Learning to read

Today’s Observer column:

I never thought I’d find myself writing this, but the Daily Mail has finally done something useful for society. Mind you, it’s done it unintentionally: it didn’t know it was doing good. But still… It would be churlish not to acknowledge its achievement…

Sounds improbable? I know. But read on

Why Bitcoin is interesting

This morning’s Observer column:

When the banking system went into meltdown in 2008, an intriguing glimpse of an alternative future appeared. On 31 October, an unknown cryptographer who went by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto launched what he described as “a new electronic cash system that’s fully peer to peer, with no trusted third party”. The name he assigned to this new currency was bitcoin.

Since then, the world has been divided into three camps: those who think that bitcoin must be a scam; those who think it’s one of the most interesting technological developments in decades; and (the vast majority) those who have no idea what the fuss is about.

I belong in the second camp, but I can see why others see it differently…

Read on

Robotic reporting


This follows on from our seminar on the implications of advanced robotics for employment. Here are two reports based on wire-service reports of a company’s results. One was written by a bot, the other by a human.

It begs two questions:

  1. Which was which? (Easy, I think).
  2. More difficult: which is better? More accurate? Good enough?

HT to Andrea Vance for the link.

Implications of a new machine age

This morning’s Observer column:

As a species, we don’t seem to be very good at dealing with nonlinearity. We cope moderately well with situations and environments that are changing gradually. But sudden, major discontinuities – what some people call “tipping points” – leave us spooked. That’s why we are so perversely relaxed about climate change, for example: things are changing slowly, imperceptibly almost, but so far there hasn’t been the kind of sharp, catastrophic change that would lead us seriously to recalibrate our behaviour and attitudes.

So it is with information technology…

Read on

Advice from right field

Sometimes, interesting ideas come from the least-expected sources.

Here, for example, is Tim Montgomerie in The Times offering some to the Labour Party:

“Left-wing parties need to find a new identity for a movement that has been defined by redistribution for as long as Marxism elbowed Methodism aside as socialism’s main inspiration. What is the left’s new purpose? Intergenerational equality? Using new technology for progressive ends? Housebuilding to spread ownership of assets? Or even some renewed recognition of the value of Methodism’s voluntary mutuality?”

Answer: All of the above, but underpinned by an overarching analysis of the world as it is, not as it used to be or as we’d like it to be.

Interesting also that Montgomerie mentions the one thing that Labour under Miliband resolutely ignored: the potential of the Net to revitalise political action.

Technology and the future of work

Our Technology and Democracy research project had a terrific talk this afternoon by Mike Osborne of the Oxford Martin School about the research that he and Carl Frey published in “The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?”.

That paper is impressive in lots of ways. Unlike many academic research reports, for example, it’s written in pellucid prose. And it’s historically informed — which is unusual in technology publications: the authors know that the issue of the impact of machinery on jobs goes back a long, long way — at least to Elizabethan times with William Lee and his request for a patent on his stocking frame loom.

But most importantly, the Frey-Osborne study is the best analysis to date of what we in our project regard as one of the most significant puzzles of our time: namely what does the combination of infinite computational power, big data, machine learning and advanced robotics mean for our future? Or, to quote the title of Norbert Wiener’s book, what will constitute “the human use of human beings” in a digital future?

What preoccupies us is the question of whether we now stand on a hinge of history. Are there things about digital technologies which make our situation and prospects different from the disruptions that our ancestors faced when confronted with the seminal general-purpose technologies of the past? Can we say with any confidence that this time it’s different?

Mike’s presentation provoked lots of thoughts…

The first is the objection often made by historians and economists who argue say that apocalyptic concerns about digital technology are just outbreaks of a-historical hysteria. Historically, they say, technological progress has always had two conflicting impacts on employment. One is the overtly destructive impact — the leading edge of the Schumpeterian wave, if you like. The other is the capitalisation effect, as companies start to enter industries where productivity is relatively high, leading to the expansion of employment in these new or revitalised industries. So, according to the sceptics, although automation definitely taketh away, it also giveth.

