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‘They can see us in the dark’: migrants grapple with hi-tech fortress EU | Migration

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Khaled has been playing “the game” for a year now. A former law student, he left Afghanistan in 2018, driven by precarious economic circumstances and fear for his security, as the Taliban were increasingly targeting Kabul.

But when he reached Europe, he realised the chances at winning the game were stacked against him. Getting to Europe’s borders was easy compared with actually crossing into the EU, he says, and there were more than physical obstacles preventing him from getting to Germany, where his uncle and girlfriend live.

On a cold December evening in the Serbian village of Horgoš, near the Hungarian border, where he had spent a month squatting in an abandoned farm building, he and six other Afghan asylum seekers were having dinner together – a raw onion and a loaf of bread they passed around – their faces lit up by the glow of a fire.

The previous night, they had all had another go at “the game” – the name migrants give to crossing attempts. But almost immediately the Hungarian border police stopped them and pushed them back into Serbia. They believe the speed of the response can be explained by the use of thermal cameras and surveillance drones, which they had seen during previous attempts to cross.

“They can see us in the dark – you just walk, and they find you,” said Khaled, adding that drones had been seen flying over their squat. “Sometimes they send them in this area to watch who is here.”

Migrants in Serbian village of Horgoš, close to the Hungarian border squatting in an abandoned farm building, January 2021.
Migrants squatting in an abandoned farm building in the Serbian village of Horgoš, close to the Hungarian border, January 2021. Photograph: Kevin McElvaney

Drones, thermal-vision cameras and devices that can detect a heartbeat are among the new technological tools being increasingly used by European police to stop migrants from crossing borders, or to push them back when they do.

The often violent removal of migrants without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum is illegal under EU law, which obliges authorities to process asylum requests whether or not migrants possess identification documents or entered the country legally.

“Routes are getting harder and harder to navigate. Corridors [in the Balkans are] really intensively surveyed by these technologies,” says Simon Campbell, field coordinator for the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a migrant rights group in the region.

Migrant in Serbian village of Horgoš
A refugee in the Serbian village of Horgoš last month. Photograph: Kevin McElvaney

The militarisation of Europe’s borders has been increasing steadily since 2015, when the influx of migrants reached its peak. A populist turn in politics and fear whipped up around the issue have fuelled the use of new technologies. The EU has invested in fortifying borders, earmarking €34.9bn (£30bn) in funding for border and migration management for the 2021-27 budget, while sidelining the creation of safe passages and fair asylum processes.

Osman, a Syrian refugee now living in Serbia, crossed several borders in the southern Balkans in 2014. “At the time, I didn’t see any type of technology,” he says, “but now there’s drones, thermal cameras and all sorts of other stuff.”

When the Hungarian police caught him trying to cross the Serbian border before the pandemic hit last year, they boasted about the equipment they used – including what Osman recalls as “a huge drone with a big camera”. He says they told him: “We are watching you everywhere.”

Upgrading of surveillance technology, as witnessed by Khaled and Osman, has coincided with increased funding for Frontex – the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency. Between 2005 and 2016, Frontex’s budget grew from €6.3m to €238.7m, and it now stands at €420.6m. Technology at the EU’s Balkan borders have been largely funded with EU money, with Frontex providing operational support.

Between 2014 and 2017, with EU funding, Croatia bought 13 thermal-imaging devices for €117,338 that can detect people more than a mile away and vehicles from two miles away.

In 2019, the Croatian interior ministry acquired four eRIS-III long-range drones for €2.3m. They identify people up to six miles away in daylight and just under two miles in darkness, they fly at 80mph and climb to an altitude of 3,500 metres (11,400ft), while transmitting real-time data. Croatia has infrared cameras that can detect people at up to six miles away and equipment that picks upheartbeats.

Border patrol at Hungary-Serbia border
A Hungarian police and military patrol near the border crossing between Röszke, Hungary, and Horgoš, Serbia, last month. Photograph: Zoltán Gergely Kelemen/EPA

Romania now has heartbeat detection devices, alongside 117 thermo-vision cameras. Last spring, it added 24 vehicles with thermo-vision capabilities to its border security force at a cost of more than €13m.

Hungary’s investment in migration-management technology is shielded from public scrutiny by a 2017 legal amendment but its lack of transparency and practice of pushing migrants back have been criticised by other EU nations and the European court of justice, leading to Frontex suspending operations in Hungary in January.

