Generation 40s – 四十世代

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What Facebook, Twitter and Trump are telling us about fake news and a polarised world

CommentInsight & Opinion
Niall Ferguson says the rise of social media platforms has revolutionised the democratic process, with rogue users able to spread not just fake news but extreme opinions to cause massive polarisation, as like attracts like

Last October, with just a few weeks to go for the US presidential election, I pointed out something strange about Donald Trump’s campaign. At a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump had read out a leaked email he claimed was from Hillary Clinton’s confidant Sidney Blumenthal, which suggested that the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died, could have been prevented by Clinton, then secretary of state. The crowd lapped it up.

In fact, as I pointed out, the words Trump read had been lifted from a Newsweek article and falsely attributed to Blumenthal by Sputnik, a Russian news website. It was already clear that Moscow was meddling in the election. A Homeland Security statement said the Kremlin had “directed” the hacking of email accounts associated with the Democratic Party “to interfere with the US election process”.

There was not much doubt that Russia was behind the release by WikiLeaks of emails to and from Clinton.

Shortly after the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as “a pretty crazy idea” the notion that fake news might have decided the contest in Trump’s favour. Last week, he had to admit that he regretted those words.

We now know that before (and after) the election, Russian trolls with bogus identities bought more than 3,000 Facebook ads. The Russians also used Facebook Events to organise phoney political protests in the US, including an anti-immigrant rally in a small Idaho town known for welcoming refugees. It was to be “hosted” by “SecuredBorders”, a Facebook group exposed in March as a Russian front.

Twitter was used in a similar way. In response to congressional investigations, the company admitted last week it had identified about 200 accounts linked to Russia, and that Kremlin-backed news site RT spent US$250,000 on Twitter ads last year.

It is still too early to conclude that Russian use of social media decided the election. However, we probably can conclude that social media decided the election. The Trump campaign spent about US$90 million on social media, most of it on Facebook. Last November, Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s digital director, said: “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing.” I believe he is right.

In less than a decade, the public sphere – and the democratic process – has been revolutionised. In 2008, the defeated Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, had 4,492 Twitter followers and 625,000 Facebook friends. Barack Obama had four times as many “friends” and 26 times as many followers. Yet the platforms were still in their infancy.

Today, Facebook has more than 2 billion users around the world. In America, about two-thirds of adults are on Facebook. Nearly half get their news from it. One in 10 gets news from Twitter. About 40 million people (and bots) follow @realDonaldTrump.

Everyone, including Russian trolls, as long as they conceal their whereabouts, can use social networks to spread not just falsehoods but extreme opinions. This is a key problem the titans of Silicon Valley gravely underestimated. The tendency for “birds of a feather to flock together” means like-minded people form clusters in any social network, regardless of its size.

The result is massive polarisation. A recent study of 665 blogs and 16,852 links between them showed that they formed two almost separate clusters: one liberal, the other conservative. A study of Twitter revealed that retweets have the same character: conservatives retweet only conservative tweets. A study of language used on Twitter showed that, on ­hot-button issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage and climate change, it is the tweets using moral and emotional language that are more likely to be retweeted.

The sky is darkening over Silicon Valley. Facebook or Fakebook? Twitter or Twister? Last week, Trump fired his first shot directly at Facebook: “Facebook was always anti-Trump.” Zuckerberg shot back: “That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”

The key question is how tenable that defence now is. A platform for all ideas? Or the most powerful media publisher in the history of the world?

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford



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金管局去年推出了「金融科技沙盒(sand box)」,讓銀行以先導形式應用新科技而推出。現時有8間銀行試用18項科技項目,其中10項已經完成,並陸續推出市場。為什麼只讓銀行先試用?因為本港有超過170間銀行,其中有80間名列全球百大銀行之內,比紐約和倫敦都多。而且本港最值得驕傲的是金融服務業備受國際信任。要經營金融服務,沒有信任是做不到的,所以由銀行率先帶領,是希望沙盒可以帶出創新科技的成果。



科技券推出短短8個月,中小企的反應非常積極,申請數字不斷上升。截至7月中,已經有超過2000間中小企在計劃的網站登記。申請的企業來自各行各業,包括批發和零售、進出口貿易、工程、專業服務等等。當局已經遞交了130份申請給科技券委員會評審,當中有120份得到委員會支持撥款,成功率高達92%,總額達到1600萬港元。英國的Innovation Voucher,在首年批出了大約400個項目,當中倫敦市有60個。相比之下,香港的中小企較其他地方更加積極善用這資源。






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Hong Kong’s schoolchildren are being left defenceless against the robot onslaught on future jobs

CommentInsight & Opinion
Kelly Yang fears that, with creativity and soft skills neither fostered nor rewarded in a test-focused system, the city’s children will be left without the tools necessary to survive in the age of AI

If there’s one thing Asian schools excel at training kids to do, it’s copious amounts of boring, repetitive tasks. Here in Hong Kong, schoolchildren are given tremendous amounts of homework at very young ages. The assignments are not creative. They do not call for innovative or imaginative thinking. They are simply busy work – designed by educators from decades ago to keep children occupied and prepare them to be good followers.

