Robotic judgments?

Today’s Observer column:

“The sadness about the bar nowadays,” wrote John Mortimer QC in 2002, “is that the Rumpoles are dying out, to be replaced… by greyish figures who think that the art of advocacy has been replaced by computer technology.”

Now spool forward to October 2016 and to Gower Street, a stone’s throw from Gray’s Inn, where a group of computer scientists is huddled in a laboratory in University College London. They are tending a machine they have built that can do natural language processing and machine learning and, in that sense, might be said to be an example of artificial intelligence (AI).

The machine has an insatiable appetite for English text and so the researchers have fed it all the documents relating to 584 cases decided by the European court of human rights (ECHR) on alleged infringements of articles 3, 6 and 8 of the European convention on human rights. Having ingested and analysed this mountain of text, the machine has been asked to predict the judgment that it thinks the court would have reached in each case. In the end, it reached the same conclusion as the judges of the court did in 79% of the cases…

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The end of the internal combustion engine

This morning’s Observer column:

Two interesting things happened last week. One was Tesla’s delivery of the first batch of its Model 3, the company’s first “affordable” car. (If you think $35,000, about £26,500 – is affordable, that is.) The second was a “diesel summit” held in Berlin, a meeting where the bosses of Germany’s leading car manufacturers (VW, BMW, Audi, Ford, Porsche and Daimler) got together with ministers to ponder the industrial implications of the emissions-cheating scandal and the decisions of the British and French governments to outlaw petrol cars and vans from 2040.

Although no one in the car industry will say so, diesel technology has been a dead duck since the emissions-cheating scandal erupted, followed by the revelations of how polluted London’s atmosphere has become, with emissions of nitrous fumes from diesels being blamed for much of the problem. And the fallout is already being seen in the sales figures…

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If at first you don’t succeed…

This morning’s Observer column:

There were just two problems with Glass. The first is that it made you look like a dork. Although Google teamed up with the company that made Ray-Bans, among other things, if you were wearing Glass then you became the contemporary version of those 1950s engineers who always had several pens and a propelling pencil in their top jacket pockets. The second problem was the killer one: Glass made everyone around you feel uneasy. They thought the technology was creepy, intrusive and privacy-destroying. Bouncers wouldn’t let wearers – whom they called “Glassholes” – into clubs. The maître d’ would discover that the table you thought you had booked was suddenly unavailable. And so on.

In the end, Google bit the bullet and withdrew the product in January 2015. Privacy advocates and fashionistas alike cheered. Technology had been put in its place. But if, like this columnist, you believe that technology has the potential to improve human lives, then your feelings were mixed…

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Automation is more about tasks than ‘jobs’

This morning’s Observer column:

We are currently going through one of those periodic phases of “automation anxiety” when we become convinced that the robots are coming for our jobs. These fears are routinely pooh-poohed by historians and economists. The historians point out that machines have been taking away jobs since the days of Elizabeth I – who refused to grant William Lee a patent on his stocking frame on the grounds that it would take work away from those who knitted by hand. And while the economists concede that machines do indeed destroy some jobs, they point out that the increased productivity that they enable has generally created more new jobs (and industries) than they displaced.

Faced with this professional scepticism, tech evangelists and doom-mongers fall back on the same generic responses: that historical scepticism is based on the complacent assumption that the past is a reliable guide to the future; and that “this time is different”. And whereas in the past it was lower-skilled work that was displaced, the jobs that will be lost in the coming wave of smart machines are ones that we traditionally regard as “white-collar” or middle-class. And that would be a very big deal, because if there’s no middle class the prospects for the survival of democracy are poor.

What’s striking about this fruitless, ongoing debate is how few participants seem to be interested in the work that people actually do…

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DeepMind or DeepMine?

This morning’s Observer column:

In July 2015, consultants working at the Royal Free hospital trust in London approached DeepMind, a Google-owned artificial intelligence firm that had no previous experience in healthcare, about developing software based on patient data from the trust. Four months later, the health records of 1.6 million identifiable patients were transferred to servers contracted by Google to process the data on behalf of DeepMind. The basic idea was that the company would create an app, called Streams, to help clinicians manage acute kidney injury (AKI), a serious disease that is linked to 40,000 deaths a year in the UK.

The first most people knew about this exciting new partnership was when DeepMind announced the launch of DeepMind Health on 24 February 2016…

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What Steve (Jobs) hath wrought

My Observer column on the tenth anniversary of the iPhone:

The iPhone made Apple the world’s most valuable company (with a market capitalisation of $771.44bn when I last checked) but, in a way, that’s the least interesting thing about it. What’s more significant is that it sparked off the smartphone revolution that changed the way people accessed the internet. Steve Jobs’s seminal insight was that a mobile phone could be a powerful, networked handheld device which could also be used to make voice calls. Turning that insight into a marketable reality was a remarkable achievement – commemorated last week by the Computer History Museum in a fascinating two-hour series of recorded conversations with the engineers who built the phone.

