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Monday, July 24, 2017

China May Be The New Center Of Artifical Intelligence

China may match or beat America in AI

Its deep pool of data may let it lead in artificial intelligence
AT THE start of this year, two straws in the wind caught the attention of those who follow the development of artificial intelligence (AI) globally. First, Qi Lu, one of the bosses of Microsoft, said in January that he would not return to the world’s largest software firm after recovering from a cycling accident, but instead would become chief operating officer at Baidu, China’s leading search engine. Later that month, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence postponed its annual meeting. The planned date for the event in January conflicted with the Chinese new year.
These were the latest signals that China could be a close second to America—and perhaps even ahead of it—in some areas of AI, widely considered vital to everything from digital assistants to self-driving cars. China is simply the place to be, explains Mr Lu, and Baidu the country’s most important player. “We have an opportunity to lead in the future of AI,” he says.

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Other evidence supports the claim. In October 2016 the White House noted in a report that China had overtaken America in the number of published journal articles on deep learning, a branch of AI. PwC, a consultancy, predicts that AI-related growth will boost global GDP by $16trn by 2030; nearly half of that bonanza will accrue to China, it reckons. The number of AI-related patent submissions by Chinese researchers has increased by nearly 200% in recent years, although America is still ahead in absolute numbers (see chart).
To understand why China is so well placed, consider the inputs needed for AI. Of the two most basic, computing power and capital, it has an abundance. Chinese firms, from giants such as Alibaba and Tencent to startups such as CIB FinTech and UCloud, are building data centres as fast as they can. The market for cloud computing has been growing by more than 30% in recent years and will continue to do so, according to Gartner, a consultancy. In 2012-16 Chinese AI firms received $2.6bn in funding, according to the Wuzhen Institute, a think-tank. That is less than the $17.9bn that poured into their American peers, but the total is growing quickly.
Yet it is two other resources that truly make China a promised land for AI. One is research talent. As well as strong skills in maths, the country has a tradition in language and translation research, says Harry Shum, who leads Microsoft’s AI efforts. Finding top-notch AI experts is harder in China than in America, says Wanli Min, who oversees 150 data scientists at Alibaba. But this will change over the next couple of years, he predicts, because most big universities have launched AI programmes. According to some estimates, China has more than two-fifths of the world’s trained AI scientists.
The second advantage for China is data, AI’s most important ingredient. In the past, software and digital products mostly obeyed rules laid down in code, giving an edge to those countries with the best coders. With the advent of deep-learning algorithms, such rules are increasingly based on patterns extracted from reams of data. The more data are available, the more algorithms can learn and the smarter AI offerings will be.
China’s sheer size and diversity provide powerful fuel for this cycle. Just by going about their daily lives, the country’s nearly 1.4bn people generate more data than almost all other nations combined. Even in the case of a rare disease, there are enough examples to teach an algorithm how to recognise it. Because typing Chinese characters is more laborious than Western ones, people also tend to use voice-recognition services more often than in the West, so firms have more voice snippets with which to improve speech offerings.
The Saudi Arabia of data
What really sets China apart is that it has more internet users than any other country: about 730m. Almost all go online from smartphones, which generate far more valuable data than desktop computers, chiefly because they contain sensors and are carried around. In the big coastal cities, for instance, cash has all but disappeared for small purchases: people settle with their devices using services such as Alipay and WeChat Pay.
Chinese do not seem to be terribly concerned about privacy, which makes collecting data easier. The country’s bike-sharing services, which have taken big cities by storm, for example, not only provide cheap transport but are what is known as a “data play”. When riders hire a bicycle, some firms keep track of renters’ movements using a GPS device attached to the bike.
Young Chinese appear particularly keen on AI-powered services and relaxed about use of their data. Xiaoice, an upbeat chatbot operated by Microsoft, now has more than 100m Chinese users. Most talk to it between 11pm and 3am, often about the problems they had during the day. It is learning from interactions and becoming cleverer. Xiaoice no longer just provides encouragement and tells jokes, but has created the first collection of poems written with AI, “Sunshine Lost Its Window”, which caused a heated debate in Chinese literary circles over whether there can be such a thing as artificial poetry.
Another important source of support for AI in China is the government. The technology figures prominently in the country’s current five-year plan. Technology firms are working closely with government agencies: Baidu, for example, has been asked to lead a national laboratory for deep learning. It is unlikely that the government will burden AI firms with over-strict regulation. The country has more than 40 laws containing rules about the protection of personal data, but these are rarely enforced.
