Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
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. As medicine has progressed, the number of mothers and babies who die during pregnancy and childbirth has plummeted. But not every expectant mother wants so much medical intervention. We take a look at the increasing politicization of childbirth. And while the kind of software aimed at human talents has raced ahead, giving us chat bots and chess masters, the hardware for robots has lagged behind largely because they're bad at walking on two legs or even for that is changing in a big way.
But first. On August 13th, the United Arab Emirates and Israel announced a historic agreement that had been brokered by the Trump administration. This is a really good step in that direction. Economic relationship between the Emirates, opportunities for innovation and science, travel between these two places will now be open. Now, American officials hope to build on that deal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the middle of a weeklong tour of the Middle East trying to persuade more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel.
What's taking place here is deeply consistent with what President Trump set out to do create a more stable, more prosperous Middle East. But there are still some nasty details related to both defense and diplomacy to be worked out. Compare this trip to the Middle East is partly a victory lap after this diplomatic agreement between Israel and the UAE, and it's partly an effort to convince other Arab states to follow suit.
Greg Karlstrom is our Middle East correspondent and is based in Beirut. So he started the visit in Jerusalem on Monday to meet with Israeli officials, also, of course, traveling to the UAE and meeting the two parties to this agreement. The other confirmed stops on his trip are Sudan and Bahrain, which are both Arab countries that the Trump administration has identified as possible candidates for signing their own agreements with Israel in the future.
So you say that part of the visit is a victory lap about this deal with the United Arab Emirates. Why is that such a significant breakthrough?
This is the first time in twenty six years that any Arab state has signed a diplomatic agreement with Israel, the UAE. It's the first country in the Gulf, only the third country in the region to formally recognize Israel. Now, of course, there have been years of quiet ties between the two countries. They have seen common interests because of their concerns about Iran to some extent, and in recent years to an even greater extent, worries about Turkey and Turkey's allies and the role that political Islam plays in the region.
So this deal, this agreement now allows both countries to make that public.
And so what are the next steps for this deal? It will take a long time to hash out the details of this agreement. It's going to be months, if not years, before we see tourists regularly flying back and forth between Tel Aviv and Dubai. There have been some preliminary steps so far last week. Phone lines between the two countries, which had been blocked for decades, were unblocked. And so there have been phone calls between Israel and the UAE.
Ministers have spoken to defense ministers. The foreign ministers have had calls with one another. On Monday, top American officials, including Jared Kushner and the American national security adviser, will go with an Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi for a tripartite meeting between the three parties to this agreement. They will meet on Monday in Abu Dhabi to start hashing out the details of things like embassies, trade agreements, travel links between the two countries, all of the finer points of this agreement.
So it's just a matter of dotting I's and crossing T's, dotting I's, crossing T's and the small matter of advanced fighter jets. The Emirates is part of this agreement. Believe that they are entitled to buy the F-35, which is the most advanced military aircraft in the American arsenal. It's a plane that until now has only been sold to, for the most part, America's treaty allies, NATO members, Japan, countries like that, and to a handful of non treaty partners as well, including Israel.
America follows a doctrine that it calls the qualitative military edge for Israel, or Q&A. Under this doctrine, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is allowed to have access to certain advanced military hardware. It's a way of trying to preserve Israel's military edge in the Middle East. And so a plane like the F-35, other Arab states perhaps in 10 years, would have access to that the way they eventually got access to a 15 Zeph Sixteen's other new platforms.
But for now, the Israelis were meant to be the only state in the region that would have access to these jets. And Israeli minister came out earlier this week and said the UAE shouldn't even be entitled to receive one screw from the plane. So what should have been this sort of moment of diplomatic triumph has been overshadowed now by this dispute over military hardware.
And so if the other part of this tour is to essentially draw other countries into the fold, how likely do you think that is to work?
There are other countries in the region that have the same security interests, the same strategic concerns that the UAE and Israel have. So the Trump administration is keen in particular to get other Gulf states like Bahrain to sign their own diplomatic agreements with Israel. This would help to to formalize and to make public this sort of anti Iranian alliance in the region.
So from a diplomatic standpoint, this is this is looking like a real win for the Trump administration.
This is certainly a diplomatic achievement for the administration at a time when it doesn't have many other achievements to celebrate than it's been the result of months and years of quiet negotiations between Israel and the UAE that were shepherded and that were mediated by the Americans. But I think there are two bits of context to point out here. One is there's a fundamental difference between this agreement and the peace agreements that Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan, and that is those were both actual peace agreements.
