Osborne wants to pay the drug companies rather than tackle the antibiotics problem at source

George Osborne has warned that antibiotic resistance is becoming such a serious problem that it will eclipse cancer as a cause of death worldwide by 2050. According to The Guardian “Osborne will warn of an enormous economic cost, which could cut global GDP by 3.5%, a cumulative cost of $100bn (£70bn). The chancellor will say: ‘Unless we take global action, antimicrobial resistance will become an even greater threat to mankind than cancer currently is’.”

He will be calling for urgent and radical action: “My message here at the IMF meeting in Washington is that we need the world’s governments and industry leaders to work together in radical new ways. We have to dramatically shift incentives for pharmaceutical companies and others to create a long-term solution to this problem, with new rewards, funded globally, that support the development of new antibiotics and ensure access to antibiotics in the developing world.”

But why is there such a problem with antibiotic resistance? It is generally accepted that it has been caused by the indesciminate use of antibiotics in agriculture where they are widely used in the farming of animals even when the animals are not sick. In the US, for instance, more than 70% of the total volume of antibiotics which we rely on are actually used on farms. 

One might think that an obvious solution would be drive through laws to limit the use of antibiotics on farms. But this doesn’t seem to be on his agenda. According to the Guardian Kerry McCarthy, the shadow environment secretary, speaking at the Antibiotics and Farming Conference in London, accused ministers of adopting a “negative role” in EU negotiations over calls by the European parliament to end the routine use of preventative antibiotics in farming.

It is interesting that the solution to this problem which Osborne says is so serious is to increase financial incentives to the pharmaceutical industry rather than step in to curb behaviour in the agricultural sector. Clearly there would be effects from a ban on antibiotics use in farms – you might expect yields to fall and prices of meat products to rise as a result. 

But would this be such a bad thing? Scientists overwhelmingly agree that reducing meat consumption would be good for health, and specifically that it would reduce the instances of cancer. 

This would seem to be another example of ideological thinking getting in the way of the win/win solution.

The future is coming faster than we think

 I’ve just finished belatedly reading An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson. I say “belatedly” as it was written in 2011 which wouldn’t normally be a problem except that this is about accelerating future technologies (and why they are going to be good for us).

It was a very good read, but already there are signs it is getting dated. Take this example. He’s meeting Ray Kurzweil who is telling him about exponential growth in technologies, which he argues can allow us to make pretty accurate forecasts of the future. Noting that some critics believe Kurzweil is either delusional or mad he discusses the forecasts which Kurzweil made in his 1999 book The Age of the Spiritual Machines about the technology which would be available in 2009. Kurzweil himself says, of the 108 predictions, 89 turned out to be correct, 13 are “essentially correct”, three are partially correct and two are 10 years off.

Stevenson makes his own tally. He concludes he got nearly two thirds right. Of the rest he put half in the “sort of right” category (it came true but not quite as Kurzweil anticipated).

The remainder are ‘wrong’ but only in that Ray was optimistic on the time frame. For instance, critics tend to leap on his prediction that ‘translating telephone technology (where you speak English and your Japanese friend hears Japanese, and vice versa) is commonly used,’ which hasn’t happened.”

Except of course that by the time I’m reading this it now has come true.

And this brings me to my point. When you are in the middle of things it is often very hard to accept that advances are happening quite as fast or quite as disruptively (a point Stevenson makes, too). It’s all too easy, if you earning a good wage working for a large, profitable company, for example, to dismiss warnings such as this, also from the book:

“John is speaking with some urgency now. ‘The old-age companies don’t know why they have to run faster in order to lose more slowly,’ he says, laughing. ‘All the practices of those companies are exactly the practices that keep you from being able to engage in the world of fast-paced innovation. They have routines and beliefs built on the assumptions of stability. Almost any company that’s more than twenty years old isn’t built right for this. In fact, I would argue that companies that are five years old aren’t ready either.’”

That fact that ‘John’ is John Seely Brown, formerly director of PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center) which famously invented laser printing and the mouse, should give us pause. The fact that in five years Kurweil’s “wrong” forecast has turned out to be true should also.

As Stevenson himself says: “I have to make peace with the fact that this book is already a historical document. It’s less a posed portrait, more a blurred snapshot”

Bots are a transitional technology

Yesterday Facebook announced, as predicted, the launch of a range of tools to facilitate the development of “bots” on its Messenger platform. The argument being made far and wide is that bots are a replacement for apps which have become so numerous that their usefulness to users is plunging and most developers are no longer making any money. 

It’s easy to see why Facebook is so interested. Unlike Apple or Google they don’t have a hardware and operating system platform with which to “own” the customer. Facebook needs to make its apps perform this function and bots give it the chance to make Facebook, and specifically Messenger, much more useful and immersive and in the process make hardware and operating systems much less significant. 

But bots are only a transitional technology. The holy grail (told to me over 20 years ago by the head of Microsoft Research and still true today) is the Star Trek Computer. The film Her is the best modern take on that vision. That’s why Google (with Now), Apple (with Siri) and Microsoft (with Cortana) and even Amazon (with Alexa) have been pouring so much time and money into developing competent AI-driven assistants.

But the technology still falls short of the vision, so in meantime we will have bots – highly specific and constrained AI-driven chat bots which aim to do one thing (booking a hotel room or flight for instance) very well and reliably. 

They will undoubtedly be a huge success – WeChat in China has already demonstrated that quite clearly. This post from Andreessen Horowitz has the best account I’ve found. How long the success will last rather depends on how quickly the more general AI being developed by Google, Apple et al gets good enough. Expect them to develop bot platforms of their own, but also to amp up their own investment in generalized AI. We all still really want the Star Wars computer, after all. 

Why Musk will get it right with the Tesla 3

  Tesla made headlines last week when the launch of the much-awaited Tesla 3, the economy-priced electric car for the masses, garnered 325,000 pre-orders at $1,000 a pop in the very first week. Some are pointing out that Tesla has missed a lot of deadlines along the way and that the success of the 3 is by no means assured. 

But yesterday we saw the first successful landing of a Falcon 9 rocket at sea. The previous attempts all failed for one reason an another, but this was the point; Musk is a physicist by training and temperament and he knows that doing hard things needs a lot of experimentation. And experimentation means failure. And failure is good because it shows you want needs to change to succeed in the end. 

Tesla may have missed a lot of deadlines in the past but with each model the performance has been better. One thing is for sure; Tesla has been learning hard and fast about what it takes to make a successful mass market electric car.