US considers imposing restrictions on Chinese researchers – Asian Scientist, May 8 2018

The White House is considering a proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities.

A proposal under consideration in the White House to prevent Chinese researchers from performing sensitive research at US universities has sparked concern within the scientific community. The move stems from fears surrounding intellectual property theft between China and the United States. If enforced, it could prove detrimental for many of the estimated 350,755 Chinese students in the country, as well as Chinese researchers.

China is proving to be a rising force in research and technology; the US National Science Foundation reported that in 2016, for the first time, China released a higher number of scientific publications than the US. The nation’s ‘Made in China 2025’ plan—a blueprint aimed at transforming China into a global leader in high-tech industries such as robotics and aerospace—illustrates the government’s intention to continue to advance. This move has not been welcomed by the US, primarily due to fears over theft of US intellectual property.

A probe into China’s policies and practices relating to technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation by the Office of the US Trade Representative, launched in August 2017, found that Chinese theft of American intellectual property costs between US$225 billion and US$600 billion annually. These findings were largely what prompted the Trump administration to announce plans to place tariffs of US$50 billion on Chinese goods, a move that provoked similar retaliation by China and ignited fears of an impending trade war between the nations.

The proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities is the most recent manifestation of these tensions.

“[This proposal], in conjunction with some of the other policies that the administration has issued with respect to immigration reform and restricting foreign nationals, has raised concerns among academic institutes and scientists in particular that the US is being seen as an unwelcoming nation,” said Ms. Joanne Carney, director of government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine. “Rather than coming here to study, students will go to other places and those nations will benefit from their expertise.”

The AAAS has released an official statement, signed by its Chief Executive Professor Rush Holt, on the travel of Chinese researchers to the US, recommending that the administration “work with the scientific community to assess and develop potential policy actions that advance our nation’s prosperity.” While it remains unclear what kind of restrictions are being tabled, or how much traction the idea is gaining in the White House, Carney noted that universities in the US have been outspoken about their views on the proposal.

“[The universities] recognize that there are concerns and are open to working with the government in order to craft a positive solution that not only helps to protect national security, but still allows for openness and helps to maintain the US as a welcome nation in terms of research,” Carney said.

“Scientific progress depends on the free flow of ideas, openness and transparency. The US in particular has benefitted from the unfettered exchange of information between scientists of many nations. We are very concerned about the possibility of restrictions in terms of science research,” she added.

(First published on Asian Scientist on May 8 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/05/academia/us-considers-imposing-restrictions-on-chinese-researchers/)

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Smart farming boosts income and helps planet at the same time – Irish Examiner, May 3 2018

In an ever-changing climate, we must adapt to keep up. Farmers are encouraged to do just that by the Smart Farming initiative established in 2014, while at the same time boosting farm returns and helping the planet.

Led by the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Smart Farming programme allows individual farmers to identify where they can cut costs and, in turn, reduce their environmental impact.

To date, 1,900 farmers have engaged with this programme, which focuses on eight key areas: Soil fertility, grassland, energy, water, feed, inputs and waste, machinery, and time management.

The programme is co-ordinated with the help of expertise from bodies including Teagasc, the EPA and the SEAI, to name a few.

“The lead and the drive on this came from the work of the IFA environment and rural affairs committee, at a time when there was an adversarial debate around climate change and greenhouse gases in Ireland. This was a genuine effort on their part to get involved in a positive way with the environment, and make a direct impact on their income,” says IFA Smart Farming programme manager Thomas Ryan.

The key objective of the programme is to identify €5,000 in cost savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5-7% per farm, on average.

This goal has been exceeded. In 2017, average cost savings identified on participating farms totalled €8,700, the average greenhouse gas emission reduction was 10%.

According to Ryan, most cost savings were made in the area of soil fertility, and the largest savings were seen on dairy farms.

“Forty-seven percent of the cost savings came from getting soil fertility right. In Ireland, almost two thirds of soil are classified as nutrient-hungry. The point we were able to demonstrate was that you can decrease your concentrates bill and increase grass growth by improving soil fertility. This may require an initial investment, in liming for example, but what we are able to show is the value in that investment.”

Meanwhile, increasing genetic merit through Economic Breeding Index (EBI) was identified as being the most effective measure for reducing greenhouse gases.

