Dis-uniting Kingdom

Another book about which I can’t claim impartiality: my dear colleague Michael Kenny’s Fractured Union: Politics, Sovereignty and the Fight to Save the UK. As the title suggests, it concerns the territorial constitutional arrangements of the UK: progressive devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and (in its distinctive context) Northern Ireland, tentative moves toward devolution within England, and the shocks imposed on the governance arrangements caused by Brexit and the pandemic. None of this within the context of a written constitutional or the clarity that might have provided.

I’ve had two bit parts in this process. One was as Vice Chair and Acting Chair of the BBC Trust during the Scottish referendum campaign in 2013-14. The Trust had been fighting the London-based BBC Executive tooth and nail since our formation as its governing body at the end of 2006 to introduce significant internal devolution of editorial decision making. We considered that the BBC needed to do much better serving the whole country than it was then able to do, being so firmly London-centric. The broader UK political tide away from centralisation was clear. The Executive hated the idea – I think for a mixture of financialrpractical reasons and deep resistance to ceding the idea of agenda-setting and commissioning to others.

Anyway, the referendum campaign froze this internal debate; the BBC had to be at pains to demonstrate its impartiality, which both sides of the campaign hated. I was hosting a box at the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 with then-Culture Secretary Sajid Javid as a guest. The Director-General was in the next box with then-Home Secretary Theresa May as his guest. My husband Rory, who has Welsh roots, was with me and so we bought a bundle of Welsh English flags outside the Albert Hall; it wouldn’t do to have the cameras catch the two central boxes as the only ones with no flag-wavers but we couldn’t choose either Union or Scottish flags. I looked across to our neighbours – and they had no flags at all. I was able to save Mrs May by offering her party some of ours.

My other experience was as the co-ordinator of the work that went into Greater Manchester’s pitch to George Osborne and the Treasury for the first city deal that led to the creation of the Combined Authority; this was the 2009 Manchester Independent Economic Review. It partly aimed to demonstrate competence to the sceptics in the Treasury, and partly to align leaders around the 10 component authorities around a nascent economic strategy for the new GMCA. One of the key lessons I drew from the experience was the importance of that classic political coalition-building, talking – a lot – to everybody who needed to be part of the journey. The city’s leadership impressed me then and has continued to do so. It hasn’t been uncontroversial, but this essay by Joshi Herrman in The Mill seems to me a fair assessment.

Anyway, Mike’s book is absolutely excellent. If anything, I think he perhaps understates a bit how much the rest of the country hates/hated Westminster/Whitehall, and the role this might have played in the Brexit vote (see Ch 7 here by me and Rob Ford). The conclusion I drew was that this story has much further to go.

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Life, the universe and everything

I’m late to Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0. For all its bestseller status, it didn’t do a lot for me. Probably more to do with me than the book. There’s a large chunk about the distant future and existential risk, which I can’t get interested in. There’s also a lot of physics and evolution, philosophy and cognitive science thrown in to the mix, at a very simplified level. And then there’s the love-in with Elon Musk – including a back cover blurb by the billionaire recently referred to by the Daily Star as a ‘car salesman’. Musk funded Tegmark’s Future of Life Institute. Life 3.0 was published in 2017, pre-Musk’s Twitter takeover and voyage into questionable political stances. But fundamentally, I couldn’t figure out what the book is trying to say, beyond that AI is changing things a lot.

Having said all that, there were some points that interested me. One is the idea of the substrate-independence of computation. Another – one that jumps out from the examples of AI use cases and how they can go wrong, rather than being made explicitly in the book – is that communication between AIs and humans will be fundamentally important to avoiding terrible mistakes. The UX design here is surely as important as any prompt engineering. The third is a section about the reported argument (by David Vladek) that self-driving cars whould be required to have their own car insurance, which will incentivise safety in their design. This raises a question about whether AIs could own property, and when you think about it one could instead require the owners of self-driving cars to take out the insurance. But it’s an interesting throught.

I think Life 3.0 is worth a read nevertheless. (Yuval Noah Harari quite liked it – whatever you make of that.) It ranges widely over the kind of issues societies need to be thinking about as they let AIs operate, and is clearly-written – a good flight or train journey book.

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AI needs all of us

There’s no way I can be unbiased about Verity Harding’s new book AI Needs You: How we can change AI’s future and save our own, given that it began with a workshop Verity convened and the Bennett Institute hosted in Cambridge a few years ago. The idea – quite some time before the current wave of AI hype, hope and fear – was to reflect on how previous emerging disruptive technologies had come to be governed. After some debate we settled on space, embryology, and ICANN (the internet domain naming body), as between them these seemed to echo some of the issues regarding AI.