But children these days face a radically different future, where artificial intelligence is predicted to wipe out 40 per cent of jobs by 2030. If we do not adapt and change the way we teach, there will not be a future for Hong Kong children.

If you’ve talked to a Hong Kong child recently, you might have noticed that they seem different during the summer. They don’t look quite as defeated – one might even say they look happy. That’s because they’re out of school, and not subject to the daily mountain of mindless homework.

There used to be a time when such homework served a purpose. It instilled in children a good work ethic, time management skills, the ability to sit at a desk and perform a task, however boring, for hours on end. That used to be what companies looked for in employees. But, increasingly, machines are able to do that better than us humans.

As artificial intelligence surges in computing power (expected to surpass that of human brains in 2040), we have to face facts. We’re never going to outcompete robots on work ethic, time management, or anything that involves crunching numbers or knowing facts, codes or rules.

The robot will always do all that better, which is why jobs in accounting, telemarketing and sales are so vulnerable. Think computer science jobs are safe? Think again. According to Toby Walsh, professor at the University of New South Wales, “AI programmes will likely be better coders than humans.”

Ultimately, I think the only industries “safe” from AI are the service and creative sectors.

There will always be jobs in the service industry because humans are social creatures and we need social interaction. Robots, though more efficient and cheaper, simply cannot replicate the emotional connection and comfort that humans can provide. As such, jobs like those of nurses and therapists are probably going to be around for a while.

Likewise, creative jobs will probably increase. Computers can’t write stories that make people weep, or create shows or movies that make hearts sing. With ever increasing numbers of people out of work, their lives and sense of self-worth interrupted by AI, we’re going to need a lot of entertainment.

Thus, the people who are going to thrive in the next century are those who are super creative, with excellent people skills and communication skills. Currently, not one of these three skills is being taught in Hong Kong schools.

Creativity is neither fostered nor rewarded in the Hong Kong education system, nor is having people skills such as empathy or tolerance, or the ability to think about something from multiple points of view and come to a compromise. Because these are not “testable” skills, sadly, they have no place in the current education system.

And while Hong Kong children are constantly being asked to copy passages, and write and recite things, they are not being taught how to properly communicate in a global language (that is, English). They’re not taught how to get their point across effectively, much less in a moving, emotive way, which will increasingly be the standard for humans.

Hong Kong parents realise this, and so some send their children to after-school programmes for “enrichment”. But there are only so many hours in the day. And it’s expensive. And sometimes the kids have already spent so many years learning how to write in the most boring, formulaic way, utterly devoid of imagination, that it takes an incredible amount of time to unteach them.

This summer, I was teaching creative writing to a group of 12-year-olds. They were gung-ho creative writers. They loved reading and writing stories. Still, it took me weeks to get them to come out of their shell, to take a risk with their writing and really let their imaginations go. When they finally did it, I was so proud of them. We all stood and clapped as the kids read their stories; I was moved to tears.

It is my greatest hope as an educator that more schools in Asia teach kids to work smart, not just work hard. We’re never going to be able to work harder than robots, so having our kids grind away, doing endless dictation and revision, is pointless.

It’s time to stop preparing them for a future that will not exist when they graduate. We need to give them the gifts of creativity, empathy, imagination, people skills and excellent communication skills in a global language, so they will actually have a future.

Kelly Yang is the founder of the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating. Her latest children’s novel, Front Desk, is due out next May.

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White House comedy distracts America from the age of automation and looming job losses

South China Morning Post
Insight & Opinion

Niall Ferguson says with the White House reduced to providing fodder for late-night comics, and all eyes on @realDonaldTrump, the spectre of human redundancy amid a speedy tech revolution is being ignored

The US presidential election last year was a choice between two second world war acronyms: snafu (situation normal, all f***** up) and fubar (f***** up beyond all recognition).

American voters faced a choice between a candidate who personified the political status quo, and a candidate who promised the disruption of that status quo. With Hillary Clinton, there was the certainty that nothing much would change. With Donald Trump there was the chance of quite a lot of change, but the risk was that it would be change for the worse. Twelve months ago, it was dawning on me that there might just be enough voters willing to gamble on Trump, knowing full well that the outcome might be fubar.

