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2020: The triumph of science

Believe it or not, 2020 gave us reasons to be hopeful.

2020 might be one many would like to forget, but there’s much worth remembering from a tumultuous year that undeniably left its mark on us all.

It was rough right out of the gates. In January, wildfires were raging across Australia and Brexit was threatening to blow up the Irish economy. We had a general election in February but no new Government until June. And, in that time, the world as we knew it was upended.

The threat of Covid-19 saw Indeed take the lead on sending Irish staff to work from home in February. Others followed, deeming it a temporary fix. But as remote working policies were extended and extended, it called into question whether the centralised office would even have a future.

A ‘new normal’ centred on flexible working had been proven possible by the pandemic. Fujitsu and Siemens ran with the idea, introducing permanent remote working plans for more than 200,000 employees between them.

The prescience of former Silicon Republic journalist Lisa Ardill has to be noted. In December 2019, she predicted that 2020 could become the year of working in our pyjamas. What she didn’t realise was that we’d be doing everything that way. Thankfully Disney+ had arrived in Ireland just in time, and by summer we had Animal Crossing to keep us from burning out.

Google Maps data revealed that recreation activity dropped 83pc in Ireland from February to March. Non-Covid healthcare was put on hold. Irish institutions had to radically change how research was conducted. A death knell was sounded for international business travel and supply chains were hit. The chip shortage was exacerbated, threatening the roll-out of the year’s anticipated gadgets and games consoles. There was a sharp rise in cyberattacks as malicious hackers targeted critical health infrastructure. Cinema had to pivot to streaming and there was such pressure on online networks that Netflix had to reduce its stream quality in Europe and Facebook and Instagram had to lower their video bitrates. Jobs were created, and jobs were lost. Recruitment, skills, lab work, drug manufacturing and life sciences in general – everything was affected.

2020 was such a rollercoaster that it makes for a pretty intense video game. And if you’re reading this, you made it. Though many didn’t.

The death toll from Covid-19 would be substantially higher if not for the triumph of science in 2020. Not only the record-setting development of a successful vaccine, but the science-led decision-making that protected people.

We were writing about “life after coronavirus” as early as April, and while it may have been premature, hope was key to resilience throughout 2020. And, thankfully, our faith in science was repaid.

Reflecting on 20 years in STEM, Prof Mark Ferguson, who served as director general of Science Foundation Ireland for half of this period, was incredibly hopeful in the wake of 2020.

“We have all witnessed first-hand the contribution made by science, research and innovation globally to managing the Covid-19 crisis: effective new vaccines delivered in less than one year – something previously thought impossible,” he said.

“We need to now work collaboratively to apply the same expertise, focus and dedication to deal with the many other challenges our world is facing from climate change to food security.”

The C-word

China confirmed human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on 20 January. Days later, Wuhan – the epicentre of the first Covid-19 outbreak – was quarantined and the WHO declared a public health emergency. By 11 March, it was officially a pandemic.

Elon Musk changed his stance from “the coronavirus panic is dumb” to getting SpaceX and Tesla to work on ventilators to treat severe cases of Covid-19. Irish-headquartered Medtronic also moved to meet the global demand for ventilators, doubling production at its Galway plant. Microsoft developed a chatbot to help the US Centers for Disease Control assess citizens reporting symptoms. Apple donated millions of masks to healthcare professionals and Jack Dorsey pledged $1bn to support relief programmes. Sci-tech was stepping up in a big way.

Contact tracing was crucial to quelling the spread of the virus, but apps developed for this purpose had to ensure data privacy. Whether contact-tracing data should be centralised or decentralised was debated even as the number of cases continued to multiply.

This was Irish open-source developer NearForm’s time to shine. Its Covid Green source code for Ireland’s contact-tracing app was publicly released and became part of the Linux Foundation Public Health initiative, supporting the build of privacy-conscious contact-tracing tech around the world.

Another Irish company was also working to help the HSE handle Covid. Trinity spin-out Akara Robotics began testing robotic disinfection in Irish hospitals, officially launching new healthcare robot Violet at the end of the year. Using UV light, Violet could disinfect an entire room in as little as five minutes.

At year-end, there were more than 80m confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, while a new highly-infectious variant of the virus led to Christmas lockdowns. But there was light at the end of the tunnel.

Victory for vaccines

Pfizer announced its partnership to develop a Covid-19 vaccine with German pharma company BioNTech in March. This would become one of the defining stories of the pandemic: that of the immigrant husband-and-wife team behind the first Covid-19 vaccine to secure regulatory approval.

