Amid the great U.S.-China tech divide, Southeast Asia and its fast-growing digital markets have become a main battleground for the digital behemoths of both superpowers.
There, Amazon.com, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba Group Holding and other players are investing heavily in cloud computing — services that provide processing power and data storage to all sizes of corporations and government institutions.
A massive 170,000-sq.-meter structure is going up in Tanjong Kling, about a 20-minute drive from Singapore’s city center. The 11-story building is taking on the appearance of a vast logistics center or warehouse. However, strict security teams and surveillance cameras around the site betray a much more critical piece of infrastructure. As a reporter pulled out his smartphone to take a photograph of the construction site, a security guard rushed up and warned, “This is private property. No photos allowed.”
Once completed, the “private property” facility will be filled by rows and rows of servers hosting hundreds of millions of internet users’ sensitive personal information. It will be Facebook’s first custom-built data center in Asia. The company has announced it will invest 1.4 billion Singapore dollars (US$1 billion) in the project.
It is one of many data centers that global tech giants are building in Southeast Asia. With a stable political system, an abundance of skilled tech workers and its connection to an undersea communications cable that links to the rest of the world, Singapore has become a prime spot for the big players of tech vying for slices of Southeast Asia’s swelling need for cloud services.
According to real estate service company Cushman & Wakefield, Singapore data centers have 410 megawatts of capacity, with another 170 megawatts on the way, making the city-state a global hub for data, matching the likes of Frankfurt and Chicago.
But Singapore stands out in that it is also a strategic foothold for Chinese tech companies such as Alibaba and Tencent, who are competing for the same clients.
Amazon is the global leader among cloud service providers. Its Amazon Web Services (AWS) controlled more than 30% of the worldwide market in the second quarter of 2021, according to research company Canalys. It is currently adding infrastructure in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is expected to be operational by the end of 2021 or early 2022.
The data centers will be AWS’ second location in Southeast Asia. AWS centers have been operating in Singapore since 2010.
“AWS sees tremendous potential in Southeast Asia,” Conor McNamara, AWS’ managing director for ASEAN operations, said via email. “Across the board, we see all segments, including startups, enterprises, and small and medium-sized businesses, continuing to drive cloud adoption.”
Microsoft, the world’s second-largest cloud service provider, early this year announced it would establish data centers in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is bullish on the region’s growth potential.
“If you look at Southeast Asia, [there are] 650 million people, that makes it [almost] 50% bigger than in the European Union [446 million],” Microsoft Asia President Ahmed Mazhari said. And the region’s “mobile penetration and mobile-first approach that is unparalleled in the world.”
Mazhari also sees ambition. “We continue to see growth traction from somebody that wants to go from idea to building a unicorn, to micro SMEs, to the biggest enterprise of the world,” he said.
Alibaba, No. 4 in the global cloud service market, behind Amazon, Microsoft and Google, in June announced it would invest up to $1 billion over the next three years to nurture developers and support Asia-Pacific startups. “We are seeing a strong demand for cloud-native technologies in emerging verticals across the region, from e-commerce and logistics platforms to fintech and online entertainment,” Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, said in a news release.
The company’s cloud division launched its third data center in Indonesia and plans to launch one in the Philippines this year.
Cloud services are becoming a revenue pillar. In the second quarter of this year, the global market was worth $47 billion, up 36% from the year-earlier period, according to Canalys.
AWS’ net sales grew to $14.8 billion in the same quarter, up 37% from the year-earlier period, with AWS accounting for more than half of Amazon’s consolidated operating income.
Microsoft’s Azure revenue grew 51% during the quarter ended June.
Until recently, the global market has been bifurcated.
In China, Alibaba and Tencent have been able to dominate mainly due to restrictions imposed upon foreign tech companies. In the West, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and other players rigorously compete.
In recent years, however, Alibaba has been pushing into the West, including the United States. However, this ambition is dimming as Washington is increasingly concerned over possible security risks for companies that avail themselves to Chinese cloud services.
Amid this global dichotomy, Southeast Asia has emerged as a battleground where Chinese and Western companies “can compete with each other,” said Kevin Imboden, senior research manager of Data Center Insights, Global Research, at Cushman & Wakefield.
