INDIAN EXPRESS EDITORIALS AND EXPLAINED 25TH JANUARY 2020

ISSUE: VYOM MITRA

WHAT IS VYOM MITRA?

Vyommitra, a “half-humanoid” being developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

She is the prototype for a half-humanoid that will eventually fly to space on an unmanned mission later this year, aiming to lay the ground for ISRO’s manned mission Gaganyaan in 2022.

What is a half-humanoid?

A humanoid is basically a robot with the appearance of a human being. ISRO’s Vyommitra (vyoma = space, mitra = friend) is also being called a half-humanoid since she will only have a head, two hands and a torso, and will not have lower limbs.

Like any robot, a humanoid’s functions are determined by the computer systems to which it is connected. With the growth of artificial intelligence and robotics, humanoids are being increasingly used for repetitive jobs, such as that of a waiter at a restaurant.

The artificial intelligence technologies that power modern systems such as autonomous cars, or voice-operated systems such as Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana and Bixby, are extended in a humanoid to perform simple functions that include walking, moving things, communicating and obeying commands.

Why is ISRO developing a humanoid?

ISRO plans to send a human into space for the first time by 2022. It is racing against time to develop a crew module and rocket systems that will ensure the safe travel and return of the Indian astronaut. Other countries that have successfully launched humans into space did so after having used animals for conducting tests of their rockets and crew recovery systems, while ISRO will use the humanoid to test the efficacy of its GSLV Mk III rocket to transport a human to space and back. The humanoid is under development at a robotics laboratory at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre.

ISRO’s GSLV Mk III rocket is currently undergoing improvisation to ensure that it is human-rated or, in other words, declared safe to transport a human being to space. Its first unmanned mission with the human-rated rocket is planned for December 2020. The crew module system, too, is under development, and ISRO will attempt to carry out several tests over the next few months to launch and recover the module using new test launch rockets, which too are under development.

ISRO has considerable experience in building robotic systems for its space projects. Artificial intelligence was at the core of the Vikram lander system used for the September 2019 Chandrayaan 2 mission to the Moon by assessing distances, speeds and processing commands stored in the lander systems (the lander made a failed attempt to descend to the surface from an orbit around the Moon).

Once flown into space, ISRO’s half-humanoid will be able to test systems in the crew module meant for the survival and safe travel of the first Indian astronaut in 2022.

What are the tasks that Vyommitra will perform in space?

A central character in the science-fiction film Interstellar (2014), which is about space and time travel, is an artificial-intelligence -and-robotics-powered computer system called TARS, which talks to the astronauts, assists them in mission functions, and even rescues them in times of crisis. TARS was not a humanoid, but a robotic system with exceptional capabilities.

The Vyommitra humanoid, which will test the ground for the human spaceflight, will be a very basic version of a TARS-type, artificial-intelligence-and-robotics system. The activities that Vyommitra will be able to perform, once fully developed for the unmanned flight, will include procedures to use equipment on board the spacecraft’s crew module such as safety mechanisms and switches, as well as receiving and acting on commands sent from ground stations. Attaining launch and orbital postures, responding to the environment, generating warnings, replacing carbon dioxide canisters, operating switches, monitoring of the crew module, receiving voice commands, responding via speech (bilingual) are the functions listed for the humanoid.

Vyommitra, whose human-like face has already been on display, will have lip movement synchronised to mimic speech. She can also double up as an artificial buddy to an astronaut — providing audio inputs on aspects like the health of the spacecraft during the launch, landing and orbital phases of the manned mission.

Vyommitra will also report back to Earth on the changes occurring in the crew module during the spaceflight and return, such as heat radiation levels, to enable ISRO to understand the safety levels required in the crew module that will eventually fly a human being.

ISSUE: POLIO COMEBACK IN NUMBER OF COUNTRIES

WHY IN NEWS?

In the last one year or so, polio has made a comeback in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Ghana, Myanmar, China, Cameroon, Indonesia and Iran, mostly as vaccine-derived polio infection.

All these countries had wiped the virus out at various times during the last couple of decades; some, such as Iran and Malaysia, had done so even earlier.

Which are the countries that have seen polio outbreaks in recent months?

On December 8, 2019, the Ministry of Health in Malaysia announced the country’s first case of polio since 1992. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that tests have confirmed that the virus is genetically linked to poliovirus circulating in the Philippines.

On September 19 last year, the Philippines had declared an outbreak of polio. Two cases have been reported to date, both caused by vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2. The first case was confirmed on September 14 following testing by the National Polio Laboratory at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, the Japan National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Last month, the CDC published a list of Asian countries where polio outbreaks have been reported. These are Afghanistan, Burma (Myanmar), China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. Except for Afghanistan and Pakistan, all these countries are new entrants into the list.

