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Monthly Archives: March 2017

Brexit vote: Single market benefit ‘largely imaginary’ – BBC News

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The trade benefits of belonging to the European Union have been “largely imaginary”, according to the social policy think-tank Civitas.

Its analysis argues that exports from non-EU countries to the single market have grown faster than the UK’s, since its creation in 1993.

That lends weight to the argument that no EU deal is better than a bad deal, the author said.

Theresa May will start talks on the UK’s departure from the EU on 29 March.

The prime minister will officially notify the EU of the UK’s intention to leave by triggering “Article 50” and writing to European Council president Donald Tusk.

Economies that trade with the 11 founding members of the single market, using World Trade Organization (WTO) terms, have increased their exports to the EU five times faster than the UK has, over the past 20 years, the study says.

Michael Burrage, the report’s author, said that before joining the single market in 1993, the UK’s exports to the EU grew at a faster rate than major economies such as the US, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Norway, South Africa and Brazil.

But since joining, export growth from those countries to the EU has now overtaken that of the UK’s – a development he said was counterintuitive.

What is the single market?

This usually refers to the European Union’s single market and is perhaps the most ambitious type of trade co-operation.

That’s because as well as eliminating tariffs, quotas or taxes on trade, it also includes the free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

A single market strives to remove so-called “non-tariff barriers” – different rules on packaging, safety and standards. Many others are abolished and the same rules and regulations apply across the area.

There are EU-wide regulations covering a whole host of industries and products on everything from food standards and the use of chemicals to working hours and health and safety.

For goods, the single market was largely completed in 1992, but the market for services remains a work in progress a quarter of a century later.

“The evidence shows that the disadvantages of non-membership of the EU and single market have been vastly exaggerated and that the supposed benefits of membership, whether for exports of goods and services, for productivity, for worldwide trade, or for employment, are largely imaginary,” the study said.

“The government appears to have decided to leave the single market on the basis that we should return full control of UK laws to the UK, but trade data also offers strong support for the decision and provides comfort for those worried about relying on WTO rules if no deal emerges,” it added.

Mr Burrage said that UK exports have grown faster to 111 countries with which it trades under WTO rules than to the 14 other early members of the single market.

Other economists disagree. Jonathan Portes, economics professor at Kings College London, said there was plenty of evidence to suggest that the single market had been good for the UK.

“A lot of industries are dependent on the EU not just for zero tariffs, but also for regulation,” he said, pointing in particular to the car and pharmaceuticals sectors.

After leaving, the two alternatives are either setting up the country’s own regulatory structure, which takes time and is complicated, or using the EU’s, in which case we end up using the same rules as previously but have no say in how they are made, he said.

“It won’t be the end of the world, but it won’t be pain-free either, ” said Mr Portes.

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What makes gambling wrong but insurance right? – BBC News

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Image caption Shipowners and traders meet in shipping agency Lloyd’s of London’s coffeehouse in 1863

Almost a decade ago, I tried to place a bet with a leading UK betting shop that I would die within a year. They should have taken the bet – I am still alive.

But they will not gamble on life and death. A life insurance company, by contrast, does little else.

Legally and culturally, there is a clear distinction between gambling and insurance. Economically the difference is less visible.

Both gambler and insurer agree that money will change hands depending on what transpires in some unknowable future.

Find out more

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world we live in.

It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources and listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

Gambling tools such as dice date back millennia – perhaps five thousand years in Egypt. Insurance may be equally old.

The Code of Hammurabi – a law code from Babylon, in what is now Iraq – is nearly 4,000 years old. It includes numerous clauses devoted to the topic of “bottomry”, a kind of maritime insurance bundled together with a business loan.

A merchant would borrow money to fund a ship’s voyage, but if the ship sank, the loan did not have to be repaid.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Many of the provisions of the Code of Hammurabi – as seen on this stone stele – deal with matters of contract and trade

Around the same time, Chinese merchants were spreading their risks by swapping goods between ships. If any single ship went down, it would contain a mix of goods from many different merchants.

But all that physical shuffling around is a fuss. Much more efficient to structure insurance as a financial contract instead, something the Romans did a few millennia later.

Later still, Italian city states like Genoa and Venice developed ever more sophisticated ways to insure the ships of the Mediterranean.

Thirst for news

Then, in 1687, a coffee house opened on Tower Street, near the London docks. Run by Edward Lloyd, it was comfortable and spacious, and business boomed. Patrons enjoyed the fireside tea and coffee, and – of course – the gossip.

There was much to gossip about: London’s great plague, the great fire, the Dutch navy sailing up the Thames, and a revolution which had overthrown the king.