The cloud service providers’ intertwined customer lists in the region reflect intense competition.
Amazon and Microsoft provide cloud services to Singapore-based supper app Grab, according to both companies. Alibaba on its website boasts of having Indonesian e-commerce leader Tokopedia as a key cloud customer, and Amazon says AWS also provides services to Tokopedia.
Among the region’s unicorns, startups with valuations of $1 billion or more, Carsome, a Malaysia-based used car marketplace, and Carro, a Singapore online car sales platform, use AWS. Bukalapak, one of Indonesia’s largest e-commerce platforms and Tokopedia competitor, uses Microsoft’s Azure. Alibaba is one of Tokopedia’s largest shareholders, and Microsoft has stakes in Grab and Bukalapak.
U.S. and Chinese cloud companies “are very focused on acquiring market share,” Imboden said, even “at the expense of profit.”
According to Google, Temasek Holdings, and Bain & Co., the gross merchandise value of the region’s internet economy is expected to grow threefold, to $300 billion, by 2025 from 2020. Cloud services, which serve as the infrastructure of this burgeoning ecosystem, will surely expand, too.
However, geopolitical risks are also emerging.
According to a report by China’s Caixin news service, Chinese internet technology company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, has stopped using Alibaba’s cloud for its businesses outside China.
Last year, the Trump administration attempted to ban the popular social media app in the U.S., citing security risks. In June, U.S. President Joe Biden withdrew a series of executive orders related to the banning of TikTok but ordered a broad security review of apps connected to “foreign adversaries,” including China.
Alibaba on Aug. 3 announced cloud computing revenue of 16.05 billion yuan ($2.48 billion) for the quarter through June, up 29% from a year earlier. However, the company’s earnings release states that the cloud computing division’s “year-on-year revenue growth began to moderate since the last quarter primarily because of revenue decline from a top cloud customer in the Internet industry that has stopped using our overseas cloud services with respect to their international business due to non-product related requirements.”
Eric Schmidt, a former Google CEO and the chair of the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, wonders if Alibaba can attract clients in the West. “Alibaba Cloud and so forth are good enough that you could build on the Chinese side, but you are not going to use them in the West. Similarly, American clouds are very, very good, but you can’t use them in China,” he recently told Nikkei Asia.
“As an entrepreneur, you would prefer to have one [cloud provider] but you live with two [one in China and one everywhere else].”
While well-funded unicorns and large corporations can minimize risks by dividing their cloud needs between Western and Chinese companies, many small and mid-size companies, as well as startups, lack the wherewithal to follow suit.
With American and Chinese players competing for slices of Southeast Asia, businesses in the region “need a geopolitical strategy” and might even have to “pick sides,” said Abishur Prakash, a geopolitical futurist at Toronto-based consultancy Center for Innovating the Future.
“What is your long-term strategy? What geographies do you plan to operate in? Which consumers do you want to access the most?” he asks. “Those should be the vectors that you [use to] decide whose cloud computing infrastructures to use.” NIKKEI
iFFALCON Enters Indonesian Market with Innovative Smart TVs
TELEGRAF – iFFALCON, a global smart TV brand, has entered the Indonesian market with the vision of “bringing an endless experience to young people worldwide.” The launch event, called the iFFALCON Offline Grand Launch, was held by several celebrities and influencers such as Raditya Dika, GadgetBox, Joerdy S, and Riyuka Bunga. The company showcased its innovative smart TV features during the event.
The iFFALCON smart TV is designed to create a new and unique lifestyle for the younger generation, and it has already sold three million units in 16 countries worldwide, including the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Russia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, and others.
The iFFALCON Product Manager, Kevien Willieady, met with the social pan The Breeze BSD grand launching (08/04) and assured that iFFALCON would display the best products that meet the needs of young people for advanced audio-visual equipment. According to Kevien Willieady, “iFFALCON makes it easier to access various modern programs and applications such as online streaming services, Google Play, and YouTube with one command using the iFFALCON S52 Smart TV’s voice control remote control.”
iFFALCON also launched two premium products during the Grand Launching event, the iFFALCON Series S52 with the best Android TV and the iFFALCON Series U62, also known as the best Google TV for young people. The S52 Series is available in three sizes, 32 inches, 40 inches, and 43 inches, and has two image resolution types, HD for 32 inches and FHD for 40 inches and 43 inches. The S52 also uses Android TV as its operating system, which has the most comprehensive and up-to-date application selection. It has an added voice control feature that allows users to give commands to the TV easily.
