Crisis in Venezuela


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Youths carry empty containers which they'll use to collect water, during rolling blackouts affecting the water pumps in people's homes and apartment buildings, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019.  Venezuelans reached new levels of desperation Sunday as the country’s worst blackouts took their toll, gathering in larger numbers than usual at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water and scrounging for scarce cash to pay for food in the few shops that were open.  (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Youths carry empty containers which they'll use to collect water, during rolling blackouts affecting the water pumps in people's homes and apartment buildings, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019. Venezuelans reached new levels of desperation Sunday as the country’s worst blackouts took their toll, gathering in larger numbers than usual at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water and scrounging for scarce cash to pay for food in the few shops that were open. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)


A man collects water in Avila National Park during rolling blackouts, which affects the water pumps in people's homes and apartment buildings, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019. Venezuelans reached new levels of desperation Sunday as the country’s worst blackouts took their toll, gathering in larger numbers than usual at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water and scrounging for scarce cash to pay for food in the few shops that were open. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)


A cyclist pedals through an empty street, past motorists waiting to fill up at one of the few fuel stations that has electricity, during rolling blackouts in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019. Power and communications outages continue to hit Venezuela, intensifying the hardship of a country paralyzed by economic and political crisis and heightening tension between the bitterly divided factions which accuse each other of being responsible for the collapse of the power grid. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)


Misery grows for Venezuelans hit by power cuts

By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA

Associated Press

Monday, March 11

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans reached new levels of desperation Sunday as the country’s worst blackouts took their toll, gathering in larger numbers than usual at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water and scrounging for scarce cash to pay for food in the few shops that were open.

Engineers restored power in some places after electricity and communications shut down nationwide Thursday evening, but outages persisted in many areas where people are already beset by hyperinflation as well as shortages of food and medicine.

Witnesses reported overnight protests and confrontations with police in a few Caracas neighborhoods and the remains of makeshift barricades and burned debris were seen at some intersections.

“If I could, I would take the little that I have and leave the country,” said Renee Martinez, a 31-year-old Caracas resident. “This is unbearable. Here, everything is scarce and now power is as well.”

People are often seen at mountain springs because they don’t have running water at home and bottled water is too expensive, but hundreds crowded collection points Sunday. Some were there for the first time because water pumps weren’t working without power.

Long lines of cars waited at the small number of gasoline stations with electricity. Some Venezuelan hospitals were caring for their most critically ill patients with the help of generators, but many operated without power, raising concerns about vulnerable patients who rely on oxygen concentrators, dialysis machines and other equipment.

The blackout has intensified the toxic political climate, with opposition leader Juan Guaido blaming alleged government corruption and mismanagement and President Nicolas Maduro accusing his U.S.-backed adversary of sabotaging the national grid.

Maduro on Sunday tweeted that he had taken steps to ensure the distribution of basic necessities, including food and water, to hospitals and other places. He also posted a video that showed him with a two-way radio, purportedly talking to military commanders and governors. He said the “macabre strategy” to make Venezuelans desperate and turn them against each other would fail.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said schools and public offices and industries would be closed Monday as the government works to revive the grid, but did not provide an update on progress.

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said the military deployed to protect Venezuela’s power installations from alleged saboteurs.

“We know who’s behind all this,” Padrino Lopez said, echoing the government line that the U.S. staged cyberattacks on Venezuela’s infrastructure. U.S. officials have dismissed the allegation as absurd.

Guaido, leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, said the government was covering up the impact of power cuts on the sick, making it hard to get accurate information. He cited reports that the deaths of 17 hospital patients, 15 of them in the city of Maturin, were linked to the outage, but did not provide details. Dr. Julio Castro, a doctor who supports Guaido, also referred to the 15 alleged deaths in Maturin.

Health Minister Carlos Alvarado did not mention the reported deaths in comments on state television. However, he said more than 90 percent of generators that were part of a government contingency plan successfully provided power to Venezuelan hospitals, ensuring there were no major problems for seriously ill patients.

Independent confirmation of the alleged deaths was not immediately available. Venezuela’s opposing factions have continually sought to discredit each other as they seek an edge in a bitter contest for power being closely watched by much of the world.

