Taking too long? Close loading screen.
Connect with us

World

Hi, my name is Angie. I’m an undercover reporter

Published

on

Hi, I’m Angie. I am an entrepreneur, personal assistant, millionaire heiress, party girl, anything I need to be. In truth, I am an undercover reporter.

A year ago, I was sitting down to a late lunch by the waters of the Mediterranean in Ayia Napa, on the southern coast of Cyprus. Conversation and drinks flowed freely, as the waiter served up morsels of fresh lobster. Between bites, I did a quick tech check. The overworked battery pack was burning against my bare skin, an oddly reassuring sensation that the undercover cameras were still recording. It was hour five of day three.

My lunch companions were basking in the warm sea breeze.

“Next time we’re here we should all take a boat, it’ll be very nice,” said lawyer Andreas Pittadjis.

Andreas has a legal pedigree. He is a partner at his father’s law firm, where he takes on high profile cases. We had just met the day before and quickly bonded over the prospect of lucrative business opportunities.

My colleague and I were posing as representatives of a nameless, fictional client we referred to as Mr X. An ultra-rich Chinese businessman, he had fled China after he was charged with bribery and money laundering. He received a seven-year jail sentence in absentia. And now he wanted to buy a Cypriot passport. We were told that Andreas was the man to help us do that, even though convicted criminals are not allowed to be granted passports under the Cyprus Investment Programme (CIP).

“No passport case is clean and clear, crystal clear. None of them,” Andreas told us. “They all have their issues, that’s why they want a passport. Everybody has issues, everybody.”

He was a captivating storyteller with a flair for the dramatic. With just a touch of faux modesty, he regaled us with stories about difficult passport application cases and how he had succeeded in working the system each time.

The man who introduced us was also at the table. With his slicked-back hair, loose patterned shirts and generous smiles, Tony Kay resembled a seasoned dealmaker from the Costa del Sol. He is a Brit who runs a property agency in Cyprus with his wife, Denise. They have carved out a profitable niche on the island, helping real estate investors obtain European passports through the CIP.

These “golden passports” allow foreigners who invest a minimum of $2.5m to obtain a passport, and the right to live and work across the European Union. It has brought more than $8bn to Cyprus since 2013, and most of that has gone into the real estate sector.

[Illustration: Edib Agagjyshi/Al Jazeera]

The business of selling … passports

The Kays were our first “friends” on the island. They did not shy away when we shared our mission. “I think, I’m right in saying that, frankly, it won’t be so much focused on the investment or really anything other than making sure we can get this passport for this client,” Tony said when we first met them in our hotel room, and we agreed.

The tone was set from the start that we were there with the sole purpose of procuring an EU passport for our criminal client, Mr X, and, thankfully, our new Cypriot contacts were in the business of selling.

“Where there are problems, it costs more money to achieve these things. So, what we will do is find out who has to be spoken to and who has to be paid, what investments need to be made,” Tony told us.

To incentivise them, we explained that there were many more clients in Asia who could also be interested if this went well. If we had other potential applicants, Andreas thought it was best to strike quickly. It was October 2019 and the window of opportunity was closing.

“The passport programme was changed in January this year … and they’re thinking of changing it again, make it even more difficult. That’s why I’m saying if you have people that they need a passport even now, don’t wait,” he told us.

The laws were being tightened following criticisms of the CIP.

“Because they believe that we are selling passports, it’s under attack by the European Union, it’s under attack by European Commission, it’s under attack by the (anti) money laundering authorities,” Andreas explained.

Still, Cyprus offered the best option for the time being, Tony insisted.

“It’s a fabulous scheme for achieving the EU passports, right now. But like everything, for how long?” he said. “After nine months to a year they will change things, they will say you have to invest more money or you have to leave the money in for longer, or you have to reside maybe in Cyprus for a period of time, or you have to learn the language.”

‘Of course. This is Cyprus’

As we finally got up to leave the lunch, I was saturated with information and fish. I was also on the last legs of my last battery. But there was one pivotal question remaining for the solution finders.

I tried to look relaxed, but I was worried that I might be about to push our luck too far. I wondered if I should wait to ask it on another day, when I could be sure I had enough battery left to capture the answer. But we’d had a relaxing afternoon and Andreas was in a chatty mood. There might not be a better time. So I asked it:

“Can my client change his name on the new passport, just a little bit?”

Andreas did not skip a beat. “We can name him Andreas Jr,” he said. “I have a client that his name now is the name half of United States has. But if you check his original name, he cannot even travel with that name. So, we made an affidavit in Cyprus, changed his name, changed his passport. He is travelling now with his new passport, nobody knows.”

