lets the wife be for a waiting period of three months. The divorce is revocable any time before the expiry of this period, and the husband can take the woman to be his wife again through another nikah and the payment of a new mehr.

This is the best method because the wife does not have to marry another man and be divorced by him as well, in case she wants to reunite with the first husband, as is the case with the talaqul hasan and the talaqul badi.

The prescribed Quranic method of giving a divorce (2:226-232) is to intentionally pronounce the words of divorce once, after the woman is clear of her monthly cycle, in the presence of two witnesses. This is necessary to make the procedure of divorce complete (65:2). The woman should not be expelled from the house, but both should continue to live in the same house for a month (65:1).

During this time, the husband can revoke the divorce if they decide to reunite. But if he is adamant in his resolve and decides to move ahead, the second pronouncement of divorce has to be made after the completion of her second monthly cycle, again in the presence of two witnesses. After this, another one-month period of waiting ensues, which is another chance to reunite.

During these two intervening months, the woman should be asked to stay honourably in the same house, thus increasing their chances of reuniting (65:6). After the third monthly cycle is over, and if the husband deliberately pronounces the words a third time, in the presence of two witnesses, the divorce will become final and irrevocable.

After the third and final pronouncement of divorce, she has to observe the iddah or a three-month waiting period, during which she cannot marry another man (2:228). This is to establish pregnancy and paternity, since the responsibility of the child’s upkeep is on the child’s father.

During the iddah, the woman should not live in the husband’s house but move, preferably to a relative’s house, where she can observe the restrictions of segregation. For three months, the woman will have to mostly stay at home, going out only when necessary. In the divorce initiated by the husband, the wife does not have to return any of the mehr, jewellery or anything else given to her by the husband.

In order to protect families from undue suffering, and to control the widespread menace of the three-in one talaq, the knowledge about the talaqul ahsan should be spread widely. The imams of mosques should be given the responsibility of spreading the knowledge of the Quranic method of giving a divorce, to members of their congregations so that it becomes common knowledge.

But the best deterrent of all will be to follow in the footsteps of the second caliph, Hazrat Umar. He would accept the three-in-one talaq as being valid, final and irrevocable, but would give a severe punishment to the culprit. Today, a large fine can be imposed for violating the letter and spirit of the Quran.

East Germans Regret the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Trump’s call for wall is creating waves, notwithstanding the reality that over 35 countries have already built walls or fences and India is now building a laser wall along the entire border with Pakistan. The plea often taken is the Berlin wall fell,so why build new ones. Bur are you aware that East Berliners or already ruing the fall and wish it had never come down?

It has been 29 years since the Berlin Wall came down. The division between West Germany and Soviet-occupied East Germany came to an end on Nov. 9, 1989, after more than 20 years of separation. This event was viewed by the West as a victory for freedom and democracy.

Intriguingly, however, many East Germans don’t view this event as entirely positive. A Leipzig University study published in November shows that an astonishing 40 percent of East Germans think a dictator would be acceptable in certain circumstances.

That is an alarming number. East Germany was under the control of the former Soviet Union from the end of World War ii until the Berlin Wall came down. Of all people, shouldn’t East Germans despise dictatorial rule? Wouldn’t their history under Soviet oppression make them abhor dictators?

How do East Germans really feel about their history behind the wall and their reunification with West Germany? You might be surprised by the answer.

Author Christopher Hilton interviewed a number of East Germans for his 2008 book After the Berlin Wall: Putting Two Germanys Back Together Again. The majority of those interviewed had the attitude that things weren’t that bad in East Germany. In fact, many of them felt that some things were actually better under Soviet rule than they are today under the German republic.

Hilton asked former East German police officer Frank Thomas: If you had a magic wand and could go back to the fall of the Berlin Wall, what would you do with the wand?

“That’s difficult to say,” Thomas said. “The social structures that we had—the care for children and so on—they were wonderful. We had hardly any unemployed people. The doctors were free of charge. The social background for the young people was better—we had the youth clubs—all that has gone.”

A few others who were interviewed had similar sentiments. They said they missed certain aspects of their lives in East Germany before the wall fell.

“Burglaries increased,” Thomas said. “And it was completely new dealing with drugs …. We had no drugs in East Germany.” The police force in East Germany was taken over by the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Another former East German police officer, identified by the alias Raymond, said that police administration became more bureaucratic after reunification, which East Germans found difficult to navigate.

Many East Germans were frustrated by the fact that once reunification began, the West essentially took over. They had hoped for a more collaborative effort in reunification. Some East Germans felt that their opinions and desires weren’t really considered; it was just assumed that they would want to be like the West.

These frustrations were especially felt in the financial sector. Prof. Norbert Walter, chief economist at the Deutsche Bank Group until the end of 2009, said that 15 million East Germans had to accept a complicated bureaucratic system with which they were not familiar and for which they did not have the necessary advisers. All of a sudden, they were exposed to capitalism, and they weren’t used to it. East Germans needed tax accountants, lawyers and financial advisers to help them navigate this new world of finance, but they had limited access to these resources.

The fall of the wall brought the opportunity to buy more and more goods, as well as the opportunity to use credit to do it. Credit was uncommon in East Germany before the wall fell, so many East Germans were unfamiliar with how to use it properly. Hilton interviewed one former East German history teacher who lost her job after unification. She now works for an organization that helps the unemployed. She told Hilton that it was nearly impossible to get into debt in East Germany. Credit wasn’t readily available or used very often. After the wall fell, it was simply too much, she said. People were not able to decide what they really needed. As a result, many people struggled to cope with the new financial system and got into debt.

After reunification, many East Germans lost their jobs, their identity and their history. The educational system, particularly the subject of history, was completely taken over by the West. Again, this frustrated many East Germans. Dr. Falk Pingle of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research said, “The publishers quickly brought out new books but they were just new editions of the ones written in the West in the 1980s, with an added chapter on reunification. It wasn’t at all representative of the idea the East Germans had of their own history. The repressive nature of the Communist regime was emphasized. … Reunification was presented as a positive thing, without mentioning the dashed hopes and dreams of the East.”

Many East Germans felt like their lives had been turned upside down. Everything they knew had changed dramatically—overnight. Some of them felt like reunification efforts had been a bit unfair. When all of their major institutions were taken over by the West, East Germans felt that “so many aspects of unification involved what appeared to be a settling of scores,” according to Hilton.

With life more complex, more uncertain and more bureaucratic than ever, some East Germans today long for the stability of the past. While they may not want to go completely back to the way things were before the wall fell, some also aren’t eagerly embracing the democracy of the West. Remember, about 40 percent of East Germans said they agreed or partly agreed that they should submit to a dictator to regain their stability. That is significant. If more than a third of the population thinks that a dictator might be OK in certain circumstances, it will be easier for a strong, dictatorial leader to take power in a time of crisis.

A former East German schoolteacher told Hilton, “Only recently we went to the cinema with the pupils to see a film about an American teacher applying fascist methods in school. The pupils think this is good and normal, a kind of experiment that works. Could this happen again, like the Third Reich? Twenty years ago, I’d have said no,” she said. “But now, I think it is possible”.

Weekend Special: Need to Change Communication System at Work

Internal workplace communications are now changing, with workplaces rethinking their communication. Whether it’s office email, collaborative apps or the break room noticeboard, internal workplace communications have the potential to go very wrong, very quickly.

Google engineer James Damore recently found this out to his cost after colleagues leaked a Google Doc he shared about the company’s approach to diversity, leading to his eventual dismissal.

Of course, misjudged workplace missives are hardly new. Even your out-of-office message can go viral if you’re not careful.

But now that Google – the progressive, convention-busting organisation we rely on to organise the world’s information – finds itself at the centre of its own workplace communications scandal, it is a perfect time to rethink the whole thing.

Too much information?

Recent attempts to address this have focused on when we communicate at work, rather than how. It has been eight months since France passed the El Khomri “right to disconnect” law, making it illegal for employers to email staff out of office hours. The idea was to tackle work-related stress and bring an end to the “electronic leash” as one French lawmaker put it.

Six years before, Volkswagen agreed to stop emailing its employees outside of office hours. In 2014, Daimler, another German car manufacturer, introduced a voluntary policy that enabled staff to auto-delete emails they receive while on vacation. The sender instead received a variation of this response:

I am on vacation. I cannot read your email. Your email is being deleted. Please contact Hans or Monika if it’s really important, or resend the email after I’m back in the office.

The right to disconnect has only been law in France since January 2017, so it’s too soon to judge its impact. But Volkswagen workers spokesman Jörg Köther claimed in 2014 that his company’s measure had been well-received. He attributed its success to the policy’s “no bypass” mechanism, essential to remove the temptation for workers to log back in.

Daimler reported success with staff too. Spokesman Oliver Wihofszki told the BBC:

The response is basically 99% positive, because everybody says: ‘That’s a real nice thing, I would love to have that too.’

Competitive communicating

Most of us are guilty of checking in with work too often. Last year HR Magazine’s Reclaim Your Time survey found that 34% of employees check their email immediately after waking up and 38% do it every night just before they go to bed. A study by a UK cyber security consultancy found that two in ten office workers responded to work emails even after going to bed.

Some organisations encourage this toxic fixation. Erika Nardini, CEO of Barstool Sports admitted texting employees on a Sunday just to see how quickly they responded.

Compelling employees to switch off is a good start. But there’s a long way to go.

A mindful approach

Gianluca Leone, director of myrooms.co.uk, a management company for flat-sharers in London, told one of my colleagues that his team have tried to find a middle-ground between disabling email and allowing free reign: “We have a system for monitoring our customer service email address and everyone knows who’s picking up those emails at any given time… During peak season we have support staff to serve clients in other time zones. Our staff know when we expect them to be offline and they to appreciate the clarity.”

The difference between “we don’t expect you to check your email” and “we expect you not to check your email”, is crucial.

Of course, completely disallowing out-of-hours emails won’t work for all businesses. We need flexibility. Discouraging overuse is fine, but let’s take a more mindful approach to internal communications in general.

For a start, organisations should discourage the arbitrary copying of people into emails. This habit erodes trust and controversial messages spread like wildfire.

Google’s Damore is said to have copied in 40,000 colleagues to his memo which criticised the company’s diversity policy. They then swarmed to Blind – an app that facilitates anonymous workplace gossip – to call for his dismissal. What if he had simply spoken to Google’s new diversity chief in person? It could have been a conversation instead of a “manifesto” that caused a global hand-wringing over corporate approaches to equality.

We should get up and speak to our colleagues whenever we can. The benefits are well documented. So I’d celebrate any initiative to discourage emailing all colleagues, whether remote or at the next desk.

The future of internal comms

Other channels bear consideration too. Email is losing popularity among younger people. Some 37% of startups no longer view it as their main comms channel, favouring collaborative platforms like Slack and Google Docs. These tools are ripe for overuse, designed to facilitate group-wide communication from a smartphone. What could go wrong?

Some businesses have already spotted the risks. One London fashion startup has an unusual way of discouraging extra-curricular Slack usage, assigning those guilty of it to the morning coffee run as punishment.

Overuse of workplace communication is linked to a reduction in mental well-being, so clear policies like those developed by VW and in France are essential. It means employees aren’t left guessing about what’s expected of them.

When companies have experimented with unlimited paid vacation, letting employees decide how much time off they took, staff end up working more, not less. The same is true of communications. Without restrictions, employees risk drowning in information.

Flexibility and a culture of openness are valuable to any organisation. But those organisations that embrace openness have a duty to protect their people from the risks, both to their well-being and to their career, of being able to communicate so easily with so many.

Ancient China & Today’s Technology

As machine-learning algorithms come to dominate decision-making in business, politics, and society, the pressure to make more personal data available will steadily increase, and privacy protections will be eroded. If we do not take the reins of these new technologies, they could lead us toward a political system we did not choose.

Around 1200 BC, the Shang Dynasty in China developed a factory system to build thousands of huge bronze vessels for use in everyday life and ritual ceremonies. In this early example of mass production, the process of bronze casting required intricate planning and the coordination of large groups of workers, each performing a separate task in precisely the right order.

A similarly complex process went into fashioning the famous army of terracotta warriors that Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, unveiled one thousand years later. According to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the statues “were created using an assembly production system that paved the way for advances in mass production and commerce.”

Some scholars have speculated that these early forms of prescriptive-work technologies played a large role in shaping Chinese society. Among other things, they seem to have predisposed people to accept bureaucratic structures, a social philosophy emphasizing hierarchy, and a belief that there is a single right way of doing things.

When industrial factories were introduced in Europe in the nineteenth century, even staunch critics of capitalism such as Friedrich Engels acknowledged that mass production necessitated centralized authority, regardless of whether the economic system was capitalist or socialist. In the twentieth century, theorists such as Langdon Winner extended this line of thinking to other technologies. He thought that the atom bomb, for example, should be considered an “inherently political artifact,” because its “lethal properties demand that it be controlled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command.”

Today, we can take that thinking even further. Consider machine-learning algorithms, the most important general-purpose technology in use today. Using real-world examples to mimic human cognitive capacities, these algorithms are already becoming ubiquitous in the workplace. But, to capitalize fully on these technologies, organizations must redefine human tasks as prediction tasks, which are more suited to these algorithms’ strengths.

A key feature of machine-learning algorithms is that their performance improves with more data. As a result, the use of these algorithms creates a technological momentum to treat information about people as recordable, accessible data. Like the system of mass production, they are “inherently political,” because their core functionality demands certain social practices and discourages others. In particular, machine-learning algorithms run directly counter to individuals’ desire for personal privacy.

A system based on the public availability of information about individual community members might seem amenable to communitarians such as the sociologist Amitai Etzioni, for whom limitations on privacy are a means to enforce social norms. But, unlike communitarians, algorithms are indifferent to social norms. Their only concern is to make better predictions, by transforming more and more areas of human life into data sets that can be mined.

Moreover, while the force of a technological imperative turns individualist Westerners into accidental communitarians, it also makes them more beholden to a culture of meritocracy based on algorithmic evaluations. Whether it is at work, in school, or even on dating apps, we have already become accustomed to having our eligibility assessed by impersonal tools, which then assign us positions in a hierarchy.

To be sure, algorithmic assessment is not new. A generation ago, scholars such as Oscar H. Gandy warned that we were turning into a scored-and-ranked society, and demanded more accountability and redress for technology-driven mistakes. But, unlike modern machine-learning algorithms, older assessment tools were reasonably well understood. They made decisions on the basis of relevant normative and empirical factors. For example, it was no secret that accumulating a lot of credit card debit could hurt one’s creditworthiness.

By contrast, new machine-learning technologies plumb the depths of large data sets to find correlations that are predictive but poorly understood. In the workplace, algorithms can track employees’ conversations, where they eat lunch, and how much time they spend on the computer, telephone, or in meetings. And with that data, the algorithm develops sophisticated models of productivity that far surpass our commonsense intuitions. In an algorithmic meritocracy, whatever the models demand becomes the new standard of excellence.

Still, technology is not destiny. We shape it before it shapes us. Business leaders and policymakers can develop and deploy the technologies they want, according to their institutional needs. It is within our power to cast privacy nets around sensitive areas of human life, to protect people from the harmful uses of data, and to require that algorithms balance predictive accuracy against other values such as fairness, accountability, and transparency.

But if we follow the natural flow of algorithmic logic, a more meritocratic and communitarian culture will be inevitable. And this steady transformation will have far-reaching implications for our democratic institutions and political structures. As the China scholars Daniel A. Bell and Zhang Weiwei have noted, the major political alternative to Western liberal-democratic traditions are the communitarian institutions that continue to evolve in China.

In China, collective decisions are not legitimated by citizens’ explicit consent, and people generally have fewer enforceable rights against the government, particularly when it comes to surveillance. An ordinary Chinese citizen’s role in political life is largely limited to participation in local elections. The country’s leaders, meanwhile, are selected through a meritocratic process, and consider themselves custodians of the people’s welfare.

Liberal democracies are not likely to shift entirely to such a political system. But if current trends in business and consumer culture continue, we might soon have more in common with Chinese meritocratic and communitarian traditions than with our own history of individualism and liberal democracy. If we want to change course, we will have to put our own political imperatives before those of our technologies.

Trump Doctrine in Practice- Withdrawal from Syria

The Trump Doctrine is consistent in the abstract. It’s flexible in its implementation. That’s what it takes to actually win against terrorists, guerrillas and cunning enemies that seize opportunities instead of upholding ideas. And the establishment’s failure to understand that is why we’ve spent decades losing.  “We need to be more unpredictable to adversaries,” President Trump had declared.

The day before the air strikes in Syria happened, he had tweeted, “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” And then he pounded Syria with air strikes after chemical weapons were used, obliterating Obama’s red line disgrace, and restoring American deterrence and credibility. It was the time of spring of the year, and now,  in the last wintry days of the year, he suddenly announced a pullout of American troops from Syria. But the move only took those by surprise who hadn’t been paying attention all along.

When our first major airstrikes began, Trump had warned, “America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria… under no circumstances.”

Politicians usually say things like that. But Trump remains unpredictable by actually saying what he means in a business where everyone assumes that you mean the opposite of what you say. “I would not go into Syria, but if I did it would be by surprise and not blurted all over the media like fools,” Trump had tweeted five years ago.

Trump’s actions in Syria encompass his preference for flexibility, quick strikes or withdrawals with no long term commitment. And that’s exactly what frustrates a national security establishment whose watershed moment was still the post-war reconstruction of Germany and Japan. They foolishly misread Trump by confusing commitment with consistency, and unpredictability with inconsistency,

Our foreign policy, crafted by unimaginative diplomats, who despite their pretentions have nothing in common with the flashing wit of a Talleyrand or the cunning calculation of a Metternich, is based on creating trust by being utterly predictable. They’ve succeeded brilliantly at being utterly predictable. And they’ve failed at using this predictability as leverage to build a trustworthy international order.

Trump has brilliantly wielded his unpredictability to make America into a mobile piece on the world chessboard. America has the ability to rapidly deploy troops around the world and pull them out. But we were too bogged down in a swamp of our own ideological abstractions to make use of our capabilities.