Since Trump’s election, I have tried to swim against liberal opinion. The more commentators proclaimed the advent of tyranny and the end of the republic, the more I tried to argue that the Trump administration belongs firmly in the tradition of American populism. The more journalists cried “Watergate”, the more I tried to show that Trump isn’t Richard Nixon: with his dynastic approach and louche personality, he more closely resembles John F Kennedy.

My goal has not been to defend Trump, but rather to expose the inconsistencies of his critics. However, the time has arrived to break the bad news to those who voted for Trump.

You wanted change. You got it. But the result is a political system that I can now officially certify as fubar. This is not politics. This is fubatics.

Seven months ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan was proclaiming the “opportunity of a lifetime” for Republicans. Having achieved “unified government” – control of the White House and both Houses of Congress – their party was poised to enact a transformative legislative programme: repeal and replace Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, comprehensive tax reform and a roll-back of economic regulation.

Yet,the Senate could not even agree on a “skinny” bill to repeal just parts of Obamacare. The same week, the Republicans abandoned all hope of passing the border adjustment tax, without which there can be no permanent cuts in corporate and income tax. As for deregulation, this was also the week when Steve Bannon, the chief presidential strategist, said he wanted to regulate Google and Facebook like public utilities.

Wait. Right now Google and Facebook are free. By contrast, I pay hundreds of dollars every month to the utilities.

Fubatics is to politics what comedy is to news. Ever since Americans began to get their politics from comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the danger was that the politicians would respond by providing their scriptwriters with material for gags. We have now reached that point.

Newly appointed White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, last week told a New Yorker journalist that his colleague, chief of staff Reince Priebus, was a “f****** paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac … I want to f****** kill all the leakers and I want to get the president’s agenda on track.” He took to Twitter to imply that Priebus was guilty of a “felony” in leaking details about his finances. By Friday, Priebus was gone. The previous week’s casualty was press secretary Sean Spicer. Next on Trump’s hit list: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Unified government? These guys are unified the way the cast of Reservoir Dogs were unified. Or maybe Goodfellas.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, the plan to render most Americans, and most humans, unemployed goes forward. If you don’t live in northern California, you tend to assume that it will be decades before self-driving vehicles are the dominant mode of transport.

Michael Gove, the British environment secretary, announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars would be banned in the UK by 2040 to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. This surely underestimates Tesla founder Elon Musk, not to mention the car makers chasing him in the race to bring e-cars to the mass market. Gove’s worries about diesel fumes remind me of The Times’ 1894 editorial warning that by the mid-20th century every street in London would be buried under horse manure. Despite evidence of the accelerating pace of technological change, we humans remain chronically bad at making realistic projections about our economic future. The American Trucking Association says the number of jobs for truck drivers will be 21 per cent higher in 2020 than in 2010. Yet self-driving vehicles are already on the road in several US states.

There are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US. It is the most common job in most states. But they sit where drivers of horse-drawn carriages once were: on the brink of unemployment. Nor are they alone. Nearly half the jobs in America are at risk of being automated over the next decade or two, according to Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University. Looking at global employment, the McKinsey Global Institute has concluded that “half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, but this could happen up to 20 years earlier”.

Trump voters thought it was globalisation that destroyed the good jobs in American manufacturing. In reality it was globalisation and technology. Now technology is getting ready to destroy the not-so-good jobs too.

US President Donald Trump waves from a fire truck as Vice-President Mike Pence looks on, at a Made in America event on the South Lawn of the White House, on July 17. Photo: Bloomberg

As an economic historian, I cling to the hope that predictions of the impending redundancy of humanity, like similar predictions at earlier stages of industrialisation, will turn out to be wrong. As a reader of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, I also expect bloody-minded humanity to put up more of a fight against the automation of the world than Silicon Valley expects. This is why Google and Facebook are the new targets of Bannon’s populism.

Yet, as I watched my son play gleefully with a toy robot called Robosapien, the Action Man we gave him for Christmas forgotten, suddenly I felt a sense of kinship with that poor, discarded doll.

The goings-on in Washington are the comedy politics of a distracted age. But the more attention we give @realDonaldTrump on Twitter, the less we pay to the economic revolution all around us. The future belongs to robotics, not fubatics.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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Can China’s Belt and Road plan bring Chinese-style prosperity to developing nations?

CommentInsight & Opinion
Yanfei Li says the answer to a few key questions will determine whether China is able to realise the belt and road principles of shared prosperity and inclusive growth, succeeding where West-led initiatives have failed

As the US appears to be retreating from the world, China is making big investments in ­regional and even ­global connections, especially under its “Belt and Road Initiative”. But is the strategy feasible? In other words, is China capable of translating the “belt and road” into feasible development plans?

