Kurdish refugee wins ‘Nobel of mathematics’ Fields medal

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Kurdish refugee turned Cambridge University professor Caucher Birkar has won the prestigious mathematics award, the Fields Medal (Screenshot: Harvard Math/YouTube)
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Handout picture taken on June 22, 2018 and released on August 1, 2018 by the University of Bonn shows German mathematician Peter Scholze talking about his field of work. Scholze was named on August 1, 2018 one of four winners of mathematics' prestigious Fields medal. (AFP/University of Bonn/Volker Lannert)
Updated 02 August 2018

Kurdish refugee wins ‘Nobel of mathematics’ Fields medal

  • The laureates were announced at a ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, which became the first Latin American city ever to host the even
  • Birkar was born in a village in the Kurdish province of Marivan, near the Iran-Iraq border

RIO DE JANEIRO: Kurdish refugee turned Cambridge University professor Caucher Birkar and an Italian who once preferred football to math on Wednesday were among four winners of the prestigious Fields medal, dubbed the Nobel prize for mathematics.
The laureates were announced at a ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, which became the first Latin American city ever to host the event, staged once every four years.
“I’m hoping that this news will put a smile on the faces of those 40 million people,” Birkar, a 40-year-old specialist in algebraic geometry, said, referring to the Kurds.
Born in a village in the Kurdish province of Marivan, near the Iran-Iraq border, Birkar has said: “Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics.”
But he went from Tehran University, where he recounts having looked up dreamily at portraits of past Fields winners, to get political asylum and citizenship in Britain — and establish himself as an exceptional mathematical mind.
“To go from the point that I didn’t imagine meeting these people to the point where someday I hold a medal myself — I just couldn’t imagine that this would come true,” Birkar told Quanta Magazine.
The Fields medal recognizes the outstanding mathematical achievements of candidates who were under 40 years old at the start of the year. At least two and preferably four people are honored each time.
Co-winner Alessio Figalli, a 34-year-old Italian mathematician at ETH Zurich, had another unlikely start to academic superstardom, albeit for very different reasons.
“Until high school, his only concern was playing football,” the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) said in its announcement of the prizes.
That changed after Figalli entered the International Mathematical Olympiad, awakening a fascination for math that today has seen him become a leader in calculating variations and partial differential equations.

Figalli jokes that the one equation still baffling him is how to spend more time with his professor wife.
“I have work for the next 30 or 40 years. But there is one problem I really hope to solve soon: that is me and my wife living in the same city,” Figalli said.
As for Germany’s Peter Scholze, who was awarded the Fields medal for his work in arithmetic algebraic geometry, he says there’ll never be an end to the challenges he faces.
“There are an infinite number of problems,” said Scholze, who is at the University of Bonn and is only 30 years old. “Whenever you solve a problem, there are 10 more coming.”
The fourth laureate, Akshay Venkatesh, is an Indian-born, Australian-raised prodigy who began his undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics at the University of Western Australia when he was just 13.
Now 36 and at Stanford University in the United States, Venkatesh specializes in number theory and describes his work in terms more often associated with the artistic fields.
“A lot of the time, when you do math, you’re stuck. But you feel privileged to work with it: you have a feeling of transcendence and feel like you’ve been part of something really meaningful,” Venkatesh said.

Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

A woman works at a distribution station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 32 min 9 sec ago

Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

  • Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates

NEW YORK: Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars — but instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon.
A young woman fitted out in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.
This robot ballet takes place at the new Amazon order fulfillment center that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.
In an 80,000 square-meter (855,000 square-foot) space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.
The high-tech vest, worn at Amazon warehouses since last year, is key to the whole operation — it allows 21-year-old Deasahni Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a battery needs replacing.
Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her.

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates.
“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40 percent more goods inside the same footprint.
For some, these fulfillment centers, which have helped cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of certain business equations in favor of artificial intelligence.
But Brady argues that robot-human collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, has given them a “beautiful edge” over the competition.
Bernard, who was a supermarket cashier before starting at Amazon, agrees.
“I like this a lot better than my previous jobs,” she told AFP, as Brady looked on approvingly.
What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the human-robot “symphony?“
In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers like Bernard, there are “stowers,” “pickers” and “packers” who respectively load up products, match up products meant for the same customers and build shipping boxes — all with the help of screens and scanners.
At every stage, the goal is to “extend people’s capabilities” so the humans can focus on problem-solving and intervene if necessary, according to Brady.
At the age of 51, he has worked with robotics for 33 years, previously as a spacecraft engineer for MIT and on lunar landing systems of the Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.
He is convinced the use of “collaborative robots” is the key to future human productivity — and job growth.
Since Amazon went all-in on robotics with the 2012 acquisition of logistics robot-maker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady says.
They’ve created 300,000 new jobs, bringing the total number of worldwide Amazon employees up to 645,000, not counting seasonal jobs.
“It’s a myth that robotics and automation kills jobs, it’s just a myth,” according to Brady.
“The data really can’t be denied on this: the more robots we add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating,” he said, without mentioning the potential for lost jobs at traditional stores.

For Brady, the ideal example of human-robot collaboration is the relationship between “R2D2” and Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars.”
Their partnership, in which “R2D2” is always ready to use his computing powers to pull people out of desperate situations “is a great example of how humans and robots can work together,” he said.
But despite Brady’s enthusiasm for a robotic future, many are suspicious of the trend — a wariness that extends to the corporate giant, which this month scrapped high-profile plans for a new New York headquarters in the face of local protests.
Attempts by Amazon employees to unionize, at Staten Island and other sites, have so far been successfully fought back by the company, further fueling criticism.
At a press briefing held last month as part of the unionization push, one employee of the facility, Rashad Long, spoke out about what he said were unsustainable work conditions.
“We are not robots, we are human beings,” Long said.

Many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centers aims to eventually automate positions currently held by humans.
For Kevin Lynch, an expert in robotics from Northwestern University near Chicago, the development of collaborative robots is “inevitable” and will indeed eventually eliminate certain jobs, such as the final stage of packing at Amazon for instance.
“I also think other jobs will be created,” he said. “But it’s easier to predict the jobs that will be lost than the jobs that will be created.”
“Robotics and artificial intelligence bring clear benefits to humanity, in terms of our health, welfare, happiness, and quality of life,” said Lynch, who believes public policy has a key role to play in ensuring those benefits are shared, and that robotics and AI do not sharpen economic inequality.
“The growth of robotics and AI is inevitable,” he said. “The real question is, ‘how do we prepare for our future with robots?“