Establishment thinking deploys American troops in the 21st century like British soldiers in the 19th. The deployments never end. Instead we set up little colonies of contractors, mercenaries, reporters, aid workers, and try to bring civilization to the savages at the cost of endless blood and treasure.

These outposts of a phantom imperial order of the new age of humanity become besieged fortresses, islands in a sea of savagery which we are obligated to defend, and they attract our enemies who immediately begin funneling money and weapons, turning the guerrillas we were fighting into an even bigger threat. These humanitarian empires end up being neither imperial nor humanitarian.

Trump understands that there’s no point in maintaining a doomed foreign colony of tens of thousands in Afghanistan, or setting one up in Syria. These colonies give meaning and purpose to their populations, experts, analysts, journalists, aid workers, who shape our foreign policy, but they don’t help America.

The Trump Doctrine rejects these nation building colonies. It wields American power as part of an enduring strategy to build up American power by establishing deterrence, strength and flexibility. Its emphasis is on inflicting rapid blows and moving on, of turning our problems into other people’s problems, and of extracting economic victories from the chaos of foreign policy strife.

It throws out the idea that America must maintain an international order at its own expense, without anyone else being willing to do their fair share or do anything meaningful to serve our own interests.

None of this is a surprise.

Trump has been very consistent in conveying this same message throughout the campaign. But a blinkered establishment refused to take him at his word and is now shocked that he really means it.

When he bombed Syria, they assumed that he had come around to their way of thinking. Instead Trump was implementing his way of thinking, punishing Assad, sending a message to Russia, and moving on.

Even Secretary of Defense Mattis had originally called the strikes on Syria, a “one-time shot.”

Trump had rejected nation building during the campaign and after taking office. Just last December, he had introduced his national security strategy by warning that, “Our leaders engaged in nation-building abroad, while they failed to build up and replenish our nation at home. They undercut and shortchanged our men and women in uniform with inadequate resources, unstable funding, and unclear missions. They failed to insist that our often very wealthy allies pay their fair share for defense, putting a massive and unfair burden on the U.S. taxpayer and our great U.S. military.”

He had also noted that, “In Afghanistan, our troops are no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies of our plans.”

Last summer, Trump’s speech on Afghanistan had described a shift away from nation-building and the ridiculous timelines for withdrawal that had defined previous administrations. We would, Trump said, “shift from a time-based approach to one of condition”. Instead of inflexible commitments, we would maintain flexible options, and respond to the situation, rather than following a fixed plan.

That’s what he’s doing.

We’re “not nation-building again,” he had declared. “We are killing terrorists.”

During the campaign, Trump had complained, “We’re nation-building, trying to tell people who have dictators or worse for centuries how to run their own countries.” He had made it clear that he might occasionally support short term interventions to solve “a problem going on in the world and you can solve the problem”, but not futile efforts to transform failed states into democracies.

Trump’s strategy has remained consistent. The only real question was not “if”, but “when”.

The establishment’s confusion is understandable. When George W. Bush ran for office, he fiercely condemned the nation-building exercises of the Clinton administration in Haiti and Somalia.

“I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building,” Bush had declared.

But then he got sucked into the seductive idea that the best way to end Islamic terrorism would be to change the political conditions of the Muslim world. In the Bush era, nation-building was used to introduce democracy into anti-American Muslim dictatorships. In the Obama era, the democracy push was perverted into a means of overthrowing allied Muslim dictators and replacing them with Muslim Brotherhood regimes. And yet many establishment Republicans continued to support this policy.

Syria began as an extension of the Arab Spring. Most of the Senate Republicans who want us to stay there are the same people who voted for a pro-Iran resolution opposing the Saudi campaign in Yemen. They’re not pushing us to remain in Syria to stop Iran. And they couldn’t care less about the Kurds. They want Syria to be a repeat of Libya with American military force being used for Muslim Brotherhood nation-building. And that is not in our national interests and it’s not what Trump or Americans want.

Trump’s main critics on Syria continue lying to us and lying to themselves that Syria will turn into a free democratic and secular country. But Trump isn’t interested in living in their fantasy world.

The Trump Doctrine has clearly and consistently rejected nation-building and extended interventions. Trump has said that America is not the world’s policeman. And, unlike most politicians, he’s meant it.

But Trump also isn’t afraid to be unpredictable.

He can go back into Syria, just as he left Syria. That’s the whole point. Instead of turning American soldiers into permanent targets, protecting a population of contractors, aid workers and reporters, with young boys from Tennessee and North Dakota getting their legs blown off so that the New York Times can get a Pulitzer Prize photo and a charity org can get more donors, he’s using our military power as a foil instead of a broadsword, landing a series of quick blows and then, unexpectedly, moving on.

That’s radically different from the military strategy that has bogged us down for a century. It’s smart and brilliant in exactly the way that the foreign establishment thinks that it is, but actually isn’t.

The establishment assails Trump as “inconsistent”. It values consistency above all else because it has no strategies, only ideological commitments to abstract ideas that don’t survive places like Afghanistan.

The abstract ideas on which our nation-building is based are not strategies. They’re values. And too many administrations, Democrat and Republican, have built wishful thinking strategies around values. Ideas and values are expressions of belief. Strategies are flexible plans based on real opportunities.

Handling 3 ‘AI Divides’

Like any transformative trend, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) poses both major opportunities and significant challenges. But the gravest risks may not be the ones most often discussed.

According to new research from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), AI has the potential to boost overall economic productivity significantly. Even accounting for transition costs and competition effects, it could add some $13 trillion to total output by 2030 and boost global GDP by about 1.2% per year. This is comparable to – or even larger than – the economic impact of past general-purpose technologies, such as steam power during the 1800s, industrial manufacturing in the 1900s, and information technology during the 2000s.

Perhaps the most discussed concern about AI is the prospect that intelligent machines will replace more jobs than they create. But MGI’s research found that the adoption of AI may not have a significant effect on net employment in the long term. Extra investment in the sector could contribute 5% to employment by 2030, and the additional wealth created could drive up labor demand, boosting employment by another 12%.

But while the overall picture is positive, the news is not all good. For one thing, it is possible that it will take time for AI’s benefits – particularly with regard to productivity – to be felt. Indeed, MGI’s research suggests that AI’s contribution to growth may be three or more times higher by 2030 than it is over the next five years.

This is in line with the so-called Solow computer paradox: productivity gains lag behind technological advances – a notable phenomenon during the digital revolution. This is partly because, initially, economies face high implementation and transition costs, which estimates of AI’s economic impact tend to ignore. MGI’s simulation suggests that these costs will amount to 80% of gross potential gains in five years, but will decline to one-third of those gains by 2030.

The more troubling potential feature of the AI revolution is that its benefits are not likely to be shared equitably. The resulting “AI divides” will reinforce the digital divides that are already fueling economic inequality and undermining competition. These divides could emerge in three areas.

The first divide would emerge at the company level. Innovative, leading-edge companies that fully adopt AI technologies could double their cash flow between now and 2030 – an outcome that would likely entail hiring many more workers. These companies would leave in the dust those that are unwilling or unable to implement AI technologies at the same rate. In fact, firms that do not adopt AI at all could experience a 20% decline in their cash flow as they lose market share, putting them under pressure to shed workers.

The second divide concerns skills. The proliferation of AI technologies will shift labor demand away from repetitive tasks that can more easily be automated or outsourced to platforms, toward socially or cognitively driven tasks. MGI’s models indicate that job profiles characterized by repetitive tasks and little digital knowhow could fall from some 40% of total employment to near 30% by 2030. Meanwhile, the share of jobs entailing non-repetitive activities or requiring high-level digital skills is likely to rise from some 40% to more than 50%.

This shift could contribute to an increase in wage differentials, with around 13% of the total wage bill potentially shifting to non-repetitive jobs requiring high-level digital skills, as incomes in those fields rise. Workers in the repetitive and low-digital-skills categories may experience wage stagnation or even reduction, contributing to a decline in their share of the total wage bill from 33% to 20%.

The third AI divide – among countries – is already apparent, and seems set to widen further. Those countries, mostly in the developed world, that establish themselves as AI leaders could capture an additional 20-25% in economic benefits compared with today, while emerging economies may accrue only an extra 5-15%.

The advanced economies have a clear advantage in adopting AI, because they are further along in the implementation of previous digital technologies. They also have powerful incentives to adopt AI: low productivity growth, aging populations, and relatively high labor costs.

By contrast, many developing economies have insufficient digital infrastructure, weak innovation and investment capacity, and thin skills base. Add to that the motivation-dampening effects of low wages and ample space for productivity catch-up, and it seems unlikely that these economies will keep pace with their advanced counterparts in AI adoption.

The emergence or expansion of these AI divides is not inevitable. In particular, developing economies can choose to take a forward-thinking approach that includes strengthening their digital foundations and actively encouraging AI adoption. And, to ensure that their changing workplace needs are met, firms can take a more active role in supporting educational upgrading and continuous learning for lower-skill people.

Moreover, these divides are not necessarily a negative development. The reallocation of resources toward higher-performing companies makes economies healthier, potentially providing them with new competitive advantages vis-à-vis other countries.

But the risks posed by these divides should not be underestimated. Vision and perseverance are essential to make the AI revolution work, because it will bring short-term pain before long-term gains. If that pain occurs against a backdrop of frustration with the unequal distribution of AI’s benefits, it may trigger a backlash against technologies that could otherwise produce a virtuous cycle of higher productivity, income growth, and employment-boosting demand

2018-A Year of Discovery of New Animal Species

News about the natural world has not been great this year. Ice sheets are melting at unprecedented rates, greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating like “a speeding freight train,” insects appear to be disappearing. But in the midst of all this bad news, there’s a tiny bright spot: the scads of new species discovered in 2018.

Scientists are finding tens of thousands of new species a year—there were 18,000 identified in 2016. But it’s also worth noting that we’re destroying species at an alarming rate. Because we know so little about what’s out there, it’s hard to quantify how much is being lost, but estimates vary from dozens to hundreds of species a day.

“Biodiversity scientists estimate that less than 10% of species on Earth have been discovered,” says Shannon Bennett, chief of science at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which only underscores how important it is that we document nature while these species are still around. Here are some of this year’s most interesting new finds:

Flattie spiders with ultra-fast spin moves

Three new species in the spider family Selenopidae were discovered this year by researchers working with the California Academy of Sciences. These spiders, found in the Americas, Africa, Australia, and Asia, have the quickest pivot in the world, allowing them to change direction in an eighth of a second. Those quick moves enable them to catch prey, unlike their better-known house spider relatives, who use webs to catch food.

The leopard eel

Despite what you might think at first glance, Siren reticulata is a salamander, not an eel, but it does have distinctive, leopard-like spots. Discovered in waterways around the Florida panhandle, this new species is one of the largest to be found in the US over the last century—and confirms decades of rumored sightings by locals.

New croc on the block

Mecistops leptorhynchus is the first crocodile species to be named in 80 years. The new species, also known as the Central African slender-snouted crocodile, was originally thought to be the same species as its cousin, Mecistops cataphractus, which lives in West Africa. Because the two species are now known to be distinct from one another, that means M. cataphractus is now critically endangered; there are only 500 of them left in the wild.

Genie’s dogfish: Honoring a shark pioneer

This deepwater shark’s official species name is Squalus clarkae, but it’s being colloquially named “Genie’s dogfish,” after “Shark Lady” Eugenie Clark, a marine biologist whose life work revolved around changing the public dialogue around sharks. This shark species was originally thought to be part of a different dogfish species called Squalus mitsukurii, but scientists discovered this year that it’s a species of its own. Squalus clarkae joins four fish species with the honor of being named after Clark.

A bright new coral

Scientists discovered Thesea dalioi this year off the coast of Panama. Unlike its drabber cousin, Thesea variabilis, which lives off the coasts of southern California and Costa Rica, T. dalioi is bright red. (It also bears a resemblance to a certain blood clot that’s been circulating around the internet this week.) Amid frequent news of dying coral, the discovery of a new coral species reminds us of the importance of preserving our undersea wildlife: who knows how many other undiscovered species await us, if we don’t kill them first?

The tree that went extinct before it was named

The official designation of Vepris bali was more than 70 years in the making. A member of the Nigerian Forestry Service collected a sample of the tree in Cameroon in 1951, but it wasn’t until this year that scientists identified the tree as its own species. In their paper detailing the discovery, researchers note that Vepris bali may already be extinct, since areas in which the tree would grow have been subject to heavy logging and clearing for agriculture. “It is hoped that naming this species will relaunch efforts to rediscover and protect this species from extinction,” the authors write.

Twelve unnamed species: Your name here?

While a new species’ naming rights typically go to the researcher who discovered it, conservation non-profit Rainforest Trust is auctioning away naming rights for 12 new species discovered in South America. Among them are four orchid species, four frog species, and a legless amphibian. Some scientists have voiced concerns that the practice of auctioning naming rights focuses too much on photogenic or charismatic species, and that it could even motivate taxonomists to fraudulently claim new species in the name of profit. Others are more enthusiastic, pointing to the good that can come of the proceeds. The Rainforest Trust says money raised from their auction will be used to purchase and protect land in which the newly-named species can thrive.

Brace Thyself for 2019

Clearly 2019 is weighing on everyone’s mind. Out in our part of the world, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. His Man Friday pooh-poohs the concept of opposition unity. The prospect of opposition disunity is real: no one wants to be prime minister, but everyone wants to be prime minister.

The three leading contenders are one known for her temper tantrums, another for her pelf, and a third who feels that he has all the time in the world for everything. So Man Friday could be right, but he also seems to be worried, otherwise he wouldn’t pooh-pooh so much. And the opposition? They can’t stand the prospect of our man in office for another five years.

And they cannot also live without the loaves and fishes of power. Ten years, and possibly more, are impossible for parties to survive without moolah streaming in. After all, hasn’t the party in power built itself a spanking new office in its first term itself. Such then are the perks and privileges that power bestows upon those it favours.

In another part of the world, madness roils and roils away. The king rails and rails, but the investigation into his alleged misconduct doesn’t seem to stop. Surely, Robert Mueller will bring his seemingly endless probe to an end soon. If not this year, then the next. But the fallout will clearly be in 2019.

Every three months or so, Washington is agog with new tales of the mad kingdom. This time it’s a book, and an opinion column. The book is by Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, in his classic stilted, wooden style, but still replete with interesting anecdotes about how aides to the king filch orders from his desk that he wants to sign but cannot because they have been filched and he can’t remember.

But it is the anonymous opinion column that makes more fun reading. An obviously top official of the mad kingdom writes a gutsy (or gutless depending upon your point of view) article about how a bunch of top mandarins have banded together to protect the kingdom from its king. It’s whacky, if it was not so scary.

No one can identify who wrote the letter, identification of which has become Washington’s favourite parlour game. Is it the traitorous VP, or the spurned attorney general, or the forever-brooding chief of staff, or another dark horse? Even the first lady, who seldom weighs in on matters of state, has done so, calling the writer gutless.

The king though does what he does on such occasions, rile up his base. Hitler had his Nuremberg rallies to fire up the crowds and in turn fire himself up. Our king has humbler shows, but the faithful still show up. There he rants and rants against Mueller and his supposed witch-hunt, and the newspaper article and Woodward’s book, and the crowd goes hoo and ha, lapping his every word up as if it were divine gospel.

But the king’s fate will not be decided in such courts of public opinion. It will be decided in courts of law, in a country where the courts still function without apparent fear or favour. And that is where Mueller comes in. For he is not going to any public rally to garner support. He is headed straight towards the courts of law.

So then 2019 beckons. An interesting year that promises interesting possibilities, a year that will decide the fate of two kingdoms, on the opposite sides of the globe. Brace yourself.

‘Useless’ Quirks of Nature Reveal Secret of Evolution

We’ve all heard of the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’, but evolution as a whole doesn’t always work that way. Evolution is a fascinating field but can be rife with misunderstanding. One misconception is that evolution has some innate sense of direction or purpose. In reality, evolution is a mindless, plan-free phenomenon, driven into endless possibilities by random mutations, the most successful of which win out.

People also often think that every aspect of every living creature has a function, that it helps the organism survive in some small way. But there are some areas of evolutionary biology where benefits are murkier and, in some instances, where traits seem to make no sense at all. This is the realm of sexual selection, vestigial traits and evolutionary spandrels.

As important as the concept of is survival of the fittest to evolution, there are many examples that seem to undermine this idea. In fact, various aspects of evolutionary biology may seem counterintuitive and could even be seen as a reason to reject evolution as a whole. In fact, they strengthen our understanding rather than diminish it. Here’s how.

Sexual selection

Many species invest heavily in camouflage and other means of blending into the surroundings to avoid predators. So the physically heavy and downright ostentatious plumage of birds of paradise, peacocks and many other birds seems like a clear invitation to be eaten. But crucially they help these birds pass on their genes because they increase their chances of attracting a mate.

This is what’s known as sexual selection at its finest. It strengthens the theory of evolution in that these seemingly weaker individuals are actually showing how well they can do in the face of adversity. It’s the evolutionary equivalent of using a pretty over-confident dating profile to impress potential partners.

Vestigial traits

When an anatomical structure appears frankly inept, it is probably a vestigial trait. This is a feature that no longer does whatever made it advantageous enough to evolve in the first place. If we could embody evolution as a person, then he or she would be creative but inherently lazy. If something is not being used then why bother maintaining it? It’s hard to say why they haven’t disappeared altogether but give it another million years and perhaps they will.

Some snakes, for example, still show vestigial traits harking back to their four-legged ancestry. Male pythons have little claw-like structures towards the tail, which, although they aid courtship, are all that remain of their hindlimbs.

Some cave fish have, over generations, lost most of the components of their eyes because sight uses up a lot of energy and isn’t helpful when you live in complete darkness. Many flightless birds, such as penguins and Galapagos flightless cormorants, have wings so small that they are effectively redundant in terms of flying.

Closer to home, the human appendix is a good example of a vestigial trait (although there’s now some evidence it may not be useless after all). But there is a weirder one, the plica semilunaris. The next time you look into the eyes of a loved one (it’s more awkward with a stranger on the bus), look at that little pink, triangular bit on the inside of each eye.