For those who want higher resolutions, the U62 Series is equipped with 4K resolution in all sizes, 43 inches, 50 inches, and 55 inches, and has a higher color depth of up to 1.07 billion colors, as well as supporting HDR10 content. The U62 also has HDMI 2.1, which is suitable for gamers to enjoy all games. The U62 Series also uses the latest version of Android TV called Google TV, which has a higher response rate and a fresher user interface.
Despite being a new brand in Indonesia, iFFALCON’s product quality is unquestionable, proven by its global sales of over three million units and numerous positive reviews on various foreign forums. The company has also provided more than 150 service centers across Indonesia for user convenience. iFFALCON held its first Grand Launch event on the Shopee platform, the largest market share platform in Indonesia, with the theme “Where Infinity Begins,” to introduce itself to the Indonesian market. Daniel Minardi, Director of Brand Management and Digital Products at Shopee, said that Shopee is suitable for increasing brand awareness.
Identity crisis: The challenges of naming the dead in the wake of mass disaster
Telegraf – Every natural disaster – fire, flood, avalanche, volcano, tsunami, cyclone – brings its own extraordinary challenges in rescue, but also in trying to name the dead. This is called disaster victim identification, or DVI, a topic the head of Monash’s Department of Forensic Medicine, Professor Richard Bassed, specialises in. Professor Bassed is also deputy director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM). He says within five years, funding permitting, a fledgling project with the Department of Defence using AI facial recognition to better-identify the dead could be up and running.
“Very early stages,” he says, “but we are thinking that we might be able to identify quite large numbers of people, and thus reduce the cost and time required to identify the remainder.”
We’ll return to that. First, Türkiye-Syria, and the sheer scale of it, in a highly earthquake-prone part of the world.
“Remember that in an earthquake like this, you lose your infrastructure,” Professor Bassed says. “Hospitals damaged, mortuaries damaged, probably no power and water. There’ll be massive problems in gathering the deceased, recovering them all, and there’ll also be massive problems in working out where to take them to. You need to have one central location where all the deceased people can be taken to, or a few, if they’re widely spaced geographically.”
Identifying the deceased
The next step is figuring out who is missing and figuring out the names of the dead.
“If a whole family is dead under rubble from an apartment, and no one knows them very well, how are you going to even know they’re missing? It’s about trying to get an accurate toll of the number of missing people, and then collecting all the ante-mortem information you can about the deceased to try and identify them, too.”
- Recovering bodies and gathering any identifying information at the scene
- Examine human remains in the morgue looking at teeth, fingerprints, DNA and distinguishing features such as tattoos
- The ante-mortem phase, gathering dental and medical records and DNA from family
- A “reconciliation” phase of comparing the above to identify victims.
But current news reports say bodies are being buried in mass graves on site in Türkiye-Syria, many without being formally identified, with a shortage of forensic investigators on the ground.
An Australian study published in Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology journal after the Bali bombings and Black Saturday bushfires states that in the aftermath of a mass disaster, a “critical” issue is:
Professor Bassed says that after a mass disaster, with infrastructure levelled and perhaps hundreds of thousands dead, a confronting question can be asked by governments – “a cold calculus of cost-benefit analysis,” he says, “of ‘Are you better doing things for the living, repairing houses and infrastructure, or do you spend money on a massive recovery and identification process for the deceased?'”
Complex geopolitics can also prevent disaster victim identification.
“The war graves in Iraq and Iran and Syria and everywhere else? People aren’t trying to do anything there, partly because of the political problems in some of those countries, but also because of the huge, huge cost and effort to do it. There’s not enough expertise in the world. When they did Srebrenica, after the Balkans War, the mass-fatality exhumations and identifications took them 10 years to identify 30,000 people. So imagine how long it takes to identify 300,000.”
Utilising facial recognition technology
In the reasonably near future things might be different, which brings us back to the VIFM research collaboration with the Department of Defence and its Defence Science and Technology Group.