Like Moderna, BioNTech founders Uğur Şahin and ‎Özlem Türeci‎ chose to develop a mRNA vaccine, which works by sending messenger RNA to the body so that cells can create a fragment of the targeted virus, teaching the immune system to recognise this foreign antigen. Other vaccine candidates used the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to help the body get to know the virus. One example of this, Covax-19, was developed by Australian biotech Vaxine with the help of Irish pharma research firm APC.

Oxford-AstraZeneca’s protein-based vaccine was advantageous in that it didn’t require cold storage so it was easier to store and distribute. These logistical challenges were just some of the issues leading to global vaccine inequality, and this outbreak of ‘vaccine nationalism’ would only serve to prolong the crisis.

The misinformation pandemic

Once we had vaccines, the question turned to whether we would get enough people to take them.

As Covid-19 spread around the world, an existing global ‘infodemic’ produced a wave of conspiracy theories. A battle commenced between science and misinformation and scientists got busy debunking claims that hydroxychloroquine or vitamin C could cure Covid-19.

Some people were even so convinced that 5G caused Covid-19 that they burned equipment and assaulted technicians. (A November survey in Ireland found 20pc of respondents associated health risks with 5G.)

Content platforms had already done good groundwork in tackling vaccine misinformation in 2019 and even stronger measures were introduced by WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter in 2020. Twitter also cracked down on the QAnon conspiracy group, banning 7,000 associated accounts.

Didn’t they do well?

It has long been observed that from crisis springs opportunity, and 2020’s travails were no exception.

Zoom was the word on everyone’s lips as the video-conferencing platform helped colleagues, friends and family stay connected during lockdowns. Pre-pandemic, Irishman Harry Mosely, Zoom’s CIO, described how he ran a distributed workforce, which eschewed business travel in favour of the company’s software. And in 2020 we were all eating Zoom’s dog food, driving a record year of 367pc revenue growth.

Zoom’s year was not without its challenges, though. As quickly as it became a household name, the terms Zoombombing and Zoom fatigue entered the lexicon. But the popular platform had plenty to celebrate, not least how it helped keep some working entertainers afloat. A group of Irish filmmakers even made a movie on it.

Some Irish companies also had a banner year. LetsGetChecked’s recent unicorn status can be attributed to rapid growth in 2020. It raised one of the biggest Irish funding rounds of the year for its home health testing kits, which included a two-part test for Covid-19. Online food-ordering platform Flipdish, which has also since become a unicorn, rolled out table ordering tech for reopening restaurants and announced hundreds of new jobs.

Overall, VC investment in Ireland hit a record high during the pandemic, with several innovative start-ups managing to raise funds during a very tough period.

2020 also saw two major Irish acquisitions. At the beginning of the year, chipmaker Decawave was snapped up in a mega deal worth $400m. And between being called on for his immunology expertise and his company’s €380m acquisition by Roche, Inflazome co-founder Prof Luke O’Neill spent a year in the spotlight. In November, he was recognised by Science Foundation Ireland for his Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication.

To the future

As the pandemic rumbled on and major world events were cancelled, postponed or sent to the virtual world of video conferencing, it was decided that the successor event to the award-winning Inspirefest would go ahead in October, but with a twist.

Silicon Republic’s Future Human set out to be the first major international tech event in the world to go hybrid. From a physical stage to a virtual audience, event founder Ann O’Dea welcomed Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, investor Brad Feld, former NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham and more. On the agenda was all the year’s hot STEM topics, from remote working and healthcare, to lockdown creativity and vaccines.

Following a successful, albeit very different conference, Future Human will return on 12 and 13 May 2022. Sticking with the hybrid format, attendees both in person at the Trinity Business School in Dublin and online from around the world will hear from leading thinkers in science, robotics, AI, climate action, security, health and the arts.

We can’t wait to welcome you to the most inclusive and forward-looking event in the world, where we can raise a toast to a bright future.

In other news

12 January: Scientists report that microstructures within some remarkably well-preserved fossilised dinosaur cartilage could be DNA, prompting inevitable Jurassic Park references.

15 January: The EU Parliament votes in favour of the European Green Deal.

11 February: Samsung adds more polish to its foldable smartphone range with the launch of the Galaxy Z Flip.

30 April: Huawei completes construction of the world’s highest base station, bringing 5G to the summit of Mount Everest.

15 May: Researchers in Argentina announce they have discovered the fossilised remains of a lethal 10m-long ‘megaraptor’.

1-4 June: Planned launch events from Sony, Google and EA are postponed so as not to detract from Black Lives Matter protests across the US.