Although actions and results are unique to each farm, the initial Smart Farming procedure is the same. Each participating farmer receives a Resource Efficiency Assessment (REA) of their farm, which identifies potential cost savings. This is conducted by a qualified agronomist who, as well as evaluating farm data submitted by the participant, completes a farm walk with the farmer in order to gain a more complete understanding of management practices. Following this, a draft REA is drawn up recommending appropriate cost-saving changes.

A carbon reduction strategy for each farm is also developed, using a Carbon Navigator tool developed by Teagasc and Bord Bia; This provides an estimate of greenhouse gas emission reductions that can be delivered. Soil, water and silage tests are conducted, while feed management strategies are also usually recommended.

For the whole process to be a success, the complete co-operation of each farmer is key. Along with submitting a long list of documents including home and farm electricity bills, soil sample results and silage test results, participants must commit to passing on their knowledge.

“It’s quite innovative how this is working,” says Director of the EPA’s office of environmental sustainability Dr Eimear Cotter. “The farmer signs up, completes a farm walk, and identifies some improvements they might be able to bring in. The interesting part is, then, the farmer commits to sharing his or her experience with others.

“This peer-to-peer learning is quite different from anything else out there, but many environmental challenges are quite complex. Trying to effect change and action is going to require different ways of doing things”

The intention is that effective smart farming techniques will roll out through the wider agricultural community through word-of-mouth.

While not affiliated with the initiative, programme leader for the BSc in Agriculture at Waterford Institute of Technology and lifelong farmer Dr Tony Woodcock praises its approach.

“A huge amount of farmers are custodians of the environment. They care about it, and care about what they pass on to the next generation. You can also always say they will care about the profit of their farm. So the low-hanging fruit are changes where you are going to be environmentally-friendly and profitable at the same time.

“These programmes works much better than having an academic present a research project. That will go so far. It’s not that farmers don’t believe the research, but they’re more likely to engage if they see somebody they know who has made changes and saved money.”

While one method may prove beneficial on one farm, it may not on another.

This variability is what makes it difficult to recommend blanket agricultural changes across the country, according to Woodcock.

Affirming that there is “no silver bullet” when it comes to reducing costs and environmental impact, he says that the best thing a farmer can do is to educate themselves as much as possible about their own farms.

Irish farmers appear eager to do just that. The limit of 50 participants for this year’s Smart Farming programme was easily reached, with many more on the waiting list for 2019. It’s envisaged that up to 65 farms will participate next year. And many more farmers will engage with the programme as a result of peer-to-peer learning.

As the network of participants in the Smart Farming programme expands, so too does the scope of its plan. This year, the areas of nutrient planning and water management will be added to the current themes. Biodiversity will also become a key part of the initiative. The initial stage will see IFA working together with Teasgasc, UCD and the National Biodiversity Data Centre to create a shared understanding of biodiversity, and what it means in the farming context. Biodiversity priority areas will be agreed, and recommendations will then be incorporated into the existing programme.

While there is no end in sight for the initiative, there are certainly long-term ambitions. “The goal is to continue to demonstrate the real tangible effort that farmers are willing to make themselves to contribute to the sustainable development of the sector,” says IFA Smart Farming Programme Manager Thomas Ryan.

Ultimately, it’s hoped that sustainable practices will become embedded into common practice on farms, says the EPA’s Dr Eimear Cotter.

In Ireland, we have committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2005 levels, by 2020; and agriculture accounts for 32% of our emissions.

Though it’s widely acknowledged that we will miss our target, could the Smart Farming Initiative help us to move in the right direction?

“If we get profit before scale right, we will continue to improve efficiency, and hopefully will decouple the link between size of herds and increased environmental impact,” says Ryan. “I’d like to think Smart Farming will play a part [in meeting our goals] alongside other programmes out there.”

Cotter echoes these sentiments.

“It’s going to require a build-up of lots of initiatives. Smart Farming is a part of that where we are looking at long-term behavioural changes but it won’t provide all of the answers. It’s one measure that we are supporting, along with many others.”