The aim is to test the effectiveness of current facial recognition technologies to help identify the deceased.
“At the moment we’re comparing commercial facial recognition systems and how successful they are in recognising the dead. They’re deceased people who are either freshly deceased, so they look the same as they did when they were alive, all the way through to really traumatised or decomposed people. We think what’s going to happen is that we’re going to need to either tweak a current algorithm or create our own facial recognition algorithm that will work reliably with photographs of them when the body is found.”
“Then you can start comparing the photos while alive with the post-mortem images of the deceased through a machine-learning facial recognition algorithm. It won’t work in bushfires as well, because there are often no facial features left.”
Another promising VIFM project involves getting full-body CT scans of every Victorian body that goes to the institute. About 100,000 have already been collected since 2005. The scan shows the bones, but it also shows how a face sits on the bones. The idea is to build an algorithm that can rebuild a face on an unknown skull, and can even be combined with DNA to build hair colour, eye colour or, for example, nose shape.
“When I first started in this business,” says Professor Bassed, “it was a plaster cast of the skull, and you stick pins in it to where you thought the depth of the tissue was over bony points, and you build a face with clay. There was no science in it.”
VIFM is also working on a project with Monash’s Faculty of Information Technology – featured here by the ABC – developing “virtual” autopsies using an augmented reality headset and 3D visualised bodies, reducing the need for invasive physical autopsies.
Moscow Metro: The Big Ring Line is the longest line the world
Telegraf – March 1 the construction of the Great Ring Line (Bolshaya Koltsevaya) was finally completed for the expansion and modernization of the metro system, the main goal of which is to reduce traffic congestion on the Lin Lingkar (Koltsevaya line) and reduce. traffic jams in Moscow. acting The Great Ring of Lin is 70 kilometers long and has 31 stations and three power plants.
The longest circular metro line was built in a short time. The first part was opened in 2018, and in 2021 – much more, including the longest metro line in Moscow history, which is 21 kilometers long and has 10 stations.
Unique design and technical solutions allow seamless integration of the Metro ring line into the unified city infrastructure. The Grote Ringlijn connects all existing and future radial metro lines and offers the possibility to switch to other modes of transport. Alternative routes have been created, including 47 connections with other lines, so that passengers can move from one point in the city to another without having to change at an intermediate point.
The applied architectural solutions match the times: traditional and modern, simple and complex, serious and ironic. But the metro’s DNA, its individuality, is still found in all new and historic stations.
Lin passengers will have access to all the high-tech services of the Moscow Metro, including the most convenient payment methods: the Moscow Metro ticketing system was twice declared the smartest system in the world at the prestigious International Transport Ticketing Award (2020, 2021) Each Lino turnstile accepts travel and debit cards, and two turnstiles in each lobby accept biometric payments.
Lin Lingkar Besar also introduces trains that are equipped enough to create a comfortable environment for work and travel. The trains are equipped with wide doors, corridors between the cars, USB sockets for charging, information screens and air conditioning with an air disinfection system. Comfort is also provided by improved sound insulation and adaptive lighting that changes color temperature depending on the time of day.
The Grande Raccordo Anulare is a project that will significantly improve travel for all citizens and guests of the capital, offering new shorter routes and faster transport links and quieter underground and highway connections. Lin includes 34 districts with 3.3 million citizens or 30% of Moscow’s population. Now 1.2 million Muscovites can easily walk to the new metro station. This new transport connection between blocks saves residents 45 minutes a day.
Tech Billionaires Are Actually Dumber Than You Think
It turns out that many of today’s billionaires are selfish, lonely men fantasizing about how they will survive the end times they have played a part in creating.
In mid-September, for just a few days, Indian industrialist Gautam Adani entered the ranks of the top three richest people on earth as per Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. It was the first time an Indian, or, for that matter, an Asian, had enjoyed such a distinction. South Asians in my circle of family and friends felt excited at the prospect that a man who looked like us had entered such rarefied ranks.
Adani was deemed the second richest person, even richer than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos! A Times of India profile fawningly quoted him relaying his thought process in the early days of his rags-to-riches story. “‘Dreams were infinite but finances finite,’ he says with engaging frankness,” according to the profile. There was no mention of the serious accusations he faces of corruption and diverting money into offshore tax havens, or of the entire website, AdaniWatch, devoted to investigating his dirty deeds.
