The Internet as a mirror for human nature

From the Guardian today:

Hot_tech

I gave a lecture recently in Trinity College, Dublin, in which I said, en passant that the Net holds a mirror up to human nature and what we see in it is pretty unedifying. Items 1, 2 and 4 of this list of what the Guardian team regard as “hot tech stories” makes that point rather well, don’t you think?

Robotic reporting

robotic_reporting

This follows on from our seminar on the implications of advanced robotics for employment. Here are two reports based on wire-service reports of a company’s results. One was written by a bot, the other by a human.

It begs two questions:

  1. Which was which? (Easy, I think).
  2. More difficult: which is better? More accurate? Good enough?

HT to Andrea Vance for the link.

Mullaghmore

Classiebawn_Snapseed

Mullaghmore is one of my favourite spots on the West coast of Ireland. We often stop there and take a walk on the beautiful curving beach with Ben Bulben as a background. It’s also the place where Lord Mountbatten and three family members plus a local boy were murdered by the IRA in 1979. In a significant visit, Prince Charles visited Mullaghmore today. It’s not clear whether he also visited Classiebawn, the castle that was his great-uncle’s holiday home.

Classiebawn is one of the most memorable houses in Ireland. It was built for Lord ‘Gunboat’ Palmerston and is a bit like a Disney castle which sits on what is probably the most exposed headland on the Sligo coast. I once took this photograph of the road to it on a glorious winter’s day. The house is the speck in the top left of the picture.

Hypocrisy on stilts

One of the more nauseating aspects of the US response to Edward Snowden’s revelations is the constant refrain about how he is supposedly damaging the national interest and giving succour to its enemies by revealing how the US does its surveillance. And yet, as TechDirt reports,

Over the weekend, the US government announced that special forces soldiers entered Syria to conduct a raid that killed an alleged leader of ISIS, Abu Sayyaf. In the process, anonymous US officials leaked classified information to the New York Times that’s much more sensitive than anything Edward Snowden ever revealed, and it serves as a prime example of the government’s hypocrisy when it comes to disclosures of secret information.

Here’s how the New York Times described how the US conducted this “successful” raid:

“The raid came after weeks of surveillance of Abu Sayyaf, using information gleaned from a small but growing network of informants the C.I.A. and the Pentagon have painstakingly developed in Syria, as well as satellite imagery, drone reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping, American officials said. The White House rejected initial reports from the region that attributed the raid to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.”

Read that carefully and pretend it was Snowden who leaked this information, instead of nameless Pentagon spokesmen. US officials would be screaming from the rooftops that he leaked extremely timely and sensitive intelligence (it was literally only hours old), that he will cause specific terrorists to change their communications behavior, and most importantly, he put the lives of informants at risk. (Note: none of Snowden’s leaks did any of these things.)

Yet despite the fact that the ISIS raid was discussed on all of the Sunday shows this week, no one brought up anything about this leak. Contrast that with Snowden’s revelations, where government officials will use any situation to say the most outlandish things possible in an attempt to smear his whistleblowing—regardless of their basis in reality. Take former CIA deputy director and torture advocate Mike Morrell, for example, who is currently on a book promotion tour and has been preposterously suggesting that Snowden’s leaks somehow led to the rise of ISIS.

Implications of a new machine age

This morning’s Observer column:

As a species, we don’t seem to be very good at dealing with nonlinearity. We cope moderately well with situations and environments that are changing gradually. But sudden, major discontinuities – what some people call “tipping points” – leave us spooked. That’s why we are so perversely relaxed about climate change, for example: things are changing slowly, imperceptibly almost, but so far there hasn’t been the kind of sharp, catastrophic change that would lead us seriously to recalibrate our behaviour and attitudes.

So it is with information technology…

Read on

Advice from right field

Sometimes, interesting ideas come from the least-expected sources.

Here, for example, is Tim Montgomerie in The Times offering some to the Labour Party:

“Left-wing parties need to find a new identity for a movement that has been defined by redistribution for as long as Marxism elbowed Methodism aside as socialism’s main inspiration. What is the left’s new purpose? Intergenerational equality? Using new technology for progressive ends? Housebuilding to spread ownership of assets? Or even some renewed recognition of the value of Methodism’s voluntary mutuality?”

