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Trump praises Syria strikes; Declares 'Mission accomplished'

WASHINGTON, April 14: Donald Trump hailed the strikes carried out against Syria by the US, UK and France as “perfectly executed” on Saturday, adding: “Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

The US president thanked London and Paris for their “wisdom and the power of their fine Military” in joining Washington in launching more than 100 missiles on Friday night against what they say were Syrian chemical weapons facilities.

Trump added: “So proud of our great Military which will soon be, after the spending of billions of fully approved dollars, the finest that our Country has ever had. There won’t be anything, or anyone, even close!”

Trump announced the military action in a speech late on Friday, a week after the Syrian regime was accused of carrying out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma that left 40 people dead and hundreds injured. The president said he had directed the US military to conduct “precision strikes” against Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities, with targets including a scientific research center in the Syrian capital and two chemical weapons storage facilities west of Homs.

Trump’s use of “mission accomplished” less than 24 hours after launching the missiles echoed George W Bush’s infamous 2003 speech a month after US troops were deployed in Iraq. Although Bush did not utter the phrase during his televised address, he stood under a “Mission Accomplished” banner and spoke of how the US and its allies had “prevailed”. The event later became a symbol of the controversy as the war dragged on and resulted in the deaths of thousands of American troops and tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Thousands of US troops remain in Iraq today.

The Pentagon struck a similarly defiant tone in a briefing with reporters Saturday, where officials labeled Friday night’s airstrikes a success.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said: “We met our objectives. We hit the sites, the heart of the [chemical] weapons program. So it was mission accomplished.”

Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the joint chiefs of staff, described the mission as “precise, overwhelming and effective”.

Officials at the Pentagon notably would not set a bar for what would constitute further military action, nor did they directly respond to how the US might respond if Russia or Iran made good on their threats to engage in retaliatory strikes.

The Pentagon also disputed the Russian military’s claims that Syrian air defense units had downed 71 out of 103 cruise missiles launched by the US and its allies. “The Russia disinformation campaign has already begun,” White House said.

As the strikes sparked concerns that the coordinated attacks might have escalated confrontation with Russia, the Trump administration made clear that further military action was not off the table.

US adds India to currency watch list

WASHINGTON, April 14: The US has added India to the currency practices and macroeconomic policies monitoring list, saying New Delhi increased its purchase of foreign exchange over the first three quarters of 2017 which does not appear necessary.

India is the sixth addition to the watch list which comprises China, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Switzerland.

"India increased its purchase of foreign exchange over the first three quarters of 2017. Despite a sharp drop-off in purchase in the fourth quarter, net annual purchase of foreign exchange reached USD 56 billion in 2017, equivalent to 2.2 per cent of the GDP," the US Department of the Treasury said in its semi-annual report to the Congress.

The pick-up in purchases came amidst relatively strong foreign inflows, both of foreign direct investment and portfolio investment, it said.

Notwithstanding the increase in intervention, the rupee appreciated by more than six per cent against the dollar and by more than three per cent on a real effective basis in 2017, it noted.

Treasury told the Congress that India has a significant bilateral goods trade surplus with the US, totalling USD 23 billion in 2017, but India's current account is in deficit at 1.5 per cent of the GDP and the exchange rate is not deemed to be undervalued by the IMF.

"Given that Indian foreign exchange reserves are ample by common metrics, and that India maintains some controls on both inbound and outbound flows of private capital, further reserve accumulation does not appear necessary," the Treasury said, explaining the reasons for adding India to the list.

Treasury assesses net purchases of foreign currency, conducted repeatedly, totalling in excess of 2 per cent of an economy's GDP over a period of 12 months to be persistent, one-sided intervention, the report said.

"Switzerland and India meet this criterion for the four quarters ending December 2017, as per Treasury estimates," it said.

According to the Treasury, India's current account deficit widened modestly in 2017 to 1.5 per cent of the GDP, following several years of narrowing from its 2012 peak.

The current account deficit has been driven by a large and persistent goods trade deficit, which has in turn resulted from substantial gold and petroleum imports.

The goods trade deficit has fallen over the last few years as policy changes limited gold imports and the decline in oil prices narrowed the oil balance from 2014, though the goods trade deficit widened in 2017 to 5.9 per cent of the GDP.

