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Education and healthcare are set for a high-tech boost – Modern Diplomacy

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By CALEB DAVIES
In a Swiss classroom, two children are engrossed in navigating an intricate maze with the help of a small, rather cute, robot. The interaction is easy and playful – it is also providing researchers with valuable information on how children learn and the conditions in which information is most effectively absorbed.
Rapid improvements in intuitive human-machine interactions (HMI) are poised to kick off big changes in society. In particular, two European research projects give a sense of how these trends could influence two core areas: education and healthcare.
Child learning
In EU-funded ANIMATAS, a cross-border network of universities and industrial partners is exploring if, and how, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) can help us learn more effectively. One idea is around making mistakes: children can learn by spotting and correcting others’ errors – and having a robot make them might be useful.
‘A teacher can’t make mistakes,’ said project coordinator Professor Mohamed Chetouani of the Sorbonne University in Paris, France. ‘But a robot? They could. And mistakes are very useful in education.’
According to Prof Chetouani, it is simplistic to ask questions like ‘can robots help children learn better’ because learning is such a complex concept. He said that, for example, any automatic assumption that pupils who concentrate on lessons are learning more isn’t necessarily true.
That’s why, from the start, the project set out to ask smarter, more specific questions that would help identify just how robots could be useful in classrooms. 
ANIMATAS is made up of sub-projects each led by an early-stage researcher. One of the sub-project goals was to better understand the learning process in children and analyse what types of interaction best help them to retain information.
Robot roles
An experiment set up to investigate this question invited children to team up with the aptly named QTRobot to find the most efficient route around a map.
During the exercise, the robot reacts interactively with the children to offer tips and suggestions. It is also carefully measuring various indicators in the children’s body language such as eye contact and direction, tone of voice and facial expression.
As hoped, researchers did indeed find that certain patterns of interaction corresponded with improved learning. With this information, they will be better able to evaluate how well children are engaging with educational material and, in the longer term, develop strategies to maximise such engagement – thereby boosting learning potential.
Future steps will include looking at how to adapt this robot-enhanced learning to children with special educational needs.
‘We believe that it could be really important in this context,’ said Prof Chetouani.
Help at hand
Aki Härmä, a researcher at Philips Research Eindhoven in the Netherlands, believes that robotics and AI are going to fundamentally change healthcare.
In the EU-funded PhilHumans project that he is coordinating, early-stage researchers from five universities across Europe work with two commercial partners – R2M Solution in Spain and Philips Electronics in the Netherlands – to learn how innovative technologies can improve people’s health.
AI makes new services possible and ‘it means healthcare can be 24/7,’ Härmä said.
He points to the vast potential for technology to help people manage their own health from home: apps able to track a person’s mental and physical state and spot problems early on, chatbots that can give advice and propose diagnoses, and algorithms for robots to navigate safely around abodes.
Empathetic bots
The project, which started in 2019 and will run until late 2023, is made of up of eight sub-projects, each led by a doctoral student.
One sub-project, supervised by Phillips researcher Rim Helaoui, is looking at how the specific skills of mental-health practitioners – such as empathy and open-ended questioning – may be encoded into an AI-powered chatbot. This could mean that people with mental-health conditions would be able to access relevant support from home, potentially at a lower cost.
The team quickly realised that replicating the full range of psychotherapeutic skills in a chatbot would involve challenges that could not be solved all at once. It focused instead on one key challenge: how to generate a bot that displayed empathy.
‘This is the essential first step to get people to feel they can open up and share,’ said Helaoui.
As a starting point, the team produced an algorithm able to respond with the appropriate tone and content to convey empathy. The technology has yet to be converted into an app or product, but provides a building block that could be used in many different applications.
Rapid advances
PhilHumans is also exploring other possibilities for the application of AI in healthcare. An algorithm is being developed that can use ‘camera vision’ to understand the tasks that a person is trying to carry out and analyse the surrounding environment.
The ultimate goal would be to use this algorithm in a home-assistant robot to help people with cognitive decline complete everyday tasks successfully.
One thing that has helped the project overall, said Härmä, is the speed with which other organisations have been developing natural language processors with impressive capabilities, like GPT-3 from OpenAI. The project expects to be able to harness the unexpectedly rapid improvements in these and other areas to advance faster.
Both ANIMATAS and PhilHumans are actively working on expanding the limits of intuitive HMI.
In doing so, they have provided a valuable training ground for young researchers and given them important exposure to the commercial world. Overall, the two projects are ensuring that a new generation of highly skilled researchers is equipped to lead the way forward in HMI and its potential applications.
Research in this article was funded via the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
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As COVID-19 infections surge in China, coronavirus experts gathered at the UN health agency on Tuesday, to discuss next steps.In Geneva, a spokesperson for the WHO confirmed during a scheduled press briefing that Chinese scientists had been invited to participate in a meeting of the Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 (TAG).
