Pause

An open letter has been published[1]. Not for the first time. It asks those working on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to take a deep breath and pause their work. It’s signed by AI experts and interested parties, like Elon Musk. This is a reaction to the competitive race to launch ever more powerful AI[2]. For all technology launches, it’s taking fewer and fewer years to get to a billion users. If the subject was genetic manipulation the case for a cautious step-by-step approach would be easily understood. However, the digital world, and its impact on our society’s organisation isn’t viewed as important as genetics. Genetically Modified (GM) crops got people excited and anxious. An artificially modified social and political landscape doesn’t seem to concern people quite so much. It maybe, the basis for this ambivalence is a false view that we are more in control of one as opposed to the other. It’s more likely this ambivalence stems from a lack of knowledge. One response to the open letter[3] I saw was thus: A lot of fearmongering luddites here! People were making similar comments about the pocket calculator at one time! This is to totally misunderstand what is going on with the rapid advance of AI. I think, the impact on society of the proliferation of AI will be greater than that of the invention of the internet. It will change the way we work, rest and play. It will do it at remarkable speed. We face an unprecedented challenge. I’m not for one moment advocating a regulatory regime that is driven by societal puritans. The open letter is not proposing a ban. What’s needed is a regulatory regime that can moderate aggressive advances so that knowledge can be acquired about the impacts of AI. Yesterday, a government policy was launched in the UK. The problem with saying that there will be no new regulators and regulators will need to act within existing powers is obvious. It’s a diversion of resources away from exiting priorities to address challenging new priorities. That, in of itself is not an original regulatory dilemma. It could be said, that’s why we have sewage pouring into rivers up and down the UK. In an interview, Conservative Minister Paul Scully MP mentioned sandboxing as a means of complying with policy. This is to create a “safe space” to try out a new AI system before launching it on the world. It’s a method of testing and trials that is useful to gain an understanding of conventional complex systems. The reason this is not easily workable for AI is that it’s not possible to build enough confidence that AI will be safe, secure and perform its intended function without running it live. For useful AI systems, even the slightest change in the start-up conditions or training can produce drastically different outcomes. A live AI system can be like shifting sand. It will build up a structure to solve problems, and do it well, but the characteristics of its internal workings will vary significantly from one similar system to another. Thus, the AI system’s workings, as they are run through a sandbox exercise may be unlike the same system’s workings running live. Which leads to the question – what confidence can a regulator, with an approval authority, have in a sandbox version of an AI system? Pause. Count to ten and work out what impacts we must avoid. And how to do it.

Policy & AI

Today, the UK Government published an approach to Artificial Intelligence (AI)[1]. It’s in the form of a white paper. That’s a policy document creäte by the Government that sets out their proposals for future legislation.

This is a big step. Artificial Intelligence (AI) attracts both optimism and pessimism. Utopia and dystopia. There are a lot more people who sit in these opposing camps as there are who sit in the middle. It’s big. Unlike any technology that has been introduce to the whole populous.

On Friday last, I caught the film iRobot (2004)[2] showing early evening on Film 4. It’s difficult to believe this science fiction is nearly 20-years old and the short story of Isaac Asimov’s, on which it’s based is from the 1950s. AI is a fertile space for the imagination to range over a vast space.

Fictional speculation about AI has veered towards the dystopian end of the scale. Although that’s not the whole story by far. One example of good AI is the sentient android in the Star Trek universe. The android “Data” based on the USS Enterprise, strives to help humanity and be more like us. His attempt to understand human emotions are often significant plot points. He’s a useful counterpoint to evil alien intelligent machines that predictably aim to destroy us all.

Where fiction helps is to give an airing to lots of potential scenarios for the future. That’s not trivial. Policy on this rapidly advancing subject should not be narrowly based or dogmatic.

Where there isn’t a great debate is the high-level objectives that society should endeavour to achieve. We want technology to do no harm. We want technology to be trustworthy. We want technology to be understandable.