Egypt and Jordan fought a half dozen wars against Israel over a period of decades until they finally decided to make peace with their one time enemy. And by doing so, they they reshaped the Middle East. This agreement with the UAE, again, it doesn't change the region so much as reflect how the region has already changed because there are these quiet strategic interests that the UAE and the Israelis share. The other thing is for the Emirates, on the surface, it might seem like they got very little out of this agreement.
All they really extracted from Israel was a promise not to move forward with plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. It's unclear without the agreement if Israel even would have done that. It's something that Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to do for many years and has never actually moved ahead with it.
You see something of a small gain for the UAE. This pledge on annexation, but that's quite a big deal for the Palestinians symbolically, it's quite a big deal for the Palestinians. The Gulf states had long said they would only recognize Israel in exchange for a resolution of the conflict in a Palestinian state. Now, immoralities have gone ahead and recognize Israel for much less. But the Gulf states at the same time never did much to actually support the Palestinian cause.
There was rhetorical backing. There were a lot of speeches that were a lot of statements. But none of the Gulf states were participants in the Arab-Israeli wars of old. None of them have been huge supporters of the Palestinians in other ways in recent years. And so the Emirates is recognizing Israel doesn't necessarily change the position of the Palestinians, which is, quite frankly, with very few friends and with very little power to try and influence the direction of the conflict.
But in terms of the bigger the regional the longer term picture, do you see this as the start of a big shift?
In some ways, it depends on what happens with the American election in November. First, there's this question of what will happen with the the F-35 fighter jets. That's not enough to scuttle the deal or to block it from going forward. But whether that becomes a big issue depends to some extent on whether Trump is re-elected. He seems willing to possibly sell these planes or whether Joe Biden wins the election. He's likely to be more opposed to it. But for the Democrats, this is quite a savvy diplomatic move because whoever takes office, this is something that will be popular with that president.
Certainly, Donald Trump will be happy that the immoralities took a big step to advance his diplomatic agenda in the Middle East. But should it be Joe Biden in the White House next year? He, too, is likely to look favorably on an Arab states formally recognizing Israel. So it's a very good bit of politics on the part of the immoralities. Thanks very much for your time, Greg. Thank you. For more analysis like this, from our international network of correspondents subscribed to The Economist, find the best introductory offer wherever you are by visiting economist.
Dot com slash intelligence offer is an experience that every member of your family has a different voice, that a baby can recognize their mother's voice from inside the womb, that identical twins have the exact same vocal chords but usually don't sound similar. And teenagers can sense the tone of their dad's voice when he says, I'll think about it even over WhatsApp, I'll think about it.
Let your family follow their curiosity with unlimited data when you bring everyone's plans together. On Vodafone's multi mobile, Rad's family plan to get a third plan for only 15 euro per month 12 month contract, 15 euro per month max be 10 megabits per second applies when you add right unlimited. Simoni as a third plan with red family. See Vodafone Carlye for full terms.
Over the past century in Britain, an increase in medical attention during pregnancy and childbirth has led to dramatic falls in the number of mothers and babies who die in the process. But not every expectant mother views a doctor's interventions the same way.
I think I'd always had a plan in mind or an ideal vision of what my pregnancy and birth would look like. Home birth was definitely on my mind. Lacey is a women's coach and educator in Britain four years ago. She was pregnant with her first child. My very first appointment when I was pregnant with my first was with a GP I hadn't met before and not knowing who was before, she said, you know, you're going to jump on a conveyor belt now with all the other pregnant women in London.
And at the end of it, you'll have a baby to even be dehumanized in that way, to be on a conveyor belt, you know, really takes away any sort of humanity in the process. So it was disappointing, it was disappointing to not feel like an individual, to feel undermined and to not feel truly hurt in the end, Lacy felt so alienated that she withdrew from the medical system altogether and had no scans or blood tests before giving birth at home.
So the birth of my first happened at the end of a marathon weekend of labor. In the end, it was just my husband and I in the bathroom and I was sitting on the toilet and she started to come out and find my husband held her head. And then I stood up and her whole body came out and I sat down and we later on my lap and she was so slippery and we were laughing. Just the joy of birth is not inherently a medical event.