The IMF projects the current account deficit to widen to about two per cent of the GDP over the medium term as domestic demand strengthens further and given the rebound in commodity prices.

India's goods trade surplus with the US was USD 23 billion in 2017, the highest level on record. Given that India also runs a services surplus with the US of USD 6 billion, India's combined goods and services trade surplus with the US was USD 28 billion in 2017, the report said.

India's exports to the US are concentrated in sectors that reflect India's global specialisation (notably pharmaceuticals and IT services), while US exports to India are dominated by key service trade categories, particularly travel and higher education, it said.

Treasury said India has been exemplary in publishing its foreign exchange market intervention.

According to the authorities' data, India has generally been a net purchaser of foreign exchange since late 2013, when the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) sought to build a stronger external buffer in the wake of large emerging market outflows globally.

Prior to 2013, intervention for several years had generally been less frequent, and when it had occurred it had been broadly symmetric, as for example during 2007 and 2008 when the RBI engaged in both purchases and sales of foreign exchange at various points in the midst of volatile global financial markets, it added.

H-1B visa filings at historic low as Indian firms opt to hire local in US

WASHINGTON, April 13: The United States announced on Thursday a historic fall in the number of petitions it received for the 2019 hiring cycle under the H-1B visa programme that allows American companies to hire foreign professionals, most of whom have come from India for years.

The US Citizenship and Immigrations Services (USCIS), which runs the programme, said in a statement that it received “1,90,098 H-1B petitions during the filing period, which began on April 2, including petitions filed for the advanced degree exemption”.

This is the lowest number of applications the US recorded since 2007, when 3,14,621 petitions were received at the USCIS website. The numbers have since fluctuated, but the first precipitous drop was in 2017 from 3,99,349 to 3,36,107.

US branches of Indian IT companies such as Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro have been major recipients of H-1B visas, and they have declared they were cutting foreign hirings and ramping up local hirings in the face of rising opposition to their business model.

The push back has been bipartisan, but never so consequential. The bulk of the drop in H-1B petitions is understood to have been caused by fewer filings by Indian companies, continuing a trend first noticed in 2017.

The United States grants 65,000 visas annually to professionals hired abroad and an additional 20,000 to foreigners enrolled in US schools, colleges and universities. The overall congressionally mandated cap is 85,000.

But the agency has received manifold applications every year forcing early closure of the application process. The huge number of applications was also due to the introduction of a computer-generated lottery to select approved petitions a few years back.

There was no immediate response to questions mailed to USCIS for reasons for the massive and unprecedented fall (43%) this year, and whether it had anything to do with the Trump administration’s unrelenting attacks on the programme in the name of preventing its use, and abuse, to displace American workers.

But there has been widespread acknowledgement that the numbers are dropping mostly on account of Indian IT companies operating in the US that have faced heightened scrutiny. They have been accused of using the programme to take away jobs from Americans.

AI Will Solve Facebook's Most Vexing Problems: Zuckerberg

WASHINGTON, April 12: Artificial intelligence will solve Facebook's most vexing problems, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg insists. He just can't say when, or how.

Zuckerberg referred to AI technology about 23 times during his five-hour testimony before a joint Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, saying that it would one day be smart, sophisticated and eagle-eyed enough to fight against a vast range of platform-spoiling misbehaviour, including fake news, hate speech, discriminatory ads and terrorist propaganda.

Over the next five to 10 years, he said, artificial intelligence would prove a champion for the world's largest social network in resolving its most pressing crises on a global scale - while also helping the company dodge pesky questions about censorship, fairness and human moderation.

"We started off in my dorm room with not a lot of resources and not having the AI technology to be able to proactively identify a lot of this stuff," Zuckerberg told the lawmakers, referring to Facebook's famous origin story. Later in the hearing, he added that "over the long term, building AI tools is going to be the scalable way to identify and root out most of this harmful content."

But Facebook's AI technology can't do any of those things well yet, and it's unclear when, if ever, it will be able to. Tech experts had a different opinion on why Zuckerberg spent so much time offering tributes to the much-hyped but largely unproven tech advancement: The shapeless technology could help the company pawn off blame from the humans creating it.

"AI is Zuckerberg's MacGuffin," said James Grimmelmann, a law professor at Cornell Tech, using the film term for a plot device that comes out of nowhere to help the protagonist to save the day. "It won't solve Facebook's problems, but it will solve Zuckerberg's: getting someone else to take responsibility."