The United States and about 50 other nations support Guaido’s claim that he is the interim president and that Maduro should resign so elections can be held and the more than 3 million Venezuelans who have fled their troubled country can start to return. Maduro, who counts Russia and Cuba as allies, says Guaido is a collaborator in a U.S. coup plot.

Alexis Reynoso said he left his home in the Venezuelan capital Sunday morning to try to buy water and food, but most shops were closed. He said those that were open only accepted cash, but he didn’t have enough because the bank only allows small withdrawals and debit card payments aren’t possible because of the outage.

With the bolivar, the local currency, in short supply, some people started to dip into stashes of dollars. University student Juan Gutierrez said Sunday lunch for his family cost $20, a small fortune in a country where the monthly minimum wage that most people earn amounts to less than $6.

“You have to pay in dollars and it’s so expensive for us,” Gutierrez said.

Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

The Conversation

Humans and machines can improve accuracy when they work together

March 11, 2019

Author: Davide Valeriani, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Multimodal Neuroimaging and Machine Learning, Harvard University

Disclosure statement: Davide Valeriani receives funding from DoD (W911NF1810434) and has received funding from the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) through its National PhD Programme, and the Engineering and Physical Research Council (EPSRC) under the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (EP/P009204/1).

Whether artificial intelligence systems steal humans’ jobs or create new work opportunities, people will need to work together with them.

In my research I use sensors and computers to monitor how the brain itself processes decision-making. Together with another brain-computer interface scholar, Riccardo Poli, I looked at one example of possible human-machine collaboration – situations when police and security staff are asked to keep a lookout for a particular person, or people, in a crowded environment, such as an airport.

It seems like a straightforward request, but it is actually really hard to do. A security officer has to monitor several surveillance cameras for many hours every day, looking for suspects. Repetitive tasks like these are prone to human errors.

Some people suggest these tasks should be automated, as machines do not get bored, tired or distracted over time. However, computer vision algorithms tasked to recognize faces could also make mistakes. As my research has found, together, machines and humans could do much better.

Two types of artificial intelligence

We have developed two AI systems that could help identify target faces in crowded scenes. The first is a facial recognition algorithm. It analyzes images from a security camera, identifies which parts of the images are faces and compares those faces with an image of the person that is sought. When it identifies a match, this algorithm also reports how sure it is of that decision.

The second system is a brain-computer interface that uses sensors on a person’s scalp, looking for neural activity related to confidence in decisions.

We conducted an experiment with 10 human participants, showing each of them 288 pictures of crowded indoor environments. Each picture was shown for only 300 milliseconds – about as long as it takes an eye to blink – after which the person was asked to decide whether or not they had seen a particular person’s face. On average, they were able to correctly discriminate between images with and without the target in 72 percent of the images.

When our entirely autonomous AI system performed the same tasks, it correctly classified 84 percent of the images.

Human-AI collaboration

All the humans and the standalone algorithm were seeing the same images, so we sought to improve the decision-making by combining the actions of more than one of them at a time.

To merge several decisions into one, we weighted individual responses by decision confidence – the algorithm’s self-estimated confidence, and the measurements from the humans’ brain readings, transformed with a machine-learning algorithm. We found that an average group of just humans, regardless of how large the group was, did better than the average human alone – but was less accurate than the algorithm alone.

However, groups that included at least five people and the algorithm were statistically significantly better than humans or machine alone.

Keeping people in the loop

Pairing people with computers is getting easier. Accurate computer vision and image processing software programs are common in airports and other situations. Costs are dropping for consumer systems that read brain activity, and they provide reliable data.

Working together can also help address concerns about the ethics and bias of algorithmic decisions, as well as legal questions about accountability.

In our study, the humans were less accurate than the AI. However, the brain-computer interfaces observed that the people were more confident about their choices than the AI was. Combining those factors offered a useful mix of accuracy and confidence, in which humans usually influenced the group decision more than the automated system did. When there is no agreement between humans and AI, it is ethically simpler to let humans decide.

Our study has found a way in which machines and algorithms do not have to – and in fact should not – replace humans. Rather, they can work together with people to find the best of all possible outcomes.