It means migrants can no longer use the cover of darkness for their crossing attempts. Around the fire in Horgoš, Khaled and his fellow asylum-seekers decide to try crossing instead in the early morning, when they believe thermal cameras are less effective.

Migrants in Horgoš, close to the Hungarian border
Migrants squatting in an abandoned farm building close to the Hungarian border last month. Photograph: Kevin McElvaney

A 2021 report by BVMN claims that enhanced border control technologies have led to increased violence as police in the Balkans weaponise new equipment against people on the move. Technology used in pushing back migrants has “contributed to the ease with which racist and repressive procedures are carried out”, the report says.

BVMN highlighted the 2019 case of an 18-year-old Algerian who reported being beaten and strangled with his own shirt by police while attempting a night crossing from Bosnia to Croatia. “You cannot cross the border during the night because when the police catch you in the night, they beat you a lot. They break you,” says the teenager, who reported seeing surveillance drones.

Ali, 19, an Iranian asylum-seeker who lives in a migrant camp in Belgrade, says that the Croatian and Romanian police have been violent and ignored his appeals for asylum during his crossing attempts. “When they catch us, they don’t respect us, they insult us, they beat us,” says Ali. “We said ‘we want asylum’, but they weren’t listening.”

BVMN’s website archives hundreds of reports of violence. In February last year, eight Romanian border officers beat two Iraqi families with batons, administering electric shocks to two men, one of whom was holding his 11-month-old child. They stole their money and destroyed their phones, before taking them back to Serbia, blasting ice-cold air in the police van until they reached their destination.

“There’s been some very, very severe beatings lately,” says Campbell. “Since the spring of 2018, there has been excessive use of firearms, beatings with batons, Tasers and knives.”

Responding to questions via email, Frontex denies any link between its increased funding of new technologies and the violent pushbacks in the Balkans. It attributes the rise in reports to other factors, such as increased illegal migration and the proliferation of mobile phones making it easier to record incidents.

Hungarian police guard the closed “Horgos 2” border crossing into Hungary
Hungarian police guard a border crossing with Serbia near the village of Röszke last year. Photograph: Darko Vojinović/AP

Petra Molnar, associate director of Refugee Law Lab, believes the over-emphasis on technologies can alienate and dehumanise migrants.

“There’s this alluring solution to really complex problems,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to sell a bunch of drones or a lot of automated technology, instead of dealing with the drivers that force people to migrate … or making the process more humane.”

Despite the increasingly sophisticated technologies that have been preventing them from crossing Europe’s borders, Khaled and his friends from the squat managed to cross into Hungary in late December. He is living in a camp in Germany and has begun the process of applying for asylum.

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AI should be recognized as inventors in patent law • The Register

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In-brief Governments around the world should pass intellectual property laws that grant rights to AI systems, two academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia argued.

Alexandra George, and Toby Walsh, professors of law and AI, respectively, believe failing to recognize machines as inventors could have long-lasting impacts on economies and societies. 

“If courts and governments decide that AI-made inventions cannot be patented, the implications could be huge,” they wrote in a comment article published in Nature. “Funders and businesses would be less incentivized to pursue useful research using AI inventors when a return on their investment could be limited. Society could miss out on the development of worthwhile and life-saving inventions.”

Today’s laws pretty much only recognize humans as inventors with IP rights protecting them from patent infringement. Attempts to overturn the human-centric laws have failed. Stephen Thaler, a developer who insists AI invented his company’s products, has sued trademark offices in multiple countries, including the US and UK to no avail.

George and Walsh are siding with Thaler’s position. “Creating bespoke law and an international treaty will not be easy, but not creating them will be worse. AI is changing the way that science is done and inventions are made. We need fit-for-purpose IP law to ensure it serves the public good,” they wrote.

Dutch police generate deepfake of dead teenager in criminal case

A video clip with the face of a 13-year-old boy, who was shot dead outside a metro station in the Netherlands, swapped onto a body using AI technology was released by police.

Sedar Soares died in 2003. Officers have not managed to solve the case, and with Soares’ family’s permission, they have generated a deepfake of his image on a kid playing football in a field presumably to help jog anyone’s memory. The cops have reportedly received dozens of potential leads since, according to The Guardian. 