(First published in the Irish Examiner on May 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/farming/smart-farming-boosts-income-and-helps-the-planet-at-the-same-time-840692.html)

The clock is ticking to save the curlew – Irish Times, April 23 2018

The haunting cry of the curlew has long been embedded in Irish literary culture as well as in individual memory. Yet, with the breeding population dropping by a staggering 96 per cent since the 1980s, we are left to wonder whether Ireland’s future generations will have any more than these tales to rely on when learning about this iconic bird.

With the inaugural World Curlew Day held on April 21st, the focus was on the plight of the Eurasian curlew in Ireland, as well as that of other curlew species worldwide.

In 2011, BirdWatch Ireland carried out the first survey in Ireland specifically focused on breeding curlew populations. These were conducted in Donegal and Mayo as part of the Halt Environmental Loss Programme (Help), a cross-Border initiative funded through the EU Interreg IVA scheme. Just eight pairs of breeding curlew were found and it was estimated that there were fewer than 200 pairs nationwide compared to an estimation of 5,000 in the early 1990s. The first national survey was commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2015 and 2016. It found numbers to be lower than estimations, with fewer than 150 breeding pairs discovered. Without action, it was predicted that the curlew will be extinct as a breeding species in Ireland within a decade.

This may surprise those who see curlew flocks between late July and early spring. However, these birds are likely to be wintering from Britain and Scandinavia whereas the breeding population can be found between April and early June.

“Without a doubt, the primary cause of population decline is habitat loss and degradation. This mainly occurred in the second half of the last century with things such as widespread agricultural change, drainage and restriction of bogland, loss of marshy pastures and afforestation,” explains Senior Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Anita Donaghy. “As a result, curlew habitats have become more fragmented. This degradation and fragmentation has had a knock-on effect and the population are now more vulnerable to predation.”

BirdWatch Ireland established a year-long “Cry of the Curlew” campaign in 2011 in an effort to raise money to fund nationwide curlew research. Since 2012, they’ve also been calling on the Government to take action. These calls were finally heard in 2017 when Minister Heather Humphreys announced the establishment of a Curlew Task Force aimed at saving the curlew from national extinction.

Independent chairman of the Curlew Task Force Alan Lauder says their primary role is “to bring together all relevant stakeholders involved with curlew conservation across the country”. In total, 30 people attend Task Force meetings, including groups and individuals from farming, turf-cutting, conservation, governmental, research and various other backgrounds.

“Our aim is to form approaches to first, halt their decline and then restore populations as quickly as possible,” says Lauder, who chairs the task force on a voluntary basis.

The Curlew Conservation Programme was established by the NPWS in 2017. This action programme is currently focused on seven areas: Stacks Mountains, Lough Ree, Lough Corrib, north Roscommon, Leitrim, Monaghan and Donegal.

“In each area we have a “curlew action team” with a “curlew champion”. These teams are liaising with local communities and landowners. Most of the people we have employed are local people themselves, with a blend of backgrounds including farming, hurling and tourism,” explains head of the Agri-Ecology Unit with NPWS Dr Barry O’Donoghue, who manages the programme.

Tasks carried out by action teams include field surveys and working with landowners to protect nests from predation. Habitat improvement measures such as the removal of gorse and blackthorn scrub from the Lough Ree area were also carried out.

For such a programme to be successful, O’Donoghue says it must be appropriate for curlew and farmer needs, offer supports to landowners, promote local pride and ownership in our natural heritage and ultimately, lead to results.

Researchers from UCD are currently monitoring the Curlew Conservation Programme to evaluate what measures are positively affecting curlew productivity. The benchmark figure for sustainable curlew population growth is 0.5 chicks per pair.

“Our aim is to ascertain what aspects of land use are leading to success,” explains UCD lecturer in wildlife conservation and zoonotic epidemiology Dr Barry McMahon. “Areas around the lakes such as Lough Ree are showing productive signs but we don’t have the data to go with this yet so it’s too early to say for sure.”

McMahon, who is principal investigator for the research project, says productivity is likely due to the lower levels of predation in these areas. As a ground-nesting bird, curlews are highly vulnerable.

The Department of Agriculture introduced a specific curlew conservation option in the agri-environment scheme Glas in 2015, while a curlew conservation project granted funding under the European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) Initiative will soon commence in Galway.

