Was the meeting of UN’s Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems cancelled to delay action affecting UK and US investment?
“Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention. They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is—practically if not legally—feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.”
Today (Aug. 21), Quartz reports that in a second open letter a group of specialists from 26 nations, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman, as well as other leaders in robotics and artificial-intelligence companies, called for the United Nations to ban the development and use of autonomous weapons.
In recent years Musk has repeatedly warned against the dangers of AI, donating millions to fund research that ensures artificial intelligence will be used for good, not evil. He joined other tech luminaries in establishing OpenAI, a nonprofit with the same goal in mind and part of his donation went to create the Future of Life Institute.
“As companies building the technologies in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics that may be repurposed to develop autonomous weapons, we feel especially responsible in raising this alarm. We warmly welcome the decision of the UN’s Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to establish a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems. Many of our researchers and engineers are eager to offer technical advice to your deliberations . . .
“Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”
The first meeting for the UN’s recently established Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems is now planned for November. It was to be held today, but was cancelled, the letter notes, “due to a small number of states failing to pay their financial contributions to the UN.”
Critics have argued for years that UN action on autonomous weapons is taking too long.
The UK and the US have increased investment on robotic and autonomous systems by committing to a joint programme (announced by UK Defence Minister Philip Dunne and US Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall, right).
Observers say the UK and US are seeking to protect their heavy investment in these technologies – some directly harmful and others servicing military operations – by ‘watering down’ an agreement so that it only includes emerging technology, meaning that any weapons put into practice while discussions continue are beyond the reach of a ban.
To avoid escalation, frontline troops in the area do not generally carry weapons
In June a column of Chinese troops accompanied construction vehicles and road-building equipment moving south into what Bhutan considers its territory. Bhutan requested assistance from Delhi.
The Chinese and Indian troops reportedly clashed by ritualised “jostling” captured on Indian TV: bumping chests, without punching or kicking, in order to force the other side backwards.
Yesterday, the FT highlighted another strategy as Chinese troops hold a banner reading ‘You’ve crossed the border, please go back’ in Ladakh, India
The Press Trust of India, India’s national news agency, reported that troops on both sides suffered minor injuries in a scuffle on the banks of Pangong Lake, on India’s Independence Day holiday.
It began when Chinese troops twice attempted to enter territory claimed by India. The news agency said that Indian border police formed a chain to block Chinese troops, who responded by throwing stones. Indian forces responded in kind, and the melee lasted about half an hour before both sides pulled back, the agency said.
An Indian foreign ministry spokesman said: “As there is no commonly delineated boundary on the line of actual control, such a situation arises from time to time, and these are dealt with at the local level”.
Seven years ago, the Stirrer’s correspondent (The Spook) predicted that one day the powers that be will realise that services should be designed and managed by the ‘undoubted experts’ that exist within the council.
S/he explained that they would be more practical and less expensive than those designed by “by cavalier consultants and back room HR boffins who have no conception of delivering a service and are only concerned that “procedures” are followed and “statistics” are recorded, irrespective of how impractical and resource wasting this might be.
Yesterday the Financial Times predicted that Learndirect, a company owned by the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank, is at risk of collapse, following a report by Ofsted. This prompted a data search which revealed 2013-4 as vintage years for complaints about the performance and cost of outsourcing companies.
Last year a survey of 36 strategic public-private partnerships signed between 2000 and 2007 found that 13 of the contracts – ranging from 7 to 15 years and covering IT, back-office functions, property management and highways – have gone back in-house at the end of contract or as a result of early terminations. In more than a third of cases, councils found that delivering services in-house could save more than outsourcing to commercial companies in long-term, multi-service partnerships. A return to designing, staffing and over-seeing services in-house can improve performance, reduce costs and provide stable employment for local people at all levels, with money circulating in the area, instead of going to distant shareholders.
The New Statesman noted that many companies featured on their list of nine spectacular’ council outsourcing failures were said to be looking “excitedly” at the NHS – hoping for “heaps of public money, ditching service the second the contract is framed and delivering huge returns to their shareholders”. Its 2014 article opened:
“One of the many concepts that free marketeers refuse to abandon in the face of all evidence is the idea that the private sector is better at providing public services than the public sector. Private companies have been cashing in on this fable for years at council and government level. As we file this report, another glorious outsourcing triumph is breaking: the Ministry of Justice has asked police to investigate alleged fraudulent behaviour by Serco staff in its Prisoner Escort and Custodial Services contract”. An online search will reveal that this is one of many problems reported in different countries.
