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Hello and welcome to the intelligence on Economist Radio. I'm your host, Jason Palmer. Every weekday, we provide a fresh perspective on the events shaping your world. Indonesia's leaders say they're worried about pandemic driven food shortages, so they're resurrecting a plan to turn vast swathes of peatland into rice paddies, exactly what the government did in the 1990s with disastrous results. And one of the more compelling uses for a bit of artificial intelligence is to get it to do some writing.
We take a look at the most well read A.I. ever developed and ask whether it's at any risk of putting novelists, poets and journalists out of work.
But first. In Belarus this week, protests have grown to the largest the country has ever seen, and they included unlikely participants, the Minsk Philharmonic.
Disquiet has grown since elections earlier this month when Alexander Lukashenko once again claimed a presidential victory once again amid widespread accusations of fraud. Mr. Lukashenko is promising election challenger is now in exile and it seems that people have had enough. On Monday, the president was heckled with chants of Go away are usually loyal workers at a tractor factory.
True to form, Mr. Lukashenko, often described as Europe's last dictator, has tightened border controls and ordered riot police to end the protests in Minsk, the capital. Few international observers believe the result and at an emergency summit yesterday, European Council President Charles Michel said so the people of Belarus deserve better.
They deserve the democratic right to choose their leaders and shape their future.
EU leaders said they would impose sanctions on election officials and the security services that have been suppressing demonstrations.
In truth, the EU has little leverage. What may matter far more is the response of Russia, with which Mr. Lukashenko has an increasingly fraught relationship. Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that what is happening in Belarus worries us very much. After 26 years in power, it's increasingly unclear how Mr. Lukashenko can hang on.
This time, it was not just rigged. It was actually stolen in the past, Lucashenko conducted some support inside the country and had a degree of legitimacy, and he simply bumped up the numbers.
Arkady Ostrovsky is The Economist's Russia editor.
This time there is enough evidence to suggest that he actually lost the election. And rather than being 80 percent in favor of Lukashenko and only 10 percent in favor of his main challenger, Svetlana Danowski, the wife of a jailed blogger, actually the result was the reverse. She seems to have got more than 70 percent and he's got certainly less than would qualify him or a victory.
And that evidently fraudulent election has drawn a lot of protesters out into the streets.
We've never seen anything like this in Belarus in its entire history. Hundreds of thousands of people have been marching on the streets over the past week. In the first two days, they were met with rubber bullets, with stun grenades, with basically state terror. Some 6000 people or more have been detained, tortured, threatened with rape. So Lukashenko has lost twice in this period. First, he lost the election. And second, he lost any remnants of legitimacy by unleashing this terror.
But he's been in power for almost all the time that Belarus has been independent. He's as, as you say, rigged elections before. Why has there been such a strong reaction this time?
There were longer term reasons, the stagnant economy, just simply the lack of political freedom in the country, the lack of economic freedom in the country. On top of this, his spectacular, callous mishandling of coronavirus, which he refused to recognize and suggested that people should drink what can drive tractors to avoid getting infected, all that produce this kind of real disillusionment and real anger. But I think there is a broader reason as well. I think that just simply the time of totalitarian dictators is coming to an end.
And when he stole the election, that was just a step too far.
And on that notion that that promise of change that that voters were looking for, what has happened to to his challenger.
So Svetlana Johannesberg, who is a former schoolteacher, has become a very powerful symbol of this protest.
You should build an Islamic university students a small dividing. It is because it started last year, not so much a leader, but a symbol of protest against Lukashenko.
And she has been effectively forced into exile in Lithuania.
She's been speaking out more from the exile and actually being a symbol. She managed to keep the protest going in the European Union.
But the problem is that Lukashenko, who's now holds on to power simply through terror and through violence, still commands a massive security apparatus with the KGB still named as such. At the core of it, and his own personal security guards, the military, the police, we haven't seen actually much sign of wobbling among the security services who are bound in blood now of the protesters. What we have seen is some strikes in the state sector, factories in Belarus.
Those are ongoing. Whether this non-violent protest can actually succeed in toppling Lukashenko is still very much an open question and very much will depend here on the outside players. Well, as outside players go, I mean, what about Russia, the traditional ally of Belarus, and Vladimir Putin? How has he responded to all this?
Vladimir Putin is an interesting position here because on the one hand, he doesn't like Lukashenko. Lukashenko has overreached in exploiting the differences between Russia and the West, using Russian subsidy, but then sort of scaremongering and saying Putin and Russia wants to take over Belarus and deprive it of its sovereignty, trying to sell this line to the West, saying I'm the only strongman who can still defend Belarus sovereignty and independence after what happened in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. So Putin is not personally invested in Lukashenko, doesn't particularly get on with him, but Belarus is far more important to him than Lukashenko is not simply because it's the closest ally, but also it's been an important testing ground over the repressive methods that the Kremlin has adopted itself against its own protesters.