But above all, the inhabitants of this coffee house loved to gossip about ships: what was sailing from where, with what cargo – and whether it would arrive safely or not. And where there was gossip, there was an opportunity for a wager.

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Image caption Lloyd’s patrons were happy to speculate on the likely death of Admiral John Byng, who was shot in 1757

The patrons bet, for example, on whether Admiral John Byng would be shot for his incompetence in a naval battle with the French. He was.

The gentlemen of Lloyd’s would have had no qualms about taking my bet on my own life.

Edward Lloyd realised his customers were as thirsty for information to fuel their bets as they were for coffee, and began to assemble a network of informants and a newsletter full of information about foreign ports, tides, and the comings and goings of ships.

His newsletter became known as Lloyd’s List.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lloyd’s List was published daily until 2013, when it became online-only

Lloyd’s coffee house hosted ship auctions, and gatherings of sea captains who would share stories.

If someone wished to insure a ship, that could be done too: a contract would be drawn up, and the insurer would sign his name underneath – hence the term “underwriter”. It became hard to say quite where coffee-house gambling ended and formal insurance began.

Eight decades after Lloyd had established his coffee house, a group of underwriters who hung out there formed the Society of Lloyd’s.

Today, Lloyd’s of London is one of the most famous names in insurance.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lloyd’s is not an insurer: it is a marketplace in which multiple financial backers, grouped in syndicates, come together to pool risk

But not all modern insurers have their roots in gambling. Another form of insurance developed not in the ports, but the mountains.

Alpine farmers organised mutual aid societies in the early 16th century, agreeing to look after each other if a cow – or child – fell ill. While the underwriters of Lloyd’s viewed risk as something to be analysed and traded, the mutual assurance societies of the Alps saw it as something to be shared.

And when the farmers descended from the alps to Zurich and Munich, they established some of the world’s great insurance companies.

Deep pools of risk

Risk-sharing mutual aid societies are now among the largest and best-funded organisations on the planet – we call them “governments”.

Governments initially got into the insurance business as a way of making money, typically to fight a war in the turmoil of Europe in the 1600s and 1700s.

Instead of selling ordinary bonds, which paid in regular instalments until they expired, governments sold annuities, which paid in regular instalments until the recipient expired. Easy to supply, and much in demand.

Annuities are a form of insurance: they protect an individual against the risk of living so long that all their money runs out.

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Providing insurance is no longer a mere money-spinner for governments. It is regarded as a core priority to help citizens manage some of life’s biggest risks – unemployment, illness, disability and ageing.

Faced with these deep pools of risk, private insurers often merely paddle.

At least, citizens in richer economies expect insurance from their governments. In poorer countries, governments are not much help against life-altering risks, such as crop failure or illness. And private insurers tend not to take much interest, either. The stakes are too low, and the costs too high.

Blurred lines

That is a shame, because there is growing evidence that insurance doesn’t just provide peace of mind, but is a vital element of a healthy economy.

A recent study in Lesotho showed that farmers were being held back from specialising and expanding by the risk of drought – a risk against which they couldn’t insure themselves.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Red Cross has called Lesotho’s current water shortages “the worst drought in a lifetime”

When researchers created an insurance company and started selling crop insurance, the farmers bought the the insurance and expanded their businesses.

Today, the biggest insurance market of all blurs the line between insuring and gambling: the market in financial derivatives.

Derivatives are financial contracts that let two parties bet on something else – perhaps exchange rate fluctuations, or whether a debt will be repaid. They can be a form of insurance.

An exporter hedges against a rise in the exchange rate. A wheat farming company covers itself by betting that the price of wheat will fall.

The ability to buy derivatives lets companies specialise in a particular market. Otherwise, they would have to diversify – like the Chinese merchants four millennia ago, who didn’t want all their goods in one ship. The more an economy specialises, the more it tends to produce.

But unlike regular insurance, for derivatives you don’t need to find someone with a risk they need to protect themselves against. You just need to find someone willing to take a gamble on any uncertain event anywhere in the world.

It is a simple matter to double the stakes – or multiply them by a hundred. As the profits multiply, all that is needed is the appetite to take risks.

Before the international banking crisis broke in 2007, the total face value of outstanding derivatives contracts was many times larger than the world economy itself.

The real economy became the sideshow, the side bets became the main event.

That story did not end well.