It’s not completely vestigial, as it helps ensure that tears drain properly and gives a slightly greater range of movement, but that’s not its original function. Long ago, when we shared a recent ancestry with birds and other reptiles, this little structure would have formed a nictating membrane, or “third eyelid”, to provide further protection to our eyes. So, although we have lost this clear, extra eyelid, evolution has upcycled it for another use.

Spandrels

Spandrels are in many ways, the rarest and hardest to see “weird” evolutionary quirks. The word comes from an architectural term for the triangular sections between arches in older, usually fancy, buildings. These zones were often ornately decorated but incidental to the real function of the structure of the building.

An evolutionary spandrel is a physical structure or behavioural characteristic that is a by-product from some other functional adaptation. But despite some apparent examples, truly useless spandrels are hard to find within evolutionary biology.

One well-studied example is seen in an island-dwelling population of Italian wall lizards (Podarcis sicula), which spend less time basking in the sun than their mainland cousins. This behaviour can be seen as a spandrel because there’s no obvious advantage to it.

Scientists have proposed it’s a by-product of the lizards’ evolution of increased levels of aggression, sexual activity and food intake. This has also led to more active melanocortin receptors, part of the hormone system that works in response to sunlight, and so the lizards don’t need to bask so much.

One genuine exception is something that defines our species as modern human beings: the chin. No other animals, or even extinct human relatives like Neanderthals, have one. As human diets changed, the bones and muscles in our jaws became smaller so we didn’t waste energy on them but we were left with a protruding bone at the bottom of the face. And no one has come up with a wholly convincing reason why.

Although the chin throws a spandrel in the works, there is nearly always a reason or, at least, an explanation for the myriad traits we see across biology. A better understanding of these evolutionary obscurities paves the way for a deeper understanding of the complex factors and drivers which influence the natural world around us.

In Good Faith: The rights side of 70

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, holds lessons for a more equitable future. In his famous book, Man and the State, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain draws attention to the universal essence of human rights above ideologies. He says, “The recognition of a particular category of rights is not the privilege of one school of thought at the expense of the others; it is no more necessary to be a follower of Rousseau to recognise the rights of the individual man than it is to be a Marxist to recognise the economic and social rights.” At the time Maritain was writing these lines, he was deeply concerned with the political and philosophical situations of Europe and the world post World War II and during the Cold War.

The practical challenge for a philosopher like Maritain was to formulate the means which could help people around the world to discuss their differences while respecting and assuring human dignity for everyone on the planet. Maritain was right to underline that a dignified life was based on the establishment of the basic needs and rights of every individual independent of his or her race, language, culture, religion or nationality. The core idea of this optimistic philosophy — that states and peoples can discuss practical issues and arrive at mutual agreements despite ideological differences — probably had an effect on René Cassin, the French legal scholar, who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in drafting the final version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

In his speech to the UNESCO General Council in 1947, Maritain asked the key question about the challenge of overcoming obstacles posed by diverse cultures and ideological differences throughout human history. “How,” he asked, “can we imagine an agreement of minds between men who come from the four corners of the globe and who not only belong to different cultures and civilisations, but are of antagonistic spiritual associations and schools of thought?”

Unsurprisingly, the members of the Human Rights Commission, under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt (First Lady of the United States from March 1933 to April 1945), charged with the drafting of the declaration, were all well aware of the importance of this challenge. In that sense, from the very beginning, their task was as much philosophical as it was judicial. As such, in the manner of Maritain, who was in search of a new universal ethics, the commission members extended the theoretical foundations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights beyond “the narrow limits of the Western tradition”. Maintaining that human rights transcend religious and cultural differences, Cassin, nonetheless, recognised that they embodied generations of rights expressed by their humanistic and natural law foundations.

Moreover, neither Cassin, nor the other drafters of the Universal Declaration were unaware of the contributions and influences of ancient philosophies and religions to the modern understanding of rights. However, influenced by the spirit of the French Revolution and its revolutionary motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, Cassin identified the four foundational blocks of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “dignity, liberty, equality, and brotherhood”. By “dignity”, developed in the first two articles of the universal declaration, Cassin referred to all the values which were shared by individuals beyond their sex, race, creed and religion. As for “liberty”, it included articles three to 19, and emphasised on rights related to individual life, liberty and personal security. Under “equality”, Cassin understood rights related to the public sphere and political participation (articles 20 to 26), and, under “brotherhood” were economic, social and cultural rights (articles 27 and 28). Finally, the three last articles (28, 29 and 30) focused on the conditions in which these could be realised in society and the state.

However, the concept of rights — long recognised in historically significant laws, charters and constitutions such as the Magna Carta (1215), American Declaration of Independence (1776), Bill of Rights (1791) and the French Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), and at the foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 — did not succeed in overcoming the approaches of the states and individuals who distinguished between “themselves” and “others”. Let us not forget that out of then 58 members of the United Nations, only 48 ratified the universal declaration while Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Byelorussia and Czechoslovakia abstained, because they were worried that the moral appeal of the document would endanger the sanctity of their domestic laws and regulations.

Consequently, despite Maritain’s call for the universality of human rights and Cassin’s insistence on their indivisibility, the Cold War rivalry between the two blocks and the admission of the newly independent states in the UN, ended with the adoption of two covenants in 1966 on civil and political rights, on the one hand, and, economic and social rights, on the other hand.

However, despite the tireless struggles of three generations of individuals and institutions, and the impact of globalisation on human rights, the Universal Declaration is considered as a lantern of hope viewed from afar by political prisoners and refugees around the world. And yet, the philosophy of human rights continues to propel humanity into the future, where many still believe that justice, rights and peace can be constructed. Therefore, if the lessons of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not learned, and if we do not consider the past 70 years, which separate us from the foundation of this monumental document as a positive journey; the future generations will have great difficulties in overcoming the challenges of the next 70 years.

The Fallacy of Madina State and New Pakistan

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan says naya(New) Pakistan shall soon resemble the seventh-century state of Madina. Beginning with his inaugural address of Aug 20, he has repeated his vow on no less than 11 separate occasions. Although all Muslims acknowledge the Madina state as a model of perfection, Khan leaves unsaid just how closely naya Pakistan shall be its image. Is achieving egalitarianism and welfarism the goal? Is the Madina state also a template for Pakistan’s political and judicial reconstruction?

To create a prosperous welfare state is an admirable — and universal — objective. Serving the needs of their citizens without prejudice, a few modern states already have operational systems in place. To join them, just five minutes of serious contemplation can tell you what needs to be done here in Pakistan.

It’s almost a no-brainer: eliminate large land holdings through appropriate legislation; collect land and property taxes based upon current market value; speed up the courts and make them transparent; make meritocratic appointments in government departments; change education so that skill enhancement becomes its central goal; make peace with Pakistan’s neighbours; choose trade over aid; and let civilians rule the country rather than soldiers.

That’s pretty hard! Implementation shall need no less than a revolution, bloodless or otherwise. But if Imran Khan wants to emulate the Madina state as a political entity, it will be way trickier. Modern states have geographical boundaries, a practice that followed the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) between European powers. But for the Madina state, borders were irrelevant — where you lived did not matter.

Is Imran Khan’s goal to adopt the Madina state’s laws and emulate it as a political entity?

Built around a tribal accord, Misaq-i-Madina, citizenship required only that an individual submit to the authority of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Perhaps anticipating that his followers would someday spread beyond the oases of Makkah and Madina, he very wisely left unspecified which territories constitute Dar-ul-Islam.

How to reconcile the contradictory notion of a borderless ummah versus an Islamic state with borders? Islamic scholars from the time of Al-Mawardi (972-1058) to the anthropologist genius Ibn-i-Khaldun (1322-1406) have differed. Another, Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi, while residing in pre-Partition Hyderabad (India), opined that creating Pakistan as a separate entity was contrary to Islamic teachings and traditions. Instead, he said, India as a whole must be converted to Islam. This wasn’t easy and so ultimately he supported the demand for Pakistan.

Time has increased, not decreased, territorial affiliations. Everywhere, inside and outside Islam, large national armies protect borders and nationalism competes fiercely against religion as an emotive force. Imran Khan’s pledge to grant citizenship to 1.5 million desperate Afghan refugees was potentially a first step towards the Madina state, one inclusive of all Muslims.

Human rights activists were ecstatic. But, once the adverse reaction set in, Imran’s U-turn followed. He cannot be blamed alone: previous Pakistani governments refused to naturalise Bengali refugees and Burma’s persecuted Rohingya minority. Nationalism often trumps religious solidarity these days.

Moving on: what about judicial matters? Shall laws of the Madina state apply in naya Pakistan? Viewed through the prism of history, the accord negotiated by the Holy Prophet was perfectly logical at a time of bitter intertribal wars. The interested reader may consult Dr Tahirul Qadri’s PhD thesis on the Misaq-i-Madina. This lists 63 rules for determining diyat (blood money); ransoms to settle tribal feuds; life protection for Muslims and Jews; apportioning of war expenses; etc. These led to peace within the framework of Arab tribal justice.

But justice is an ever-evolving concept in every culture and religion. So, for example, 2,000 years ago, Aristotle had argued that some individuals and races are “natural slaves” better enslaved than left free. And, until 200 years ago, socially respectable Americans were slave owners. Kinder ones treated slaves better but slave-owning is now viewed as utterly abhorrent.

Among today’s Muslims, apart from the militant Islamic State group and Boko Haram and a few others, no one defends slavery. Countries legally forbid it even if slaves are to be treated extremely well. In Pakistan too, owning slaves is a criminal offence. Pakistani law also makes it illegal to barter women as goods or as booty. Owning another human being was considered okay once but isn’t kosher anymore and anywhere — and under any circumstance.

The notion of egalitarianism has evolved as well. Nearly all societies now accept, or give lip service, to the idea that all people are equal before the law. Limited to men at first, it was extended later to include women as well. In 2009, Pakistan legally recognised transgender as a separate category; earlier this year some transgender candidates ran for elections, albeit unsuccessfully.

Blood money, common in earlier times, also takes on a very different flavor. Pakistanis were outraged when a grinning Shahrukh Jatoi emerged from jail after murdering 20-year old Shahzeb Khan in cold blood. Jatoi’s wealthy parents had purchased his pardon through diyat, probably by pressuring Khan’s family. Months earlier, CIA contractor Raymond Davis had been released after the families of the two men he had killed were paid $2.4m as blood money.

The world of yesterday and the world of today bear no comparison. One marvels at the Holy Prophet’s sagacity in negotiating a better deal for all warring Arabian tribes. Still, we should appreciate just how different the world has become from those times. The combined population of Makkah and Madina was less than Kharadar’s, a typical Karachi neighbourhood. Joblessness and lack of housing were non-issues; air pollution and load-shedding hadn’t been conceived; and white-collar crime was awaiting invention centuries later. No police or standing army existed in the Madina state. There were no jails.

It is easy to see why certain religious slogans appeal to the popular imagination. In a country that is deeply unequal and plagued by huge class asymmetry, people yearn for an unblemished past when everything was perfect. But when political leaders promise to take us there, how seriously should we take them? The masses had responded favourably when Gen Ziaul Haq had raised a similar slogan in the 1980s — that of Nizam-i-Mustafa. Disappointment soon followed. Can it be different this time?

Which cat will catch mice?

Forty years after China’s economic transformation began, that’s the question. China has had its share of elite conflict, violence, even mass protest, but it has not quite rocked the structure of power in decisive ways.

“Emancipate the mind, seeking truth from fact, and unite as one to face the future.” Forty years ago, Deng Xiaoping is credited with unleashing one of the most astonishing transformations in modern history with these words, setting China on a path of unprecedented economic resurgence and great power status. China’s economic transformation is attributed to a number of factors. There were background factors, for example the prior investment in human capital that allowed its workforce to be competitive.

There was the long memory of the Cultural Revolution that, for all its human catastrophe, probably had two unintended historical effects: It sowed the fear of disorder, which allowed the Communist Party a long rope as the custodian of order, and flattened the social structure in ways that made reform easier. Then there is the deft mixing of form and function that has always characterised the Chinese economy: Markets without conventional property rights, efficient dispute settlement without traditional rule of law characteristics, opening without abject dependence, technology absorption but on its own terms and so on.

China has been a story of institutional improvisation. The success is also credited to Deng’s folksy pragmatism: It does not matter which colour the cat is, so long as it catches the mice; or the rehabilitation of the idea that getting rich is glorious and so on.

But pragmatism is too light a sensibility to capture what the Chinese experiment has been about. One can say that behind the “experimentation” lie at least three other objectives. The first is that, as Wang Hui, China’s leading intellectual historian, has pointed out, China’s path to development and what Chinese colleagues call “self-correction” has actually been through theoretical debate. The contrast here is not so much between an ideological or dogmatic China pre-1978 and a pragmatic China post- 1978. It is, more, that in the long arc of 20th century history, all of China’s programmes have been preceded by theoretical debates within the framework of Marxism-Leninism, on what the next move should be. Some have ended disastrously, like the Great Leap Forward, or the Cultural Revolution. Others, like Deng’s reforms, have been a spectacular success. But it is not insignificant that they are seen as part of a single continuum. It would be too flippant to boil it all down to pragmatism. A theory sets the objectives and context for pragmatism. Now China is struggling to articulate a new one.

The second precondition has been enormous state capacity. Again, if one were to look at the continuities rather than discontinuities of Chinese history, what stands out is not the improvisation. What stands out is the ability to move society through a mixture of coercion and ideological legitimacy. Of course, any complex society will have deep strains of resistance and disagreement. But the pragmatism makes sense only if you first have an instrument that can mobilise power in one direction or the other. The real mystery to be decoded is not China’s economic success. It is the creation of a state and party structure that have survived the vicissitudes of conflict and failures that might have broken other states.

China has had its share of elite conflict, violence, even mass protest, but it has not quite rocked the structure of power in decisive ways. The state may make mistakes, even big ones, but its power to direct and redirect social and economic energy remains impressive. You could argue that post-Deng, this legitimacy was founded on delivering economic growth, an artful power structure that was a unique combination of centralisation and decentralisation, merit and patronage. With economic growth slowing, and China entering a new era of centralisation, perhaps this legitimacy will be challenged. The need for enhanced surveillance and clamping down that we are seeing under Xi, the fear of greater dissent, might be seen as an emerging weakness of the Chinese state. But it is a state that is going to be more difficult to dethrone. Deng’s pragmatism worked against a backdrop of a resolve to never weaken the state, the fatal mistake of reform programmes elsewhere.

But the third precondition has been the preoccupation with sovereignty. Sovereignty, as Sulmaan Wasif Khan’s recent book ‘Haunted by Chaos’, again reminds us, is the single most important guiding thread in modern Chinese history. It is the bulwark against chaos, a precondition for maintaining independence from foreign meddling, and a signifier of national pride. For a while, China spoke deceptively of two antithesis of sovereignty: Globalisation and multiculturalism.

The latter, without full freedom of expression, was a form of window dressing, disguising the fact that China has always had difficulty with genuine cultural pluralism; sovereignty includes a kind of cultural sovereignty subordinating, when necessary, alternative ways of being to the purposes of the Chinese state. We see an example of this currently in Xinjiang, by all accounts an unconscionable forced assimilation; and Hong Kong is finding out that ‘one country many systems’ has its limits.

China’s globalisation was genuine. But it was selective: On critical instruments of state power, like technology for example, it charted its own strategy focussed solely on building its own capabilities, rather than taking the easy option of allowing everyone in. So globalisation was always clearly within a framework of national power, and followed its imperatives.

Forty years later, China now has the challenges of its success. It is at a crossroads: On theory: What is the next move China makes in its path to development under conditions of slower growth? On state capacity: There is little reason to doubt that the Chinese state is still powerful enough to ride through the contradictions of its development model. It has consistently surprised critics. In fact, it seems to use each crisis to strengthen state capacity, not weaken it, often against the freedom of its own citizens. But whether the current model of centralisation will rely on anything more than coercion and surveillance in the long run remains to be seen.

On sovereignty: China’s strategy worked on the large premise that the US would not fundamentally see its rise a threat. Now that this myth needs to be shattered, China will have to rethink not its goals, but the means to achieve them. But will pragmatism triumph here or that ultimate non-pragmatic dogma of nationalism? Deng’s transformation was, with all its faults, something that the world welcomed; Xi Jinping thought is something the world is a little more wary of. Which cat does he think will catch the mice?

AI to improve healthcare & cut costs

The potential for data-driven medicine and predictive analytics is clear. AI and machine learning are assisting healthcare providers with more informed clinical decision-making and enabling patients to take an active role in their own health, with access to real-time data via wearables and mobile apps. 

However, as we’ve seen with many previous social, economic and business challenges that hailed big data as the solution, the key to success will be creating enduring systems for collecting, cleaning and analyzing this wealth of information in thoughtful, efficient, secure and actionable ways. What’s more, systems will need to seamlessly interconnect from doctor to patient to hospital, pharmacy and lab, allowing for information to flow where and when needed. To do this, we must address several key issues:

Reducing paperwork 

The proliferation of medical data, from electronic health records to real-time data from connected medical devices, is the foundation for this new era of personalized, precision medicine. The challenge is to create a system of data collection without siloes that is capable of scaling to incorporate new data sources as emerging technologies like nanobots and connected environments – e.g. smart hospital bed, connected cast etc. – begin to contribute valuable data as well.

One example of this is athenahealth, which serves more than 100,000 medical providers with cloud-based services to track performance data, process claims, manage patient records and more. According to the company’s network data, the average doctor spends 40% of their time processing thousands of administrative documents and forms, and chasing down hundreds of missing lab and imaging orders. Athenahealth knew they needed to unlock the data trapped by its existing infrastructure, some of it still using paper-based archives and other content in inflexible databases. A completely new systems architecture was needed, so they built cloud-based services aimed at reducing the administrative burden placed on doctors. This enables AI and analytics tools to capture new insights, process real-time data, and deliver personalized services. This is leading to better doctor-patient experiences through automation and easing operations.