Punitive contract ‘get out’ clauses – real or imagined
The article also listed the amount councils have had to spend to get out of private sector contracts and/or to deal with contract disputes and cost overruns. Note Javelin Park – the Gloucester incinerator contract revelation.
Despite these concerns, four years ago Swindon council brought basic ‘commercial’ services such as waste collection, recycling, highways maintenance and grass cutting, back in-house in order to save an estimated £1.8m. Last year, because of performance problems, financial pressures and NHS policy shifts, Swindon also decided not to renew contract with social work provider SEQOL.
Birmingham City Council recently ended the Service Birmingham Joint Venture with Capita which provided the Council’s information technology, ran the council tax and business rates administration service. The process continues with its move to bring waste and recycling collection in-house.
With reference to Serco, G4S and others – Simon Chesterton goes deeper, beyond issues of cost and efficiency:
He asks (left) whether there should be any limits on government capacity to outsource traditionally “public” functions:
“Can and should a government put out to private tender the fulfilment of military, intelligence, and prison services?
Can and should it transfer control of utilities essential to life, such as the supply of water?”
The BBC reports today that after President Donald Trump warned North Korea it should be “very, very nervous” if it does anything to the US, Defence Secretary James Mattis warned that armed conflict with North Korea would be “catastrophic” and said diplomacy was bearing fruit. “The American effort is diplomatically led, it has diplomatic traction, it is gaining diplomatic results,” he said.
At a series of intergovernmental conferences starting in 2013, extensive evidence was presented of the enormous ‘humanitarian consequences’ should nuclear weapons ever be used again in war.
One study published by the organisation Article 36 was a detailed analysis of the impacts of a single modern nuclear warhead exploding over a typical city within an industrialised nation. The target was Manchester in the UK as a model medium-sized modern city. The yield of the warhead was 100,000 tonnes (100kT) – similar to many of the smaller warheads deployed by the US, Russia, France and UK.
The immediate impacts of blast from the explosion were estimated using the city’s night-time population. Very conservative casualty estimates were around 210,000 people injured – many very seriously – and around 80,000 killed immediately by blast. Many of those injured would likely die from their injuries. These figures do not take account of injuries due to flash burns arising from the fireball, severe fires or longer term health impacts. Similar casualty figures were found for a warhead exploding at ground level. This would slightly reduce the radius of blast and fire damage but instead would create a long lethal zone of radiation capable of killing and injuring people many miles downwind.
These results are based on widely accepted casualty models and are therefore reasonable minimum estimates of the impacts. A range of humanitarian organisations (including UN agencies and the Red Cross) have concluded that the detonation of just one such weapon near any centre of population anywhere in the world would overwhelm the health infrastructure, making an effective humanitarian response impossible.
One 800kT warhead dropped on a city like Manchester would mean an estimated 240,000 killed and 535,000 injured. On top of this, one would expect large numbers of deaths and injuries due to flash burns, severe fires and conflagrations or even a firestorm. One RS-20 missile with ten such warheads could destroy ten urban areas with total deaths of at least 2.4 million and injuries of at least 5.4 million.
It should also be remembered that these casualty figures would only apply to the (very numerous) medium-sized cities. Nuclear warheads would be much more devastating if targeted on larger cities, such as Shanghai (population: 24m), Moscow (12m), London (8.5m) or New York (8.5m). For example, Moscow would suffer an estimated 760,000 immediate deaths with 2.7m injured from one US Trident Mk-5 warhead. For Shanghai, estimated fatalities are 3m with 4.4m injured.
This devastation would not be the end of the story. The next section looks at the longer-term effects of a nuclear war, in particular, disruption to the global climate, the ozone layer, ecosystems and food supplies.
Exploding nuclear warheads over ‘combustible targets’ such as cities and factories would lead to widespread, intense fires that would inject massive amounts of smoke into the atmosphere leading to the formation of extensive high-altitude smoke clouds. These would cause cooling of the climate in a similar fashion to that observed after very large volcanic eruptions (for example, Krakatoa in 1883), but on a rather larger scale, threatening agriculture and hence food supplies across the world. Other effects included major damage to the ozone layer – which protects humans and ecosystems from damaging ultra-violet rays from the Sun – and the long-lived effects of radioactivity.
The use of greater numbers of larger Russian and US nuclear warheads would cause even higher levels of cooling and greater climate impacts lasting a decade or more. The 1,800 US and Russian warhead scenario would cause a long-lasting cold period with a peak global cooling of 4°C, whilst the full scale nuclear war would cause 8°C. Frosts, drought and monsoon disruption would severely impact crop production for several years.