While praising all positive moves, Donaghy says more needs to be done. This includes the provision of additional resources to establish additional Curlew Action Teams elsewhere, as well as better protection from development for the curlew at a national level.

“BirdWatch Ireland regrets that the government didn’t take action when the problem was brought to their attention in 2012. The curlew population has declined even further since then. Now it makes it very difficult to build a sustainable population,” she adds.

Though not directly involved with the projects, birding expert Eric Dempsey has been keeping a close eye. While fully praising the establishment of the task force, he says it’s “hard not to view the Government’s move with cynicism”.

“It was such a hypocritical thing for Humphreys to do because she was simultaneously pushing the section of the Heritage Bill allowing farmers to burn randomly in the uplands,” he says. “On one hand she was launching a wonderful curlew campaign and on the other, pushing legislation that puts birds on the brink of extinction.”

He adds: “We must stop the Heritage Bill to allow the task force to do its business.”

World Curlew Day

The Eurasian Curlew is one of eight curlew species worldwide. At least three of these are seen as endangered or near threatened, while the Eskimo curlew and the slender-billed curlew are considered likely extinct. To highlight the importance of these birds, manager of the Curlew Conservation Programme Dr Barry O’Donoghue established the idea of a World Curlew Day which took place on April 21st – the idea has quickly taken flight internationally, with events arranged as far away as Australia.

“It’s so important that it is community-led,” explains O’Donoghue. “The aim is to mainstream conservation issues and have them tie in with something that is well known in the locality. One of the key focuses from the day is that local people realise how important their area is on a national and international scale to this bird.”

Events in Ireland included talks, art competitions and even football tournaments such as the Curlew Cup in Stack’s Mountains – all of which are featured on the World Curlew Day Facebook page.

(First published in the Irish Times on April 23 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/the-clock-is-ticking-to-save-the-curlew-1.3470968)

The Eskimo Curlew hasn’t been seen for 55 years. Is it time to declare it extinct? -Audubon, April 22 2018

Scientists hope the plight of this shorebird, once among the most common in North America, will spur conservation for other troubled curlew species.

Victor Emanuel will never forget the day he saw his first Eskimo Curlew. It was around 60 years ago, in Galveston, Texas, when the foot-long, brown-speckled bird poked its down-curved bill through the grass—a rare gem nearly invisible among a field of other mottled shorebirds. At first, Emanuel and several others believed it was a runt Whimbrel. But after checking all possible field marks and consulting guides, they confirmed that what they saw was the rare Eskimo Curlew. They were among the last people to see the species alive.

“There’s a chapter in my memoir in which I call it the bird of my life,” Emanuel says. “For a birder who had seen this bird in field guides, which said it was possibly extinct, it was like seeing a dinosaur. It had a huge effect on me.”

At one point, the Eskimo Curlew may have been one of the most common shorebirds in North America, with a population numbering in the many millions. Flocks once migrated from wintering grounds in South America, through the Great Plains, to breeding territories in Alaska and Canada—and back south off the Atlantic Coast.

For most people today, though, the species is merely a legend, fueled by old stories and the highly regarded 1954 book Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth. Photographer Don Bleitz took the last known photo of the shorebird in Galveston in 1962, and the last confirmed sighting was in 1963, when a lone bird was shot in Barbados. In 1983, a reported sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas stirred up much excitement, but it was not accepted by the state bird records committee.

“It seems quite unbelievable to me that so many birds would show up on a single occasion, and not be seen ever again,” says Jon McCracken, director of national programs at Bird Studies Canada. “It’s like verifying that there are UFOs out there without good solid physical evidence.”

Though most cite the Barbados record as the last true sighting of the Eskimo Curlew, reports are still occurring—but they’re mostly wishful thinking. “Every season starting in June or July, I get a call with someone reporting an Eskimo Curlew,” says Bob Gill, a shorebird biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center in Anchorage who co-authored a detailed account of the species in The Birds of North America. “Invariably they are juvenile Whimbrels.”

What happened to this once-widespread species, you ask? They were hunted in large numbers through the 1800s; hunting migratory birds, except for those species approved by the government, largely ceased in 1918 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Yet hunting is not the sole cause of decline, Gill says.

