Economist 3/15/16

  1. When DeepMind, a London-based artificial intelligence company, challenged Lee Sedol to a five-game Go match, Mr Lee—one of the best human players of that ancient and notoriously taxing board game—was confident that he would win. He predicted a scoreline of 5-0, or maybe 4-1.He was right about the score, but wrong about the winner.After the final match its program, called AlphaGo, was awarded the top professional rank by the Korean Baduk Association (“baduk” being the Korean word for Go.) And it has entered the world rankings in 4th place (see chart).The win is another demonstration of the power of deep learning, an AI technique that is being used by companies such as Google, Amazon and Baidu, for everything from face-recognition to serving advertisements on websites. As the name implies, deep learning allows computers to learn: that is, to extract patterns from masses of data with a minimum of hand-holding from their human masters.
  2. This surge of terrorist violence in Turkey has no recent precedent. In the space of five months, three separate attacks have taken place in Ankara alone. Four weeks ago a car bomb killed 30 people, many of them soldiers, less than a mile from the scene of this weekend’s carnage. A PKK splinter group claimed responsibility. In October a pair of Islamic State suicide-bombers left over 100 dead at a rally near Ankara’s train terminal.The situation is also dismal in the Kurdish south-east, where the army has responded to attacks by insurgents with 24-hour curfews, tanks and artillery rounds. This has dealt the PKK a blow, but at the cost of leaving entire neighbourhoods, as well as their residents, buried in rubble.Even before the latest attack, the conflict was showing no signs of lessening. Late last week Turkey’s interior ministry announced new operations, accompanied by a deployment of 20,000 troops and police, against insurgents in three more Kurdish towns.It would also signal a dangerous shift in the PKK’s strategy. In recent years, the group has shied away from attacks on civilian targets. Its decision to abandon that policy would do major damage to both the legitimate Kurdish struggle for new rights and autonomy, of which the PKK claims to be the sole spokesperson.
  3. Public-transport systems are in vogue across the region. Doha, the capital of tiny Qatar, will open its metro a year after Saudi Arabia. Oman is building railways. And it is not just the Gulf: Algeria is also constructing railways. Morocco is interested in trams. Lebanon is looking into a rapid bus system—a bus and metro hybrid with its own lanes—for the areas around Beirut.Many Middle Eastern countries started to invest in buses only around a decade ago, but public networks are still limited; private minibuses abound. Dubai was the first place to operate a mass transit system when it opened its metro in 2009. In the few countries with railways, they are often out of use. Instead, governments have tended to build new roads. Amman and Beirut have no transport other than buses.
  4. The region is one of the most urbanised in the world: some 60% of Middle Eastern people live in cities. Poor urban planning means towns often sprawl in every direction.The lack of good public transport, coupled with rising incomes in some places, has pushed up the use of cars.The ensuing mess makes for nasty air and grumpy people, not to mention some of the world’s highest rates of road fatalities. A World Bank study estimated (conservatively) that 4% of Egypt’s GDP was lost each year because of time wasted in traffic in Cairo, its capital and the Arab world’s megacity. Part of the reason is that tailbacks encourage people to move into cities rather than commute.The old solution of simply building more roads is unsustainable. For one thing, land has become too expensive to tarmac over.People must be tempted to get out of the cool comfort of their car. Many governments, from Egypt to Iran, have started to remove fuel subsidies, causing the price of petrol to rise.The biggest barrier to public transport, though, is the expense. Metros can cost millions of dollars per kilometre of track. At a time of low oil prices, even the oil-producing states are cutting back.
  5. ONLY a few hundred metres separate the small but lively Chinese city of Dandong from Sinuiju, its drab North Korean counterpart on the opposite bank of the Yalu River. There are two iron-truss bridges in the city centre.In theory, that may now be disrupted by sweeping sanctions imposed by the UN, with China’s backing, on March 2nd. They ban trade in luxury items and call for inspections of cargo going into, and coming out of, North Korea.If these sanctions are being applied rigorously, it should be evident in Dandong, which handles an estimated 70% of the trade between the two countries.On March 9th your correspondent saw a sporadic flow of lorries travelling in both directions across the bridge. Locals said the volume looked normal. A foreign observer familiar with the area says it may be that the details of the new enforcement regime “have not yet trickled down to the person wearing the hat at the border”. Traders in the city say they have yet to feel the impact of sanctions.The latest UN sanctions allow for less rigorous inspections in the case of goods needed for humanitarian purposes. China could argue that much of its trade with North Korea falls in that category: it is the main supplier of food and oil.
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