The life and death of helicopter commuting

I once spent a day during a general election campaign going round the UK in a helicopter. It was a fascinating experience, but not one I’d like to repeat. Choppers seem to me to be ludicrously primitive machines — a bit like steam-powered automobiles. They are also, of course, vanity toys for the very rich. And they are incredibly noisy. So this Bloomberg video brings a welcome dose of reality to chopper-worship.

HT to Ben Evans for the link.

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in 2002, “is that the Rumpoles are dying out, to be replaced… by greyish figures who think that the art of advocacy has been replaced by computer technology.”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…

Read on

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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The auto industry’s ‘iPhone moment’

The bosses of Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW are meeting with ministers in Berlin today to discuss the end of diesel cars and the disaster that the industry brought on itself. Ironically, the meeting more or less coincides with the hoopla over the delivery of the first Tesla Model 3 ‘affordable’ electric vehicles in the US. There’s a 400,000-long waiting list for this car, which means that if you placed an order (and paid the $1,000 deposit) you’ll probably have to wait two years before delivery. But if you want a nice VW, BMW or Mercedes diesel model, well any dealer will be happy to offer one by lunchtime, and maybe even give you a good price. Writing in today’s Financial Times, John Gapper wonders if the automobile industry is suddenly experiencing its own ‘iPhone moment’.

Good question, to which I suspect that the answer is “yes”. It’s not the manufacturer that matters most, it’s the technology. The significance of the iPhone in 2007 was that it was the first real smartphone. The significance of the Model 3 is not that it’s a Tesla but that it’s a working electric car with a decent range that many people can afford.

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…

Read on

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…

Read on

An essential anti-hype kit

From a terrific LSE blog post by Martin Walker.

He proposes seven ways to identify Fintech technologies that do not deserve the hype. It seems to me that most of his questions apply to information technology generally.

  1. The technology claims to solve a problem that did not exist before and was actually created by the nature of the new technology.
  2. A small part of the functionality of an existing system is implemented using the new technology and is claimed as a great success.
  3. No thought has been given to the costs and complexities of integrating the new technology with existing infrastructure.
  4. The technology is new and original but the creators are incapable of explaining how it would be any better at solving real world problems than existing technology.
  5. The technology would fail to meet legal and regulatory requirements if treated on the same basis as existing technologies.
  6. The advocates of the technology claim you “do not need to understand how it works, you just have to believe that it will change the world”.
  7. Criticism or even just questions are dismissed by referring to adoption/hype cycles that show you are going through a period of negativity before ultimate success.

Great stuff.

Corporate candour and public sector cant

The UK Information Commissioner has completed her investigation into the deal between Google DeepMind and the Royal Free Hospital Trust which gave the company access to the health records of 1.6m NHS patients. The Commissioner concluded that:

Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust failed to comply with the Data Protection Act when it provided patient details to Google DeepMind.

The Trust provided personal data of around 1.6 million patients as part of a trial to test an alert, diagnosis and detection system for acute kidney injury.

But an ICO investigation found several shortcomings in how the data was handled, including that patients were not adequately informed that their data would be used as part of the test.

The Trust has been asked to commit to changes ensuring it is acting in line with the law by signing an undertaking.

My Cambridge colleague Julia Powles (now at Cornell) and Hal Hodgson of the Economist did a long and thorough investigation of this secret deal (using conventional investigative tools like Freedom of Information requests). This led to the publication of an excellent, peer-reviewed article on “Google DeepMind and healthcare in an age of algorithms”, published in the Springer journal Health and Technology in March. In the period up to and following publication, the authors were subjected to pretty fierce pushback from DeepMind. It was asserted, for example, that their article contained significant factual errors. But requests for information about these supposed ‘errors’ were not granted. As an observer of this corporate behaviour I was struck — and puzzled — by the divergence between DeepMind’s high-minded, holier-than-thou, corporate self-image and its aggressiveness in public controversy. And I wondered if this was a sign that Google iron had entered DeepMind’s soul. (The company was acquired by the search giant in 2014.)

But now all is sweetness and light, apparently. At any rate, DeepMind’s co-founder, Mustafa Suleyman and Dominic King, the Clinical Lead in DeepMind Health, have this morning published a contrite post on the company Blog. “We welcome the ICO’s thoughtful resolution of this case”, they write, “which we hope will guarantee the ongoing safe and legal handling of patient data for Streams [the codename for the collaboration between the company and the NHS Trust]”.

Although today’s findings are about the Royal Free, we need to reflect on our own actions too. In our determination to achieve quick impact when this work started in 2015, we underestimated the complexity of the NHS and of the rules around patient data, as well as the potential fears about a well-known tech company working in health. We were almost exclusively focused on building tools that nurses and doctors wanted, and thought of our work as technology for clinicians rather than something that needed to be accountable to and shaped by patients, the public and the NHS as a whole. We got that wrong, and we need to do better.

This is an intelligent and welcome response. Admitting to mistakes is the surest way to learn. But it’s amazing how few corporations and other organisations do it.

When I first read the draft of Julia’s and Hal’s paper my first thought was that the record of errors they had uncovered was not the product of malign intent, but rather a symptom of what happens when two groups of enthusiasts (consultants in the Royal Free; AI geeks in DeepMind) who were excited by the potential of machine learning in detecting and treating particular diseases. Each group was unduly overawed by the other, and in their determination to get this exciting partnership rolling they ignored (or perhaps were unaware of) the tedious hurdles that one (rightly) has to surmount if one seeks to use patient data for research. And once they had been caught out, defensive corporate instincts took over, preventing an intelligent response to the researchers’ challenge.

Interestingly, there are intimations of this in today’s DeepMind blog post. For example:

“Our initial legal agreement with the Royal Free in 2015 could have been much more detailed about the specific project underway, as well as the rules we had agreed to follow in handling patient information. We and the Royal Free replaced it in 2016 with a far more comprehensive contract … and we’ve signed similarly strong agreements with other NHS Trusts using Streams.”

“We made a mistake in not publicising our work when it first began in 2015, so we’ve proactively announced and published the contracts for our subsequent NHS partnerships.”

“In our initial rush to collaborate with nurses and doctors to create products that addressed clinical need, we didn’t do enough to make patients and the public aware of our work or invite them to challenge and shape our priorities.”

All good stuff. Now let’s see if they deliver on it.

Their NHS partners, however, are much less contrite — even though they are the focus of the Information Commissioner’s report. The Trust’s mealymouthed response says, in part:

“We have co-operated fully with the ICO’s investigation which began in May 2016 and it is helpful to receive some guidance on the issue about how patient information can be processed to test new technology. We also welcome the decision of the Department of Health to publish updated guidance for the wider NHS in the near future.”

This is pure cant. The Trust broke the law. So to say that “we have co-operated fully” and “it is helpful to receive some guidance on the issue about how patient information can be processed” is like a burglar claiming credit for co-operating with the cops and expressing gratitude for their advice on how to break-and-enter legally next time.

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…

Read on