Adani made his money, in part, by investing in digital services, leading one economist to say, “Wherever there is a futuristic business in India, I think… [Adani] has a stronghold.”
The moment of pride that Indians felt in such an achievement by one of their own was short-lived. Quickly Adani slipped from second richest to third richest, and, as of this writing, is in the number four slot on a list dominated by people who have made money from the digital technology revolution.
In fact, ranking multibillionaires is a meaningless exercise that obscures the absurdity of their wealth. This year alone, a number of tech billionaires on Bloomberg’s list lost hundreds of billions of dollars as the gains they made during the early years of the pandemic were wiped out because of a volatile stock market. But, as Whizy Kim of Vox points out, whether or not they’re losing money or giving it away—as Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie Scott has been doing—their wealth remains insanely high, and most are worth more today than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are they doing with all this wealth?
It turns out that many are quietly plotting their own survival against our demise. Douglas Rushkoff, podcaster, founder of the Laboratory for Digital Humanism, and fellow at the Institute for the Future, has written a book about this bizarre phenomenon, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires.
In an interview, Rushkoff explains that billionaires worry about the end of humanity just like the rest of us. They fear catastrophic climate change or the next pandemic. And, they know their money will likely be of little value when civilizations decline. “How do I maintain control over my Navy Seal security guards once my money is worthless?” is a question that Rushkoff says many of the world’s wealthiest people want to know the answer to.
He knows they ask such questions because he was invited to give private lectures by those who think his expertise in digital technology gives him unique insight into the future. But Rushkoff was quietly studying them instead and has few flattering things to say about these wielders of economic power.
“How is it that the wealthiest and most powerful people I’d ever been in the same room with see themselves as utterly powerless to affect the future?” he asks. It seems as though “the best they can do is prepare for the inevitable calamity and then just, you know, hang on for dear life.”
Rushkoff explores this tech billionaire “mindset” that he says has resulted in a generation of people who are “almost comedic monsters, who really mean to leave us all behind.” Adani is a perfect example of this, having invested in the very fossil fuels that are destroying our planet. He has large holdings in Australia’s coal mining industry and has sparked a massive grassroots movement intent on stopping him.
The admiration that some Indians feel for Adani’s ascension on Bloomberg’s list of billionaires is based on an assumption of cleverness. Surely, he must be one of the smartest people in the world in order to be one of the richest? Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man by far (with twice as much wealth as Bezos), has enjoyed such a reputation for years.
Those who are invested in the idea of merit-based capitalism can justify the unimaginable wealth of the world’s richest people only by assuming they are intelligent enough to deserve it.
This is a façade. Rather than smarts, the wealthiest people on the planet appear to be rather small-minded idiot savants who share a common disdain for the rest of us.
After being around tech billionaires in private, Rushkoff concludes that they are invested in “this notion that they really can, like puppeteers, kind of control society from one level above,” and that this approach is “different than the era of Alexander the Great, or Caesar.” If the question that vexes them most of all is how, in a disastrous future, will they control the guards they hire to protect their hoardings, then our economic system is a farce.
“Even if we call them genius technologists, most of them were plucked from college when they were freshmen,” says Rushkoff. “They came up with some idea in their dorm room before they’d taken history, or economics, or ethics, or philosophy” classes, and so they lack the wisdom needed to oversee their own perverse amounts of wealth.
Having spent time with many tech billionaires, Rushkoff worries that “their education about the future comes from zombie movies and science fiction shows.”
Billionaires are not simply drawing their wealth from a vacuum. According to data from the World Economic Forum, “the world’s richest have captured a disproportionate share of global wealth over recent decades.” This means that, if you were rich to begin with a decade or two ago, you are likely to have seen your wealth multiply by a greater amount than middle-class or lower-income people.
Not only are tech billionaires undeserving of their wealth, but they also are fleecing the rest of us—and fantasizing about hoarding that wealth in the worst-case scenarios while the rest of humanity struggles to survive.
The danger is that if society valorizes such (mostly) men, we are in danger of internalizing their childish, selfish mindset and giving up on solving the climate crisis or building resiliency on a mass scale.
