Virtual Brains, Virtual Currencies, Real Revolutions
In collaboration with Exponential Finance
Your Brain in the Cloud: Access the Internet Directly with Your Mind
What if we could reverse-engineer the pattern-recognition units of our brains? Technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil sees this as an imminent possibility, which would enable us to build virtual, cloud-based extensions of our minds with exponentially greater ability to organize and analyze information.
Ray Kurzweil is one of many ahead-of-the-curve speakers at 2015’s Exponential Finance conference, June 2-3 in New York City. Co-produced by Singularity University and CNBC, Exponential Finance provides insight into new technologies that leaders need to understand in order to make the most of the accelerating change happening across business sectors.
Peter Diamandis on How to Become a Billionaire
Exponential technologies are rapidly shifting the way we live and do business, says Singularity University's Peter Diamandis. Those who learn to take advantage of them are sure to ride the wave to extraordinary success.
Peter Diamandis is one of many ahead-of-the-curve speakers at 2015’s Exponential Finance conference, June 2-3 in New York City. Co-produced by Singularity University and CNBC, Exponential Finance provides insight into new technologies that leaders need to understand in order to make the most of the accelerating change happening across business sectors.
Brad Templeton: How Bitcoin Disrupts the Finance Industry
Should you invest in Bitcoin? Maybe not, says Brad Templeton, but that doesn't mean the digital currency isn't amazing in and of itself. Templeton explains what Bitcoin achieves and how it's set to spur further innovation.
Brad Templeton is one of many ahead-of-the-curve speakers at 2015’s Exponential Finance conference, June 2-3 in New York City. Co-produced by Singularity University and CNBC, Exponential Finance provides insight into new technologies that leaders need to understand in order to make the most of the accelerating change happening across business sectors.
Ray Kurzweil: Can You Read 100 Million Web Pages in a Few Seconds? Your Robot Assistant Will.
Comprehension is the human genius. But in a world where computers can process all of human history in a flash, that genius can be scaled. What possible industries would this eliminate risk from? Could scaled comprehension reliably create new business opportunities, each more efficient and profitable than the last?
We are talking about something more than augmenting human abilities with machine efficiency and power. We are talking about creating something that's simply more human: more capable of creativity, of understanding, of love, and of courage.
Ray Kurzweil is one of many ahead-of-the-curve speakers at 2015’s Exponential Finance conference, June 2-3 in New York City. Co-produced by Singularity University and CNBC, Exponential Finance provides insight into new technologies that leaders need to understand in order to make the most of the accelerating change happening across business sectors.
Although incorrectly labeled the world's oldest profession, prostitution has been on the minds of lawmakers for as long as extant laws allow us to track. The Code of Hammurabi, the most complete of ancient Babylonian laws, doesn't deal with the sex trade directly but does distinguish between the inheritance rights enjoyed by "devoted women" versus prostituted women.
A few centuries later and across the Mediterranean, the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations regulated a legal sex trade depicted on frescos and black-and-red-figure vases in exotic and highly idealized terms. However, the courtesan's life was hardly a high-minded exercise in sexual liberation. Freeborn wives and daughters did not participate in the sex trade. Instead, these societies filled their brothels with slaves and infames and allowed them to suffer in abhorrent living conditions. The ashen evidence from Pompeii reveals that prostituted women and young men were immured within dark, stifling cells barely large enough to house their stone beds.
In the United States today prostitution is entirely illegal, save for a few counties in the state of Nevada. Yet, trafficking persists across the country. One study from the Field Center for Children's Policy, University of Pennsylvania, interviewed vulnerable youths across 13 cities and found that roughly a fifth were victims of sex trafficking. Many said they were approached for paid sexual acts during their first night of homelessness.
Opponents of the full-criminalization model argue that these regulations only aggravate such problems, driving prostituted people further underground, where harm and violence may be inflicted upon them without recourse. In recent decades, European countries have introduced new prostitution laws, leading U.S. advocates to raise their voices for decriminalization. And two new bills introduced in the New York State Senate hope to make that change.
The Equality Model asks, criminal or victim?
