Humanity’s future…

I read On the Future: Prospects for Humanity on the train back from the Festival of Economics. (See the #EconomicsFest hashtag – recordings will go online soon.) This short and compelling book by Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal (and a Cambridge colleague), was a bit of a dampener on my good cheer. Our prospects are not great. It turns out that the risk of a large asteroid causing mass extinction is one of the lesser worries about our future. Other existential risks have a higher probability with the same mass death/end of civilisation impact.

Take biotech terrorism: “Whatever can be done will be done by someone, somewhere,” the book calmly states in passing. Even more exotically, another: “Scary possibility is that the quarks [produced by high energy physics experiments] would reassemble themselves into compressed objects called strangelets. That in itself would be harmless. However, under some hypotheses, a strangelet could, by contagion, convert anythign else it encountered into a new form of matter, transforming the entire Earth into a hyperdense sphere about a hundred meters across.” I gather this is a remote prospect indeed, but it takes some of the gloss off the Large Hadron Collider. Strangelets, eh.

The early scientists (natural philosophers, as they called themselves) were considered ‘merchants of light’ yet science and technology have come to seem pretty scary. This book is a perfect antidote to worrying about Brexit or Donald Trump or neo-fascism, as it offers so many much bigger problems to worry about.

It tries to strike a positive note by saying science and tech offer potential solutions too. Martin Rees thus ends by calling for scientists to engage more with philosophy. I think they should be engaging more with social scientists. The barriers to taking action to safeguard humanity from any devastating effects of climate change or AI are not mainly about science and technology, but rather about what people believe and how they behave.




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.


Intellectual property as theft

I’ve been dipping into a new (and free to download but you can choose to support it by paying for a paperback or Kindle copy from Amaxon) book by Rufus Pollock, The Open Revolution. I’m not great at reading whole books online, hence the dipping. What I’ve read, though, I really like. It states: “This book is about making as much as possible of that information available to as many people as we can, since wealth, information and the opportunity to create them are now profoundly entwined”  – the information in question being private, digitally recorded and stored information, anything that could be patented or copyrighted.

The book starts by underlining that any property rights – and all economists agree well-defined property rights are fundamental to economic growth – are defined by politics and law and social norms. The argument that the intellectual property rights that currently prevail are problematic for the digital economy has been made before, and is forcefully made again here. The book argues for ‘open information’, that “can be universally
and freely used, built upon and shared.

The book looks at patent and copyright protection, and draws the link to the accumulation of significant digital market (and political) power. It then jumps from the unquestioned powers such as Google and Facebook to a chapter on music streaming and Spotify – a marvellous service and one that can hardly be described as exercising undue power, especially when facing up against the recording industry titans. Pollock argues for replacing Spotify’s commercial model, which involves it in policing copyright protection, with a state-sponsored streaming model whereby governments collect a tax and allow citizens to access any streamed music:

“With no fee per track and no limitation on use, this all-you-can-eat buffet is a prototype for how one aspect of the Open world would operate. Money would of course have to be collected somehow to fund it, but instead of ten dollars a month to Spotify, this
could be a special fee incorporated in your taxes or added to your internet or mobile bill. This money would then be distributed according to usage, through remuneration rights fees.”

Subscription models are also of course all-you-can-eat ones and so similarly fit well the low or zero marginal cost economics of online. The difference between Spotify and this government-sponsored version of music streaming is scale: the more users pay, the lower the average fee. This is the rationale for public service broadcasting, so in effect we already have this model in the UK. My household pays an absolutely bargainiferous £2.89 per week to have access to a vast array of content for which the BBC has dealt with all the IP negotiations. I’m a huge fan of this model. But I don’t see why poor old Spotify – another marvellous service – should be prevented from asking for £10 a month for its streaming services.

So I’m with the book on the over-reach of IP laws in the digital age. I’d strongly argue for intense regulatory scrutiny of the advertising funded model of Google and Facebook, which might force them to an alternative business model – a flat fee, and utility regulation for some of their services perhaps. Some jurisdictions have started inquiries into the online ads market, almost a duopoly. But I’m not persuaded  public versus private ownership and control of the access services is the central issue. For sure, given that digital goods are essentially public goods and natural monopolies, there’s a free riding issue which argues for tax financing, but the first step must be to tackle the ridiculous IP laws.

There’s also a deeper question, I think, which is what one is paying for when it comes to fees to access digital content. The book argues: against “restrictions on which BBC programmes are freely accessible (having, of course, been paid for by the British public) and when, and where, to digital watermarks, paywalls around newspapers…”

Well, I happen to know something abuot restrictions on online acccess to BBC programmes, having chaired the original iPlayer approval process. One source of restriction is indeed a byzantine set of rights – different broadcast platforms in different countries may have specific rights to certain ‘windows’ or time periods. The licence fee payer in these cases has only paid for limited access rights, much as one might wish the limits to be less retrictive and the costs lower. Another source of restrictions was the desire on launching the BBC’s online services not to foreclose potential competing services, a worthy application of competition policy, and also not to cannibalise too quickly the BBC’s own linear services and commercial offer. These restrictions have been relaxed over time. The licence fee also buys not just the intangible asset of programmes – and I’m all for making the archive as freely available as possible – but also the continuing costs of investing in new content. The high initial fixed costs have to be covered. Similarly, I’m all in favour of newspaper paywalls – how else is new journalism going to get financed?

Anyway, this is as far as I’ve got. It is – as will be obvious – a stimulating read, although some of this will be familiar to those who have engaged with the ‘open’ argument before (eg James Boyle’s The Public Domain or Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture). I’d be interested to hear other people’s reactions to these arguments. Although quibbling, I’m broadly very sympathetic to them. I’ll be buying a hard copy to read it properly….



With two Eurostar trips in one day on Monday ( to take part in the AFSE Conference in Paris) I raced through Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine. It’s an account of the Silicon Valley-centric transhumanist movement – Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, Peter Thiel and Google funding research into immortality, uploading brains out of the feeble human body to alternative ‘substrates’, and so on. It’s a superbly-written book, respectful of its subjects while clearly disagreeing wholly with them – and successfully making the case that this is a religious rather than a scientific movement. The book manages to be both full of insight and very funny. I was aware of this movement – thanks to my ISC colleague Richard Jones’s book ‘Against Transhumanism’ (the clue is in the title) – but had no real idea of its reach among brilliant and influential people one would have never have imagined to be so – well, bonkers is the only word that comes to mind. Bonkers and yet in some cases powerful and very much worth taking seriously for the questions their belief-set raises.

Well worth a read.