Access 

It’s becoming easier to imagine tech-enabled personalized medicine in wealthy countries and hubs of technological innovation, but how will we ensure that those most in need have access to life-saving medical data? One solution will be to tap mobile devices – recent research shows that the developing world has hit over 98.7% mobile phone adoption; creating mobile solutions that allow both doctors and patients to access data will be crucial in bringing this medical revolution around the world. Another solution will be leveraging edge computing, which enables devices to operate without disruption even when they’re offline or internet connectivity is intermittent, allowing for data collection and analysis in remote locations like in a refugee camp or rural village.

AI without bias 

There has been a big emphasis recently on the pitfalls and potential for bias in artificial intelligence (AI); when building algorithms and models for predictive medicine, ensuring that they are free of bias could literally be a life or death matter. Currently, healthcare inequalities are systemic and closely intertwined with social inequalities – if developed properly, these AI-infused systems could go a long way towards mitigating these inequalities by removing human bias. However, there is also the risk that these technological advancements could perpetuate existing inequalities. Assessing the data used to train these models and ensuring just representation of different groups will be of the utmost importance for this next phase of medical advancement.

Beyond that, cheap genome sequencing, big data analytics, health sensors, wearables and artificial intelligence will enable medicine to move away from general solutions to personalization and precision. All these technologies are important pieces, but AI holds the key. That’s due to the vast amounts of information that will need to be stored, parsed, put into context, correlated with existing research and procedures and analyzed. Only AI, likely through machine learning and deep learning algorithms, will be able to produce personalized solutions and targeted treatments. Though further advances are needed across several technologies, including AI, there’s little doubt the precision vision will be realized. However, ethical and legal issues will need to be resolved before personalized, precision medicine becomes commonplace.

Medicine without borders 

For truly personalized medicine to work, it needs to be readily available and that requires both data and systems integration. Healthcare information has been notoriously siloed, and this barrier is largely resistant to change. This has been for any number of reasons, among them: legacy systems not architected for information exchange; competitive firewalls; a ‘not invented here’ mentality; lack of industry-wide application-programming interfaces (APIs); patient privacy issues. To some degree, these have been overcome within the boundaries of an individual healthcare system, but rarely beyond. These barriers have been falling and will continue to do so as the demand for personalized, data-driven medicine necessitates greater information mobility. This integration will allow for commonplace holistic healthcare scenarios.

Here’s once such sequence: A heart monitor embedded in your shirt provides real-time data to a cardiologist, who in response to worrisome changes can then send updated prescriptions to your pharmacist, who can, in turn, send an alert to your virtual assistant – whether smartphone, watch, glasses or some other yet to be invented device – while you are driving to say that your medications are ready to pick up. Then your GPS will automatically update the route to the pharmacy, where you arrive in your self-driving car and pay for the prescription using your phone or retinal scan. All the devices and applications in this example are fully integrated, adjusting seamlessly as you move from one place to another. 

A new platform 

To achieve these benefits, whether access to information or applying the latest AI algorithms implies a data infrastructure that connects all the myriad devices. This spans data centers, multiple clouds and vast numbers of edge devices, enables easy and fast provisioning of new systems, rapid deployment of new applications and updates, and ready availability of needed data services such as encryption and security. Such a platform must be scalable to the greatest degree possible. Google built such a platform for its own use – Borg – and similar open-source solutions like Mesos provide this type of platform for everyone else. 

These scalable platforms are fundamental to the delivery of AI in healthcare, including data driven-medicine and predictive analytics. This connectivity and integration plus AI-powered algorithms for diagnosis and prescription will create both a platform for rapid determination and delivery of personalized, precision medicine anywhere and an economy of scale to dramatically drive down costs.

Time for Techplomacy

I would like to rechristian diplomacy in today’s time as Techplomacy, as I believe what Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister of Great Britain during 1855-65, on receiving the first cable from overseas said: “My god, this is the end of diplomacy”. Those were the reported words from The technological advances in mid-19th century certainly did not end diplomacy, but they forever changed the way it was conducted. However now is time to bury old-style diplomacy.

As a far more sweeping technological revolution envelops the world today, governments are finding new ways to adapt. Whether it is in using the social media to influence public opinion at home and abroad, conducting espionage on other states, securing one’s critical infrastructure against foreign interference, setting terms for cross-border data flows, governing the internet, countering terrorism, or preventing the militarisation of Artificial Intelligence, all major governments are reorganising their diplomatic mechanisms To enhance the effectiveness of its voice in the new domain, France appointed a full time “digital ambassador” in 2017. Denmark has set up offices of “TechPlomacy” in Silicon Valley, Copenhagen and Beijing. The French and Danish digital ambassadors don’t just deal with other governments. A major part of their mandate is to deal with technology giants like GoogleFacebook and Alibaba and Huawei. India too needs to review and reorganise its technology diplomacy.

But first to the era of snail mail. The slow pace of long-distance communication until the 19th century meant that ambassadors acted on their own. Because they had no way to get frequent instructions from the sovereign, they were conferred with the title “ambassador extra-ordinary and plenipotentiary” and given the full authority to negotiate with the sovereigns to whom they were accredited.

The communications revolution ended the age of the aristocrat diplomat and turned the envoy and his staff into professional bureaucracies run from the governments at home. Beyond the process of diplomacy, the envoys had to deal with the substantive impact of new communications technologies on international affairs. In finding ways to facilitate wireless communication across territorial borders, major nations negotiated the establishment of the International Telegraph Union in 1865 that would later become the International Telecommunication Union. The ITU is one of the oldest international organisations.

As the impact of science and technology on the world expanded, diplomats had to go beyond their traditional focus on negotiating peace pacts and territorial settlements. Over the last century, the diplomatic mandate on science and technology has ranged from chemical weapons to climate change and naval arms limitation to nuclear proliferation.

Since I had been involved in India for a long time, I shall revert to it as an example.Thanks to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s deep commitment to the creation of national technical capabilities through international cooperation, technology diplomacy became an important priority for independent India’s foreign policy. Under Nehru, India’s positions on peaceful uses of atomic energy and limiting the dangers of a nuclear war were heard with respect through the 1950s and 1960s. But Delhi’s so-called “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 resulted in an expanding regime of technology sanctions against India. Delhi’s economic de-globalisation in the 1970s made matters a lot worse.

As Delhi reconnected to the world and embarked on a high growth path in the 1990s, options opened up for ending the international technology blockade against India. Delhi’s decision to conduct nuclear tests in the summer of 1998 provided the occasion for a renegotiation of India’s relationship with the global nuclear order.

In two decades of productive diplomacy, built around the historic civil nuclear initiative with the US, Delhi has largely completed India’s integration with the international non-proliferation regime. From being a major target of technology sanctions, it is now part of the community that sets the rules for international transfers of sensitive technologies. The only exception is the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group that has been blocked by China.

The nuclear problem that Delhi had to address through the second half of the 20th century might pale into insignificance with the kind of challenges that the new technological revolution presents. The nuclear revolution affected only a small fraction of India’s economy and security. The current technological transformations, especially in the digital and genetic domains, will have far-reaching consequences for India’s economy, society, politics and international relations.

In the 20th century, India could afford to leave technology diplomacy to a handful of scientists and a small division in the Ministry of External Affairs. Today, successful technology diplomacy requires a wider foundation. Of special importance is the private sector, where much of the technological innovation is taking place.

The private sector, which played a key role in setting up modern scientific institutions, was quickly marginalised after Independence amidst the massive bureaucratisation of the Indian state. It was on the advice of Swami Vivekananda in 1893 that Jamshetji N Tata was encouraged to found the Indian Institute of Science in 1909 at Bangalore.

The Maharaja of Mysore and the Nizam of Hyderabad provided much needed material and financial support to the IISc. The Maharaja of Mysore and Walchand Hirachand along with an American engineer set up the Hindustan Aircraft Ltd in 1940 that later became the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. The Tatas also helped found atomic energy research by helping Homi Bhabha set up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay in 1945.

Sunday Special: Collaboration Between Industry & Universities Needs to be Nurtured

Collaborations between universities and industry have given life to many blockbuster discoveries over the years. One of the latest in the news – the melanoma treatment ipilimumab, whose molecule was discovered by James Allison and successfully developed into a drug by Medarex – ended up netting Dr Allison the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

There are shining examples of fruitful collaboration between universities, industry partners and start-ups. Many ideas from research in universities are put to use through collaboration between universities and firms. Others reach the market through licensing or start-up companies.

Jean-Marc Frangos, chief innovation officer at BT, said: “BT’s university and start-ups collaborations have reaped great rewards. We jointly developed field scheduling algorithms with University of Essex that have resulted in 400,000 extra engineering tasks performed a year. We have also launched innovations in the UK based on a number of start-ups technologies, for instance recently re-inventing the digital customer relationship with Enjoy’s home experts.”

Endeavours to find solutions to complex social, environmental and economic challenges – for example, in energy, environment, health or security – have increasingly required collaboration between universities and industry because few organisations have the internal capacity to deliver results on their own.

Universities, academics and their funders also wish to see results from their research put into practice. There is a trend amongst current cohorts of students to explore entrepreneurial careers, often with a focus on social enterprise.

A multistakeholder group of experts in technology transfer recently met in Tianjin, People’s Republic of China, at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions, and identified a number of common challenges and opportunities that warrant further exploration and discussion.

1. Universities should nurture their talent pipelines

University-industry collaboration requires careful management and can bring many benefits. These include a two-way flow of ideas: results can flow out to industry and they can also be in-bound to fuel research questions. For example, sometimes technical problems experienced at the cutting-edge of practice lead to new questions for science.

Industrial collaboration of this type can also be an important means of diversifying income streams for fundamental research. But universities may need to modify their incentives and arrangements for staff – including tenure and promotion criteria – if they are to reap the rich rewards from deep collaboration.

In certain technological fields, universities may face brain-drain if they do not proactively collaborate with industry. At the top of many people’s minds is the keen interest of industry in recruiting academic experts in fields like artificial intelligence, data science and other hot technologies.

In 2015, for example, Uber hired 40 researchers away from Carnegie Mellon University. And in 2016, the Financial Times reported that many top artificial intelligence talents were being poached by industry from the ivory tower. Academia often loses to industry as pay in the former sector is comparatively low. This transfer of brainpower has critical long-term ramifications for universities as it narrows the pipeline of those who can teach the next generation, with ever-pressing knock-on effects. Certain professorial fields risk becoming endangered species.

Is there space for a virtuous model, one where industry leverages some skills from academia, allowing for a healthy exchange of ideas and know-how? One model is the example of Applied Brain Research (ABR) and the University of Waterloo. Founded by the researchers of the Computational Neuroscience Research Group at this university, ABR operates from within, with the professorial lab and the industry research group located in proximity.

Perhaps more fully than others, the University of Waterloo embraced and facilitated collaboration with industry. ABR nurtures a culture that encourages their researchers to publish their work, and supports involvement in both ABR and their academic labs.

Peter Suma, co-chief executive of Applied Brain Research, said: “In this age of AI and other companies pouring over the most recent research to keep ahead, and researcher retention being of prime importance for both companies and academia, there are great advantages for the lab and the company to compromise using innovative and flexible new approaches to commercial and research work balance, IP and space use.”

Another model being explored is flexible schedules for faculty involved in industrial research. The reality is that pure research and commercial interests are closer than ever, and it behoves us to shape them in a direction that is valuable for both parties.

Some universities, like Imperial College London, were founded on the mission to conduct the best possible research, deliver excellent teaching and to put ideas into practice. Imperial works in partnership with more than 500 companies and has corporate partnership and customer-account processes in place to manage all aspects of relationships including IP and technology transfer. Collaboration with industry and forming new ventures is embedded in its culture.

2. Industry should tap into the social sciences

Martha Crago, vice-principal of research and innovation at McGill University, Canada, said: “The social sciences have a dual role to play. There are researchers whose work becomes the basis for innovative products, processes or services. ‎These are not often commercialized due to a lack of familiarity or culture for doing so, but their work on the societal impact of fast-paced technological innovation has become essential in today’s world. This is a peak time for science and technology and social sciences t‎o work hand in hand.”

Social sciences do not have as strong a history of technology transfer as engineering or the life sciences and computing, likely because one of the social science methods is based on dispassionate critique where it is not possible to interact with the subject being studied.

Nevertheless, some elements are ripe for collaboration with business. Social sciences have a role to play in addressing the technical needs of the legal sector via artificial intelligence. Behavioural sciences are more relevant to business than ever, reaping the benefits of social data mining.

3. University tech transfer offices must prioritize flexibility

Tech transfer from university to industry is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Sometimes research occurs in the university and then is commercialized outside of it, other times commercialization begins already during the research phase.

Deep-science company Quintessence Labs, for example, was born out of founder Vikram Sharma’s idea to explore the commercialization of the quantum sciences. In the early 2000s, the commercial environment was not yet ripe for such a concept, so Dr Sharma took his research forward within the university context, and with the support of government funding. Nevertheless his objective was always commercialization of the technologies, so his search for corporate backing began during the research phase.

Government grants can fill gaps where private funding is not readily available, however conditions on such grant monies can impact the ability of nascent companies to grow and unlock follow-on funding. Government grants do play a vital role in technology development, particularly technologies with medium-to-long term horizons.

Vikram Sharma, chief executive of QuintessenceLabs, said: “Academia, government and private industry have all played essential and unique roles in the development of QuintessenceLabs. The growth and success of a deep technology offering such as quantum cybersecurity is a testament to the important contributions of each of the three sectors – to transform the idea into a technology, the technology into a product, and finally, the product to a market-relevant commercial success.”

Where tech transfer offices can add value for both the university and industry is in navigating grant applications and in helping companies to scale faster – they can provide the know-how to unlock necessary funding for the company to thrive.

There is also a question of how to ensure more tech transfer out of more universities – how to enable corporate partners to interact with universities more efficiently.

The successful evolution of the role of tech transfer offices in universities, and the start-ups and corporate partners that work with them, will require an increasingly holistic view of all the innovation ecosystem factors, expanding their influence beyond the narrow role of tech transfer, and continual experimentation.

Democracy’s Demons

Polarisation brought about by political rhetoric, unfulfilled expectations and partisan media combine to pose a challenge to democratic polities.

The extent of polarisation under democratic governments across the world seems extreme. Look at the US, Brazil, many parts of Europe and Asia and the same holds true. In fact, authoritarian regimes can justifiably claim to house less internal polarisation than democracies. Why is this so? Is there something in the nature of democracies that leads to a polarisation of the populace? Have the recent developments in technology and social media accentuated such tendencies?

If we go back in time, thinkers and politicians alike asserted the complexities in making a democracy work. Winston Churchill had famously remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all others tried from time to time”. He went on to add, though, “that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. Much before him, Aristotle, had averred that “democracies degenerate into despotism”. Many politicians and thinkers, including John Kennedy, said that a well-functioning democracy puts high expectations on the average voter to engage and participate.

Plato had his own concerns with democracy. He believed “good decisions were based on knowledge and not numbers” and perceptively opined that “rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men”. If one were to add another allied term, “narrative”, then what Plato said becomes even more powerful. “Rhetoric” is best defined as the art of using speech to persuade, influence or please, but also as speech or discourse that pretends to have significance but lacks true meaning, as when we assert that all the politician says is mere rhetoric. “Narrative” is best understood as a story or a description of a series of events or, more pertinently, a particular way of explaining or understanding events. The rhetoric that best positions a political narrative is at the core of most current political debates. But how does this lead to such bitter polarisation in a democracy?

Political leaders have a short period of time during an election to provide an uplifting narrative to the voters. Voters engage at a superficial level. So, the rhetoric on offer has to be both simple and instantly appealing — like Trump’s “jobs vs mobs”. Given the diversity of the electorate, the politician has no choice but to appeal to as many segments as he or she can. Typically, they do this by over-promising what they can deliver in a term in office. There is no credible non-partisan manner for the general population to monitor and evaluate the performance of the politician once elected. When time comes for the next election, opposition parties highlight all the areas that the incumbent failed to deliver and the incumbent tries to highlight, with hyperbole, all the things that have been achieved. The voter is not in a position to really get to the bottom of this. As a result, the rhetoric becomes all important. “Hope” as a theme is easily appropriated by the challenger. The incumbent is typically on the defensive and has to fall back on a strident narrative around primordial themes — demonising opponents, social groups or exaggerating external threats to create an appeal that can overcome the scrutiny of undelivered promises.

Social media today allows individual customisation of news and much greater amplification as it gets delivered to the mailbox or hand-held device of the individual. People consume what they agree with, all opposing views are filtered out, and so there no access to any objective reality. The uncivil rhetoric on social media was not possible in the heyday of print media. The electronic media has adjusted to this and finds strident shows get higher viewership. Channels get identified with a particular partisan perspective and obtain a loyal viewership from those that agree with that narrative. (In the US, Fox news, Republican leaning, has roughly equal viewership to MSNBC and CNN combined, which are Democrat leaning). Thus, channels get type cast and can only present their side with partiality. There is no reasoned debate and people do not listen to alternative viewpoints. This, over time, polarises the society and beliefs are stoked in an era of alternative facts and fake news. Compromise and bipartisanship on national causes becomes much harder. At its extreme, the partisanship can lead, as Aristotle worried, towards despotism, as is evident in Philippines with Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey with Recep Erdogan and now in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro.

Authoritarian regimes led by strong men appear less polarised. Such regimes tightly control the press, courts and political opposition. They brutally suppress critics and dissidents. But the mass of people seem unaffected if their lot improves. The rhetoric on offer is consistent with the leader’s narrative (often of jingoism, global prestige and economic progress). It is true that in the long run, the absence of internal challenge and leadership change prevents self-correcting mechanisms and can lead to the economic collapse of many such regimes. But in the short-run, they can move faster. And so, if we view Russia, China and even the brutal Saudi Arabia, one has to admit that they are much less polarised than the US, Brazil, Western Europe and Asia.