It can become one as soon as we start handing our power over to someone else. So it's important for all of us to educate ourselves that we know that every decision we make throughout the process of bringing kids into the world is one where we know why we're doing it instead of just doing it, because someone else has said so. Most expectant mothers don't avoid the medical establishment entirely as Laci did, but debate about how a woman should give birth have become surprisingly fierce.
The politicization of childbirth feels like a strange sort of contradiction in terms. Childbirth being a natural event, a very prosaic one, something that happens to everyone we're all born.
Sophie Elmhurst writes for 1843, The Economist sister magazine.
But when you go into it, either personally, I've had a couple of kids or as a reporter, you realize there are these positions that have become very extreme within the world of Jalbert on one hand. And this is a very crude picture of it, a kind of natural birth movement which really promotes the idea of birth being a purely natural and simple event that doesn't need medical intervention. Then, on the other hand, a vision of birth, which is highly medicalized, which involves significant pain relief, intervention, backup support, etc.
. I think what we've seen in recent years, as with many subjects, I suppose, in the culture at the moment, that there has been a polarisation, that these two extremes can actually come into conflict. You see unfolding really quite a toxic debate.
And then so what's the history behind that divide? I mean, clearly, far back enough in history. There was simply no choice. There were no medical interventions to be had.
Right. I think what's so interesting I discovered looking into it is that the polarization has happened really following a kind of historical trajectory. It's very stark in the statistics in the early 20th century, the hospital, those were very rare. And that's obviously massively changed over the course of the century. By 1980, that rises to 99 percent. Now, in parallel to that, you see that the maternal mortality rate in England and Wales, for example, in 1935 was between 400 and 500 per 100000 births.
That's obviously massively fallen to seven and 100000 in the UK. Now, I had a fascinating conversation with former obstetrician at University College Hospital in London called Anthony Silverstone. He's training in Birmingham, I think, in the 1960s. And he would talk about this kind of chaos of women laboring for days and days in agony and how after that, then the next stage of the history of childbirth in the 1970s, you saw the active management of labour, which was this very controlling, paternalistic attitude where doctors were taking charge of birth.
You were given various drugs to stimulate labour, whether you were naturally physiologically ready to give birth or not. And the idea was to keep it to less than 12 hours. Once you know that history, you can understand why there was then in the 70s a huge reaction from women to the idea that their births would be seemingly controlled or attempted to be controlled in this way.
And so a lot of the anxiety, the genesis of this kind of polarisation is about women wanting more control of their own bodies over the process.
Absolutely. I think this is a point made by Professor Alison Phipps in her book The Body. She makes this really interesting parallel with the history of childbirth in the 20th century, really aligning with the history of the feminist movement. And you have this idea that in the first half of the century, there was a battle for women to be free from pain, free from the burden of childbirth, and that that would be a point of liberation. And then following on from that, and certainly in reaction to that kind of active management of labour, the more empowered the second wave feminism was that actually women could be in control of their own bodies, that they should be in control of their own bodies and their own choices.
And the act of childbirth was almost the sort of ultimate expression of that, I suppose.
But it's not a decision a woman always gets to make in the sense that there could be complications at birth that would absolutely require medical intervention. Absolutely.
You can have all these sort of ideas for how you like your birth. You can choose to give birth at home. You can choose to give birth in a birth center where you just have a midwife present and there's no medical intervention, no doctor present, no opportunity for drugs. But no one can predict how birth actually goes. Things can go wrong very, very quickly. It could be all sorts of things you don't even know before you're actually in Labour that a baby will suddenly.
Deprived of oxygen or a baby will suddenly need emergency assistance or you'll have to have an emergency caesarean, and I think some of the complications around childbirth now is that while there are all these on one hand moves to liberate women and and allow women rightly to sort of choose the path they want, there is also huge pressure on a health service, around litigation, around the idea that if something does go wrong, it's very likely that a doctor or nurse or midwife could be sued, that negative outcomes are devastating, obviously, for a family, but also potentially devastating financially for a hospital or a health service, in a sense that that pits these two sides just as laid out.
You know, in simplest terms, what the medical establishment thinks is best for mother and baby and what mother thinks best for mother and baby, in a sense, where we're still at that same impasse.
Well, it's interesting. I mean, I think, yes, you can put it in those terms. Maybe that will always be a tension there. I think, you know, in many ways, that sort of progress that we've seen over the last century has just been entirely positive. And that's why it's almost strange how toxic the debate has become, because what we've seen is far more choice and voice for women in their own birth. But I suppose what you can never design out of childbirth is the element of uncertainty and the lack of control.