To many of us, AI is the amorphous super-technology of science fiction, animating friendly computers and killer robots. Silicon Valley leaders often promote that vision of AI by suggesting that it will serve humanity as a quasi-magical force for good. But today's artificial intelligence is now being used in far more basic forms: driving cars, tracking cows and giving a voice to virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa.

Facebook uses AI in understated but important ways, such as for recognising people's faces for tagging photos and using algorithms to decide placement of ads or News Feed posts to maximise users' clicks and attention. The company is also expanding its use, such as by scanning posts and suggesting resources when the AI assesses that a user is threatening suicide.

Facebook has pointed to early AI successes in detecting problematic content. The company has said that advances in AI have helped it remove thousands of fake accounts and "find suspicious behaviours," including during last year's special Senate race in Alabama, when AI helped spot political spammers from Macedonia, a hotbed of online fraud.

Facebook, Zuckerberg said Tuesday, has also been "very successful" at deploying AI to police against terrorist propaganda. "Today, as we sit here, 99 percent of the ISIS and Al Qaida content that we take down on Facebook, our AI systems flag before any human sees it," he said. (Nonprofit groups like the Counter Extremism Project have argued that Facebook has exaggerated its achievement and failed to crack down on well-known Islamist extremists.)

Zuckerberg said he was optimistic that Facebook's AI would, within five to 10 years, be able to comprehend the "linguistic nuances" of content with enough accuracy to flag potential risks. But those limited cases, experts said, were helped by geography and required human moderators to make the final ruling. Real-world cases of violent videos, hate speech and dangerous content - the ones plaguing Facebook every day - are much more subtle, widespread and difficult to police.

"AI is extremely far off from being able to understand social context and nuance," Grimmelmann said. "Even humans have a hard time distinguishing between hate speech and a parody of hate speech, and AI is way short of human capabilities."

Zuckerberg both understated the problem and overstated AI's abilities, experts said. For example, Facebook's AI has been deemed technically incapable of spotting discriminatory housing ads, which violate the federal Fair Housing Act and were a problem on the social network until the site changed its policy late last year.

The limitations of AI go much further than Facebook, experts say. No AI on the market is trained well enough to understand the social dimensions and verbal eccentricities of human speech, slang and dialect. (Anyone who uses Siri can attest to that.)

The worst-kept secret to Silicon Valley's AI push, experts said, has been the tech industry's army of human moderators. Those often-low-wage contract workers spend their days screening posts for offensive or disturbing content, indirectly helping train the artificial intelligence program on what problems and patterns to look for.

Facebook, Google and other tech giants are ramping up their content-moderation staffing, and Zuckerberg said his company aims to have more than 20,000 people working on security and content review by the end of the year. Today's AI, experts said, is still miles away from a responsible alternative to a human looking at a screen.

Facebook's plan is "continuing to grow the people who are doing review in these places with building AI tools, which - we're working as quickly as we can on that, but some of this stuff is just hard," Zuckerberg said. "That, I think, is going to help us get to a better place on eliminating more of this harmful content."

Robyn Caplan, a researcher at the think tank Data & Society, said Zuckerberg's optimism seemed to clash with the more pragmatic conversations she's had with representatives from platforms similar to Facebook, who have stressed that AI can help flag questionable content "but cannot be trusted to do removal."

At a major conference on content-moderation in February at the Santa Clara University law school, where executives from Facebook, Google and Reddit detailed their operations, Caplan said nearly everyone agreed that human moderators were still the reigning gatekeepers for information on the Internet's most popular sites. "AI can't understand the context of speech and, since most categories for problematic speech are poorly defined [by necessity], having humans determine context is not only necessary but desirable," she said.

Not every senator on Tuesday was so welcoming to Zuckerberg's AI-as-savior talking point, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who questioned whether Facebook's AI was already failing by not stemming the spread of hate speech during the crackdown on Rohingya in Burma, also called Myanmar.

"You say you use AI to find this," Leahy said, pointing to a poster that showed Facebook posts calling for the murder of Muslim journalists. "That threat went straight through your detection systems. It spread very quickly, and then it took attempt after attempt after attempt, and the involvement of civil society groups, to get you to remove it. Why couldn't it be removed within 24 hours?"

