AI: Changing the Tides of Water Sustainability

By Tanvi Bajaj
Staff Writer

In 2015, Senator James Inhofe confidently stepped onto the Senate floor, carrying a snowball. He then explained how global warming (and, in effect, climate change) could simply not exist since it was cold enough outside for the snowball he was holding in his hand to form.  

While laughable, Senator Inhofe’s argument is indicative of the centuries of neglect the environment has suffered at human hands. 

Today, sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting, forests are burning, and animals are dying. 

It’s clear that something needs to change. 

Over the last few years, the use of artificial intelligence and its potential repercussions have been the source of many controversies. Morality and ethics have been called into question, as people share their fears that AI may soon render humans (especially in blue collar jobs) obsolete. While these concerns are valid, recent findings show that the development of artificial intelligence may have an unforeseen benefit. 

Artificial intelligence is poised to become the biggest game-changer in the face of climate change. According to a World Economic Forum report, AI refers to computer systems that “can sense their environment, think, learn, and act in response to what they perceive and their programmed purposes”. 

In 2015, the 193 members of the United Nations passed a resolution that put into place a 15 year plan of achieving 17 Sustainable Development goals by 2030 (SDGs). Then in 2017, the UN Artificial Intelligence Summit in Geneva suggested refocusing the use of AI technology to help achieve these goals and encourage long-lasting global sustainability. 

All over the globe, 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water while 4.5 billion people live without safe sanitation systems–with nearly one thousand children dying due to preventable water and sanitation related diseases every day. 

The problem is twofold: not only do people not have access to water, but often times, the water they do have access to is contaminated. AI is being used to mitigate the effects of a lack of clean water in a number of ways. Clean Water AI tackles the issue of water filtration by alerting users when water needs to be further filtered. A prototype IoT device uses pattern recognition and machine learning to inspect water quality through a digital microscope. These test systems could dramatically prevent disease and save thousands of lives simply by providing accurate information that would alert users as to whether or not their water needs to be further filtered. 

And if the water does need further filtering, AI can help to do so. For example, EMAGIN, an Oregon-based company, is using AI to create more accurate and timely information about the kinds of pollutants in water, make recommendations for treatments, allow facility operators to more effectively clean incoming wastewater, and prevent overflows. 

AI has the potential to revolutionize access to water and waste management systems, culminating in the development of fully decentralized water systems: in this system, water and wastewater treatment plants are located at the site of the water supply–preferable to large treatment plans that require miles of expensive infrastructure and are subject to contamination. 

Preserving our Earth’s natural resources and focusing on sustainability have never been as crucial as they are right now. While most of this AI is still in the process of being developed, its very existence is key in impacting the future of the planet in the upcoming years. More importantly, using something like AI (which was originally developed solely for computational and technological purposes) to support environmental sustainability sets an important precedent for all technology that is, and will be developed. The very nature of the UN acknowledging AI as a worthy investment to reach its SDGs is a testament to the potential that this technology has to improve different aspects of human life. 

The widespread impacts that just AI prototypes have had point to the necessity for greater investment into this growing field. Technology can and will be repurposed to solve world issues; and the aforementioned technologies prove that AI should be used to serve our larger global community. The time for action is now. And when the rest of the planet realizes the undiscovered possibilities of artificial intelligence, waves of change will follow. 

Photos courtesy of:
Pixaby

ZWARTE PIET: HARMLESS HARLEQUIN OR RACIST REPRESENTATION?

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By Tessa Houwing
Staff Writer

Imagine the United Nations doing research on Santa’s elves in relation to human rights. Your first thought is probably something along the lines of: why would the United Nations even do that? Well, it turns out that something similar to this has actually been done in The Netherlands. A long-standing Dutch tradition was looked into by the U.N. a few years ago due to the perceived racial ties embedded within the cultural customs of the celebration. Still every year during late Autumn, the discussion starts again. That trend continued this year and was exemplified when Sinterklaas entered the country and mass demonstrations led to the arrests of two hundred people.

What is Sinterklaas?

The Dutch have a children’s tradition similar to Christmas but it does not occur during late December. However, the holiday does still revolve around honoring the Catholic Saint Nicholaas. Hailing from Myra in ancient Greece, located in present-day Turkey, Sint Nicolaas was known for the miracles he could perform. He served as the Bishop of Myra and after his death on December 6, 343 A.D., the church canonized him. He is the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, brewers and many other groups.  Unsurprisingly, he is remembered fondly for his habit of secret gift-giving.

