HMG wakes up to the potential of blockchain technology

This morning’s Observer column:

There are not many occasions when one can give an unqualified thumbs-up to something the government does, but this is one such occasion. Last week, Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, published a report with the forbidding title Distributed Ledger Technology: Beyond Block Chain. The report sets out the findings of an official study that explores how the aforementioned technology “can revolutionise services, both in government and the private sector”. Since this is the kind of talk one normally hears from loopy startup founders pitching to venture capitalists rather than from sober Whitehall mandarins, it made this columnist choke on his muesli – especially given that, in so far as Joe Public thinks about distributed ledgers at all, it is in the context of Bitcoin, money laundering and online drug dealing. So what, one is tempted to ask, has the chief scientific adviser been smoking?

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Hunting the Qubit

Today’s Observer column:

We live in a universe that virtually none of us will ever understand. Physicists, however, refuse to be daunted by this and have been casting about for ways of putting these quantum properties to practical use. In the process, their gaze alighted on that fundamental building block of digital technology, the humble binary digit (or “bit”) in which all digital information is encoded. In the Newtonian (ie non-quantum) world, a bit can take only one of two values – one or zero. But at the quantum level, superposition means that a quantum bit – a qubit – could have multiple values (one, zero and a superposition of one and zero) at the same time. Which means that a computer based on quantum principles would be much, much faster than a conventional, silicon-based one. Various outfits have been trying to build one.

The results are controversial but intriguing…

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Algorithmic power and programmers’ ethics

We know that power corrupts. But what about algorithmic power? This morning’s Observer column:

There is a direction of travel here – one that is taking us towards what an American legal scholar, Frank Pasquale, has christened the “black box society”. You might think that the subtitle – “the secret algorithms that control money and information” – says it all, except that it’s not just about money and information but increasingly about most aspects of contemporary life, at least in industrialised countries. For example, we know that Facebook algorithms can influence the moods and the voting behaviour of the service’s users. And we also know that Google’s search algorithms can effectively render people invisible. In some US cities, algorithms determine whether you are likely to be stopped and searched in the street. For the most part, it’s an algorithm that decides whether a bank will seriously consider your application for a mortgage or a loan. And the chances are that it’s a machine-learning or network-analysis algorithm that flags internet or smartphone users as being worthy of further examination. Uber drivers may think that they are working for themselves, but in reality they are managed by an algorithm. And so on.

Without us noticing it, therefore, a new kind of power – algorithmic power – has arrived in our societies. And for most citizens, these algorithms are black boxes – their inner logic is opaque to us. But they have values and priorities embedded in them, and those values are likewise opaque to us: we cannot interrogate them.

This poses two questions. First of all, who has legal responsibility for the decisions made by algorithms? The company that runs the services that are enabled by them? Maybe – depending on how smart their lawyers are.

But what about the programmers who wrote the code? Don’t they also have some responsibilities? Pasquale reports that some micro-targeting algorithms (the programs that decide what is shown in your browser screen, such as advertising) categorise web users into categories which include “probably bipolar”, “daughter killed in car crash”, “rape victim”, and “gullible elderly”. A programmer wrote that code. Did he (for it was almost certainly a male) not have some ethical qualms about his handiwork?

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‘Smart’ homes? Not yet

My Observer comment piece on what the Internet of Things looks like when it’s at home:

There is a technological juggernaut heading our way. It’s called the Internet of Things (IoT). For the tech industry, it’s the Next Big Thing, alongside big data, though in fact that pair are often just two sides of the same coin. The basic idea is that since computing devices are getting smaller and cheaper, and wireless network technology is becoming ubiquitous, it will soon be feasible to have trillions of tiny, networked computers embedded in everything. They can sense changes, turning things on and off, making decisions about whether to open a door or close a valve or order fresh supplies of milk, you name it, the computers communicating with one another and shipping data to server farms all over the place.

As ever with digital technology, there’s an underlying rationality to lots of this. The IoT could make our lives easier and our societies more efficient. If parking bays could signal to nearby cars that they are empty, then the nightmarish task of finding a parking place in crowded cities would be eased. If every river in the UK could tweet its level every few minutes, then we could have advance warning of downstream floods in time to alert those living in their paths. And so on.

