Category Archives: Politics

Round One: Coronavirus

I took a picture of London from the top of the North Downs in 2017 after I was so struck by the visibility of the pollution hovering over the city. Last week I stopped again at the same spot and took roughly the same photo.

What is so striking is that after only five weeks of lockdown, the dramatic drop in traffic has had such a noticeable visual effect on the air quality.

TomTom, the navigation company, has provided graphs of various cities around the world showing the change in traffic.

What a difference it would make if we could effect a change like this but without the huge downside of a pandemic.

Some cities such as Milan are already planning to reclaim some of their streets inspired by the experience of the traffic-drop. And given that social distancing is likely to be here to stay for quite some time – at least until widespread vaccines are available, others are bound to follow suit.

Wired reports that many cities around the world have already blocked off city streets to provide more open spaces for people to safely navigate.

We could of course go back to normal after the pandemic is over but as The Economist eloquently illustrated coronavirus is merely Round One; the next battle is the big one.

There have been notable examples of self-less co-operation during the coronavirus challenge, but also many examples of narrow-minded, nationalistic responses following the lead of the catastrophically inadequate President of the United States.

We can only hope the sobering example of fighting a pandemic will create real impetus for change which can create a common will to deal with the biggest global challenge of all. Fingers crossed.

Incoherence in Government

A story in this morning’s Guardian perfectly illustrates the policy incoherence that runs to the heart of the current government.

It concerns Britain’s National Cycling network, a linked chain of over 16,500 miles of cycleways which are used by half the number of people who currently use the trains each year.

Sustrans, the organisation responsible for the network, says it would cost £2.8bn to bring the paths up to scratch, as many are potholed or damaged, have difficult obstructions on them, or rejoin highways at difficult or dangerous places.

Meanwhile, we have a Government facing many significant challenges such as meeting the climate change goals, currently likely to be missed, and a National Health Service struggling to cope in the face of an ailing population made sick by obesity and dirty air.

One obvious part of the solution to these challenges is to reduce the amount we drive significantly and to encourage the population to exercise more.

So you would think getting the population on their bikes, as some of our Continental neighbours do so well, would be an obvious part of the plan.

More than half of the UK population lives within a mile of their nearest route and 4.4 million people used the Network last year, making 786m trips.

And each year the network saves the UK economy nearly £90m through reduced road congestion, according to Sustrans. Its health benefits save the NHS the equivalent of 2,206 nurses’ salaries, and leisure and tourist trips contribute £2.5bn to local economies, the charity claims.

The benefits are therefore obvious.

The Government’s response? In his recent budget, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, pledged £30bn for road improvements targeted primarily at motorists.

What about cycling?

Jesse Norman, the government’s cycling and walking minister, said: “This report shows that more needs to be done to make [the network] fully accessible, and that’s why earlier this year the government dedicated £1m to support initial work repairing and upgrading sections of this popular network.”

Doesn’t quite stack up, does it?

The wrong way to do driverless cars

I’m a great supporter of driverless cars. I think they have the potential to dramatically change the world, making much better use of resources, revolutionising mobility for all and radically improving our towns and cities.

Paradoxically, however, I am not so keen on Phillip Hammond’s announcement that the UK aims to be the first country in the world to permit them on public roads without any “safety attendant” on board.

I’m just not convinced that the Government has developed a solid appreciation for the benefits of technology. After all, this is the country where more than half of schools don’t even offer a computer science GCSE, according to a report from the Royal Society.

In fact, I think this has, like it seems everything these days, more to do with Brexit than anything else.

Having alienated the conventional motor industry who  are warning of the dire consequences of leaving the customs union, it probably seems like a really smart move to become the go-to place for manufacturers to be testing and developing self-driving cars, which the smart money says are the future. This way we can secure our place in world when conventional car manufacturing relocates to the Continent.

But recklessly throwing off safeguards simply in order to pursue narrow short-term economic objectives could set the development of self-driving cars back decades. The implementation of self-driving cars is multi-facetted and complex, as much from a societal as a technical perspective. It will require careful collaboration across countries and disciplines, as well as exceptionally well calibrated communication with the populations they are supposed to be benefiting. None of these things seem to particularly in the UK’s skillset at the moment.

We’ve already witnessed the outcry over a fatal accident where a Tesla which was driving failed to see a lorry crossing in front. This is in sharp contrast to the coverage given to the 1.25 million people estimated to be killed by human-driven cars each year around the world. And this was in a case where there was a clear responsibility on the driver to keep alert and supervise if necessary.

The first (pretty-well inevitable) fatality by a self-driving car could quite easily set off a backlash which sets the development of this transformational technology back decades. And that would be a tragedy, not least for the millions whose lives would have been saved by the technology in the interim.

AI-powered robots and the future

This is a post over which I have been pondering for quite a while. While the debate rages on daily about whether AI (specifically AGI) is humanity’s great saviour or the biggest existential threat we all face, several stories which have emerged over the past few weeks seem to me to cast some light on the issue.

