Made by Humans: the AI condition is very human indeed

A guest review by Benjamin Mitra-Kahn, Chief Economist, IP Australia

There is a lot of press about the coming – or going – of artificial intelligence, and in Made By Humans: The AI Condition  Ellen Broad has written a short but comprehensive account of the state-of-play which deserves to be read by anyone wanting to know what is happening in AI today, certainly if you want to get in on the conversation.

The book is very contemporary, and if you haven’t had the time to attend every conference and workshop on AI since 2015, then you’re in luck. Broad has been to them all, and this book will catch you up on all the developments. The book also offers a series of insights into the challenges that AI and big data present – because it is about both – and the questions we should ask ourselves. These are not the humdrum questions such as who a self-driving car should choose to crash into (although a randomized element is suggested), but some bigger and much more interesting questions about whether we need to be able to inspect the algorithm that made the decision. Does the algorithm need to be open source or does it need to be exposed to expert review to ensure best practice, and should the data that trained the algorithm be openly accessible or available for peer-review. Using every example about data and AI from the last three years, Broad steps through the issues under the hood that are only now being thought about.

This naturally brings up the question of government regulation. This is something Broad has changed her mind about, which she discusses openly in a book that moves between a technology story, personal discovery and ethical discussions. There is a role for regulation says Broad, and the fact that we don’t yet know what that regulation could be, or should be, is handled with some elegance. Technology is not a nirvana , computer code sometimes held together with “peanut butter and goblins” and written by people who are busy, under-funded or just average. Simply aiming to ‘regulate AI’ however is akin to wanting to regulate medicine: It is complex, dependent on who you impact, their ability to engage, and the risks as well as the situation. It is a human-to-human decision ultimately. Not perhaps the argument one expects in a book on AI by the ex-director of policy for the Open Data Institute and previous head of the Australian Digital Alliance. But it is about humans, and the AI condition is about humanity – about fairness, intelligibility, openness and diversity according to Broad.

The book finishes with US Senators questioning Facebook about Cambridge Analytica, and the recent implementation of the GDPR (data governance, not a new measure of GDP), which quickly dates the book, but that is a choice the author makes explicitly. This book is about the current conversation on big data and AI, and it is about participating in that conversation. It is not about the last 50 years of ethics and the history of computers. There is an urgency to the writing, and as someone interested in this, I found myself updated in places, and challenged in others. Reading this book will allow anyone to particpate in the AI debate, knowing what Rahimi’s warning about Alchemy and AI is, being able to discuss the problems around the COMPAS sentencing software, or seeing why Volkswagen’s pollution scandal was a data and software scandal first. If this is a conversation you want to engage with, Broad’s book is an excellent starting point and update.




Work (and more) in digital times

This week I’ve been dipping in to Work in the Digital Age: Challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, edited by Neufeind, O’Reilly and Ranft. This is a collection of short essays brought togoether by Policy Network, the centre-left ‘progressive’ think tank. It’s a chunky book, starting with sections essays on prospects for employment and the character of work. These cover, for example, the likely impact of automation in destroying and creating jobs, and the nature of work in the ‘gig’ economy. A section on labour relations and the welfare state follows. There are then chapters on individual European countries, ordered according to the ‘digital density’: Scandinavia and the Netherlands are classed as high, the UK and Germany medium, France, Italy and Central and Eastern Europe as low. There are also chapters on the US, Canada and India. The comparisons between countries were at the heart of the project, and I admit to not having read these chapters.

Given that I read so much of the economic literature on these issues, I haven’t found anything startlingly new so far, although there are some interesting perspectives. For example Martin Kenney and John Zysman consider the question of financing technology start-ups when they face a long period of losses because of what’s known in the platform literature as the chicken and egg problem: a platform needs users on both sides – riders as well as drivers for instance – because it won’t attract riders without enough drives and won’t have enough drivers unless it has a user base. The winner-take-all success stories then look for a long period of rents to recover those early losses, although many platforms simply fail. The essay argues that it is not clear whether this financing model is creating economic and social value. (I argue in a forthcoming paper that this is one aspect of the wider failure of competition economics to have figured out how to compare static welfare gains and losses to dynamic ones.)