The result of this revolution is a world in which most people carry their internet connection around in their bags and pockets. It’s a world of ubiquitous connectivity in which people are never offline and are increasingly addicted to their devices. It’s got to the point where someone has coined a new term – smombies (zombies on smartphones) – to describe pedestrians who walk into obstacles because they are looking at screens rather than at where they’re going…

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Paranoia in the Valley

My Observer piece about US reaction to the Google fine:

The whopping €2.4bn fine levied by the European commission on Google for abusing its dominance as a search engine has taken Silicon Valley aback. It has also reignited American paranoia about the motives of European regulators, whom many Valley types seem to regard as stooges of Mathias Döpfner, the chief executive of German media group Axel Springer, president of the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers and a fierce critic of Google.

US paranoia is expressed in various registers. They range from President Obama’s observation in 2015 that “all the Silicon Valley companies that are doing business there [Europe] find themselves challenged, in some cases not completely sincerely. Because some of those countries have their own companies who want to displace ours”, to the furious off-the-record outbursts from senior tech executives after some EU agency or other has dared to challenge the supremacy of a US-based tech giant.

The overall tenor of these rants (based on personal experience of being on the receiving end) runs as follows. First, you Europeans don’t “get” tech; second, you don’t like or understand innovation; and third, you’re maddened by envy because none of you schmucks has been able to come up with a world-beating tech company…

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Amazon and the long game

This morning’s Observer column:

The news that Amazon had acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.7bn sent shivers down the spine of every retailer in America. Shares in Walmart fell 7%, and rival Kroger by 17%. Amazon’s market capitalisation, in contrast, went up by $11bn. So why the fuss? At first sight it seemed straightforward: Amazon wanted to get into food sales, and it fancied having a network of 400 urban stores; and Whole Foods (which some of my American friends call “whole wallet” because of the cost of its products) was ailing. There was also a small political angle: John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods, had been enmeshed in a row with an activist investor that threatened to drive him from power; by selling to Amazon, he gets to keep his job. So: small earthquake in food retailing, not many dead?

Er, not quite, and only if you avoid taking the long view. And, with Amazon, the long view is the only one that makes sense…

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Nothing to hide? But you may still have something to fear.

This morning’s Observer column:

When Edward Snowden first revealed the extent of government surveillance of our online lives, the then foreign secretary, William (now Lord) Hague, immediately trotted out the old chestnut: “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.” This prompted replies along the lines of: “Well then, foreign secretary, can we have that photograph of you shaving while naked?”, which made us laugh, perhaps, but rather diverted us from pondering the absurdity of Hague’s remark. Most people have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t give the state the right to see them as fair game for intrusive surveillance.

During the hoo-ha, one of the spooks with whom I discussed Snowden’s revelations waxed indignant about our coverage of the story. What bugged him (pardon the pun) was the unfairness of having state agencies pilloried, while firms such as Google and Facebook, which, in his opinion, conducted much more intensive surveillance than the NSA or GCHQ, got off scot free. His argument was that he and his colleagues were at least subject to some degree of democratic oversight, but the companies, whose business model is essentially “surveillance capitalism”, were entirely unregulated.

He was right…

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Who’s missing from the tech industry? Er, women

This morning’s Observer column:

In front of me as I write this is a photograph. It’s an interior shot of one of the buildings on Facebook’s campus in California. It looks as big as an aircraft hangar, except that it has steel pillars at regular intervals. The pillars are labelled to enable people to find their desks. It’s all open-plan: nobody in this building – not even the founder of the company, Mark Zuckerberg – has a private office. And as far as the eye can see are desks with large-screen iMacs and Aeron desk chairs.

The people working at these desks are the folks who write, curate, design and maintain the algorithms that determine what appears in your Facebook newsfeed. I’ve been looking at the picture until my eyes begin to pixelate. What I’ve been trying to determine is how many women there are. I can see only three. So I ask a colleague who has better eyesight. She finds another two. And that’s it: as far as the eye can see, there are only five women in this picture.

Welcome to Silicon Valley, where most of the digital technology that currently dominates our lives is created…

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And while we’re on the subject…

Recode has recently obtained a copy of an email that Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, sent to all his staff before a staff outing in Miami in 2013.

The subject line read: “URGENT, URGENT – READ THIS NOW OR ELSE!!!!!,” he also noted at the top: “You better read this or I’ll kick your ass.”

Here’s the gist (from Recode):

Among the dos that Kalanick advised: “Have a great fucking time. This is a celebration! We’ve all earned it.” He also noted that “Miami’s transportation sucks ass,” the first shot in what became a battle to have Uber serve that city.

That was the tame part of the email, which Kalanick actually sent again the next year when there were 1,800 employees at Uber.

The don’ts advice was much more specific, giving information about everything from vomiting (a $200 “puke charge”) to drug use to throwing beer kegs off buildings to, well, proper fornication between employees (and sometimes, apparently, more than one).

Wrote Kalanick: “Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic ‘YES! I will have sex with you’ AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command. Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML.”

FML, in internet slang, means “Fuck my life.” Welcome to Silicon Valley startup culture.

Enough said? If you were a woman, would you want to work in this frat-house culture?