These discussions set the scene for Verity’s research into the detailed history of governance in each of these cases, and the outcome is a fascinating book that describes each in turn and reflects on the lessons for us now. The overall message is that the governance and use of technology in the public interest, for the public good, is possible. There is no technological determinism, nor any trade-off between public benefit and private innovation. The ‘Silicon Valley’ zeitgeist of inevitability, the idea that the tech is irresistible and society’s task is to leave its management to the experts, is false.

The implication of this – and hence the book’s title – is that: “Understanding that technology – how it gets built, why, and by whom – is critical for anyone interested in the future of our society.” And hence the ‘Needs You’ in the title. How AI develops, what it is used for an how – these are political questions requiring engaged citizens. This is why the historical examples are so fascinating, revealing as they do the messy practicalities and contingency of citizen engagement, political debate, quiet lobbying, co-ordination efforts, events and sheer luck. The embryology example is a case in point: the legislation in the UK was based on the hard work of the Warnock Commission, its engagement with citizens, tireless efforts to explain science; but also on years of political debate and a key decision by Mrs Thatcher about its Parliamentary progress. The resulting legislation has since stood the test of time and also set an ethical and regulatory framework for other countries too. The lesson is that the governance of AI will not be shaped by clever people designing it, but as the outcome of political and social forces.

The book is beautifully written and a gripping read (more than you might expect for a book about regulating technology). There are quite a few new books on AI out this spring, and there are others I’ve read in proof that are also excellent; but this will definitely be one of the ones that stands the test of time. Not for nothing did Time magazine name Verity as one of the 100 most influential people in AI. She is now leading a Bennett Institute Macarthur Foundation-funded project on the geopolitics of AI. I’ll be in conversation with her at Waterstones in Cambridge on 14th March.




Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri was a left-field choice for me, a book of essays about writing in English and then Italian and translating her own texts – and those of others. But I enjoyed it, not least because it made me think about the English-to-English translation needed in inter-disciplinary work. We use the same word for subtly or even significantly different concepts. Capital is an obvious example, but also discounting, efficiency, optimization, rational and many others. The first stage of any project with people from other backgrounds is a translation stage. Hard work, but also so satisfying when there are moments of illumination of how other people think about a common question.

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Markets won’t save humanity

In his series of books (Banking Across Boundaries, Rentier Capitalism, The New Enclosure, Our Lives in Their Portfolios) Brett Christophers has provided a forensic analysis of the fundamental plumbing of the global and (especially) UK economy. For example, the first of these identified the statistical construct of ‘financial intermediation services indirectly measured’ (FISIM) as an artefact inflating the apparent contribution of the financial sector to the economy and thus enhancing its political lobbying power. He was the first researcher to point out this consequence (and is cited in my GDP book). Our Lives in Their Portfolios assembles evidence on the scale and scope of private equity ownership of assets in the US and UK, and the adverse consequences for the ability of key infrastructure to provide continuing services.

He continues this grand project of analytically dissecting the neoliberal economic order (even before it has entirely died) – at its most extreme in the UK – in his new book, The Price is Wrong: Why Capitalism Won’t Save the Planet. The book is a persuasive assault on the idea that renewable energy generation has become cheap enough that capitalist self-interest will ensure the green transition without continuing government subsidy and regulation. The analysis has three key points.

First, as the legacy industry fossil fuel generation has high sunk costs and low investment needs, whereas renewables need upfront financial investment as high fixed and low marginal cost generators. Second, the once vertically-integrated electricity business now has a separate wholesale market into which generators sell power, so investors in renewables need to earn their return from selling electricity to the grid. Third, the habit (it seems to be no more) of pricing wholesale electricity at the highest marginal cost makes the potential return to renewables investment dependent on highly volatile prices. Without either feed-in-tariffs or contracts-for-difference to reduce the volatility, a more important purpose than subsidising the renewables generators, it is hard for the rate of return calculation to stack up.

The book has a lot of fascinating detail about the structure of electricity markets, in India China and elsewhere as well as the US, UK and EU. Other design details matter. For example, it matters who bears the cost of connecting new generators to the grid – if it is they themselves rather than spreading the cost over the industry, that is another obstacle to investors earning an adequate return on wind or solar. For wind and solar farms are generally located where land is cheap and the power has to get to where people live, but land is expensive.

All these factors mean that the data point underlying the claim that renewable energy is cheap enough for the market to deliver the energy transition is misleading. This is the ‘levellized cost of energy’ (LCOE) or average net present cost of electricity generation for a generator over its lifetime. Although their zero marginal cost (because the fuel is free) makes renewables attractive on this measure, it ignores the hurdle of the initial and separate calculation of the expected rate of return on the investment in generating capacity. A wind turbine is cheap to operate but costly to install – so how will the developer doing the installation make a profit?

The message I take away is the need to be super-careful about market design in energy. These are state-organised markets (as indeed are all, but even more so in this case). The detail sometimes swamps the thread of the argument, but I’d commend The Price is Wrong to anybody interested in energy transition, and in more broadly in the dysfunctions of modern capitalism.

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