Tim Harford writes the Financial Times’s Undercover Economist column. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources and listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

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Japanese authorities decry ongoing robot failures at Fukushima

Six years ago, a massive earthquake, consequent tsunami and nuclear crisis struck Japan. International organizations rushed to help the countrys devastated residents, and to figure out how to clean up Fukushima Daiichi, the wrecked nuclear power plant. Robots offered a ray of hope amid unfathomable loss. At least they did, until recently.

As the Asahi Shimbun reported yesterday, members of Japans Nuclear Regulation Authority are now urging plant operators Tokyo Electric Power Company to find new technology and methods to aid in the cleanup. Robots keep getting fried on their missions, literally from radiation damage, or stranded on-site wastingprecious money and time.

The implication is that, perhaps, the clean up will move faster if Tepcos energy and the governments money is redirected to chemistry, biology, and so-called safe containment, building some sort of structure around Fukushima Daiichi like the sarcophagus around Chernobyl. Or perhaps humans need to trust AI to move robots through some of their tasks. All of the robots deployed in the cleanup effort have been remote-operated by humans, so far. The governmentwatchdogs critical comments followed the latest robo-fail revealed by Tepco.

The PMORPH survey robot is being used to clean up Fukushima.

On March 23 the company said it had attempted to send a survey robot into a containment vessel to find fuel debris, information it needs to decommission the plant. But the PMORPH survey robot, developed by Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy and the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID), couldnt get its cameras to the predetermined location. As a result, it only sent back a partial report.

Just one month earlier, Tepco aborted a mission using a Toshiba scorpion robot that was built to scramble over rubble, capture images and data inside the plants facilities. The robot could tolerate up to 1,000 sieverts of radiation. And yet, it had troublewithin the hostile environs of the number 2 reactor where it was dispatched.

These followed a string of earlier robot losses at the plant going back to the Quince 1, the first robot to enter the facility after the disaster. Developed by the Chiba Institute of Technology, the International Rescue System Institute, and Tohoku University in Japan, Quince went into the power plants reactor 2 building where it measured radiation levels, collected dust samples and video footage. It ran several missions but eventually disconnected from its communications cable and got stranded within the building.

This scorpion robot was builttoinvestigate inside containment vessels at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

It’s not like anyone thought it would be easy to make robots capable of finding and retrieving molten nuclear fuel, or decommissioning and decontaminating a nuclear power plant. Japanese researchers have been trying to create robots with these capabilities since the 80s, as Timothy Hornyak wrote in the journal Science last year. Robots remain incredibly tantalizing technology.

With cameras, dosimeters, and other tools on board, robots can ostensibly go where conditions would prove fatal to humans. If they were strong and agile enough, they might be able to bring core samples up for scientists to test, or find and plug leaks, clear paths and scour away radioactive materials. The ultimate task would be for robots to identify and retrieve some 600 tons of molten nuclear fuel and debris from Fukushima.

Despite the nuclear watchdogs most recent admonition, many robots, even the fried ones, have been helpful in what little progress has been made in cleaning up the site.

iRobots PackBot 510 E.T.

Early on, iRobots ground-based PackBot and Warrior robots, and Honeywells T-Hawk drones helped TEPCO get a handle on radioactivity and conditions around its facilities, including around damaged reactors within weeks of the disaster. Swimming and crawling robots, also developedbyHitachi and GE Nuclear energy, were used in a 2014 mission to capture images and readings fromwithin a damaged reactor.

Still, with every failed or aborted mission, every $1 million spent, it gets harder to tell people devastated by a crisis that robots are their greatest hope. Japan’s 3/11 crisis killed tens of thousands, left thousands missing and displaced a quarter of a million people. As radiation first gushed from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, millions of residents were left mourning without electricity or water through cold and wet, end-of-winter weather.

More than half of those who fled or were evacuated from the area have no plans to come back, even still, according to Japanese government surveys. Scientific studies have concluded that certain areas are safe for residents’ return. But there’s not much in the way of schools, stores or other critical community support around Fukushima, and fears linger. The Japanese government estimates the cleanup effort will cost $189 billion and will take decades.

Let’s hope the next step change in technology, whether in robotics or another promising area, will hasten the Fukushima recovery, and prevent nuclear disasters from ever happening again.

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Detained on Nauru: ‘This is the most painful part of my story when you realise no one cares’

In this excerpt from the book They Cannot Take the Sky, Benjamin talks about his years detained on Nauru, and his undying hopes for the future.

Benjamin was taken to Nauru in 2013 with his family. He told the first part of this story on Christmas Day 2014. He is still on Nauru.