Answer: All of the above, but underpinned by an overarching analysis of the world as it is, not as it used to be or as we’d like it to be.

Interesting also that Montgomerie mentions the one thing that Labour under Miliband resolutely ignored: the potential of the Net to revitalise political action.

Technology and the future of work

Our Technology and Democracy research project had a terrific talk this afternoon by Mike Osborne of the Oxford Martin School about the research that he and Carl Frey published in “The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?”.

That paper is impressive in lots of ways. Unlike many academic research reports, for example, it’s written in pellucid prose. And it’s historically informed — which is unusual in technology publications: the authors know that the issue of the impact of machinery on jobs goes back a long, long way — at least to Elizabethan times with William Lee and his request for a patent on his stocking frame loom.

But most importantly, the Frey-Osborne study is the best analysis to date of what we in our project regard as one of the most significant puzzles of our time: namely what does the combination of infinite computational power, big data, machine learning and advanced robotics mean for our future? Or, to quote the title of Norbert Wiener’s book, what will constitute “the human use of human beings” in a digital future?

What preoccupies us is the question of whether we now stand on a hinge of history. Are there things about digital technologies which make our situation and prospects different from the disruptions that our ancestors faced when confronted with the seminal general-purpose technologies of the past? Can we say with any confidence that this time it’s different?

Mike’s presentation provoked lots of thoughts…

The first is the objection often made by historians and economists who argue say that apocalyptic concerns about digital technology are just outbreaks of a-historical hysteria. Historically, they say, technological progress has always had two conflicting impacts on employment. One is the overtly destructive impact — the leading edge of the Schumpeterian wave, if you like. The other is the capitalisation effect, as companies start to enter industries where productivity is relatively high, leading to the expansion of employment in these new or revitalised industries. So, according to the sceptics, although automation definitely taketh away, it also giveth.

But if I’ve understood Mike and Carl’s work correctly, this time it might be different, for two reasons.

  • One is that whereas automation historically served to eliminate manual and/or highly routinised tasks, the new digital technologies mean that automation is remorselessly moving into work domains that have traditionally been seen as cognitive and non-routine.

  • The second is that what happening now is what Brian Arthur called “combinatorial innovation”, which is basically the network effect applied to technological innovation. This means that the pace of innovation is increasing exponentially, which in turn means that our traditional capacity to transition into employment in new areas is going to be outpaced by the pace of change. In which case, the life-chances of a lot of human beings could be undermined or destroyed.

Which leads to a final thought, namely that in the end this will have to come down to politics. Mike and Carl’s analysis is not a deterministic one — they don’t imply that the job-destruction that they think could happen will happen. Decisions about whether to deploy these technologies will, in the end, be made by people –- the owners of capital — not by machines. And if there’s no element of societal control in all this, then the clear implication is that Piketty’s rule about the returns from capital generally outrunning the returns from employment will be turbocharged, with predictable consequences for inequality.

But of course, it doesn’t have to be like that. The economic and productivity gains that result from these technologies could be used for different purposes other than giving even more to those who already have. And that brings to mind Keynes’s famous essay on “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in which he saw the possibility that, through technology-driven productivity gains, man “could for the first time since his creation … be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”.

Only politics can ensure that that agreeable prospect comes to pass, however. This isn’t just about technology, in other words.

And now here’s the really strange thing: in all the sturm und drang of our recent election campaign, the implications of computerisation for employment weren’t mentioned once. Not once.

Scribble, scribble

From Virginia Woolf’s diary for Tuesday 11 May, 1920…

“It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly on beginning a new book quiets down after a time, & one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, & the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything. I’m a little anxious. How am I to bring off this conception? Directly one gets to work one is like a person walking, who has seen the country stretching out before. I want to write nothing in this book* that I dont [sic] enjoy writing. Yet writing is always difficult.”

Yep. As someone who is working on a book, I can vouch for this.

*She was working on ‘Jacob’s Room’.