The 30-strong expert group was formed in June 2020 to advise the UN health agency and Member States on coronavirus mutations and variants. The group’s last meeting was in October.
In an earlier statement, WHO said that Chinese scientists had been invited to present detailed data on viral sequencing to the expert meeting at WHO headquarters in Geneva.
The development follows a “high-level” encounter last Friday between the WHO and Chinese health officials, who were asked to share further information about China’s COVID-19 strategy.
“High-level officials from China’s National Health Commission and the National Disease Control and Prevention Administration briefed WHO on China’s evolving strategy and actions in the areas of epidemiology, monitoring of variants, vaccination, clinical care, communication and R&D,” WHO explained.
The UN agency in particular called on Chinese authorities to strengthen viral sequencing, clinical management and impact assessment of its COVID surge.
WHO again asked for regular sharing of specific and real-time data on the epidemiological situation,” it noted, “including more genetic sequencing data, data on disease impact including hospitalisations, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and deaths — and data on vaccinations delivered and vaccination status, especially in vulnerable people and those over 60 years old.”
In addition to offering the UN health agency’s support in these areas, the WHO statement reiterated the importance of vaccination and boosters “to protect against severe disease and death for people at higher risk”. 
The organization also offered to help counter vaccine hesitancy in China, where there has been a reported move away from the longstanding “zero COVID” policy.
In a tweet last Friday night, the UN agency’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that his team had “again stressed the importance of transparency, and regular sharing of data to formulate accurate risk assessments and to inform effective response.”
In addition to offering the UN health agency’s support in these areas, the WHO also offered to help counter vaccine hesitancy in China, where there has been a reported move away from the longstanding “zero COVID” policy.
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As of today, the building blocks of the European Health Union are officially in place. This not only includes stronger EU rules on serious cross-border threats to health, but also a stronger mandate of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and a new Emergency Framework for medical countermeasures. Taken together with an extended mandate of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the establishment of the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), the EU now has the tools necessary to prepare for and better respond in the event of a public health emergency.
The entry into force of these new rules completes the preparedness and response capacities of the European Health Union, creating a robust legal framework to improve the EU’s capacity in the vital areas of prevention, preparedness, surveillance, risk assessment, early warning, and response.
The Serious cross-border threats to health Regulation now gives the EU:
A stronger ECDC is now able not only issue recommendations to Member States regarding health threats preparedness, but also host a new excellence network of EU reference laboratories and establish an EU Health Task Force for rapid health interventions in the event of a major outbreak.
To be effective and operational in times of public health emergencies, the Emergency Framework Regulation now allows the establishment within HERA of a Health Crisis Board. This Board will rapidly coordinate at EU level the supply of and access to medical countermeasures. The Regulation also enables the activation of the EU fab facilities, emergency research and innovation plans and access to emergency funding.
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The UN warned that the COVID-19 pandemic is still a cause for global concern, and outbreaks of cholera, Ebola and Monkeypox (now renamed mpox) led to the mobilization of health and aid workers to contain life-threatening illnesses. The UN warned that the aim of eradicating HIV/AIDS by 2030 was under threat, but a new vaccine raised hopes that malaria can be beaten.A global population weary of the chaos caused by COVID-19 pandemic had to contend with a new, highly transmissible variant at the beginning of the year: Omicron.
This latest version swept across Europe, leading to record weekly case numbers, although the number of deaths was relatively low, compared to previous outbreaks.
And, although many countries began to relax lockdown and other restrictions on movements, the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out that the disease is still a threat: by August, one million COVID-19 related deaths had been recorded.
At the agency’s World Health Assembly in May – the first to be held in-person since a pre-pandemic 2019 – the WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged countries not to lower their guard.
“Is COVID-19 over? No, it’s most certainly not over. I know that’s not the message you want to hear, and it’s definitely not the message I want to deliver”, he told delegates.
Since early on in the pandemic, the WHO consistently called out the unequal distribution of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, urging for more to be done for those living in developing countries: the UN-backed COVAX facility, a multilateral initiative to provide equal vaccine access to all, reached a major milestone in January, when the billionth jab was recorded in Rwanda.
COVAX has undoubtedly saved many lives but, by March, Tedros was warning that  a third of the world’s population had still not received a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine, including a shocking 83 per cent of all Africans.
This lack of equity was still a problem in November, when a WHO report confirmed that lower-income countries consistently struggle to access essential inoculations in demand by wealthier countries.
“This is not acceptable to me, and it should not be acceptable to anyone”, said Tedros. “If the world’s rich are enjoying the benefits of high vaccine coverage, why shouldn’t the world’s poor? Are some lives worth more than others?”
In 2021, there were 1.5 million new HIV infections and 650,000 AIDS-related deaths. UN Member States had demonstrated their commitment to ending the virus by the end of the decade, with the signing of a political declaration at the General Assembly in 2021, but it was clear this year that swifter action would be needed, if that goal is to be met.