“Really? You’ve done this before?” we ask.

“Of course. This is Cyprus,” he shrugged his shoulders and chuckled as he sauntered off towards his shiny black car.

This meant that Mr X could obtain a new passport and completely change his identity, freeing him from any consequences of his criminal past. It was confirmation that the loopholes in the system allow criminals to essentially disappear, evade justice internationally and ensure that their wealth is untainted by their crimes. God, I hoped we’d got that on camera.

[Illustration: Edib Agagjyshi/Al Jazeera]

‘When you know the angels, you don’t need God’

We spent the next morning viewing high-end luxury properties around the south-east of the island that Mr X could potentially invest in. They were all projects by one of Cyprus’s largest real estate developers, Giovani Group. Christakis Giovanis, also known in Cyprus as Christakis Giovani, who heads the group, also happens to be a member of parliament.

Tony and Andreas told us that Christakis was an important man to know, a miracle worker. He knows all the right people for what we were doing.

“When you know the angels, you don’t need God,” Andreas explained.

They are all part of a specialised team of enablers. And Christakis’s connections were key to overcoming our hurdles. We met him over dinner at his favourite Japanese restaurant. Christakis has a kind, grandfatherly face. He sat in the corner and did not say much. But when he did speak, it was in low, gentle tones. It was hard to hear him over the din of the restaurant, so I edged closer for better audio recording.

Christakis left the talking to his right-hand man Antonis Antoniou, the executive director of Giovani Group; only nodding occasionally as he quietly ate plates of tuna tartare and sea bream.

Antonis laid out the next steps in our pursuit of a passport. He told us the main complication with our client’s conviction would be getting his profile past the banks, and his funds into Cyprus.

“The number one part is how we complete a good KYC for the money to arrive in Cyprus. Put the file together and through the banks we can accommodate the money here in Cyprus.”

KYC, or Know Your Client, is a background check that financial professionals run to verify risks. It is part of measures to curb money laundering. This is Andreas’ forte and he later explained the importance of putting together a “good” KYC to paint the right picture for the banks.

As he went into greater detail, the chef brought over seemingly endless servings of salad and sashimi. It was getting harder to film as plates and glasses filled the table.

Soon, Antonis and Christakis left to catch a red-eye flight for a quick business trip. But we were asked to extend our stay on the island for another day until they returned. “You’ll find it to be very worthwhile,” Tony promised.

[embedded content]

‘The higher, the better’

During our four days in Cyprus, we were shown the sites – from the undersea caves and rock structures of Cape Greco to the party scenes of Nissi Beach.

“If you send clients over, when they arrive we chaperone them, we look after them. They’re treated very, very well,” Tony assured us. “When they leave here they’ll be in love with Cyprus. And we will achieve whatever they need to achieve.”

Over a series of three long lunches and two dinners, our Cypriot advisors guided us through the roadmap to securing a European passport for a criminal applicant. Andreas and Christakis are both registered service providers of the CIP. Instead of telling us that Mr X was not eligible for a passport, we were given step-by-step tutorials on the potential ways to achieve our goal. It was a blueprint for money laundering – moving Mr X’s funds into Cyprus, despite his criminal convictions, through the banks and getting the government to look the other way.

I was both amazed and nervous that we had gotten that far without providing a name or ID for Mr X.

Andreas let us in on an industry secret – there is a two-track application system. One is the official route.

“You can still get a passport for two million [euros]. Nobody will say no,” Andreas explained.

But the other path required more money.

He elaborated: “A differential and preferential treatment is given to people that the society and the government feels that they are not buying the passport. They are investors … Those over the limit are treated differently. Nobody would admit that. You cannot see this in any book, or any regulation. My humble opinion is if this guy is interested and you have the issues that we have discussed already he should commit to higher investment. If there are issues and we want a passport to be issued fast, go higher. How high? Up to you. The higher, the better.”

[Illustration: Edib Agagjyshi/Al Jazeera]

‘Quick money’

When Antonis returned from his trip, he picked us up for a drive around the island in his silver Range Rover. Even in the afternoon heat, he was impeccably dressed; the sleeves of his navy blue shirt stylishly rolled up, his luxury timepiece glinting in the afternoon sun.

“You have many opportunities where somebody can make very quick money,” he told us.

We drove past Sun City, a Giovani development in the making with a hotel and beachfront villas.