It’s the first time AI-generated images have been used to try and solve a criminal case, it seems. “We haven’t yet checked if these leads are usable,” said Lillian van Duijvenbode, a Rotterdam police spokesperson. 

You can watch the video here.

AI task force advises Congress to fund national computing infrastructure

America’s National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource (NAIRR) urged Congress to launch a “shared research cyberinfrastructure” to better provide academics with hardware and data resources for developing machine-learning tech.

The playing field of AI research is unequal. State-of-the-art models are often packed with billions of parameters; developers need access to lots of computer chips to train them. It’s why research at private companies seems to dominate, while academics at universities lag behind.

“We must ensure that everyone throughout the Nation has the ability to pursue cutting-edge AI research,” the NAIRR wrote in a report. “This growing resource divide has the potential to adversely skew our AI research ecosystem, and, in the process, threaten our nation’s ability to cultivate an AI research community and workforce that reflect America’s rich diversity — and harness AI in a manner that serves all Americans.”

If AI progress is driven by private companies, it could mean other types of research areas are left out and underdeveloped. “Growing and diversifying approaches to and applications of AI and opening up opportunities for progress across all scientific fields and disciplines, including in critical areas such as AI auditing, testing and evaluation, trustworthy AI, bias mitigation, and AI safety,” the task force argued. 

You can read the full report here [PDF].

Meta offers musculoskeletal research tech

Researchers at Meta AI released Myosuite, a set of musculoskeletal models and tasks to simulate biomechanical movement of limbs for a whole range of applications.

“The more intelligent an organism is, the more complex the motor behavior it can exhibit,” they said in a blog post. “So an important question to consider, then, is — what enables such complex decision-making and the motor control to execute those decisions? To explore this question, we’ve developed MyoSuite.”

Myosuite was built in collaboration with researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and aims to arm developers studying prosthetics and could help rehabilitate patients. There’s another potential useful application for Meta, however: building more realistic avatars that can move more naturally in the metaverse.

The models only simulate the movements of arms and hands so far. Tasks include using machine learning to simulate the manipulation of die or rotation of two balls. The application of Myosuite in Meta’s metaverse is a little ironic given that there’s no touching allowed there along with restrictions on hands to deter harassment. ®

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A day in the life of a metaverse specialist

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Unity’s Antonia Forster discusses her work using AR, VR and everything in between, and why ignoring imposter syndrome is particularly important in the world of emerging technology.

We’ve started hearing a lot about the metaverse and what it means for the future, including how it might affect recruitment and the working world.

But what is it like to actually work within this space? Antonia Forster is an extended reality (XR) technical specialist at video game software development company Unity Technologies, with several years of experience developing XR applications.

Future Human

In her role at Unity, she works across a variety of industries, from automotive to architecture, creating demos and delivering talks using XR, which encapsulates AR, VR and everything in between.

‘I watch a lot more YouTube tutorials than you might expect’
– ANTONIA FORSTER

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day in the job?

It’s challenging to describe a typical day because they vary so much!  I work completely remotely with flexible hours. Most of my team are based in the US while I’m in the UK. In order to manage the time difference, I usually start work around 11am and work until 7pm.

Most of my day is spent on developing content, whether that’s using Unity and C# to code a technical demo, creating video content to help onboard new starters with Unity’s tools, or writing a script for a webinar.

Before the pandemic, a role like mine would involve lots of travel and speaking at conferences. But unfortunately, that’s a little more challenging now.

We use a whole range of tools from organisational ones like Asana to manage our projects, to Slack and Google Docs to coordinate with each other, to Unity’s own technical tools to create content.

All of Unity’s XR tools fall under my remit, so I might be creating VR content one day and creating an AR mobile app the next. I also use Unity and C# to create my own projects outside of work. For example, I co-created the world’s first LGBTQ+ virtual reality museum, which has been officially selected for Tribeca Film Festival in June 2022 – during Pride!

What types of project do you work on?

At Unity, my role is to create content that helps people understand our tools and get excited about all the different things it enables them to do. For example, for one project I visited a real construction site and used one of Unity’s tools (VisualLive) to see the virtual model of the building model overlaid on top of the real physical construction.

This makes it very easy to see the difference between the plan and the actual reality, which is very important to avoid clashes and costly mistakes. For another project, I used VR and hand-tracking to demonstrate how someone could showcase a product (say, a car) inside a VR showroom and then interact with it using hand tracking and full-body tracking.

