Israel was originally praised for its approach to covid-19 vaccine distribution, and was hailed as a model for how to get things done. But the picture that has emerged since is a lot more complicated. Covid-19 infections have reached record highs, and a new lockdown has been extended until the end of January. Meanwhile, there is inequality and political turmoil behind the headlines, with the UN among those criticizing Israel for refusing to share its vaccines with some 4.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
We spoke with Hadas Ziv, the head of policy and ethics at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, about that country’s successes and setbacks. She was part of the expert team that presented covid-19 vaccine policy recommendations to the Israeli government, and the group was among those petitioning for prisoners to be vaccinated.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: If you’re an Israeli citizen who wants a vaccine, what steps do you need to take?
A: It’s very easy. You’re notified that you’re eligible, either by an SMS, or you can just go into the site of your [healthcare provider], and immediately you see whether you’re eligible or not.
You make an appointment on the internet, or they can send you a link to your phone. It’s very, very organized. And you just get the vaccine. That’s it.
Q: Is the vaccine free? Have there been any hurdles or confusing rollout processes?
A: The positive side of Israel is that we have a public health system, and everyone, all residents, are insured. So unless you’re in a specific group, like migrant workers or refugees or Palestinians in the occupied territories, you’re insured, and you’re part of the system.
Q: Are you seeing problems around vaccine hesitancy or refusal?
A: I think that, in general, Israelis trust vaccines. There were a few conspiracy theories in the media, which made people think whether they should wait to see how it goes for those who are being vaccinated. But I think the fear of the disease is bigger than the fear of the vaccine, and the publicity that the vaccine is safe persuaded many.
We have specific communities [like some ultraorthodox and Arab communities] where there is less trust and information. There should be an effort made by both the health system and the government to persuade and make the information accessible for them so they come and get the vaccinations.
Q: Israel was seen as a model for the rest of the world in speedy vaccine distribution. But cases have been rising, and the country is in another lockdown. What does that tell us about the role vaccines play in overcoming the pandemic?
A: There’s a positive and a negative in the vaccination [process]. It was speedy—Israel acted like many other Western countries, in what is known as a trend of vaccination nationalism. Each country for its own.
We have not solved the compliance of the public. There are big differences between different communities in Israel, and we do not enjoy social solidarity. For example, the ultraorthodox are a little bit above 10% of the population but 30% of new cases of covid-19. There is a danger that once you say this community does not obey the social distancing or cannot because of [social conditions] that there is a lot of public anger toward them. That may even deepen the social conflict within our society.
If you do want to achieve herd protection, you need to reach at least two-thirds of your population. If we do not reach those communities that are now not likely to want the vaccination, we will not reach this number.
Q. The government and Pfizer agreed to trade medical data for doses of vaccines. What’s the impact of that? Was the public given enough information on the details of this agreement?
We got a special agreement from Pfizer, and when they publicized the agreement, at least one-third of it was blackened out. And I think it’s done more damage than good, because now we don’t know how much information they get on us.
If indeed Israel is leading in vaccinating its population, and you do want to learn about the efficacy and adverse effects, why not give this information for free for all the health ministries and systems and laboratories? It’s a global challenge. Why make Pfizer the only one with this knowledge? I don’t know. This is something that we are trying to look into.
Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI
Melanie Mitchell, an AI researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, is also excited to see a whole new approach. “We really haven’t seen this coming out of the deep-learning community so much,” she says. She also agrees with LeCun that large language models cannot be the whole story. “They lack memory and internal models of the world that are actually really important,” she says.
Natasha Jaques, a researcher at Google Brain, thinks that language models should still play a role, however. It’s odd for language to be entirely missing from LeCun’s proposals, she says: “We know that large language models are super effective and bake in a bunch of human knowledge.”
Jaques, who works on ways to get AIs to share information and abilities with each other, points out that humans don’t have to have direct experience of something to learn about it. We can change our behavior simply by being told something, such as not to touch a hot pan. “How do I update this world model that Yann is proposing if I don’t have language?” she asks.
There’s another issue, too. If they were to work, LeCun’s ideas would create a powerful technology that could be as transformative as the internet. And yet his proposal doesn’t discuss how his model’s behavior and motivations would be controlled, or who would control them. This is a weird omission, says Abhishek Gupta, the founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute and a responsible-AI expert at Boston Consulting Group.
“We should think more about what it takes for AI to function well in a society, and that requires thinking about ethical behavior, amongst other things,” says Gupta.
Yet Jaques notes that LeCun’s proposals are still very much ideas rather than practical applications. Mitchell says the same: “There’s certainly little risk of this becoming a human-level intelligence anytime soon.”
LeCun would agree. His aim is to sow the seeds of a new approach in the hope that others build on it. “This is something that is going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he says. “I’m putting this out there because I think ultimately this is the way to go.” If nothing else, he wants to convince people that large language models and reinforcement learning are not the only ways forward.
“I hate to see people wasting their time,” he says.
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“We’re addicted to being on Facebook.”
—Jordi Berbera, who runs a pizza stand in Mexico City, tells Rest of World why he has turned to selling his wares through the social network instead of through more conventional food delivery apps.
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“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking
Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.
There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.
On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. After her death, her family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer. He found she had subscribed to hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit; online communities where self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations—and the internet legitimizes them. Read the full story.
The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?
Access to legal abortion is now subject to state laws, allowing each state to decide whether to ban, restrict or allow abortion. Some parts of the country are much stricter than others—Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are among the 13 states with trigger laws that immediately made abortion illegal in the aftermath of the ruling. In total, around half of states are likely to either ban or limit access to the procedure, with many of them refusing to make exceptions, even in pregnancies involving rape, incest and fetuses with genetic abnormalities. Many specialized abortion clinics may be forced to close their doors in the next few days and weeks.
While overturning Roe v Wade will not spell an end to abortion in the US, it’s likely to lower its rates, and force those seeking them to obtain them using different methods. People living in states that ban or heavily restrict abortions may consider travelling to other areas that will continue to allow them, although crossing state lines can be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for many people facing financial hardship.
The likelihood that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions is also higher following the decision. This information could be used to criminalize them, making it particularly dangerous for those leaving home to cross state lines.
Vigilante volunteers already stake out abortion clinics in states including Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina, filming people’s arrival on cameras and recording details about them and their cars. While they deny the data is used to harass or contact people seeking abortions, experts are concerned that footage filmed of clients arriving and leaving clinics could be exploited to target and harm them, particularly if law enforcement agencies or private groups were to use facial recognition to identify them.
Another option is to order so-called abortion pills to discreetly end a pregnancy at home. The pills, which are safe and widely prescribed by doctors, are significantly less expensive than surgical procedures, and already account for the majority of abortions in the US.