“Our investors in Sun City, we gave them passports very quickly … because they invested about 18 million euros, they got the passport like this,” he said, snapping his fingers. “The more you invest you are in more favourable terms. You can skip the waiting list, as we say.”

He already had a project in mind for us – an amazing investment opportunity that our client could get in on early. It became clear that the investment he was seeking went far beyond the $2.5m the CIP requires.

We stopped at an undeveloped plot of land by the water. A 10-minute drive from the Sun City site, it was a picturesque sea canal in Liopetri. The water was calm and clear. It was quiet and peaceful; a far cry from other blue-flag beaches saturated by tourists.

“If you have any rich people who want to have a five-star hotel right on the beach, this is number one on the chart. Twenty million euros. The rest we can make from the sale of the apartments,” Antonis told us.

The proposal was to acquire the land to build a five-star hotel run by an internationally renowned hotel chain.

‘Nobody would care’

In the meantime, Andreas had some ideas about how we could bring in Mr X’s funds, despite his money laundering conviction. One option was using a front company that was untainted by the applicant’s criminal conviction, he explained.

“Not all companies are criminals,” he said, seated at his office desk, a large mural of Gandhi on the Salt March behind him.

“I had a client who was convicted in relation to a criminal offence. He could make an investment in Cyprus because the origin of the money was clear.”

Another way for Mr X to invest in Cyprus would be to do it in his spouse’s name. His spouse would be the main investor and he would gain entry as a dependent. Under the CIP, a spouse or child can apply for a passport as a dependent of the main investor.

“In the bank, they will not check the husband. They will just check the investor, who’s bringing the money. So if the person bringing the money is a company that doesn’t have to do with the client, nobody would find out. Nobody would care,” Andreas explained.

And when it got past the banks, Christakis’s connections would get the application the rest of the way, he added.

“When it goes to the government you have Christakis’s assistance. And Christakis will push so that they maybe overlook the husband because he’s not the primary investor.”

The ease with which they shared all the ways that a convicted criminal could become an EU citizen was surprising. The advice we received, including the use of front companies, hiding behind nominee directors, influencing civil servants to overlook our client’s criminal record, creating proof of funds and painting the right picture for banks, was so matter-of-fact, it felt surreal – as though we were bringing to life the Panama Papers. While the Panama Papers uncovered that shell companies were used for fraud and to evade taxes and international sanctions, here we were being handed the blueprint for how that could be achieved.

We found it difficult to square many of the “solutions” they described with Cyprus’s money laundering regulations. To me, paying a cash donation in return for support of Mr X’s case sounded a lot like corruption and bribery. But our Cypriot network of enablers insisted that it was not illegal.

“You cannot bypass the systems,” Andreas told us. “You have to dance to the rhythms of the music of the regulation.”

[Illustration: Edib Agagjyshi/Al Jazeera]

‘You are in my kingdom’

In a few days we had bonded with Tony the property agent who specialised in getting passports, Andreas the lawyer with the know-how to prepare a KYC that would get Mr X past the banks, and Christakis the MP-slash-property magnate with the right connections to get the government to look the other way.

Our hosts had spared no expense in hospitality. “You are in my country, you are in my town, you are in my kingdom. Cannot pay. It will be a great insult,” Andreas said.

But without providing a name, business card or passport for our client, Mr X, they were starting to get impatient. Each day, they prodded us to share his business card and a copy of his passport. And each day, we found ways to stall and delay. But it was getting harder to dance around their questions.

The night before we were due to fly out, my colleague and I were having dinner with Andreas at the local tavern. He told us he had received a call from a doubtful Christakis.

“Andreas, I am bringing to this lunch the second-in-command of the whole Cyprus and we don’t even know about who we’re talking. Should I cancel lunch?” Andreas told us Christakis had asked him, referring to a lunch we were due to attend at his house the following day.

I wondered if we would be able to make a clean exit.

But, Andreas told us, he had assuaged Christakis’s fears. “I told Christakis. ‘See these people, I am taking the risk, I vouch for them’.”

My colleague promised that, yes, we would send the business cards tomorrow. The tension passed, but we were clearly on thin ice.

‘Full support’

The following day, our invitation to lunch at Christakis’s home seemed too good to be true. Was it a trap? Had our covers been blown?

For safety reasons, I try to avoid undercover meetings on the subject’s turf. It leaves me vulnerable, unable to first recce the location or to formulate an exit strategy.

But this time, we went ahead, staying in communication with the team waiting nearby, in case things went awry.

As always, I offered a handshake to sidestep the awkwardness of hugs while wearing a recorder.