2 June: A $5bn class action lawsuit against Google alleges that Chrome tracks users even in incognito mode.

15 July: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Kanye West and more see their Twitter accounts hacked in the name of a bitcoin scam.

29 July: Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg face hours of questioning from US lawmakers in an antitrust hearing.

6 August: TikTok selects Ireland as the location of its first data centre in Europe, adding to the trust and safety hub established in Dublin earlier in the year.

13 August: Fortnite creator Epic Games files antitrust suits against Apple and Google after it was banned from their app stores for creating its own in-app payments system to circumvent the 30pc cut they take for each transaction.

28 August: At a livestreamed event, Elon Musk introduces Gertrude the pig, one of the first living things to have a Neuralink chip implanted in its brain.

19 September: Donald Trump gives his blessing for Oracle and Walmart to take a combined 20pc stake in TikTok Global Business so that the Chinese-owned company can continue operating in the US. (TikTok-owner ByteDance later dropped the deal when Trump failed to get re-elected.)

21 September: Microsoft announces a $7.5bn deal to acquire ZeniMax, the parent company of game publisher Bethesda Softworks.

7 October: Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier win a Nobel Prize for their discovery of CRISPR-Cas9.

20 October: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx briefly touches down on Bennu to retrieve samples from the surface of the asteroid.

10 November: Apple unveils the first Mac computers powered by its own M1 chip, marking its move away from Intel processors.

10 November: Microsoft releases the Xbox Series X and Series S consoles.

12 November: Sony releases the PlayStation 5.

17 November: Apple celebrates 40 years in Cork.

30 November: DeepMind announces that its AI has solved the puzzle of protein folding, a biological mystery that has perplexed scientists for 50 years.

1 December: The Arecibo Telescope, recognisable from appearances in GoldenEye and Contact, collapses two weeks after it was announced that the observatory would be decommissioned.

1 December: Salesforce agrees to buy Slack for $27.7bn, its largest ever acquisition.

26 December: Getting ahead of a coming trend, Bloomberg dubs 2020 ‘year of the meme stock’.

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Congratulations, Privacy Just Took A Great Leap Out the Window!

Your Data Is Being Used Without Your Permission And Knowledge

The Voice Of EU | In the heart of technological innovation, the collision between intellectual property rights and the development of cutting-edge AI technologies has sparked a significant legal battle. The New York Times has taken legal action against OpenAI and Microsoft, filing a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court. This legal maneuver aims to address concerns surrounding the unauthorized use of the Times’ content for the training of AI models, alleging copyright infringements that could potentially result in billions of dollars in damages.

READ: HOW YOUR DATA IS BEING USED TO TRAIN A.I.

This legal tussle underlines the escalating tension between technological advancements and the protection of intellectual property. The crux of the lawsuit revolves around OpenAI and Microsoft allegedly utilizing the Times’ proprietary content to advance their own AI technology, directly competing with the publication’s services. The lawsuit suggests that this unauthorized utilization threatens the Times’ ability to offer its distinctive service and impacts its AI innovation, creating a competitive landscape that challenges the publication’s proprietary content.

Amidst the growing digital landscape, media organizations like the Times are confronting a myriad of challenges. The migration of readers to online platforms has significantly impacted traditional media, and the advent of artificial intelligence technology has added another layer of complexity. The legal dispute brings to the forefront the contentious practice of AI companies scraping copyrighted information from online sources, including articles from media organizations, to train their generative AI chatbots. This strategy has attracted substantial investments, rapidly transforming the AI landscape.

Exhibit presented by the New York Times’ legal team of ChatGPT replicating a article after being prompted

The lawsuit highlights instances where OpenAI’s technology, specifically GPT-4, replicated significant portions of Times articles, including in-depth investigative reports. These outputs, alleged by the Times to contain verbatim excerpts from their content, raise concerns about the ethical and legal boundaries of using copyrighted material for AI model training without proper authorization or compensation.

The legal action taken by the Times follows attempts to engage in discussions with Microsoft and OpenAI, aiming to address concerns about the use of its intellectual property. Despite these efforts, negotiations failed to reach a resolution that would ensure fair compensation for the use of the Times’ content while promoting responsible AI development that benefits society.

In the midst of this legal battle, the broader questions surrounding the responsible and ethical utilization of copyrighted material in advancing technological innovations come to the forefront.

The dispute between the Times, OpenAI, and Microsoft serves as a significant case study in navigating the intricate intersection of technological progress and safeguarding intellectual property rights in the digital age.


