The first self-driving car fatality proves nothing

This morning’s Observer column:

In the US, about 33,000 people are killed in automobile accidents every year. That’s 90 a day on average. So on 7 May, about 89 other people as well as Joshua Brown were killed in car crashes. But we heard nothing about those 89 personal and family tragedies: the only death that most people in the US heard about was Mr Brown’s.

Societies have to decide what they want to do about automobile safety. It will come down to a cost-benefit analysis
Why? Because he was driving (or perhaps not driving) a semi-autonomous vehicle. Writing from Detroit (coincidentally, the capital of the traditional gas-guzzling, emission-spewing automobile), two New York Times reporters wrote that “the race by automakers and technology firms to develop self-driving cars has been fuelled by the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers. But that view is now in question after the revelation on Thursday that the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan was killed in an accident when the car was in self-driving mode.”

Really? With whom is the safety of self-driving cars in question? Not with anyone who knows the facts about the dangers of automobiles…

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The ‘Internet of Things’ will need better things

This morning’s Observer column:

You know the problem. You’re going abroad for a couple of weeks, during which time your house will be empty. You haven’t yet got round to installing a burglar alarm. But not to worry – just pop round to a supermarket and buy a couple of timer sockets. Plug them into the mains, set the timers to switch on and off at appropriate times twice a day, plug your lamps into them and off you go. Easy, peasy!

Well, yes. But it’s so 1950s. So analogue. Why not be really cool and have a proper networked timer socket, something that you can control from your smartphone from anywhere in the world? Something like the AuYou Wi-Fi Switch for example. Looks like it’s just the ticket. Plug it in, hold down the power button and it hooks up with the app on your (Android) smartphone, and – bingo! – job done. Now, where did you put that boarding pass?

But, hang on. Maybe you should just check the product reviews, just to be sure. Ah, here’s one by a guy called Matthew Garrett. “There’s a lot to like about this hardware,” Matthew writes, “but unfortunately it’s entirely overwhelmed by everything there is to hate about it.”

Eh? Turns out that Mr Garrett knows a lot about computer security…

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Appeasing the crocodile

This morning’s Observer column:

Winston Churchill famously defined “appeasement” as “being nice to a crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last”. By that definition, many of the world’s biggest news publishing organisations have been in the appeasement business for at least the past two years and the crocodile to which they have been sucking up is Facebook, the social networking giant.

The reason for this extraordinary self-abasement is simple: Facebook currently has more than 1.6 billion users worldwide, most of whom are very engaged with the service. Around half of them check their page every day, for example, and when they are online they spend significant amounts of time on the site or its smartphone app.

More significantly, research by the Pew Research Center revealed that these users increasingly get much of their news from their Facebook feeds. Accordingly, publishers started doing deals with Facebook to publish some (or all) of their content on it, with initially agreeable results in the shape of “referrals” – ie traffic to their own websites coming from the social network.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment…

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Algorithmic power — and bias

This morning’s Observer column:

[In the 1960s] the thought that we would one day live in an “information society” that was comprehensively dependent on computers would have seemed fanciful to most people.

But that society has come to pass, and suddenly the algorithms that are the building blocks of this world have taken on a new significance because they have begun to acquire power over our everyday lives. They determine whether we can get a bank loan or a mortgage, and on what terms, for example; whether our names go on no-fly lists; and whether the local cops regard one as a potential criminal or not.

To take just one example, judges, police forces and parole officers across the US are now using a computer program to decide whether a criminal defendant is likely to reoffend or not. The basic idea is that an algorithm is likely to be more “objective” and consistent than the more subjective judgment of human officials. The algorithm in question is called Compas (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions). When defendants are booked into jail, they respond to a Compas questionnaire and their answers are fed into the software to generate predictions of “risk of recidivism” and “risk of violent recidivism”.

It turns out that the algorithm is fairly good at predicting recidivism and less good at predicting the violent variety. So far, so good. But guess what? The algorithm is not colour blind…

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The triumph of hope over experience

This morning’s Observer column:

There is something irresistibly comical about the spectacle of two CEOs announcing a friendly takeover. The two chaps (for they are still generally chaps) stand side by side, grinning into the cameras. The proud new owner explains what a great outfit his latest acquisition is, how pleased he is with the deal, extols the “synergies” that will magically materialise once the marriage is consummated and expresses his undying admiration for the poor schmuck who is now his latest subordinate.