His home was grand and his family gave us a warm welcome. Waiting for us was a guest of great importance. It was a celebration in honour of Demetris Syllouris, president of the Cypriot House of Representatives – the second highest office of state.

In attendance were some of the people we had met during four days there, including Tony and Antonis.

It is a rare insight for a journalist to see elected officials – a member of parliament and the president of parliament – in a home setting surrounded by loved ones. We work hard to quickly forge friendships with our subjects, to win their trust and learn their motivations. That pays off on a day like this one, when we gain access to their inner circle and the privilege of being invited to dine at their home with their family. But the closer you get, the greater the unease. It is an incongruity that comes with being an undercover reporter.

It was the weekend and they had prepared an impressive spread. Everyone was relaxed and laughter echoed through the house. Christakis opened a bottle from his prized wine collection.

“Yamas!”

We toasted to good health. But the glasses were getting in the way of the cameras.

Demetris was briefed on Mr X’s situation. He understood our client’s need for privacy. He considered it and in a private conversation, away from the party, offered suggestions.

Demetris indicated that he would personally discuss our application with those in charge. “I will call the minister to come into my office and the permanent secretary of the minister. Okay? Come in my office. And I tell him, ‘What do you think about that?’”

“And they may tell, ‘Okay, forget it.’ ‘What about his wife?’ If she’s okay, the wife, we’ll go with the wife. And then she can bring him in as a husband.”

But there is a second option. If things don’t go well in Cyprus, he knows presidents of parliaments elsewhere and will put in a good word for us to apply in those countries.

“I can do something in many countries. I know all the presidents of parliament,” he explained. “I’m not talking about Sweden or Denmark. But I know Malta, I know Latvia, I know Slovenia.”

He asked us to reassure the client that there would be a solution.

“You can tell him that he will have, without mentioning my name or anybody else, full support from Cyprus at any level – political, economic, social, everything. Full support.”

With that promise, Demetris revealed what he wanted in return. The prospect of us bringing in many more high net worth passport buyers had been a great motivator. With the Brexit deadline looming and political instability in Hong Kong, he said many would now be interested in mobility and access to the EU.

“There are a lot they may want a European passport, so you bring them in Cyprus,” he told us.

Between his connections, the property developers, and our clients, we could get a good business going, he said.

“And this is going to be very good business for you and Antonis. Okay, with full support for you.”

We had the president of parliament’s blessing. But it was a secret.

“Don’t say that to anybody. Even Tony. Don’t say I speak to you. Because I have to protect my name as well,” Demetris told us.

Did he have confidence that he could help us get a passport for our criminal applicant, Mr X?

“I cannot say 100 percent, but I say 99 percent.”

Good enough. I had put on weight from overeating, but otherwise, the investigation was a success.

A year later, when confronted with the evidence, all those involved denied any wrongdoing and claimed to have been suspicious of us from the outset. Andreas Pittadjis said he had reported us to Cyprus’s Unit for Combating Money Laundering (MOKAS) two days after we left the island. Christakis Giovani, Tony Kay, Antonis Antoniou and the Giovani Group all said they had supported Andreas Pittadjis’s report.

After the investigation was released, the Cypriot government announced an end to the Cyprus Investment Programme (CIP). Attorney General George Savvidis launched a full investigation into the evidence provided by the documentary. Demetris Syllouris, President of the House of Representatives, is abstaining from duties until investigations are completed. Christakis Giovani resigned from his position as member of parliament and from all his positions within the AKEL party.

For more on our investigation into how a criminal might obtain a European passport, watch The Cyprus Papers Undercover. #CyprusPapers

Source

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

World

Are we living in a computer simulation? I don’t know. Probably.

Published

on

Are we living in a computer simulation?

The question seems absurd. Yet there are plenty of smart people who are convinced that this is not only possible but perhaps likely.

In an influential paper that laid out the theory, the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom showed that at least one of three possibilities is true: 1) All human-like civilizations in the universe go extinct before they develop the technological capacity to create simulated realities; 2) if any civilizations do reach this phase of technological maturity, none of them will bother to run simulations; or 3) advanced civilizations would have the ability to create many, many simulations, and that means there are far more simulated worlds than non-simulated ones.

We can’t know for sure which of these is the case, Bostrom concludes, but they’re all possible — and the third option might even be the most probable outcome. It’s a difficult argument to wrap your head around, but it makes a certain amount of sense.

Rizwan Virk, a computer scientist and video game designer, published a 2019 book, The Simulation Hypothesis, that explores Bostrom’s argument in much greater detail and traces the path from today’s technology to what he calls the “Simulation Point,” the moment at which we could realistically build a Matrix-like simulation.

