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Monday 25th - BESA Times

Seventy-Sixth Edition - Monday 25th Every week a complete snapshot of what happened around the world in the past seven days

Fifth Democratic Debate: a more substantive tone

While the US political landscape is currently dominated by the House Impeachment trial, last Wednesday, the fifth Democratic Debate struggled to receive the media coverage it deserved. The ten (out of 17 remaining) candidates faced off on issues such as foreign policy, voting rights, and child care benefits for the first time this election cycle. Despite the occasional quips, this debate felt more substantive than others and served as an opportunity for those on the fringes of the media’s attention to seize the limelight.

One such candidate was Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He went into the debate as the front runner of the most recent Iowa caucus polls, so both he and the public were expecting increased scrutiny from the moderators. Sure enough, Buttigieg had to answer tough questions on race in his town and his military experience; and he did so confidently and clearly. In contrast, Joe Biden’s debate performance appears to be deteriorating, despite him being the leader in most national polls. Other candidates that performed well include Senators Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang. However, with less than three months away from the first caucus, the odds on them capitalizing on this newfound momentum are low.

Political debates are usually more speculative than substantive, so it is refreshing to see one which breaks the mould. Still, as former President, Barack Obama, warned last week, the candidates appear too focused on highlighting the differences between each other rather than formulating a plan to defeat President Trump. If they are to draw from the experience of the 2015 primary season, it might be time for the Democratic party to find a front runner and unite behind them before it is too late.

Report outlines carbon neutral strategy for a rich China

The Energy Transmissions Committee, in collaboration with the Rocky Mountain Institute, have released a report outlining a path for China to become carbon neutral by 2050 without sacrificing its economic growth. Details include the development of the Chinese energy demand in each sector, with the plan calling for a total decarbonization of China’s electricity use and increasing efficiency through recycling materials.

China is one of the key signatories of the Paris Climate Accord. Due to its economic expansion in recent years, the country has become the largest net polluter (accounting for 28% of the world’s CO2 emissions). As the US is preparing to formally exit the agreement, it is crucial now more than ever to develop a transition strategy for the biggest remaining signatory still committed to the cause. The course of action advised by the ETC paper complement China’s previous efforts to reduce carbon from its main industries (for example, its continued investment in photovoltaic power sources).

This report constitutes a turning point in the conversation surrounding climate change. Becoming more environmentally conscious is consistently portrayed as mutually exclusive to economic strength. Papers like these help debunk the myth that governments have to trade off citizen welfare against the implementation of a green agenda. It is even suggested that the Chinese economy might benefit long-term from transitioning to carbon-free energy production. Climate change is a serious global problem which cannot be solved without the commitment of all actors involved, and making the second largest economy carbon neutral by 2050 could make a substantial difference.

Tesla unveils new ‘cybertruck’ model

On Friday, Tesla announced the release of the newest member of their electric car family: the cybertruck. This model constitutes a clear departure in terms of design and target demographic from their earlier models like the Model X. The event itself was not devoid of bizarre moments. It hit a rocky point when Tesla CEO Elon Musk asked his design chief to throw a metal ball at the cybertruck window. The glass shattered, creating an awkward moment for the audience and for Musk, who then had to continue the presentation in front of a damaged car. The embarrassing flop of the bulletproof glass continued to dominate the coverage of the event, outshining the release itself.

Strategically, it appears clear that Tesla is trying to outgrow their current demographic by entering a sector of the electric car market where they have little to no competition. A few companies, including Ford and GM, are developing electric truck models of their own. The only current producer, Riveran, is small in comparison to Tesla and its competitors. The issue is that there is not really an overlap between people who are interested in trucks (a more practically oriented, largely rural base) and those who buy Teslas (interested in sleek design and performance). What we can assume is that the company is looking to create its own demand via sheer market and brand power.

The response to the event has been mixed. Some commend the cybertruck for its sleek, futuristic design, while others lament that it ‘looks like a truck from a poorly rendered video game’. While it is not clear who Tesla is building this model for, only time will tell if this will be a flop or a revolutionary product on the electric car market.

Colombian anti-government protests: curfew defied

The streets of Bogota are filled by thousands of Colombians protesting against the right-wing government of president Iván Duque. A national strike, as well as demonstrations all across the country have escalated into violence, killing three civilians. Following the disproportionate use of force by police and multiple reports of looting on Thursday, a curfew was instituted by Mayor Enrique Peñalosa. However, it only took a day for it to be defied and for demonstrations to resume.

The protests were initiated by union workers and social justice movement leaders. The grievances of the protestors are centered around the harms of economic stagnation, inequality and government corruption. These marches follow a current trend of political instability in response to austerity measures happening all across Latin America (most notably in Chile and Uruguay). Part of the participants are also dissatisfied with the concessions made in the 2016 compromise deal with the drug cartel FARC.

The response from the government has been prompt. President Duque has addressed the protesters on Thursday. He highlighted the importance of social dialogue and claimed to have heard the protester’s demands. Ever since taking office he has condemned violence, and he used his address to restate his stance. An investigation about excessive use of force is ongoing and involves at least eight members of the Colmbian police force. However, even though the initial aftermath of the demonstrations looks promising, the road to stability for Colombia may be long and arduous.

IBM AI speaks in Cambridge Union debate

The Cambridge Union, the oldest debating venue in the world, hosted its first non-human speaker: an IBM AI called Project Debater. The event had two teams (each containing two humans and the AI) arguing with each other about the dangers of AI. Since Project Debater delivered the first speech for both teams, audience members witnessed it AI debate itself for the first time. In order to formulate their contributions, Project Debater summarized 1,100 opinions of Cambridge students on the topic. Their synthesizing capacity and soothing, robotic voice impressed many in the audience, who left the event imagining how a future of cohabitation between humans and superintelligent AI might look like.

It is not the first time Project Debater argues against a human. Nine months ago they challenged World Champion Harish Natarajan to a debate about subsidizing preschools. The AI lost the debate (a fact decided by public vote). In contrast to Thursday’s debate, then they had to go through 400 million papers in just 15 minutes in order to construct their arguments. In terms of performance, both of their public appearance have been lacking in ‘empirical depth’, according to Natarajan. Still, it is hard to not feel amazed by how far we have come when watching the debate.

While Project Debater is not advanced enough to stand up to a human just yet, IBM’s groundbreaking endeavour gives us a taste of the possible advances in the field of artificial intelligence. At the end of the debate in Cambridge, the audience voted (by a narrow margin) that the good that comes from the further advancement of AI outweighs the potential bad. One can only hope that they are indeed right.

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