Category Archives: Opinion

My plea to the right honourables for the next 64 days

I feel nearly sorry for British MPs right now. After all, future historians are unlikely to speak of them in glowing terms, whatever the future of the country turns out to be. Of particular disappointment is that the mainstream political parties have each distinguished themselves by patently trying and bizzarely, succeeding in behaving worse than others. And I’m definitely not alone in hating the polarising language that parliamentarians have universally adopted, predictably guaranteeing that any (pretence of) debate is locked into a mutual us shouting over them slanging match.

Every conceivable person in government and in the Commons is telling the PM what she should/has to/MUST DO. Meanwhile, the EU is telling the PM “we could tweak a couple of things to help you pass through this Parliament, but nein, désolés, we’re not undoing two years of hard work with you”, some German folks send a love letter to the country in The Times and even the Queen is moved to make a couple of gentle reminders on the virtue of collaborative efforts. Which is why I feel entirely justified to add my plea to MPs to put aside their own political futures and think a little more strategically, with a longer term focus than their next term of offce. Hardly an original thought but let me elaborate just a little.

 

My point is that Brexit is now a problem that needs to be solved (it has been for a long time – Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe, and with the rest of the world come to that, have long been a subject for soul-searching for this island nation). It’s an issue  – aka a fantastic opportunity to be harnessed, a tragedy in the making or, dare I suggest it, possibly something in the middle – that needs addressing.

So if you’re an MP with a business background, how are you going to secure the interests of Britanniaship Enterprise and work towards her future prosperity? What is your corporate strategy for the next few years and your key priorities for the coming financial year? If you have a medical background, what are your recommendations for the currently generally healthy UK adult (on a global scale)? Any advice on how to keep them healthy come to mind, like recommending a fitness regime or keeping an eye on the effects of unhelpful genetic predispositions? If you’re a lawyer by training, you’ll definitely be able to help codify the very many new legal frameworks that are going to be needed, whatever the scenario. If you’re a scientist, let’s have some of that scientific method please, including some guidance on how to use data. If you’ve ever been a teacher, how about explaining and educating your fellow MPs about useful stuff they might like to know about? If you’re a diplomat, a historian, a philosopher, a sociologist, you have something useful to say about what’s happening.

 

If you have none of this knowledge or master none of these skills, then for pity’s sake, at least just stop shouting and do your best.

Photo: Mark Duffy/AP

Artificial intelligence part 1

I can’t help feeling that the issue of artificial intelligence has been staring at me in the face wherever I’ve looked. It’s certainly very much in the zeitgeist and it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, especially after I finished reading two books on that topic or on that topic among others, I should say.

The two books I read in English and French respectively are Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari and La guerre des intelligences by Laurent Alexandre. I know the first has been translated into French but I don’t think there is an English version of the second at the time of writing this.

StarfleetCommandEmblemMy next TBR will probably the so-called Villani report on AI which has just been published. So far, I have only seen the video of a recent TedX talk Cédric Villani gave locally (it was a shame I had to miss that event, I live so close to the venue but I had an unavoidable work commitment. I’m only finding the time now to go through the videos of the day, some interesting stuff there.)

I feel particulary motivated to read up more on the topic for two reasons:

1. That genie definitely cannot be shoved back in the lamp. It’s out, it’s going to stay out and it’s going to get bigger, more powerful and even more omnipresent than it already is.

2. I don’t really understand the underlying technologies or science and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

What I do know is that we all need to take notice and to learn, fast. I’m particularly concerned that legal changes will lag far behind technological progress (and/or AI-induced Amargeddon of course), that there could be fairly chaotic and uncontrolled important developments in the near future and that governments of individual countries will believe they can deal with these by themselves, whereas it seems self-evident to me that never was international cooperation more vital. The world being in the state it’s in, I don’t believe that we’ll get a Star Trek-like United Federation of Planets organisation any time soon but surely we need to operate at the level of a continent or region for these transparently transnational issues.waroftheworlds

The huge prize at the bottom of the AI et al rainbow is of course massively improved health, increased prosperity and more fulfilling lives for millions of people. The huge risk is, to my mind, not so much that the machines make slaves of us humans but rather that the above huge prize ends up being very unequally distributed.

Artificial intelligence part 2 – Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo DeusHomo Deus was not quite the page-turner Sapiens, also by Yuval Noah Harari,  was for me but I still found it very interesting.  This “brief history of tomorrow” was certainly thought-provoking, as no doubt it set out to be. I learnt some fascinating things about how far we have already got to in our development and increasing mastery of artificial intelligence among many other amazing achievements; we’ve also made significant advances in, bioengineering, nanotechnologies, the human machine interface, the proliferation of a variety of bots. The speed of breakthroughs in all these domains and the power of their interactions are truly mindboggling.

 

I had already been made aware of a truly landmark victory of machine over man in the context of the game of  go, which is covered in Homo Deus. It had struck me at the time because of something I have noted on a family holiday. Board games are possibly becoming less popular and perhaps in part precisely because they are no longer the reserve of human strategists and quick calculators. As AlphaGo triumphantly demonstrated (after Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparove at chess of course, but barely 20 years on, this triumph was far more spectacular because there are many, many more possible moves in a game of go than in a game of chess) machines are far better suited to those tasks. Incidentally, it is amusing to note that the sale of go boards increased sharply after AlphaGo decisively crushed the reigning human champion. I wonder whether that means that people are keen to pit their wits against machines or if their curiosity for the game was simply aroused by the surrounding publicity. Personally, I love board games even though I’m not very skilled at them – my thirteen year old daughter beats me at chess every time– so either explanation is fine by me, let’s all play more board games, whether we want to prove that we can still beat machines (but don’t hold your breath folks) or whether we just want to spend some fun time interacting with other players, be they human or otherwise.

 

But I learnt many other things, like the experiments that involved rats being remotely controlled via electrodes in their brain and as a result, behaving in ways they would normally avoid, like jumping off great heights. Or those involving human patients with electronic chips in their brains, some of whom have experienced significant relief from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Note that the humans get a better deal than the rats but Harari, who is clearly someone who has a great respect for all animal species, talks about the ethical issues of the rat experiments especially). Both these experiments seem to me to have come straight out of a science fiction film but they are happening right now and Harari provides many more amazing examples. Homo Deus is however more than a simple inventory of how far Homo Sapiens has gone in what looks like an inexorable progression towards “Homo Deus”. He posits that a number of threats arise, namely that “1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them. 2. The system will still find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals. 3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will be a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.” Scary stuff indeed.

The book goes on to provide details on these threats and then discusses consciousness and the triumphant rise, in the face of the increasing irrelevance of both humanism and liberalism, of what the author defines as a new religion: dataism.

 

Harari’s vey last sentence in his book, the third of three concluding questions, is what got me thinking most: “What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?” Indeed. That’s an essay question if there ever was one.

Draw on what you have observed around you and discuss. You have three hours, you may turn your paper over now.