I know nothing about computer science, but this idea that we’re all characters in an advanced civilization’s video game is, well, kind of awesome. So I reached out to Virk and asked him to break it down for me.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Pretend I know absolutely nothing about the “simulation hypothesis.” What the hell is the simulation hypothesis?

Rizwan Virk

The simulation hypothesis is the modern equivalent of an idea that’s been around for a while, and it is the idea that the physical world that we live in, including the Earth and the rest of the physical universe, is actually part of a computer simulation.

You can think of it like a high resolution or high-fidelity video game in which we are all characters, and the best way to understand it within Western culture is the movie The Matrix, which many people have seen, or even if they haven’t seen [it], it’s become a cultural phenomenon now beyond the film industry.

In that movie, Keanu Reeves plays the character Neo, who meets a guy names Morpheus, who is aptly named after the Greek god of dreams, and Morpheus gives him a choice of taking the red pill or the blue pill. And if he takes the red pill, he wakes up and realizes that his entire life, including his job, the building he lived in, and everything else, was part of this elaborate video game, and he wakes up in a world outside of the game.

That is the basic version of the simulation hypothesis.

Sean Illing

Are we living in a simulated universe right now?

Rizwan Virk

There are lots of mysteries in physics that are better explained by the simulation hypothesis than by what would be a material hypothesis.

The truth is that there’s much we simply don’t understand about our reality, and I think it’s more likely than not that we are in some kind of a simulated universe. Now, it’s a much more sophisticated video game than the games we produce, just like today World of Warcraft and Fortnite are way more sophisticated than Pac-Man or Space Invaders. They took a couple of decades of figuring out how to model physical objects using 3D models and then how to render them with limited computing power, which eventually led to this spate of shared online video games.

I think there’s a very good chance we are, in fact, living in a simulation, though we can’t say that with 100 percent confidence. But there is plenty of evidence that points in that direction.

Sean Illing

When you say there are aspects of our world that would make more sense if they were part of a simulation, what do you mean exactly?

Rizwan Virk

Well, there are a few different aspects, one of which is this mystery they call quantum indeterminacy, which is the idea that a particle is in one of multiple states and you don’t know that unless you observe the particle.

Probably a better way to understand it is the now-infamous example of Schrödinger’s cat, which is a cat that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger theorized would be in a box with some radioactive material and there was a 50 percent chance the cat is dead and a 50 percent chance the cat is alive.

Now, common sense would tell us that the cat is already either alive or it’s dead. We just don’t know because we haven’t looked in the box. We open the box and it’ll be revealed to us whether the cat is alive or dead. But quantum physics tells us that the cat is both alive and dead at the same time until somebody opens up the box to observe it. The cardinal rule is the universe renders only that which needs to be observed.

Sean Illing

How does Schrödinger’s cat relate to a video game or a computer simulation?

Rizwan Virk

The history of video game development is all about optimizing limited resources. If you asked somebody in the 1980s if you could you render a game like World of Warcraft, which is a full three-dimensional or a virtual reality game, they would say, “No, It would take all the computing power in the world. We couldn’t render all those pixels in real time.”

But what happened over time was that there were optimization techniques. The core of all these optimizations is “only render that which is being observed.”

The first big game to successfully do this was called Doom, which was very popular in the 1990s. It was a first-person shooter game, and it could render only the light rays and objects which are clearly visible from the point of view of the virtual camera. This is an optimization technique, and it’s one of the things that reminds me of a video game in the physical world.

Sean Illing

I’m going to do the thing that non-scientists always do when they want to sound scientific and invoke Occam’s razor. Isn’t the hypothesis that we’re living in a flesh-and-blood physical world the simpler — and therefore more likely — explanation?

Rizwan Virk

I’ll bring up a very famous physicist, John Wheeler. He was one of the last physicists who worked with Albert Einstein and many of the great physicists of the 20th century. He said that physics was initially thought to be about the study of physical objects, that everything was reducible to particles. This is what’s often called the Newtonian model. But then we discovered quantum physics and we realized that everything was a field of probabilities and it wasn’t actually physical objects. That was the second wave in Wheeler’s career.

The third wave in his career was the discovery that at the core level, everything is information, everything is based on bits. So Wheeler came up with a famous phrase called “it from bit,” which is the idea that anything we see as physical is really the result of bits of information. He didn’t live to see quantum computers come into reality, but it’s looking more like that.