In other chapters, Ursula Huws et al report new surveys on the extent of gig work or crowd work – from 9% in the UK to 22% in Italy, usually as part of a broader spectrum of casual work; Monique Kremer and Robert Went set out an agenda for ensuring automation does not increase inequality, covering the direction of robotisation, the enhancement of complementary skills, and distributional policy instruments; and in an introductory essay Luc Soete on the productivity paradox discusses similarities with and differences from previous technological revolutions. The final chapter sets out a reform agenda – education and training; work transitions; social protection; redistributive taxes and transfers; and investing in infrastructure and innovation. This is high level stuff, and therefore a bit motherhood and apple pie. Having contributed essays to this kind of collection myself, I know this pitch of generality is inevitable, but do ache for some policy specifics as opposed to ‘a new inclusive narrative’.

For an overview of the technology and work debate, this is a useful volume, though, and it can be downloaded free from here. It’s certainly a good place to start for a comparative perspective, and the references to country-specific literature look really useful.


The not-so-secret secrets of research

The Secret Life of Science: How it Really Works and Why It Matters by Jeremy Baumberg won’t hold many surprises for economists working in academia. The increasing role of publication metrics in career prospects, even though everyone knows them to be counter-productive or even pernicious. The narrowing of scholarly horizons within disciplinary silos partly for this reason and partly (in the UK) because of the REF exercise. The creaking peer review system. The debate about open access and the monopoly power of certain journal publishers. I don’t know whether the same is true in the humanities and other social sciences, but the description of the systemic pressures and the way they make it ever harder to allow intellectual curiosity and boundary-crossing work free rein – for some very good reasons – makes this book a reflection on more than the natural sciences, but rather on the institutional framework for research as a whole, into which citizens pour a good deal of funding.

There are, however, additional issues in the sciences, not least the very high cost of equipment and facilities in some areas, and the failure of the funding system as a whole to be able to reflect on and implement societal priorities. Another difference is the institutional framework, with much scientific research (to varying degrees across countries – there are interesting figures in the book) occurring in the private sector. Baumberg also discusses the ever-rising number of scientific researchers, in what seems to be a sort of winner-takes-all dynamic of funding concentrating in elite groups and no signs of increasing diversity, producing seemingly ever-decreasing returns.

Although the issues may be familiar, the book usefully presents them all as a combined system challenge. It is pretty factual and even handed, but one ends with a strong sense of the need for some system-wide reforms. Baumberg has no silver bullet solution, and quite right too. He makes some suggestions such as introducing other kinds of metrics than citations, finding some ‘anarchic’ ways to fund science, creating better and different career structures for postdocs.

I read the book just after Richard Jones’s and James Wilsdon’s thought-provoking and trenchant report on ‘biomedical bubble’ in the UK. I doubt The Secret Life of Science will appeal to the general audience as it’s much more about the institutional framework than about the scientific research. But although researchers will already know – and live in their daily lives – the issues flagged up in the book, it’s a timely warning that the scientific endeavour that has brought our societies astonishingly greater prosperity and improvements in the quality of life is sclerotic and failing to deliver for the societies funding research. Hard as it may be for a young researcher struggling under all these pressures to regard herself as part of the despised ‘elite’, that’s the big issue facing scientific and other research. Time to tackle it.


Is my argument covered in gargoyles?

Now that I’m paddling at the edge of the inter-disciplinarity ocean – dangerous waters – I read – on the recommendation of esteemed colleagues – Metaphors We Live By (1980) by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I gather it has been highly influential, and it was indeed stimulating read. However, I struggled with parts of the argument, which started brilliantly: we use metaphors, often informed by our bodies, in language and thought. ‘Up’ and ‘forward’ are powerful when incorporated in metaphors, because we stand up and walk forwards. I really enjoyed being prodded to think about the use of language and what it would mean to take metaphors seriously. Why does ‘ your argument has a solid structure’ work but ‘your argument is covered in gargoyles’ not? Why can we have raw facts and half baked ideas but not sautéed or poached data?

However, I struggled with the labelling of some ways of speaking as metaphors at all. I can see ‘argument as war’ is one. But is ‘inflation is an entity’? It’s an analytical construct for sure, but it isn’t exactly not a thing either. So is ‘inflation is lowering our standard of living’ really a metaphorical construction. Are ‘time is a resource’ and ‘labour is a resource’ metaphors at all? The further I got into the book, the less I was persuaded.

