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The future of AWS in Ireland

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AWS’s Mark Finlay discusses the company’s journey in Ireland, its future plans and its role in the public sector.

Cloud service provider Amazon Web Services, or AWS, began its journey on Irish soil almost 15 years ago when it launched its first cloud infrastructure region outside the US.

Over the subsequent years, AWS grew its workforce to what is now more than 3,000 direct employees.

But Mark Finlay, AWS’s head of public sector in Ireland, claims the economic impact of the company is even greater.

A recent study by Indecon International Economic Consultants, analysing AWS’s economic impact in Ireland from 2011 to 2020, showed that investment here actually supports a further 4,000 positions at contractors and sub-suppliers and more than 1,700 jobs stemming from these collective activities,” he told Siliconrepublic.com.

‘Cloud computing is proving key to this burgeoning national and global digital transformation’
– MARK FINLAY

The company is growing its base here, announcing plans last summer to hire another 1,000 employees across both AWS and Amazon.

“We are not done growing! That’s for sure,” Finlay added. “The jobs themselves will be created in a range of areas. They include engineer roles in software development, network development, systems development, optical deployment and DevOps.

“We will also be hiring data centre technicians, mechanical and electrical engineers, solutions architects, security specialists and account managers. There will be job opportunities as well in technical management and in senior leadership.”

Outside of job creation, AWS has also bedded down in the education, data centre and renewable energy sectors in Ireland.

Last November, the company launched a free training programme for cloud skills in Ireland, called AWS re/Start, aimed at helping people who are unemployed, underemployed or from underrepresented communities.

Finlay said AWS has also developed partnerships with schools and third-level institutions, creating technology initiatives including AWS GetIT, which helped second-level students to develop their own app ideas.

Commitment to sustainability

While sustainability is on the agenda for many tech giants, it has become particularly important in the area of data centres – something cloud service providers such as AWS are acutely aware of.

Finlay said Amazon is committed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. “As part of this pledge, we have set ambitious goals and we’re on path to power our operations with 100pc renewable energy by 2025.

“That commitment to sustainability applies fully to our operations in Ireland, where we are making significant investments in renewable energy.”

These investments include windfarm projects in Donegal, Cork and, most recently, Galway, which are set to add a total of 229MW to the energy grid each year.

“Once all projects are operational, we will be the largest single corporate buyer of renewable energy in the country. This is helping Ireland to meet its 2030 renewable targets,” Finlay said.

The company will also provide free recycled heat from its data centres to Heatworks, Ireland’s first publicly owned, not-for-profit energy company, which will deliver low-carbon heat to a range of premises in the Tallaght area.

Cloud tech in the public sector

Last week, Siliconrepublic.com examined the cloud sector and, more specifically, how it has accelerated since the beginning of the pandemic.

Finlay said this acceleration has resulted in an even greater expectation that government bodies should be able to operate remotely and at speed.

“Cloud computing is proving key to this burgeoning national and global digital transformation. That’s because the flexibility it provides is fundamental to the responsive and nimble public services that people now expect.

“As the cloud allows for the on-demand delivery of IT resources over the internet, state bodies using it no longer have to worry about managing cumbersome and expensive data centres. Instead, they simply access the digital tools they require on an as-needed basis, meaning they can focus on services and outcomes rather than the hardware underpinning them.”

However, he said one of the most important innovations when it comes to partnering with public bodies is giving them access to “the most cutting-edge of technologies” such as AI and machine learning without a heavy cost investment.

“Take the experience of Transport for New South Wales, an Australian government agency responsible for public transport, for example. It began using AWS machine learning to transition from historically based analytics to a forward-looking model with predictive capability,” he said.

“The power of those cloud services now means that [Transport for New South Wales] is better able to predict passenger numbers across its entire transport network, thereby improving the experience of all who use it.”

Closer to home, AWS partnered with the HSE and Waterford-based NearForm to build and scale the Covid Tracker Ireland app, the tech for which has since been brought to the US.

“Because of the cloud’s elasticity, the Covid Tracker app can seamlessly scale to meet fluctuating demands as pandemic activity changes,” said Finlay.

“I think it’s safe to say that we will see even greater use of cloud technology in the future to improve healthcare and deliver better outcomes for patients.”

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Amazon exec’s husband jailed for two years for insider trading. Yes, with Amazon stock • The Register

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The husband of an Amazon financial executive was sentenced on Thursday to 26 months behind bars for insider trading of the web giant’s stock.

Viky Bohra, 37, of Bothell, Washington, reaped a profit of $1,428,264 between January 2016 and October 2018 by buying and selling Amazon stock using eleven trading accounts managed by himself and his family.

Bohra was able to pocket these big gains because he got copies of Amazon’s confidential financial figures from his wife, Laksha Bohra, who worked as a senior manager in the mega corp’s tax department. Laksha had access to Amazon’s earnings before the numbers were publicly disclosed and reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her husband “obtained” this secret information, despite her being repeatedly warned to not leak the confidential data, and used it to favorably trade in Amazon stock and options.