The Conversation

Robots guarded Buddha’s relics in a legend of ancient India

March 13, 2019

Author: Adrienne Mayor, Research Scholar, Classics and History and Philosophy of Science, Stanford University

Disclosure statement: Princeton University Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

As early as Homer, more than 2,500 years ago, Greek mythology explored the idea of automatons and self-moving devices. By the third century B.C., engineers in Hellenistic Alexandria, in Egypt, were building real mechanical robots and machines. And such science fictions and historical technologies were not unique to Greco-Roman culture.

In my recent book “Gods and Robots,” I explain that many ancient societies imagined and constructed automatons. Chinese chronicles tell of emperors fooled by realistic androids and describe artificial servants crafted in the second century by the female inventor Huang Yueying. Techno-marvels, such as flying war chariots and animated beings, also appear in Hindu epics. One of the most intriguing stories from India tells how robots once guarded Buddha’s relics. As fanciful as it might sound to modern ears, this tale has a strong basis in links between ancient Greece and ancient India.

The story is set in the time of kings Ajatasatru and Asoka. Ajatasatru, who reigned from 492 to 460 B.C., was recognized for commissioning new military inventions, such as powerful catapults and a mechanized war chariot with whirling blades. When Buddha died, Ajatasatru was entrusted with defending his precious remains. The king hid them in an underground chamber near his capital, Pataliputta (now Patna) in northeastern India.

Traditionally, statues of giant warriors stood on guard near treasures. But in the legend, Ajatasatru’s guards were extraordinary: They were robots. In India, automatons or mechanical beings that could move on their own were called “bhuta vahana yanta,” or “spirit movement machines” in Pali and Sanskrit. According to the story, it was foretold that Ajatasatru’s robots would remain on duty until a future king would distribute Buddha’s relics throughout the realm.

Ancient robots and automatons

Hindu and Buddhist texts describe the automaton warriors whirling like the wind, slashing intruders with swords, recalling Ajatasatru’s war chariots with spinning blades. In some versions the robots are driven by a water wheel or made by Visvakarman, the Hindu engineer god. But the most striking version came by a tangled route to the “Lokapannatti” of Burma – Pali translations of older, lost Sanskrit texts, only known from Chinese translations, each drawing on earlier oral traditions.

In this tale, many “yantakara,” robot makers, lived in the Western land of the “Yavanas,” Greek-speakers, in “Roma-visaya,” the Indian name for the Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean world. The Yavanas’ secret technology of robots was closely guarded. The robots of Roma-visaya carried out trade and farming and captured and executed criminals.

Robot makers were forbidden to leave or reveal their secrets – if they did, robotic assassins pursued and killed them. Rumors of the fabulous robots reached India, inspiring a young artisan of Pataliputta, Ajatasatru’s capital, who wished to learn how to make automatons.

In the legend, the young man of Pataliputta finds himself reincarnated in the heart of Roma-visaya. He marries the daughter of the master robot maker and learns his craft. One day he steals plans for making robots, and hatches a plot to get them back to India.

Certain of being slain by killer robots before he could make the trip himself, he slits open his thigh, inserts the drawings under his skin and sews himself back up. Then he tells his son to make sure his body makes it back to Pataliputta, and starts the journey. He’s caught and killed, but his son recovers his body and brings it to Pataliputta.

Once back in India, the son retrieves the plans from his father’s body, and follows their instructions to build the automated soldiers for King Ajatasatru to protect Buddha’s relics in the underground chamber. Well hidden and expertly guarded, the relics – and robots – fell into obscurity.

Two centuries after Ajatasatru, Asoka ruled the powerful Mauryan Empire in Pataliputta, 273-232 B.C. Asoka constructed many stupas to enshrine Buddha’s relics across his vast kingdom. According to the legend, Asoka had heard the legend of the hidden relics and searched until he discovered the underground chamber guarded by the fierce android warriors. Violent battles raged between Asoka and the robots.

In one version, the god Visvakarman helped Asoka to defeat them by shooting arrows into the bolts that held the spinning constructions together; in another tale, the old engineer’s son explained how to disable and control the robots. At any rate, Asoka ended up commanding the army of automatons himself.

Exchange between East and West

Is this legend simply fantasy? Or could the tale have coalesced around early cultural exchanges between East and West? The story clearly connects the mechanical beings defending Buddha’s relics to automatons of Roma-visaya, the Greek-influenced West. How ancient is the tale? Most scholars assume it arose in medieval Islamic and European times.

