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Afghanistan’s looming cash crisis threatens to worsen a humanitarian disaster

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Afghanistan’s looming cash crisis threatens to worsen a humanitarian disaster


It was an important project: the Afghan economy runs on cash, and only an estimated 10 to 15% of citizens have a bank account. APS was meant to help Afghanistan become less cash-dependent, make economic transactions more secure and efficient, and bring real banking to more people. And, says Khademi, it was moving fast before the US withdrew its forces and the Taliban took over.

Now, though, as chaos continues to unfold in Afghanistan, the project has stopped, and cash is running out before any viable alternatives have been put in place. 

But a different outcome was within reach, Khademi says: Afghanistan was perhaps just a year or two away from having a 21st-century digital banking infrastructure that could cope even if cash disappeared. His team was “very committed and hardworking”, he says, regularly working up to 17-hour days to support rapid growth. They were “so passionate about the economy to be standing on its own.” 

“We were hoping our efforts would pay off,” he says, through tears. “It seems like everything was in vain, everything we have done. It seems like a dream, but now it’s never going to come true.”

Frozen assets

The cash crisis is not an accident. Most of the previous Afghan government’s assets were held in offshore accounts that have since been frozen to prevent the Taliban from gaining access, according to former Central Bank governor Ajmal Ahmady. And the US has chosen to prevent the Taliban—which is on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list—from getting hold of other funds by freezing Afghan government cash reserves and halting planned shipments of cash. Many Afghans have been expecting such a situation for weeks, with long lines at banks as citizens worried about the future drained them of cash.

ATM activity went through the roof. “Friends [who work in banks] said where they normally did hundreds of transactions per day, they were doing thousands,” says Ruchi Kumar, a journalist and contributor to MIT Technology Review who worked in Kabul for eight years but fled the country recently.

The problems caused by the lack of cash are building up. US dollars are becoming increasingly scarce, the value of Afghan cash is plummeting and, according to Khademi, the price of basic goods is skyrocketing. Cash remains in circulation—Afghanistan has a sizeable informal banking system, run though local unlicensed currency traders. Sources say that they are still operating, but without banking activity, money supply will soon run tight. 

Some outsiders are trying to fill the gap by running online fundraising campaigns, while others have even suggested that cryptocurrency could step into the void

But getting money into the country from outside has become more difficult. Western Union, the world’s largest money transfer company, has suspended services in Afghanistan, and NBC reports that MoneyGram has halted operations there too. Meanwhile some foreign crowdfunding websites, such as GoFundMe, have been accused of “disingenuous” behavior after blocking some fundraising efforts for the country while letting others proceed.

“I didn’t think this day would come”

While digital alternatives have largely failed to fill the gap left by the cash collapse, there have been some windows of opportunity for alternative services to help out.

Kumar, the journalist, says that vulnerable Afghans are using services like WasalPay—an online payment system for utility bills—to keep their phone credit topped up.

She’s using it to send money that people in distress can use to stay connected. Her network includes journalists, activists, and human rights defenders; they are able to use WasalPay to access funds coming from outside the country, whether from individual donations and contributions, or from larger sources such as the International Women’s Media Foundation. 



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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing

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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing


The researchers claim that their approach could be used to train AI to carry out other tasks. To begin with, it could be used to for bots that use a keyboard and mouse to navigate websites, book flights or buy groceries online. But in theory it could be used to train robots to carry out physical, real-world tasks by copying first-person video of people doing those things. “It’s plausible,” says Stone.

Matthew Gudzial at the University of Alberta, Canada, who has used videos to teach AI the rules of games like Super Mario Bros, does not think it will happen any time soon, however. Actions in games like Minecraft and Super Mario Bros. are performed by pressing buttons. Actions in the physical world are far more complicated and harder for a machine to learn. “It unlocks a whole mess of new research problems,” says Gudzial.

“This work is another testament to the power of scaling up models and training on massive datasets to get good performance,” says Natasha Jaques, who works on multi-agent reinforcement learning at Google and the University of California, Berkeley. 

Large internet-sized data sets will certainly unlock new capabilities for AI, says Jaques. “We’ve seen that over and over again, and it’s a great approach.” But OpenAI places a lot of faith in the power of large data sets alone, she says: “Personally, I’m a little more skeptical that data can solve any problem.”

Still, Baker and his colleagues think that collecting more than a million hours of Minecraft videos will make their AI even better. It’s probably the best Minecraft-playing bot yet, says Baker: “But with more data and bigger models I would expect it to feel like you’re watching a human playing the game, as opposed to a baby AI trying to mimic a human.”

