Dawn Editorial 16th July 2023

Threat from AI?

IT has been just months since generative artificial intelligence exploded in the public imagination with the arrival and ‘mainstreaming’ of ChatGPT, Midjourney, DALL-E, DeepMind and the like, and already, humanity is in confrontation with these highly disruptive technologies. Far away in Tinseltown, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a major labour union that represents around 160,000 people associated with the American film and television industries, including A-list actors, is leading a high-profile strike against the erosion of their rights brought about by the rise of AI and new media. The protesters, who have triggered the first industry-wide shutdown in Hollywood in 63 years, are seeking better pay and protections against the future use of AI in television and films. “Compensation has been severely eroded by the rise of the streaming ecosystem. Furthermore, artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to creative professions,” SAG-AFTRA said in a statement after negotiations with major Hollywood studios fell through.

Among other things, the union wants performers protected against their physical likenesses being used as “digital doubles” in commercials and other media. It is also seeking restrictions on the training of any AI programmes to emulate an actor based on their existing work. It has made it clear that AI should not be used to replicate an actor without seeking permission and paying the actor in question. That all of this is no longer just sci-fi fantasy but a real possibility is a testament to how rapidly AI has evolved in recent years. Just months ago, scientists and key leaders in the technology space petitioned to stop work on AI systems to allow humanity to catch up with the implications of its creations. Computers, even experts now seem to agree, have arrived at the cusp of overtaking their makers. What brave new world will we see them create? As anyone who has tinkered around with AI knows, the possibilities are daunting.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2023

Battle for Punjab

WITH the PML-N ruling out any major seat adjustments in the upcoming polls, the battle for Punjab is very much on. In contrast to the 2018 election, where Punjab was the PTI-PML-N battleground, bets on whether any one party will emerge a big winner in the province in the next election are difficult to place in view of today’s political realities. The PTI may appear a shell of its former self, with no obvious candidates, but its vote bank remains intact — going by how it trounced the PML-N in the by-elections held after Imran Khan’s ouster as prime minister. The entry of the newly created IPP, the handful of constituencies that are the PPP’s stronghold in Punjab, and the increasingly popular presence of the TLP point to a divided province, where electoral loyalties, anti-establishment sentiment and perception will determine the winners.

This makes the PML-N’s challenge even more pronounced. Though a part of the PDM ruling alliance, the PML-N has been the face of the government with Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister and key N-leaguers dominating the cabinet. Rising costs, inflation and the months-long bungling of the IMF deal have cost the PML-N in the eyes of a public battered by growing economic hardships. To add to that, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s continued absence from Pakistan has dealt a major blow to perceptions about the party. The question of his return, and of who will lead the party if and when he does return, remains unanswered. Power dynamics within the Sharif family have added to the confusion. If the PML-N manages to bag a major number of seats, will it put Maryam Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif or Nawaz Sharif in the driving seat? To top it off, PML-N’s anti-establishment narrative, which had struck a chord with its support base over the last few years, is practically non-existent. It is widely believed that Shehbaz Sharif became prime minister with the blessings of the kingmakers, a reality at odds with the narrative of the elder Sharif. These challenges make the coming weeks a decisive period for the PML-N, where it must decide on the key issues of Nawaz Sharif’s return, iron out family politics and set its election narrative. Without addressing these points, even with the clear advantage the PML-N has over PTI in the coming election, a major victory looks out of reach.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2023

Out of patience

THE martyrdom of 12 soldiers — the military’s highest single-day death toll from terrorist attacks this year — in two incidents in Balochistan this week is the likely catalyst for the change in tenor.

Pakistan’s displeasure with the Afghan Taliban’s accommodating approach to militant outfits (barring IS-K) on their soil has been expressed more sharply than usual, with two messages from the highest echelons of the state coming on consecutive days.

On Friday, the military’s media wing released a statement denouncing the “safe havens and liberty of action available to TTP in Afghanistan”. Then, yesterday, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif criticised the Taliban regime for “neglecting its duties as a neighbouring and fraternal country”, and for disregarding the counterterrorism commitments it had made in the Doha peace agreement.

“This situation cannot continue any longer,” he said. Although Mr Asif refrained from saying that Pakistan would engage in hot pursuit of terrorists across the border into Afghanistan, as he asserted some months ago, Pakistan’s patience with Kabul is clearly wearing thin.

The ISPR statement about the Afghan Taliban’s inaction vis-à-vis counterterrorism is particularly significant as the security establishment has thus far avoided commenting on the situation so directly. There is good reason for matters having deteriorated to this point.

When the Taliban marched into Kabul in August 2021, Pakistan’s leadership was sanguine in the belief that a ‘friendly’ regime had come to power next door. Subsequent events laid bare the fallacy of this assumption. The reality of the situation is reflected in a recent UN report which says that 20 terrorist groups enjoy “freedom of movement under the Taliban’s protection”.

Of these, the regime’s ties with the TTP are “the closest”; in fact, they are considered “part of the emirate”. The doctrine of ‘strategic depth’ appears to have unravelled comprehensively.

What can Pakistan do in this situation, aside from voicing its opprobrium to an Afghan dispensation that is impervious to being relegated to the status of an international pariah on account of its human rights violations? While bilateral efforts must continue, a regional approach is more likely to make headway.

Such efforts have already begun: in Beijing last month, China, Pakistan and Iran held their first trilateral meeting on the regional security situation. It bears considering that there is a chink in the armour of the Taliban. As the aforementioned UN report dwelt upon at some length, there is a growing schism within its leadership, between the ideologues in Kandahar and the ‘pragmatists’ in Kabul.

In January, a Chinese firm signed a multimillion-dollar deal to extract oil from the Amu Darya basin, the first significant foreign investment under the Taliban. The prospect of further such investment in cash-strapped Afghanistan — or the risk of losing it — would surely engage the interest of the pragmatists.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2023

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