What skills do you use on a daily basis?

The most relevant skill for my role is the ability to break down a larger problem into small steps and then solving each step. That’s really all programming is! That and knowing the right terms to Google to find the solution and enough understanding to implement the solution, or continuing to search if you don’t understand that solution or it is not appropriate for your problem.

Despite my title, I don’t think of myself as highly ‘technical’. I’m an entirely self-taught software developer, and I’m a visual learner, so I watch a lot more YouTube tutorials than you might expect!

Another crucial skill is persistence because VR and AR are emerging and fast-moving technologies that are constantly changing. If I follow a tutorial or try a solution and it doesn’t work, I used to grapple with the feeling that maybe I’m not good enough.

In reality, this technology changes so often that if a tutorial is six months old, it might be out of date. Learning to be resilient and persistent and to ignore my feelings of imposter syndrome was the most important thing I’ve learned on my career journey. Your feelings are not facts, and imposter syndrome is extremely common in this industry.

What are the hardest parts of your working day?

One of the most difficult challenges of my working day is the isolation. I work remotely and many of my team are on a different time zone, so we’re not always able to chat. To overcome that, I prioritise social engagements outside of work.

When I’m extremely busy with my own projects – like the LGBTQ+ VR museum – I go to co-working spaces so that I can at least be around other people during working hours.

I also struggle with time blindness. I have ADHD and working remotely means that it’s easy to get absorbed in a task and forget to take breaks. I set alarms to snap myself out of my ‘trance’ at certain times, like lunchtime. I have to admit though, it doesn’t always work!

Do you have any productivity tips that help you through the day?

My main tip for productivity is to find what works for you, not what works for other people, or what others think should work for you.

For example, I am a night owl. So, starting my day a little later and working into the night, works well for me. It also means I can sync with my team in the US. I don’t find time to play video games, piano or meet up with my friends in the evening, so instead I arrange those things for the morning, which helps me persuade myself to get out of bed!

In the same way, when I was learning to code, people gave me advice like: ‘Break things and fix it, to see how it works’. But that produced a lot of anxiety for me and didn’t work well.

Instead, I learned with my own methods like writing songs, drawing cartoons and even physically printing and gluing code snippets into a notebook and writing the English translation underneath. Code after all, is a language, so I treated it the same way. Find what works for you, even if it’s not conventional!

How has this role changed as this sector has grown and evolved?

I began this role in 2020 and typically – before the pandemic – my job would have been described as a ‘technical evangelism’, which involves a lot of public speaking and travel to conferences.

Of course, that wasn’t really possible, so my role has evolved into creating content of different types – webinars online, videos, onboarding tutorials and technical demos for marketing and sales enablement.

While I really enjoy public speaking, the lack of travel has given me time to get deeply familiar with Unity’s XR tooling and sharpen my technical expertise. This technology is always changing so it’s really important to constantly learn and grow. Luckily, I have an insatiable curiosity and appetite for knowledge. I think all engineers do!

What do you enjoy most about the job?

I have two favourite things about this job. First, the autonomy. Since I have a deep understanding of the tools and our users/audience, I’m trusted to design and propose my own solutions that best meet the user needs.

Secondly, the technology itself. Being able to create VR or AR content is like sorcery! I can conjure anything from nothing. I can create entire worlds that I can step into based only on my imagination. And so can anybody that learns this skill – and it’s easier than you think! That has never stopped being magical and exciting to me, and I don’t think it ever will.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

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Will this fruit-picking robot transform agriculture? | Artificial intelligence (AI)

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Robots can do a lot. They build cars in factories. They sort goods in Amazon warehouses. Robotic dogs can, allegedly and a little creepily, make us safer by patrolling our streets. But there are some things robots still cannot do – things that sound quite basic in comparison. Like picking an apple from a tree.

“It’s a simple thing” for humans, says robotics researcher Joe Davidson. “You and I, we could close our eyes, reach into the tree. We could feel around, touch it, and say ‘hey, that’s an apple and the stem’s up here’. Pull, twist. We could do all that without even looking.”

Creating a robotic implement that can simply pick an apple and drop it into a bin without damaging it is a multimillion-dollar effort that has been decades in the making. Teams around the world have tried various approaches. Some have developed vacuum systems to suck fruit off trees. Davidson and his colleagues turned to the human hand for inspiration. They began their efforts by observing professional fruit pickers, and are now working to replicate their skilled movements with robotic fingers.