So I would say that if the world isn’t really physical, if it’s based on information, then a simpler explanation might in fact be that we are in a simulation that is generated based on computer science and information.

Sean Illing

Is there any way, in principle, for us to prove definitively that we’re living in a simulation?

Rizwan Virk

Well, there’s an argument the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has made that’s worth repeating. He says that if even one civilization got to the point of creating one of these high-fidelity simulations, then they can create literally billions of civilizations that are simulated, each with trillions of beings, because all you need is more computing power.

So he’s making a statistical argument that there are more likely to be more simulated beings than there are biological ones, just because it’s so quick and easy to create them. Therefore, if we are conscious beings, we are more likely to be a simulated being than a biological one. That’s more of a philosophical argument.

Sean Illing

If we were living in a computer program, I assume that program would consist of rules and that those rules could be broken or suspended by the people or beings who programmed the simulation. But the laws of our physical world seem to be pretty constant, so isn’t that a sign that this might not be a simulation?

Rizwan Virk

Computers do follow rules, but the fact that the rules always apply doesn’t rule in or rule out that we could be part of a computer simulation. One of the concepts that ties into this is a concept called computational irreducibility, and it’s the idea that in order to figure something out, you can’t just calculate it in an equation; you have to actually go through the steps to figure out what the end result would be.

And this is part of a branch of mathematics called chaos theory. There’s the old idea that the butterfly flaps its wings in China and it results in a hurricane somewhere else in the world. To figure that out, you have to actually go through and model every step of the way. Just because the rules seem to apply doesn’t mean that we’re not in a simulation.

In fact, it could be more evidence that we’re in a simulation.

Sean Illing

If we were living in a simulation as convincing as The Matrix, would there be any discernible difference between the simulation and reality? Why would it matter ultimately whether our world was real or illusory?

Rizwan Virk

There are a lot of debates around this topic. Some of us wouldn’t want to know, and would rather take the metaphorical “blue pill” like in The Matrix.

Probably the most important question related to this is whether we are NPCs (non-player characters) or PCs (player characters) in the video game. If we are PCs, then that means we are just playing a character inside the video game of life, which I call the Great Simulation. I think many of us would like to know this. We would want to know the parameters of the game we’re playing so that we could better understand it, better navigate it.

If we are NPCs, or simulated characters, then I think it’s a more complicated answer and more frightening. The question is, are all of us NPCs in a simulation, and what is the purpose of that simulation? A knowledge of the fact that we’re in a simulation, and the goals of the simulation and the goals of our character, I think, would still be interesting to many people — and now we’re back to the case of the holodeck character from Star Trek that discovers that there is a world “out there” (outside the holodeck) that he can’t go to, and perhaps some of us would rather not know in that case.

Sean Illing

How close are we to having the technological capacity to build an artificial world that’s as realistic and plausible as The Matrix?

Rizwan Virk

I lay out 10 stages of technology development that a civilization would have to go through to get to what I call the simulation point, which is the point at which we can create a hyperrealistic simulation like this. We’re at about stage five, which is around virtual reality and augmented reality. Stage six is about learning to render these things without us having to put on glasses, and the fact that 3D printers now can print 3D pixels of objects shows us that most objects can be broken down as information.

But the really difficult part — and this is something not a lot of technologists have talked about — is in The Matrix, the reason they thought they were fully immersed was they had this cord going into the cerebral cortex, and that’s where the signal was beamed. This brain-computer interface is the area that we haven’t yet made that much progress in, but we are making progress in it. It’s in the early stages.

So my guess is within a few decades to 100 years from now, we will reach the simulation point.

This article was originally published on April 18, 2019.


Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.

Source

Continue Reading

World

Lobbyists tried to ban labeling veggie burgers “veggie burgers.” The EU said no.

Published

on

Plant-based food makers will still be able to sell products labeled “veggie burgers,” the European Parliament voted on Friday after a week of negotiations.

Why was this up for debate in the first place?

After decades in which veggie burgers and cheese-style vegan spreads have enjoyed their place on the grocery store shelves without controversy, the animal agriculture industry has begun to feel threatened by them in the last few years. Consumption of plant-based foods has increased, especially as the pandemic has damaged supply chains and raised questions about the public health implications of our crowded, disease-ridden factory farms.

And across the United States and the U.K., agriculture lobbies have been fighting back in the same way: trying to make it illegal for their competitors to advertise with labels like “burger” or “sausage.” (Try “tofu patty” or “protein tube.”)