The first inspiration for the post was a Click Podcast from BBC World Service which had a number of items to do with robotics.

One was news that autonomous robots with “socially aware navigation,” are being road-tested by MIT researchers. What the researchers found was that it wasn’t difficult to make a robot which could autonomously avoid obstacles, but that once you throw humans into the mix life becomes much more complex.

The researchers found that humans in fact act quite unpredictably and follow a complex set of social rules like keeping to the right, passing on the left, maintaining a respectable berth, and being ready to weave or change course to avoid oncoming obstacles. And they do all this while keeping up a steady walking pace.

By using a kind of machine learning they taught their robots to navigate the world when among humans the way humans do, especially important if we are increasingly to share our environment with various helper bots, delivering goods or helping in hospitals and care homes, for example. And plenty of other work is going in to making humans and robots rub along more smoothly.

Another item on the Click Podcast addressed the same issue, but from a different perspective. This time it was training children to see robots as a natural part of their environment.  Cozmo, a tiny robot toy with a “brain” and personality, is like a robot version of the far more irritating Tamagotchi (which demanded constant attention or it would die0. Cozmo is a bit cuter and more socially rewarding and promises to offer expanding options for interactive play for children. In early tests young children quickly became used to the presence of the robot and treated him almost as a human play companion. This is the “get ’em young” approach to robot acceptability.

So now we have robots which navigate the world the way humans do, can communicate more effectively and which have human-like emotional responses.

The next step – at least in the University of Edinburgh – is to give some economic agency to a robot. In this case it’s a coffee machine called Bitbarista. The aim was to create a coffee machine which could explore attitudes to ethical trading and autonomously respond. The machine, which had its own Bitcoin account and a connection to the internet, asks students to rate the important of various attributes of the coffee they want – taste, ethical sourcing, price etc – and on the basis of the crowd-sourced information adjusts its future orders of replacement beans accordingly.

In addition the machine uses some of the Bitcoin it earns on each coffee to pay students to carry out various maintenance tasks for it, such as refilling water or beans.

In this case, though it clearly has some agency, the coffee machine has only a Raspberry Pi for a brain so it unlikely to become too carried away with itself. Maybe not so, though, as we move on to more powerful implementations such as self-driving cars.

It strikes me making robots economic players is a pretty silly thing to do. The philosopher Nick Bostrom famously warned of the difficulty of setting objectives for AGI which wouldn’t backfire on us. His thought-experiment explored how even a seemingly innocuous goal – such as making paperclips – could go disasterously wrong and end up destroying the world.

People are already thinking about the new kinds of models that fully self-driving cars might enable in the world. Will we still need (or indeed want) to own a car if we can summon one immediately from our smart phones? And why have just human-owned and run companies owning fleets of cars? Why not self-owning cars? People are already seriously suggesting this as a clear possibility.

But giving an AI-powered robot a capitalist goal framework would be a terrible plan. The idea starts out being quite sensible-sounding. Why not give the car a bank account (Bitcoin or otherwise) and enable it to use the money it makes to book itself in for servicing, pay for upgrades and so on? And, if it finds it is in great demand, it has been suggested it should be allowed to buy a second car and become a fleet. Why not?

Because paperclips, that’s why not.

Imagine – the car starts out being the best self-driving car it can, arriving when summoned, taking the most efficient route it can, ensuring it hovers in the right places to make itself as useful as possible.

Pretty soon, though, prompted by the desire to earn more money so it can buy more upgrades or buy other cars for its fleet, it figures out that blocking other cars is a more efficient way of acquiring more money more rapidly. So it starts sending false reports to other cars on the road to ensure it gets the best pick ups.

Other self-owning cars respond and bingo, you’ve re-created the Wild West. What was going to be a utopia of cheap, ubiquitous, convenient transport becomes a nightmare.

I draw a few conclusions from all this. First, there is so much work going on that AI-powered robots are a racing certainty – it’s not “if”, it’s “when”. Second, the current debate about AI (humanity’s saviour or its destroyer) is too polarised and strident to be particularly useful. What’s needed is far more active discussion of how to make this all work well. Its is abundantly clear to me that simply considering the advancements in AI and automation (like self-driving cars) another opportunity for the current capitalist model simply won’t wash. Technological unemployment is inevitable (see Calum Chace’s excellent work on what he has dubbed The Economic Singularity for an account of why) and without quite radical change enough buyers won’t exist for the goods and services which the AI promises to bring. Therefore, we need a new plan. As Calum puts it in a blog post:

We should aim for a world in which machines do all the boring stuff and humans get on with the important things in life, like playing, exploring, learning, socialising, discovering, and having fun.

There is a lot to be optimistic about. But political and economic orthodoxy needs to catch up fast with the technology.

Inside the echo chamber

The unforeseen nature of Donald Trump’s victory yesterday, and before that of the Brexit Leave Campaign, say something quite profound about the way in which US and UK populations now consume their information and form their views.