Advocates stand outside a courthouse to protest Ghislaine Maxwell, former girlfriend to Jeffrey Epstein, for her role in his sex-trafficking ring.
Credit: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images
The most recent of the two is the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act. Set to be introduced by Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan, the law would repeal the crime of prostitution in the state but would maintain punitive measures against buyers and pimps. The penalty for buying sex, for example, would be a sliding-scale fine based on income. The bill also aims to strengthen laws against trafficking and eliminate the so-called ignorance defense, which affords buyers legal cover if they did not have "reasonable grounds" to assume their victim was underage.
The Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act is based on the Equality Model, first introduced in Sweden in 1999. Under the Swedish Sex Purchase Act, the country decriminalized prostitution and began targeting buyers and suppliers with the goal of lowering demand. As demand decreased, the thinking went, Sweden would witness a subsequent reduction in violence, trafficking, and the trauma associated so strongly with the illicit sex trade. And a 2008 report did find that the strategy manifested some of those goals.
After the law's introduction, costs increased, fewer men sought to purchase sex, and the number of women in street prostitution halved—though the burgeoning internet scene likely influenced that metric as much as the law.
As for Sweden's prostituted population, the report was mixed. Fears of the law driving prostitution further underground weren't realized, nor did the risks of physical abuse or dangerous living conditions increase. However, while people who sought to leave the life favored the law, those who wished to stay in the trade denigrated it for hyping the social stigma.
After the report's release, countries such as Norway, Iceland, Canada, and Israel adopted the Equality Model, and today, many U.S. advocacy groups champion for states to institute similar laws.
"We who have been in the human-trafficking policy movement for a long time have been advocating for years that people in prostitution should not be criminalized for their exploitation," Alexi Meyers, director of anti-trafficking policy at Sanctuary for Families, told Big Think in an interview discussing the New York bill. "It's the only law where the victim is arrested. Instead of handcuffs, [people in prostitution] need services, need housing, need support."
Critically, the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act does more than decriminalize prostitution. It also bolsters social services such as housing, job training, and mental health care. To help finance these services, money collected by the aforementioned buyer fine will go into a victim-compensation fund. The bill also expands protections for minors arrested under safe harbor and would vacate victims' prior convictions so they could more easily find jobs.
"When someone has had no family support, have been abused their entire lives, and they haven't gotten the services they need, at the age of 18, they haven't magically transformed from a victim of trafficking into a prostitute," Jayne Bigelsen, vice president of advocacy for Covenant House, New York, said in our interview.
Bigelsen grants that not everyone engaged in the commercial sex trade may view themselves as a victim, but she notes that a large portion of the population remains vulnerable nonetheless. To treat such people as criminals, as so many contemporary laws do, does no one any favors. The fear of arrest actively discourages victims from seeking an "off-ramp" to the life and strengthens the coercive hold their pimps and traffickers maintain on them.
"[The law helps] reframe the understanding that this is not a crime. It is a form of gender-based violence and exploitation. I think, over time, people will have a greater understanding of that," Bigelsen adds.
Prostitution, an occupation like any other?
Sex workers in Amsterdam's famous red-light district, where window prostitution is permitted.
Credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
But critics of the Equality Model believe it's disguised paternalism that robs women of the right to choose. Worse, they argue, it further stigmatizes sex workers within society and drives the sex trade further underground, where exploitation and violence can continue to fester from prying eyes.
A second New York Senate bill, currently in committee, would decriminalize the entire sex trade within the state. Called the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, the bill would keep penal laws related to minors and sex trafficking but would make sex work between consenting adults a legal, regulated trade.
"Sex work is work and should not be criminalized by the state," Senator Julia Salazar, who introduced the bill, stated in a press release. "Our current policies only empower traffickers and others who benefit from keeping sex work in the shadows. New York State needs to listen to sex workers and make these common-sense reforms to keep sex workers safe and empower sex workers in their workplaces."
Like the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act, Salazar's bill draws inspiration from European laws, namely those from the Netherlands and Germany. Both countries legalized the sex trade a few years after Sweden introduced its Equality Model—though laws and regulations vary between the countries and even districts within them. For example, Germany has passed a law that requires any business offering sex services to apply for a permit "that will only be granted if health, hygiene and room requirements are met," while Amsterdam limits window prostitution to specific city zones.