Entrepreneurs are taking advantage of China’s talent and data strengths. Many AI firms got going only a year or two ago, but plenty have been progressing more rapidly than their Western counterparts. “Chinese AI startups often iterate and execute more quickly,” explains Kai-Fu Lee, who ran Google’s subsidiary in China in the 2000s and now leads Sinovation Ventures, a venture-capital fund.
As a result, China already has a herd of AI unicorns, meaning startups valued at more than $1bn. Toutiao, a news aggregator based in Beijing, employs machine learning to recommend articles using information such as a reader’s interests and location; it also uses AI to filter out fake information (which in China mainly means dubious health-care announcements). Another AI startup, iFlytek, has developed a voice assistant that translates Mandarin into several languages, including English and German, even if the speaker uses slang and talks over background noise. And Megvii Technology’s face-recognition software, Face++, identifies people almost instantaneously.
Skynet lives
At Megvii’s headquarters, visitors are treated to a demonstration. A video camera in the lobby does away with the need for showing ID: employees just walk in without showing their badges. Similar devices are positioned all over the office and their feeds are shown on a video wall. When a face pops up on the wall, it is immediately surrounded by a white rectangle and some text giving information about that person. In the upper right-hand corner of the screen big letters spell “Skynet”, the name of the AI system in the Terminator films that seeks to exterminate the human race. The firm already enables Alipay and Didi, a ride-hailing firm, to check the identity of new customers (their faces are compared with pictures held by the government).
Reacting to the success of such startups, China’s tech giants, too, have begun to invest heavily in AI. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, collectively called BAT, are working on many of the same services, including speech- and face-recognition. But they are also trying to become dominant in specific areas of AI, based on their existing strengths.
Tencent has so far kept the lowest profile; it established its AI labs only in recent months. But it is bound to develop a big presence in AI: it has more data than the other two. Its WeChat messenger service has nearly 1bn accounts and is also the platform for thousands of services, from payments and news to city guides and legal help. Tencent is also a world-beater in games with blockbusters such as League of Legends and Clash of Clans, which have more than 100m players each globally.
Alibaba is already a behemoth in e-commerce and is investing billions to become number one in cloud computing. At a conference in June in Shanghai it showed off an AI service called “ET City Brain” that uses video recognition to optimise traffic in real time. It uses footage from roadside cameras to predict the behaviour of cars and can adjust traffic lights on the spot. In its home town of Hangzhou, Alibaba claims, the system has already increased the average speed of traffic by 11%. Alibaba is also planning to beef up what it calls “ET Medical Brain”, which will offer AI-powered services to discover drugs and diagnose medical images. It has signed up a dozen hospitals to get the data it needs.
But it is Baidu whose fate is most tied to AI, in part because the technology may be its main chance to catch up with Alibaba and Tencent. It is putting most of its resources into autonomous driving: it wants to get a self-driving car onto the market by 2018 and to provide technology for fully autonomous vehicles by 2020. On July 5th the firm announced a first version of its self-driving-car software, called Apollo, at a developer conference in Beijing.
Getting Apollo right will not only involve cars safely navigating the streets, but managing a project that is open to outsiders. Rivals such as Waymo, Google’s subsidiary, and Tesla, an electric-car firm, jealously guard their software and the data they collect. Baidu is planning not only to publish the recipe for its programs (making them “open-source”, in the jargon), but to share data. The idea is that carmakers that use Baidu’s technology will do the same, creating an open platform for data from self-driving cars—the “Android for autonomous vehicles”, in the words of Mr Lu.
Drive like a Beijinger
It remains to be seen how successful Chinese firms will be in exporting their AI products—for now, only a tiny handful are used abroad. In theory they should travel well: a self-driving car trained on China’s chaotic streets ought to have no problem navigating the more civilised traffic in Europe (in contrast, a vehicle trained in Germany may not get far beyond the first intersection in Beijing). But consumers in the West may hesitate to use self-driving cars that have been trained in a laxer safety environment that is more tolerant of accidents. Chinese municipalities are said to be falling over themselves to be testing grounds for autonomous vehicles.
There is another risk. Data are the most valuable input for AI at the moment, but their importance may yet diminish. AI firms have started to use simulated data, including those from video games. New types of algorithms may be capable of getting smart with fewer examples. “The danger is that we stop innovating in algorithms because of our advantage in data,” warns Gansha Wu, chief executive of UISEE, a Beijing startup which is developing self-driving technology. For now, though, China looks anything but complacent. In the race for pre-eminence in AI, it will run America close.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline "The algorithm kingdom"