You just have to cope with it

We were in Offshore Processing Centre compound number 3 the family compound in the Nauru detention facility for a year and three weeks. In that time lots of things happened between us and Wilsons, the security guards running the camp, especially with my father because everyone trusted him. So if problems happened, people would tell my father and my father would try to help. But after a couple of months the Wilsons tried to somehow punish us as a family, you know, for just simple things. One day my father was in the line for food and the Wilson didn’t let him go inside he sent another family in rather than us. My father tried to just talk to them but suddenly they called the police. Police came and they sent my father straight to custody.

My father had a stroke when he was in custody. He’s a little better now, after four or five months, but he’s still really not able to use the left side of his body very well.

Because of the stroke, they sent my father alone to Darwin. They gave us a time to visit just before he left. There was a neck brace around his neck and he was in a wheelchair. I could just see him for 15 minutes and then they took him away and sent him to Darwin. I was 18 at that time and my sisters were all minors. There wasnt a guardian for us, but they let us be inside a camp. My sisters, they all got lots of problems. They couldn’t sleep at night. Me either.

I went to the psychologist and I told her, I’ve got these types of problems, and she said, “You just have to cope with it. You cannot go to where your father is. You just have to wait until he comes back.” I warned them that if they didn’t give me any answer at least tell me how my father is I would suicide, and she laughed at me and said, “Go, do what you want to do.” And so I cut my wrists and my hand, because I couldnt control it anymore. It was too much for me. And the funny thing is, they didn’t care. They said, “If you keep trying to do this we will send you to the custody too.”

My sisters came and they saw lots of blood coming out of my body and they called Wilson.

When my father heard that I cut myself, he did his own protest. He sat in the wheelchair and he didn’t eat, he didn’t move, he didn’t drink anything.

I’m still feeling that I’m not a human

After this, things happened to my father too. When he first went to Darwin he was in the family camp. He was a single male but he was in the family camp. I had a friend over there in the family camp who was looking after him. I was little bit OK because I knew my friend was helping, but after my fathers protest they sent him to the single camp. In the single camp he was totally alone. There was nobody to help him. When I heard this I tried to talk to immigration about it and tell them that this was not fair, what theyre doing to my father, that my father needs someone to help him. But they didn’t answer me, they just forgot about it.

Children play near a fence at Naurus Australian-run detention centre.

After two months they sent my father back here, to Nauru. He was still the same. In that time they didn’t do any medical checks for him. He was just wasting his time over there. My case manager came and said, Your father is back in Nauru. I was so shocked and a little bit happy too because I thought that maybe hes OK. I went to OPC1 with my sisters to see him. I was sitting there with my sisters, talking with them, and suddenly one of the cultural advisors came his name was Darryl and he told me, “Your father has to go back to the gaol.” I asked him, “Why?” I tried to tell them it was against the rules if someone is not medically well, you don’t put them in custody but they didn’t care. I said, “If you want to take my father you have to take me too because I need to look after him.”

My father was in custody for three days and they just let me be with him only for one night. After that we went to OPC1. We were there for months. They kept sending my father to court for what had happened, just for a simple argument. We just kept going to the court, every day, and at the end of it they found that my father was not guilty and they sent us back to OPC3.

For now I don’t have any plan for my future because I am still feeling that I am captured. I’m still feeling that Im not a human. I’m still thinking about whats happened in the past. I can’t think about what I am now, and what I’ll do in the future.

I just need to get my freedom first, then Ill try to find my way somehow.

Nearly two years later, in October 2016, Benjamin continued his story.

We have beautiful dreams, but everything has been ruined

I’m still here.

I came here when I was 18 and now I’m nearly 22 years old. I wasted all of the best time in my entire life, the time that I was about to make my future happen, the time that I promised myself I would study hard and become the best. But I couldn’t, because of the Australian government.

Five months ago, my neighbour, his name was Omid, he burnt himself right in front of my eyes. We have beautiful dreams, we have beautiful futures, but everything has been ruined. We are all exhausted.

That day, my neighbour Omid, he burned himself in front of me and I still cannot forget it. Omid was a good person. I still feel unhappy, I still feel stressed about him. I still punish myself, “Why didn’t I make him stop?” But I didn’t know that he was gonna do it, and he did it in front of me. He burned himself. I tried to go and put the fire out on his body, but I couldn’t do it and he died. And I still punish myself because I think that if I was a bit smarter I could have saved him.

Omid Masoumali, a 23-year-old Iranian refugee who set himself alight in protest outside a refugee compound on Nauru. He died in a Brisbane hospital on 29 March 2016.

When the UNHCR people came to our settlement to talk to refugees, Omid and his wife were the first ones they met.

