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China’s ‘social credit’ system uses technology to punish citizens





In a 2016 episode of the dystopian Netflix show “Black Mirror,” everyone uses their smartphones to rate each other on a five-point scale, not unlike how you might rate your Uber driver but with far more serious consequences. The protagonist wants a nicer apartment but she doesn’t have the 4.5 rating required so she’s stuck where she is. She gets into a fight with an airline employee and her score drops so low that she can’t board a plane or even rent a decent car. The pressure of trying to conform ends up making her more and more distressed. Eventually, she’s imprisoned.

The scenario might strike you as pure science fiction but these types of technology-enabled punishments and rewards are increasingly the reality in China. In March, the country’s National Development and Reform Commission boasted that more than nine million plane ticket sales and more than three million rail ticket sales had been blocked under what China calls “social credit.” Passengers are reminded in Mandarin and English when they board high-speed trains that riding without a ticket, disorderly behaviour or smoking can result in a negative record in the “individual credit information system.”

Social credit in China isn’t exactly like “Black Mirror.” Individuals aren’t using their smartphones to rate each other. Still, the Chinese government is actively shaping citizens’ behaviour using the threat of technology-enabled blacklists, and it’s enlisting the private sector to help turn rulebreakers into virtual second-class citizens. Those who have studied social credit say it’s too soon to know how invasive the system will become, but some worry that social credit could be used to automate the process of cracking down on political dissent.

One of the most famous social credit experiments was started by local officials in Suining City in 2010. Each person was given 1,000 credit points. Citizens’ scores dropped each time they were found guilty of an infraction, including obviously anti-social things such as driving drunk or offering a bribe, and less obviously unacceptable behaviours such as “heretical activities,” disturbing the “social order” and failing to display “household virtue.” Those with the most points were rewarded with access to civil service jobs, business licenses, procurement contacts, loans, subsidies and skills training. Others were left out.

Rogier Creemers, a Chinese law researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, has studied social credit and is quick to point out that Suining’s points-based system was heavily criticized in the state media and appears to have been discontinued. Still, elements of the experiment including publicly naming and shaming rulebreakers and making it difficult for them to do business are present in the national system described by the Plan for the Construction of the Social Credit System (2014 to 2020). The stated objective of the national plan is “raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society.”

Since then, government agencies have signed agreements to create a series of blacklists known collectively as the Joint Punishment System, which Creemers documented in a research paper earlier this year. As of 2016, people who are defined by the courts as “chronic cheats” can be punished in a number of ways. They may not be able to hold certain positions in state-owned enterprises, work in the civil service or join the military. They may also face restrictions on buying real estate, renovating houses, buying cars, travelling on high-speed trains, using airplanes, staying in high-end hotels, staying at holiday resorts, joining golf courses, getting visas to go on foreign holidays or sending their children to private schools.

The central government argued in its 2014 plan that more trust was needed given “especially grave production safety accidents, food and drug security incidents happen from time to time, commercial swindles, production and sales of counterfeit products, tax evasion, fraudulent financial claims, academic impropriety and other such phenomena.”

Zheng Shuzhen holds photo of her granddaughterFILE – In this Friday, May 8, 2009 photo, Zheng Shuzhen holds a photo of her granddaughter Zhou mengxin outside a Health Ministry office in Beijing, China.(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Creemers told in a telephone interview that it was easy to make the case that a new way of cracking down on anti-social behaviour was needed. For example, there was a genuine problem with first-time flyers “wanting some fresh air” and opening up the emergency exit doors on planes, so taking away the right to fly was arguably a reasonable deterrent. There was also a need for online retailers to gauge the trustworthiness of people buying and selling products in a country where the vast majority did not have credit cards and therefore did not have credit scores, so another type of credit score was needed. China also needed a way to punish nefarious businessmen selling adulterated foods and drugs. In 2008, an estimated 300,000 babies were sickened and at least six died because an infant formula producer was bulking up the product with the toxic compound melamine. Creemers says social credit is at least partly about preventing these genuine problems. Courts could impose fines or issue orders to deal with these types of behaviour in the past, but people didn’t always pay their fines.

“The rationale is, if you can’t pay your fine, you’re not going to travel on aircraft, you’re not going to travel on high-speed trains. You could travel but you’re going to get the cheapest ticket on the slowest train that stops in every hick town,” he says. “Similarly, if you can’t pay your fine, you clearly aren’t in any financial position to get a mortgage, so you’re not getting a mortgage.”

Creemers says that, at least so far, to face the wrath of the social credit blacklists, “you need to have been convicted of something by a people’s court and you need to have not performed that judgment.” In other words, the punishments against individuals have only so far been meted out by judges, rather than bureaucrats, as far as he knows.

Chinese high-speed train

A policeman watches while a CRH high-speed train leaves the West Railway Station in Beijing, China, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

But Maya Wang, a researcher from Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, told in a telephone interview that even if the blacklists are only used to enforce court orders, they can still be used to violate people’s human rights because Chinese courts frequently make arbitrary decisions.

