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AI researchers call for a pause in AI research, Beijing threatens Taiwan over diplomacy, and a Benin͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
sunny Hangzhou
thunderstorms Moscow
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March 29, 2023


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Tom Chivers
Tom Chivers

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The World Today

  1. Experts urge AI pause
  2. GitHub fires Indian staff
  3. Beijing’s warning to Taiwan
  4. Alibaba’s revamp bounce
  5. Deadly Mexico migrant fire
  6. Russia’s economic forecast
  7. US unpacks SVB fallout
  8. Syria drug sanctions
  9. Germany’s citizenship rules
  10. Fall in US smoking
  11. Benin star wins Polar award

PLUS: How AI defaults to cheesy smiles, and the roots of a beloved Trinidadian street food.


Pause AI research, say AI researchers

NTB/Carina Johansen via REUTERS

Top artificial intelligence researchers, the co-founder of Apple, and Elon Musk are among signatories of an open letter calling for companies to stop training powerful AIs. They argue that advanced AI “could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth,” and companies should not be racing to unleash it. The letter calls for a six-month pause, providing time to decide whether developing things that might “outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us” is a good idea. Meanwhile, a Goldman Sachs report suggested that generative AIs like GPT-4, the most advanced platform so far debuted, could automate away the equivalent of 300 million jobs, especially in legal and administrative work.


Code hub lays off Indian team

GitHub, a site where programmers share code and tools, fired almost its entire Indian engineering team. The Microsoft-owned company told TechCrunch it planned to reduce its global workforce by 10%. One factor may be that GitHub’s role is changing dramatically: Its new GPT-4-powered tool GitHub Copilot X allows users to ask natural-language questions and get working code in response. Programmers’ work is evolving. One top user of Stack Overflow, a programming Q&A site, said he was unlikely to “ever write anything there again” because GPT-4 answers all those queries now. It’s “a change in the airflow of knowledge,” he wrote, “from human-human via machine, to human-machine only.”


China’s warning to Taiwan leader

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. REUTERS/Ann Wang

Beijing threatened unspecified retaliation were Taiwan’s president to follow through with a planned meeting with the speaker of the House of Representatives during her trip to the United States. Tsai Ing-wen departed today on a 10-day visit to Belize and Guatemala, but will pass through New York en route to Central America, and then Los Angeles on her way back to Taipei. Washington warned Beijing not to “overreact” to Tsai’s stopovers. Her travel comes as one of her predecessors visited mainland China — the first such trip by a current or former Taiwanese leader — and a potential challenger for next year’s Taiwan presidential election toured the U.S.


Gains at Alibaba after revamp plans

Alibaba’s shares surged after the Chinese e-commerce giant said it would split itself into six companies. The surprise move came a day after its founder Jack Ma reappeared in China, following a prolonged period abroad having fallen afoul of Beijing. The splitting up of the behemoth could lead to several separate IPOs, and appears part of China’s efforts to curtail the strength of its powerful tech giants. Beijing has signaled its years-long crackdown on the sector is over, but continued uncertainty over the fate of a top tech financier, who went missing last month, “struck an unsettling note for investors and entrepreneurs in China,” the Financial Times reported.


Fire at Mexico migrant center

REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

At least 38 people died after a fire broke out at a migrant detention facility in northern Mexico. President Andres Manuel López Obrador said the detainees, who were protesting their impending deportation, were to blame for starting the fire, El Universal reported. A leaked video showed guards walking out of the facility as the fire roared, leaving the migrants locked up inside. This year, Mexico agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants deported from the U.S. each month from where they can begin their asylum application. However, a 2 million-case backlog and a faulty application system mean they often wait for months camping out in dangerous border cities.


Russia struggles as war grinds on

Growing signs suggest Russia’s economy is heading for long-term economic decline as a result of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions. Spiking gas prices gave Moscow a windfall in the first months of the war, but it is now struggling, forced to sell at a discount to India and China since Europe will not buy, The Wall Street Journal reported. The ruble is sharply lower against the dollar in recent months, and according to the Russia-focused outlet The Bell, emigration and conscription have caused a huge labor shortfall, which even Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledges is hampering military production.