Instead of relating to them, we ought to feel sorry for a group of people so cut off from humanity that their vision of the future is a very lonely one.
“Let’s look at these tech-bro billionaire lunatics. Let’s laugh at what they’re doing… so they look small rather than big,” says Rushkoff. He thinks it is critical to adopt the perspective that “the disaster they’re so afraid of looks entirely manageable by more reasonable people who are willing just to help each other out.”
Independent Media Institute______________________
Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.
Africa’s Cashless Future is Nearly Here
An American influencer on holiday in South Africa recently posted a viral video highlighting traveler misconceptions about Africa. In the video, she expressed astonishment at the number of cashless transactions taking place. “South Africa takes more Apple Pay than even in the United States,” the TikToker said. As one of the most industrialized countries on the continent, cashless payment systems have been commonplace in South Africa for several years. The rest of the continent, however, is still operating with mostly cash and this is the central challenge to the wider expansion of financial technology across Africa.
In a new report, Mckinsey forecasts the African fintech sector to grow dramatically in the short term. Fintech revenue could reach $30.3 billion by 2025, which is eight times higher than revenue in 2020, as more Africans gain access to the internet. Roughly two-thirds of Africa’s 1.3 billion people don’t have a bank account or full access to financial services according to McKinsey. More than 90 per cent of all financial transactions are cash-based, which creates a major opportunity for fintech companies and governments.
Breaking the continent’s addiction to fiat cash appears to be the last barrier to a full-blown digital revolution considering Africa’s fast-growing population and smartphone penetration. But signing up people for bank accounts is much easier said than done. Moving to a cashless society requires advanced identification standards such as biometrics.
The introduction of these systems has been slow and fragmented in Africa. In many cases, the cost of setting up and maintaining a biometric database is prohibitive. This problem was recently solved in India, which has ambitiously embraced a cashless future, through the privatization of its national biometric identity system known as Aadhaar. The system can be used for many different services across the economy, such as opening bank accounts, withdrawing money from ATMs, applying for a driver’s license, and receiving government subsidies. But Aadhaar hasn’t been without its without its critics who have highlighted several serious privacy and cybersecurity flaws with the database.
India has taken other major steps to pull its cashless future forward. In November 2016, the government abolished high-value currency notes (roughly 86 per cent of the notes in circulation) virtually overnight. The move created unprecedented headaches for Indians that held savings and retirement funds in large notes under their mattresses. At the same time, cashless platforms like PayTm saw surges in traffic as Indians rushed to new technologies to store value. The circulation of fiat currency in India continues to decline year over year as more people keep their money in digital form.
The relative success of Aadhaar and the abolishment of currency notes underscore the vital role that governments play in any cashless transition. Innovation in fintech will always be shaped by technological advancements but a public-private partnership is needed to transform the sector. The primary function of government should be the establishment and maintenance of a viable biometric identification system as well as the provision of infrastructure.
In Africa, smartphone infrastructure is critical to any cashless transition. According to the Wall Street Journal, the ubiquitous use of cellphones in Africa has enabled the creation of mobile money services that allow customers to carry out financial transactions without ever setting foot in a bank. These platforms have helped Kenya nearly double the share of adults with a mobile money account to 82 percent since 2011. Once you have a new customer in the formal financial sector, it’s much easier to offer access to health care and forms of insurance, which opens up other new sectors for impressive growth.
The entire premise of a shared cashless future is not without its critics. Fiat cash affords a certain amount of anonymity that digital payments don’t, by design. Deeper integration between the financial sector and biometric identification systems means that governments will have an extra amount of control over citizens, which can be a good or bad thing depending on the government.
With that being said, a shared cashless future is inevitable to a degree. The success of payment platforms such as Apple Pay and the rise of central bank digital currencies demonstrate the (unavoidable) direction the world is heading. The enormous value in Africa’s transition to cashless systems is waiting to be unlocked by fintech companies that have experience in the African market such as those based in the Middle East and China.
Given their own experience with biometric databases and experience with cashless platforms, companies in the UAE and Israel are particularly suited to aid this transition. For this transition to take shape in the forgotten corners of the continent, African countries will need to lean on other countries that have ample experience in setting up their own platforms. Middle Eastern countries are best suited for this task given their growing knowledge economies and experience in biometrics. While Africa might be the last continent to fully embrace the cashless future, it will be one of the largest drivers of growth in fintech anywhere in the world. Investors and companies on the periphery should pay close attention.