I don’t know what happened but I just saw that Omid and his wife went to their house and after like five to 10 minutes Omid came back and he was soaked in petrol and he was shouting, “I’m tired and we are all tired and I cannot take it anymore.”

He was actually complaining to the government of Australia.

It’s enough. Whatever we have suffered in all these years, it is enough, for we are innocent people. We’re not terrorists. We are innocent people and we were just seeking freedom.

And then he just turned the lighter on and set himself on fire. I ran to him and tried to put him out with blankets but I … he was still conscious when we took him to hospital. He was there, he was having so much pain. The hospital here is a very, very bad hospital. When this kind of incident happens, the Australian government asks for an ambulance aeroplane to come to Nauru immediately, but for Omid it took like 12 hours or more than that. He was suffering from the pain and no one could help him. The ambulance came late and he died. After he got back to Australia, the Australian government didn’t even pay for the body to be transferred to Iran. Omid’s family paid for that.

He burned himself to show it around the world, to big countries, that there is no hope, there is no happiness, there is no life here.

Refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru protest their indefinite detention by the Australian government.

This is not a place that I can live

The payments that we receive from the Australian government are very low. We get just $200 each per fortnight which is not enough for all of us, you know. Living here is very expensive. The food and everything is all imported from Australia. You have to spend all your money just buying your food.

We are still having stress about water. When we were in the camp we were having problems with showering we only had a right to shower for three minutes and now we are outside we still have those problems. Just today they told us that theres a shortage of water so you have to be careful with it. We were protesting and they sent me to court for unlawful assembly, which I dont understand. I should have a right to make a peaceful protest so I can tell the world that this is not a place that I can live. We are desperately seeking other powerful countries to help us and release us from this inhuman policy. This is the most painful part of my story when you realise no one cares.

I wanted to study. I put myself into danger coming to Australia. My main requirement was having freedom freedom of speech, a society where people respect human rights. My plan was to study hard. I had finished my diploma of pure maths and physics, but I wanted to study more … maybe civil engineering or electrical engineering. But with all these punishments in these three years I became so lazy I cannot even read a book right now.

I always try to forget the bad incidents that happened to me before, so I just go to the gym. Try to lose some energy so I can relax. It’s not a very good gym, but at least it is something. This is the best vocation you can have: going to the gym and coming back home.

I always try to be charming

My dad is much better … he is physically good now. But mentally he’s worse than before. Most of the time he is at home and not doing anything, because there is nothing to do. He feels guilty because he is thinking, I have ruined my children’s future.

There is a very, very cold relationship in every family here. I mean, you get frustrated very quickly. You cannot talk fairly and make good decisions, because your mind has been punished a lot. Our life is like this, you know? We are unhappy so everything goes in a bad way. For example, I always try to keep my family motivated. I always say, like, I’m 100% sure that in 2017 we are gonna get out of this island. I always say this. Every month I’ll say that next month there will be good news from the immigration department of Australia. I always try to motivate them, but they always say, “No, it’s an illusion.”

I’ll try to do something, but it always turns out that I make it worse because I have hope. They say, “No, you lied to us.” My sisters always say, “You lied to us last year. You told us that we were gonna go out of here in 2015, but we are still here and it’s 2016.” These kinds of things.

The Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

We talk about immigration, we talk about what’s gonna happen, we read all the media. We try to make our own observations from there. It always turns out that we discuss it for two hours and we finish in a very unhappy mood. I have to say, we have those conversations every day. [Laughs.]

Sometimes time goes very quickly, but sometimes, it really kills you. Like when we reach the end of the year, because we expect something magical, like at Christmas … that Santa brings a gift. We wait to see if maybe Mr Peter Dutton will announce something that we have wanted to hear for all these years. But it never happens. [Laughs.]

I usually don’t show my pain or my frustration to my family. I try to keep it to myself. Whenever I go inside our room, I always try to be charming. This is what I do, I always try to keep the energy up, because I dont like to upset them. I am upset, but I never show it.

If I want to be honest, the only thing that I enjoy is going to gym and coming back home. But my family doesn’t enjoy that. My sisters want to go to a decent shopping mall, buy some good food, buy some good clothes. Or maybe they want to go to a cinema, or a zoo. But the only entertainment that we have here is just drinking alcohol. Forget what’s happening and just get drunk for a night.

I have good friends here, even Nauruan friends. The Nauruans I hang out with, they really understand our situation and most of them have been studying in Fiji and Australia. They are qualified people and they respect humanity. When you hang out with them, you enjoy it, because they dont get insulted if you say something about the governments of Nauru or Australia. These two governments have created all these traumas. The people are innocent, you know?