Periodic peaceful transfer of power by popular vote, by uninformed voters accompanied with growing inequality, a strident partisan rhetoric combined with under delivery (on impossible but required to win promises), a sensationalist media, all lead to polarisation. Democracies expect great sagacity from their leaders; to rise above and lead. Across the world, leaders are increasingly failing to do so. Democracies are built on the premise of serious voter engagement and objective news. Their absence is leading to a great challenge in governance and global stability. Great introspection is required to revitalise the democratic experiment.

Top Cybersecurity Predictions for 2019

Ransomware lost its spot as the number one cyberthreat to consumers and enterprises during the first half of 2018, after topping the list for years. Despite being somewhat outpaced by cryptojackers, though, ransomware has made a rapid recovery, showing that file-encrypting malware is here to stay. And all signs point to a 2019 riddled with emerging new threats.

At Bitdefender, December is a forward-looking month, one that we devote to sharing our forecast for the year to come. So without further ado, here are our top 10 predictions for the cybersecurity space in 2019 (and beyond).

Ransomware

The most profitable form of malware, ransomware remains a constant threat. We still record copious numbers of infections daily, but the good news is ransomware is no longer growing – it’s plateauing. One reason is already well documented: ransomware has taken a back seat to cryptojacking in the past year as bad actors developed a taste for stealing computing power to generate digital currency while flying under the radar. But an even heftier factor behind ransomware’s stagnation is the emergence of dedicated solutions aimed directly at thwarting this form of malware. There will always be new versions of ransomware, some more complex than others and some harder to catch, but we don’t expect ransomware to take on much bigger proportions. At least not bigger than in the past year.

Internet of Things (IoT)

We expect more attacks leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) /smart/connected devices. As lawmakers scramble to come up with a way to regulate the IoT space, attackers will continue to capitalize on their inherent weaknesses. Hackers are becoming better at hijacking IoT products like baby monitors, surveillance cams and other home appliances. And connected medical devices are far from safe either. In fact, body implants that support wireless connectivity may lead to the first ransomware attacks where you need to pay or die. Sound wild? Just remember that, in 2013, former US Vice President Dick Cheney asked his doctors to disable the wireless function in his pacemaker to thwart the potential of terrorists hacking it.

In another noteworthy trend in the IoT landscape, manufacturers are jumping on the cellular bandwagon, gradually moving their IoTs from WiFi to LTE and from ipv4 to ipv6. While this shift promises increased security, it will likely open up a new can of worms since it’s relatively new ground for the IoT ecosystem.

macOS attacks on the rise

Apple’s share of the desktop market is rising, and malware designed to infect Macs is growing along with it. We project an increase in the number of attacks targeting Mac users, something we are already beginning to see in our internal telemetry. Our data shows not just new macOS-specific malware, but also macOS-specific mechanisms and tools designed to capitalize on Macs post-breach. We’ve already seen this in past APTs that housed Mac-specific components.

MACROs and fileless attacks

Attacks leveraging Microsoft Office MACROs will also increase in number and scope. MACROs are a feature, not a bug, as the old adage goes. Which makes it the perfect bait for victims prone to social engineering scams – where the attacker convinces the victim to essentially partake in their own abuse.

We expect fileless attacks – such as those leveraging powershell and other system-bound tools like gen reg, mshta, etc. – to also increase in scope in the year to come.

Potentially unwanted applications (PUA) and cryptojacking

Potentially unwanted applications (PUA), including adware, don’t pose a tremendous threat in and of themselves, but they’re not innocent either. For example, you could download a seemingly legitimate application not knowing it’s bundled with crypto miner or even malware.

We forecast an increase in JavaScript-based miners embedded in web pages – like the YouTube cryptojacking incident where attackers conducted a malvertising campaign and injected miners within ads displayed on YouTube.

Finally, we can expect a shift from drive-by-downloads of malware to full-blown drive-by-mining. In other words, the use of web-mining APIs that perform crypto-mining, directly in the user’s browser, instead of exploit-kits to download malware onto the victim’s computer.

Combating invisible threats

Network-level exploits will enter the limelight next year, and they will likely be hyped by social media, if history is any indication. And researchers will have to devote considerable resources to analyzing hardware-based implants, hardware backdoors, and hardware design flaws, as well as supply chain compromises in software.

APTs targeting banks

We expect advanced persistent threats to continue emerging, with a renewed focus on the banking sector, reminiscent of the Carbanak group making headlines in 2014 for using an APT-style campaign to steal money from banks. The malware was reportedly introduced via phishing emails, with the hackers said to have stolen hundreds of million dollars not only from banks, but from more than a thousand private customers as well.

GDPR to show its fangs

Here’s a positive prediction for a change: Thanks to the EU’s renewed effort to protect personally identifiable information – in the form of the General Data Protection Regulation that took effect in May this year – we should expect fewer “credential leaks” to occur, or at the very least make headlines. Security incidents will be more thoroughly contained at an organization level in an effort to avoid penalties that could force a business into bankruptcy. Remember that the GDPR can dish out fines of up to 4% of the victim’s annual turnover, which can translate into hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars in the case of large enterprises and corporations.

Election interference in Europe

2019 is the year Europe elects Members of the European Parliament. If recent developments in the U.S. are any indication, we should expect turmoil in Europe, including state-sponsored attacks on voting systems, social media propaganda, and other forms of “meddling.” If a few years ago these acts were merely rumoured to be occurring, events in the past two years alone confirm that the world’s leading powers will stop at nothing to influence their adversaries’ political outcomes.

A shift towards mobile attacks

Fintech services are paving the way to a very profitable new trend for hackers. The more money and integration with traditional banking systems, the more attention they will get from cybercrooks who will likely develop new threats targeting these specific services in 2019.

Saturday Special: Run Away From Your Problems to Solve Them

“When people step away from the problem, all of a sudden the solution becomes clear.”  Most of us assume that the quality of life improves as we move up the ladder.

“You can be in a job that had a very fancy title, you could be in a company that had a very fancy brand, and still not feel that sense of purpose, and direction, and usefulness.”

We often fall in love with the outcome—we dream about the title, but not the process of getting there. And we don’t think about the process of actually what the day-to-day is going to look like once we arrive.

It’s really easy to fall in love with an ideal future and then just get stuck in the rut of going through the day-to-day process and not actually enjoying it. I think that’s an important wake up call.

When we’re very stressed by a situation, the state of alert in our brains is somewhat dampened by adopting a position of some distance, whether it’s saying, “In a year’s time, how will I feel about this?” or, “What would I advise someone else about this?”

There’s something about taking yourself away from the immediate stressful situation that tells your brain the danger is further away and therefore is less of an inhibition to good thinking. That’s partly what allows people to think more clearly when they project themselves into an ideal future. Sometimes, I [have] them get up and sit in a different place or we go for a walk. That helps, as well, to say, “Okay, now we’re shifting our thinking. We’re going to be a little bit playful with this.”

Sometimes, I get people to fully visualize what’s going on. What are people saying? How does it feel? And then even better if you can pair it with, “Okay, and then what’s your very first step towards that ideal future?”

“There’s something about taking yourself away from the immediate stressful situation that tells your brain the danger is further away and therefore is less of an inhibition to good thinking.”

 It’s really amazing the list of people from all walks of life, from scientists to authors, to entrepreneurs, who have had incredible breakthroughs where they literally walk into a solution. Nikola Tesla famously thought of the AC motor on a walk through a park in Budapest. There [are] so many examples like that where, when people step away from the problem, all of a sudden the solution becomes clear.

 This is a really interesting and fairly new area of research to understand what the brain does when it’s supposedly in resting mode, when we’re not actually engaged in an active task. Your brain does not stop thinking about the thing that you’ve been wrestling with. It does more encoding and consolidation of the information you’ve been playing with before, below the level of our consciousness.

Insight is connecting the dots in a different way from the way you were thinking about things before. It is not our imagination; it really is a different type of thinking.

“When people step away from the problem, all of a sudden the solution becomes clear.”

My physical well-being has always taken a backseat to professional success. It’s only when I started to realize the link between physical and mental well-being and professional success, that I began to take it more seriously. I experienced this with my writing and creativity on days that I’m not feeling particularly happy, my writing suffers because you just feel in this rut and that the creative juices are not flowing.

Now, I take the time to put myself in a good mood. I allow myself to do silly things that are going to put me in a happy mood so that I can do the best work that I can.

We are an integrated system in terms of our mental well-being, our physical well-being, [and] our emotional well-being. One of the things that has been fascinating to me over the years is to understand that those links are not just long-term lengths. If we do a tiny bit of aerobic exercise, go for a 10 minute brisk walk, the impact on our cognitive and emotional function is immediate. We actually get a boost to our mood and our ability to focus.

When I was writing the book, I really used that. I got this really crappy elliptical trainer that was so rickety, it moved from side to side as I used it. I had it next to me and I would jump on it if I had a blockage when I was trying to write. I would say, “Okay, fine, I’ll get on it for 10 minutes.” And then I would have the insight and I’d feel better. And then I’d come back and it just became such a tool.

Likewise, never, ever skimping on sleep and canceling meetings if need be. It did get to a point where I was working on average, about two hours a day less than my colleagues. There was a part of me that thought this is not going to be sustainable, maybe they’re going to find out.  Actually being conscious of your boundaries was a helpful thing because it meant that the teams that we formed around the work that I was doing were pretty happy. And as you say, we do better work when we’re happy.

 It turns out that the whole idea of wearing your lucky pants or a lucky tie to an interview is not completely bonkers. Our brains are highly associative machines and when we think about any activity, any thought, it’s a bunch of neurons firing together. When we retrieve that memory, those neurons are firing together, perhaps a bit imperfectly because our memory’s imperfect.

What happens then is a bit of a domino effect. If you remember a song that was playing on a particularly happy night out with friends, then that song can trigger the mental state that you had that evening. It happens even if you’re not conscious of the connection. It just becomes your happy song.

I think it’s a useful thing for all of us to experience failure. I’m seeing this particularly with the students—many of them are not well prepared to deal with even minor setbacks like getting rejected from a job or getting anything less than an A minus on a paper. There’s something, I think, to be said about almost inoculating yourself with failure, as opposed to secluding ourselves from failure.

There is so much to learn from each the failures and the bumps in the road. When you are going through a difficult situation, asking “Okay, well what is it I’m learning from this?” is one of the most powerful things you can [do]. That is a useful question because learning is inherently rewarding for the average brain.

Refocusing your energies [with that question] gives you a chance to salvage something from the situation. We grow from these experiences if they’re not so terrible that they take us down. Of course, there are terrible things that happen to people that are very hard to bounce back from. Research suggests that in the world of people who support those who have PTSD, this sense of being able to find agency and control helps to restore mental health.

A lot of organizations say, “We’re a learning organization. We want to be a learning organization.” Often that’s a bit nebulous for people to get their heads around, because as you say, [when] something actually goes wrong, people have an instinct to smooth it over or not to talk about it because it feels very frightening or very scary.

 One thing that I see in organizations is insufficient reflection on what is working and why. What’s often missing is really intelligent excavation of why something is working and how you might spread it, and what you would learn from that.

What does that mean in practice? That means managers getting into the habit of not just patting people on the back, but saying, “Why do you think that worked? And what do you think we could learn from that? And what do you think we could spread from that?” I’ve seen managers who do adopt those techniques, just build them into their weekly meetings with their teams, see massive increases in their team’s motivation. We’ve been talking about learning from failure, I’d like to see a bit more learning from success, too.

Teams waste a lot of time doing round the table updates rather than doing real work together. Make meetings something that you can only do with everybody in the room together. And then everything else can be updates that you circulate in other ways. That would free up so much time and energy and it would make it so much more fun when you’re actually together with your colleagues.

“We’ve been talking about learning from failure, I’d like to see a bit more learning from success, too.”

I joke these days that when something goes wrong, it’s something that I can use in a speech or in a story. That mentality of “I can use this” is something which I could have adopted even earlier in my life and I think everybody can. There’s always a good story to tell. There’s such power in showing some vulnerability and telling the story about how something goes wrong.

And my favorite quote on failure is from Edward Albee, the playwright. He says, “If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you will tend to succeed in an interesting way.”

The future of crypto-assets- opportunities to policy implications

Crypto-assets and cryptocurrencies have soared in popularity since 2008, with more than 1,000 of the latter in existence today. Recently, large gains followed by steep declines led to intense media coverage and widespread interest. Crypto-assets have also featured prominently in recent work by the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Financial and Monetary Systems, which Cecilia Skingsley and I co-chair.

In particular, a report called “The Global Financial and Monetary System in 2030” argues that the increasing acceptance and adoption of cryptocurrencies will contribute to bringing markets, institutions and infrastructure together in a multi-polar, complex and interconnected world. This in turn will present a challenge to the conduct of monetary policy, and have implications for financial stability and financial crime prevention.

Regulators and supervisors have started to take greater interest, but are still debating how best to provide a framework for this new asset class. Treatment has been very diverse, ranging from outright bans (China), warnings (US, UK) and guidance (Singapore) to liberal permissive positions (Japan, Korea). Most recently, the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) outlined its new regulatory framework for virtual asset portfolio managers, fund distributors and trading platform operators, aiming to bring them under its regulatory net. 

Some regulators do not sufficiently distinguish between tokens used as a utility, and crypto-assets as a financial instrument based on securities. Distinguishing between the two is key, and education on the different types of tokenized assets is important. Not every virtual currency needs cryptography, nor has decentralized issuance. Not every digital token issued through an ICO is a cryptocurrency. It is important to understand what the underlying asset is. 

The IMF and World Bank recently presented their Bali Fintech Agenda, with a set of 12 policy elements aimed at helping member countries harness the benefits and opportunities of rapid advances in financial technology, while managing the inherent risks. Regarding crypto-assets, the Bali agenda cautions that their rising spread may increase the complexity of assessing the drivers of financial interdependencies across borders. Likewise, the Financial Stability Board (FSB) noted in a recent paper that crypto-assets could have implications for financial stability in the future, should they continue to evolve, even though current risks were considered not material. 

Which way forward? 

At this stage, it is still very unclear whether cryptocurrencies will ever become a mainstream means of exchange. Technological shortcomings, such as processing capacity and the enormous energy consumption for their mining, may be solved. The potential KYC/AML concerns and requirements can be addressed so that cryptocurrencies are not used for breaking the law (e.g. with real-time transaction checks embedded on blockchain).

However, the main problem with cryptocurrencies is their inelastic supply. What supporters of cryptocurrencies consider their greatest advantage – their limited supply – is in fact their greatest disadvantage. With an inelastic supply, demand fluctuations will always result in fluctuations in value, which makes cryptocurrencies unsuitable to serve as money. In other words, cryptocurrencies lack a central bank.

I am much more optimistic about the use of the blockchain as the main underlying technology. The potential benefits of blockchain are many. They range from real-time transactions allowing risk reduction and better capital management, to improved regulatory effectiveness, e.g. by using blockchain for Know-your-Customer or anti-money-laundering checks. I also see huge potential for integration with other emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, to implement the future of finance.

Mindful of the paradigm shift predicated by blockchain enthusiasts, banks and exchanges will need to make joint efforts, including cross-border collaboration within the blockchain ecosystem, and sharing of knowledge and experience with the wider blockchain community. 

UBS recently cooperated with other banks on blockchain-based trade finance platform We.Trade, which allows bank customers to create trade orders easily online and manage the entire trade process from order to payment. Meanwhile, the financial infrastructure provider SIX has announced plans for a “SIX Digital Exchange”, the first market infrastructure in the world to offer a fully integrated end-to-end trading, settlement and custody service for digital assets based on blockchain. It aims to launch in the first half of 2019, subject to regulatory approval. The service will provide a safe environment for issuing and trading digital assets, and enable the tokenization of existing securities and non-bankable assets to make previously untradeable assets tradeable.

I would encourage a consistent regulatory approach to cryptocurrencies by aligning national approaches, and moving regulation and supervision to the international level, to the G20 and the FSB. Regulators and supervisors should be guided by level playing field principles, and should protect consumers without restraining innovation.

As we are at the start of the journey, crypto-assets and blockchain will continue to feature prominently in the work of the Global Future Council on Financial and Monetary Systems. To facilitate workable solutions and informed debate, we see the need for a continued close dialogue between public and private sectors. 

India can lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Be it AI or Blockchain, what works in India — with its inherent diversity, complexity and scale — will work in the world.

Back in the 20th century, I took my first driving lesson. At the start of the lesson, the instructor declared that learning to drive a car in India will prepare me to do so anywhere else in the world, with ‘minor adjustments’.

Things may or may not have changed with respect to driving in India or elsewhere, but they have when it comes to technology. The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has brought along an unprecedented confluence of interconnected technologies that are changing the way we live, work and organise our societies.

It provides, in equal parts, a massive opportunity to address pressing global challenges like ensuring food security, energy access and efficiency, and also the prospect of improving the living standards of billions of people. Deployment of these technologies, however, requires a concerted effort on the part of all stakeholders involved – government, businesses, innovators, intellectuals, and the people – to ensure that the outcomes are beneficial to the broader society.

India, with its inherent diversity, complexity, and scale, can provide the right laboratory for formulating policy responses to direct these technologies.

Artificial intelligence

Take for example artificial intelligence (AI). Many cutting-edge AI algorithms and machine learning tools are open source and publicly available. However, training these AI algorithms for specific purposes will require challenging problems to simulate, and large, diverse data sets to simulate those problems on. These data sets are expensive and difficult to obtain, mostly proprietary, hoarded by a few big technology businesses, and almost never shared.

While the United States has been funding large scale AI research, and China is amassing sizeable amounts of its own data, it is estimated that only 0.5 per cent of the available data in the world is currently being analysed. For AI to deliver on real life issues such as improving healthcare and well-being, innovative solutions and business models need to germinate from the bottom up, with access to reliable raw data that can help train these models.

India has a unique opportunity to design policy frameworks for promoting the democratisation and distributed ownership of such data that can drive innovation in AI at a large scale. For instance, if medical records from local diagnostic centres across India are fed into algorithms that can predict the probability of developing a disease, the regional, cultural, ethnic and socio-economic diversity of such medical data can allow for the delivery of customised and targeted preventive healthcare at a fraction of the cost.