Full-decriminalization advocates hope such laws will facilitate freedom of choice, access to social services, improved health and working conditions, and the decoupling of the occupation from criminal enterprises. They also argue that full decriminalization closes the unintended consequences created by the Equality Model.
An Amnesty International report notes that in Norway, sex workers are routinely evicted from their homes because landlords fear rental agreements will expose them to prosecution for promoting sex. Similar liability concerns deter third parties, such as security, from working with sex workers, too. As a result, sex workers themselves may not be prosecuted but their lives are no less secure nor more firmly established within society.
"What we have isn't working. The current model of criminalizing sex work traps sex workers and trafficking survivors in cycles of violence. The new proposed legislation referred to as the 'Equality Model' conflates sex work with sex trafficking, using the logic of broken windows policing to address trafficking by targeting sex workers," writes the advocacy group Decrim NY.
New York State to lead decriminalization
Of course, Equality Model advocates have their arguments against full decriminalization. Even in countries that have legalized prostitution, the sex trade retains strong ties to criminal activities. Prostituted women continue to be viewed as pariah—or, in the case of Amsterdam, tourist attractions. And like the legal sex trades of the ancient world, contemporary examples have witnessed a surge in human trafficking to meet the demand. More often than not, poor women from poor countries.
"If you decriminalize people who buy sex, you're removing any legal barriers or social barriers, and the number of people who buy sex will exponentially increase, and you'll have to fill that new, legal demand with supply. And that supply is human bodies, and there aren't enough willing participants to fulfill that need. That's when trafficking occurs," Alexi Myers said.
A report commissioned by Germany's Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth looked into the effects of the country's 2001 law. It found the intended impacts to be lacking. According to the report, the Prostitution Act did not create measurable improvements on social protection, working conditions, reduced crime, or the means for leaving the business. The report did assuage some fears, however, by finding that legalization did not make it more difficult to prosecute sex traffickers or related violence when they occurred.
All told, data will never point to a perfect solution to this or any social concern. In the case of prostitution, emotions and moral instinct run at the redline. Often, the solution one proposes comes down to one's answer of this question: What is prostitution? Is it a violation of another human's rights and dignity? An occupation like any other? Or a moral offense old as the law itself?
Whatever your answer, you'll likely find current U.S. law lacking. It's for this reason that many states are reanalyzing and revamping their prostitution laws to protect victims, usually with more robust safe harbor laws. Whichever law New York State chooses, its successes and failures will likely serve as a bellwether for the United States moving forward.
- Princeton physicist Hong Qin creates an AI algorithm that can predict planetary orbits.
- The scientist partially based his work on the hypothesis which believes reality is a simulation.
- The algorithm is being adapted to predict behavior of plasma and can be used on other natural phenomena.
A scientist devised a computer algorithm which may lead to transformative discoveries in energy and whose very existence raises the likelihood that our reality could actually be a simulation.
The algorithm was created by the physicist Hong Qin, from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).
The algorithm employs an AI process called machine learning, which improves its knowledge in an automated way, through experience.
Qin developed this algorithm to predict the orbits of planets in the solar system, training it on data of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, and Jupiter orbits. The data is "similar to what Kepler inherited from Tycho Brahe in 1601," as Qin writes in his newly-published paper on the subject. From this data, a "serving algorithm" can correctly predict other planetary orbits in the solar system, including parabolic and hyperbolic escaping orbits. What's remarkable, it can do so without having to be told about Newton's laws of motion and universal gravitation. It can figure those laws out for itself from the numbers.
Qin is now adapting the algorithm to predict and even control other behaviors, with a current focus on particles of plasma in facilities built for harvesting fusion energy powering the Sun and stars.
Physicist Hong Qin with images of planetary orbits and computer code.
Credit: Elle Starkman
Qin explained the unusual approach taken by his work:
"Usually in physics, you make observations, create a theory based on those observations, and then use that theory to predict new observations, " said Qin. "What I'm doing is replacing this process with a type of black box that can produce accurate predictions without using a traditional theory or law. Essentially, I bypassed all the fundamental ingredients of physics. I go directly from data to data (…) There is no law of physics in the middle."