“Was it a contributing factor? Absolutely. Was it the only factor? No way,” he says. “As this bird was being hunted, the prairies were being plowed under and a principal food source, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, was going extinct.” These grasshoppers once had population booms in the billions; in 1875, they formed the largest recorded locust swarm: 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, blanketing Plattsmouth, Nebraska for five days. As grasslands were converted to cornfields, the locusts vanished—and grassland birds, like the curlew, did, too.

“Hunting is an easy thing to blame,” Gill continues. “I just hope people can be more objective and look at the big picture.”

That’s particularly important given the threats to the seven other curlew species. This genus of wading migratory shorebirds, distinguishable from others by their down-curved bill and mottled plumage, faces threats in regions across the globe. The Eurasian Curlew, for example, has seen its European breeding population decline by at least one-third in 30 years due to loss of its grassland habitat, and significant declines have also been recorded in central Asian populations. The Bristle-thighed Curlew, with 7,000 individuals, is currently classed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with drops in numbers largely attributed to predation by introduced predators on its wintering grounds in tropical Oceania; considering that more than 50 percent of adults are flightless during autumn molt, they are particularly easy targets.

Then there’s the Far Eastern Curlew, with a population of 32,000 birds in 2006, according to Wetlands International estimates. Habitat loss on the Yellow Sea staging grounds is considered the primary threat to the species and, with the rate of intertidal habitat loss averaging over 1 percent annually, this trend is expected to continue. While the Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, and Little Curlew are not currently a cause for concern, due to their relatively stable populations and wide range, ongoing climate change and habitat degradation could threaten them in the future.

Finally, there’s the Slender-billed Curlew, which hasn’t been spotted since 1995. Similarly to the Eskimo Curlew, historical hunting and habitat loss are believed to be key to their disappearance.

The Eskimo Curlew has not been declared extinct—yet. It is currently considered “critically endangered (possibly extinct)” by the IUCN. The latest report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada again declared the bird endangered in 2009. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a five-year status review of the bird, which upon completion continued to list it as endangered.

Despite there being no confirmed sightings since 1963 and no evident breeding in more than 100 years, it’s difficult to definitively say whether the Eskimo Curlew is extinct.

“It’s a case of trying to prove a negative; absence of evidence isn’t proof of absence. If you can’t prove an absence, is it extinct or not?” says McCracken, who authored Canada’s 2009 report. “I personally believe that it probably, almost certainly, is extinct, and I think that’s the general consensus.”

Canada plans to reassess the Eskimo Curlew’s status in 2020, with no confirmed date yet for the U.S. review.

Regardless, circumstances remain dire for other curlews and birds that breed or migrate through landscapes that have been transformed. And based on the lack of optimism Gill hears at shorebird meetings, he’s not sure how much can be done to reverse the damage. For decades, scientists have sounded the alarm about the wildlife impacts of land fragmentation and the conversion of prairies and forests to farmland. At this point, he says, it might be too late. The changes people have made are vast; there’s no converting all of that farmland back to grassland.

Still, Gill maintains some hope that people might be convinced even quirky birds like curlews are worth the effort. And the story of the Eskimo Curlew could help.

“If we declare this bird extinct, let’s use it to our advantage and prevent others from becoming extinct,” he says. “I think anything we can do to raise public awareness will help [to protect other species]. We need to get people to get in touch with their concerns they may not have even known that they had.”

(First published on Audubon on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://www.audubon.org/news/the-eskimo-curlew-hasnt-been-seen-55-years-it-time-declare-it-extinct)

Sustainable Watersports: Diving without Destruction – Zafigo.com, April 20 2018

Even while adventuring in new places, many of us are keen to see what’s literally below the surface. Recent research shows that marine tourism is one of the most rapidly growing tourism sectors globally, and with some of the world’s most beautiful reefs situated in Asia, you’re missing out if you don’t take a closer look.

It has to be said, however, that scuba diving and snorkelling come with a high price, and I’m not just talking about the cost of a PADI licence. There’s a growing awareness of how human activities impact our marine ecosystems, and these popular hobbies are certainly not exempt from the conversation.

Thankfully, several organisations and individuals worldwide have made it their goal to protect what remains of these precious underwater worlds. Established by the United Nations Environmental Programme and currently supported by The Reef-World Foundation, Green Fins is an ever-expanding network that focuses on improving the marine tourism industry through liaising with governments, NGOs, dive centres and individuals in their established countries.

