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UK to invest in AI and cyber as part of major defense spending hike

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The UK has announced a massive boost in defense spending — £16.5 billion ($21.8BN) over four years, the biggest such spending bump for 30 years — in what prime minister Boris Johnson has described as a “once in a generation modernization” of the UK’s armed forces and “the end of the era of retreat” on funding for defense.

Overall the UK prime minister said the spending hike will create 40,000 jobs, adding that it will cement the country’s position as the biggest military defense spender in Europe and the second largest in NATO after the US.

Johnson said the focus for investment will be on cutting edge technologies that can “revolutionize” warfare — implying a major role for artificial intelligence and sensor-laden connected hardware in “forging our military assets into a single network designed to overcome the enemy”, as he put it in a statement to parliament, setting out the first conclusions from an the (ongoing) review of security, defense, development and foreign policy.

“A soldier in hostile territory will be alerted to a distant ambush by sensors or satellites or drones instantly transmitting a warning using artificial intelligence to device the optimal response and offering an array of options — from summoning an air strike to ordering a swarm attack by drones, or paralyzing the enemy with cyber weapons,” Johnson told the House of Commons today, speaking via video conference as he continues to self isolate following a coronavirus contact.

“New advances will surmount the old limits of logistics,” he went on, fleshing out the rational for spending on upgrading military technology. “Our warships and combat vehicles will carry directed energy weapons — destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers. And for them the phrase out of ammunition will become redundant.”

“Nations are racing to master this new doctrine of warfare and our investment is designed to place Britain among the winners,” he added.

The review sets out at least £1.5BN extra — and £5.8BN total — spending on military R&D which Johnson said would be “designed to master the new technologies of warfare”.

There will also be a new R&D center set up with a dedicated focus on artificial intelligence, he added.

An RAF Space Command center is also in the works — with the aim of launching British satellites including the UK’s first rocket from Scotland in 2022.

While the airforce will get new fighter system that Johnson specified will incorporate AI and drone technology.

He also confirmed the existence of a National Cyber Force — a joint unit consisting of personnel from the UK’s intelligence agencies and military personnel which runs cyberops targeting terrorism, organized crime and hostile foreign state actors.

He suggested the hike in military spending on emerging technologies will filter down into wider societal tech gains, telling MPs: “The returns will go far beyond our armed forces — from aerospace to autonomous vehicles — these technologies have a vast array of civilian applications, opening up new vistas of economic progress.”

Responding to Johnson’s statement, the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, welcomed the announcement of increased spending for defense and the armed forces — but accused the government of issuing another “press release without a strategy” — pointing out that successive Conservative governments have eroded defense spending over the past ten years.

“This is a spending announcement without a strategy. The government has yet again pushed back vital parts of the integrated review and there’s no clarity over the government’s strategic priorities,” said Starmer, going on to query how the spending hike would be funded, given the economic crunch facing the UK as a result of the pandemic — asking whether it will require tax rises or cuts to public spending elsewhere, such as to the international development budget.

Starmer also raised the awkward matter of the Russia report — wondering why Johnson’s government has not acted on the “urgent” national security risks identified there.

The report, by parliament’s intelligence and security committee, found the UK lacks a comprehensive and cohesive strategy to respond to the cyber threat posed by Russia and other hostile states that are deploying online disinformation and influence ops to target democratic institutions and values.

It also sounded the alarm about how much Russian money is finding its way into UK political party coffers.

“The prime minister speaks of tackling global security threats, improving cyber capability — and that is all welcome, and we welcome it — but four months after the intelligence and security committee published its report concluding that Russia posed… an immediate and urgent threat to our national security,” noted Starmer.

Replying, Johnson dodged all Starmer’s questions — branding his criticisms “humbug [that] takes the cake” and opting to attack the Labour leader for having served under the party’s former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who did not support increasing UK defense spending.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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The election is over, but voter fraud conspiracies aren’t going away

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President Trump’s conspiracy-theory-fueled plan to overturn his defeat in the 2020 elections targeted six states that President-elect Joe Biden narrowly won: Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Georgia. All six of those states have now certified their vote counts—with recounts sometimes even increasing the victory margin for Biden. 

The confirmation of the results has correlated with a decrease in election disinformation. But according to Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company, while fraud-related claims have dropped in volume, they haven’t exactly gone away. In fact, they’re still getting widely shared: Zignal’s database of social media, broadcast, traditional media, and online sites recorded more than 1.9 million mentions of voter fraud claims over the past seven days. And tweets from prominent right-wing figures and elected officials, such as this one from Senator Rand Paul, are still getting tens of thousands of shares. So what will happen next?

It’s not going away

“I don’t think that the unrest will stop,” says Francesca Tripodi, an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science. If anything, she says, voters who believe the election was stolen from Trump will act with “increasing resolve” in the coming months. 

Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, points out that it’s not just the volume of content disputing the result that we should be worried about. Instead, she’s concerned about the long-term impact this moment could have on how Trump-supporting voters view democracy. “It’s going to decrease trust in the process for a long time to come,” she says. “Perpetuating these narratives is going to make it more difficult for Trump supporters to trust the democratic process in the future.”  

And while Trump may have lost his reelection bid, the political movements that have harnessed misinformation for their own benefit have not been voted out of office as a whole. One prominent QAnon promoter even won a seat in Congress

There is a danger, especially on a local level, of conspiracy theories and other falsehoods about the 2020 elections translating into legislation, says Shireen Mitchell, a disinformation researcher who runs the Stop Digital Voter Suppression Project. “Imagine something that’s a complete disinformation campaign becoming a law,” she said. “Someone’s going to be in a policy position, trying to commit policy based on these conspiracy beliefs.”

Partly because it’s been around for a while 

Trump didn’t suddenly start talking conspiracy theories about a stolen election in November; he’s been tweeting out baseless claims that the election was going to be stolen for months. Likewise, the infrastructure that helps spread these claims predates the 2020 election, as does the history of questioning whose votes should count in America. 

“‘Stop the Steal’ is an evolution of an old argument used to disenfranchise predominantly people of color and indigenous communities,” says Brandi Collins-Dexter, a disinformation researcher. “So, is the fundamental argument ever going to go away completely? As long as voting and participation in our democracy is not embraced by the country as a fundamental human right, I have doubts.” 

Tripodi’s work has involved following Facebook groups devoted to spreading misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. Those groups, which previously played a role in helping introduce QAnon conspiracies to a wider audience, are also hotbeds of election misinformation. And “reopen” campaigns are themselves partially funded and influenced by some right-wing super-PACs and media outlets.

Preventing the spread of misinformation

There are so many aspects to the story of misinformation and American power: the companies that built networks incentivizing the spread of misinformation; the impact those narratives have on vulnerable and oppressed communities; the labor of content moderation, often causing trauma to the workers paid to do it; the money that funds the misinformation campaigns; the network of news-adjacent publications and organizations that help spread them; the impact of misinformation on our daily lives and relationships. It is important, say experts, that the media covering this problem gets it right.

“If I’m reading a story about white nationalist violence and the main person being directly quoted and discussed is a white nationalist, then that, to me, is romanticizing the abuser,” says Collins-Dexter. “But if you’re talking to and about the community that was impacted by white nationalism—if your experts are those from impacted communities, and not ‘reformed’ Nazis or active Nazis—that’s a different story and experience for the reader that does a public service.” 

Journalists can cover this effectively if they can cover climate change effectively,” says Ryan Hagen, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. “The wrong answer is that there’s good truth on both sides of every issue.” 

These same considerations are also important for platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, where conspiracy theories about the election still gain large audiences, despite some temporary and permanent moderation policies that were designed to limit their reach. 

For Collins-Dexter, the companies’ approach to misinformation remains inadequate. “Even with the most vigilant of moderating, this would be a hard job. But content moderators are undertrained, underpaid, and under-resourced on a number of fronts. And the companies want to do the bare minimum,” she says. 

Tripodi, meanwhile, called on platforms to provide more transparency to researchers outside the company. “I think they, in some ways, don’t want to be held responsible for the degradation of democracy in the US,” she says. “But if they repeatedly keep data inaccessible to social scientists, then there’s no way to adequately combat this problem.”

This is an excerpt from The Outcome, our weekly email on election integrity and security. Click here to get regular updates straight to your inbox.

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The UK has granted emergency approval for Pfizer/BioNTech’s covid-19 vaccine

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The news: The UK’s regulator has approved Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, making it the first country in the world to provide emergency authorization for a covid-19 vaccine. The UK had already signed an agreement to buy 40 million doses of the vaccine due to be delivered this year and in 2021, with the first batch set to arrive in the coming days. As the vaccine requires two doses, that is enough for 20 million people. The vaccine will be delivered in stages to each country that has bought it, in order to make sure the doses can be allocated fairly, the two companies said. The US and EU are expected to provide emergency authorizations for vaccines in December too.

The basis for the decision: The UK’s Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) studied Pfizer and BioNTech’s data on a rolling basis as it came in from the trials, including data from the Phase 3 clinical trial, which found the vaccine to be 95% effective. Pfizer said it recorded 170 covid-19 cases (in 44,000 volunteers), with just 162 recorded in the placebo group versus 8 in the vaccine group. Pfizer reported that there were no serious safety concerns related to the vaccine in its study. Side effects included fatigue and headache, but these were not severe and seemed to mostly affect younger participants. “We believe that the rollout of the vaccination program in the UK will reduce the number of people in the high-risk population being hospitalized,” said Ugur Sahin, CEO and cofounder of BioNTech. The vaccine is the fastest to ever be developed, taking just 10 months as opposed to the many years development usually requires.

