The Daily Dose: State-sponsored DNA surveillance supported by AI makes for a scary future

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Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was strong, characterized by early decisive decisions and cooperation from the public. So far, the country has been able to avoid major clusters of infections and fatalities. Things may be changing. As per the Associated Press, “Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said Tuesday that the entire city and some of its surrounds will be locked down again from Wednesday night under tougher restrictions than were imposed during the first shutdown that started in March. ‘We are in many respects in a more precarious, challenging and potentially tragic position now than we were some months ago,’ Andrews said. About 3,000 residents of nine public housing high-rise buildings were given just an hour’s notice at the weekend before being prohibited from leaving their apartments for at least five days.” Victoria’s decision to impose much harsher measures is drawing some ire from the state’s citizens.

You can add another country to the fast-growing list of nations moving to reopen their economies while local COVID-19 cases continue to climb According to the Associated Press, “With travel uncertain and the coronavirus still striking nations Dubai relies on for tourists, this city-state wants to begin coaxing people back to its beaches and its cavernous shopping malls. By instilling the idea that Dubai is safe, authorities likely hope to fuel interest in the sheikhdom ahead of its crucial winter months for tourism. But all that depends on controlling a virus that the United Arab Emirates as a whole continues to fight. Armed with thermometers, mandatory face masks and hand sanitizer, Dubai is wagering it is ready.” Feels like we’ve heard that strategy before.

The U.S. National Science Foundation has a new boss. Moving over from Arizona State University, Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan faces a tough task with a Trump Administration and sizeable portions of the Republican Party assuming overt, anti-science stances. For now, he remains undaunted. As per an interview in Science, “Asked why NSF’s budget should be reduced, as the president has sought to do since taking office in 2017, he instead notes that year after year both the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-controlled House have rejected the president’s requests for large cuts and instead given NSF small annual increases. “The process involves both the administration and Congress, as I understand it,’ Panchanathan says.” That is true. For now.

When it comes to developing a COVID-19 vaccine, China is taking the lead. Taking advantages of their command economy, they’ve been able to synchronize and speed up testing. As per Reuters, “China is forging ahead in the race to develop a vaccine to help control the COVID-19 pandemic, with Sinovac Biotech’s (SVA.O) experimental vaccine set to become the country’s second and the world’s third to enter final stage testing later this month. While a laggard in the global vaccine industry, China, where the new coronavirus is thought to have originated, has brought state, military and private sectors together in a quest to combat a disease that has killed over 500,000 people worldwide.” China is behind eight of the 19 vaccine candidates in human trials. That being said, the nation’s command economy has also been responsible for serious vaccine safety issues.

Leave it to the surveillance state par excellence to take things up a level. Reports indicate that the Chinese government is doing some serious DNA collection among male citizens. As per Nature, “Chinese state media first reported the government’s intention to construct a national forensic DNA database in 2017. But a report released on 17 June compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think tank, reveals the scale, and key details, of the operation for the first time: for several years, police have been collecting DNA from men and school-aged boys across the country. They aim to collect and store genetic profiles of roughly 10% of the country’s male population — as many as 70 million people, according to the report.” Government officials believe that 70 million samples is enough to extend the database to cover the entire male population. Talk about creepy.

With the International Conference on Machine Learning, one of the largest AI meetings in the world, a couple of weeks away, most people’s attention is focused on advances in the technology and ways in which it can be used in society. There are also some serious concerns on how it will affect society in the future. Pratyusha Kalluri, co-creator of the Radical AI Network and an AI researcher at Stanford University in California, makes clear where she stands on the development of AI in an opinion piece in Nature. According to Kalluri, “Many researchers think that AI is neutral and often beneficial, marred only by biased data drawn from an unfair society. In reality, an indifferent field serves the powerful.” The combination of AI with the vast collection of genetic data for surveillance is a horror story in the making. Is it inevitable?

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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