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death


+ Scientists have found a way to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab. It could offer them new ways to start a family—without the need for distressing IVF procedures. Read the full story.  + How reproductive technology is changing what it means to be a parent. Advances could lead to babies with four or more biological parents—forcing us to reconsider parenthood. Read the full story.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Elon Musk wants to reinstate banned Twitter accounts
It’s an incredibly dangerous decision with widespread repercussions. (WP $) 
+ Recent departures have hit Twitter’s policy and safety divisions hard. (WSJ $)
+ It looks like Musk’s promise of no further layoffs was premature. (Insider $)
+ Meanwhile, Twitter Blue is still reportedly launching next week. (Reuters)
+ Imagine simply transferring your followers to another platform. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Russia’s energy withdrawal could kill tens of thousands in Europe 
High fuel costs could result in more deaths this winter than the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ Higher gas prices will also hit Americans as the weather worsens. (Vox)
+ Ukraine’s invasion underscores Europe’s deep reliance on Russian fossil fuels. (MIT Technology Review)

3 FTX is unable to honor the grants it promised various organizations 
Many of them are having to seek emergency funding to plug the gaps. (WSJ $)
+ Bahamians aren’t thrilled about what its collapse could mean for them. (WP $)

4 It’s a quieter Black Friday than usual
Shopping isn’t much of a priority right now. (Bloomberg $)
+ If you do decide to shop, make sure you don’t get scammed. (Wired $)

5 The UK is curbing its use of Chinese surveillance systems 
But only on “sensitive” government sites. (FT $)
+ The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Long covid is still incredibly hard to treat 
Its symptoms vary wildy, which can make it hard to track, too. (Undark)
+ A universal flu vaccine is looking promising. (New Scientist $)

7 San Francisco’s police is considering letting robots use deadly force
The force has 12 remotely piloted robots that could, in theory, kill someone. (The Verge)

8 Human hibernation could be the key to getting us to Mars 
It could be the closest we can get to time travel. (Wired $)

9 Why TikTok is suddenly so obsessed with dabloons 
It’s a form of choose-your-own-adventure fun. (The Guardian)

10 We can’t stop trying to reinvent mousetraps 🧀
There are thousands of versions out there, yet we keep coming up with new designs. (New Yorker $)

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?


His parents told a court that they wanted to keep the possibility of using the sperm to eventually have children that would be genetically related to Peter. The court approved their wishes, and Peter’s sperm was retrieved from his body and stored in a local sperm bank. 

We have the technology to use sperm, and potentially eggs, from dead people to make embryos, and eventually babies. And there are millions of eggs and embryos—and even more sperm—in storage and ready to be used. When the person who provided those cells dies, like Peter, who gets to decide what to do with them?

That was the question raised at an online event held by the Progress Educational Trust, a UK charity for people with infertility and genetic conditions, that I attended on Wednesday. The panel included a clinician and two lawyers, who addressed plenty of tricky questions, but provided few concrete answers. 

In theory, the decision should be made by the person who provided the eggs, sperm or embryos. In some cases, the person’s wishes might be quite clear. Someone who might be trying for a baby with their partner may store their sex cells or embryos and sign a form stating that they are happy for their partner to use these cells if they die, for example. 

But in other cases, it’s less clear. Partners and family members who want to use the cells might have to collect evidence to convince a court the deceased person really did want to have children. And not only that, but that they wanted to continue their family line without necessarily becoming a parent themselves.

Sex cells and embryos aren’t property—they don’t fall under property law and can’t be inherited by family members. But there is some degree of legal ownership for the people who provided the cells. It is complicated to define that ownership, however, Robert Gilmour, a family law specialist based in Scotland, said at the event. “The law in this area makes my head hurt,” he said.

The law varies depending on where you are, too. Posthumous reproduction is not allowed in some countries, and is unregulated in many others. In the US, laws vary by state. Some states won’t legally recognize a child conceived after a person’s death as that person’s offspring, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). “We do not have any national rules or policies,” Gwendolyn Quinn, a bioethicist at New York University, tells me.

Societies like ASRM have put together guidance for clinics in the meantime. But this can also vary slightly between regions. Guidance by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology, for example, recommends that parents and other relatives should not be able to request the sex cells or embryos of the person who died. That would apply to Peter Zhu’s parents. The concern is that these relatives might be hoping for a “commemorative child” or as “a symbolic replacement of the deceased.”

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