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Culture

‘The Bill Gates Problem’ – The Case Against World’s Richest Man

The Case Against World’s Richest Man

When Clinton assumed the presidency of the United States, there was eager anticipation from the Chinese, not for Clinton himself, but for Bill Gates. This was during the late 1990s, a period when the internet was still in its nascent stages, and the digital boom of the early 2000s had not yet reached its peak. The enigmatic persona that captivated the attention of the burgeoning Asian powerhouse is now portrayed in “The Bill Gates Problem” as a “domineering, brusque figure” whose demeanor is likened to “a cauldron of passions that freely erupts.” According to a former employee cited in the book, Gates was perceived as “a complete and utter jerk to people 70% of the time,” while the remaining 30% saw him as a “harmless, enjoyable, exceptionally intelligent nerd.”

The 1990s were also the decade of the conflict between Microsoft and the now defunct Netscape browser, which challenged what was already being openly described as the former’s monopolistic practices. Gates was investigated and accused in Congress for such practices; he ultimately won the battle, but the case harmed his reputation, and in 2000 he resigned as CEO of his company. From there he undertook an expansion of the foundation that he had established with his wife and to which he has dedicated his main efforts in the last two decades. In 2006, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation received the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation.

With a personal fortune of $100 billion and tens of billions more in his private foundation, Gates has been one of the richest men in the world for decades, and the foundation has been the most generous organization of its kind, specializing above all in health aid, education and child nutrition, with a large presence in Africa and India among other regions of what was formerly known as the Third World. Tim Schwab, a contributor to the weekly left-wing newspaper The Nation, undertook a detailed investigation to denounce something that in truth was already known: that American foundations are largely a way for billionaires to avoid taxes.

To prove this, he thoroughly looked into the accounts and procedures of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the failures and occasional successes of its philanthropic policies, and came to the conclusion that behind this facade of help to the needy hides an operation of power. He is ruthless in his criticism, although accurate in his analysis of the growing inequality in the world. Absorbed by the revolutionary rhetoric, he laments that the Gates Foundation has remained “deadly silent” regarding movements such as Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, which demand social change in the face of the “excess wealth and ‘white savior’ mentality that drives Bill Gates’ philanthropic work.” He does attribute some good intentions, but his criticism is merciless, sometimes even coarse, while the absence of solutions for the problems he denounces — other than the calls for do-goodism — is frustrating.

His abilities as an investigative journalist are thus overshadowed by a somewhat naive militancy against the creative capitalism that Gates promotes and an evident intention to discredit not only his work but, above all, him. The demands he makes for transparency and the accusations of obscurity are dulled by the author himself in the pages he dedicates to Gates’ relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the famous corruptor of minors at the service of the international jet set. Gates has explained his meetings and interviews with him on countless occasions, and in no case has any type of relationship, other than their commercial relations or some confusing efforts to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, been proved. Still, Schwab raises, with no evidence whatsoever, the possibility that their relationship “could have had something to do with Epstein’s principal activities in life: sexual gratification and the exercise of power.” The book is full of this kind of opinions and speculations, to the detriment of a more serious analysis of Gates’ mistakes in the management of his foundation, the problems of shielding the intellectual property of vaccines in the hands of the pharmaceutical industries and, ultimately, the objective power that big technology companies have in global society.

He signed a collaboration agreement with the RAE to improve Microsoft’s grammar checker and was interested in the substantial unity of the Spanish language in all the countries where almost 600 million people speak it. That man was very far from the sexist, arrogant, miserable predator that Schwab portrays. Nor did we deduce — and this can be applied to the personal adventure of Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos — that his life’s goal was world domination, as suggested by this book. If they have achieved it, or may achieve it, it is due to the dynamics of digital civilization and the objective difficulties in governing it. The deregulation of financial capitalism, which has increased inequality among humankind, is due to the incompetence of obsolete political institutions and to leaders who care more about their own fates than those of their people. The criticism against “lame and wasteful government bureaucracies” might be part of the propaganda promoted by the world’s wealthy, but lately we have also heard it from small-scale farmers across Europe.

In conclusion, we found the book to be more entertaining than interesting. It provides a lot of information — we’re not sure if it’s entirely verified — and plenty of cheap ideology. Above all, one can see the personal crusade of the author, determined to prove that Bill Gates is a problem for democracy and that millionaire philanthropists are a bunch of swindlers. The world needs their money; maybe managed by party bureaucracies, that much is not clear. Bill Gates’ money, that is, but not Bill Gates himself.