The problem with my refugee friends is we can’t really tolerate each other anymore. I mean, we live here without excitement. We see each other every day, talk about the same old things. We get tired of each other. Im not saying this in a bad way, but this is a human being you feel discouraged. Seriously, we don’t have anything to say to each other anymore! We know everything, whatever happened from when he’s born until now. It’s like time has been stopped.

Photographs of Australian-run asylum seeker detention facilities on Nauru. Photograph: Google / Remi Chauvin

It will be like I’m reborn

My situation has changed. I’ve learned how to be strong and keep myself motivated, so I’m not doing any self-harming and suicide. Sometimes the Australian government makes me worse. For example, when Peter Dutton says refugees are uneducated, or Scott Morrison says we need to live here forever so Australias borders are safe and sound. I just try to heal my pain so I don’t get really out of control. I have learned that even if I … did something crazy to myself, nothing will change. I just have to make myself healthy, so if I get out of here I could try to show the Australian government that I’m not a bad person, I’m actually a very useful person, and a very successful person. And I’m surely gonna do that.

I have read books about what successful people have done in their lives. For example, Mahatma Gandhi, Barack Obama, and also, Larry Page, founder of Google, and all of those people. So many people I cannot count them [laughing]. I’ve read their books, I’ve learned from them with all the struggles they had, they could still manage their lives and become successful.

The cover of They Cannot Take the Sky Stories from Detention.

I’m sure that one day I’m going to get out of here and reach my main goal, which is freedom. Yeah, I imagine I will enter a country where there are more opportunities, so I can improve myself, I can improve my education. I will start my new life it will be like I’m reborn. It’ll be a very big event. I’m sure it’s going to happen and it will be soon. It will be very soon.

Benjamin is still living in Nauru. He told his story to journalist Karl Mathiesen in December 2014 and Michael Green in October 2016. Mathiesen had travelled to Nauru posing as a snorkelling enthusiast and covertly spoke to refugees who had been released into the community. Additional editing by Angelica Neville and Andr Dao.

This is an edited extract from the book They Cannot Take the Sky Stories from Detention, edited by Michael Green, Andr Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope, and published by Allen & Unwin.

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Advances in AI and ML are reshaping healthcare

The healthcare technology sector has given rise to some of the most innovative startups in the world, which are poised to help people live longer, better lives. The innovations have primarily been driven by the advent of software and mobility, allowing the health sector to digitize many of the pen and paper-based operations and processes that currently slow down service delivery.

More recently, we’re seeing software become far more intelligent and independent. These new capabilities studied under the banner of artificial intelligence and machine learning are accelerating the pace of innovation in healthcare. Thus far, the applications of AI and ML in healthcare have enabled the industry to take on some of its biggest challenges in these areas:

  • Personal genetics
  • Drug discovery
  • Disease identification and management

Upon close evaluation of the opportunities that exist within each area, it becomes obvious that the stakes are high. As such, those that are first to market with a sustainable product differentiation and value-add will benefit tremendously.

Ushering in a new era of personal genetics

The most significant application of AI and ML in genetics is understanding how DNA impacts life. Although the last several years saw the complete sequencing of the human genome and a mastery of the ability to read and edit it, we still dont know what most of the genome is actually telling us. Genes are constantly acting out of place in combination with other variables such as food, environment and body types.

If we are to understand what influences life and biology, we must first understand the language that is DNA. This is where ML algorithms come in and the advent of systems such as Googles Deep Mind and IBMs Watson. Now, more than ever, it has become possible to digest immense amounts of data (e.g. patient records, clinical notes, diagnostic images, treatment plans) and perform pattern recognition in a short period of time which otherwise would have taken a lifetime to complete.

Businesses such as Deep Genomics are making meaningful progress in this realm. The company is developing the capability to interpret DNAby creating a system that predicts the molecular effects of genetic variation. Their database is able to explain how hundreds of millions of genetic variations can impact a genetic code.

Once a better understanding of human DNA is established, there is an opportunity to go one step further and provide personalized insights to individuals based on their idiosyncratic biological dispositions. This trend is indicative of a new era of personalized genetics, whereby individuals are able to take full control of their health through access to unprecedented information about their own bodies.

The technology must have access to vast amounts of data in order to better curate lifestyle changes for individuals.

Consumer genetics companies such as 23andMe and Rthm represent a few of the first movers in this domain. They have developed consumerized genetic diagnostic tools to help individuals understand their genetic makeup. With Rthm, users are able to go one step further and leverage the insights produced from their genetic test to implement changes to their everyday routine through a mobile application, all in real time.