So Putin cannot afford to lose Belarus. He cannot afford another color revolution in Russia's backyard, not only for geopolitical reasons, but much more importantly, for his own survival. So I think he's sitting on a fence and is neither actively going to rescue Lukashenko, nor is he going to withdraw. His support is simply letting the situation unfold.
And given all of that, how do you think the West should respond to this? There's this patently stolen election, as you say.
Well, the West has already responded.
The European Union stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus, and we don't accept impunity.
The European Union has imposed new sanctions on Lukashenko. At the same time, we know that both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are being constantly on the phone to Vladimir Putin and negotiating.
Presumably, Lukashenko has an exit strategy with Russia.
Now, this might, on the one hand, seem like a formal recognition of Russia's sphere of influence, something that, at least in rhetoric, the Western leaders have always rejected.
I don't see much of a problem here in a sense that talking to Putin in full knowledge of the reality and in full knowledge of what Russia might be able to do and in full knowledge of Putin's previous track record in Ukraine, not talking to Putin at this moment, when you know that Russia holds a lot of cards and not trying to bring Putin on board would be simply irresponsible.
Do you think the end of Mr. Lukashenko rule is is imminent now?
I think he is now running on borrowed time. I can't imagine him being able to hang on to power beyond a few months and possibly even weeks. But for now, he is there. He will try. He's trying desperately to keep the whole thing into sort of longer hours, hoping that the energy of the protests will simply run out. But this is an absolute dramatic moment in the history of the former Soviet empire of Russian regime itself, which has imitated a lot of Lukashenko methods.
It's a crucial stage in the history of the post-Soviet world order, the order which first time came undone in the forests of Belarus in December 1991 when the Soviet Union was actually signed to history. And what we're seeing now is the echoes of those history resonating very powerfully and very painfully. Al-Qadi, thank you very much for your time. Thank you. The Indonesian government is concerned that coronavirus restrictions could lead to food shortages, so it's making plans to develop a huge rice farm on the island of Borneo.
But environmentalists are worried that history could be repeating itself. The Indonesian government's plans to farm the swamp forests of Borneo may inspire a sense of deja vu. Charlie Mickan is The Economist's Southeast Asia correspondent. The last time the government tried this, it caused one of the biggest environmental disasters in Indonesia's history. So what exactly happened the last time the government tried this in 1996, President Suharto, who was the strongman who ruled Indonesia from 1966 to 1998, he was worried about food shortages.
So he set about turning Central Kalimantan, which is a region of Borneo, into the country's granary. The mega rice project, as it was called, involved training ten thousand square kilometers of peat forest in order to convert it into rice paddy. Ten thousand square kilometers is about twice the size of Bali. Just to give you a sense of how big this area was, and unfortunately, it was a massive disaster. The plantation produced hardly any rice because peatland lacks the necessary minerals draining the swamp dried out the soil, making it highly combustible.
And it meant that lots of carbon, which is stored in peat, started to seep out in 1997. The peat burst into flame and led to enormous fire. And a study from 2002 found that these fires in both Kalimantan and Sumatra, a neighboring island, generated the equivalent of somewhere between 13 to 40 percent of the average annual global emissions from burning fossil fuels. So the mega rise project was eventually abandoned in 1999, but you can detect its legacy in the fires that have rampaged through Kalimantan almost every year since.
So given that destructive history, what's the government planning to do this time around?
Well, they want to construct another plantation. They have yet to confirm the exact location and size of this plantation or indeed publish any environmental assessments. Government ministers have put out a lot of conflicting statements about this project. One has said that it could even be as big as 8000 square kilometers. So pretty close in size to the original mega rice project and that it could cost anywhere between five trillion rupiah to 68 trillion. I should just say 500 is about three hundred and thirty seven million dollars.
So it's a project of considerable size.
But why is the government so keen to to press ahead with this when the last time was such a spectacular failure?
The political leaders of Indonesia have historically been very concerned about assuring the country's food security and is even more worried about this today, given the way that the covid-19 pandemic has created bottlenecks in global food supply chains. So it's worried about food shortages and very keen to ensure the country's food self-sufficiency. Jokowi, the Indonesian president, recently put the defense minister in charge of protecting the strategic national food reserves.
What is the government trying to do this time around to make sure they get a different result from the last time?
So the government assures critics that it has learned from the past. It says that more than half the land earmarked for the project is already in use, that rice is already being grown there, and that the other half is only covered in shallow peat, which can be farmed. And they say that tractors will steer clear of what remains of central Clementine's pristine peatlands. But environmentalists are not convinced. An activist I spoke to, your Abbas of the Peace Monitoring Network, which is an NGO, thinks that peatland may indeed be a casualty of this rushed, shambolic planning and a lack of transparency.
And even if farmers do steer clear of the peat, she thinks that by draining the land, they may lower the water table, which would leech moisture from surrounding peatlands. This is a really considerable problem. Last year, the fires that swept Indonesia emitted 22 percent more carbon than the fire in the Amazon rainforest did. The government thinks that over a fifth of national emissions are from peat fires. And in twenty sixteen, Indonesia was the world's fifth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely owing to deforestation.