Had The Ottoman Empire Been Saved Rather Than Sunk

If the Ottoman Empire had not collapsedHad the Ottoman Empire been saved rather than sunk

Imagine the mayhem that might have been avoided
WHEN a Serb gunman shot an Austrian archduke in the summer of 1914, the nations of Europe tumbled into war with all the grace of bowling pins. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, whose ally Russia declared war on Austria, whose ally Germany declared war on Russia, whose allies France and Britain declared war on Germany and Austria. By early August the continent was in flames.
Much as it wobbled like the rest, however, one of those bowling pins could not make up its mind. Which way would Turkey fall? Should the fading Ottoman Empire join the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) or go with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary)?

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Turkey’s 500-year-old empire was shrinking. It had lost its territories in Africa, nearly all its Mediterranean islands and most of its Balkan lands as well as chunks of eastern Anatolia. It was debt-ridden, industrially backward and politically shaky.
Still, the sultan’s lands straddled two continents, controlling access to the Black Sea. His Arabian territories stretched beyond the holy cities of Islam to the mountains of Yemen and the Persian Gulf, where there were rumoured to lie vast caverns of the sticky black liquid soon to replace coal as the world’s chief source of power.
Confident of Turkey’s weakness, Britain, France and Russia could have clobbered the Ottomans and divided the spoils. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. At a secret conclave aboard a British dreadnought off the coast of Norway in late July, a far-sighted politician by the name of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, worked with French, Russian and Turkish diplomats to forge a treaty. The Turks drove a hard bargain for, as they coyly revealed, Germany too was proffering arms and gold in exchange for an alliance.
The deal that was reached proved immensely beneficial to all concerned. From France, Turkey received generous debt relief. Russia scrapped all claims to Ottoman territory, and made a limited goodwill withdrawal from parts of Anatolia. Churchill waived further payment on two warships that British shipyards were building for Turkey. And Turkey received assurances that its vulnerable extremities would not be attacked; for an empire that for a century had been preyed upon like a carcass this was a new lease of life.
The rewards to the Triple Entente were equally big. Granted exclusive access to the Black Sea, Russia’s allies could resupply the tsar’s armies when they faltered at the start of the war. With no need to defend its Turkish frontier, Russia moved thousands of crack troops from the Caucasus to shore up its front lines. Turkey signed separate agreements recognising British control of the Suez Canal, Aden and the Trucial sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, securing the sea lanes for Britain’s massive deployment of troops from the colonies to the Western Front. Turkey’s own army joined in a broad front against Austria-Hungary. Together, these Allied advantages are thought to have shortened the war by as much as a year; the Central Powers might not have sued for a truce as soon as America entered the war, but fought on instead.
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Reprieved from collapse, the Ottoman Empire’s government pursued radical reforms. Challenged by growing nationalist tendencies from Arab, Armenian, Greek and Kurdish subjects, Sultan Mehmed V issued a historic firman or proclamation that recognised these as individual nations united under the Ottoman sovereign.
The sultan got to keep the title of caliph, commander of the Sunni Muslim faithful, which his ancestors had acquired four centuries earlier. This proved useful when the empire had to put down a rebellion of religious fanatics in central Arabia, led by a man called Ibn Saud who gained followers by claiming he would restore Islam to a purer state. But mostly the empire was seen as a tolerant place. When Nazi persecutions drove Jews from Europe in the 1930s, many took refuge there (as they had done when expelled from Spain in 1492), particularly in the province of Jerusalem.
If only
Needless to say, none of the above happened. Quite the opposite. Turkey aligned with Germany in the first world war, and the allies did attempt to invade and divide its empire. Churchill, instead of handing over the warships that ordinary Turks had paid for by subscription, had them seized for the British navy. In 1915 he ordered a catastrophic attack on Turkey; the landing at Gallipoli cost the allies 300,000 casualties. British campaigns against Turkey in Iraq and the Levant cost another million lives.
Turkey’s casualties mounted, by war’s end, to 3m-5m people, nearly a quarter of the Ottoman population. This included some 1.5m Armenians, slaughtered because Turkish officials believed they might become a fifth column for a hostile Russia. And when Britain and France grabbed the Ottomans’ Arab lands, their suppression of uprisings cost thousands more lives.
How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?
This article appeared in the The World If section of the print edition under the headline "Sultans of spring"
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Sunday, July 23, 2017