Qin was partially inspired by the work of Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, whose 2003 paper famously argued that the world we are living in may be an artificial simulation. What Qin believes he has accomplished with his algorithm is provide a working example of an underlying technology that could support the simulation in Bostrom's philosophical argument.
In an email exchange with Big Think, Qin remarked: "What is the algorithm running on the laptop of the Universe? If such an algorithm exists, I would argue that it should be a simple one defined on the discrete spacetime lattice. The complexity and richness of the Universe come from the enormous memory size and CPU power of the laptop, but the algorithm itself could be simple."
Certainly, the existence of an algorithm that derives meaningful predictions of natural events from data does not yet mean that we ourselves have the capabilities to simulate existence. Qin believes we are likely "many generations" away from being able to carry out such feats.
Qin's work takes the approach of using "discrete field theory," which he thinks is particularly well suited for machine learning, while somewhat difficult for "a current human" to understand. He explained that "a discrete field theory can be viewed as an algorithmic framework with adjustable parameters that can be trained using observational data." He added that "once trained, the discrete field theory becomes an algorithm of nature that computers can run to predict new observations."
Are we living in a simulation? | Bill Nye, Joscha Bach, Donald Hoffman | Big Think
According to Qin, discrete field theories go against the most popular method of studying physics today, which looks at spacetime as continuous. This approach was started with Isaac Newton, who invented three approaches to describing continuous spacetime, including Newton's law of motion, Newton's law of gravitation, and calculus.
Qin believes there are serious issues in modern research that stem from the laws of physics in continuous spacetime being expressed through differential equations and continuous field theories. If laws of physics were based on discrete spacetime, as Qin proposes, "many of the difficulties can be overcome."
If the world works according to discrete field theory, it would look like something out "The Matrix," made of pixels and data points.
Qin's work also coincides with the logic of Bostrom's simulation hypothesis and would mean that "the discrete field theories are more fundamental than our current laws of physics in continuous space." In fact, writes Qin, "our offspring must find the discrete field theories more natural than the laws in continuous space used by their ancestors during the 17th-21st centuries."
Check out Hong Qin's paper on the subject in Scientific Reports.
"This question has been bothering me for quite some time," says Aidan Milliff, a fifth-year doctoral student who entered political science to explore the strategic choices people make in perilous times.
"We've learned a great deal how economic status, identity, and pressure from community shape decisions people make while under threat," says Milliff. Early in his studies, he took particular interest in scholarship linking economic deprivation to engagement in conflict.
"But I became frustrated by this idea, because even among the poorest of the poor, way more people sit out conflict instead of engaging," he says. "I thought there must be something else going on to explain why people decide to take enormous risks."
A window on this problem suddenly opened for Milliff with class 17.S950 (Emotions and Politics), taught by Roger Petersen, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science. "The course revealed the cognitive processes and emotional experiences that influence how individuals make decisions in the midst of violent conflict," he says. "It was extremely formative in the kinds of research I started to do."
With this lens, Milliff began investigating questions anew, leveraging unusual data sources and novel qualitative and quantitative methods. His doctoral research is yielding fresh perspectives on how civilians experience threats of violence, and, Milliff believes, "providing policy-relevant insights, explaining how individual action contributes to phenomena like conflict escalation and refugee flows."
At the heart of Milliff's dissertation project, "Seeking Safety: The Cognitive and Social Foundations of Behavior During Violence," are connected episodes of violence in India: an urban pogrom in Delhi in which nearly 3,000 Sikhs died at the hands of Hindus, sparked by the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards; and the bloody, decade-long separatist civil war by Sikh extremists in Punjab that began in the 1980s.
In search of first-person testimony to illuminate people's fight-or-flight choices, Milliff lucked out: He located taped oral histories for a large population of Sikhs who had experienced violence in the 1980s. "In these 500 taped histories, people described at a granular level whether they organized to defend their neighborhoods, hid in houses, left the city temporarily or permanently, or tried to pass as Hindu." He also pursued field interviews in California and India, but didn't get as far as he'd hoped: "I arrived in India last March, and was there for two weeks of an intended three-month stay when I had to return due to the pandemic."