Evidently the book played into the objectivism vs relativism debate, and the authors sensibly accept that the ‘real world’ clearly constrains our conceptual system, although they are on the relativism end of the see-saw. As the title of chapter 27 puts it: “How metaphor reveals the limitations of the myth of objectivism.” They argue that the way we use language means objects (out there in the real world, as it were) are entities relative to our interaction with the world, and our projections onto it. Properties of objects are interactional rather than inherent, in their view. No doubt this is philosophically incoherent, but I’m not sure why there can’t be inherent properties as well as those we perceive through our interactions with the world and categorise, metaphorically or not.

The book ends with a paragraph on economics which is half spot on: “Political and economic ideologies are framed in mataphorical terms. Like all other metaphors, political and economic metaphors can hide aspects of reality. But in the area of politics and economics, metaphors matter more because they constrain our lives.” I think Deirdre McCloskey (The Rhetoric of Economics) or Albert Hirschman (The Rhetoric of Reaction) would agree. However, this coda seems half gibberish too, at least to this literal-minded economist: why is ‘labour is a resource’ a metaphor because it fails (as a metaphor) to distinguish meaningful from meaningless labour?

Anyway, among other reading, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is marvellous. I laughed and I cried (literally, not metaphorically). I only quite enjoyed Cees Nooteboom’s Roads to Santiago. I read Cass Sunstein’s latest, The Cost Benefit Revolution, out in September – when I’ll review it. I’m spoilt for choice for my next one, as the in-pile is teetering at the moment. When I’m super-busy, as these at months have been, acquiring a new book seems to be a purchase of the implicit time to read it. If only!

Price: £9.93
Was: £12.00


And the in-pile:

Photo on 20-07-2018 at 14.01



Our Gilded Age (India version)

James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj is a page turner – really informative and well written (as one would expect from the FT’s former Mumbai bureau chief), full of surprises, and above all a fascinating window on India’s super-wealthy. The theme of the book is corruption, and its co-evolution with the Indian economy as the ‘licence raj’ restrictions were progressively removed, and new sectors like telecoms grew dramatically. In this new world, the super-wealthy businessmen and the politicians found they needed each other: the deployment of legislation and contracts helped the former, the opportunity to take part in business helped the latter. As one of the interviewees puts it: “They [the politicians] are saying: ‘We don’t want briefcases full of cash and Swiss bank accounts and all that any more. We want to own businesses ourselves. We want equity stakes.”

The scandals covered in the book – from airlines to cricket – are extraordinary, as are the descriptions of wealth flaunted. It is somewhat cheering to know that some scandals resulted in at least disgrace and sometimes arrest. There are also some thoughtful reflections on whether the practices described are always entirely bad: might they in some phases of development ensure that infrastructure gets built? One example in the book is a half-built steel mill and power station complex, halted by the cancellation of coal mining licences  due to allegations of corruption. Crabtree writes: “Watching him [Naveen Jindal], I was struck by the stress of his position: the billions in loans, the half-finished projects and the thousands of workers who …expected him to find a way to fix them.” The downside of doing business by politica favours is the unpredictability of it all.

There is something of this flavour in David Pilling’s Lunch with the FT with Nigeria’s Aliko Dangote, who recounts how he got his big break:

‘“Obasanjo called me very early in the morning and said, ‘Can we meet today?’ ” says Dangote, recalling the presidential summons. He wanted to know why Nigeria couldn’t produce cement, instead importing it by the boatload. Dangote told him it was more profitable to trade than to produce. Only if imports were restricted would it be worthwhile. Obasanjo agreed. Dangote has never looked back.’

Crabtree also cites Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, (reviewed on this blog), which describes corruption at the bottom of the income scale. Although this clearly acts as a tax on low incomes, she has sympathy for those who earn so little that they can’t afford not to demand bribes.

I ended up not sure whether to be optimistic about India’s dynamism and scale, seeing this Gilded Age as growing pains, or pessimistic because of the debt mountain involved, and the nationalist politics of the present government – the chapters on Narendra Modi do not leave the reader reassured. Either way, this book opens a window on an extraordinary period of change in India, a country too big and important for its future not to affect all of us.

Here is the author being interviewed about the book on NPR.