So what could the government be doing instead upping food production without creating all this environmental risk?
Well, if the government really cared about hunger, it wouldn't be devoting so many resources to this plantation. It's not going to do that much to improve the country's food security because the land, as Suharto's mega rice project showed, just isn't terribly fertile. Indonesia's restoration agency conducted a pilot project on this proposed plantation, and the rice paddies in this pilot project were half as productive as those in Java and Bali. Indonesia does have a problem with with food insecurity.
An astonishing proportion of its children are malnourished. But if they're going to go ahead with this plantation, they really need to consider what they will do with the rice once they've grown it, how are they going to bring it to market? Are they going to be able to sell it to the country's hungriest? Prices that they can actually afford, these are the sorts of issues that the government really needs to think through before it starts moving ahead with this project.
Thanks very much for your time, Charlie. Thank you, Jason. Artificial intelligence is everywhere. If a little behind the scenes, it powers online searches, smart speaker playlists and your next possible dating app match, it'll be behind the decisions and autonomous cars and among doctors looking at scans. But could it also displace the world's poets?
The new language generating artificial intelligence has been developed. I can write very human like short stories, comedy and even poetry.
Dylan Barry writes about science for The Economist.
The software is called Generator Preachin. Transformer number three or three is its better known, its scarily good and even wrote the short poem.
Elon Musk by Dr. Seuss as interpreted by three.
Once there was a man who really was a musk. He liked to build robots and rocket ships and such.
He said, I'm building a car that's electric and cool.
I'll bet it outsells those gasoline burning clunkers soon.
Well, I mean, it's poetry of a sort, I guess, but let's wind back a bit. How did he come about? How does it work?
83 was developed by Open Eye, which is an artificial intelligence lab based in San Francisco and was quite close ties to Microsoft, and it was originally founded by Elon Musk. So the software is built on what's referred to as a language model, which you can think of as kind of abstract statistical map of a language telling you everything from what probabilities? Certain words, follow other words. So, for example, with what probability you'd expect roses to follow red all the way through to the probabilities of individual sentences.
So, for example, if the sentence I smelled the red roses is more likely than the red roses smelled me. And once you've got a model like this, you can ask it to do interesting things. One of the most interesting is language generation. So you can give it a prompt. For example, a poem about red roses in the style of Sylvia Plath. And because it knows the probabilities, different words and different sentences relate with one another.
You can get it to generate for you an appropriate amount of text from the prompt that you give it.
So the name suggests there was two and one before it. Yes, exactly.
So what sets the 3rd one apart is the fact that in general you can improve artificial intelligence algorithms in two ways. The first one is you can make the algorithm more complex and you can think of that as sort of giving it a greater ability to learn complexity. And you do that by giving it more parameters, which are individual things in the model that can be tweaked. The second thing you can do is introduce it to more data on which to train.
And you can think of this as essentially giving it more information from which to learn. So you can either make it smarter at learning from the information you give it or you can give it more information from which to learn. What sets us apart is that it takes those two approaches, making it bigger and giving it more data to their absolute extreme. It has 175 billion parameters, which is a full order of magnitude larger than anything that's come before. It was also trained on by far the biggest set of text data ever amassed, which is a mixture of books and Wikipedia and something called the Common Core, which is a very large data set of text that's just been scraped straight from the Internet.
But there's an old saying in computer science, garbage in, garbage out. You're really just scraping large chunks of the Internet will just spit out some of the madness that's on the Internet back at you.
Exactly. And actually, it's had quite substantial problems with that. In some cases, it appears to be copy pasting text directly from the Internet rather than sort of synthesizing it itself. But the more concerning thing is the fact that when prompted with prompts like, say, black or Jew or woman or gay, so words with a sensitive context, it has the unfortunate tendency to reproduce quite racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic content. Fundamentally, all it is, is a really complex statistical map.
It just knows the probabilities with which words are associated with one another. So to talk about where the algorithm understands or doesn't understand certain things is a challenging one.
But nevertheless, if it can generate compelling text, if it can do your book report for you or write poetry, then there is some concern for authors and poets.
If we're going to take seriously the notion of the death of the author, which is that once a text has been written, it doesn't always necessarily matter what their intention or context was, whether or not that means poets should be concerned. I think these kinds of things will change writing, but I think they're unlikely to displace human writers.
But then in his haste, he got into a fight.
He had some emails that he sent that weren't quite polite.
The SCC said muscular tweets are ablate. They really could cost you your job if you don't stop all this tweeting at night.
Thanks very much for your time, too, and thanks for having me. That's all for this episode of the intelligence, if you like us, give us a reading on Apple podcasts and you can subscribe to the economist at The Economist dotcom slash intelligence offer. See you back here tomorrow. Clezio is how e-commerce brands grow, Clavius specializes in smart targeting and using data from your online store to help you create memorable marketing moments that keep your customers coming back time and time again.
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