“The overall aim of Green Fins is to protect and conserve coral reefs by establishing and implementing environmentally-friendly guidelines to promote a sustainable diving and snorkelling tourism industry,” explains Green Fins assessor for the Green Fins Malaysia network Nadhirah Mohd. Rifai.

Along with educating industry players on best practice, Green Fins aims to encourage tourists to take heed when taking the plunge. Here’s a summary of their suggestions:

Support positive change

Green Fins is working to ensure that all of its members serve as guardians to marine life by adopting eco-friendly and sustainable practices. The environmental standards of all dive and snorkel centres who have adopted the Green Fins Code of Conductare assessed annually.

“We recommend visiting Green Fins certified dive operators that can be found in Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, The Maldives and Palau,” says Nadhirah.

For the ultimate eco-friendly dive centres, Nadhirah recommends choosing from their top 10 Green Fins Members on this list; these centres are ranked the best among other Green Fins-certified dive operators.

Look with your eyes

While the rainbow of coral and seashells in our oceans may tie in perfectly with your household colour scheme, you must remember that the natural world is not a free-for-all gift shop. Whether dead or alive, don’t remove any coral or other marine life while diving or snorkelling. Besides causing environmental damage, removing coral from the ocean is illegal in many places. So why risk it? Let your memories will serve as the best souvenir. Additionally, be sure not to touch or step on coral, which is very fragile and takes a long time to grow.

Capture moments with care

It’s understandable to be eager to capture moments so you can share with loved ones back home. While underwater photography is certainly permissible, it’s important to take steps to prevent harm. Green Fins recommends that divers take care not to drag photography equipment against the reef as this can cause irreparable damage.

It’s also recommended that you practice your underwater photography skills prior to venturing out on a diving or snorkelling trip. This will ensure you are confident in carrying the equipment underwater and so, are less likely to cause an accident. Finally, as tempting as it can be, photographers are urged not to touch, move, chase or disturb any marine life in the quest for the perfect shot.

Leave no trace

You wouldn’t carelessly dump trash in your friend’s home so why do it to our underwater neighbours? We’re becoming increasingly aware of the impact that plastic is having on our oceans’ ecosystems and while the problem won’t be resolved overnight, you can play your part by ensuring that you don’t add to it. Make sure to bring any plastic bottles, food packaging and other waste home with you after the trip. What only takes a few moments to gather up can have long-term consequences for the ocean if left behind.

Additionally, while it is perfectly acceptable to feed yourself (a day at sea can leave you famished!), share leftovers only with fellow land-dwelling divers. Marine creatures have plenty of grub to keep them satisfied and eating human food could result in illness, aggression towards divers and an imbalance in ecosystems should fish choose to eat human food over algae.

Practice

It’s important to ensure that you know what you’re doing before taking to the water, both for your own safety and the safety of marine life. “Bad buoyancy may cause coral damage when divers kick the corals, as well as coral mortality due to sediments being stirred and then landing on nearby corals, choking them and blocking the sunlight,” says Nadhirah. The best way to practice? Keep diving! Just be sure to keep yourself, and the environment, safe from harm.

(First published on Zafigo.com on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/diving-without-destruction/ )