This setback did not deter Milliff, who managed to convert the oral histories into text and video data that he's already begun to plumb, with the help of natural language processing to code people's decision-making processes. Among his preliminary findings: "People typically appraise their situations in terms of their sense of control and of predictability," he says.
"When people feel they have a high degree of control but feel that violence is unpredictable, they are more likely to fight back, and when they sense they have neither control nor predictability, and more easily imagine being victims, they flee."
A Chicago launchpad
Milliff drew inspiration for his doctoral research directly from an earlier graduate project in Chicago with the families of homicide victims.
"I wanted to learn whether people who become angry in response to violence are more likely to seek retribution," he says. After taping 90 hours of interviews with 31 people, primarily mothers, Milliff shifted his focus. "My initial assumption that everyone would get angry was wrong," he says. "I found that when people suffer these losses, they might get sad instead, or become fearful." In unsolved homicides, family members have no perpetrator to target, but instead turn their anger at government that's let them down, or worry for the safety of surviving family members.
From this project, Milliff took away a crucial insight: "People respond differently to their tragedies, even when their experiences look similar on paper."
Political violence and its consequences seized Milliff's interest early on. For his University of Chicago master's thesis, he sought to understand how many long-running, brutal independence movements fizzle out. "I came away from this program believing that I'd enjoy the day-to-day work of being a professional political scientist," he says.
Two research experiences propelled him toward that goal. While in college, Milliff assisted in the National Science Foundation-sponsored General Social Survey, a national social survey headquartered in Chicago, where he learned "how a big quantitative data collection exercise works," he says. Following graduation, a fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace immersed him in South Asian military conflict and Indian domestic politics. "I really enjoyed working on these issues and became greatly interested in focusing on the political situation there," he says.
Attracted by MIT's security studies community, especially its commitment to research with real-world impact, Milliff came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, primed to delve deeper into the subject of political violence. He first had to navigate the graduate program's thorough quantitative sequence. "I came to MIT without having taken math after calculus, and I honestly feel fortunate I ended up somewhere that takes the classroom portion of training seriously," he says. "It has given me new tools I didn't even know existed."
These tools are integral to Milliff's analysis of his singular datasets, and provide the quantitative foundation for informing his policy ideas. If, as his work suggests, people in crisis make decisions based on their sense of control and predictability, perhaps community institutions could bolster citizens' abilities to imagine concrete options. "Lack of predictability and a sense of control encourage people to make choices that are destabilizing, such as fleeing their homes, or joining a fight."
Milliff continues to analyze data, test hypotheses, and write up his research, taking time out for biking and nature photography. "When I was headed to graduate school, I decided to take up a hobby that I could do for 15 minutes at a time, something I could do between problem sets," he says.
While he acknowledges research can be taxing, he takes delight in the moments of discovery and validation: "You spend a lot of time coming up with ideas of how the world works, diving into a pit to see if an idea is right," he says. "Sometimes when you surface, you see that you might have come up with a possible new way to describe the world."
- The gender gap persists, as only 33% of the world's researchers are women.
- Here are just some of the women making lasting contributions in the fight against COVID-19.
- They include Dr Özlem Türeci, co-founder of BioNTech, which helped produce the first vaccine.
Women across the world have made an enormous contribution to the global efforts to tackle COVID-19. Not only do women make up 70% of the world's health workers and first responders, women in STEM fields have been leading research into the virus, creating trackers and developing vaccines.
But the pandemic has had a disproportionate social and economic impact on women, as many have borne the brunt of childcare duties or lost jobs in sectors most affected – and this includes women scientists.
February 11th is UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science – and the theme this year is celebrating the women scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, including Dr Özlem Türeci, co-founder of BioNTech, which helped produce the first vaccine.
Women represent almost half the students at Bachelor's (45%), Master's (55%) and PhD (44%) levels of study, according to UNESCO's forthcoming Science Report – but only 33% of the world's researchers are women.
