No matter what you get up to in bed, there’s an app for it. Apparently.

This morning’s Observer column about the obsession with ‘datifying’ our bodies.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are obsessed with the datafication of their bodies and those who are not. I belong to the latter category: the only thing that interests me about my heart is that it is still beating. And when it isn’t I shall be past caring. But if the current craze for wearable devices such as fitness trackers is anything to go by, I may soon find myself a member of a despised minority, rather like cigarette smokers, whisky drinkers and followers of David Icke…

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So where do we ‘Go’ from here?

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

Last week, researchers at the artificial intelligence company DeepMind, which is now owned by Google, announced an extraordinary breakthrough: in October last, a DeepMind computing system called AlphaGo had defeated the reigning European champion player of the ancient Chinese game go by five games to nil. The victory was announced last week in a paper published in the scientific journal Nature.

So what? Computers have been getting better and better at board games for yonks. Way back in the dark ages of 1997, for example, IBM’s Deep Blue machine beat the then world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, at chess. So surely go, which is played not with six different pieces but black and white tokens – would be a pushover? Not so: the number of possible positions in go outnumber the number of atoms in the universe and far exceed the number of possibilities in chess…

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HMG wakes up to the potential of blockchain technology

This morning’s Observer column:

There are not many occasions when one can give an unqualified thumbs-up to something the government does, but this is one such occasion. Last week, Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, published a report with the forbidding title Distributed Ledger Technology: Beyond Block Chain. The report sets out the findings of an official study that explores how the aforementioned technology “can revolutionise services, both in government and the private sector”. Since this is the kind of talk one normally hears from loopy startup founders pitching to venture capitalists rather than from sober Whitehall mandarins, it made this columnist choke on his muesli – especially given that, in so far as Joe Public thinks about distributed ledgers at all, it is in the context of Bitcoin, money laundering and online drug dealing. So what, one is tempted to ask, has the chief scientific adviser been smoking?

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They’re Democrats, Hilary, but not as you know them…

This morning’s Observer column:

Good news for Hillary Clinton: there are very few Republican voters in Silicon Valley. Bad news: the Democrats there are not Democrats as you know them. They detest trade unions, for example, and they’re very keen on immigration – so long as the immigrants have PhDs from elite Indian or Chinese universities. They are in favour of government, so long as it’s “smart” government. And they believe that all change is good – especially in the long term.

We know this courtesy of a fascinating piece of opinion polling by Gregory Ferenstein, the guy who runs TechCrunch’s policy channel…

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Remembering the first ‘Killer App’

This morning’s Observer column:

Tidying my office the other day, as one does at this time of year, I came upon a shabby, brown, dust-covered, A5 plastic ring binder. It was the kind of thing one throws into a skip without a moment’s hesitation. Except this wasn’t something to throw away, for embossed on the spine of the binder was “VisiCalc”. Inside was a 5.25in floppy disc and a glossy manual. And as I stood there looking at it I had one of those epiphanies that James Joyce was so keen on. I was suddenly transported back to late November 1979. I had bought an Apple II computer on a research grant – the more expensive 32k model, which had an external disk drive. An academic colleague who was on sabbatical at MIT had sent me a postcard saying that he had seen an Apple II running some weird software for business planning that was driving people wild. So I asked him to get me a copy and it arrived via FedEx.

VisiCalc was the world’s first spreadsheet program. It was written by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston and came from an insight Bricklin had one day while attending Harvard Business School….

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The new sun in the tech universe

This morning’s Observer column:

The Christmas holidays are the time of year when different generations of the family gather around the dinner table. So it’s a perfect opportunity for a spot of tech anthropology. Here’s how to do it.

At some point, insert into the conversation a contemporary topic about which most people have strong opinions but know relatively little. Jeremy Clarkson, say. There will come a moment when someone decides that the only thing to be done to resolve the ensuing factual disputes is to “Google it”. Watch what happens next…

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The (non)sharing economy

This morning’s Observer column:

A euphemism is a polite way of obscuring an uncomfortable or unpleasant truth. So pornography becomes adult entertainment, genocide becomes ethnic cleansing, sacking someone becomes letting him (or her) go. People pass away rather than die; toilets become rest rooms; CCTV cameras monitor public and private spaces for our comfort and safety; and shell shock evolved into battle fatigue before finally winding up as post-traumatic stress disorder – which is really a way of disguising the awkward fact that killing people in cold blood can do very bad things to your psyche.

