PLUS: Early modern medical tourism, and AI art and machine hallucinations.
Microsoft reshapes search
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. REUTERS/Jeffrey Dastin
The new artificial-intelligence-powered Bing could be Microsoft’s “iPhone moment,” according to early reviews. Microsoft’s search engine has always been a punchline. But its new iteration is very different, according to Kevin Roose in The New York Times. It’s “far from perfect,” Roose says, but has “made search interesting again.” He’s made Bing his default search engine. Any gains made by Bing against Google will be hugely lucrative: Microsoft’s chief financial officer said on a recent investors’ call that each percentage point of share gained in search is equivalent to $2 billion in advertising revenue. Meanwhile, Alphabet stock dropped 7% after Google’s own chatbot, Bard, made a factual error in its debut demonstration.
U.S. sailors recover a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon. U.S. Fleet Forces/U.S. Navy photo/Handout via REUTERS
Rhetoric between the U.S. and China — seemingly warming, albeit briefly — is worsening. U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping spoke for hours at a G20 summit last year, and Beijing appeared to tone down its “wolf warrior” language, an improvement in relations, even if neither side made tangible policy changes. But the shooting down of a Chinese balloon, and American allegations that Beijing sends spy balloons over military sites worldwide, sparked angry denouncements from Chinese officials, while Biden’s remarks to PBS NewsHour last night that Xi faced “enormous problems” were condemned by China’s foreign ministry as “extremely irresponsible.”
Xi Jinping would have joined the Republicans or Democrats had he been born in the United States, the Chinese leader told the late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. “He didn’t see any point in a party that doesn’t wield political power,” Abe, who was shot dead last year, is quoted as saying in a new memoir. The book includes tidbits about major leaders: Barack Obama “only talked about work,” whereas his successor Donald Trump made long phone calls that would often stray off topic, often towards golf. Vladimir Putin was “surprisingly friendly,” while Xi apparently began his leadership reading prepared scripts before loosening up years into his time in office.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was implicated in an investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014. International investigators played a telephone conversation in which Russian officials, discussing whether to send weapons to Ukrainian separatists, said that “there is only one who makes a decision” and that that person was at a summit in France. Putin was at D-Day commemorations in France at the time. The investigators said they were suspending their probe because they did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute any more suspects. “The long list of reasons to begin war crimes prosecution of Putin and his gang gets even longer,” the chess grandmaster-turned-Russian opposition politician Garry Kasparov said.
Turkey briefly restricted access to Twitter, a key method of communication for mobilizing relief efforts following the massive earthquake that struck the country. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who faces elections in May — had said he would not allow disinformation to be shared, after Turks took to the platform to criticize what they said was a slow and ineffectual government response to the quake, which has so far left more than 16,000 people dead. The response has been even worse next door in northwestern Syria, where the first convoy of humanitarian aid since the earthquake only arrived today, AFP reported.
North America’s first commercial-scale green hydrogen facility will go ahead after Canadian authorities granted approval. The developers will convert an old oil terminal in Nova Scotia, and hope to produce 200,000 tons annually by 2025. Meanwhile, South Australia plans to make the world’s largest hydrogen power station. Hydrogen is a less efficient store of energy than batteries in the short term, but can store it for longer. Hydrogen is also necessary for making fertilizers, and is better than electric heating for the high temperatures required for steel production, allowing it to replace several uses for fossil fuels.
A Moroccan fertilizer firm saw record profits after the war in Ukraine sent European feedstock prices soaring. Fertilizer feeds the world: Crop yields would drop 50% without it, leading to global catastrophe. Production relies on natural gas, prices of which spiked after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading to fears of mass starvation. But while European fertilizer has indeed gone up, thanks to a two-thirds increase in feedstock prices, the Financial Times reported that Morocco’s OCP Group, which relies on homegrown phosphate reserves, has seen profits double. It’s one more way the world’s economy has found routes around the roadblocks created by Russia’s aggression.
The U.N. warned that famine in Somalia is “a strong possibility,” as the east African country suffers the longest and most severe drought in its history. Roughly 8.2 million people, almost half the country’s population, require “immediate lifesaving aid and protection,” according to the report. The Horn of Africa, where 80% of the population relies on subsistence farming to survive, is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change and is warming faster than the global average. Experts fear extended droughts could fuel conflict. “The people of Somalia are paying the price for a climate emergency they did very little to create,” the country’s deputy prime minister said.
Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay announced a joint bid to host the 2030 men’s soccer World Cup. Uruguay hosted — and won — the first-ever World Cup in 1930. “The 2030 World Cup is not just another World Cup,” the head of South America’s football federation said, “it deserves a celebration.” The South American bid will compete with a joint proposal from Spain, Portugal, and Ukraine, although others — including a controversial Saudi-Egyptian-Greek bid — are expected. A decision will be made at the FIFA Congress in 2024.
John Cleese plans to reboot his legendary sitcom Fawlty Towers. The 1970s show, which ran for just 12 episodes, is regarded by many as Britain’s greatest-ever comedy series. Monty Python star Cleese played Basil Fawlty, an irascible hotel owner on England’s south coast. Of the original cast, Andrew Sachs, who played Manuel, is dead, while Prunella Scales, who played Sybil Fawlty, has Alzheimer’s disease. Cleese, whose divorce a few years ago was expensive, may want to be careful: Revisiting much-loved classics can backfire. Fans of other British sitcoms may not have fond memories of Red Dwarf’s post-resurrection seasons, for instance.
The United Kingdom’s competition regulator is expected to block Microsoft’s acquisition of the game manufacturer Activision Blizzard, the makers of Call of Duty and Warcraft. The $75 billion deal would make Microsoft the third-largest gaming company in the world, behind Tencent and Sony, and would attach a dominant game studio to Microsoft’s own Xbox console division, a combination that the company’s rivals have said would stifle competition. British regulators largely agreed, provisionally concluding that the deal would lead to higher prices and less choice for U.K. gamers. Activision Blizzard’s chief executive told the Financial Times that blocking the deal would cost the U.K. thousands of badly needed jobs.
Accounts of 15th century Europeans with leprosy traveling to the tropical archipelago of Cape Verde, off the Senegalese coast, in search of cures could describe some of the world’s earliest cases of medical tourism. The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus wrote of patients soaked in medicinal baths, washed in turtle blood, and placed on a diet of turtle meat during a stopover while on his third voyage to the Americas. Then like now, Anna Weerasinghe observed in Nursing Clio, medical tourism was the preserve of the wealthy.
These remedies were “available exclusively to those with the social, legal, and financial resources to circumvent the stigma of a leprosy diagnosis and fund their passage to the islands,” she wrote. While medical tourism can be celebrated as efficient and cost-saving, it can also create a two-tier system of healthcare in both the destination and country of origin, Weerasinghe added.
A Turkey-born artist who specializes in the aesthetics of artificial intelligence was a breakthrough act in this year’s Grammy Awards. Refik Anadol’s swirling hues of crimson, magenta, and amethyst formed the backdrop for performances at the Los Angeles event where he “literally set the stage,” reported Artnet. The 38-year-old is already well-known in the art world for his striking use of data sets and AI models, drawing on and processing more than 300 million publicly available nature images, part of his ongoing series, Machine Hallucinations—Space and Nature, for the Grammys. His latest show is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.