As is the case with any application of AI/ML, the technology must have access to vast amounts of data in order to better curate lifestyle changes for individuals. Startups that are focused on mastering the delivery of personal genetics are doing so by considering the following key activities, as highlighted by Japan-based researcher Takashi Kido:

  • Acquiring reliable personal genome data and genetic risk prediction
  • Conducting behavior pattern analyses on peoples attitude to the personal genome to determine what kind of information is valuable/helpful and what type of information is damaging
  • Data mining for scientific discovery

The second point is interesting in that not all genetic information about a patients biological predispositions is productive. Being able to control the information in a manner that is conducive to psychological well-being is critical.

Hyper targeted drugs are the future

Another exciting application of AI/ML in healthcare is the reduction of both cost and time in drug discovery. New drugs typically take 12 to 14 years to make it to market, with the average cost hovering around $2.6 billion. During the process of drug discovery, chemical compounds are tested against every possible combination of different cell type, genetic mutation and other conditions relating to a particular ailment.

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As the task of doing this is time-consuming, this limits the number of experiments or diseases that scientists can look to attack. ML algorithms can allow computers to learn how to make predictions based on the data they have previously processed or choose (and in some cases, even conduct) what experiments need to be done. Similar types of algorithms also can be used to predict the side effects of specific chemical compounds on humans, speeding up approvals.

San Francisco-based startup Atomwise is looking to replace test tubes with supercomputers during the drug development process. The company uses ML and 3D neural networks that sift through a database of molecular structures to uncover therapies, helping to discover the effectiveness of new chemical compounds on diseases and identifying what existing medications can be repurposed to cure another ailment.

In 2015, the company applied its solution and uncovered two new drugs which may significantly reduce Ebola infectivity. The analysis was completed in one day as opposed to years, which is common using traditional methods of drug development. A recent study by Insilico Medicine solidified the approach Atomwise is taking, showing that deep neural networks can be used to predict pharmacologic properties of drugs and drug repurposing.

The application of AI/ML in healthcare is reshaping the industry and making what was once impossible into a tangible reality.

Berg Health, a Boston-based biopharma company, attacks drug discovery from a different angle. Berg mines patient biological data using AI to determine why some people survive diseases, and then applies this insight to improve current therapies or create new ones.

BenevolentAI, a London-based startup, aims to expedite the drug discovery process by harnessing AI to look for patterns in scientific literature. Only a small portion of globally generated scientific information is actually used or usable by scientists, as new healthcare-related studies are published every 30 seconds. BenevolentAI enables analysis on vast amounts of data to provide experts with insights they need to dramatically expedite drug discovery and research. Recently, the company identified two potential chemical compounds that may work on Alzheimers, attracting the attention of pharmaceutical companies.

As advances in ML and AI continue, the future of drug discovery looks promising.A recent Google Research paper notes that using data from various sources can better determine which chemical compounds will serve as effective drug treatments for a variety of diseases, and how ML can save a lot of time by testing millions of compounds at scale.

Discovering and managing new diseases

Most diseases are far more than just a simple gene mutation. Despite the healthcare system generating copious amounts of (unstructured) data which is progressively improving in quality we have previously not had the necessary hardware and software in place to analyze it and produce meaningful insights.

Disease diagnosis is a complicated process that involves a variety of factors, from the texture of a patients skin to the amount of sugar that he or she consumes in a day. For the past 2,000 years, medicine has been governed by symptomatic detection, where a patients ailment is diagnosed based on the symptoms they are displaying (e.g. if you have a fever and stuffy nose, you most likely have the flu).

But often the arrival of detectable symptoms is too late, especially when dealing with diseases such as cancer and Alzheimers. With ML, the hope is that faint signatures of diseases can be discovered well in advance of detectable symptoms, increasing the probability of survival (sometimes by up to 90 percent) and/or treatment options.

The opportunities continue to grow and inspire healthcare practitioners to find new ways to enhance our health and well-being.

Freenome, a San Francisco-based startup, has created an Adaptive Genomics Engine that helps dynamically detect disease signatures in your blood. To make this possible, the company uses your freenome the dynamic collection of genetic material floating in your blood that is constantly changing over time and provides a genomic thermometer of who you are as you grow, live and age.

When looking at disease diagnosis and treatment plans, companies such as Enlitic are focused on improving patient outcomes by coupling deep learning with medical data to distill actionable insights from billions of clinical cases. IBMs Watson is working with Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York to digest reams of data on cancer patients and treatments used over decades to present and suggest treatment options to doctors in dealing with unique cancer cases.