Similarly, access to annotated behavioural data of 1.25 billion Indians across the 19,500 classified languages and dialects, nine recognised religions, and a variety of races, castes and sects, can open up a variety of possibilities to deploy algorithms on. Development of this data infrastructure, however, requires collaboration and coordination across policy makers, regulators, technologists and entrepreneurs, as well as data owners, providers and custodians.

Further, any policy stance on data ownership will need to take into account issues around data privacy, protection, security, and transparency. When these matters are addressed within the overall framework of the democratic governance structure in India, the resulting learnings and best practices can directly be ported to many, if not all of other countries, and can hugely accelerate global adoption and localised, targeted deployment of AI.

Blockchain

Another case in point is that of Blockchain or Distributed Ledger Technologies. The theoretical promise of this technology – immutable record keeping, decentralised decision making, transparency, fractionalisation of asset ownership, and elimination of intermediaries – can be applicable in a myriad of situations for a country like India where hard-wired structural issues such as information asymmetry, enforceability of contracts, corruption, black market and prevalence of middlemen plague the economy.

To illustrate, take a hypothetical example of a proposed public private infrastructure project – a new inter-state highway that will pass through an existing locality. Records of land ownership in the locality can be put on a Blockchain, and the investment proposal for the highway can be coded as a ‘smart contract’ for its terms, conditions and deliverables. The overall project value can be fractionalised and represented in terms of digital inter-state highway tokens to allow interested parties to obtain a stake in the project. These parties can comprise of the government, investors, developers, local politicians or public representatives, and the citizens and land owners of the locality.

The ‘smart contract’ can specify the ownership distribution and lock-in periods, and the criteria for sharing of returns (e.g. toll, commercial leasing) for investors, as per their holding of tokens.

Tokens can be allowed to be traded through the lifecycle of the project, and can be exchanged for real money, with full visibility on each party’s ownership. The resulting free market dynamics can create the right economic and incentive structure for all involved parties to ensure the project’s success and sustainability in the long run, and help raise the requisite capital and release funds as and when required.

An investor in the project will be more confident when he sees the policy makers already tied to the ‘smart contract’. The developer will have better visibility on the availability and pipeline of funds. The local politician will have a clearer sense of public interest in the project basis their holding or liquidation of the tokens, and can proactively plan and be accountable for clearing out any hurdles like land acquisition and clearances.

Once the project breaks even and the private investors have been paid back, the government holding of tokens can be permanently transferred to the local citizens for the long run – who can now not only ‘own’ a piece of the public infrastructure that was built for them, but also have an incentive to participate in its regular maintenance and upkeep – as the ongoing returns generate an additional source of income for them.

Overhaul of rules

At present, implementation of Blockchain across the entire spectrum in cases like the above is beyond the realm of possibility. It requires a fundamental overhaul of numerous rules, regulations, legal frameworks, and a change in the core fabric of how political structures, governance systems, and business processes are designed.

However, collated learnings from small pilots – conducted in different jurisdictions in India, together with a group of distinct stakeholders who may have distinct and divergent reasons, interests and incentives to change or to not change – can provide valuable insights into the incremental steps required to shape the evolution of this technology to serve our needs.

The mere presence of this open, distributed, decentralised technology is prompting the society to embrace the possibility of a disruptively different future. But the journey, encompassing planning, defining the trajectory and organising for this future, is a collective effort and responsibility.

Amongst many things that are made in India, the arbitrage has typically been on cost, efficiency, quality or aesthetic uniqueness. Development of global operating models and governance frameworks for emerging technologies requires arbitration on the diversity of data, complexity of situations, and scale of deployment.

There aren’t many other places in the world that can offer it more than India

Weekend Special: Avoid These Pitfalls While Making a Presentation

Making a presentation at work can be scary. Some of us fear public speaking more than death. However, like many things in life, giving presentations gets easier with practice and after more experience.

I spend a lot of my time giving — and listening to — presentations. In my role, I give presentations to client CEOs, executive teams, boards, large (and small) groups of company employees, and of course my own team, peers, and leadership. I also spend time helping others present their ideas, providing coaching and guidance on content, message, and supporting materials.

Having the content prepared is foundational, but great slides and messaging can be ruined by a poor presentation. Similarly, I have seen executives with average content succeed because they deliver such a powerful presentation that the audience walks away convinced and impressed.

There are many elements to a great presentation, but being effective means avoiding missteps. I’ve compiled ten things you should never do when making a presentation. To be clear — this is not an effort to police tone, but to strengthen our ability to get our message across and build professional credibility.

1. Don’t say, “I think,” when a more powerful statement can work

Your views are valid – and you’re entitled to an opinion. However, there are more powerful ways to state your view, including: in my assessment, my experience suggests, and from what I’ve observed. This tiny rephrase will ground your subsequent observation in something more firm than a passing thought.

If you have data or facts, using “I think” can further undercut your point. Using “…the data indicate,” or “…as the data illustrates,” provides an even stronger introduction to your point. Sometimes you have to analyze data or come to a conclusion using many points of data that may not be completely clear. In those instances, share your team’s assumptions and conclusions – not just what you “think.”

2. Don’t say, “I don’t know.” It happens to all of us at some point

You’re giving a presentation you are asked a question that you do not know the answer to. You might not know, and you should never, ever give a fact or data point that you’re unsure of.

Instead of “I don’t know,” which does not show any action or resolution, and highlights what you’re missing (the answer) instead of instilling confidence, you can rephrase. If you’re asked for a piece of data you don’t have, you can respond, “I can get that data,” or, “the team can explore that question and get you an answer following this meeting.”

If you’re asked a question that you may need more time to ponder, it is fair to say, “I’d like more time to think about that instead of giving you an off-the-cuff answer,” and indicate how you will follow-up.

Sometimes, you’re asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, but have enough information or observation to make an educated guess. In that case, provide your response with confidence, referencing your experience “Based on similar situations, I’d estimate that…”

This is a tricky one to navigate, as some professionals struggle with wanting to be perfect and knowing every detail. If you’re presenting, you should be well-prepared, but eventually you will get a question you simply do not know the answer to. Part of your preparation should include brainstorming for difficult questions and considering how you respond to any questions you may not know the answer to, based on your audience and the goals of the presentation.

3. Never share something that isn’t true and accurate

This sounds incredibly obvious. It is one of the things many of us learn in childhood: tell the truth, and don’t lie. However, in the heat (and stress) of a big presentation, it can be tempting to answer a question with a guess, or make a few leaps of logic here or there.

Don’t. If you aren’t certain about the validity of a point, sharing it could have massive consequences. This occasionally appears when more senior executives are presenting, and they haven’t reviewed the materials that they’re presenting. An old data point, or simple mistake that hasn’t been caught, can be shared as fact. Without ill intent, that can have negative repercussions on the organization.

Similarly, it can be tempting to avoid or downplay bad news. I’ve learned that bad news is best delivered early and with a plan for resolution. Saying with full confidence that the team will absolutely hit next month’s milestone – and then reporting two days before said deadline that you need an extension is one relatively common example. Your judgement and integrity is on the line when you’re presenting, and if you’re unsure of the validity of a point, it puts your reputation at risk if you deliver it to the audience.

4. Like, um, and other verbal crutches.

Nearly all of us fall prey to using different verbal crutches – filler words and phrases that include like, um, aah, you know, and so.

If you’ve ever listened to a speaker that has these verbal crutches, you’ve likely gotten so distracted that you’re counting the “likes” instead of listening to the message.

Preparation, recording, and feedback are the best ways to banish these from your vocabulary. When you’ve prepared well, you’ll feel more confident during your presentation. Stress and anxiety can trigger verbal crutches, while knowing your content thoroughly and taking some calming, deep breaths before you go on stage can reduce your nerves.

Listening to yourself is one of the best ways to catch your verbal crutches. It is incredibly common to dislike the sound of your own voice – but get over it, because poor presentation skills and verbal crutches are credibility killers! When you listen to yourself, pay attention to what your verbal crutches might be, and commit to working them out of your daily use (even with friends and family).

This is where having a trusted peer or thoughtful manager can come in. Let them know you’re working on improving your presentation skills, and you want to remove a specific verbal crutch – or two – from your vocabulary. Ask them to notify you when you’re using it in meetings (usually after the meeting, though there may be a discreet way to do so during the session), and offer to help them with any skills they are working on honing.

If you catch yourself relying on your verbal crutch, don’t freak out. Just pause. A beat of silence – while you take a sip of water and quickly glance at your notes – feels natural to the audience and gives you a chance to regroup.

5. Don’t ask, “Do you have any questions?”

Taking questions from the audience is great, but this is a poorly phrased question that doesn’t engage your audience. Instead, I suggest making a few adjustments to ensure you’re capturing feedback from your audience more actively.

First, let them know how you’ll handle questions – you may prefer that they are peppered throughout, or there may be notecards you’ve provided for them to write questions on for follow-up, or perhaps you’ve reserved time at the end to take any questions.

Your audience will likely follow your lead, so let them know when you’d prefer to take their questions. In a large group, audience members will often feel less comfortable asking questions throughout. In smaller groups, it may feel too formal to ask them to hold their questions to the end. Determine what will fit your audience’s needs.

Next, prepare the questions you’ll ask to engage your audience. If you have a section of the presentation that might confuse the audience, you may ask a question like, “I often get questions on the details behind this chart, and how the factor analyses actually work – raise your hand if providing that detail would be helpful, and I’ll spend a few minutes on that.”

Sometimes, presenters ask the audience for questions when they are really trying to spark discussion or audience participation. If that is the case, then craft a purposeful, open-ended, and inclusive question. For example, if you’re presenting to managers about the importance of investing in employee development, you may ask, “Who in the room has helped an employee grow their skills recently? Would you share the approach you used?” A question like that allows the audience to share their own ideas and experiences, to add richness to the discussion.

Finally, if you’ve finished your presentation, and you are curious if there are additional questions from your audience, you can say, “If there are any questions, I’d be happy to take them now.” Give the audience some time to engage. People can be shy about speaking up in large groups. If you don’t get a question, conclude with how they can reach you for any follow-up, thanking them for their time, and reminding them of any key points or actions. This is a more powerful closing than asking whether they have any questions – which can feel like a mini-failure if they don’t – and concluding your session on an awkward note.

6. Don’t hoard the credit…or even worse, take credit where you shouldn’t. When you’re presenting on behalf of a team, it is critical to recognize your contributors

Your presentation doesn’t need to sound like a long list of thank yous at an awards show, but it is important to acknowledge the wider team. This is yet another tightrope to balance – as the presenter, you have to authoritatively acknowledge your position – however, it may anger your colleagues if you’re inadvertently stealing credit in how you present.

I recommend acknowledging the wider team at the beginning and end of the presentation, and highlighting any particularly strong contributions throughout. For example, when starting the presentation, you might say something like, “I’m thrilled to present the work on behalf of our department – you’ll see the eight other team members that contributed to this project represented on the opening slide.”

If your colleague Fatima went out of her way, acknowledge that during your presentation. You can say, “This finding in the data is particularly compelling, and it was Fatima’s idea to pursue this line of questioning through regression analysis.” This demonstrates your comfort as a leader (you don’t need to hog the spotlight) and gives your colleagues a chance to shine – a win-win.

7. “Yes, we can do that by tomorrow,” when you’re not sure you can

Promising something you can’t deliver on is a fantastic way to undercut your credibility with peers and executives. It can be tempting to have an answer to every single question you’re asked, but if a commitment is requested, and you’re unsure, it is usually possible to buy yourself some time.

You can defer, saying, “Tomorrow is a rapid turnaround – I will confirm with the team after this presentation and let you know what deadline you can expect by noon today.” Further, in some situations it may be wise to take a moment to understand the driver behind the question, asking a clarifying question, like: “Before I work on next steps, it is helpful to understand why receiving the follow-up by tomorrow so critical – does this information impact another project or deadline?” Often, audience members may ask for things – or details – faster than really needed.

8. “I’m rambling a little,” or “I just rambled off there, but…” if you got lost in the flow of your presentation, don’t tell the audience

Some of them may have noticed, and for those who didn’t, you just undercut your credibility. Practicing your presentation beforehand can help prevent rambling (ideally with a colleague, trusted friend, or by recording yourself and playing it back).

However, if you catch yourself rambling, end your sentence, take a breath to gather your thoughts, and get back on track.

9. “Let me tell you a funny story…” This phrase has two issues – “let me” and “funny story.” First, “let me”

As the presenter, your audience is listening to you by default (until you give them reason to tune out). Asking their permission with a weak phrase like “let me” is unnecessary.

Next, “funny story.” In presentations, stories are fantastic. Data suggests they are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone, so including them in your presentation is a powerful technique. Humor can also be a useful technique, when used appropriately, to connect with your audience. However, there’s little value in forewarning your audience that you’re going to be funny – because if they don’t laugh, you just bombed. Deploy your humor naturally and appropriately, and if you get laughs, that’s a bonus.

10. Don’t say, “I’m Sorry.” Women tend to apologize more than men, and this also happens in presentations

When you’re presenting, you rarely (if ever) need to apologize, so fight that instinct. Even in disastrous presentation situations – and I’ve been in a few, you can extract yourself without saying sorry.

Taking you a few moments to get set up? No need to apologize – let the audience know you’ll be starting in 5 minutes, and you’re looking forward to sharing your findings with them.

Projector light bulb broken, rendering it useless? Acknowledge the issue, and if possible continue the presentation using your notes and handouts, or re-schedule the meeting to make the best use of the audience’s time if the projection of slides is critical to the session.

Audio terrible, so the room can’t hear you? Move to the center of the room and raise your voice, grab a handheld microphone, or call an audible for a 10-minute break so the audio-visual staff can come up with a quick fix.

Spend more time than you planned on that complex point, so you won’t get to all your slides? Hit the key points you need to and end on time, because there are few sins an audience is less forgiving about than running late! Usually, they don’t know (or care) how many slides you have.

Spill all over yourself right before you walk up on stage (or, even better, on stage)? Yup, it happens – acknowledge it, make a joke, and keep going. Your audience usually wants you to succeed – this hiccup makes you human.

Forget the books you committed to bringing for every audience member? Let them know they’ll be receiving them in the mail as follow-up, along with a bonus item to make up for the delay.

Mishaps of all sorts happen when presenting – you do not need to undercut yourself by needlessly saying sorry. Instead, you can use any issues to your advantage, demonstrating your cool and collected nature under fire.

Developing your personal approach to presenting is a lifelong journey for most of us, and executives with strong presentation skills are particularly valuable in today’s knowledge-driven, fast-paced work environment. I’d love to hear if there are any other things you NEVER say when making a presentation, or if there are other tips that you’ve applied to improve your own skills.

Letting out Frankenstein Monster

Fifteen years ago, novelist Margaret Atwood published the first part of what is now known as ‘MaddAddam trilogy’. The novel, Oryx and Crake, talked about a dystopian future ushered in by irresponsible scientists and power-hungry mega corporations. “The goal of the pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs… that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses,” she wrote in 2003.

That Atwood was not far from reality became apparent last week when Chinese scientist He Jiankui stunned the world by announcing that his team has created the world’s first ‘gene-edited’ babies using the CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) method.

Like Crake, the scientist in Atwood’s novel, He did not believe that he transgressed any ethical boundary. He saw his work as a public health effort aimed at eliminating HIV infection. The research was not, he claims, directed at creating ‘made-to-order’ babies.

All medical science research is geared towards tackling diseases and disorders and help human beings enjoy a healthy life. Seen in this light, what he claims he has done seems to be right. However, what he seems to have quietly passed are certain norms and ethical guidelines that any research should be governed by to guard against its misuse.

Take nuclear weapons. In 1995, protests erupted in Tahiti after French President Jacques Chirac lifted the moratorium on France’s nuclear testing in French Polynesia. A French army general explained that they were not testing weapons, they were testing nuclear physics. Ask the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and they can confirm how helpful this physics is for human population.

Uncontrolled scientific research is a like a bull in a china shop, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The balancing act between allowing scientists to do independent research without fear or favour, and not allowing research results to be misused is critical. Science administrators need to come up with better checks than leave things to scientists.

The pressure to get into the genome and tinker with it has its own share of attraction. And lure of lucre — from biotech and pharma corporations. Chances of half-baked solutions for disease management based on genetics getting through are not a mere nightmare. As the human population lives longer, the disease/disorder load for authorities to tackle is becoming heavier. With response to challenges needed to be quick, often the demand overwhelms what research can deliver.

This imbalance is the ideal breeding ground for rogue research. He Jiankui’s work falls in this category. After he unveiled the research at a conference in Hong Kong, many scientists believe that the Chinese team may have successfully completed gene-editing —genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genetic material, or genome, of a living organism. Despite the assurances from He, the research smacks of eugenics, the controversial science that aims at improving the genetic quality of a human population.

Despite the claim that the mouse used by the team did not show any health or behavioural effects, this is no guarantee, as immune cells affect the whole body. Also, there is a big risk that the CRISPR procedure may cause unintended mutations in other parts of the body. Finally, if the eggs had started dividing before He’s gene-editing took place, then the baby girls may have a mixture of cells with and without the ‘edit’. This puts paid to the purported outcome of the experiment, making the twin girls born vulnerable to HIV infection.

In scientific terms, this experiment bears a horrible risk-benefit outcome ratio for the babies. A moratorium on gene-edited babies should be in place before things get out of hand.

On the 200th year of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, will He’s experiment bring to life a Frankenstein’s monster?

Five Sutras For 2019 -For Peace in World

The holistic philosophy of Vedanta is urgently needed at this critical juncture. There is a general misconception that Vedanta involves only a quest for personal salvation without a concern for the larger social welfare.

I am aware that religion is not the same as philosophy, but at least for most of us in Asia, there has always been a close linkage between the two. We do not look upon philosophy merely as an intellectual exercise, but as a quest for wisdom and enlightenment. It is in this context that I wish to place before the World Congress of Philosophy a set of five sutras — cryptic statements compressing a wealth of meaning, based largely on Hindu Vedantic philosophy. Between them, I believe they give us a roadmap for addressing the multiple problems that humanity faces today.

