And the USA’s greatest cybersecurity vulnerability is… its President

This morning’s Observer column:

My favourite image of the week was a picture of the Queen opening the National Cyber Security Centre in London. Her Majesty is looking bemusedly at a large display while a member of staff explains how hackers could target the nation’s electricity supply. The job of the centre’s director, Ciaran Martin, is to protect the nation from such dangers. It’s a heavy responsibility, but at least he doesn’t have to worry that his head of state is a cybersecurity liability.

His counterpart in the United States does not have that luxury…

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Why (and how) journalism has to change

This morning’s Observer column:

Let us pause for a moment to mourn the passing of Hans Rosling , one of the most gifted and humane educators of our age. He was professor of global health at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute and became famous when he gave a spectacular TED talk in 2006 using global data to show how the world had changed during the 20th century. Rosling specialised in devising striking ways of visualising statistical data and in using computers to provide animations showing, for example, how child mortality, family income and so on changed over time. But what probably clinched his fame was the way he talked his audience through the evolving worldview with a manic energy reminiscent of Newsnight’s Peter Snow and his general election night “swingometer”.

Rosling’s untimely death (from cancer) seems particularly poignant at this moment in our history, because he was such a fervent believer in the idea that we could find illumination, if not salvation, in facts. In that respect, he reminded me of the late David MacKay, another gentle polymath, who was for a time the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. At a lecture following the publication of his book, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, he was assailed by an angry environmentalist who asked him why he was “so hostile” to wind power. MacKay smiled sweetly and replied: “I’m not hostile to anything. I’m just in favour of arithmetic.”

I thought about Rosling and MacKay a lot last week as the “fake news” crisis deepened…

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Why fake news won’t be easy to fix

This morning’s Observer column:

The debate about “fake news” and the “post-truth” society we now supposedly inhabit has become the epistemological version of a feeding frenzy: so much heat, so little light. Two things about it are particularly infuriating. The first is the implicit assumption that “truth” is somehow a straightforward thing and our problem is that we just can’t be bothered any more to find it. The second is the failure to appreciate that the profitability, if not the entire business model, of both Google and Facebook depends critically on them not taking responsibility for what passes through their servers. So hoping that these companies will somehow fix the problem is like persuading turkeys to look forward to Christmas…

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AI now plays pretty good poker. Whatever next?

This morning’s Observer column:

Ten years ago, [Sergey] Brin was running Google’s X lab, the place where they work on projects that have, at best, a 100-1 chance of success. One little project there was called Google Brain, which focused on AI. “To be perfectly honest,” Brin said, “I didn’t pay any attention to it at all.” Brain was headed by a computer scientist named Jeff Dean who, Brin recalled, “would periodically come up to me and say, ‘Look – the computer made a picture of a cat!’ and I would say, ‘OK, that’s very nice, Jeff – go do your thing, whatever.’ Fast-forward a few years and now Brain probably touches every single one of our main projects – ranging from search to photos to ads… everything we do. This revolution in deep nets has been very profound and definitely surprised me – even though I was right in there. I could, you know, throw paper clips at Jeff.”

Fast-forward a week from that interview and cut to Pittsburgh, where four leading professional poker players are pitting their wits against an AI program created by two Carnegie Mellon university researchers. They’re playing a particular kind of high-stakes poker called heads-up no-limit Texas hold’em. The program is called Libratus, which is Latin for “balanced”. There is, however, nothing balanced about its performance…

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The real secret of China’s mastery of the Net: distraction

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

If you ever want to annoy western policymakers or politicians, then here is a surefire way to do it. Tell them that the only government in the world that really understands the internet is the Chinese communist regime. And if you want to add a killer punch, add the assertion that almost everything we think we know about Chinese management of the net is either banal (all that stuff about the great firewall, paranoia about keywords such as “Falun Gong”, “democracy”, etc) or just plain wrong. Having thus lit the fuse, retreat to a safe distance and enjoy the ensuing outburst of righteous indignation.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not an apologia for the Chinese regime, which is as nasty and illiberal as they come. But it’s best to have a realistic view of one’s adversaries. China’s leaders have invented a new way of running society. It’s been christened “networked authoritarianism” by Rebecca MacKinnon, a noted scholar of these things. President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are followers of Boris Johnson in at least one respect: they believe that it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it too…

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Amazon’s Echo seems great, but what does it hear?

