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The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of

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The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of


For example, the research found 55,455 Hikvision networks in London. “From my experience of just walking around London, it would probably be several times over that. They’re in almost every supermarket,” says Samuel Woodhams, a researcher at Top10VPN who carried out the study.

The prevalence of Hikvision cameras overseas has caused anxieties around national security, even though it hasn’t been proved that the company transfers its overseas data back to China. In 2019, the US passed a bill banning Hikvision from holding any contracts with the federal government.

What really made Hikvision infamous on the global stage was its involvement in China’s oppressive policies in Xinjiang against Muslim minorities, mostly Uyghurs. Numerous surveillance cameras, many equipped with advanced facial recognition, have been installed both inside and outside the detention camps in Xinjiang to aid the government’s control over the region. And Hikvision has been a big part of this activity. The company was found to have received at least $275 million in government contracts to build surveillance in the region and has developed AI cameras that can detect physical features of Uyghur ethnicity. 

Presented with questions about Xinjiang by MIT Technology Review, Hikvision responded with a statement that did not address them directly but said the company “has and will continue to strictly comply with applicable laws and regulations in the countries where we operate, following internationally accepted business ethics and business standards.”

“The ways [companies like Hikvision] are able to hold people in place through the checkpoints and face recognition systems have turned the entire region, from the Uyghur perspective at least, into a flexible [but] closed system. They often talk about it as an open-air prison,” says Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University and the author of In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony. “And that really wouldn’t be possible without these tech companies.”

Uncharted waters

Adding Hikvision to the SDN would do more than ratchet up tensions between the US and China—it would open up a new front in international sanctions, one in which tech companies increasingly find themselves embroiled in geopolitical power struggles.

People could be criminally prosecuted for working or doing business with the company once the sanction is announced, says Healy: “[Hikvision] can no longer interact with the US dollar or the US financial system. And other banks and other financial institutions around the world, generally speaking, will also not do business with you, because they want to maintain their access to the US dollar and to US financial markets.” 

At the very least, this would mean Hikvision wouldn’t be able to sell its cameras outside China, and its international revenues would fall to zero. But it’s unclear whether governments and companies already using Hikvision cameras would be asked to replace them immediately. Then things get even trickier when it comes to the Hikvision services beyond the hardware. Can current Hikvision users accept software updates from the company? Use the company’s cloud storage? “That’s exactly the kind of thing [the US government] might make an exception for here,” says Healy, because traditional enforcement of the SDN list may become impractical in the digital era. 

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Deep learning can almost perfectly predict how ice forms

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Deep learning can almost perfectly predict how ice forms


Researchers have used deep learning techniques to model how ice crystals form in the atmosphere with much higher precision than ever before. Their paper, published this week in PNAS, hints at the potential for the new method to significantly increase the accuracy of weather and climate forecasting.

The researchers used deep learning to predict how atoms and molecules behave. First, deep learning models were trained on small-scale simulations of 64 water molecules to help them predict how electrons in atoms interact. The models then replicated those interactions on a larger scale, with more atoms and molecules. It’s this ability to precisely simulate electron interactions that allowed the team to accurately predict physical and chemical behavior. 

“The properties of matter emerge from how electrons behave,” says Pablo Piaggi, a research fellow at Princeton University and the lead author on the study. “Simulating explicitly what happens at that level is a way to capture much more rich physical phenomena.”

It’s the first time this method has been used to model something as complex as the formation of ice crystals, also known as ice nucleation. This development may eventually improve the accuracy of weather and climate forecasting, because the formation of ice crystals is one of the first steps in the formation of clouds, which is where all precipitation comes from. 

Xiaohong Liu, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, who was not involved in the study, says half of all precipitation events—whether it’s snow or rain or sleet—begin as ice crystals, which then grow larger and result in precipitation. If researchers can model ice nucleation more accurately, it could give a big boost to weather prediction overall.

Ice nucleation is currently predicted based on laboratory experiments. Researchers collect data on ice formation under different laboratory conditions, and that data is fed into weather prediction models under similar real-world conditions. This method works well enough sometimes, but often ends up being inaccurate because of the sheer number of variables in real-world conditions. If even a few factors vary between the lab and actual conditions, the results can be quite different.

“Your data is only valid for a certain region, temperature, or kind of laboratory setting,” Liu says.

Basing ice nucleation on how electrons interact is much more precise, but it’s also extremely computationally expensive. Predicting ice nucleation requires researchers to model at least 4000 to 100,000 water molecules, which even on supercomputers could take years to run. And even that would only be able to model the interactions for 100 picoseconds, or 10-10 seconds, not enough to observe the ice nucleation process.

Using deep learning, however, researchers were able to run the calculations in just 10 days. The time duration was also 1,000 times longer—still a fraction of a second, but just enough to see the ice nucleation process.