Regulators grilled on SVB

U.S. authorities traded blame over who was responsible for the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, the lender whose failure this month triggered widespread fears of a financial crisis. The Federal Reserve’s senior bank-supervision official and the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. defended their actions in front of lawmakers yesterday, but faced accusations of being “asleep at the switch.” Their comments raise the question, Semafor’s Business and Finance Editor Liz Hoffman writes: Were the rules too lax, or were those in charge of enforcing them responsible? The argument that the chaos could have been avoided if SVB had been regulated like bigger banks, she notes, “falls flat.”

— For more from Liz, subscribe to her twice-weekly newsletter.


Assad regime’s $57B drug trade

The U.S. and U.K. sanctioned Syrian President Bashar Assad’s cousins for manufacturing and exporting drugs. London says the trade in the highly addictive amphetamine Captagon is worth $57 billion to the Syrian regime, three times as much as “the combined trade of the Mexican cartels,” and several times war-torn Syria’s entire GDP. Millions of Syrian-made pills have been seized in the Middle East and southern Europe. The drug, exported via the porous border with Lebanon, is a “lifeline” for “Assad’s inner circle, militias and warlords.”


Germany courts immigrants

Germany plans to make it easier for immigrants to gain citizenship in an attempt to boost the economy. The draft law will make it possible to gain citizenship after three years’ residency, rather than eight. It would also lift a ban on dual citizenship with non-EU countries, and make it easier for skilled workers to immigrate. Germany already has liberal immigration laws, and its population is at a record high, but companies still struggle to fill vacancies because of its aging workforce, CNBC reported. Also, while it is relatively easy to come to Germany, its naturalization laws are tough, meaning 12% of residents do not have citizenship and cannot vote or work in some government jobs.


The decline of US smoking

TBEC Review/WikimediaCommons

Vaping among teenagers rarely leads to smoking, a new study suggests. There’s a contradiction in existing research: Youths who vape are more likely to take up smoking, vaping among teens is up, but smoking is down. The new research wanted to explain that apparent paradox. The conclusion is that while vaping teens are more likely to take up smoking, smoking is very rare in absolute terms — only about 0.2% of teens in the study became very regular smokers, so even if vaping increases that figure to 0.4%, it’s tiny compared to the overall downward trend in smoking. A researcher told the Science Media Centre that it was reassuring that “cigarette use, which is far more harmful [than vaping], is increasingly rare.”


African star wins major music award

U.N. Photo/Flickr

The Benin-born singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo became the third African artist to win the “Nobel Prize of music.” Kidjo was awarded the Polar Music Prize alongside a classical composer and the founder of the Island Records label. She has taken inspiration from a wide range of artists, from Fela Kuti to Jimi Hendrix, and overcame an array of obstacles to rise to prominence, leaving Benin — then a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship — for Paris in her 20s. “I had to flee … to build a career,” she told the BBC. “Today, you can stay in Africa and it’s instantaneous. You put something on YouTube, the next day it’s a huge hit everywhere.”

  • U.S. President Joe Biden will host Argentina President Alberto Fernández at the White House.
  • Senegal’s main opposition coalition plans to protest in Dakar, a day before a court hearing for one of its leaders in a libel case.
  • THE CORPSING PICTURES, a new exhibition by the art duo Gilbert & George, opens in London.

The U.S. penchant for saying “cheese” in photos is influencing the way artificial intelligence reflects history and other cultures. A recent viral Reddit post featured photos generated with the AI text-to-image program Midjourney that depicted various historical figures — from Samurai soldiers to Egyptian warriors — taking group selfies and grinning ear-to-ear. But as Jenka Gurfinkel, a health and technology design writer, pointed out on Medium, how and why people smile is “deeply culturally contextual.

Outside the U.S., many cultures don’t historically say “cheese” for photographs. Despite that, the AI model defaulted to the modern American smile that emerged in the 1940s. “It was as if the AI had cast 21st century Americans to put on different costumes and play the various cultures of the world,” Gurfinkel wrote.

WikimediaCommons/Gary Soup

A Trinidadian street food with Indian roots tells the story of migration to the Caribbean island nation. The creation of doubles — curried chickpeas topped with coriander and mango chutneys, served between two pieces of fried flatbread — is widely credited to a married couple whose grandfathers were among the many indentured laborers British colonialists brought to Trinidad and Tobago between 1845 and 1917. “They quite literally cooked their way out of poverty,” their son Badru Deen told The Juggernaut. The “reliable to-go treat,” akin to an Indian kathi roll or Korean kimbap, has been on an inspiring journey: “What Deen’s parents started out as a means of survival turned into a national treasure,” Mehr Singh wrote.

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