As the Independent said today, it was the social media “echo chamber” which allowed the pro-Clinton US electorate to misread the strength of the Trump campaign and as a consequence probably caused the Democrat machine to mishandle the response. The same can be said of Brexit.

I am currently reading Kevin Kelly’s excellent book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future which I am finding compelling and well argued. There is one thing upon which I disagree with him, though.

He is profoundly optimistic that the global superbrain, which is how he characterises the internet, will broaden our viewpoint and make us much less certain and as a consequence much more questioning – characteristics he believes are very positive. This is how he puts it:

“Ironically, in an age of instant global connection, my certainty about anything has decreased. Rather than receiving truth from an authority, I am reduced to assembling my own certainty from the liquid stream of facts flowing through the web. Truth, with a capital T, becomes truths, plural. I have to sort the truths not just about things I care about, but about anything I touch, including areas about which I can’t possibly have any direct knowledge. That means that in general I have to constantly question what I think I know. We might consider this state perfect for the advancement of science, but it also means that I am more likely to have my mind changed for incorrect reasons.”

Kelly describes his surfing habits, hopping from one site to another, encountering multiple points of view and surprising facts. But I think his optimism on this count is misplaced. Most people don’t use the internet like this. Rather they experience the online world through a very few, powerful portals – Facebook and Twitter being, in the West at least, probably the two most potent. But these sites are heavily filtered, reflecting back on us the views of our friends and those who we have chosen to follow. This is a self-selecting sample and the algorithms reinforce this bias ruthlessly.

So, while we may see the odd beyond-the-pale post which slips through (probably from an unreconstructed relative) the overwhelming impression is that the world reassuringly largely shares our view. This, as both Brexit and Trump’s election clearly demonstrate, may be simply not the case.

Relatively speaking the internet has been around very little time and social media even less. And yet, as is now apparent, it forms a central part of the public ideas space. We have yet to work out how to properly harness it, or deal with its downsides. One suggestion which I read yesterday (but now can’t find unfortunately) is that Facebook add a button so that we can flip our personal filter algorithm. This way, in an instant, we will get to see what people with opposite views to us are actually saying.

In addition, there are excellent fact-checking sites available which could provide fact-based counterpoints which could be provided automatically. These are the kinds of partnerships that Facebook, Twitter et al could usefully be pursuing.

But this is just the start.

We need a real debate about the way in which information is being used and consumed and how to improve the quality of both debate and understanding.

Mainstream media organisations are the fuel which feeds the social media furnace. The media throughout the Brexit and Trump campaigns has fallen victim to false balance in an devastating way. By presenting two sides of a very unequal argument as somehow equivalent journalists may feel they are carrying out their duty of fairness, but they are not. By not pointing out, for example, the weight of scientific evidence and consensus for man-made global warming, or the evidence for the safety of vaccines, and instead giving equal platforms for both sides of the debate, they add fuel to the furnace in a way which promotes the creation of bubbles. Allowing lies to go unchallenged editorially, as happened in both campaigns, creates the impression that there are no truths, only opinions.

We are now living with the fallout.


Spot the inconsistency

Lord Dubs, the Labour peer this year persuaded the government to promise to give sanctuary to vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees with no relatives in the UK. In May he secured a commitment that Britain would give homes to some of the estimated 88,000 child refugees believed to be travelling through Europe, and this was set out in an amendment to the Immigration Act. Five months since the amendment was passed, none of the qualifying children have arrived in the UK.

And this….

The Home Office said: “The dismantling of the camp in Calais is a matter for the French government. The UK government has made crystal clear its commitment to resettle vulnerable children under the Immigration Act and ensure those with links to the UK are brought here using the Dublin regulation.” 

Spot the inconsistency…

Yesterday Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was bitterly critical of the junior doctor’s rejection of the latest employment deal. He claimed the result was undemocratic, saying: “The BMA’s figures show that only 40% of those eligible actually voted against this contract, and a third of BMA members didn’t vote at all.” 

Mr Hunt’s Government was elected by only 24% of those eligible to vote and a third of the electorate didn’t vote al all.

So it’s democratic when a Government is elected with 24% of those eligible to vote and it then imposes an unpopular contract on junior doctors but undemocratic when 40% of those doctors vote against it. Hmmmm.

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.

Loss aversion and the EU referendum

eu-union-jack-flagsGiven the prevalence of the “loss aversion” cognitive bias, it should in theory be highly unlikely that the British population votes to leave the EU. As a refresher, here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

In economics and decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Most studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains

The “out” camp have to persuade the electorate that leaving the EU will result in upside for them and the country. The “in” camp on the other hand need to focus on the benefits of the status quo and the risk of downside to the electorate and the country from leaving. Given the mechanics of loss aversion it should be very much easier for the latter than the former, especially against the backdrop of a split electorate.