Yet, we know from experience, that meeting these objectives is much harder than asserting them. Politicians love to assert. In the practical world, it’s public regulators who will have to wrestle with the ambitions of industry, unforeseen outcomes, and negative public reactions.

Using the words “world leading” successively is no substitute for resourcing regulators to beef-up their capabilities when faced with rapid change. Vague and superficial speeches are fine in context. Afterall, there’s a job to be done maintaining public confidence in this revolutionary technology.

What’s evident is that we should not delude ourselves. This technical transformation is unlike any we have so far encountered. It’s radical nature and speed mean that even when Government and industry work together they are still going to be behind the curve.

As a fictional speculation an intelligent android who serves as a senior officer aboard a star ship is old school. Now, I wonder what we would make of an intelligent android standing for election and becoming a Member of Parliament?


[1] The UK’s AI Regulation white paper will be published on Wednesday, 29 March 2023. Organisations and individuals involved in the AI sector will be encouraged to provide feedback on the white paper through a consultation which launches today and will run until Tuesday, 21 June 2023.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I,_Robot_(film)

Progress?

For 99p in a well-known charity book shop, I picked up a tidy little paperback book. It’s wonderfully illustrated, mixing humour with one or two earnest thoughts. Originally, it would have been about 3 shillings[1] (15 new pence) to buy. So, I may have paid over the odds.

Was C. Northcote Parkinson[2], right? Certainly, when I listen to the epic tale on HS2[3] it does get me wondering if Parkinson’s Law works as well in the 2020s as it did in the late 1950s. Progress is slow, as work expands. The more there is to do, the more there is to do.

The UK’s number one railway project, High Speed Two, HS2 is a massive project. It’s image of yellow jacketed workers stomping across chewed-up fields is a long way from the reality. In the back rooms and offices are thousands of planners, managers, and administrators toiling intensely. Politicians posture over reams of reports and change their minds at every juncture. There’s a hitch every week.

Given my experiences, I should be able to make some judgements about Parkinson’s Law. That is to say that: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. It’s generally associated with Government administration and the operation of a civil service. My observation is that large scale industry is just as guilty of this characteristic. 

It can be said that a large aircraft could not be certified until the pile of paper needed to do so weighted as much as the finished product. This tong-in-cheek saying stems from the frustration that builds-up when progress is slower than people would like it to be. What a “pile of paper” means in the digital world is more difficult to ascertain but it’s a lot of stuff. 

Whatever the merit of Parkinson’s Law, the arguments made for it have been undermined as employment practices have changed dramatically since the 1950s. Internal structures of bureaucratic and deep hierarchical organisation are no longer the fashion. The whole phenomena of Buggins’ turn[4] still exists but is in abeyance. Much of industry may have shaken it off, but the political world still clings-on and offers jobs on seniority rather than by merit. Hierarchical organisations that feed on a certainty of their continued existence remain plentiful, but they are now more subject to more disruption.

Parkinson does mock the large organisations of his time. Some of his anecdotes resonate perfectly with the world of the 2020s. These are observations of human behaviour.

One that rings a bell with me is the description of a board meeting were agenda items are methodically addressed in order. Let’s say, the subject of item 9 on an agenda is for a major investment expenditure and the next item, item 10 addresses staff car parking spaces. No prizes for guessing which one gets the most discussion time. When faced with complex financial arguments and detailed pages of figures there’s a tendance to defer to those who know about that sort of stuff. When faced with a subject that everyone understands and impacts everyone in an obvious way, the temptation to engage in discussion about the later is overwhelming.

Let’s conclude that progress that doesn’t take account of the human factor is going to hit the rails or maybe worse.


[1] https://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/journal/curators-corner/shilling/

[2] Parkinson’s Law or The Pursuit of Progress, John Murry Paperbacks, 1958.

[3] https://www.hs2.org.uk/

[4] https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/171256/who-was-buggins-of-buggins-turn

Radio on the hill

We take radio for granted. I’m listening to it, now. That magic of information transferred through the “ether[1]” at the speed of light and without wires. This mystery was unravelled first in the 19th century. Experimentation and mathematics provided insights into electromagnetics.