In London, Googles Deep Mind is mining through medical records of Moorfields Eye Hospital to analyze digital scans of the eye to help doctors better understand and diagnose eye disease. In parallel, Deep Mind also has a project running to help with radiation therapy mapping for patients suffering from neck and head cancer, freeing up hours of planning for oncologists to allow them to focus on more patient care-oriented tasks.

What does all of this mean?

The application of AI/ML in healthcare is reshaping the industry and making what was once impossible into a tangible reality.

For AI/ML to become pervasive in healthcare, continued access to relevant data is essential to success. The more proprietary data a system can ingest, the smarter it will become. As a result, companies are going to great lengths to acquire data (which resides in an anonymized format). For example, IBM bought out healthcare analytics company Truven Health for $2.6 billion in February 2016 primarily to gain access to their repository of data and insights. In addition, they recently partnered with Medtronic to further Watsons ability to make sense of diabetes through gaining access to real-time insulin data.

As the data becomes richer and the technology keeps advancing, the opportunities continue to grow and inspire healthcare practitioners to find new ways to enhance our health and well-being.

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The only way to prove you aren’t a robot is to solve this chess puzzle

Check it out, Mate!

Image: James Tagg

Check out the chess board above: looks wrong, right?

If you’ve ever played chess, you know something’s amiss, here. For one thing, someone chose to exchange a pawn for another bishop instead of a queen. For another, virtually all the action’s moved to the left side of a board.

It’s hard to imagine how the game got here: it’s even harder to imagine what happens next, let alone a scenario in which four white pawns and a white king could play to a draw, or even win this game.

The Penrose Chess Puzzle: Can you find the solution that results in either a white win or a game draw?

Image: James tagg

Yet: scientists at the newly-formed Penrose Institute say it’s not only possible, but that human players see the solution almost instantly, while chess computers consistently fail to find the right move.

“We plugged it into Fritz, the standard practice computer for chess players, which did three-quarters of a billion calculations, 20 moves ahead,” explained James Tagg Co-Founder and Director of the Penrose Institute, which was founded this week to understand human consciousness through physics.

“It says that one-side or the other wins. But,” Tagg continued, “the answer that it gives is wrong.”

Tagg and his co-founder, Mathematical Physicist and professor Sir Roger Penrose who successfully proved that black holes have a singularity in them cooked up the puzzle to prove a point: Human brains think differently.

(Those who figure out the puzzle can send their answers to Penrose to be entered to win the professor’s latest book.)

“Humans can look at a problem like this strange chess board configuration,” said Tagg, “and understand it. What a computer does is brute force calculation, which is different.” This is set up, rather exquisitely, to show the difference, he added.

They forced the computer out of its comfort zone by, at least in part, making an unusual choice: the third bishop.

“All those bishops can move in lots of different ways, so you get computation explosion. To calculate it out would suck up more computing power than is available on earth,” claimed Tagg.

Tagg told us that there is, in fact, a natural way to get to this board configuration.

We’re trying to figure it out here, but lacked an extra black bishop. So we tagged one to keep track.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

Sir Richard Penrose’s brother is, according to Tagg, a very strong chess player. He assures me that it’s a position you can get to, but I have not played it through. Question is, is there a rational game that gets you there?

In fact, those who can figure out that second puzzle and get the answer to Penrose, could also receive a free copy of Professor Penrose’s book.

Chess computers fail at Penrose’s chess puzzle because they have a database of end-games to choose from. This board is not, Tagg and Penrose believe, in the computer’s playbook. “We’re forcing the chess machine to actually think about the position, as opposed to cheat and just regurgitate a pre-programmed answer, which computers are perfect at,” said Tagg.

So far, Tagg and the Penrose Institute haven’t heard from any artificial intelligence experts refuting their claims. “I’m quite surprised,” said Tagg.

Mashable has contacted several AI experts for comment and will update this post with their response.

Aside from the fun of solving this puzzle (Tagg said hundreds already have and claim they have done so in seconds), it poses a deeper question: Are we executing some fiendishly clever algorithm in our brain, that cuts through the chaff? It is just a higher level of computation, one that computers can still aspire to or something unique to brain-matter-based thought?

Tagg said Penrose Institute falls into the latter camp.

Penrose and Tagg don’t think you can simply call a brain a machine. It sits in skull, made of gray matter and we don’t understand how it works. “Simply calling it a clever computer, this sort of puzzle shows that it clearly is not,” he said.

You can send your Chess Puzzle solution to the Penrose Institute here:

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