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Conflicted History: ‘Oppenheimer’ And Its Impact On Los Alamos And New Mexico Downwinders

‘Oppenheimer’ And Its Impact On Los Alamos And New Mexico Downwinders

The Voice Of EU | In the highly anticipated blockbuster movie, “Oppenheimer,” the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind the first atomic bomb, is portrayed as a riveting tale of triumph and tragedy.

As the film takes center stage, it also brings to light the often-overlooked impacts on a community living downwind from the top-secret Manhattan Project testing site in southern New Mexico.

A Forgotten Legacy

While the film industry and critics praise “Oppenheimer,” a sense of frustration prevails among the residents of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, who continue to grapple with the consequences of the Manhattan Project. Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor and founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, expresses their feelings, stating, “They invaded our lives and our lands and then they left,” referring to the scientists and military personnel who conducted secret experiments over 200 miles away from their community.

The Consortium, alongside organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, has been striving to raise awareness about the impact of the Manhattan Project on New Mexico’s population. Advocates emphasize the necessity of acknowledging the human cost of the Trinity Test, the first atomic blast, and other nuclear weapons activities that have affected countless lives in the state.

The Ongoing Struggle for Recognition

As film enthusiasts celebrate the drama and brilliance of “Oppenheimer,” New Mexico downwinders feel overlooked by both the U.S. government and movie producers. The federal government’s compensation program for radiation exposure still does not include these affected individuals. The government’s selection of the remote and flat Trinity Test Site, without warning residents in the surrounding areas, further added to the controversy.

Living off the land, the rural population in the Tularosa Basin had no idea that the fine ash settling on their homes and fields was a result of the world’s first atomic explosion.

The government initially attempted to cover up the incident, attributing the bright light and rumble to an explosion at a munitions dump. It was only after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan weeks later that New Mexico residents realized the magnitude of what they had witnessed.

Tracing the Fallout

According to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, large amounts of radiation were released into the atmosphere during the Trinity Test, with fallout descending over a vast area. Some of the fallout reached as far as the Atlantic Ocean, but the greatest concentration settled approximately 30 miles from the test site.

Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

The consequences of this catastrophic event have affected generations of New Mexicans, who still await recognition and justice for the harm caused by nuclear weapons.

A Tale of Contrasts: Los Alamos and the Legacy of Oppenheimer

As the film’s spotlight shines on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a contrasting narrative unfolds in Los Alamos, more than 200 miles north of the Tularosa Basin. Los Alamos stands as a symbol of Oppenheimer’s legacy, housing one of the nation’s premier national laboratories and boasting the highest percentage of people with doctorate degrees in the U.S.

Oppenheimer’s influence is evident throughout Los Alamos, with a street bearing his name and an IPA named in his honor at a local brewery. The city embraces its scientific legacy, showcasing his handwritten notes and ID card in a museum exhibit. Los Alamos National Laboratory employees played a significant role in the film, contributing as extras and engaging in enlightening discussions during breaks.

The “Oppenheimer” Movie

Director Christopher Nolan’s perspective on the Trinity Test and its profound impact is evident in his approach to “Oppenheimer.” He has described the event as an extraordinary moment in human history and expressed his desire to immerse the audience in the pivotal moment when the button was pushed. Nolan’s dedication to bringing historical accuracy and emotional depth to the screen is evident as he draws inspiration from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

For Nolan, Oppenheimer’s story is a potent blend of dreams and nightmares, capturing the complexity and consequences of the Manhattan Project. As the film reaches global audiences, it also offers a unique opportunity to raise awareness about the downwinders in New Mexico, whose lives were forever altered by the legacy of nuclear weapons testing.

The Oppenheimer Festival and Beyond

Los Alamos is determined to use the Oppenheimer Festival as an opportunity to educate visitors about the true stories behind the film’s events. The county’s “Project Oppenheimer” initiative, launched in early 2023, encompasses forums, documentaries, art installations, and exhibits that delve into the scientific contributions of the laboratory and the social implications of the Manhattan Project.

A special area during the festival will facilitate discussions about the movie, fostering a deeper understanding of the community’s history. The county aims to continue revisiting and discussing the legacy of the Manhattan Project, ensuring that the impact of this pivotal moment in history is never forgotten.

As “Oppenheimer” takes audiences on an emotional journey, it serves as a reminder that every historical event carries with it complex and multifaceted implications. The movie may celebrate the scientific achievements of the past, but it also illuminates the urgent need to recognize and address the human cost that persists to this day.


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