The practical applications of radio waves were soon recognised. The possibility of fast information transfer between A and B had implications for the communications and the battlefield.

It’s unfortunate to say that warfare often causes science to advance rapidly. The urgency to understand more is driven by strong needs. That phrase “needs must” comes to mind. We experienced this during the COVID pandemic. Science accelerated to meet the challenge.

It wasn’t until after he failed as an artist that Samuel Morse transformed communications by inventing the telegraph with his dots and dashes. There’s a telegraph gallery with a reproductions of Morse’s early equipment at the Locust Grove Estate[2] in Poughkeepsie. I’d recommend it.

The electromagnetic telegraph used wires to connect A and B. Clearly, that’s not useful if the aim is to connect an aircraft with the ground.

The imperative to make air-ground communication possible came from the first world war. Aviation’s role in warfare came to the fore. Not just in surveillance of the enemy but offensive actions too. Experimentation with airborne radio involved heavy batteries and early spark transmitters. Making such crude equipment usable was an immense challenge. 

Why am I writing about this subject? This week, on a whim I visited the museum at Biggen Hill. The Biggin Hill Museum[3] tells the story the pivotal role played by the fighter station in the second world war. The lesser-known story is the origins of the station.

It’s one of Britain’s oldest aerodromes and sits high up on the hills south of London. Biggin Hill is one of the highest points in that area, rising to over 210 metres (690 ft) above sea level. 

It’s transformation from agricultural fields to a research station (south camp) took place in 1916 and 1917. Its purpose was to explore the scientific and technical innovations of that time. Wireless in particular.  141 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was based at Biggin Hill and equipped with Bristol Fighters.[9] RFC were the first to take use of wireless telegraphy to assist with artillery targeting.

These were the years before the Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed.

100 years later, in early 2019, the Biggin Hill Museum opened its doors to the public. It’s a small museum but well worth a visit. I found the stories of the early development of airborne radio communications fascinating. So much we take for granted had to be invented, tested, and developed from the most elemental components.

POST 1: Now, I wish I’d be able to attand this lecture – Isle of Wight Branch: The Development of Airborne Wireless for the R.F.C. (aerosociety.com)

POST 2: The bigger story marconiheritage.org/ww1-air.html


[1] https://www.britannica.com/science/ether-theoretical-substance

[2] https://www.lgny.org/home

[3] https://bigginhillmuseum.com/

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson

There’s a good argument for boring politics. Yes, it’s reasonable to get aerated about big choices and fundamental differences in belief. However, a lot of politics is implementing policy and taking corrective action when something goes wrong. For the bigger part of practical politics, the qualities of attention to detail and diplomacy are of paramount importance. One thing we know for certain is that we got the exact opposite from former British Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson[1]. Gesticulation and flowery language took the place of thoughtfulness, care, and compassion.

Johnson denies lying to the UK Parliament. He once revelled in his performances at the dispatch box in the House of Commons (HoC). His period as UK PM was turbulent and full to the brim with bullish rhetoric. There’s no doubt that there’s an audience who laps up those political theatrics.

In the promotion world, adverts are supposed to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful.” In the political world, it would be asking a lot for all four of those to be observed all the time.

One place where there’s an extremely high expectation that a PM will be honest and truthful is while they are standing at the dispatch box[2] in the HoC. Now, that doesn’t preclude them from failing to say all there is to say about a given subject but what they do say should be correct. Better said; must be correct. In a lot of ways this is one of the primary responsibilities of a UK PM.

A PM, or Government Minister found lying to Parliament is committing a significant offence and carries the likelihood of suspension. It’s not a trivial matter, neither should it be.

In public, as a campaigning conservative politician there are lots of cases where Boris Johnson has been casual with the truth. Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) was driven by a cacophony of factual falsifications and gross distortions of the truth. Boris and Brexit are synonymous.

