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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Big data: the new gasoline

This morning’s Observer column:

“Data is the new oil,” declared Clive Humby, a mathematician who was the genius behind the Tesco Clubcard. This insight was later elaborated by Michael Palmer of the Association of National Advertisers. “Data is just like crude [oil],” said Palmer. “It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.”

There was just one thing wrong with the metaphor. Oil is a natural resource; it has to be found, drilled for and pumped from the bowels of the Earth. Data, in contrast, is a highly unnatural resource. It has to be created before it can be extracted and refined. Which raises the question of who, exactly, creates this magical resource? Answer: you and me…

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If the EU doesn’t take on Google, who will?

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

Last week, the European commission, that bete noire of Messrs Gove, Johnson & co, resumed its attack on Google. On Wednesday, Eurocrats filed formal charges against the company, accusing it of abusing its dominance of the Android operating system, which is currently the world’s most-used mobile operating system software. This new charge comes on top of an earlier case in which the commission accused Google of abusing its overwhelming dominance of the web-search market in Europe in order to favour its own enterprises over those of competitors.

This could be a big deal. If the commission decides that Google has indeed broken European competition law, then it can levy fines of up to 10% of the company’s annual global revenue for each of the charges. Given that Google’s global sales last year came to nearly $75bn, we’re talking about a possible fine of $15bn (£10.5bn). Even by Google standards, that’s serious money. And it’s not exactly an idle threat: in the past, the Eurocrats have taken more than a billion dollars off both Microsoft and Intel for such violations.

To those of us who follow these things, there’s a whiff of Back to the Future here.

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Zuckerbergus Imperator

This morning’s Observer column:

Power and money are the two great aphrodisiacs, and few people or institutions are immune to their attractions. Not even the Economist, a posh magazine which resolutely sees itself as floating above the vulgar ruckus of journalistic hackery. Last week, like an elderly dowager seduced by Justin Bieber, the venerable publication checked its collective brains at the door and swooned over Mark Zuckerberg, the infant prodigy who now presides over Facebook, and so possesses both power and money.

For the cover illustration, the magazine photoshopped a picture of a celebrated statue of Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337). Young Zuckerberg’s head, adorned with a wreath of gold laurel leaves, replaced Constantine’s. The sword in his left hand was replaced by a Facebook logo, and the emperor’s languidly drooping right hand was rotated 180 degrees so that it now gave the thumbs-up that is Facebook’s “like” symbol. (The gesture had a rather different interpretation in Roman times.) On the plinth of the statue were the words: “MARCVS ZVCKERBERGVS” and CONIVNGE ET IMPERA”, which is the nearest the photoshopper could get to “connect and rule”.

On inside pages one finds an editorial and a long article explaining why Marcvs Z is the greatest thing since Constantine.

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