Nowadays, the Dutch people know Sint Nicolaas as Sinterklaas and honor him by celebrating ‘pakjesavond’ (although the holiday is commonly referred to as Sinterklaas) on December 5. Sinterklaas buys gifts for every child in the Netherlands who has behaved properly during the past year. During pakjesavond, a burlap bag magically appears somewhere within the house filled with presents. This bag is always delivered by Zwarte Piet (in English: Black Pete) who aids Sinterklaas and enters each home through the chimney. Zwarte Piet is of African descent and is typically portrayed dressed in Moorish outfit with golden earrings and curly black hair. While he primarily acts as the athletic and silly helper of Sinterklaas, he also plays a more sinister role.  His alternate responsibilities are to hit children with a roe, a collection of birch twigs, and kidnap children in a bag to Spain if they behaved poorly during the year.

None of this ever actually happens in reality. Children believe that Sinterklaas exists until they’re around the age of eight or nine.  When the children are old enough, their parents reveal that this faith was false and that they have been the ones buying their presents. The children also find out that it wasn’t Zwarte Piet who delivered their presents, but their neighbor instead who would knock on the door and quickly run away. The children are also delighted to learn that no one actually gets hit with the roe or gets kidnapped and taken away to Spain.

Usually Sinterklaas is a tradition full of candy, presents and family joy. One big difference between Sinterklaas and Christmas is that poems are attached to the presents which relate to the specific person receiving the gift. Some presents also come with a ‘surprise,’ which is a home-crafted wrapper also relating to the person the present is for. For example, if a girl is quite fond of princesses then this wrapper could be decorated with various princesses.

The festivities begin when Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands from Spain via steamship in November. This is a big event for children everywhere in the country, as the arrival of Sinterklaas is portrayed by multiple actors across the country. Sinterklaas waves from his ship to the children while Zwarte Piet makes silly moves and throws candy to everyone. When they reach land, Sinterklaas rides his horse through town and Zwarte Piet carries bags of candy which he hands out to the children. Sinterklaas is usually played by an old white man, while Zwarte Piet is played by both white men and women. The actors who dress as Zwarte Piet paint themselves black which is where the racial criticisms originate.

The Controversy

There appears to be no blatant harm in this tradition, however there has been a lot of discussion about Zwarte Piet over the last few years. This discussion didn’t just remain within the Netherlands, as the United Nations eventually got involved. Their eventual judgement was that Zwarte Piet is a racist character and doesn’t acknowledge the painful history of African peoples and their past enslavement. The UN added that the Dutch people fail to acknowledge the discriminating nature of this tradition and the negative psychological impact that it may have on citizens of the country.

The debate always circles back to one main point: is Zwarte Piet meant to be a slave to Sinterklaas or does his darkened color come from the chimneys he figuratively navigates? The argument in favor of the former has solid proof. In 1850, Jan Schenkman wrote a children’s book about Sinterklaas. Schenkman is supposedly the one who added Zwarte Piet to the tradition of Sinterklaas, as his first recorded appearance comes from his book. The original illustrations of Zwarte Piet show much resemblance to child slaves during the 19th century so many people assume that Zwarte Piet is, in fact, a slave character.

On the other hand, people say that the color of Zwarte Piet is due to the grime and soot in the chimneys through which he enters homes. This last argument only covers the skin color aspect though and leaves the question of Zwarte Piet’s golden earrings and curly black hair left unanswered. But does that really matter? Those who don’t believe he’s a slave, claim that this is simply a childrens’ tradition and that people shouldn’t examine deeper concepts beyond Zwarte Piet which children don’t see. Many children don’t think of Zwarte Piet as a slave and therefore supporters of the traditional makeup argue that people shouldn’t be making as big of a deal out of this as they are.

What Is Being Done to Address This Concern?

The report from the United Nations was only a recommendation so the Dutch government didn’t have to change anything to their tradition. The prime-minister responded saying that the discussion concerned themes greater than the racial makeup of one particular figure and that the specific case regarding Zwarte Piet was not something that needed to be discussed in parliament. By this response, he left the discussion in the hands of the public and for the last four years the tradition has been influenced by this rationale.