A HoC committee will decide on the facts surrounding the downfall of former British PM Boris Johnson. His peers, as members of a privileges committee will make a statement on his behaviour in coming weeks. With all the evidence in the public domain now, it seems probable that the committee will find that Johnson was at least reckless, if not that he intentionally lied in the HoC chamber, fellow Members of Parliament and the country.

Although, it would be unwise to discount Johnson’s political comeback, one day, there may be a chance that his style of politics will be shown to be as damaging as we know it to be. This should be a turning point where accountability wins out over bluster and fibs. Let’s hope it is.


[1] Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is the politician, writer and journalist who was Prime Minister of the UK and Leader of the Conservative Party from 2019 to 2022.

[2] https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/cultural-collections/historic-furniture/the-collection/scott/despatch-boxes-/

Lost nature

Looking at lines and lines of felled trees is not a pleasing sight. The world outside the car window is a sight of devastation. I understand what’s going on and we have been forewarned of it for a long time. Whatever, the junction of the A3 and M25 motorway[1] looks a dreadful mess. The scheme to turn the junction into a mini spaghetti junction is underway.

This comes on top of two news stories that display an attitude to our green spaces that is disheartening and sad. One in Sheffield[2] where the local council was criticised for deceiving the public. The other story, an overnight savaging of city trees in Plymouth[3].

I’m going to be unkind to highway engineers. The impression given is that their attitude to trees, in general, is one that sees them only as an impediment to progress. A blight that stops their beautiful drawing board schemes from rising from the dirt. The obstacles in the way of more tarmac.

Now, the M25 junction 10/A3 Wisley interchange is as ugly as hell. Even when it’s finished it’s going to be one of those places in the world where a sane person would not want to spend a minute more than necessary. Watching the seasons change from a motorway jam is a poor way to live.

The largescale initiatives there are to plant more trees are great. Unfortunately, all to often the stock of mature native trees and ancient woodlands has fallen markedly in my lifetime.

Natural events play their part too. I remember massive Elm trees that disappeared as Dutch Elm disease struck. These majestic trees can reach over 40 metres in height. A row of these huge Elms dominated the skyline of my childhood. A green wall that seemed everlasting. Sadly, millions of Elm trees have been killed in the UK over the last 40 years.

A tree produces oxygen and can absorb carbon dioxide. What could be more useful that that? We must reverse the loss of nature in the UK[4], if we are to stand any chance of addressing climate change. So, plant a tree for 2023. 


[1] https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/roads-and-transport/roadworks-and-maintenance/roadworks/junction-improvement-programme-m25-junction-10a3-wisley-interchange

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-64863130

[3] https://www.itv.com/news/westcountry/2023-03-15/anger-as-monsters-in-the-night-chop-down-more-than-100-trees

[4] https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/plant-trees/advice/how-to-plant/

Drop Of A Tweet

I’ve got a couple of vinyl copies of “At The Drop Of A Hat”. They turn up in charity shops from time to time. Those responsible maybe from the 1950s but the genius of Flanders & Swann never wanes.

For those of us who grew up in the 1960s there are songs that embedded in our childhood. “Junior Choice” was a BBC programme broadcast on Radio 1 and 2. From that regular show there’s a whole string of comic sings that I cannot erase from my memories.

There one song that we are told started life in Scarsdale Villas[1], South Kensington, South West London. Now, a part of London where the house prices mount in the millions.

Introducing each of their songs there was often a monologue saying something about the song. So, we know, uniquely one famous song is inspired by a badly parked car but is about an animal.

It goes like this. Michael Flanders was a wheelchair user. Kensington Borough Council helpfully dug out a part of the pavement and curb outside his flat so that he could get around. He recounts his annoyance that a thoughtless driver would often steal his parking space. 

In his monologue he jokingly praises the independent minded councillors of Kensington adding – there’re all Conservatives. That little bit of humour is so British. It maybe goes to the heart of the BBC’s current problems. They could be saying to us all: “of course we are independent, we are all conservatives.” Equating conservative attitudes to being “independent” is the norm in my part of Surrey.