A July report showed a slowing of the rate at which HIV infections decline, to 3.6 per cent between 2020 and 2021, the smallest annual decline in new HIV infections since 2016. The pandemic has thrived as  COVID-19, and other global crises put a strain on resources, to the detriment of HIV programmes.
On World AIDS Day in November, UN chief António Guterres declared that the 2030 goal is off-track, and noted the ongoing discrimination, stigma, and exclusion, many people living with HIV still face.
This year saw encouraging developments in drug treatments: in March, the first injection to offer long-lasting protection against HIV was rolled out in South Africa and Brazil, as an alternative to daily medication.
WHO recommended the use of the drug, Cabotegravir, which only needs to be injected six times a year, for people at substantial risk of HIV infection. In July, the UN reached a deal with the company that developed the drug, to allow low-cost, generic formulations to be produced in less-developed countries, a move that could potentially save many lives.
In April, health workers were mobilized to fight an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the sixth recorded outbreak in just four years. “With effective vaccines at hand and the experience of DRC health workers in Ebola response, we can quickly change the course of this outbreak for the better,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Regional Director for Africa.
An outbreak was also reported in neighbouring Uganda in August, following six suspicious deaths in the central Mubende district, a region with gold mines, which attract workers from many parts of Uganda, and other countries.
The following month, the WHO scaled up response efforts, delivering medical supplies, providing logistics, and deploying staff to support the Ugandan authorities in halting the spread of the virus.
By mid-November, 141 cases and 55 deaths had been confirmed, and the UN health agency reassured that it was working closely with the Ugandan authorities to speed up the development of new vaccines.
As the security situation in Haiti continued to degrade, cholera made an unwelcome return to the troubled country in October, linked to a degraded sanitation system and lawlessness, which made it harder for sufferers to seek treatment.
The situation was exacerbated by gangs blockading Haiti’s main fuel terminal. That led to a deadly fuel shortage that forced many hospitals and health centres to close and affected water distribution.
The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, declared in November that youngsters account for around 40 per cent of cases in Haiti, and appealed for $27.5 million, to save lives from the disease.
Haiti was far from the only country to be affected by the bacterial disease: an outbreak in the Syrian city of Aleppo in September, was attributed to people drinking unsafe water from the Euphrates River and using contaminated water to irrigate crops, resulting in food contamination. An outbreak in Lebanon, the first in thirty years, spread through the country in November. WHO declared that the situation was fragile, with Lebanon facing a prolonged crisis, and limited access to clean water and proper sanitation across the country.
WHO data released in December, pointed to cases of infection in around 30 countries, whereas in the previous five years, fewer than 20 countries reported infections.
“The situation is quite unprecedented, for not only we are seeing more outbreaks, but these outbreaks are larger and more deadly than the ones we have seen in past years,” said Dr. Barboza, WHO Team Lead for Cholera and Epidemic Diarrhoeal Diseases.
Mr. Barboza said that, whilst conflict and mass displacement continue to be major factors in allowing cholera to spread, the climate crisis is playing a direct role in the growing number of simultaneously occurring outbreaks.
For many people, monkeypox was a previously unknown word to learn in 2022, although the disease has been associated with illness in humans since 1970. Monkeypox, renamed mpox by WHO, occurs primarily in tropical rainforest areas of Central and West Africa, but outbreaks began to emerge in other parts of the world this year.
In May, WHO was at pains to allay concerns that the outbreak would resemble the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that most of those infected recover, without treatment, in a number of weeks.
However, with global cases growing, WHO declared in July that mpox qualified as a “global health emergency of international concern”. Tedros stressed that, because the virus was concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners, the outbreak could be stopped, “with the right strategies in the right groups”.
A senior WHO official observed, in August, that the international community only became interested in mpox once infections grew in the developed world.
Assistant Director-General for Emergencies, Ibrahima Soce, said in August that “we have been working on mpox in Africa for several years, but nobody was interested”.
In late November WHO announced that they would henceforth refer to Monkeypox as mpox, citing reports of racist and stigmatizing language surrounding the name of the disease.
By December, more than 80,000 cases were reported in 110 countries, with 55 deaths.
Hopes of an end to malaria were raised in August, when UNICEF announced that the pharmaceutical giant GSK had been awarded a $170 million contract to produce the first world’s first malaria vaccine.
Malaria remains one of the biggest killers of children under five: in 2020, nearly half a million boys and girls died from the disease in Africa alone, a rate of one death every minute.
“This is a giant step forward in our collective efforts to save children’s lives and reduce the burden of malaria as part of wider malaria prevention and control programmes”, said Etleva Kadilli, Director of UNICEF’s Supply Division.
Plans are already underway to boost production, including through technology transfer, UNICEF added, “so that every child at risk will one day have the opportunity to be immunized against this killer disease”.
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