Stephen Hawking says eliminating neglected tropical diseases ‘within our grasp’

British physicist Stephen Hawking cited polio and guinea-worm as success stories of diseases on the brink of disappearing. (Reuters)
Updated 14 December 2017
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Stephen Hawking says eliminating neglected tropical diseases ‘within our grasp’

CAMBRIDGE, England: Parts of the world have made huge progress toward stamping out debilitating tropical diseases such as river blindness and elephantiasis, and success is “within our grasp,” British physicist Stephen Hawking said.
“The last mile on the journey to elimination is always the most difficult,” Hawking said in a speech on Tuesday, citing polio and guinea-worm as success stories of diseases on the brink of disappearing.
Hawking, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease aged 21 and communicates via a cheek muscle linked to a sensor and computerized voice system, also honored his late father’s medical work in Africa, China and the US.
Frank Hawking pioneered a treatment for lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis, which causes enlarged body parts.
“He worked in sometimes very difficult conditions, but he never gave up and he believed fully in the role of science to build a better world,” said his son. “He believed in humanity and our ability to find solutions to problems.”
The event in the English city of Cambridge marked the one billionth treatment of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) by international charity Sightsavers, dispensed in the Nigerian village of Kudaru. Hawking called it “a monumental milestone.”
NTDs are a group of painful infections affecting one in five people globally, according to Sightsavers which trains thousands of community volunteers to dispense medication and gather data.
The diseases are most prevalent in areas of extreme poverty, and often trap individuals in a cycle of social exclusion.
They are also found in parts of North America and Europe, not just in developing countries, said Anthony Solomon, medical officer for NTDs at the World Health Organization.
“Having them also increases the likelihood that people will stay poor and become poorer, because it affects people’s income-generating ability,” he said on the sidelines of the event.
Despite this, Solomon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation there is now enormous momentum to “consign these diseases to the history books.”
Philip Downs, technical director of NTDs at Sightsavers, said funding and political will had galvanized around the diseases, leading to major wins.
Ghana, for example, is on course to become the first sub-Saharan African country to eliminate trachoma, a leading cause of blindness.
Sightsavers plans to sustain progress by working with government water and sanitation departments and strengthening national health systems to build resilience.
“We don’t want the diseases to come back,” said Downs.
Britain has pledged £360 million (SR1.802 billion) toward NTD programs between 2017 and 2022.
Michael Bates, minister of state at the UK Department for International Development, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation British taxpayers had funded about a quarter of the 1 billion treatments.
Hawking said his work to answer pressing scientific questions had led him toward black holes and the Big Bang theory.
“Your challenges are huge and more practical than mine, but your search for solutions to your big questions is no less important,” he told the event.


Google chief trusts AI makers to regulate the technology

Updated 13 December 2018
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Google chief trusts AI makers to regulate the technology

  • Tech companies building AI should factor in ethics early in the process to make certain artificial intelligence with “agency of its own” doesn’t hurt people, Pichai said
  • Google vowed not to design or deploy AI for use in weapons, surveillance outside of international norms, or in technology aimed at violating human rights

SAN FRANCISCO: Google chief Sundar Pichai said fears about artificial intelligence are valid but that the tech industry is up to the challenge of regulating itself, in an interview published on Wednesday.
Tech companies building AI should factor in ethics early in the process to make certain artificial intelligence with “agency of its own” doesn’t hurt people, Pichai said in an interview with the Washington Post.
“I think tech has to realize it just can’t build it, and then fix it,” Pichai said. “I think that doesn’t work.”
The California-based Internet giant is a leader in the development of AI, competing in the smart software race with titans such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, IBM and Facebook.
Pichai said worries about harmful uses of AI are “very legitimate” but that the industry should be trusted to regulate its use.
“Regulating a technology in its early days is hard, but I do think companies should self-regulate,” he said.
“This is why we’ve tried hard to articulate a set of AI principles. We may not have gotten everything right, but we thought it was important to start a conversation.”
Google in June published a set of internal AI principles, the first being that AI should be socially beneficial.
“We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use,” Pichai said in a memo posted with the principles.
“As a leader in AI, we feel a deep responsibility to get this right.”
Google vowed not to design or deploy AI for use in weapons, surveillance outside of international norms, or in technology aimed at violating human rights.
The company noted that it would continue to work with the military or governments in areas such as cybersecurity, training, recruitment, health care, and search-and-rescue.
AI is already used to recognize people in photos, filter unwanted content from online platforms, and enable cars to drive themselves.
The increasing capabilities of AI have triggered debate about whether computers that could think for themselves would help cure the world’s ills or turn on humanity as has been depicted in science fiction works.