The EU already, three years ago, banned dairy-specific terms like “soy milk” and “vegan cheese,” but it allowed for comparisons on labels, such as “yogurt-style vegan snack.” The proposal under consideration this week would have banned those comparisons as well as banning the use of terms associated with meat products, like “wurst” and “schnitzel” (think “vegan schnitzel”). Ultimately, lawmakers rendered a split decision, banning “yogurt-style” comparisons of nondairy products to similar dairy products but not extending the ban to meat products.

The ostensible justification for such a ban is that consumers are confused. “Marketing is disconnected from the real nature of products, which is just asking for things to spin out of control!” Jean-Pierre Fleury, a spokesman for the EU farmer’s association, claimed.

But opponents of the bill have mocked the assertion that consumers can’t tell the difference between a plant-based alternative meat product and a meat product. “One is a beef burger. One is a plant-based burger,” a satirical Dutch commercial criticizing the proposed ban says, showing the very obvious packaging differences between the products. “But which one is which? It’s impossible to tell. Because they both contain the word ‘burger’.” (You can watch the whole commercial below).

[embedded content]

But there’s a broader context beyond the labeling of these products. For a long time, plant-based meat was a niche product enjoyed only by vegans and vegetarians; it is now a mainstream one. That has the meat industry — both in America and abroad — fighting back.

The rise of plant-based meat

The EU this week has been negotiating the next EU Common Agricultural Policy. One of the most discussed proposals under consideration was the “veggie burger” ban.

But on Friday, the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development released a press statement announcing that the members of the European Parliament “rejected all proposals to reserve meat-related names for products containing meat. No change for plant-based products & names they currently use when being sold.”

That means the preexisting ban on dairy labels like “soy milk” will remain in place — even expanded to cover descriptions such as “milk-like” — but it won’t be brought to bear against plant-based meat labelled with words like “burger.” It was a defeat for the animal agriculture industry groups that had pushed for the change.

Vegetarians make up only about 3 percent of consumers in the US and the EU. They’re not really a threat to the dominance of the factory farming industry. What makes plant-based products a threat is their appeal to a completely different group of consumers: meat-eaters who have found that plant-based products fit into their diet and lifestyle while being much better for animals and the environment.

Caroline Bushnell oversees retail research at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works to promote meat alternatives. “Veggie burgers have been around for many decades,” she told me last year. “Plant-based meats are still just getting started. The next generation is really designed for meat eaters, so the stakes are higher for what the products need to deliver on. People really like the taste of meat. Instead of trying to convince them to eat a kale and quinoa bowl, why not try to make meat for them in a better way?”

So far, the rise of plant-based meat has not cut into the demand for animal-based meat at all — before the pandemic, the factory farming industry was seeing record demand, driven by overall global economic growth. But there’s some reason to think that in the long run, the slaughtered meat industry might really lose market share to the plant-based meat industry. Polls in India and China find more than 60 percent of consumers say they are “very likely” or “extremely likely” to purchase plant-based meat.

As concerns grow worldwide about the impacts of factory farming — on animals, on the environment, and on global public health — the share of consumers open to alternatives might continue to grow.

“We have this great moment of innovation in our industry where these products are better than ever,” Jaime Athos, the CEO of Tofurky, told me last year as his company fought a veggie burger ban law in Arkansas. “They’re more widely available, too. And suddenly people are worried consumers might be confused. The reality is that this is a proactive decision on the parts of consumers — they understand that plant-based products are healthier for them and healthier for the environment.”

Agriculture keeps pushing veggie burger bans. They keep failing.

In several US states, the agriculture industry has responded to the rise of plant-based products with label bans like the one the EU just rejected. Their motivations are often explicitly protectionist: They want to shield slaughtered meat products from plant-based competitors.

“This bill will protect our cattle farmers from having to compete with products not harvested from an animal,” said Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation president Mike McCormick in January when Mississippi’s veggie burger ban law passed in the state House.

“We must protect our industry in this state: agriculture. It’s the No. 1 industry in the state of Louisiana,” state Rep. Francis Thompson argued during legislative hearings in Louisiana earlier this year.

In the US, veggie burger bans largely haven’t held up in court on First Amendment grounds. A judge granted an injunction against Mississippi’s law, concluding it was likely to be unconstitutional. When California tried a ban on “soy milk” and similar labels, the US District Court for the Northern District of California struck it down, writing, “The crux of the claims is that a reasonable consumer might confuse plant-based beverages such as soymilk or almond milk for dairy milk, because of the use of the word ‘milk.’ The claim stretches the bounds of credulity. Under Plaintiffs’ logic, a reasonable consumer might also believe that veggie bacon contains pork, that flourless chocolate cake contains flour, or that e-books are made out of paper.”