The tech industry is also addicted to euphemism. Thus the ubiquitous, unfair, grotesquely unbalanced contract which gives an internet corporation all the rights and the user almost none is called an end-user licence agreement. Computers that have been illegally hacked are “pwned”. The wholesale hoovering-up of personal data by internet companies (and the state) is never called by its real name, which is surveillance. And so on.

But the word that is most subverted by the tech industry is share…

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Hunting the Qubit

Today’s Observer column:

We live in a universe that virtually none of us will ever understand. Physicists, however, refuse to be daunted by this and have been casting about for ways of putting these quantum properties to practical use. In the process, their gaze alighted on that fundamental building block of digital technology, the humble binary digit (or “bit”) in which all digital information is encoded. In the Newtonian (ie non-quantum) world, a bit can take only one of two values – one or zero. But at the quantum level, superposition means that a quantum bit – a qubit – could have multiple values (one, zero and a superposition of one and zero) at the same time. Which means that a computer based on quantum principles would be much, much faster than a conventional, silicon-based one. Various outfits have been trying to build one.

The results are controversial but intriguing…

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Algorithmic power and programmers’ ethics

We know that power corrupts. But what about algorithmic power? This morning’s Observer column:

There is a direction of travel here – one that is taking us towards what an American legal scholar, Frank Pasquale, has christened the “black box society”. You might think that the subtitle – “the secret algorithms that control money and information” – says it all, except that it’s not just about money and information but increasingly about most aspects of contemporary life, at least in industrialised countries. For example, we know that Facebook algorithms can influence the moods and the voting behaviour of the service’s users. And we also know that Google’s search algorithms can effectively render people invisible. In some US cities, algorithms determine whether you are likely to be stopped and searched in the street. For the most part, it’s an algorithm that decides whether a bank will seriously consider your application for a mortgage or a loan. And the chances are that it’s a machine-learning or network-analysis algorithm that flags internet or smartphone users as being worthy of further examination. Uber drivers may think that they are working for themselves, but in reality they are managed by an algorithm. And so on.

Without us noticing it, therefore, a new kind of power – algorithmic power – has arrived in our societies. And for most citizens, these algorithms are black boxes – their inner logic is opaque to us. But they have values and priorities embedded in them, and those values are likewise opaque to us: we cannot interrogate them.

This poses two questions. First of all, who has legal responsibility for the decisions made by algorithms? The company that runs the services that are enabled by them? Maybe – depending on how smart their lawyers are.

But what about the programmers who wrote the code? Don’t they also have some responsibilities? Pasquale reports that some micro-targeting algorithms (the programs that decide what is shown in your browser screen, such as advertising) categorise web users into categories which include “probably bipolar”, “daughter killed in car crash”, “rape victim”, and “gullible elderly”. A programmer wrote that code. Did he (for it was almost certainly a male) not have some ethical qualms about his handiwork?

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‘Smart’ homes? Not yet

My Observer comment piece on what the Internet of Things looks like when it’s at home:

There is a technological juggernaut heading our way. It’s called the Internet of Things (IoT). For the tech industry, it’s the Next Big Thing, alongside big data, though in fact that pair are often just two sides of the same coin. The basic idea is that since computing devices are getting smaller and cheaper, and wireless network technology is becoming ubiquitous, it will soon be feasible to have trillions of tiny, networked computers embedded in everything. They can sense changes, turning things on and off, making decisions about whether to open a door or close a valve or order fresh supplies of milk, you name it, the computers communicating with one another and shipping data to server farms all over the place.

As ever with digital technology, there’s an underlying rationality to lots of this. The IoT could make our lives easier and our societies more efficient. If parking bays could signal to nearby cars that they are empty, then the nightmarish task of finding a parking place in crowded cities would be eased. If every river in the UK could tweet its level every few minutes, then we could have advance warning of downstream floods in time to alert those living in their paths. And so on.

But that kind of networking infrastructure takes time to build, so the IoT boys (and they are mostly boys, still) have set their sights closer to home, which is why we are beginning to hear a lot about “smart” homes. On further examination, this turns out mostly to mean houses stuffed with networked kit…

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