One North Korean "Nuke" Could Take Down America's Electricity Grid


If an electromagnetic pulse took down America’s electricity gridThe disaster that could follow from a flash in the sky

The huge potential impact on rich countries of a prolonged loss of electricity
ON MARCH 13th 1989 a surge of energy from the sun, from a “coronal mass ejection”, had a startling impact on Canada. Within 92 seconds, the resulting geomagnetic storm took down Quebec’s electricity grid for nine hours. It could have been worse. On July 23rd 2012 particles from a much larger solar ejection blew across the orbital path of Earth, missing it by days. Had it hit America, the resulting geomagnetic storm would have destroyed perhaps a quarter of high-voltage transformers, according to Storm Analysis Consultants in Duluth, Minnesota. Future geomagnetic storms are inevitable.
And that is not the only threat to the grid. A transformer-wrecking electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would be produced by a nuclear bomb, designed to maximise its yield of gamma rays, if detonated high up, be it tethered to a big cluster of weather balloons or carried on a satellite or missile. A midrange missile tested by North Korea on April 29th 2017 exploded 71 kilometres (44 miles) up, well above the 40km or so needed to generate an EMP.

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Imagine a nuclear blast occurring somewhere above eastern Nebraska. Radiating outwards, the EMP fries electronics in southern Canada and almost all of the United States save Alaska and Hawaii, both safe below the horizon. It permanently damages the grid’s multimillion-dollar high-voltage transformers. Many are old (their average age is about 40). Some burst into flame, further damaging substations.
America runs on roughly 2,500 large transformers, most with unique designs. But only 500 or so can be built per year around the world. It typically takes a year or more to receive an ordered transformer, and that is when cranes work and lorries and locomotives can be fuelled up. Some transformers exceed 400 tonnes.
After the surge, telecom switches and internet routers are dead. Air-traffic control is down. Within a day, some shoppers in supermarkets turn to looting (many, unable to use credit and debit cards, cannot pay even if they wanted to). After two days, market shelves are bare. On the third day, backup diesel generators begin to sputter out. Though fuel cannot be pumped, siphoning from vehicles, authorised by martial law, keeps most prisons, police stations and hospitals running for another week.
With many troops overseas or tasked with deterring land grabs from opportunist foreign powers, there is only one American “peacekeeper” soldier for every 360 or so civilians. Pillaging accelerates. This leads many with needed skills to stay home to protect their families. Many of the rock climbers who help overwhelmed fire departments free tens of thousands from lifts begin to give up on day four despite the heart-wrenching banging that continues to echo through some elevator shafts.
Utilities can neither treat nor pump water or sewage. Raids on homes thought to have water become frequent and often bloody. Militias soon form to defend or seize control of swimming pools and other water sources. Streams and shovelled-out pits provide water in some areas, but sooner or later rain sweeps in faeces-ridden mud. Deaths from cholera and other diseases multiply.
As relief ships arrive, food, water filters and fuel are offloaded by hand amid chaos, but demand cannot be met even in port cities, much less inland. Where food can be grown without pumped irrigation, rural militias cluster into “aggie alliances” not keen to share with the hordes streaming out of cities. Some aggie alliances hole up in newly abandoned prisons, the better to defend scavenged crops and farm animals. The value of cash collapses along with faith in government.
The death rate picks up. Eventually, months later, about three quarters of the benighted area has power for at least ten hours a day. It would have been worse had 41 countries not dismantled transformers for reassembly in North America. (The most generous donors have to accept rolling blackouts.) Martial law ends six months after the original energy surge. Roughly 350,000 Canadians and 7m Americans have died.