In the EU, though, there is no First Amendment and no strong judicial tradition protecting non-misleading commercial speech. The ban on labels like “soy milk” went into effect three years ago, forcing producers to transition to labels like “yogurt-like” and “similar to cheese!” — which the EU will now ban as well.

This year, the agriculture lobby attempted to follow that ban up with a more comprehensive ban, which would prohibit words like “burger” and “sausage” for products that do not contain slaughtered animals.

The proposal attracted widespread attention — in some cases to the frustration of environmental activists in the EU. They pointed out that the negotiations also covered other critical agricultural guidelines, which also encouraged a transition away from meat toward a healthier global climate, but attracted much less attention than the “veggie burger ban.”

Other agricultural issues deserve attention and scrutiny too, but the veggie burger ban shouldn’t be dismissed as a sideshow. It was a calculated power grab by an industry that is cruel to animals and workers alike, devastates the environment, and puts us at risk of another pandemic. It was aimed at stifling the growing new industry that offers an alternative.

It is a good thing that the EU voted the veggie burger ban down — and it will be a good thing if they similarly relax their restriction on soy milk, and if legislators in the many US states that have entertained burger bans of their own follow suit. Letting consumers choose other products is one of the most powerful tools available to change factory farming — which is, of course, precisely why the factory farming lobby has thrown so much effort into interfering with it.


Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.


Will you help keep Vox free for all?

The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.

Source

Continue Reading

World

‘Ignition of new war:’ Sudan political parties reject Israel deal

Published

on

Sudanese political parties have rejected the government’s decision to normalise relations with Israel, with officials saying they will form an opposition front against the agreement.

Dozens of Sudanese people demonstrated in the capital Khartoum on Friday following the joint statement from Israel, Sudan and the United States on Friday saying that the two countries agreed to “end the state of belligerence between their nations”.

A statement from Sudan’s Popular Congress Party, the second most prominent component of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) political coalition, said Sudanese people are not obligated to accept the normalisation deal.

“We see that our people, who are being systematically isolated and marginalised from secret deals, are not bound by the normalisation agreement,” the statement said.

“Our people will abide by their historical positions and work through a broad front to resist normalisation and maintain our support for the Palestinian people in order for them to obtain all their legitimate rights.”

Sudan’s former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi also slammed the announcement, adding that he withdrew from a government-organised religious conference on Saturday in Khartoum in protest.

Al-Mahdi, who is the country’s last democratically elected premier and heads the country’s largest political party, said: “This statement contradicts the Sudanese national law … and contributes to the elimination of the peace project in the Middle East and to preparing for the ignition of a new war.”

Kamal Omar, a leader in the Popular Congress Party, said in a separate statement that Sudan’s transitional government is not elected and therefore not authorised to normalise relations with Israel.

“This transitional government hijacked the Sudanese position to satisfy regional and international intelligence agencies,” he said.

Protesters in Khartoum took to the streets and chanted “no peace, no negotiation, no reconciliation with the occupying entity” and “we will not surrender, we will always stand with Palestine”.

Muhammad Wadaa, a leader in the Sudanese Baath Party, which is part of the FFC, said the anti-normalisation front includes a civil force and influential parties from within and outside the forces of freedom and change.

Wadaa said there are a number of parties within the FFC that warned the transitional government they will withdraw their support if normalisation with Israel was agreed to.

“Normalisation with Israel is a move that is rejected. The government is not authorised to take such a decision with a racist state that practises religious discrimination,” he said.

Wadaa told Al Jazeera that “the government made a big mistake and it is a step that will not achieve economic abundance”.

Palestinian officials reacted with dismay as Sudan became the third country to normalise relations recently, after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the deal and said the only path towards peace is by resorting to international law to make Israel end its occupation of Palestinian territories.

However, according to Al Jazeera’s Nida Ibrahim, many Palestinians believe the PA does not have much to offer other than condemnation.

“For many political analysts here, Palestinians have their backs against the wall and really don’t have much to hope for, other than Trump would not get a second term in office,” she said, speaking from the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.

“Many Palestinians on social media say the Sudanese people’s hearts are with the Palestinian people but they were dragged into this by their military rulers.”

On Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry slammed Sudan’s move, saying: “Pay enough ransom, close your eyes on the crimes against Palestinians, then you’ll be taken off the so-called ‘terrorism’ blacklist.”

“Obviously the list is as phoney as the US fight against terrorism. Shameful!” it added.

Source

Continue Reading

Trending