Back to the song. The antisocial parked car’s number plate began with the letters GNU. The rest is comic history. The two wrote: “The Gnu.[2]

To make the song work. They pronounced the animal’s name “G-noo”. What could be better than a word that rhymed with “zoo”. A place where we might find a Gnu[3].

The English language was changed forever.

Perhaps the lesson for the BBC is to look at its comic history. Learn lessons. To rise above the serious and intense debate of the moment, concede and reflect in amusement, and at leisure.

Sport is entertainment but so is politics when it gets absurd and ridiculous.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarsdale_Villas

[2] https://youtu.be/j53z6RfFb7U

[3] a large African antelope with a long head, a beard and mane, and a sloping back. Also called a wildebeest.

Shameful

Let’s look at the current fetor objectively. Is it reasonable to say that the Government is using language that is reminiscent of political parties in Germany in the 1930s?

Politicians speaking stridently about making new laws plays well with media commentators and meets the need of being seen to be doing something, even if that something is highly flawed.

To marshal support for a much-criticised proposal, the language being used by Conservative politicians is harsh. Speaking in the House of Commons, a Minister said “there are 100 million people” who would qualify for asylum in the UK. This is reminiscent of the right-wing rhetoric used in 2016 by the referendum Leave campaign to say that 10s of million of Turkish people would come to the UK is we stayed in the European Union (EU).

Shamefully, scare stories about migration are the bread and butter of right-wing politicians much as they were in early 1930s in Germany. It’s clear, that the much-discussed Tweet by a well know football commentator[1], this last week has touched a political nerve. The truth often does touch a nerve.

There’s more than double trouble with Conservative politicians forcing the UK’s “independent” national broadcaster to sanction a well know football commentator for a private remark.

Godwin’s law[2] is known to politicians but maybe not more widely known. Basically, starting an argument by mentioning a comparison to Nazis is not a good a way to win a case. It’s that making an extreme comparison can undermine the credibility of a fair case against something bad.

Now, a national broadcaster with an obligation to aim for political impartiality, with respect to news and current affairs, is inconsistency jumping on the head of one of its popular faces. 

It’s sad that scrutiny of a proposal for a bad law is being overshadowed by an entirely unnecessary media spat. An unnecessary spat that is undermining free speech in the UK[3]. I do not think that Conservative politicians engineered this situation, but they unjustly are benefiting from it. The controversy is corralling right-wing support for a government bill that is full of holes.

I don’t know how we got to this ridiculous state but it’s part of a trend that has been evident since 2016. The reason an evil political party succeeded in Germany in the early 1930s is that they masked their true intent, and countless people discounted their prospects of electoral success. There’s an important lesson in history that we should never ignore.

The language politicians use does matter. It matters a lot.


[1] https://www.standard.co.uk/topic/gary-lineker

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

[3] https://news.sky.com/topic/gary-lineker-7610

Small Boats

Are there really hundred million people coming to Britain? Or is this a desperate scare tactic adopted by a Conservative Minister who has run out of workable ideas? It’s certainly the sort of tabloid headline that a lot of conservative supporters like to read. As we saw in the US, with former President Trump’s rhetoric on building a wall these themes stir-up negative emotions and prejudice. It’s a way of dividing people.

Xenophobia is defined as a fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign. With nearly 8 billion people on Earth[1] the potential for this destructive fear to be exploited has never been greater. Here, the Conservative Party is increasingly dominated by xenophobia and demagoguery, whatever a change of leadership may be trying to cover-up.

Will Parliamentary debate save us from the worst instincts highlighted in the Government’s latest proposals on small boat crossings? That’s a big question when the ruling political party has such a large parliamentary majority. Debate is likly to be heated and lacking objectivity.

Pushing the boundaries of international law can cause reputational damage, even if these rum proposals are defeated. However, what concerns most commentators is the high likelihood that the proposed measure will not work. They are merely a more extreme version of past failed policies.