“This defendant and his wife were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses from their jobs in tech – but he was not content with that – greedily scheming to illegally profit by trading Amazon stock,” Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman, said in a statement.

“This case should stand as a warning to those who try to game the markets with insider trading: there is a heavy price to pay with a felony conviction and prison sentence.”

The FBI began sniffing around, and the Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington filed criminal charges [PDF] against Viky in 2020. He pleaded guilty in November to securities fraud. The prosecution had asked the courts for a 33-month sentence.

Separately, he was also charged by the SEC and told to cough up $2,652,899 in disgorgement, interest, and penalties.

“Mr Bohra knew exactly what he was doing and was driven solely by greed,” Donald Voiret, an FBI Special Agent leading the Seattle Field Office, added. “With his nearly unlimited access and knowledge of securities trading, he undermined public trust in our financial markets.”

Laksha Bohra was suspended from her job in 2018 and resigned shortly after, according to a lawsuit filed by the SEC [PDF], and will not face criminal charges as part of Viky’s agreement to plead guilty. ®

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Stripe rolls out new tax compliance tool for merchants

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Stripe Tax automates much of the calculating and collecting of levies like VAT and sales tax for businesses.

Fintech giant Stripe is rolling out a new product to automate businesses’ tax compliance.

Stripe Tax, which was built at the company’s engineering hub in Dublin, helps businesses to automatically calculate and collect sales taxes, VAT and goods and service taxes where they do business.

The product has been rolled out in 30 countries and all US states. Stripe Tax manages the requirements for tax collecting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This ensures merchants are in compliance with local tax rules but without the headache of managing it themselves.

According to a 2020 report from Stripe, two-thirds of businesses say that managing tasks like tax compliance inhibits their growth and takes up time that could otherwise be spent on product development.

The matter of tax has become more complex with the mix of physical and digital goods and sales across borders.

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Non-compliance with taxes, even through accidental oversight, can lead to serious sanctions or interest-laden tax bills for businesses.

Stripe Tax calculates taxes due by determining an end customer’s location and products they’re buying. It adapts as changes to tax regimes come into effect and generates reports for businesses on the levies calculated and collected.

“No one leaps out of bed in the morning excited to deal with taxes,” Stripe co-founder John Collison said. “For most businesses, managing tax compliance is a painful distraction. We simplify everything about calculating and collecting sales taxes, VAT and GST, so our users can focus on building their businesses.”

Large companies, including News UK, have started using the product.

“Directly integrating Stripe Tax into our subscriptions platform will save us countless hours, time that can be better spent elsewhere,” Ruan Odendaal, head of subscriptions platform at NewsUK, said.

Stripe has had a very busy 2021 so far. After raising funding at a $95bn valuation, it has been rolling out more services that go beyond the payments processing the company was originally built on, as well as expanding geographically with a focus on the Middle East.

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David Eagleman: ‘The working of the brain resembles drug dealers in Albuquerque’ | Neuroscience

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David Eagleman, 50, is an American neuroscientist, bestselling author and presenter of the BBC series The Brain, as well as co-founder and chief executive officer of Neosensory, which develops devices for sensory substitution. His area of speciality is brain plasticity, and that is the subject of his new book, Livewired, which examines how experience refashions the brain, and shows that it is a much more adaptable organ than previously thought.

For the past half-century or more the brain has been spoken of in terms of a computer. What are the biggest flaws with that particular model?
It’s a very seductive comparison. But in fact, what we’re looking at is three pounds of material in our skulls that is essentially a very alien kind of material to us. It doesn’t write down memories, the way we think of a computer doing it. And it is capable of figuring out its own culture and identity and making leaps into the unknown. I’m here in Silicon Valley. Everything we talk about is hardware and software. But what’s happening in the brain is what I call livewire, where you have 86bn neurons, each with 10,000 connections, and they are constantly reconfiguring every second of your life. Even by the time you get to the end of this paragraph, you’ll be a slightly different person than you were at the beginning.

In what way does the working of the brain resemble drug dealers in Albuquerque?
It’s that the brain can accomplish remarkable things without any top-down control. If a child has half their brain removed in surgery, the functions of the brain will rewire themselves on to the remaining real estate. And so I use this example of drug dealers to point out that if suddenly in Albuquerque, where I happened to grow up, there was a terrific earthquake, and half the territory was lost, the drug dealers would rearrange themselves to control the remaining territory. It’s because each one has competition with his neighbours and they fight over whatever territory exists, as opposed to a top-down council meeting where the territory is distributed. And that’s really the way to understand the brain. It’s made up of billions of neurons, each of which is competing for its own territory.

