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UK AI industry gets $1.4 billion investment from global tech industry

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A group of international tech firms and venture capitalists injected almost £1 billion ($1.4 billion) into the U.K.’s artificial intelligence (AI) industry on Thursday.

The deal was backed by Japanese venture capital firm Global Brain, Canadian venture capital firm Chrysalix, U.K. automaker Rolls-Royce, the British government and other investors.

The investment will be used to fund new specialist AI qualifications and computer science teachers, to tackle a skills shortage in the sector. Theresa May’s government has been driving an industrial strategy to tap into the growing industry, which Gartner estimates will be worth more than $3.9 trillion in business value by 2022.

“Artificial intelligence provides limitless opportunities to develop new, efficient and accessible products and services which transform the way we live and work,” Greg Clark, U.K. business and energy secretary, said in a statement.

“Today’s new deal with industry will ensure we have the right investment, infrastructure and highly-skilled workforce to establish the U.K. as a driving force in the development and commercial use of artificial intelligence technologies.”

Britain’s nascent AI sector has seen increasing interest from overseas investors. Last week, London-based BenevolentAI raised $115 million from new investors in the U.S. and existing investors, including the U.K.’s Woodford Investment Management.

But critics have warned that the rapid development of AI could come with consequences. On Wednesday, U.S. policy think tank the Rand Corporation warned that the use of AI in a military scenario could potentially lead to a nuclear war by 2040. But the organization also said that AI could have a positive impact and improve decision-making to avert potential disasters.

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been a notable opponent of the potential misuse of AI, and has said it could be the cause of a third world war and create an “immortal dictator.”

The British government said that the money raised also would be used to create a data ethics center to ensure the ethical development of AI.

“As with all innovation, there is also the potential for misuse which puts the whole sector under scrutiny and undermines public confidence,” Clark said.

The U.K. is not the only country to have noticed the importance of the sector. China is ploughing billions into its own AI industry and wants it to be worth 1 trillion yuan ($158 billion) by 2030, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that whichever nation leads the technology “will become the ruler of the world.”

Meanwhile, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, said Wednesday that it will need to invest 20 billion euros ($24 billion) in AI research by 2020.

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What happened when one Chinese city shut down after new Covid outbreak

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Volunteers in protective suits disinfect in a residential area of Tonghua, China on January 24, 2021.

Visual China Group | Getty Images

BEIJING — One small Chinese city’s rush to control the coronavirus has left some residents without food, and some officials without jobs.

The fallout shows the extreme lengths to which local Chinese authorities will go to try to contain the coronavirus. While new cases in China so far this year remain far below that of other countries, the stringent prevention measures can quickly cause greater disruptions to work and daily life.

After a spike in Covid-19 cases in mid-January, Tonghua city, about a 10 hour drive northeast of Beijing, announced on Wednesday that no one could leave the city. Authorities added that all apartment complexes were essentially locked down.

People stuck at home and with little time to stock up on food turned to smartphone-based delivery apps, but many complained online that they couldn’t get their orders, according to posts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

On Saturday, the local Communist Party discipline and inspection commission dismissed three officials for their poor performance in the oversight of the pandemic situation, state media said. Eleven other officials received severe warnings, the report said.

Then on Sunday, Tonghua city apologized to its roughly 500,000 residents for “untimely” delivery of daily necessities and general inconveniences. The city added there was a severe shortage of workers but sufficient food.

More than 11,000 people left mostly angry comments on a national state media post about the apology on Weibo. Some users described how they or neighbors were going hungry and hadn’t received their orders for three or four days.

Many user comments noted an inability to place orders on Eleme, a food delivery app backed by Alibaba. The company did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Nasdaq-listed Dada, a grocery delivery company which saw a surge in growth during the lockdowns of the initial coronavirus outbreak last year, said neither of its two apps operate in Tonghua city.

Covid-19 first emerged in late 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Chinese authorities shut down more than half the country in February 2020, and the outbreak stalled domestically within several weeks. Meanwhile, the virus accelerated its spread overseas in a global pandemic.

In the last two months, new domestically transmitted cases have emerged in China amid cold winter weather and a continued trickle of visitors from overseas. The northeastern province of Jilin where Tonghua city is located has become the third-hardest hit region, reporting 273 new confirmed coronavirus cases for January alone.

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Biden rejoining Paris Accords and WHO is well received: WEF chief

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Flags hang over the entrance to the Davos Congress hall during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 21st, 2020.

Gerry Miller | CNBC

The Joe Biden administration’s latest moves to rejoin global pacts and organizations are likely to be welcome ones for the Davos community. 