Finally, levels of nitrogen oxide gas and soot particles created by the nuclear explosions would severely damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer. It has been estimated that 50% of the protective value would be lost. This would increase the levels of ground level ultra-violet radiation and skin cancers amongst any survivors. It would also severely affect waterborne life by damaging phytoplankton which are a key part of the oceanic and freshwater ecosystems and provide a vital food supply for all larger aquatic creatures.
The destruction of vital infrastructure such as health care, water, food and energy supply systems, and a complete disruption of communications and trade, the longer-term consequences for the Earth’s environment would present very severe challenges for all those who survived the initial detonations. Realistically, after a large scale nuclear war, one should imagine a brutalised, traumatised shattered society violently thrown back into a pre-industrial age. Assuming that humanity at large could survive this global catastrophe, any ‘recovery’ would surely be measured in hundreds of years. Even after what has formerly been considered a small scale nuclear war, the consequences would still be dire across the globe, far beyond the conflict zones.
It has to be regarded a shocking indictment of our ‘civilisation’ that current stockpiles of nuclear weapons are sufficient to cause such a global catastrophe.
The fully referenced report may be read here: http://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/nuclear-weapons-beginner-s-guide-threats
Paul Simons adds to many ‘wakeup calls’ – writing about high temperatures, drought and wildfires.
May and June were also phenomenally hot across Portugal, Italy, the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.
Heat and drought have helped to fuel wildfires in Spain and Italy, and wildfires near the seaside resort of Calampiso in Sicily forced the evacuation by boat of about 700 tourists on Wednesday night. In Greece the heatwave led the culture ministry to close archaeological sites around the country, including the Acropolis in Athens.
Together with a long-running drought, the heat has ravaged much of southern Spain, leading to a devastated wheat and barley harvest. If the arid conditions continue, there are also fears for the olive, walnut, almond and grape harvests and the wellbeing of livestock. Rainfall has been desperately low this year, but the country has been suffering from a lack of rain for five years.
Drought threatens to reduce cereal production in Italy and parts of Spain to its lowest level in at least 20 years, and hit other regional crops. Castile and Leon, the largest cereal growing region in Spain, has been particularly badly affected, with crop losses estimated at around 60 to 70%. While the EU is collectively a major wheat exporter, Spain and Italy both rely on imports from countries including France, Britain and Ukraine.
Deadly heatwaves for much of South Asia – yet many of those living there will have contributed little to climate change
The Guardian adds to the news from Europe: India recorded its hottest ever day in 2016 when the temperature in the city of Phalodi, Rajasthan, hit 51C. Another study led by Prof Elfatih Eltahir, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, linked the impact of climate change to the suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers.
The analysis, published in the journal PNAS, assesses the impact of climate change on the deadly combination of heat and humidity, measured as the “wet bulb temperature” (WBT). Once this reaches 35C, the human body cannot cool itself by sweating and even fit people sitting in the shade will die within six hours.
Prof Chris Huntingford, at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: “If given just one word to describe climate change, then ‘unfairness’ would be a good candidate. Raised levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are expected to cause deadly heatwaves for much of South Asia. Yet many of those living there will have contributed little to climate change.”
Guardian journalists comment sarcastically, “But fear not: by 2040, no new diesel or petrol vehicles will be sold in the UK
This, apparently, is the appropriate timetable for responding to what a parliamentary committee calls a “public health emergency”. A child born today will be 23 by the time this policy matures – by then the damage to the development of her lungs and brain will have been done”.
According to Professor Eltahir’s study, if emissions are reduced roughly in line with the global Paris climate change agreement there would be no 35C WBT heatwaves and the population affected by the 31C WBT events would fall from 75% to 55%. About 15% are exposed today.
A National Geographic article says most people agree that to curb global warming a variety of measures need to be taken. On a personal level, driving and flying less, recycling, and conservation reduces a person’s “carbon footprint”—the amount of carbon dioxide a person is responsible for putting into the atmosphere.
At present, lorries shifting identical goods in opposite directions pass each other on 2,000-mile journeys. Competing parcel companies ply the same routes, in largely empty vans – a theme explored by MP Caroline Lucas and Colin Hines in 2003 – the Great Trade Swap.
It describes airports as deadly too – yet government and opposition alike are ‘apparently hell-bent’ on expanding Heathrow, exploring airport expansion projects elsewhere and seeking post-Brexit trade deals with distant countries.