China’s vision involves funding a very ambitious collection of infrastructure projects that are intended to enhance connectivity and ­improve cooperation between China and countries across Asia, ­Africa and Europe. The stated aim of the initiative is to promote shared prosperity and inclusive growth, with an emphasis on enhancing land and maritime routes through the development of highways, railroads, sea lanes, ports, energy ­networks, fibre optic cables, and even new financial systems.

While the belt and road strategy is intended to enable participating countries to replicate China’s rapid economic growth, it is unclear whether and how this can happen.

China’s success has been largely predicated upon its unique ­economic, political, and social characteristics. In the Chinese context, the massive scale of infrastructure development over the past decades has been dominated by government planning and public financing, and supported by state-owned banking and industrial systems that are able to recoup their investments through monopolistic control of steadily growing domestic markets. Within this system, all the financial, political, and policy risks involved in these huge infrastructure investments can be ­absorbed internally.

It is not clear whether the belt and road countries will be able to replicate this experience, given that they do not share many of the characteristics that enabled China’s dramatic growth. It thus remains to be seen whether and how the belt and road-driven infrastructure projects will provide adequate return on ­investment for the private sector.

In many of these countries, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have been striving to eliminate infrastructure deficits for decades without success. How will the belt and road succeed where these institutions have failed?

As a matter of fact, infrastructure projects operated by private investors always face the problem of ­insufficient return, due to its nature of being a public good – that is, significant positive externality to the public but limited measures to collect service charges from everyone that has benefited. Thus, government subsidies are generally needed to incentivise investment, as well as sustain the operation of the infrastructure. The subsidies required to sustain the operation of the belt and road infrastructure may become a fiscal burden.

And the immediate question is who should bear how much of such a fiscal burden, especially in the case of cross-border projects, like highways, railways and pipelines. Assuming that China benefits most from belt and road interconnection projects, will a proper mechanism be established so that the Chinese government will shoulder most of the fiscal burden for operation costs? At this moment, the answer is uncertain.

Even assuming that it is possible to finance and implement the infrastructure side of the grand development vision, will the belt and road be able to facilitate high levels of inclusive economic growth in other countries? Which particular economic sectors will be positioned to take advantage of this infrastructure? How will the additional infrastructure generate new economic activity in the belt and road countries?

The key to addressing this issue is understanding the role of the Chinese economy in global value chains, and China’s ability to ­reshape and relocate these value chains to belt and road countries.

Unfortunately, global value chains are still largely controlled by multinational corporations from outside China, which implies that, for belt and road countries to benefit, new opportunities to either participate in or move up global value chains do not rely on the Beijing-led initiative alone.

Taking Asean economies as an example, the relationship between China and the 10-member bloc is characterised by both competition and dependency. On one hand, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations overlap in their top category of commodity exports: electrical machinery, equipment and appliances. With costs rapidly rising in China over the past decade, low-to-medium technology manufacturing firms, which used to flood into China through foreign direct investment by multinationals, are ­increasingly shifting to Asean. This means Asean countries are becoming competitive vis-à-vis China in this sector.

On the other hand, the second largest Asean export and the second largest Chinese import also ­happen to be in the same category: mineral and energy resources.

Thus China is very dependent on Asean economies for the supply of raw material inputs and Asean economies are dependent upon these exports to China. In this case, will the belt and road increase the competition from Asean industries, or will it turn the Asean into a bigger supplier of raw material inputs?

Last but not least, if the belt and road initiative were to forge closer economic and financial ties ­between China and participating countries, does China have a strong commitment to ensuring that its economic, industrial, fiscal, monetary and financial policies will be sufficiently transparent and consistent, and thus predictable? Given that the Chinese economy is already the world’s second largest, its influence on the economic and financial ­stability of other nations, especially belt and road ones, will be crucial.

At present, the Chinese economy seems to be characterised by a property market bubble, the ambiguous status of non-performing loans of Chinese banks, and dangerously high levels of private and public sector debt. The renminbi has been under significant pressure, and the government has chosen to impose tight controls on foreign ­exchange rates, the capital account, and the domestic property market.

Such blunt forms of government interference could raise warning signals for belt and road countries regarding the stability and predictability of the outcome of the plan.

The belt and road plan’s stated principles of inclusive growth and shared economic prosperity are very attractive. Indeed, the history of economic and social development also clearly indicates that addressing infrastructure deficits is a vital means of enabling higher rates of economic growth. So far, initiatives from advanced Western economies have failed to enable the majority of ­developing nations to achieve their aspirations. It is therefore very tempting for these countries to turn to this new alternative.

However, the above-mentioned crucial questions must be resolved as the prerequisite for belt and road to be feasible. In fact, serious reflection on some of these questions is equally important for the internal reforms that the Chinese economy has longed for under China’s ­version of the “new normal”.

Yanfei Li is an energy economist at the Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (ERIA). The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect ERIA’s position