Still, the U.S. is far from “out of the woods” on its own domestic challenges and its battle with the coronavirus pandemic, World Economic Forum President Borge Brende told CNBC.

“Already, there are new signals from the U.S. administration on the climate side, re-entering the Paris Agreement, but also looking at how the U.S. can be turned into a low carbon economy are major, major steps,” Borge told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Sunday. These plus the administration’s decision to halt the country’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization are “well received,” he said. 

“But we are still in a situation where there (are) geopolitical confrontations,” the former Norwegian minister said, speaking ahead of the WEF’s Davos Agenda summit this week, which is being held virtually. “There is a fractured world, we’ll see how the U.S.-China relationship will develop in the years to come.” 

Some political analysts have pinned the U.S.-China relationship as the single most important geopolitical challenge and question mark for the Biden administration. But domestically, conditions also remain fraught on many fronts and it remains to be seen whether Biden, who pitched his campaign on unity and national healing, can bridge the deep divides that have only worsened over the last four years.

“The reality is that we’re still faced with a very polarized U.S., I don’t think the U.S. is out of the woods when it comes to the pandemic. The numbers are really, really bad,” Brende said. “So there is going to be also a very tough 100 days before President Biden, but I think he’s got a very experienced team with him with his cabinet.” 

The U.S. currently has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases and the highest reported death count from the pandemic of any country in the world. More than 419,000 people have now died from the disease in the U.S., and it continues to see record case counts, now well over 25 million since the virus was first identified in the country. The vaccination campaign is underway in the country of 330 million, but so far at a slower pace than initially planned.  

In the week following his inauguration, Biden signed a raft of orders to speed up vaccine distribution, increase testing and mandate mask wearing on federal grounds. The president now faces new and rapidly spreading variants of the virus as well as parts of the population that oppose coronavirus restrictions and distrust vaccination.    

“I think there are now some lights in the end of the tunnel in general, not at least because of the vaccination and the rollout,” Brende said. “But it’s taking time, we just have to hope that the new variants are not immune (to the vaccines).”

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Indonesia will take at least a year to reach Covid ‘herd immunity’: Minister

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Pedestrians walk pass a mural depicting Indonesia’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic in Jakarta on August 16, 2020.

Feature China | Barcroft Media via Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Indonesia will take at least a year before a sufficient portion of its population becomes immune to Covid-19, the country’s Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati told CNBC and stressed the need for the government to keep spending to support the economy.  

“We see that the pandemic is not declining, and we need to keep vigilant on that,” Sri Mulyani told CNBC on Monday as part of the coverage of World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda.

Indonesia launched its Covid-19 vaccination program earlier this month after approving for emergency use the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech.

Sri Mulyani said conservative estimates by experts showed Indonesia needs about 15 months to vaccinate around 180 million people in order to reach “herd immunity.” That occurs when enough people in a population develop protection against a disease such that it can no longer spread easily.

We see that the pandemic is not declining, and we need to keep vigilant on that.

Sri Mulyani Indrawati

Finance Minister, Indonesia

But President Joko Widodo wants to “accelerate” that process to achieve herd immunity within 12 months — which is a “daunting task” given the country’s geographic spread, said Sri Mulyani. Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago nation, with its roughly 250 million population spreading across thousands of islands.

Meanwhile, Philippine Secretary of Finance Carlos Dominguez told CNBC — in a separate interview that’s also part of The Davos Agenda coverage — that his country could vaccinate “the majority of the people” by the end of 2021.

The Philippines is scheduled to receive its first batch of Covid vaccines next month, said Dominguez. He didn’t specify the source of those vaccines, but a report by the Associated Press said the country is expecting a shipment of 50,000 doses from China’s Sinovac.

Government spending

Indonesia and the Philippines have the highest number of cumulative Covid cases in Southeast Asia, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.    

Indonesia has reported more than 989,200 cumulative infections and over 27,800 deaths; while the Philippines has recorded more than 513,600 cases and over 10,200 deaths, Hopkins data showed.

Dominguez said the Philippine government has set aside funds for the country’s vaccination program that’s estimated to cost around 82.5 billion Philippine pesos ($1.7 billion).

Similarly, Sri Mulyani said Indonesia will prioritize spending on vaccines, as well as continued support for low-income households and small businesses. She added that the government has targeted a budget deficit of 5.7% of gross domestic product this year, lower than last year’s shortfall of 6.1% of GDP.  

The Indonesian finance minister said her country has weathered the economic hit from the pandemic “relatively well” compared to many countries in the region and among the G-20 group of economies.

The economy is expected to contract around 2.2% “at the deepest” in 2020, before rebounding to a growth of around 5% this year, she added.

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