The schmuck, for his part, declares his undying admiration for his new boss and his deep respect for the gigantic organisation into whose maw he is about to disappear. He, too, is “incredibly excited” by the new horizons that are now open to him and his colleagues. The marriage is a very good deal for both organisations – a win-win outcome no less. The fact that he omits to mention how much he has personally made from the deal is tactfully overlooked by his admiring media audience.

Last week’s announcement of Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn followed this script to the letter…

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So what was Google smoking when it bought Boston Dynamics?

This morning’s Observer column:

The question on everyone’s mind as Google hoovered up robotics companies was: what the hell was a search company doing getting involved in this business? Now we know: it didn’t have a clue.

Last week, Bloomberg revealed that Google was putting Boston Dynamics up for sale. The official reason for unloading it is that senior executives in Alphabet, Google’s holding company, had concluded (correctly) that Boston Dynamics was years away from producing a marketable product and so was deemed disposable. Two possible buyers have been named so far – Toyota and Amazon. Both make sense for the obvious reason that they are already heavy users of robots and it’s clear that Amazon in particular would dearly love to get rid of humans in its warehouses at the earliest possible opportunity…

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How to manage the Internet – part 2

This morning’s Observer column:

If you ever wanted an illustration of why academic research is not just important but vital, then the work of Gary King, professor of sociology at Harvard, could serve as exhibit A. Why? Well, one of the more pressing strategic issues that faces western governments is how to adjust to the emergence of China as a new global superpower. The first requirement for intelligent reorientation is a rounded understanding of this new reality. And while it may be that in the foreign offices and chancelleries of the west officials and policy makers are busily boning up on Chinese industrial and geopolitical strategy (what the hell are they up to in the South China Sea, for example?), I see little evidence that anyone in government has been paying attention to how the Beijing regime seems to have solved a problem that no other government has cracked: namely, how to control, manage and harness the internet for its own purposes.

Strangely, our rulers still seem blissfully unaware of this, which is odd because – as I pointed out ages ago – there’s no longer any excuse for ignorance: Professor King has done most of the heavy lifting required…

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Trump’s only supporter in Silicon Valley

This morning’s Observer column:

“Peter who?” I hear you say. Mr Thiel is not exactly a household name in these parts, but in Silicon Valley he’s a big cheese, as a co-founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook. He is therefore rich beyond the dreams of avarice. But he is also: a philosophy graduate; a lawyer; a former bond trader; a hedge-fund manager; a venture capitalist; a philanthropist; a far-out libertarian; and an entertaining author. So what is a guy like that doing supporting Trump?

One answer might be that he’s as much of an irritant to the Silicon Valley crowd as Trump is to the Republican establishment. Although the Valley’s tech titans like to portray themselves as non-statist disruptors, in fact most of them are – politically speaking – Democratic party supporters, albeit of an unusual kind. They may detest trade unions, for example, but they’re very keen on immigration – so long as the immigrants have PhDs from elite Indian or Chinese universities. And they’re not opposed to big government, so long as it’s “smart”, whatever that means.

Peter Thiel doesn’t fit this template at all. In 2009, he published an intriguing essay entitled The Education of a Libertarian. “I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years”, it began: “to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself ‘libertarian’.” But, he confessed, “over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

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Facebook can’t be just a ‘platform’ if it’s distributing news

This morning’s Observer column:

Many years ago, the political theorist Steven Lukes published a seminal book – Power: A Radical View. In it, he argued that power essentially comes in three varieties: the ability to compel people to do what they don’t want to do; the capability to stop them doing what they want to do; and the power to shape the way they think. This last is the kind of power exercised by our mass media. They can shape the public (and therefore the political) agenda by choosing the news that people read, hear or watch; and they can shape the ways in which that news is presented. Lukes’s “third dimension” of power is what’s wielded in this country by outlets like Radio 4’s Today programme, the Sun and the Daily Mail. And this power is real: it’s why all British governments in recent years have been so frightened of the Mail.

But as our media ecosystem has changed under the impact of the internet, new power brokers have appeared….

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Apple vs. FBI ought to have gone to the Supreme Court

Today’s Observer column:

So the FBI sought a court order to compel Apple to write a special version of the operating system without this ingenious destructive mechanism – which could then be downloaded to the phone. Apple refused, on various grounds both technological and legalistic, and the stage was set – so some of us thought – for a legal battle that would go all the way to the supreme court.

In the end, it didn’t happen. The FBI bought a hack from an Israeli security company which had already found a way round the problem, called off the legal suit, and nobody got their day in front of the supremes. Which was a pity, because it means that a really important question posed by digital technology remains unresolved. Put simply, it’s this: what limits, if any, should be placed on the power of encryption technology to render citizens’ communications invisible to law enforcement and security authorities?

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