Zuckerberg said the company was working on hiring more Burmese-language content reviewers and deleting the accounts of "specific hate figures." "What's happening in Myanmar is a terrible tragedy, and we need to do more," he said.

But tech experts said AI could also create new problems. The same bad actors behind viral hoaxes and fake accounts may be able to use AI to evade Facebook's filters, make fake videos or spearhead targeted harassment campaigns, they said.

AI also "can't solve political problems; it can't make people agree," Grimmelmann said. "What's 'fake' news depends on who you ask: Kicking the question over to AI just means hiding value judgments behind the AI."

The real issue, experts said, is that the problems plaguing Facebook may be battles that no one can truly win. Instead of acknowledging that grim fact, though, Zuckerberg has taken to gesturing vaguely at the future - and at a version of AI that could eventually save the day.

As Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington law school, tweeted Tuesday, "'AI will fix this' is the news 'the market will fix this.'"

Trump threatens new $100 billion tariffs on Chinese products

WASHINGTON, April 5: US President Donald Trump on Thursday escalated trade tensions with China, saying he has instructed his officials to consider imposing tariff worth an additional $100 billion on Chinese imports goods. Trump accused China of continued “misconduct” and “unfair retaliation”.

“Rather than remedy its misconduct, China has chosen to harm our farmers and manufacturers,” Trump said in a statement referring to the last round of tariffs announced by Beijing on Wednesday, in retaliation to the $50 billion worth of proposed levies by the United States on 1,300 categories of products.

He added: “In light of China’s unfair retaliation, I have instructed the USTR (the office of the US Trade Representative) to consider whether $100 billion of additional tariffs would be appropriate … and, if so, to identify the products upon which to impose such tariffs.”

But the president also sought to allay fears of a trade war saying the United States was still “prepared to have discussions”. He has argued that the US is only proposing these tariffs as a negotiating position and will be happier to settle them through talks. Commerce secretary Wilbur ross has said, “Even shooting wars end with negotiations.”

China’s ministry of commerce, however, said on Friday the country was ready to pay “any cost” in the deepening trade war tensions with the US. “If the US side disregards opposition from China and the international community and insists on carrying out unilateralism and trade protectionism, the Chinese side will take them on until the end at any cost,” said the ministry in a statement.

Trump started this exchange in March announcing a 25% tariff on steel and 10% on aluminum from China and a host of other countries, including India. He had cited the country’s burgeoning trade deficit of $800 billion as the reason, calling it a national security threat.

Then accusing China specifically of forcing American companies in China to transfer technology to their local partners and stealing intellectual property, he announced nearly $50 billion in tariff on Chinese goods later in the month. China hit back the next day with 15-25% duty on 128 American imports such as fresh fruit, pork and recycled aluminum.

The United States rolled out a list of 1,300 Chinese products on Tuesday implementing the president’s earlier order — hitting aeronautics, medical products and computers among others. Beijing retaliated overnight, with $50 billion worth in tariff at the rate of 25% on aircraft, auto and soybeans.

The American tariff announcements are in the nature of proposals at present and will go into effect after a public comment process, including a public hearing at which supporters of the tariffs will have the opportunity cheer on the president, opponents will their chance to make their case.

Soybean farmers and their trade bodies will be right up their among the opponents. Soybean is America’s number two crop and China is their number one market, accounting for 61% of American soy production. But China’s top supplier is Brazil, which could pick up more of the marketshare if American soy goes under the new tariff.

“Soy growers are frustrated, but not surprised this week, as a trade war looms with US soy’s top customer,” said the American Soybean Association in a note on its website on Thursday, inviting readers to follow its twitter-handle that’s running posts hash-tagged #RethinkTheTariffs and #SoyLeaders.

China has chosen its targets for retaliatory tariff well. President Trump won eight of the country’s top 10 soy producing states in the 2016 elections and as trade tension intensifies, so will the political pressure on him his supporters. And he may already be feeling it, when he grumbled Thursday that “rather than remedy its misconduct, China has chosen to harm our farmers and manufacturers”.

 

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Trump expels 60 Russian officials, closes Seattle consulate; 14 EU states also expel Russian diplomats
US lists 7 Pakistan firms for posing risk to national security
Trump hits $50 billion of China goods amid fears of trade war
 
     
  

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