The CDC recommends that “all travelers to these countries be vaccinated fully against polio. Before traveling to these countries, adults who completed their routine polio vaccine series as children should receive a single, lifetime adult booster dose of polio vaccine”. WHO recommends that these countries require residents and long-term (4 weeks or more) visitors show proof of polio vaccination before leaving the country.

What is polio and why is it so feared?

According to CDC, “Polio is a crippling and potentially deadly disease that affects the nervous system… Because the virus lives in the faeces (poop) of an infected person, people infected with the disease can spread it to others when they do not wash their hands well after defecating (pooping). People can also be infected if they drink water or eat food contaminated with infected feces. Most people with polio do not feel sick. Some people have only minor symptoms, such as fever, tiredness, nausea, headache, nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, stiffness in the neck and back, and pain in the arms and legs. In rare cases, polio infection causes permanent loss of muscle function (paralysis). Polio can be fatal if the muscles used for breathing are paralyzed or if there is an infection of the brain.”

The virus multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system and can cause paralysis. Once that happens, the patient is crippled for life because there is no treatment for the affliction. That is why polio is so dreaded. Polio infection, however, is easily preventable by a vaccine.

There are three variants of the polio virus, numbered 1 to 3. For a country to be declared polio-free, wild transmission of all three kinds has to be stopped. For eradication, cases of both wild and vaccine-derived polio infection to be reduced to zero.

Where does India stand?

In January 2014, India was declared polio-free after three years on zero cases, an achievement that is widely believed to have been spurred by the successful pulse polio campaign in which all children were administered polio drops.

In fact, lessons from the programme were later incorporated in Mission Indradhanush to bump up India’s immunisation campaign, and with great success.

In 2018, there was a brief scare when some vials of the polio vaccine were found contaminated with the polio 2 virus that had been eradicated from the country in 1999. However, WHO quickly issued a statement saying that all vaccines used in the government programme in India were safe.

The last case due to wild poliovirus in the country was detected on January 13, 2011.

What do multiple outbreaks in the vicinity mean for India?

It calls for heightened vigilance, in short. Officials in the Ministry of Health are clear that there is no reason for undue panic because, thanks to shared borders with a polio-endemic country (Pakistan), India’s preparedness for preventing a polio influx is already very high. “There is no reason for any knee-jerk response because our polio surveillance mechanism is always on high alert and at airports we already look out for polio entry from seven-eight countries at all times. We are very well prepared to defend our polio-free status,” said a senior Health Ministry official.

ISSUE: ECONOMIC CHALLENGE IN THE UPCOMING YEAR

WHY IN NEWS?

The IMF believes that India’s GDP for 2019-20 will be 4.8 per cent — a drag on the global economy.

The oxygen necessary to achieve a GDP growth rate of 8 per cent and above requires bold initiatives.

The animal spirits of entrepreneurs have been doused by the fears of investigating agencies looking for opportunities to target trade and industry. Instead of a genuine attempt to fight corruption, what we see is both prosecution and persecution based on suspicion, which tends to destroy confidence in the system.

Bureaucrats and bank officials are targeted along with the persecution of political opponents. Those close to the establishment are protected. Such partisan attitudes tend to make both bureaucrats and bankers pliant.

The bureaucrat-banker-political nexus is thriving with the blue-eyed boys of industry being openly granted favours for crucial infrastructure projects in this country. The promise of an independent Lokpal is a far cry.

Only 4 per cent of our population contributing to our tax revenues is proof of an ailing economy, where millions live on the margins. That over 70 per cent of our nation’s wealth is owned by less than 10 per cent of our population, even after 70 years of independence, is reason to lament.

Collection of indirect taxes through GST, not matching the government’s expectations, has further dampened the economic sentiment. The hope that the revenue gap will be met by achieving the disinvestment target of Rs. 1.05 trillion in the current fiscal year is unlikely to be realised.

The unemployment rate of those in the age group of 20-24 during the period September-December, 2019, is 37 per cent. Within that category, the unemployment rate of graduates is over 60 per cent. In fact, in 2019, the average unemployment rate of graduates was 63.4 per cent, much higher than in the previous year.

Unemployment amongst postgraduates is also frightening, reaching a rate of 23 per cent in 2019. The rate of urban unemployment for youngsters in their early twenties, between September and December 2019, was as high as 44 per cent, reflected in the levels of unrest which we witness in protests across India.

SOLUTIONS

Create an environment that encourages both domestic entrepreneurs to invest and attract foreign capital, especially in infrastructure.

Put more money in the pockets of the poor.

CONCLUSION

It is the robustness of the economy, which alone can deliver millions out of poverty. Yet since 2014 to the 70th year of our Republic, the economy has been given step-motherly treatment. This government’s agenda is not just politics, but divisive politics. The duo at the helm of affairs hopes to capture the Hindu mind by pitting it against others. In the 70th year, our Republic deserves better.

 

 

 

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