Of course, more accurate ice nucleation models alone won’t make weather forecasting perfect, says Liu. Ice nucleation is only a small but critical component of weather modeling. Other aspects, like understanding how water droplets and ice crystals grow, and how they move and interact together under different conditions, is also important.

Still, the ability to more accurately model how ice crystals form in the atmosphere would significantly improve weather predictions, especially whether it’s likely to rain or snow, and by how much. It could also improve climate forecasting by improving the ability to model clouds, which are vital players in the absorption of sunlight and abundance of greenhouse gasses.

Piaggi says future research could model ice nucleation when there are substances like smoke in the air, which can improve the accuracy of models even more. Because of deep learning techniques, it’s now possible to use electron interactions to model larger systems for longer periods of time.

“That has opened essentially a new field,” Piaggi says. “It’s already having and will have an even greater role in simulations in chemistry and in our simulations of materials.”

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How to craft effective AI policy

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How to craft effective AI policy


So to your first question, I think you’re right. That policy makers should actually define the guardrails, but I don’t think they need to do it for everything. I think we need to pick those areas that are most sensitive. The EU has called them high risk. And maybe we might take from that, some models that help us think about what’s high risk and where should we spend more time and potentially policy makers, where should we spend time together?

I’m a huge fan of regulatory sandboxes when it comes to co-design and co-evolution of feedback. Uh, I have an article coming out in an Oxford University press book on an incentive-based rating system that I could talk about in just a moment. But I also think on the flip side that all of you have to take account for your reputational risk.

As we move into a much more digitally advanced society, it is incumbent upon developers to do their due diligence too. You can’t afford as a company to go out and put an algorithm that you think, or an autonomous system that you think is the best idea, and then land up on the first page of the newspaper. Because what that does is it degrades the trustworthiness by your consumers of your product.

And so what I tell, you know, both sides is that I think it’s worth a conversation where we have certain guardrails when it comes to facial recognition technology, because we don’t have the technical accuracy when it applies to all populations. When it comes to disparate impact on financial products and services.There are great models that I’ve found in my work, in the banking industry, where they actually have triggers because they have regulatory bodies that help them understand what proxies actually deliver disparate impact. There are areas that we just saw this right in the housing and appraisal market, where AI is being used to sort of, um, replace a subjective decision making, but contributing more to the type of discrimination and predatory appraisals that we see. There are certain cases that we actually need policy makers to impose guardrails, but more so be proactive. I tell policymakers all the time, you can’t blame data scientists. If the data is horrible.

Anthony Green: Right.

Nicol Turner Lee: Put more money in R and D. Help us create better data sets that are overrepresented in certain areas or underrepresented in terms of minority populations. The key thing is, it has to work together. I don’t think that we’ll have a good winning solution if policy makers actually, you know, lead this or data scientists lead it by itself in certain areas. I think you really need people working together and collaborating on what those principles are. We create these models. Computers don’t. We know what we’re doing with these models when we’re creating algorithms or autonomous systems or ad targeting. We know! We in this room, we cannot sit back and say, we don’t understand why we use these technologies. We know because they actually have a precedent for how they’ve been expanded in our society, but we need some accountability. And that’s really what I’m trying to get at. Who’s making us accountable for these systems that we’re creating?

It’s so interesting, Anthony, these last few, uh, weeks, as many of us have watched the, uh, conflict in Ukraine. My daughter, because I have a 15 year old, has come to me with a variety of TikToks and other things that she’s seen to sort of say, “Hey mom, did you know that this is happening?” And I’ve had to sort of pull myself back cause I’ve gotten really involved in the conversation, not knowing that in some ways, once I go down that path with her. I’m going deeper and deeper and deeper into that well.

Anthony Green: Yeah.

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A bioengineered cornea can restore sight to blind people

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A bioengineered cornea can restore sight to blind people


One unexpected bonus was that the implant changed the shape of the cornea enough for its recipients to wear contact lenses for the best possible vision, even though they had been previously unable to tolerate them.

The cornea helps focus light rays on the retina at the back of the eye and protects the eye from dirt and germs. When damaged by infection or injury, it can prevent light from reaching the retina, making it difficult to see.

Corneal blindness is a big problem: around 12.7 million people are estimated to be affected by the condition, and cases are rising at a rate of around a million each year. Iran, India, China, and various countries in Africa have particularly high levels of corneal blindness, and specifically keratoconus.

Because pig skin is a by-product of the food industry, using this bioengineered implant should cost fraction as much as transplanting a human donor cornea, said Neil Lagali, a professor at the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences at Linköping University, one of the researchers behind the study.

“It will be affordable, even to people in low-income countries,” he said. “There’s a much bigger cost saving compared to the way traditional corneal transplantation is being done today.”

The team is hoping to run a larger clinical trial of at least 100 patients in Europe and the US. In the meantime, they plan to kick-start the regulatory process required for the US Food and Drug Administration to eventually approve the device for the market.

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