To reduce the risk of ever more extreme weather, we must reduce the amount of fossil fuel we are burning – and the measures taken will have other desirable consequences as the following cartoon shows:
Parliament must listen to its Committee on Climate Change – chairman John Gummer. As the East Anglian Times reported in June, its annual progress report calls for “urgent” plans to meet legal targets for carbon cuts by 2032 as greenhouse gases from transport and buildings continue to rise.
The committee advocates action to bridge the gap between existing policies and what is needed to achieve required emissions reductions by the mid-2020s – boosting electric vehicles and cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the heating of homes to help to meet UK climate targets.
The right-wing press, neoliberal politicians and corporates in Britain such as Foreign Minister Sir Alan Duncan, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, Tory MP Mark Pritchard and Labour MP Frank Field, are firmly attached to the US-led global order which attempts to impose its will by propaganda and force – generally in oil rich countries like Venezuela. As MP Chris Williamson pointed out in his recent Newsnight interview, the US has a track record of interference at all levels, including military overthrow of inconvenient governments, in Latin America.
They have led repeated attacks on an absent Jeremy Corbyn for failing to cheer the US-led destabilisation of Venezuela. Labour List, which is clearly backing the Blairite wing, referred to ‘Nicolas Maduro’s violent suppression after a dirty election’. The Sun’s dig:
On his return, Mr Corbyn said: “I’m very sad at the lives that have been lost in Venezuela. The people who have died, either those on the streets or security forces that have been attacked by people on the street — all of those lives are terrible for the loss of them.” Repeatedly pressed to condemn Mr Maduro’s actions, he said: “What I condemn is the violence that’s been done by any side, by all sides, in all this. Violence is not going to solve the issue”, adding:
“We also have to recognise that there have been effective and serious attempts at reducing poverty in Venezuela, improving literacy and improving the lives of many of the poorest people.”
Using record-high oil revenues of the 2000s, the government nationalized key industries, created participatory democratic Communal Councils, and implemented social programs to expand access to food, housing, healthcare, and education. Venezuela used its oil revenue to make improvements in poverty, literacy, income equality, and quality of life.
James Tweedie effectively put the record straight in an interview on Radio 4’s Today Programme on 7th August, with the usually combative presenter failing to challenge even one of the facts he presented. In that and a recent article he made many points. Some of these follow:
- The opposition is led by representatives of wealthy families that have never been reconciled to losing power to a government committed to raising the majority from abject poverty.
- Tactics include factory-owners stopping production of products to create shortages in the shops. Food distribution giant Polar is accused by Mr Maduro’s government of orchestrating the food shortages that led to the current crisis, by hoarding stocks in its warehouses. Actions include blocking main roads, shutting down public transport networks and forcing shops to stay closed — exacerbating the shortages of food, medicines and other goods the opposition blame on the government. On Thursday night rioters burned some 40 tons of food out of 100 at a government distribution centre in eastern Anzoategui state destined for distribution to hungry families.
- Opposition supporters building barricades, blocking streets and attacking police during the constituent assembly election are routinely described in our mainstream media as “peaceful protesters”, though, as Sky News footage revealed, masked men were dressed in helmets, carrying full body shields carrying firearms and a roadside bomb blasting police motorcyclists.
The use of fire is a prime opposition weapon
- The opposition tactics are to engage in violent protests that force responses by the government and make the Maduro government look like an authoritarian regime.
- Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are taking a simplistic view of the intensifying crisis in Venezuela, ignoring appalling acts of opposition violence such as those detailed in this site which brings Spanish-language news in English.
- The country overwhelmingly believes the opposition lacks a plan for dealing with high inflation and the lack of state revenue for social services. They also oppose the violent tactics of the opposition (see poll results).
- The opposition agreed to take part in Vatican-mediated negotiations with the government but walked away from talks, adopting a new strategy of violent street confrontations to destabilise society.
- After all the executives of Smartmatic, an electronic voting company, left the country its CEO claimed at a press conference that the 8.1 million turnout figure in Sunday’s National Constituent Assembly election had been “tampered with” and inflated by about a million votes. No such report had been made to the Venezuelan authorities. (Smartmatic is owned by former MP Baron Mark Malloch-Brown, who has close links to George Soros – a major funder of New York-based Human Rights Watch and longstanding critic of Venezuela’s socialist government).
True socialism has been advancing in Britain over the past two years with Labour’s gains in the June election on an anti-austerity manifesto and the increasing public respect for Corbyn as leader. We can see, on the horizon, rejection of the current form of Western intervention which has gained adherents for extremist groups, destabilising many of the world’s regions, followed by collaboration with others to undertake the monumental task of rebuilding and reconciliation.