A similar nightmare could happen in any rich country—grids outside America are vulnerable too. Such scenarios necessarily dip into “uncharted territory for an industrialised society”, as Thomas Popik, head of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a think-tank in New Hampshire, puts it. But shorter blackouts suggest that things can get bad fast. Just three hours after Chile’s grid-collapsing earthquake on February 27th 2010, even relatively wealthy people began looting stuff they did not need. With electricity gone, normal rules had suddenly vanished and “out of control” emotions took over, says Roberto Machiavello, then rear-admiral and top martial-law official in Chile’s ConcepciĆ³n area.
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Without soldiers at hospitals, Admiral Machiavello says, doctors would have stayed at home. Less than a week after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, many police officers opted to protect their families rather than work. Chris Ipsen, spokesman for the Emergency Management Department of Los Angeles, estimates that, with the grid down, Angelenos would be foodless in less than ten days. In poor areas, he reckons, groups would quickly form and say, “Hey, let’s go over to the mansions in Bel Air.”
Insurance, anyone?
In the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake in January 2010, cholera alone killed at least 10,000. Jacques Boncy, head of Haiti’s National Laboratory of Public Health, reckons that, in three months of blackout in America, faecal contamination of water would kill several million. That might be optimistic. The EMP Commission, an expert group set up by America’s Congress to study the threat, reckoned in 2008 that the first year of societal breakdown could finish off two-thirds of Americans.
A country’s electricity grid can be knocked out in other ways. One is cyber-attack. Hackers cut power to 230,000 Ukrainians in December 2015—but only for hours. Long-term damage from cyber-assaults is unlikely, says Kenneth Geers, a security expert who studied the attack.
What about terrorism? Shooting up transformers at just nine critical substations could bring down America’s grid for months, according to an analysis performed in 2013 by the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), says its then-chairman, Jon Wellinghoff. Others think more transformers would need to be taken out. At any rate, information on which substations are critical is secret. In 2013 gunmen knocked out 17 of 21 transformers at a substation in San Jose. It was not a critical one.

The sun probably poses a greater risk of a sustained outage than hackers or saboteurs. That is one reason the EMP Commission reconvened in January 2017. Kit that protects transformers from EMP also saves them from geomagnetic storms, though the reverse is not true. George Baker, a staffer on the commission and a former boss of EMP research at the Pentagon’s Defence Threat Reduction Agency, says that critical military systems have been EMP-proofed. But other agencies, he says, have done “precious little” to safeguard civilian infrastructure. The commission will issue an updated report in September. It will be as grim as the assessment in 2008, he says.
The expense of installing surge-blockers and other EMP-proofing kit on America’s big transformers is debated. The EMP Commission’s report in 2008 reckoned $3.95bn or less would do it. Others advance higher figures. But a complete collapse of the grid could probably be prevented by protecting several hundred critical transformers for perhaps $1m each.
Yet not much is being done. Barack Obama ordered EMP protection for White House systems, but FERC, the utilities regulator, has not required EMP-proofing. Nor has the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pushed for a solution or even included EMP in official planning scenarios. (The Pentagon should handle that, DHS officials say; the Pentagon notes that civilian infrastructure is the DHS’s responsibility.) As for exactly what safeguards are or are not needed, the utilities themselves are best equipped to decide, says Brandon Wales, the DHS’s head of infrastructure analysis.
But the utilities’ industry group, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), argues that, because EMP is a matter of national security, it is the government’s job. NERC may anyway be in no rush. It took a decade to devise a vegetation-management plan after, in 2003, an Ohio power line sagged into branches and cut power to 50m north-easterners at a cost of roughly $6bn. NERC has repeatedly and successfully lobbied Congress to prevent legislation that would require EMP-proofing. That is something America, and the world, could one day regret.

This article appeared in the The World If section of the print edition under the headline "A flash in the sky"

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