But I think the story could be much older. The historical setting points to technological exchange between Mauryan and Hellenistic cultures. Contact between India and Greece began in the fifth century B.C., a time when Ajatasatru’s engineers created novel war machines. Greco-Buddhist cultural exchange intensified after Alexander the Great’s campaigns in northern India.

In 300 B.C., two Greek ambassadors, Megasthenes and Deimachus, resided in Pataliputta, which boasted Greek-influenced art and architecture and was the home of the legendary artisan who obtained plans for robots in Roma-visaya. Grand pillars erected by Asoka are inscribed in ancient Greek and name Hellenistic kings, demonstrating Asoka’s relationship with the West. Historians know that Asoka corresponded with Hellenistic rulers, including Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Alexandria, whose spectacular procession in 279 B.C. famously displayed complex animated statues and automated devices.

Historians report that Asoka sent envoys to Alexandria, and Ptolemy II sent ambassadors to Asoka in Pataliputta. It was customary for diplomats to present splendid gifts to show off cultural achievements. Did they bring plans or miniature models of automatons and other mechanical devices?

I cannot hope to pinpoint the original date of the legend, but it is plausible that the idea of robots guarding Buddha’s relics melds both real and imagined engineering feats from the time of Ajatasatru and Asoka. This striking legend is proof that the concepts of building automatons were widespread in antiquity and reveals the universal and timeless link between imagination and science.

Adrienne Mayor is the author of: Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Princeton University Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

McIlroy emerges from wild day to win Players Championship

By DOUG FERGUSON

AP Golf Writer

Monday, March 18

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — His best swing was followed by his biggest drive, both setting up birdies, and from there Rory McIlroy knew how to finish.

Suddenly staked to a one-shot lead, McIlroy had a 125-yard walk along the water to the 17th hole to face an island that never looks smaller than on Sunday at The Players Championship, followed by the toughest hole on the TPC Sawgrass with water down the entire left side.

“Just make three more good swings … and this thing is yours,” McIlroy kept telling himself.

He delivered in a major way to win the next best thing to major.

McIlroy made two late birdies to regain the lead, was at his best when the pressure was the highest, and he closed with a 2-under 70 for a one-shot victory over Jim Furyk in his 10th appearance at The Players Championship.

“To step up and make those three good swings, it’s very satisfying knowing that it’s in there when it needs to be,” McIlroy said.

McIlroy could not afford a mistake over the final hour because of Furyk, the 48-year-old former Ryder Cup captain who nearly pulled off a stunner. Furyk, one of the last players to qualify for the strongest field in golf, capped off a 67 with a 7-iron into the 18th so good that he started walking when he hit it. The ball plopped down 3 feet from the hole for a birdie to take the lead.

But not for long.

Coming off a careless bogey on the 14th, McIlroy thought he was in trouble when his tee shot went well to the right toward a clump of native grass. He was lucky it came down into the bunker, and from there he drilled a 6-iron from 180 yards.

“Some golf shot there,” Harry Diamond, his caddie and best friend, said as the ball was in the air.

McIlroy called it “the best shot of the day, by far,” and it settled 15 feet behind the hole for a birdie to tie. Then, he blasted a 347-yard drive — the longest of the day on the par-5 16th — into a good lie in the rough that left him a 9-iron to 20 feet for a two-putt birdie and the lead.

Most important, he found dry land on the 17th with a 9-iron, and relied on a memory from 10 years ago in Hong Kong — pick a target and swing hard — to hammer a tee shot down the 18th fairway to set up the win.

He finished at 16-under 272 and earned $2.25 million, to date the biggest winner’s check in golf.

The timing was ideal. McIlroy had not finished worse than a tie for sixth in his five previous starts this year — three of them playing in the final group — with no trophy to show for it. And one month away is the Masters, the final piece for McIlroy to get the career Grand Slam.

It wasn’t easy. Eight players had at least a share of the lead at some point, and a dozen players were separated by two shots at various times.

“I think the toughest part is seeing yourself up there, whatever score you’re on, and seeing 10 or 11 guys with a chance,” McIlroy said. “I guess that was the hardest thing was just getting yourself to the point mentally where you say, ‘Well, why not me? This is my tournament. I’m going to finish it off.’”