But that kind of networking infrastructure takes time to build, so the IoT boys (and they are mostly boys, still) have set their sights closer to home, which is why we are beginning to hear a lot about “smart” homes. On further examination, this turns out mostly to mean houses stuffed with networked kit…

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In the bleak midwinter, droning on

This morning’s Observer column:

Well, Black Friday has come and gone and this columnist has missed the boat – again. But if the marketing mythology is to be believed, countless millions of our better-organised fellow citizens have been dutifully clicking and purchasing.

This year, however, is slightly different because something new will have appeared on the wishlists of tech-savvy shoppers: drones. A quick search for them on brought up 46 different models before I got tired of scrolling, ranging in price from under £20 to over £1,200. And over at the Apple store, they’re selling the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Power Edition Quadricopter, a snip at £299.95.

And that’s just the amateur/hobbyist end of the market. At the “serious” end, things rapidly get expensive…

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LATER And you thought I was joking.

Well, see here:

Uber, disruption and Clayton Christensen

This morning’s Observer column:

Over the decades, “disruptive innovation” evolved into Silicon Valley’s highest aspiration. (It also fitted nicely with the valley’s attachment to Joseph Schumpeter’s idea about capitalism renewing itself in waves of “creative destruction”.) And, as often happens with soi-disant Big Ideas, Christensen’s insight has been debased by overuse. This, of course, does not please the Master, who is offended by ignorant jerks miming profundity by plagiarising his ideas.

Which brings us to an interesting article by Christensen and two of his academic colleagues in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. It’s entitled “What Is Disruptive Innovation?” and in it the authors explain, in the soothing tones used by great minds when dealing with those of inferior intelligence, the essence of Christensen’s original concept. The article is eminently readable and cogent, but contains nothing new, so one begins to wonder what could be the peg for going over this particular piece of ground. And why now?

And then comes the answer: Uber. Christensen & co are obviously irritated by the valley’s conviction that the car-hailing service is a paradigm of disruptive innovation and so they devote a chunk of their article to arguing that while Uber might be disruptive – in the sense of being intensely annoying to the incumbents of the traditional taxi-cab industry – it is not a disruptive innovation in the Christensen sense…

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Two cheers for the Librarian of Congress

Sometimes the Librarian of Congress does the right thing:

Every three years, the Librarian of Congress issues new rules on Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemptions. Acting Librarian David Mao, in an order (PDF) released Tuesday, authorized the public to tinker with software in vehicles for “good faith security research” and for “lawful modification.”

The decision comes in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal, in which the German automaker baked bogus code into its software that enabled the automaker’s diesel vehicles to reduce pollutants below acceptable levels during emissions tests.

“I am glad they granted these exemptions,” said Sherwin Siy, vice president for legal affairs for Public Knowledge in Washington, DC. “I am not glad it was necessary for them to do so in the first place.”

The auto industry, and even the Environmental Protection Agency, opposed the vehicle-tinkering rules that were proposed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others. About every 36 months, the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office entertain proposals for exemptions to the DMCA, which was passed in 1998. The DMCA prohibits circumventing encryption or access controls to copy or modify copyrighted works. The ultimate decision rests with the Librarian of Congress.

Just a pin-prick? Or a big deal?

This morning’s Observer column:

If you have ever been a hospital patient, then you will know the drill: before anything else happens, you have to have your “bloods done”. You roll up your sleeve, a phlebotomist searches your lower arm for a suitable vein, inserts a sterilised needle and extracts a blood sample that is then labelled and sent off to a lab for analysis.

Depending on your condition, this can happen a lot. If you are a cancer sufferer on chemotherapy, for example, you may come to think of your arms as pincushions and you sometimes have to watch in dismay as the phlebotomist hunts up and down for a suitable vein. Although the analysis of blood samples is now highly automated and efficient, at the sample-collection end it’s very time consuming and resource intensive.

The mind boggles at the amount the National Health Service must spend on it every year. And yet it is an absolutely central part of modern healthcare: blood tests are on the critical path of a very large number of diagnostic and treatment regimes.

Enter Theranos, a California startup that has (or claims to have) developed novel approaches to laboratory-based diagnostic blood tests using the science of microfluidics, which concerns the manipulation of tiny amounts of fluids (think ink-jet printers, for example)…

Read on.