 The first sutra is from the Ishavasya Upanishad, Ishavasyam Sarvam Yatkinchy Jagatyam Jagat — this whole cosmos is illuminated by the same divine power. Whether it is the stately waltz of the galaxies or the frenetic rock-and-roll of subatomic particles so powerfully symbolised by the Shiva Nataraja, all owe their existence to the divine force the Upanishads call Brahman. This represents the philosophical correlate of the Unified Field Theory that scientists are desperately looking for to explain the multiple phenomenon in the cosmos and probe further into the power that subsumes all that exists, has existed or will exist.

Flowing from this is a sutra from the Gita, Ishwara Sarbutanam Hriddeshe Tishati — the divine power resides in the heart of all beings. This is tremendously important because if divinity was not seated in our hearts there would be no way we could approach or experience it. While all creatures possess divinity, it’s only with the emergence of the human race that there is a specie which is self-conscious and can, therefore, embark on a spiritual quest. Each human being encapsulates a spark of the divine — known as the Atman,

The joining of the Atman and the Brahman involves raising our consciousness to a radically elevated trans-rational level of awareness. Let us now turn to Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the well-known sutra which describes the human race as a single family. It is only in our lifetimes that science and technology have actually given us the capacity to break out of the confines of the earth, reach the moon and explore the planets and the stars. They have given us instant communication, the internet, television and a vast array of technological instruments that have indeed made the world potentially a single unit. However, it is astonishing that thousands of years ago, our seers had realised that in the final analysis, the human race must be looked upon as a single family.

The fourth sutra is from the Rig Veda — Ekam Sadvipraha Bahudha Vadanti — the truth is one, the wise call it by many names. If Vasudhaiva Kutubakam is the keynote of the global society, this sutra is the keynote of the Interfaith Movement, which began in 1893 with the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago where Swami Vivekananda made such a dramatic impact. To assume that there is only one path is unacceptable. Who are we, creatures on a tiny speck of dust, to lay down that the illimitable splendour of the Divine can appear only in one form?

The final sutra I would like to present is Bahujana Sukhaya, Bhaujana Hitaya Cha — the welfare of the many, the happiness of the many. There is a general misconception that Vedanta involves only a quest for personal salvation without a concern for the larger social welfare. In fact, the last three sutras mentioned here directly address the welfare of humanity at large. This one is of particular importance because it stresses that apart from continuing our inner efforts to join Atman and Brahman, we should be working for the welfare of society.

There have been many definitions of socialism, but it seems to me that this sutra beautifully expresses the basic ideal that every individual should be happy. Taken together, these five sutras represent a holistic philosophy, which is urgently needed at the present critical juncture of human history.

Social media-a costless platform for political parties to spread disinformation

Electoral politics everywhere is being decisively affected by the social media platforms. Governments and political parties are adjusting to the immense power wielded through, not necessarily by, the companies. The platform companies are also belatedly, and largely involuntarily, catching up to the reality of their responsibility. In India next year another very important test of democracy’s power to resist the bad effects of misinformation distributed through targeted political communication will occur; current assembly elections may be a trial run. Early indications are very worrisome.

Demonstration of Russian interference in US presidential elections in 2016, coupled with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, demonstrated the consequences of two crucial propositions about which every citizen of any democracy should be deeply concerned. First, targeted communications addressed to a person’s phone based on a knowledge of their social media behaviour are extremely effective propaganda. Second, the platform and telecommunications companies’ dual efforts to collect all the human race’s behaviour and enable advertising and other “connections” based on that behavioural data are therefore being used to shape and deliver stimuli intended to change the results of elections.

In this country, political parties have been more candid in admitting the scale and nature of their use of social media than officials and parties in other democracies. Because the economics of paid advertising work less well in India than in richer democracies with much smaller populations, emphasis has fallen more sharply here on direct communications through the internet which are uncharged at both ends. Hence the importance of WhatsApp, which provides an infinite communications subsidy to political actors, and has therefore become the single most important new medium of political communication since the onset of television.

BJP in India and President Trump were unquestionably ahead of its competition in understanding the structure of the new landscape. By its own numbers, it had 8,000 WhatsApp groups delivering targeted messaging in Karnakata during the state elections, for example. That means having social media profile information about tens of millions of people, slicing them up into more than 8,000 segments based on their profiles, adding them to the relevant party-run WhatsApp groups, and sending messages to push their calculated personal and social “buttons”. Their behaviour in interacting with the WhatsApp group can then be used to retarget their messaging. Congress and other political parties are fast catching up in gaining expertise in using similar tactics.

WhatsApp is an end-to-end encrypted service. Facebook, which owns and operates it, has adopted the open source encrypted messaging protocol Signal, to protect users’ privacy. That means no one but the members of any political group can see the messages involved. There is no method of monitoring for inflammatory falsehoods, or any other form of misinformation, by Facebook, GoI, or anyone else.

Because WhatsApp does not charge either senders or recipients, political parties are far from the only organisations that can afford to run political messaging operations designed to affect elections. They have a labour cost advantage over President Vladimir Putin, for example, because the people working in their propaganda mine are volunteers. But any organisation wealthy enough to employ the relatively small number of human workers necessary in such an operation can play.

So what’s a government whose ruling party is ahead in the race or a Parliament composed of parties that all use these mechanisms to do? No governmental capacity to regulate this form of political process exists. For those holding the reins in both the state and the dominant party, this hardly looks like the time to create any.

But it would be good to look like doing something. In such a scenario: GoI can endow Facebook, Twitter and other such platforms with the theoretical responsibility for monitoring its own platform, which is a system of costless, secret, unregulatable political propaganda for all political parties. Facebook’s senior American executives assure us that Facebook will have a “virtual war room” for the 2019 elections. Some security specialists will be consulted about “threats” with the country specialists, this is said to mean. Everyone nods, and is grateful. Presumably, the government will show its gratitude to Facebook for ensuring the integrity of the elections after it wins them.

We should not sit blindly by and allow the experiment of conducting the world’s largest democratic electoral event, an Indian general election, on the foundation of a system that offers free, unmonitorable, targeted political propaganda broadcasting under the deliberately loose control of a single multinational company. Facebook should be required to prevent people from being added to WhatsApp groups without their explicit consent. That would reduce individuals’ exposure to targeted misinformation.

Facebook should offer real-time bounties, cash credits to mobile phone accounts, for submitting examples of misinformation distributed in political WhatsApp groups, thus alerting Facebook to inflammatory false propaganda that is invisible to it directly because of WhatsApp’s encryption.

Facebook, Twitter and other such platforms should not be allowed to take their own sweet time and offer assurances that AI and machine learning will solve all our problems. We have already seen, as Facebook itself admits, how social media manipulation by Myanmar’s military has been used to assist murder and “ethnic cleansing”. State sponsored use of social media propaganda has been associated with distortions of democracy in the US and UK. The Indian general election of 2019 will be another landmark, one way or another, in the history of our new socio-political order. We should do all of what little we can to assure that the chapter we will be writing is not another tragic one.

Indian Prime Minister Modi Can Teach a Lesson or Two to Mckinsey

In a recent freebie on social media, McKinsey – an outrageously expensive US consultancy which spurns a fee below Rs 50 million for even the smallest task – shares lessons learnt by them for producing leaders.

First, good health is critical – a no-brainer. Second, company programs to produce leaders mostly fail – this is well known already. Third, there are as many as fifty separate interventions needed to produce leaders and till at least one half of them are completed don’t expect even partial results – this is indeed new wisdom on the complexity of the process. Finally, focus is what brings results – this is trite spin just to fill the pages.

Who can argue against McKinsey’s research? But common sense observations tell us that a key ingredient of political success in the digital world, is to stand out or be different from the crowd. Some leaders like John F Kennedy, Barack Obama or Jawaharlal Nehru had/have the natural killer looks and character which compel you to give them due regard. Others like Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (Frontier Gandhi) literally stood head and feet above other leaders and didn’t need to do much else. But what do you do if you are of average height and looks?

Developing a public persona helps. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi did this to perfection. From being perfectly forgettable, he transformed into a visible embodiment of service and devotion to a higher cause. The Spartan clothing, even in London’s freezing winter, the frugal lifestyle, in an age when consumption was not a dirty ecological word, the actions of self-denial which abjured personal political gratification – all conspired to give him the status of a Mahatma.

Indira Gandhi also did this perfectly. She combined the coiffured look – there are no photographs of her in a rumpled sari or with her hair in a mess – with her superb ability for understated glamour. Remember the Rudraksha mala she flaunted – fashionable in its simplicity but also signalling sanyas from worldly addictions.

Others in this game have been VP Singh the “mandal” man who exuded refinement and aristocracy, whilst batting politically for the hitherto neglected middle castes. His Astarkhan cap covered his bald pate elegantly but more significantly, sent a strong message of cultural plurality – a message that proponents of “mandal politics” like Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party – a breakaway faction of the erstwhile Janata Dal – continue to project in Uttar Pradesh.

Amongst the Indian prime ministers after Indira Gandhi, it is Narendra Modi who stands out for developing a persona exuding power, executive effectiveness and political courage. Much has been made of who owns the bandgala jacket. This style of outer clothing was a favourite of Jawaharlal Nehru. But it was reinvented by Modi after it had fallen into disuse in the post-Nehruvian era.

Actually Modi need not have bothered with the jacket because his most original contribution to political fashion is the bear hug that he delivers to friends and refrains from delivering to others.

So deep-rooted has the hug become as a political signal of friendship that Navjot Singh Sidhu, a popular ex-cricketer; a renegade BJP man, recently inducted into the Congress, as a minister in Punjab, was instantly criticised by the BJP, for hugging the Pakistan army chief, General Bajwa in Pakistan, even as Pakistan’s proxy warriors were unleashing terror in India. Sidhu had used the hug, as does Modi, to signal friendship – but possibly chose the wrong occasion, if not the wrong man, in his exuberance.

The Pakistani army is the primary barrier in the normalisation of relations with India. They have the most to lose from peace in the sub-continent. Unlike the Indian army, the Pakistani army is a massive defence, industrial complex, which is not content to play rummy during peace. War, terror or geopolitical tension in South Asia, means money in the bank for them. They are not known to look a gift horse in the mouth. If not the United States then Saudi Arabia or China would do.

The “Modi hug” was also used by Rahul Gandhi to distinguish himself from Modi- who never hugs foes, possibly having learnt from the Afzal Khan-Shivaji hug (mid 17th century) how treacherous and fatal these can be. Rahul dramatically crossed the well of the House, walked up to the Treasury benches and hugged the hapless Modi – who was flummoxed and remained sitting even as Rahul clung awkwardly to him in a “breaking news” message of magnanimity and peace across parties – unfortunately, spoilt by a naught wink at his colleagues on the opposition side of the House.

The political hug was first used as a calling card by the universally liked Yasser Arafat, the best known leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, as a visible gesture of Arab goodwill and peace, to distinguish himself from the aggressive and threateningly stiff postures of Israeli politicians – who incidentally have become no better, half a century since.

In Islamic culture, a hug between two people of the same gender is a traditional style of greeting. The northern part of India, which was ruled by Islamic invaders for close to six centuries till the British replaced them, has embedded this style of greeting across religions. However, in recent times religious polarisation has driven Hindus to increasingly prefer the folding of their hands – the Namaste – as a “touch me not” style of greeting also popular in parts of South East Asia. This form of greeting incidentally, also serves well the traditional Hindu concept of purity/pollution. Upper castes can be ritually polluted by coming into contact with the lowest of untouchables – a practise and culture explored by Indo-American author Sujatha Gidla – “An ant amongst elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India”.

McKinsey may know best how to make leaders in companies. But in politics, it could learn a lesson or two from Modi – who thrived in the nurturing milieu of the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS) the mother organisation, of which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a political subsidiary. Maybe it is time for a direct link between New York City and Nagpur

The Indian Version of Neo-Nazism

Here is the new breed of patriots, calling for “compulsory sterilization of Muslims”. Why? Because they believe the Muslim population has shot up in areas of Rajasthan bordering Pakistan! So, “if this trend is to be checked, Muslims must be compulsorily sterilised”, goes their wisdom. Another pearl of sagacity from the same quarters is to disenfranchise Muslims so that they are not used for vote bank politics!

Over four decades ago, in the 1970s, when civil liberties in the nation stood suspended, we had Sanjay Gandhi spearheading the gruesome campaign of compulsory sterilisation of slum dwellers around Delhi. Well, Congress paid the price for it all. And deservedly so.

And now we have Shiv Sena advocating something even more grisly through their mouthpiece Saamana. The views border on rank Naziism, precisely what Adolf Hitler and his ilk may have sponsored.

In any enlightened society, there should be a sense of shock and uproar at the very whiff of such suggestions. But here we have, not a fringe group, not some pariah breakaway faction of some vague rag-tag group, but the very coalition partner of the ruling BJP in Maharashtra that’s giving the call for the utterly inhuman, utterly base and utterly contemptuous move, even if nobody believes the preposterous call would ever be brought to fruition.

There may be those working overtime in widening the fracture that runs deep today between the Hindu and Muslim communities, between higher and the lower castes, between citizens of a developed State and immigrants from less developed States, between the tribal and non-tribal communities; but no one ever thought in this day and age when the country needs to concentrate upon growth, infrastructure, education and health, that we would have a political party in coalition-power make a call such as Shiv Sena has made. Perhaps it is time the PM came down hard and direct on such irresponsible and mischievous propaganda.

There are those arrested for liking a tweet critical of a political a heavyweight; there are cartoonists arrested for taking a light dig at another big-shot; there are proxy administrators of Whatsapp groups arrested in the name of national security for forwarding some messages. But we can have a ruling coalition-party of a State promoting mayhem, anarchy and hatred, shaking the very foundations of our constitutional rule of law.

Of course it is a statistical fact that Muslim population in India has a higher growth rate than the national average. But that difference in population growth rates is simply explained by the higher poverty level among the Muslim communities in India. It is well known that worldwide, the poor tend to have greater number of children for many socio-economic reasons. If we were to take the poorest of the poor Hindu population, the population growth rate would not be very different from the overall Muslim population growth rate.

So then, is politics only about noise, absurdity and mischief and nothing to do with calm and mature reason, rationality or humanism? Has Indian polity really sunk so low? What is all the more depressing is the relative lack of shock and uproar with which this news has been received in the country. Well, it was the same during the Nazi’s time too. Not too many spoke out. And it’s the same with Shiv Sena’s brand of Nazism.

Making an entire section of society feel insecure, forcing them further into ghettos, isolating them from the main-stream society is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. If we want any of the socio-economically weaker segments to have a lower population growth rate, the parties in power or coalition, like the Shiv Sena would do well to concentrate single-mindedly on promoting economic and social development of those segments by reining in corruption and delivering a modicum of basic education, maternal and child health and basic infrastructure in our cities and villages alike.

Making preposterous suggestions and perennially changing names of cities is hardly the answer.

Time for a new approach as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turned 70, a new generation of human rights activists are reinventing themselves to fight for old rights amid a new world order. Based not on declarations, charters and international bodies, but on the values which underpin them – justice, fairness, equality – they shun the language of their predecessors while embracing the same struggle.

This is especially true across the countries of the former Soviet Union, where institutionalized mechanisms to defend and advance human rights proved highly successful for the majority of the past seven decades.

As a founding member of the United Nations, the Soviet Union signed up to its various principles, charters and ideals wholesale following the Second World War. Throughout the Cold War, human rights defenders behind the Iron Curtain used this as the basis for their activism. International declarations and agreements, especially the 1975 Helsinki Accords, gave dissidents an important tool to hold their regimes accountable. 

In Czechoslovakia, the signatories of Charter 77 explicitly criticised the government for not abiding by rights guaranteed in various international agreements. Those same individuals went on to become leaders of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. 

In the early 1990s, democratic reforms throughout the region were rooted in a belief that the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent documents were timeless and provided a foundation to build a freer society.

However, in the new realities of the 21st century, the mechanisms to promote human rights that grew out of the Universal Declaration are showing their age. Authoritarianism is on the rise across the world, with popular leaders cracking down on human rights defenders. 

Freedom House found 2018 was the 12th consecutive year that the world became less free. Civicus, which specifically monitors the conditions for civil society activists and human rights defenders, found civil society was “under attack” in more countries than it wasn’t, with all post-Soviet countries (except Georgia) ranging between “obstructed” and “closed”. 

Troublingly, both the willingness and the ability of Western bastions of human rights are also on the wane. Inside the EU, talk of illiberal democracy gains traction, and internal crises divert attention away from the global stage. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, younger activists and civil society are giving up on western governments and international organizations to advocate on their behalf. 

Pavel Chikov, director of the Agora group, said recently that, “Russian human rights groups no longer have a role model,” calling the liberal human rights agenda “obsolete”. 

Growing disillusionment has led many rights groups to shift away from appealing to outsiders for support. Younger campaigners no longer frame their work in the traditional language of human rights, and many do not even consider themselves human rights defenders. Instead of referring to international agreements violated, they focus on solving practical problems, or creating their own opportunities to advance values of equality, justice and fairness. 

Formats too have changed. Throughout the region, tools used by civil society to raise social consciousness are becoming diverse, dynamic and smart. Instead of one-person legal tour de forces, genuinely grassroots, tech-powered, peer-to-peer or horizontal networks are proving effective. Media, music, art, film, innovative street protests, urbanism and online initiatives focused on local communities are coming to replace petitions and international advocacy.

Team 29, an association of Russian human rights lawyers and journalists, is among the most successful of this new generation. It has repositioned itself as part-legal aid provider, part-media outlet. Its website offers a new mix of news on ongoing trials, animated online handbooks for protesters, videos on torture and a new interactive game telling young people how to behave if they are detained by police. 

What may look like PR-friendly add-ons are actually core to their operation. Anastasia Andreeva, the team’s media expert, says: “Before, we consulted some 30 clients, now we reach tens of thousands of people.”