To encourage more girls and women to take up careers in the STEM fields, UNESCO is gathering some of the world's leading COVID-19 experts for a virtual event.
"We need science, and science needs women. This is not only about making a commitment to equal rights; it is also about making science more open, diverse and efficient," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, and Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.
Here are just some of the women in STEM around the globe who have been making a difference during the pandemic.
Dr Özlem Türeci
Dr Türeci and her husband Dr Ugur Sahin co-founded biotechnology company BioNTech in Germany in 2008. In 2020, BioNTech and pharmaceutical firm Pfizer developed the first approved RNA-based vaccine against COVID-19. They celebrated the news that it had 90% efficacy with a cup of Turkish tea, the pair told The New York Times. Recently featured on the cover of Time magazine, the scientists plan to produce two billion doses of the vaccine this year to help bring the pandemic to an end.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan
A paediatrician and one of India's leading public health experts, known for her groundbreaking research on tuberculosis, Dr Swaminathan was appointed the World Health Organization's (WHO) Chief Scientist in 2019 and has been coordinating international work on vaccine development. She spoke about challenges women researchers face at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2020: "It is more difficult for women researchers to get their grants approved … and women also have difficulties in getting their results published, if you are from developing countries, in journals, because of perceived biases. I have faced those kinds of challenges and biases."
Within a night in March 2020, Ramida Juengpaisal and her colleagues at web design firm 5LAB in Bangkok, Thailand, built a tracker of COVID-19 cases, giving the city's eight million residents up-to-date news and information about the pandemic and helping to stop the spread of misinformation. She told Reuters the perception that girls are less suited to technology-based roles is gradually shifting: "We need more women in tech. One good thing about this crisis is that we have seen people – including women – come forward to create things that are useful to others, and be recognized."Ramida Juengpaisal built a COVID-19 tracker for Bangkok – overnight. Image: UN Women/Stefan Abrecht/BioNTech
Professor Sarah Gilbert
Prof Gilbert is the Oxford Project Lead for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, now recommended for use by all adults worldwide by the WHO. When the genetic sequence for the new coronavirus was published in January last year, she swiftly built on her work developing a vaccine for MERS, which used chimp adenovirus to deliver the spike protein into humans. Prof Gilbert is currently working on a new version of the vaccine to tackle the South African variant.
Faruqi and her all-female robotics team began developing a low-cost, lightweight ventilator using locally available, second-hand car parts, after the first COVID-19 case was reported in her home province of Herat in Afghanistan. She told UN Women: "Sometimes, families think science and tech are male fields and prefer that their girls don't enter them. We have less role models for young women in these fields, and that makes it more challenging for young women to enter this industry."
Kaseje is the Founder of Surgical Systems Research Group in Kenya, which seeks to rapidly expand access to health services by leveraging youth, technology and community health workers. Since May 2020, the group has helped to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases in Siaya County, by combining digital tools and data science with the work of young people and community health workers to raise awareness about preventative measures.
Professor Devi Sridhar
American public health researcher Prof Sridhar is a leading authority on COVID-19 in the UK and Professor and Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University. She is known for her work on assessing the international response to the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa. Among her frequent media appearances, she spoke to the World Economic Forum's World Vs Virus podcast about why ethnic minorities in Europe and North America were at greater risk from COVID-19.
Dr Anggia Prasetyoputri
Dr Prasetyoputri was awarded the 2020 L'Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship For Women in Science (FWIS) by L'Oréal Indonesia for her research on bacterial coinfections in COVID-19 patients using swab sample sequencing. COVID-19 patients whose immune systems are already weakened by the virus, are more susceptible to other viruses and bacteria. So Dr Prasetyoputri worked out a quick and simple way to identify these coinfections – and help doctors prescribe the right treatment.
- In 1935, demographer Hu Huanyong drew a line across a map of China.
- The 'Hu Line' illustrated a remarkable divide in China's population distribution.
- That divide remains relevant, not just for China's present but also for its future.
A bather in Blagoveshchensk, on the Russian bank of the Amur. Across the river: the Chinese city of Heihe.
Credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images
The Hu Line is arguably the most consequential feature of China's geography, with demographic, economic, cultural, and political implications for the country's past, present, and future. Yet you won't find it on any official map of China, nor on the actual terrain of the People's Republic itself.
There are no monuments at its endpoints: not in Heihe in the north, just an icy swim across the Amur from Blagoveshchensk, in Russia's Far East; nor in Tengchong, the subtropical southern city set among the hills rolling into Myanmar. Nor indeed anywhere on the 2,330-mile (3,750-km) diagonal that connects both dots. The Hu Line is as invisible as it is imaginary.
Yet the point that the Hu Line makes is as relevant as when it was first imagined. Back in 1935, a Chinese demographer called Hu Huanyong used a hand-drawn map of the line to illustrate his article on 'The Distribution of China's Population' in the Chinese Journal of Geography.
The point of the article, and of the map: China's population is distributed unevenly, and not just a little, but a lot. Like, a lot.
- The area to the west of the line comprised 64 percent of China's territory but contained only 4 percent of the country's population.
- Inversely, 96 percent of the Chinese lived east of the 'geo-demographic demarcation line', as Hu called it, on just 36 percent of the land.
Much has changed in China in the intervening near-century. The weak post-imperial republic is now a highly centralized world power. Its population has nearly tripled, from around 500 million to almost 1.4 billion. But the fundamentals of the imbalance have remained virtually the same.
Even if China's territory has not: in 1946, China recognized the independence of Mongolia, shrinking the area west of the Hu Line. Still, in 2015, the distribution was as follows:
- West of the line, 6 percent of the population on 57 percent of the territory (average population density: 39.6 inhabitants per square mile (15.3/km2).
- East of the line, 94 percent of the population on 43 percent of the territory (average population density: 815.3 inhabitants per square mile (314.8/km2).
Hu Huanyong's original hand-drawn map of China, showing population density and the now-famous line (enhanced for visibility).
Credit: Chinese Journal of Geography (1935) – public domain.
Why is this demographic dichotomy so persistent? In two words: climate and terrain. East of the line, the land is flatter and wetter, meaning it's easier to farm, hence easier to produce enough food for an ever-larger population. West of the line: deserts, mountains, and plateaus. Much harsher terrain with a drier climate to boot, making it much harder to sustain large amounts of people.
And where the people are, all the rest follows. East of the line is virtually all of China's infrastructure and economy. At night, satellites see the area to the east twinkle with lantern-like strings of light, while the west is a blanket of near total darkness, only occasionally pierced by signs of life. In China's 'Wild West', per-capita GDP is 15 percent lower on average than in the industrious east.
An additional factor typifies China's population divide: while the country overall is ethnically very homogenous – 92 percent are Han Chinese – most of the 8 percent that make up China's ethnic minorities live west of the line. This is notably the case in Tibet and Xinjiang, two nominally autonomous regions with non-Han ethnic majorities.
This combination of economic and ethnic imbalances means the Hu Line is not just a persistent quirk, but a potential problem – at least from Beijing's perspective. Culturally and geographically distant from the country's east, Tibetans and Uyghurs have registered strong opposition to China's centralizing tendencies, often resulting in heavy-handed repression.
Street view in Tengchong, on China's border with Myanmar.
Credit: China Photos/Getty Images
But repression is not the central government's long-term strategy. Its plan is to pacify by progress. China's 'Manifest Destiny' has a name. In 1999, Jiang Zemin, then Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party, launched the 'Develop the West' campaign. The idea behind the slogan retains its political currency. In the last decade, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has repeatedly urged the country to "break through" the Hu Line, in order to modernize China's western half.
The development strategy has an economic angle – adding industry and infrastructure to raise the region's per-capita GDP to the nation's average. But the locals fear that progress will bring population change: an influx of enough internal migrants from the east to tip the local ethnic balance to their disadvantage.
China's ethnic minorities are officially recognized and enjoy certain rights; however, if they become minorities in their own regions, those will mean little more than the right to perform folklore songs and dances. The Soviets were past masters in this technique.
Will China follow the same path? That question will be answered if and when the Hu Line fades from relevance, by how much of the west's ethnic diversity will have been sacrificed for economic progress.
Strange Maps #1071
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