Wang points to the case of Li Xiaolin, a lawyer who was hit by the social credit system in 2016. Li was 1,900 kilometres from home and tried to use his national identity card to purchase a plane ticket but was informed by a message on the screen that he was blacklisted by China’s top court. A local judge had placed Li on the list without telling him. When Li finally reached the judge weeks later, he was told it was because an apology he’d been ordered to give years earlier hadn’t been sincere. The reason?

“The judge said (Li) dated the apology on April 1 and April 1 is April Fools’ Day,” according to Wang. “Eventually he got the lawyers’ association to advocate on his behalf. The judge said, ‘OK, if you apologize again, we’ll take you off this blacklist.’ He did apologize again (and) was taken off the travel blacklist … But when he tried to obtain a mortgage, he found out he was also on the mortgage blacklist.”

In other words, not only can judges make arbitrary decisions about who gets listed in the Joint Punishment System but it’s unclear how to get off the blacklist once you’re on it.

The other big question for Wang is that the social credit system will be used differently in the future, especially if the system becomes integrated with the security cameras, facial-recognition technology and security databases proliferating in Chinese cities.

She points out that overtly political behaviour such as engaging in protests or publicly criticizing certain officials has always been heavily policed in China, and the job of cracking down on dissidents remains the purview of the Ministry of Public Security rather than social credit. But she says that doesn’t mean the tools created in the name of social credit can’t be used to punish people arbitrarily down the road.

Human Rights Watch has documented how police in some Chinese cities are creating huge databases of information about their citizens including their addresses, family relations, birth control methods and religious affiliations. Some police have said they plan to add hotel, flight and train records, biometrics and CCTV footage to the files.

acial-recognition and cameras to catch jaywalkers

Police in Shanghai use facial-recognition to automatically ticket jaywalkers. (Shanghai Municipal People’s Government)

In Shanghai, the city is already using facial recognition for everything from verifying people’s identities before people can rent apartments, to letting them buy subway fares, to automatically emailing tickets to jaywalkers caught on camera, using the photos of them on their national ID cards.

Citizens in the megacity can also use their faces to sign up for a new app called Honest Shanghai, which is based on social credit principles. Those who sign up are given a rating of “good, very good or bad” based on information linked to their ID cards, such as whether they have committed a restaurant hygiene violation or paid their municipal water bill. When it was launched, there were no punishments for a bad score, but a good score allowed users to collect rewards like discounted airline tickets. It also makes a person more attractive to deal with. For example, if you sell dumplings, you might get more business if potential customers can quickly see that you don’t have any health code violations. Shao Zhiqing, whose department oversees the application, told U.S. National Public Radio last year that the city hopes to one day incorporate information from “industry associations, private companies, and social media.”

Having that type of information collected in one place and easily available to the government worries Wang. She says the simple act of saying that “I really hate (President) Xi Jinping” to the person sitting next you on a street in Shanghai could one day lead to a near-automatic listing in the Joint Punishment System. “Now it’s the police officers doing the hard work of figuring out what this activist is up to,” she says. “The worst case scenario is that all this would be automated in a very systematic manner that is very fast,” she adds. “That would completely prevent any possibility of dissent.”

Samantha Hoffman, a non-resident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has studied social credit and says it’s not yet known whether apps like Honest Shanghai will be abused by the government. However, she’s convinced that social credit is about asserting political control in a way that avoids a public backlash, precisely because it does simultaneously help to solve real problems such as tainted baby formula.

Hoffman points out that social credit has already been used to bring powerful foreign companies into line politically. Earlier this year, airlines including Air Canada were told that if they did not change the way Taiwan is listed on their global websites to say it’s part of China rather than its own country, the aviation authority would create a record of “serious dishonesty” in the social credit system. “That would really seriously affect their ability to operate in China,” Hoffman says. The airlines complied.

Air Canada lists Taipei as China

Like Wang, Hoffman fears that “over time though, incrementally, the process for consequences of social credit will become more automatic … and a wider range of people will feel that more directly.” That’s likely to include Chinese-Canadians, she says. The Ministry of Public Security is also developing credit codes for overseas Chinese.

Hoffman says that if Canadians are concerned about human rights violations like the re-education camps targeting Uighur Muslims in western China, they ought to ask their governments to prevent the export of technology that can assist with social credit or to use laws like the Magnitsky Act to punish those profiting. She also says that social credit should be a wake-up call for democratic countries to strengthen privacy laws.

Creemers agrees. He says people in Western nations should think long and hard about what types of data we’re willing to give away to both governments and private companies, that could one day be used against us. For example, in the Netherlands there was a proposal to tax drivers on how much they used roads, which would have meant creating a record of where everyone has driven. “We shouldn’t really look at China as a completely different case,” he says. “A lot of the thinking that informs the Chinese social credit system is actually present in our states as well.”


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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal





A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist





Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’





Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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