Furyk didn’t know he was in The Players until one week ago, and he was on the verge of winning until McIlroy came through in the end. Furyk started the back nine with two birdies to get in the mix and finished strong. His only regret was a 3-foot par putt on the 15th.

Even so, it showed he has plenty of game left after devoting two years as Ryder Cup captain. The runner-up finish moves him high enough in the world ranking (No. 57) to qualify for the Match Play in two weeks.

“A shot here, a shot there, maybe could have been a little different,” Furyk said. “But ultimately, left it all out there. It was also nice to get in contention, to get under the heat, to have to hit shots under a lot of pressure, and then to respond well to that and hit some good golf shots. It’ll be a confidence boost going forward.

Some of the most entertaining moments came from everyone else.

Eddie Pepperell of England, in his Sawgrass debut, ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch to briefly share the lead, none bigger than a putt from just inside 50 feet on the 17th. One group later, Jhonattan Vegas holed a putt from the bottom left to the top right pin position, just under 70 feet, the longest putt made on the island green since the PGA Tour had lasers to measure them. That gave him a share of the lead, too.

“Magic,” Vegas said. “If I tried it a thousand times I wouldn’t even come close to making it.”

Both shot 66 and tied for third.

Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood lost their way early, and then late.

Rahm, who had a one-shot lead, started with three bogeys in four holes and recovered until a curious decision. Tied for the lead, he was 220 yards away in a bunker, partially blocked by trees on the par-5 11, when he went for the green and hit into the water, making bogey. He was still in the game until failing to birdie the 16th and hitting into the water on the 17th. Rahm shot 76.

Fleetwood opened with a three-putt bogey and made all pars until hitting into the water on the 11th for bogey. He made eagle on the 16th to have a fleeting chance until coming up short of the island. He shot 73 and tied for fifth with Brandt Snedeker (69) and Dustin Johnson (69).

Youths carry empty containers which they’ll use to collect water, during rolling blackouts affecting the water pumps in people’s homes and apartment buildings, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019. Venezuelans reached new levels of desperation Sunday as the country’s worst blackouts took their toll, gathering in larger numbers than usual at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water and scrounging for scarce cash to pay for food in the few shops that were open. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/03/web1_122475904-c480482a3a8c40d8b5aab3bdf2646689.jpgYouths carry empty containers which they’ll use to collect water, during rolling blackouts affecting the water pumps in people’s homes and apartment buildings, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019. Venezuelans reached new levels of desperation Sunday as the country’s worst blackouts took their toll, gathering in larger numbers than usual at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water and scrounging for scarce cash to pay for food in the few shops that were open. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

A man collects water in Avila National Park during rolling blackouts, which affects the water pumps in people’s homes and apartment buildings, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019. Venezuelans reached new levels of desperation Sunday as the country’s worst blackouts took their toll, gathering in larger numbers than usual at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water and scrounging for scarce cash to pay for food in the few shops that were open. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/03/web1_122475904-f4dca9710129411e86fd4a7bb3b2811c.jpgA man collects water in Avila National Park during rolling blackouts, which affects the water pumps in people’s homes and apartment buildings, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019. Venezuelans reached new levels of desperation Sunday as the country’s worst blackouts took their toll, gathering in larger numbers than usual at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water and scrounging for scarce cash to pay for food in the few shops that were open. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

A cyclist pedals through an empty street, past motorists waiting to fill up at one of the few fuel stations that has electricity, during rolling blackouts in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019. Power and communications outages continue to hit Venezuela, intensifying the hardship of a country paralyzed by economic and political crisis and heightening tension between the bitterly divided factions which accuse each other of being responsible for the collapse of the power grid. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/03/web1_122475904-b4cbfa58c4504d41a1468865606e13ff.jpgA cyclist pedals through an empty street, past motorists waiting to fill up at one of the few fuel stations that has electricity, during rolling blackouts in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 10, 2019. Power and communications outages continue to hit Venezuela, intensifying the hardship of a country paralyzed by economic and political crisis and heightening tension between the bitterly divided factions which accuse each other of being responsible for the collapse of the power grid. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
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