Azerbaijani activist Emin Milli also embodies this journey of wider civil society – turning away from the international towards local solutions. In the early 2000s, he was a traditional human rights defender, successfully using international mechanisms, such as the Council of Europe to assist political prisoners. 

After his own arrest and return to activism, Milli changed tack. “When I was in jail, I had a lot of time to think,” he told the Oslo Freedom Forum. “I decided to do something that will give voice to millions.” His idea? Meydan TV – an online-only independent TV channel, targeting a young audience, which now reaches more than 500,000 people inside Azerbaijan through its Facebook page.

The key to Meydan’s success is its accessibility. Milli says: “We do stories about ordinary people. Real Azeris who have everyday problems.” Through its smart coverage, investigating and highlighting how injustice affects these ordinary people, and not referring to UN-enshrined rights and responsibilities, Meydan is “giving a voice to people who fight for women’s rights, people who fight for political rights, for civil liberties, and everybody who feels they are voiceless”.

Music, too, is increasingly being used as a vehicle to realize human rights. Though he might shun the label, Azeri rapper Jamal Ali is perhaps one of the country’s most well-known “human rights defenders”. His songs about injustice and corruption regularly go viral, raising national and international awareness in the same way a statement at the UN General Assembly might have done three decades ago. 

In a 2017 hit, he highlighted how two young men had been tortured by police and faced 10 years in prison for spraying graffiti on a statue of former president Heydar Aliyev. In response, the regime arrested Ali’s mother, demanding that he remove the video from YouTube, only to ensure that Ali’s song went even more viral among Azeri youngsters.

Gender equality and women’s rights is also being advanced through unexpected new champions. In Kyrgyzstan, 20-year-old singer Zere Asylbek sparked a feminist shockwave earlier this year with her video Kyz (“Girl”). “Don’t tell me what to wear, don’t tell me how to behave,” she sings, bearing her top to reveal her bra. Seen by millions, the Kyrgyz-language feminist anthem has set off a new #MeToo debate in the Central Asian country, where many young women are still abducted, raped and forced to marry. 

In the wake of the video, a first “feminist bar” is about to open in Bishkek. Other feminist videos have been used to directly address the issue of bride-kidnapping, with animated cartoons being used as part of local campaigns to change mindsets in a conservative society. 

Perhaps most excitingly, an all-female team of 18 to 20-year-olds is building the country’s first micro-satellite. “Girls taking us into space is the best message against sexism,” says Bektour Iskender, whose news site Kloop initiated the project. He says the girls’ project has a deep social mission, promoting national pride and the country’s return to advanced technological development.

These examples – and countless more – show that civic groups see no value in lobbying an increasingly disinterested West and sluggish international organizations. Instead they focus their energy where they can achieve real, concrete change within their own communities. Their campaigns are grassroots-led and use local languages and issues their communities understand. They target specific audiences, often using technology and creative formats, with a heavy dose of visual and artistic elements. 

Addressing discrimination, environmental protection, corruption, health issues, women’s rights, they speak not about the failure of their states to abide by international accords, but about common dignity and life opportunities, addressing people on a direct human level.

Clearly, the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are still valid, but their approach and the packaging have changed. “We all want to change the world,” says Sergey Karpov of the Russian online media and philanthropic platform Takie Dela. “Today communications are the best way”. 

Paris to Poland via New Delhi

For India some good news has come from the Global Climate Risk Index rankings released on the sidelines of the UN climate conference at Katowice in Poland. The country was the 14th most vulnerable in 2017, up from being the sixth most vulnerable in 2016. Much of the improvement has been attributed to predicting cyclones accurately and making gradual progress in disaster response. Two other takeaways of the index need underlining, that both industrialised and emerging economies must do more to address increasing climate impacts, and that poorer countries suffer greater vulnerability.

Yet the Poland negotiations have their work cut out to push through the landmark 2015 Paris agreement, where signatories accepted common but differentiated responsibilities, recognised the special circumstances of developing countries, and accordingly committed to them funding and transfer of technology. As an Indian government discussion paper points out, developed countries have been niggardly even with the $100 billion that they had committed way back in 2009 – only around 12% of total pledges to multilateral climate funds have actually materialised into disbursements. This is a shameful shirking of the responsibility that follows from the historical emissions of the developed world.

On its part India is on track to meet its commitment of lowering the emission intensity of GDP by 33-35% from 2005 levels by 2030 and increasing the share of renewables to 40% of its power generation capacity. Developing countries are showing the capability to shoulder the costs of mitigating greenhouse gases in terms of reducing the share of fossil fuels, cutting emission intensity and undertaking afforestation. But technology and money flows would make a dramatic difference – such as in adopting resilient crop varieties, repelling sea erosion, improving forecasts, and tackling public health challenges of vector-borne diseases.

Of course the developed world’s 2009 promise to contribute $100 billion annually pales before the $4.4 trillion required by developing nations to implement their climate change plans. World Bank’s offer to provide $200 billion between 2021-25 is encouraging but actions will speak louder than words. Developing countries must hold together at UNFCCC to push through just and fair funding and technology transfer mechanisms. On the domestic front, India can do a much better job of tackling climate challenges like air pollution, forest fires, flooding and groundwater conservation.

China’s Intransigence Resolution the LAC Issue

India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, and Chinese state councillor and foreign minister, Wang Yi, met for the 21st round of Special Representatives’ (SR) talks at Dujiangyan near Chengdu in southwestern Sichuan province on November 24, 2018. In discussions that have been described as “constructive and forward looking”, the two SRs resolved to “intensify” their efforts to achieve a “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable” solution to the long-standing territorial and boundary dispute at an early date.

The truth is that resolution of the dispute is stuck in a groove entirely due to Chinese intransigence. In fact, despite prolonged negotiations, so far it has not been possible to accept a common alignment of Line of Actual Control (LAC) and delineate it on the ground and on military maps. The two sides have failed to even exchange maps showing their perception of the LAC except in the least contentious Central Sector, that is, the Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh borders with Tibet.

Much different from the disputed 4,056 km-long international boundary, LAC implies de facto military control over respective areas and came into use after the 1962 border war. There are frequent incidents of transgression of LAC both in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Both sides habitually send patrols up to the point at which LAC runs in their perception. These patrols leave “tell-tale” signs behind in the form of burjis (piles of stones), biscuit and cigarette packets and other similar markers in a sort of primitive ritual to lay stake to territory and assert their claim.

While no violent incident has taken place in the recent past, there have been many occasions when Indian and Chinese patrols have met face to face. The un-delineated LAC is a destabilising factor as major incidents such as the Nathu La clash of 1967 and the Wang Dung standoff of 1986 can recur.

The two sides have signed a number of agreements to maintain peace on the border. The most recent such agreement is the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), signed in October 2013. It commits the two sides to “periodic meetings” of military and civilian officers and to exchange information – including information about military exercises, aircraft movements, demolition operations and unmarked mines. It emphasises that border patrols must not “tail” each other and recommends that the two sides “may consider” establishing a hotline between military headquarters in both countries.

Close examination of BDCA reveals that it falls substantially short of removing the anomalies and impracticalities of similar agreements that have not worked well in the past. Unsurprisingly, major transgressions of LAC by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have continued unabated. One year after BDCA was signed, PLA violated LAC at Demchok and Chumar in Ladakh. The tense, 73-day long standoff at Doklam plateau south of the Chumbi Valley, close to the India-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction, in the summer of 2017 was defused with great difficulty. Political leadership had to intervene at the highest level to get the two armies to disengage at Doklam.

According to the Indian statement issued after the 21st round of border talks, the two sides “underlined the importance of approaching the boundary question from the strategic perspective of India-China relations and agreed that an early settlement of the boundary question serves the fundamental interests of both countries”. The Chinese statement approvingly quoted the Indian NSA as having said that “a mutually acceptable solution to the boundary issue will send a positive signal to the outside world that the two ancient civilisations of India and China have the wisdom and capability to peacefully resolve problems through dialogue and consultation”.

Similar statements have been made after various summit meetings between the Chinese president and the Indian prime minister. At the Wuhan summit in April 2018, the first after the Doklam standoff, the two leaders “underscored the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity in all areas of the India-China border region”. To this end, they “directed their militaries to earnestly implement various confidence building measures agreed upon between the two sides”. Notably, the lofty rhetoric has not translated into significant forward movement towards dispute resolution.

It is in India’s interest to seek early resolution of the territorial dispute with China as India will be left with only one military adversary to contend with. Clearly, that does not suit the Chinese game plan as it will distort the current military equation between India and Pakistan. The Chinese wish to leave the dispute “for future generations to resolve”, as Deng Xiaoping had famously told Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. China’s obvious negotiating strategy is to resolve the territorial dispute with India only when the Chinese are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can dictate terms.

Transparency Aids Growth of Global Economy

Countries around the world spend an estimated $9.4 trillion a year on procurement – 15% of global GDP. Indeed, UN figures estimate that public procurement can account for 15-30% of GDP for many countries. However, according to the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 10-25% of the value of public contracts is lost to corruption. 

This means that corruption – such as fraud, waste and abuse by government contractors – costs up to $2.35 trillion globally on an annual basis. 

As Transparency International states in its July 2018 report on recommendations for open contracting: “Procurement is one of governments’ most economically significant activities, but it also poses one of the greatest public sector corruption risks.”

One of the main reasons this corruption can flourish? Countries have a lack of transparency when it comes to work being done by government contractors operating on an hourly basis. In virtually every country, government contractors work on an “honour system” where there are no procedures in place to verify invoices for the hours worked by these contractors. 

In its 2017 report Fraud, Waste and Abuse in Social Services – Identifying and Overcoming this Modern-Day Epidemic, Accenture refers to this phenomenon as “self-certifying”: “Two primary issues are at the root of overpayments. The first is the frequent reliance on the customer to provide data and information that is then used in calculating their benefits. This ‘self-certifying’ of data can lead to customers making small changes and misrepresenting their situation in the knowledge that this will provide a higher amount of benefit.”

This occurs in both developed and emerging countries: Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2017 found high corruption in more than two-thirds of nations.

One of the index’s five recommendations states: “Civil society and governments should promote laws that focus on access to information. This access helps enhance transparency and accountability while reducing opportunities for corruption.”

The value of transparency as an essential strategy to prevent fraud and waste has been cited by many organizations. In a May 2016 report, Corruption: Costs and Mitigating Strategies, the International Monetary Fund states: 

“Although transparency is a general prerequisite for the proper functioning of the market, it is also a core component of an effective anti-corruption policy. Transparency plays a critical role in ensuring the efficient allocation of resources by allowing the market to evaluate and impose discipline on government policy, and by increasing the political risk of unsustainable policies. In addition to these important functions, transparency can play a key role in preventing corruption and promoting good governance. By providing the public with access to information relating to government decisions and financial transactions, transparency can effectively deter illicit behaviour. Indeed, a number of studies demonstrate a positive correlation between corruption and the lack of public budget transparency. The more transparent the budget in a given country, the less corrupt the country is perceived to be.”

More recently, the Americas Business Dialogue, in its 2018 report, Action for Growth: Policy Recommendations and Plan of Action 2018-2021 for growth in the Americas, states: “Productivity, transparency and effective accountability are intrinsically connected (…) Empirical evidence has shown that a lack of transparency and integrity can affect a country’s productivity and economic growth.”

Indeed, the call for greater transparency is one of the core principles of the Open Government Partnership’s (OGP) Open Government Declaration, which was founded in September 2011 by eight founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States) who originally pledged to the Declaration. Now, more than 70 countries have committed to the OGD and to making their governments more accountable.

One of the declaration’s three other core principles is that greater transparency in governments can be achieved around the world through increased access to new technologies: “We commit to engaging civil society and the business community to identify practices and innovative approaches for leveraging new technologies to empower people and promote transparency in government.”

It is clear that advances in technology have given governments more effective tools to identify and prevent fraud by government contractors and, by partnering with the private sector, governments can leverage even more resources for transparency to become more productive, efficient and valuable to its citizens.

Every year, the US spends $530 billion on procurement and as such, faces the same challenges as other countries when it comes to abuse of the procurement process. While legislation, such as the False Claims Act, has been enacted to prevent fraud by government contractors, it continues at an alarming rate. 

One of the most notable cases is that of the computer contractor SAIC, which overbilled New York City $500 million on one municipal project. At the federal level, the Pentagon accused Defense Logistics Agency in 2013 of allowing taxpayers to be overbilled $757 million because of the company’s failure to verify that contractors’ invoices were accurate. 

By enacting something as simple as the verification of billable hours through readily available software, countries can take a significant step forward in promoting a more effective government that better serves its people. Furthermore, such a step comes with no risk or cost, as the cost of the software is borne by the contractor. 

As the Americas Business Dialogue states: “Transparency is a central element for achieving sustainable economic growth and improving lives[.]”

Through technology and public-private partnerships, it is now possible for both emerging and developed countries to advance transparency in government which will save millions of dollars that can be utilized to better serve citizens and strengthen nations. With stronger countries comes a stronger global economy.

Building Inclusive Technology

Cruising through supermarket aisles as your shopping guide, or along beachfronts capturing lush sunsets; headphones that can tune out specific sounds that disorient you; or maybe a tool to order a grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk with just your gaze and the right intention.

These are the innovations persons living with disabilities dream up constantly and wonder why emerging technology feels so distant from them. Telepresence is already here, so are drones; active noise-cancelling headphones, and recent electroencephalography devices ­– which record electrical activity in the brain ­­– are advancing into efficiently filtering out white noise. So why do these emerging technologies of the future take so long to benefit people with disabilities?

The trickle-down effect

Wider society has always looked at disability as a medical condition, where assistive devices for daily living were seen solely as medical products. As such, there was always a barrier towards designing for disability ­– FDA approvals, patent filings, and perceived zero tolerance of the ‘move fast and break things’ approach. There was a certain fear from innovators that failures in their creations could cost a life and no-one wants that kind of risk and liability without sufficient reward.

This is another reason why emerging technology doesn’t reach disability fast enough – there isn’t sufficient reward for investing in what is seen as a risky and niche market. As such, their non-disabled counterparts indulge in exploring the frontiers of technology, while persons with disabilities wait patiently for the same tech to mature enough to be deemed safe for their use, and widespread enough where extending its reach to disability would be convenient for companies to do so.

Singapore is a great example of the trickle-down effect. Consistently ranked as the top spender on innovation in the world, Singapore is the poster child for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

A lesser known fact is that Singapore has two national endeavours: developing a Smart Nation and cultivating an Inclusive Society ­– and those two do not necessarily follow the same path.

In an ideal state, we would love to see more social conscience baked into the characteristics of technology and more technology that empowers social causes.

However, in Singapore, only a small handful of Smart Nation endeavours involve the collaboration of social service organisations, and only a minute fraction of governmental spending on social welfare is associated with technology.

As of now, Singapore has no regulations that require the digital assets of governmental agencies and corporations to be accessible to persons with disabilities. If this continues, what we will see is a widening gulf between those privileged enough to access and be enabled by emerging tech, and the vulnerable groups who risk breeding an aversion to emerging tech, through a lack of access to it.

Every year on December 3, we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and, in commemoration of this year’s theme ­– “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality” ­– I would like to call on governmental bodies across Asia not to be awestruck by emerging technologies, but to look at tech critically to see how it may empower vulnerable groups, such as persons with disabilities.

One way to do so is to have more disability representation creating technology, be it as persons with disabilities or persons affected by disabilities, which include family members, friends, and so on.

A shining example of this is Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, whose introduction as chief executive coincided with the setting up of an in-house Inclusive Design Division, making the Xbox playable with one hand, introducing real-time captioning on Powerpoint, making OneNote accessible to those with dyslexia, developing a 3D soundscape for blind navigation as well as Hearing AI & Seeing AI.

Nadella, in his biography Hit Refresh, shares how having Zain, a son with cerebral palsy and legally blind, allowed him to see the value in making products accessible to persons with special needs.

However, Nadella didn’t single-handedly make this change. Microsoft had always had a strong disability representation among their ranks and him giving them the freedom and resources to explore made all the difference.

Apart from representation, another way to redesign societal perception towards disability, is to challenge ourselves to recognise the value in persons with disabilities, and not just see them as beneficiaries of technology, with a sense of sympathy or responsibility.

Redefining the value of disability

Over a decade ago, the World Health Organisation redefined disability with a more social lens with the Social Model of Disability. Unlike the medical model of disability, which details a certain level of impairment with one’s biological system; the social model of disability states that people are disabled by barriers in society ­– both physical and social – not by their impairment or difference.

Whilst there will always be a need for medical assistive devices such as life support machines, surely not everything has to be. Products and services in travel, banking, food and beverage are not life-threatening, but they are life-changing when designed in a fashion that is innately inclusive.

In Silicon Valley, companies such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google have started to value disability. They have started looking towards disability as a source of innovation and an entirely new market opportunity in making their products innately inclusive, yet with a fresh spin that delights everyone.

Drawing parallels between disability and biomimicry

We often look towards nature to inspire us with ground-breaking innovations such as the kingfisher-inspired Shinkansen trains in Japan; octopus-inspired camouflage techniques; or swarm intelligence informed by ant colonies.

So why can’t we look towards disability for ground-breaking innovation? Being on one end of the human spectrum, the lived conditions of persons with disabilities are markedly different from the neurotypical, non-disabled majority, but at the same time relatable as part of the human condition.

By designing for the extreme use case (i.e. disability), its benefits can extend to those who face disabilities in temporary or situational contexts as well. Take, for example, designing for non-verbal communication using visual imagery. While its obvious use case is to benefit the deaf, it also benefits travellers in foreign countries who might be ‘situationally deaf’ to the language of their destination country.

Hopefully, as we see the value in disability, so too will we see a rise of persons with disabilities earning their place in the talent pool of technology creators and innovators, instead of being pure consumers and beneficiaries, which in turn increases their representation in technology to close the loop.

Hence, with a newfound respect and appreciation for persons with disability as contributors to the innovations that govern our daily lives, one can dream of a future where we will see sustainable, scalable inclusive technology. Because, in the end, it is “Nothing about us without us”.