Illustration by James Melaugh/Observer

This morning’s Observer column:

I bought it [the Echo] because it seemed to me that it might be a significant product and I have a policy of never writing about kit that I haven’t paid for myself. Having lived with the Echo for a few weeks I can definitely confirm its significance. It is a big deal, which explains why the company invested so much in it. (It’s said that 1,500 people worked on the project for four years, which sounds implausible until you remember that Apple has 800 people working on the iPhone’s camera alone). Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, may not have bet the ranch on it (he has a pretty big ranch, after all) but the product nevertheless represents a significant investment. And the sales so far suggest that it may well pay off.

Once switched on and hooked up to one’s wifi network, the Echo sits there, listening for its trigger word, “Alexa”. So initially one feels like an idiot saying things such as: “Alexa, play Radio 4” or: “Alexa, who is Kim Kardashian?” (A genuine inquiry this, from a visitor who didn’t know the answer, which duly came in the form of Alexa reading the first lines of the relevant Wikipedia entry.)

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Be careful what you wish for

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1996, two US congressmen, Chris Cox (Republican, California) and Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon), drafted a law that they felt was essential if the nascent internet was to grow and prosper. The clause they wrote eventually found its way on to the statute book as section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, part of the sprawling Telecommunications Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996.

Cox and Wyden had been troubled by the rise of libel suits against internet service providers (ISPs) for defamatory content posted on websites that they hosted. The key sentence in the clause that they eventually drafted read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This single sentence provided the legal underpinning for how the world wide web has evolved…

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The network architecture of the alt-right

This morning’s Observer column:

While there is no single, overarching explanation for Donald Trump’s election, his ascendancy would have been unthinkable in a pre-internet age, for two reasons.

The first is that much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric would never have got past the editorial “gatekeepers” of an earlier era – the TV network owners and controllers, the editors of powerful print media and the Federal Communications Commission with its “fairness doctrine” (which required holders of broadcast licences to “present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was, in the Commission’s view, honest, equitable and balanced”).

The second reason is that in the pre-internet era, the multitudes of Trump’s vigorous, engaged and angry supporters would have had little option but to fume impotently in whatever local arenas they inhabited. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for them to hook up with millions of like-minded souls to crowdsource their indignation and their enthusiasm for the candidate.

So I think we can say that while the net may not have been a sufficient condition for Trump’s victory, it was definitely a necessary one…

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So what brought the tech moguls to fawn on Trumplethinskin?

This morning’s Observer column:

On Wednesday, a curious spectacle could be observed in New York. A swarm of tech billionaires arrived in their private jets and were whisked to Trump Tower, the Louis XV pastiche that is the residence of Trumplethinskin, as the tech journalist Kara Swisher calls the president-elect.

The roll call of assembled tech moguls ran as follows: Satya Natella and Brad Smith (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page and Eric Schmidt (Alphabet, Google’s holding company), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Tim Cook (Apple), Elon Musk (Tesla), Ginni Rometty (IBM), Safra Catz (Oracle), Chuck Robbins (Cisco), Alex Karp (Palantir) and Brian Krzanich (Intel).

Apart from their vast wealth and an aversion to paying tax, what linked these notables? Answer: a deep loathing of Trumplethinskin. Yet when he issued the summons to his preposterous “summit” they all came running. Why?

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LATER

Most of those attending were tightlipped afterwards Kara Swisher extracted some impressions. She quoted one of the attendees as admitting that it was a bit of a humiliation.

“We definitely gave up a little stature now for possible benefit later,” said one source, noting that it was the price of being a public company with a tweet-happy new U.S. leader. “It’s better to be quiet now and speak up later if we have to, and save our powder.”

Which provides an interesting confirmation of the point I made in the column about the perceived power of a Trump tweet.

Sad but true: ‘Digital natives’ can be, er, naive

This morning’s Observer column:

If Facebook thinks it can outsource the detection of fake news to its users (and thereby avoid accepting editorial responsibility) then Stanford University has some bad news for it. Over the past 18 months the university’s history education group has been testing the ability of 7,800 “digital natives” (ie at middle school, high school and college students) in 12 states to judge the credibility of online information…

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