Their work could help to transform agriculture, turning fruit-picking – a backbreaking, time-consuming human task – into one that’s speedy and easier on farm workers.

These efforts have gained impetus recently as researchers point to the worsening conditions for farm workers amid the climate crisis, including extreme heat and wildfire smoke, and also a shortage of workers in the wake of the pandemic. The technology could lead to better working conditions and worker safety. But that outcome depends on how robots are deployed in fields, farm workers’ organizations say.

While robotic tools for agriculture have made big strides in recent years, those AI-based tools are mostly used for weeding, monitoring soil moisture and other field conditions, or for planting soybeans using remote-controlled tractors. “But when it actually comes to doing physical work like pruning trees or picking fruit, that’s still the realm of people today,” Davidson says.

Teaching robots to perform these tasks requires modernized versions of both the orchard and the apple.

Traditional orchards, with irregularly shaped trees and giant canopies, are too much of a challenge for algorithms to parse and process. Shifting sunbeams, fog and clouds add to computer vision’s challenges. Tangled, tall old trees are problematic even to human pickers, who end up spending much of their time hauling and positioning ladders, not picking fruit.

Now, many growers have transitioned to orchards where trees grow flat against trellises, their trunks and branches at right angles to create a “wall of fruit”, says Scott Jacky, owner of Red Roof Consulting, a group that helps optimize farm technologies. The thinner canopy also lets more sunlight in, encouraging fruits to form.

Since the 1990s, breeders have been working to develop apple varieties more resistant to sunburn – a side-effect of those sparser canopies – and less prone to bruising when dropped into bins. All these changes to the trees and the apples themselves make the job easier for robots (and for humans).

In orchards with trellised trees, human fruit pickers can cruise through rows of trees in pairs on slowly rolling platforms. One person crouches to reach low-hanging fruit, the other reaches for the higher branches. Professionals working this way take about two seconds to pick one apple.

The robot in Davidson’s lab, which is essentially a giant arm mounted on a rolling platform, takes about five seconds to make its moves. At the click of a key, the robotic arm reaches up for the fruit – actually a plastic apple made for testing purposes – with its three-fingered palm. Its fingers are covered in cushiony silicone “skin”, which conceals individual motors wired to tendons that drive its fingers. Thirty sensors under each fingertip track the pressure, speed, angle and other aspects of its grasp to help the robot complete its task.

Another keystroke and the fingers tighten, then twist, and the apple – successfully picked – rests in the robot’s palm.

The fruit-picking robot has picked an apple successfully about half of the 500 or so times it has tried so far. Still, the robotic arm has cracked some problems that posed hurdles to automation. For instance, it can avoid damaging both fruit and tree limbs in the harvesting process. Rapid improvements in computing make Davidson and others hopeful the robots will work on farms within the next five to 10 years.

The US government is placing significant bets on this technology. Last year alone, federal funding agencies granted $20m to support the AgAID institute, a new group that supports several researchers, including Davidson, in efforts to develop artificial intelligence-backed tools for agriculture.

Proponents of harvest automation say there will still be jobs for people, such as training and operating the robots. “There are going to be plenty of tasks where the robotic instruments and digital devices will necessarily have to work with humans,” said Ananth Kalyanaraman, professor at Washington State University and director of the AgAID institute. “That’s going to actually empower humans because it gives them new skillsets.”

For now, it’s unclear to many farm workers how the robots will affect their livelihood. “If they’re used properly, they can actually be a support system for workers and improve standards at work,” says Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, a Latinx farm workers’ organization in Oregon.

But so far, Lopez and others say they have not been involved in conversations about the fruit-picking robots. “Historically, farm workers have not been placed at the center of any of these conversations,” they say. Across various industries, including agriculture, waves of automation have led to job losses and a devaluing of human work. Often in the wake of such shifts, “what happens to low-wage workers is that people lose their jobs,” Lopez says.

The emergence of robotic farm workers could even be an opportunity for humans to engage in different – and far less strenuous – work than pruning or harvesting, says Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. “There’s a lot of folks in rural communities who, even if they would like to, physically cannot do these jobs,” she says.

“When you take the physical aspect out, these tasks become more accessible to older workers or those less physically capable of lugging ladders and things. It enables more people to be drawn into this work.”

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