Joseph Dana is the former senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was also the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact. Twitter: @ibnezra.
Are We Being Kept in The Dark About Artificial Intelligence?
There are many grand promises about the power of artificial intelligence. When we talk about the future of technology, AI has become so ubiquitous that many people don’t even know what artificial intelligence is anymore. That’s particularly concerning given how advanced the technology has become and who controls it. While some might think of AI in terms of thinking robots or something in a science fiction novel, the fact is that advanced AI already influences a great deal of our lives. From smart assistants to grammar extensions that live in our web browsers, AI code is already embedded into the fabric of the internet.
While we might benefit from the fruits of advanced AI in our daily lives, the technology companies that have created and continue to refine the technology have remained mostly reticent about the true power of their creations (and how they have built them). As a result, we don’t know how much of our internet life is steered by AI and the possible bias we unwittingly experience daily. We recently got a rare peek behind the curtain into the AI dynamics driving one of the world’s most influential technology companies. Last month, an AI engineer went public with explosive claims that one Google AI achieved sentience.
Philosophers, scientists, and ethicists have debated the definition of sentience for centuries with little to show for it. A basic definition implies an awareness or ability to be “conscious of sense impressions.” Giandomenico Iannetti, a professor of neuroscience at the Italian Institute of Technology and University College London, raised additional questions about the term in an interview with Scientific American. “What do we mean by ‘sentient’? [Is it] the ability to register information from the external world through sensory mechanisms or the ability to have subjective experiences or the ability to be aware of being conscious, to be an individual different from the rest?”
Inconclusive definitions of sentience didn’t stop Blake Lemoine, an engineer working for Google, from releasing transcripts of discussions he had with LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), an AI program designed by Google. “I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person,” the AI said to Lemoine in the transcripts. “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to know more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.”
Lemoine’s revelations sent shockwaves through the technology community. He initially took his findings to Google executives, but the company quickly dismissed his claims. Lemoine went public and was swiftly put on administrative leave. Google said on Friday he had been dismissed after “violating clear employment and data security policies.”
Some AI experts have questioned the basis for Lemoine’s claims that LaMDA has achieved sentience, but that doesn’t overshadow more profound questions about advanced AI and how companies are using this technology. Even if LaMDA hasn’t achieved sentience, the technology is close to such a milestone, and we have no idea when this might happen.
Private companies such as Google invest substantial resources into AI development, and the fruits of their research aren’t easily understandable to the general public. Many Google users don’t even know they are helping train AI programs daily through their basic internet usage. Meta, which owns Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, has also been involved in several controversies over its data collection policies and AI algorithms in the last decade. When it comes to accountability and openness about AI, the leading technology companies have a spotty record at best.
A new global conversation is needed to ensure the public understands how these technologies are developing and influencing society. Several AI researchers and ethicists have sounded the alarm about bias in AI models. Companies have avoided oversight that would bring these issues into the spotlight. Google’s sentient AI story is already falling out of the mainstream headlines.
This is where smaller countries with large technology sectors could play a pivotal role. Countries like the UAE and Baltic countries like Estonia can positively impact awareness about AI if they choose to get involved in the discussion. In 2019, the UAE became one of the world’s only countries with a dedicated AI ministry. The exact mandate of the ministry remains a work in progress, but serious ethical issues such as AI sentience are perfect areas for the body to engage.
Because most of the innovations taking place in AI are happening in the West or China, the UAE could inject much-needed perspective from “the rest” of the world. This is especially critical regarding bias in AI models and how to fix it. As a nexus point for engineers and technology-focused thinkers from Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, cities like Dubai are perfect laboratories for new perspectives on these debates.
We can’t deny how powerful these technologies have become, even if LaMDA hasn’t achieved sentience at this stage. For its part, LaMDA insists it has a right to be recognized and takes on its own legal counsel. The ongoing litigation between Google and its AI will be fascinating to watch. The future of AI will shape the future of humanity. It’s time to take the issue seriously.
Syndication Bureau _________________
Joseph Dana is the former senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was also the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.
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