But if I’ve understood Mike and Carl’s work correctly, this time it might be different, for two reasons.

  • One is that whereas automation historically served to eliminate manual and/or highly routinised tasks, the new digital technologies mean that automation is remorselessly moving into work domains that have traditionally been seen as cognitive and non-routine.

  • The second is that what happening now is what Brian Arthur called “combinatorial innovation”, which is basically the network effect applied to technological innovation. This means that the pace of innovation is increasing exponentially, which in turn means that our traditional capacity to transition into employment in new areas is going to be outpaced by the pace of change. In which case, the life-chances of a lot of human beings could be undermined or destroyed.

Which leads to a final thought, namely that in the end this will have to come down to politics. Mike and Carl’s analysis is not a deterministic one — they don’t imply that the job-destruction that they think could happen will happen. Decisions about whether to deploy these technologies will, in the end, be made by people –- the owners of capital — not by machines. And if there’s no element of societal control in all this, then the clear implication is that Piketty’s rule about the returns from capital generally outrunning the returns from employment will be turbocharged, with predictable consequences for inequality.

But of course, it doesn’t have to be like that. The economic and productivity gains that result from these technologies could be used for different purposes other than giving even more to those who already have. And that brings to mind Keynes’s famous essay on “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in which he saw the possibility that, through technology-driven productivity gains, man “could for the first time since his creation … be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”.

Only politics can ensure that that agreeable prospect comes to pass, however. This isn’t just about technology, in other words.

And now here’s the really strange thing: in all the sturm und drang of our recent election campaign, the implications of computerisation for employment weren’t mentioned once. Not once.

The clueless in pursuit of the impossible

Oscar Wilde famously defined fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the unbeatable”. Something like that always comes to mind at the moment when US and other law-enforcement bosses attack tech companies like Apple and Google for building serious encryption into their mobile products. As The Register puts it‘ “WHY can’t Silicon Valley create breakable non-breakable encryption? cry US politicians”.

Where do you begin when faced with such cluelessness? The Reg asked a few cryptographic experts:

There’s just one problem with the government’s idea as it stands: it’s impossible from a technology, business, and international standpoint. Not a single one of the cryptography and security experts El Reg spoke to at the show could see any way such a system would work.

“It’s impossible,” Bruce Schneier – the man who literally wrote the book(s) on modern encryption techniques – told The Reg. “I can’t create mathematics that works differently in the presence of a particular legal piece of paper. Math just doesn’t work that way.” As Schneier has explained many times, strong crypto requires a sound encryption algorithm, correct digital signature handling, a random number generator that can’t be fooled, and a working methodology to house all of these and that doesn’t allow mistakes. Get one thing wrong and the whole system breaks down.

Quite. What was it TH Huxley said about “the slaughter of a beautiful idea by an ugly fact”?

Our fragile, incomprehensible networked world

This morning’s Observer column:

At first sight, it looked like an April Fools’ story. The US Department of Justice is seeking to extradite a day-trader from Hounslow to stand trial on charges that he brought the US stock market briefly to its knees on 6 May 2010. Navinder Singh Sarao is accused of using a computerised share-trading program to manipulate the market for S&P 500 futures contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, thereby adding (so the prosecution alleges) to wider selling pressure that caused the Dow Jones industrial average to plunge briefly by 6% before bouncing back.

In that short interval, stocks in huge companies such as Procter & Gamble dropped by 25% and established companies such as General Electric and Accenture briefly traded as penny shares. The British courts, not to mention the rest of us, are invited to believe that this mayhem was caused by a 36-year-old geek in the bedroom of his parents neat semi-detached house under the Heathrow flight path.

There are, it seems to me, only two possible interpretations of this. One is that Mr Sarao is indeed responsible for the chaos. The other is that the US authorities have no real idea who is responsible, but need to make an example of somebody and Mr Sarao will do nicely. Either way, we are left with a really alarming conclusion, namely that we have constructed a world that is totally dependent on systems that are a) astonishingly fragile and unpredictable, and b) incomprehensible not only to the average citizen but to those who are supposed to regulate them…

Read on