You use this colonial image a lot in the book, a sense of the processes and struggles of evolution being fought out within the brain itself.
That’s exactly right. And I think this is a point of view that’s not common in neuroscience. Usually, when we look in a neuroscience textbook, we say here are the areas of the brain and everything looks like it’s getting along just fine. It belongs exactly where it is. But the argument I make in the book is, the only reason it looks that way is because the springs are all wound tight. And the competition for each neuron – each cell in the brain to stay alive against its neighbours – is a constantly waged war. This is why when something changes in the brain, for example, if a person goes blind, or loses an arm or something, you see these massive rearrangements that happen very rapidly in the brain. It’s just as the French lost their territory in North America because the British were sending more people over.

brain waves in rem sleep
Brain waves during REM sleep. Photograph: Deco/Alamy

One of the great mysteries of the brain is the purpose of dreams. And you propose a kind of defensive theory about how the brain responds to darkness.
One of the big surprises of neuroscience was to understand how rapidly these takeovers can happen. If you blindfold somebody for an hour, you can start to see changes where touch and hearing will start taking over the visual parts of the brain. So what I realised is, because the planet rotates into darkness, the visual system alone is at a disadvantage, which is to say, you can still smell and hear and touch and taste in the dark, but you can’t see any more. I realised this puts the visual system in danger of getting taken over every night. And dreams are the brain’s way of defending that territory. About every 90 minutes a great deal of random activity is smashed into the visual system. And because that’s our visual system, we experience it as a dream, we experience it visually. Evolutionarily, this is our way of defending ourselves against visual system takeover when the planet moves into darkness.

Another mystery is consciousness. Do you think we are close to understanding what consciousness is and how it’s created?
There’s a great deal of debate about how to define consciousness, but we are essentially talking about the thing that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning. But as far as understanding why it happens, I don’t know that we’re much closer than we’ve ever been. It’s different from other scientific conundrums in that what we’re asking is, how do you take physical pieces and parts and translate that into private, subjective experience, like the redness of red, or the pain of pain or the smell of cinnamon? And so not only do we not have a theory, but we don’t really know what such a theory would look like that would explain our experience in physical or mathematical terms.

You predict that in the future we’ll be able to glean the details of a person’s life from their brains. What would that mean in terms of personal privacy and liberty?
Oh, yeah, it’s going to be a brave new world. Maybe in 100 years, maybe 500, but it’ll certainly happen. Because what we’re looking at is a physical system that gets changed and adjusted based on your experiences. What’s going on with the brain is the most complex system we’ve ever come across in our universe but fundamentally it’s physical pieces and parts and, as our computational capacities are becoming so extraordinary now, it’s just a countdown until we get there. Do we get to keep our inner thoughts private? Almost certainly we will. You can’t stick somebody in a scanner and try to ask them particular kinds of questions. But again, this will happen after our lifetime, so it’s something for the next generations to struggle with.

Do you think in the future that we’ll be able to communicate just by thinking?
Communication is a multi-step process. And so in answering your questions, I have many, many thoughts. And I’m getting it down to something that I can say that will communicate clearly what I intend. But if you were to just read my thoughts and say, “OK, give me the answer,” it would be a jumble of half-sentences and words and some random thought, like, Oh, my coffee is spilling. It’s like you wouldn’t want to read somebody’s book that hasn’t been polished by them over many iterations, but instead is burped out of their brain.

elon musk with the surgical robot from his august 2020 neuralink presentation
Elon Musk with the surgical robot from his August 2020 Neuralink presentation. Photograph: Neuralink/AFP/Getty Images

What are your views on Elon Musk’s Neuralink enterprise, which is developing implantable brain-machine interfaces?
There’s nothing new about it insofar as neuroscientists have been putting electrodes in people’s brains for at least 60 years now. The advance is in his technology, which is making the electrodes denser and also wireless, although even that part’s not new. I think it will be very useful in certain disease states, for example, epilepsy and depression, to be able to put electrodes directly in there and monitor and put activity in. But the mythology of Neuralink is that this is something we can all use to interface faster with our cellphones. I’d certainly like to text 50% faster, but am I going to get an open-head surgery? No, because there’s an expression in neurosurgery: when the air hits your brain, it’s never the same.

You didn’t start out academically in neuroscience. What led you there?
I majored in British and American literature. And that was my first love. But I got hooked on neuroscience because I took a number of philosophy courses. I found that we’d constantly get stuck in some philosophical conundrum. We’d spin ourselves into a quagmire and not be able to get out. And I thought, Wow, if we could understand the perceptual machinery by which we view the world, maybe we’d have a shot at answering some of these questions and actually making progress. When I finally discovered neuroscience, I read every book in the college library on the brain – there weren’t that many at the time – and I just never looked back.

How can we maximise our brain power, and what do you do to switch off?
There’s this myth that we only use 10% of our brain that, of course, is not true. We’re using 100% of our brain all the time. But the way information can be digested and fed to the brain can be very different. I think the next generation is going to be much smarter than we are. I have two small kids, and any time they want to know something, they ask Alexa or Google Home, and they get the answer right in the context of their curiosity. This is a big deal, because the brain is most flexible when it is curious about something and gets the answer. Regarding switching off, I never take any downtime and I don’t want to. I have a very clear sense of time pressure to do the next things. I hope I don’t die young, but I certainly act as though that is a possibility. One always has to be prepared to say goodbye, so I’m just trying to get everything done before that time.

Livewired by David Eagleman is published by Canongate (£9.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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