Thursday 20 September 2018

The Digital Ape: how to live (in peace) with smart machines by Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson

The Digital Ape: how to live (in peace) with smart machines
by Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson

Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt is well known to DMossEsq's millions of readers as the prophet of the magic of open data. He's the chairman and co-founder of the Open Data Institute and Roger Hampson is one of the ODI's four non-executive directors.

The title "The Digital Ape" is inspired by Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape and extends his evolutionary approach to artificial intelligence. Man has always used tools to overcome his original shortcomings. First there was the hand axe. Now there's artificial intelligence. Messrs Shadbolt and Hampson's argument is that the hand axe didn't destroy the human race, so artificial intelligence won't either.

What can we digital apes look forward to in the brave new artificial intelligence world where we are at peace with our smart machines?

This is a question Professor Sir Nigel has tackled before in conversation with the much lamented journalist, Steve Hewlett:
Just imagine a new world where you look out of the window and see the blue flashing lights, and then someone flies through the door and says "we're here to prevent you from having a heart attack".
Flint hand axe found in Winchester
Nothing as exciting as that in The Digital Ape, where Messrs Shadbolt and Hampson content themselves instead with a relatively dull vision of the fridge automatically ordering butter for you when stocks run low. Also, "the floor will phone social services if Granny has a fall [but will social services answer?]". (This is at Loc 3052 of the Kindle edition of the book which doesn't have page numbers, just Locs/locations.)

Professor Sir Nigel is or at least was in charge of the government's midata programme which he amusingly claimed, five years ago, would allow us to "get to the future more quickly". No sign of that. The apps haven't been developed ...

... and the obvious problems remain unsolved. In a digital ape world where we're permanently under surveillance and all data is open including personal information, Steve Hewlett wanted to know, what happens to privacy? We look to our eminent authors for guidance. In vain:
On the face of it, open data is an idea too simple and right to fail. Assuming that the correct safeguards around private and personal information are in place ... (Loc 3802)
What are the "correct safeguards"? No answer.
Public datasets should definitely be open to all comers, subject to privacy and security concerns ... (Loc 3919)
How "definitely"? What is a "public dataset"? Which datasets would be "subject to privacy and security concerns"? What access if any would there be to these concerning datasets? No answers.
The digital ape needs urgently to debate and define the reasonable boundaries for the collection and analysis of information by government agencies in the age of terror. Restraints and accountability are essential ... (Loc 4023)
Surely this book is the place for that debate. This is the debate that the leaders of the Open Data Institute should be ideally placed to contribute to. What "restraints and accountability"? No answer.
... we badly need conventions that curb the continued weaponisation of the digital realm ... (Loc 4032)
What "conventions"? No answer.
There is no contradiction between the desire to live in a society that is open and secure, and the desire to protect privacy. Open and private apply to different content, handled in appropriately different ways ... (Loc 4069)
What "appropriately different ways"? No answer.
The personal data model is one way to produce a viable alternative [to the Orwellian implications of building one huge public database]. There are obviously problems ... We are certain these are solvable problems ... (Loc 4081)
Why are the authors "certain"? Their certainty doesn't make the reader certain. What are the solutions? No answer.
If we want people to pay the tax they owe, we need some system of collecting it [we already have one, courtesy HMRC, quite an extensive one], and some way of knowing collectively that we have done so. Imagination will be needed to turn all these into data stores held by individuals ... (Loc 4139)
"Some system"? What system? "Some way"? What way? "Imagination" is no answer.
There need to be clear rules for the transparency of algorithmic decision-making, the principles and procedures on which choices about the lives of individuals and groups are being made ... (Loc 4512)
What "clear rules"? What "principles and procedures"? No answers.
We need a new framework to govern the innovations, which might enable individuals, en masse, to temper the continued concentration of ownership and power ... (Loc 4582)
What "new framework"? No answer.

All these questions. We all knew them. That's why we bought the book. To benefit from the experts' ideas. But no. No answers.

So much for "on the face of it, open data is an idea too simple and right to fail ... (Loc 3802)". Nothing "simple" about it. Nothing obviously "right" about it.

How to live (in peace) with smart machines? No idea. Not a clue.

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