One of the poorest political arguments is to criticise an opponent for reasoned opposition. It goes like this: here’s my policy and by opposing, it without providing your policy, you automatically make my policy a good one. It’s like planning to build a dangerously rickety bridge, likely to fail, and pointing to those who criticise the project as a reason why it’s a good to project.

When spelt out, like this it’s clear how curiously subversive this shoddy bombast can be. However, one of the basic party-political instincts, to seek headlines and publicity, has overridden common sense in this case. In the Government’s case, legislating regardless of the consequences, is an act of political desperation. Sadly, that’s where we are in this pre-election period.

NOTE: In June 2022, the UK had a prison population of roughly 89,520 people. The detention facilities needed to enable the Government’s small boats policy would need to be in the region of 40,000 people. Yet, there’s no published plan for a significant expansion of detention facilities. 


[1] https://www.census.gov/popclock/world

Big Red Barn

Farmers lung is not a myth. Or at least the causes are real. Being under a haybarn roof on a super-hot summer day with dust and chaff saturating the air is not to be recommended. The red painted galvanised tin roof of the barn created an oven to work in.

Haymaking was a big event in my family’s year. My pocket money was earnt at haymaking time. My brothers and I did a lot for 25p an hour.

It was never entirely the same from year to year. That is, even if the work of cutting grass, drying it, baling it, stacking it, and hauling it back to the barn was the same. Weather made the biggest difference. Damp heavy bales or light dry bales are a world apart.

Each field presented a different test of our strength and endurance. They all had names. “Big Ground” was flat, wide, and open but wet at one end. “Pump Ground” sloped towards the small brook and had its own ruts and wet patches. “Goulds Farm Moor” was a far-off place, or it seemed to me, that was bounded by the River Cale. “Little Ground” was the easiest and its name says why.

Back to the big red barn. We refined stacking hay bales as if it was an artform. There were good practical reasons for taking care where hay bales were placed. They were building bricks. Like Lego. Stacking them alternately gave some stability. We learnt by making mistakes. If we didn’t stack them differently from layer to layer the whole construction would move alarmingly or present crevasses which were less than safe.

In the big red barn, at least the steel uprights gave some square corners and support. In a field, a hayrick had to be built with a sound foundation and skill otherwise it would not survive the winter.

Most of the summertime, it was too hot and sweaty to wear gloves. That wasn’t so bad when baler twine was made of sisal[1]. As polythene baler twine came along it could be brutal on the hands.

As a 15-year-old, my ability to throw hay bales across a barn is not something I could match now. That is picking them off a much abused Lister bale elevator and then throwing them to whoever was staking, Dad or one of my brothers. We’d swap jobs from time to time. Staking was often the hardest job. Keeping up with the pace was tough.

As an aside the bale elevator[2] itself was a story. Every year, Dad would grease and oil it to make sure the moving parts worked. Inevitably the winter took its toll on the mechanics and a fix had to be improvised. I use the word “improvised” but what I really mean is botched. Baler twine, coach bolts and nails have many uses.

Powering the whole contraption was a much-abused Briggs and Stratton petrol engine[3]. It had a cord pull start. It was one where we often pulled endlessly in hope rather than and chance of getting it to start. When it did start, if the drive chain didn’t come off, it would warble away contently.

It’s droning sound moved up and down the scales as more or less bales were place on the elevator. If, usually my Mum, would put more than 4 bales on the conveyer it would all but stop. Slowly puffing away and straining to get the load to move. Most disturbing was the habit the engine had of leaking petrol. How we never came to burn down a hay barn or stack I will never know.

Looking back in time, the whole show was a health and safety nightmare. In 1975, that was not the overriding thought that went through anyone’s head. We live to tell the tale.


[1] https://www.chelfordfarmsupplies.co.uk/farmer-s-golden-sisal-baler-twine-9000

[2] https://www.agrimanuals.com/lister-multi-level-elevator-brochure-4522-p.asp

[3] https://www.briggsandstratton.com/na/en_us/support/faqs/browse/antique-engine-specifications.html#Collectors