The public did not shy away from discourse in a variety of ways. A pro-Zwarte Piet Facebook page was created and soon had over two million citizens who liked it in solidarity that the tradition not be changed. The main arrival of Sinterklaas last year took place in Gouda, the Dutch city known for its cheese. To represent the cultural history of the city, the actors dressed as Zwarte Piet wore yellow and resembled cheese and stroopwafels, another Dutch delicacy. In doing so, they tried to avoid charges of racism by changing the makeup of Zwarte Piet from black to yellow. Sinterklaas also visits every primary learning institution in the country and schools are actively deciding how to best portray Zwarte Piet. This situation occasionally gets out of hand with parents demonstrating against any change to the longstanding tradition. In Amsterdam, they decided to only allow partially-blackened Zwarte Pieten, with the colored makeup specifically representing the soot of chimneys they claimed. A further example is in regards to Sylvana Simons, a Dutch TV host from Suriname, who received much backlash after publicly stating that Zwarte Piet should be abolished.

This discussion affects every place and every person that has anything to do with Sinterklaas, which as a national holiday, practically includes everyone in the country. Being a white Dutch girl myself, who has been celebrating Sinterklaas her whole life, I find it somewhat difficult to rationalize these discussions. I never took Zwarte Piet as someone who resembled anything close to a slave. But now that the national conversation has continued to evolve and is clearly upsetting to members of our communities, I think that we should not hold on to the tradition and instead look at what it is doing to people. Every country in the western world is becoming more diverse due to migration and we should adjust our culture to accommodate them, just like they are adjusting their lives to live among us. If they feel offended by our cultural customs, which they have proper reason to, then we should have the civil decency to question our own traditions and ask ourselves if they are benevolent and representative of everyone in the country.

Image Courtesy of Hans Splinter

SISI’S EGYPT: REPRESSION AT A CROSSROADS

By Matt M. Joye
Senior Editor

In Egypt, it remains a very good thing to be a general. Even the protestors who occupied Tahrir Square and brought down the former general-turned-dictator Hosni Mubarak courted the support of the army. Now, after just over a year of rule by President Mohamed Morsi, the coup that unseated him has placed another former general in the presidential palace. Indeed, since the toppling of the monarchy in 1952, Morsi remains the only civilian elected to Egypt’s highest office. Yet despite the clamoring of average Egyptians for a return to stability, the landslide electoral victory of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not been a harbinger of democratic transition. It may in fact signal a dark road ahead for the country that cast off a 30-year despot less than four years ago.

Much has transpired since the momentous swell of popular protest and revolution—known collectively as the Arab Spring—began in Tunisia on Dec. 18, 2010, and exploded onto the world stage. Indeed, even now its imprint extends from the current Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, to the unseating of President Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso after 27 years of rule, and more ominously in the continuing civil wars in Ukraine and Syria. Nowhere became more synonymous with this global movement than Egypt: hundreds of thousands gathered in the streets of Cairo, centered on the iconic Tahrir Square, to demand the ouster of President Mubarak. In the end, after withstanding a brutal and deadly crackdown, they remained; gone was the former general who had ruled the country for almost 30 years.

The celebration of that victory would certainly have been tempered if protestors had known three years later another former general would occupy the presidential palace. Elected with 96.1% of the vote, President Sisi seemed to gain some form of democratic legitimacy after leading the coup that deposed President Morsi in July 2013. In one sense it ended an aberration: the military has been the dominant institution in Egypt since at least the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. After being sidelined for a year by the electoral victory of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood—the only other viable organized political institution in Egypt—it would appear the generals have escaped banishment to the barracks and returned to the field, albeit with somewhat bruised egos. [1]

Indeed Sisi’s ascension has taken on aspects of a jilted institution determined to re-establish the power and prestige of a group that has long dominated the Egyptian state. At times this has bordered on the bizarre. Sisi and the regime have advanced a cult of personality built around the president as Egypt’s savior. The Egyptian media coverage of his recent United Nations speech portrayed a triumphant and overwhelming response by the assembly to his address; the New York Times version was less glowing, noting the applause came almost exclusively from his entourage. Egypt’s private media outlets have vowed to observe a self-imposed gag order on criticism of his government. One satellite network even stated, “…freedom of expression cannot ever justify ridicule of the Egyptian Army’s morale.” After the United States briefly suspended some military aid to Egypt, US Secretary of State John Kerry was subjected to security wands on visiting the presidential palace—unusual for a visiting dignitary. In the midst of protests in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs even issued a statement advising the US to undertake “respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion.”

Obviously at times it pays to have a short memory. The violent attack on Pro-Morsi demonstrations by the military in the aftermath of his overthrow killed over eight hundred people, according to Human Rights Watch, and was unlikely to have occurred without at least tacit approval from Sisi: he was in charge of the military and deputy prime minister at the time. The Muslim Brotherhood is now banned as a “terrorist” organization, which has swept up many non-Brotherhood supporters in the subsequent raids. Perhaps most ironic, the leader who has only risen to power because of a series of protests now bans demonstrations of more than ten people without a special permit, and these are hard to procure.

Foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations, under the guise that they provide a conduit for foreign interference, have also faced new restrictions. NGOs that are based in Egypt will now need the approval of the government before accepting any foreign funding. When HRC tried to deliver its findings on the Rabaa Square massacre, its representatives were turned away at the airport and prevented from even entering the country: this was the first time HRC had been denied entrance to Egypt. Former US President Jimmy Carter’s NGO, which promotes free elections and human rights, has already withdrawn, with Carter citing an environment so antithetical to democracy that it “could be extremely difficult, and possibly dangerous, for critics of the regime” to remain.

Two Egyptian institutions that were critical to the development of resistance and opposition to Mubarak were universities and mosques. Both have been targeted by repressive government measures. Muslim imams and preachers must now have approval from the government, and many smaller houses of worship have been closed. At Friday prayers, every preacher must deliver the same sermon. Universities, once a space free from police and thus safe to demonstrate after the restrictions, have been rocked by arrests and violence now that security forces have returned. Now long lines and searches are mandatory just to enter campus, staff may be fired for “inciting” demonstrations, and the head of each university is appointed by the president under new restrictive policies. A wave of preemptive arrests and protests has resulted.

In the aftermath of an attack by militants in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 24 that left more than 30 soldiers dead, the Egyptian Army bulldozed hundreds of houses to create a buffer at the Gaza border—initially giving only 24 hours advance notice—and leaving thousands homeless. The Sinai has long been a battleground between militants and the Egyptian military. But the attack has upped the ante, as the military had claimed until now it was winning the war against the insurgents. The Egyptian government has responded with additional repressive measures. One such policy, which hands prosecution for violations of public utilities over to military courts, is broad enough that marches on public roads could fall within the new jurisdiction.

Under even the most enlightened leadership, Egypt faces numerous challenges that would test the functionality of the state. Economic pressures are almost at a breaking point, with the collapse of the tourism industry, the decline of export revenues as gas and oil production decline, and a bloated bureaucracy and huge debts that siphon off much of its budget. Recent cuts in fuel subsidies, which caused gas prices to spike by 80 percent while electricity costs also rose, are not popular and thus speak to the extent of the crisis. The violence in the Sinai is unlikely to diminish in the near future. The specter of a Muslim Brotherhood re-emergence from the shadows is equal parts convenient spook and real fear in the minds of military brass.

Yet in the overwhelming crackdown on any entity that remotely threatens the rule of the military, there are potential seeds of opposition sown. Public support of the military has fallen dramatically, and the underpinning of earlier support—the wish for a return of stability after the chaos of the revolution and the Morsi regime—largely hinges on whether Sisi can deliver both stability and the economic growth that might accompany it. The removal of fuel subsidies was in part directed at the IMF, which is currently withholding a $4.8 billion loan critical for debt payments. Some investment has returned, but Sisi has not shed the state-centric economic model of old. Egypt has a history of cronyism based on state protections for favored industries: the military has often been the biggest beneficiary of state-directed economic ventures (Mubarak was personally connected to at least 469 businesses). It is possible that the stability of a Sisi regime will restore the stability necessary for economic growth and investment, which might be the biggest panacea for the ills of Egyptians.

There is a more dire option. With so much pressure on every avenue of dissent and political organization, overwhelming repression might produce far more determined—and risk-adverse—adversaries. The designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is no doubt politically expedient, but the wider net of oppression might alienate much larger segments of the population. Cracking down on universities, mosques, demonstrations and the like leaves little room for opposition within orthodox political channels. The domestic situation also limits the support that Egypt can garner from its longstanding allies, namely the US. The attempts by Sisi to foster closer ties with Russia stem in part from the hesitancy the US showed—read temporary suspension of military aid—after the coup that brought him to power. Egypt needs to address its structural deficiencies and attract investment to deliver on the growth that is the justification for its authoritarian rule—trading freedoms for the sake of stability. If Sisi cannot deliver an economy that at least partially fulfills the promises of the revolution and coup, it may take all of the qualities of the general in him to hold onto power. For those who occupied Tahrir Square four years ago, this might seem all too familiar.

1. Bahgat, Gawdat and Robert Sharp. “Prospects for a New US Strategic Orientation in the Middle East.” Mediterranean Quarterly 25.3 (2014): 27-39. Project MUSE. Web. Oct. 29, 2014.

Photo by EEAS