Bringing AI To The Masses – Asian Scientist, April 22 2018

Keen on picking up the fundamentals of AI? A community-driven movement known as AI Saturdays can give you a leg up.
It’s often said that knowledge is a form of wealth; in the face of a rapidly changing world, a new global initiative aims to equip people from all backgrounds with such riches. AI Saturdays, also known as AI6, is a community-driven, non-profit movement established to offer education on artificial intelligence (AI) to the masses. Through structured study groups, lectures and project work, the organizers aim to teach everybody how they can use AI in their everyday lives.
With the first chapter established in December 2017 in Singapore by Nurture.AI CEO Mr. Yap Jia Qing, followed by the second soon after in Kuala Lumpur, it could be said that the AI6 movement is in its infancy. Yet within a few months, the initiative has grown to include 103 chapters across six continents, including 47 in Asia. At time of writing, there are over 5,000 participants worldwide, from Kathmandu to California.
A worldwide classroom
AI Saturdays stemmed from a simple realization by the people at Nurture.AI, according to Mr. James Lee, AI research fellow at Nurture.AI and the co-head of AI6.
“Nurture.AI maintains a web platform for discussing academic AI papers. However, we realized that reading academic papers was not an activity that could be easily accessed by many. We created AI6 to help enable people to be comfortable with the technologies behind AI, as well as to build a community.”
Many distinguished universities, including Stanford and Harvard, offer open-source learning material on AI. Through AI6, the founders hoped to give people the opportunity to experience what it’s like to sit in one of these classrooms—from anywhere in the world.
“We didn’t expect to do anything big with it. We just thought we’d get people together to learn some AI by going through the materials available online. Initially this was for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and it spread from there,” explains Lee, who is also one of the ambassadors of the Kuala Lumpur chapter.
Just like with AI technology itself, the direction of a meeting can be hard to predict, and is often dependent on the preferences of chapter members. However, all chapters center their Saturday lectures around open-access course material from universities like Stanford and Berkeley. The first session, ‘Practical Deep Learning,’ sees participants watch and code along with materials from fast.ai, a free deep learning course. In session two, ambassadors are asked to focus on either computer vision, reinforcement learning or natural language processing. Finally, in the third session, members go through Stanford’s Stats385 course and participate in open forum-style discussions. Group project work is also strongly encouraged throughout the course of these Saturday sessions.
“One of the things we do is encourage every chapter to have a milestone, to tell members to take what you have learned so far and produce something,” explains Lee. “In the Kuala Lumpur chapter for example, one guy took ten years of stock prices and made an algorithm that predicts whether they will go up and down in the next month. Others made a Trump tweet simulator. They downloaded Donald Trump’s tweets and tried to create a neural network that replicates the style.”
AI as a basic skill
Becoming an AI6 ambassador doesn’t require a significant amount of prior knowledge; instead, curiosity is key. Ambassador of the Delhi chapter Mr. Divyansh Jha says it was his interest rather than his experience in AI that led him to get involved in the movement in December 2017.
“I’m from an electronics background, but recently I developed a huge interest in deep learning and AI. For the last year, I’ve been taking steps to learn more and doing projects in this area,” he says, adding that becoming an ambassador has helped him to develop leadership skills that make him more employable.
Expanding his knowledge of AI is of great importance to Jha; why does he think others should learn?
“I think AI should become a basic skill, because within ten or twenty years, everything will involve AI. People should learn this skill so they can move forward,” says Jha, who while happy to share knowledge, says he doesn’t believe in forcing anyone to get involved.
For some, the rapid expansion of AI and machine learning is a source of fear. Indeed, in a 2017 global study conducted by independent consumer research agency Northstar, 22 percent of some 4,000 participants said they felt society will become worse due to increased automation and AI. Yet new technology doesn’t need to be fearsome, says Jha.
“The people who know about the current state of AI aren’t fearful. It is people who don’t know about these things who are very fearful,” he says. “I think the AI singularity is very far from today; I don’t see it grabbing jobs from people in the next ten or twenty years. AI is something that will help humans improve.”
Reaping the rewards
Ambassador for the Taipei chapter Mr. Kuo Ruey-shen echoes these views, adding that one must find a scenario suitable for AI in order to fully understand its benefits.
“You have to know the purpose of AI and why you are using it, and then you decide what type of algorithm and deep learning can help you. It’s a tool to help us do a lot of jobs, not a tool to replace you. I think it will allow you as a human to start to live again, but only if you use that in the right way. A lot of the reports write about the wrong way and make people afraid,” he says.
 AI6 ambassadors help people to understand these benefits. At the same time, troubleshooting and problem solving is done through international collaboration over online platforms. This networking may soon become something bigger as a large-scale international AI6 initiative is in the pipeline for July 2018.
Meanwhile, participants such as Ms. Seema Goel are reaping the rewards. Goel was teaching herself AI and machine learning when she was invited to join the AI6 Bangalore chapter in January. She says that joining the group has helped her to progress with her learning and overcome obstacles she faced while learning alone.
“This meetup helped me in every possible way, be it understanding the concepts, technical glitches, and providing inspiration,” she says. “For me the group is meeting all expectations.”
Delhi chapter member Mr. Rohit Singh has similar views.
“The experience has been phenomenal,” he says. “Some members and especially the ambassador, Divyansh [Jha], do a great job at making the experience enriching for everyone. They go through the material, sharing their experience and clarifying doubts for everyone in a setting that’s quite informal and yet focused and driven.”
(First published on Asian Scientist on April 22 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/04/features/artificial-intelligence-saturdays-asia-ai6/)