And that's lack of control, I suppose, applies on both sides. It's the mother. It doesn't have total control over the way. How about the level and nor does the medical establishment. Maybe that's why that tension can never be resolved. But as you say, in the meantime, the discussion, these two sides of the Capitol, a toxic distinction. I mean, have you found anything in the course of your reporting that could resolve the inherent tension there, at least on the on the culture side of things?
I mean, I wish I had the sort of magic answer to that. I know it feels like a debate on any number of cultural or political issues has become so toxic, it's almost impossible to have anymore because, you know, people are in such a sort of polarized and extreme camps. But something that I sort of thought about a lot while I was reporting the piece was just how uncomfortable we are with uncertainty, how media culture, especially in a lot of these debates, obviously take place on Twitter or Facebook Mumsnet threads where people feel the need to sort of label what tribe they belong to, who they are and say, this is who I am politically, morally.
This is the kind of birth they have. It's just another label. And I wonder if it's trying to reclaim and sort of celebrate some of the uncertainty and mystery around childbirth and it being one of those few areas in life which you can't fully control. And that's something beautiful. And that that might be a healthy thing for us to do in many walks of life, not just in childbirth. Thank you very much for your time, Sophie. Thank you.
Sophie tells the full story of how birth became politicized in the latest issue of 1843, The Economist's Sister magazine available at Economist Dotcom 1843. Robots build our cars, sort our mail and even cook for us. But there's one thing that they've struggled with walking. Asimo, Honda's humanoid robot created at the turn of the millennium, walked at a snail's pace and fell hard in product demos while trying to climb stairs. Progress has been slow and shuffling since then, but there's been something of a step change.
And at last, robots are really finding their feet. We've all seen robots looking very clunky and failing to walk very well and of course, not being able to walk up stairs and many falling over. Paul Murkily is The Economist's innovation editor.
Well, that's starting to change because a new generation of robots are coming and these can walk really well.
But why go to the trouble of figuring out how to walk when plenty of perfectly useful robots whiz around on wheels?
Well, the world really isn't built for being navigated by wheels. Just ask anybody in a wheelchair when you can walk, you can go to more places, do more things, and that's going to make robots much more useful.
But as you say, we've all seen both the films and the viral videos that have robots hilariously falling over. What's changed now?
In recent years, researchers have got a better grasp of how we actually walk the process of locomotion, as they call it. The way we walk is we don't shuffle along like some of the old robots do with their big letton feet. We actually use a process which is more like falling. The mass of the body falls forward, the foot goes down and automatically subconsciously positions itself to catch the fall forward. And this form of locomotion can be modeled mathematically.
It can be replicated in the way that robots walk.
So what does this new generation look like? Is it more humanlike?
Well, they can be human like or they could be animal like the more stable version. It would be four legged. The quadrupeds. Some of these are coming to market now and they're cheaper because they're simpler and they're a little bit more stable, more complex as a biped, which is very human, like the two legs takes a bit more engineering, but is also using the same ideas of robotic locomotion. And who is it that's making them? Who is it that wants to use them?
There are several companies bringing these to market, one of which is very well known, Boston Dynamics. Its robot is a quadruped, a four legged dog like robot called Spot. Now this can scamper around. It's very agile and go up and down stairs. It can crouch down to crawl under things and it can carry equipment on its back sensors and laser scanners to do surveying work and jobs like that. Another company called Agility Robotics is bringing out a robot called Digit.
Now, this is a biped which has two legs. It also has two arms. So it can walk and it can also pick up and carry things like boxes. It can carry about 20 kilograms.
And so the future of these things then is on the factory floor, on the factory floor and outside it, a delivery robot, a digit is being tested to do that last few metres so it can step out of a delivery van and carry a package up the garden path, over the flower beds, up the steps and place it on the front door. Now, that's something a robot with wheels can't do. Also, these same robotic systems can be used to help disabled people, even paraplegics.
Systems are already being developed as prosthetic devices to help people walk and indeed, people who can't walk. You would effectively ride around in a walking robot.
So you reckon we can look forward to a world where there are lots of these robots walking around not only in this world, but space exploration awaits and walking robots will be much better to get around on uneven terrain on Mars and the moon and also deep inside caves, which present machines with wheels cannot do. Paul, thanks very much for walking us through that question.
That's all for this episode of the intelligence, if you like us, give us a rating on our podcasts and see you back here tomorrow.