A project like no other: Now the vaccine has been approved, the enormous task of distribution can start. A particular challenge posed by the vaccine is its need to be kept at -70°C. Pfizer and BioNTech have developed containers which use dry ice to keep the vaccine at these ultra-cold temperatures. The UK is on the precipice of the biggest vaccination campaign in its history. Its government has drawn up plans to start immunizing elderly and vulnerable patients within days. It has drafted a priority list which starts with care home residents, people over 80, and health and social care workers. When more stocks become available, the UK will start vaccinating everyone over 50, and younger people with pre-existing conditions. Its National Health System will contact people to invite them for the shot when it is their turn.

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Genesis Therapeutics raises $52M A round for its AI-focused drug discovery mission

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Sifting through the trillions of molecules out there that might have powerful medicinal effects is a daunting task, but the solution biotech has found is to work smarter, not harder. Genesis Therapeutics has a new simulation approach and cross-disciplinary team that has clearly made an impression: the company just raised a $52 million A round.

Genesis competed in the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt last year, impressing judges with its potential, and obviously others saw it as well — in particular Rock Springs Capital, which led the round.

Over the last few years many companies have been formed in the drug discovery space, powered by increased computing and simulation power that lets them determine the potential of molecules in treating certain diseases. At least that’s the theory. The reality is a bit messier, and while these companies can narrow the search, they can’t just say “here, a cure for Parkinson’s.”

Founder Evan Feinberg got into the field when an illness he inherited made traditional lab work, as an intern at a big pharma company, difficult for him. The computational side of the field, however, was more accessible and ended up absorbing him entirely.

He had dabbled in the area before and arrived at what he feels is a breakthrough in how molecules are represented digitally. Machine learning has, of course, accelerated work in many fields, biochemistry among them, but he felt that the potential of the technology had not been tapped.

“I think initially the attempts were to kind of cut and paste deep learning techniques, and represent molecules a lot like images, and classify them — like you’d say, this is a cat picture or this is not a cat picture,” he explained in an interview. “We represent the molecules more naturally: as graphs. A set of nodes or vertices, those are atoms, and things that connect them, those are bonds. But we’re representing them not just as bond or no bond, but with multiple contact types between atoms, spatial distances, more complex features.”

The resulting representation is richer and more complex, a more complete picture of a molecule than you’d get from its chemical formula or a stick diagram showing the different structures and bonds. Because in the world of biochemistry, nothing is as simple as a diagram. Every molecule exists as a complicated, shifting 3D shape or conformation where important aspects like the distance between two carbon formations or bonding sites is subject to many factors. Genesis attempts to model as many of those factors as it can.

“Step one is the representation,” he said, “but the logical next step is, how does one leverage that representation to learn a function that takes an input and outputs a number, like binding affinity or solubility, or a vector that predicts multiple properties at once?”

That’s the work they’ve focused on as a company — not just creating a better model molecule, but being able to put a theoretical molecule into simulation and say, it will do this, it won’t do this, it has this quality but not that one.

Some of this work may be done in partnerships, such as the one Genesis has struck up with Genentech, but the teams could very well find drug candidates independent of those, and for that reason the company is also establishing an internal development process.

The $52M infusion ought to do a lot to push that forward, Feinberg wrote in an email:

“These funds allow us to execute on a number of critical objectives, most importantly further pioneering AI technologies for drug development and advancing our therapeutics pipeline. We will be hiring more top notch AI researchers, software engineers, medicinal chemists and biotech talent, as well as building our own research labs.”

Other companies are doing simulations as well and barking up the same tree, but Feinberg says Genesis has at least two legs up on them, despite the competition raising hundreds of millions and existing for years.

“We’re the only company in the space that’s working at the intersection of modern deep neural network approaches and biophysical simulation — conformational change of ligands and proteins,” he said. “And we’re bringing this super technical platform to experts who have taken FDA-approved drugs to market. We’ve seen tremendous value creation just from that — the chemists inform the AI too.”

The recent breakthrough of AlphaFold, which is performing the complex task of simulation protein folding far faster than any previous system, is as exciting to Feinberg as to everyone else in the field.

“As scientists, we are incredibly excited by recent progress in protein structure prediction. It is an important basic science advance that will ultimately have important downstream benefits to the development of novel therapeutics,” he wrote. “Since our Dynamic PotentialNet technology is unique in how it leverages 3D structural information of proteins, computational protein folding — similar to recent progress in cryo-EM — is a nice complementary tailwind for the Genesis AI Platform. We applaud all efforts to make protein structure more accessible such that therapeutics can be more easily developed for patients of all conditions.”

Also participating in the funding round were T. Rowe Price Associates, Andreessen Horowitz (who led the seed round), Menlo Ventures, and Radical Ventures.

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