Tips for victims of theft while travelling – Zafigo.com, April 15 2018

There was a time, 10 months into the trip of the lifetime, I sat in Kuala Lumpur (KL) munching on steaming chapati (Indian flatbread) with friends, uttering famous last words, “Nothing has gone wrong yet.” It was true. Besides the odd dodgy stomach – which was inevitable considering I’d just exposed my Irish belly to rich, spicy foods for the first time – our travels around Southeast Asia had run completely smoothly.

It wouldn’t be long before I was no longer eating delicious Indian food, but instead, eating my words. That same evening, I was deep in conversation with a friend in the city when a guy on a bike swerved in behind me, yanked my bag from my shoulder, and sped away before I even had a chance to yell out an expletive.

My phone, money, and bank card had been taken before my own eyes, along with some sentimental items such as a bracelet from two friends in Vietnam. I’m sure you can imagine the kaleidoscope of colourful language that came from my mouth in the following few minutes. As much as I endeavour to become a crime-fighting queen who rids the world of handbag theft, I realise this is unachievable. However, I can offer a few titbits of advice for those who find themselves in the same situation.

Accept it

Regardless of how little cash you had in your purse or how dishevelled your phone is, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get your stuff back. A thief won’t feel a sudden tinge of regret and return your items to you, and chasing somebody down could be dangerous. Take the few minutes you need to vent that anger; cry, swear, scream, whatever you need. After that, accept that your things are gone and get on with your travels. Losing things, regardless of how sentimental or valuable, is not the worst case scenario. Your own safety is key.

File a police report

Telling my hotel receptionist that I’d become a victim of snatch theft, I was met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. They told me not to bother reporting the event to the police, which, considering I had very little details on the thief, made sense. I also had to catch a bus soon after and knew that I had a roomful of clothes to shove into a backpack before getting on the road.

However, I later learned that reporting could have proven beneficial. I had taken travel insurance in my home country and upon informing the company of the incident, was told that they could offer compensation only if I had a police report. Too late! I was already in the Cameron Highlands eating away my sorrows with scones and strawberries.

Cancel everything

After my 10-minute temper tantrum, the first thing I did was contact my bank and cancel my card. This may sound obvious, but it’s a task that’s easily forgotten when emotions are running high. I also alerted my network provider about my phone and noted down any other cards that I’d need to replace when I returned home.

Don’t let it ruin your trip

I certainly had plenty of “woe-is-me” moments as I went through the tedious task of cancelling cards and forking out good money for a new phone. However, though the enviable Instagram posts don’t show it, petty theft is unfortunately quite a common part of travelling; just like food poisoning, jellyfish stings and bike accidents. That’s not to say it’s acceptable, but if you do fall victim to theft, do what you have to do and get back to your travels.

With only a few weeks of my adventure left, I decided not to let this experience ruin my trip. It’s also important not to let such an event taint your impression of a place. Bag theft is probably just as likely to happen in my home city. Every other experience I had in KL and Malaysia overall was fantastic and there was no way one person was going to tarnish my love for the country.

Be prepared

Hindsight is a great thing, and I don’t want to sound like a lecturing aunty. However, in order to prevent becoming the victim of theft, I recommend you learn from my mistakes. Here are some tips on how you can be more mindful wherever you are:

  • Try to remain alert of what is going on around you when walking about a new city at night.
  • Don’t walk with your handbag facing the road as this will make it easier for a driver to snatch it.
  • If your bag has a long shoulder strap, make sure it hangs across your body and is underneath your clothes (like a jacket) if possible. Otherwise, it’s quite easy for somebody to grab it or cut it loose.
  • Never flash cash or valuables in a public place and avoid bringing out unnecessary items such as passports.
  • Finally, have an emergency bank card in your backpack if you can. This will be a saviour if your main one is stolen.

(First published on Zafigo.com on April 15 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/tips-victims-travel-theft/)