An open letter has been published. 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. 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 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). 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) 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?
 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.
There’s a tendency to downplay the negative aspects of the digital transition that’s happening at pace. Perhaps it’s the acceptance of the inevitability of change and only hushed voices of objection.
A couple of simple changes struck me this week. One was my bank automatically moving me to an on-line statement and the other was a news story about local authorities removing pay machines from car parks on the assumption everyone has a mobile phone.
With these changes there’s a high likelihood that difficulties are going to be caused for a few people. Clearly, the calculation of the banks and local authorities is that the majority rules. Exclusion isn’t their greatest concern but saving money is high on their list of priorities.
The above aside, my intention was to write about more general toxic impacts of the fast-moving digital transition. Now, please don’t get me wrong. In most situations such a transition has widespread benefits. What’s of concern is the few mitigations for any downsides.
Let’s list a few negatives that may need more attention.
Addiction. With social media this is unquestionable. Afterall digital algorithms are developed to get people engaged and keep them engaged for as long as possible. It’s the business model that brings in advertising revenues. There’s FOMO too. That’s a fear of missing out on something new or novel that others might see but you might miss out on.
Attention. Rapidly stroking a touch screen to move from image to image, or video to video encourages less attention to be given to any one piece of information. What research there is shows a general decline in the attention span as a characteristic of being subject to increasing amounts of information, easily made available.
Adoration. Given that so many digital functions are provided with astonishing accuracy, availability, and speed there’s a natural inclination to trust their output. When that trust is justifiable for a high percentage of the time, the few times information is in error can easily be ignored or missed. This can lead to people defending or supporting information that is wrong or misleading.
It’s reasonable to say there are downsides with any use of technology. That said, it’s as well to try to mitigate those that are known about and understood. The big problem is the cumulative effect of the downsides. This can increase fragility and vulnerability of the systems that we all depend upon.
If digital algorithms were medicines or drugs, there would be a whole array of tests conducted before their public release. Some would be strongly regulated. I’m not saying that’s the way to go but it’s a sobering thought.
The long history of data communications between air and ground has had numerous stops and starts. It’s not new to use digital communications while flying around the globe. That said, it has not been cheap, and traditional systems have evolved only slowly. If we think Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) is quite whizzy. It’s not. It belongs to a Windows 95 generation. Clunky messages and limited applications.
The sluggishness of adoption of digital communications in commercial aviation has been for several reasons. For one, standardised, certified, and maintainable systems and equipment have been expensive. It’s not just the purchase and installation but the connection charges that mount-up.
Unsurprisingly, aircraft operators have moved cautiously unless they can identify an income stream to be developed from airborne communication. That’s one reason why the passengers accessing the internet from their seats can have better connections than the two-crew in the cockpit.
Larger nations’ military flyers don’t have a problem spending money on airborne networking. For them it’s an integral part of being able to operate effectively. In the civil world, each part of the aviation system must make an economic contribution or be essential to safety to make the cut.
The regulatory material applicable to Airborne Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CS-ACNS) can be found in publications coming from the aviation authorities. This material has the purpose of ensuring a high level of safety and aircraft interoperability. Much of this generally applicable material has evolved slowly over the last 30-years.
Now, it’s good to ask – is this collection of legacy aviation system going to be changed by the new technologies that are rapidly coming on-stream this year? Or are the current mandatory equipage requirements likely to stay the same but be greatly enhanced by cheaper, faster, and lower latency digital connections?
This year, Starlink is offering high-speed, in-flight internet connections with global connectivity. This company is not the only one developing Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite communications. There are technical questions to be asked in respect of safety, performance, and interoperability but it’s a good bet that these new services will very capable and what’s more, not so expensive.
It’s time for airborne communications to step into the internet age.
NOTE: The author was a part of the EUROCAE/RTCA Special Committee 169 that created Minimum Operational Performance Standards for ATC Two-Way Data Link Communications back in the 1990s.
POST 1: Elon Musk’s Starlink Internet Service Coming to US Airlines; Free WiFi (businessinsider.com)
POST 2: With the mandate of VDLM2 we evolve at the pace of a snail. Internet Protocol (IP) Data Link may not be suitable for all uses but there’s a lot more that can be done.
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 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.
Isabel Oakeshott is interviewed. We are no wiser. The ins and outs of the story of Conservative Government Ministers during the COVID pandemic lockdowns is a story that will be written a thousand times. Hectares of the social media landscape will repeat every embarrassing blunder and poorly thought-out assertion. These ins and outs need to be dissected but it’s not work for those tying to improve their mental health.
People who have had some exposure to British politics often love “Yes Minister”, the BBC series that overflowed with wit, twists and turns. It lifted the lid on the stumbling workings of Whitehall and the political class. At the time the series was made there were no mobile phones in every pocket and paper was still king. Civil servants carried bundles of files down endless corridors. This wood panelled and stuffy environment was a commonplace image.
Opening a file really meant getting a folder and putting numerous memos and reports in it. Staking it high with the record of decision-making for future generations of historians to dissect.
In the 1970s, the speed of communication was mitigated by the medium. When it came to paper trails, that was a relatively human speed. Typed up memos were rarely dashed off without a thought. Documents were released with an official stamp and multiple signatories.
Fast forward to the 2020s. Office desks appear totally different from the past, that is if one exists at all. Mobiles have concentrated super-fast digital communication tools into the palm of a hand.
That said, official and unofficial communication channels continue to play their part in the corridors of power. What is shocking, in the current news stories is just how much the unofficial communication channels seem to dominate.
Afterall, we are not taking about a release of official Government emails. It’s worth asking; why are Government Ministers using WhatsApp so much? It’s a widely available commercial messaging application owned by the US company Meta.
Is the machinery of political governance getting so lax in the UK that we are behold unto a messaging mobile App over which we have no control what-so-ever?
Globally, WhatsApp may have over 2 billion users but that’s no guarantee of its integrity. The system does get hacked. Ministers using unofficial communication channels as if they were totally within their control are foolish, unethical, and naïve, to say the least.
What is the future of Hydrogen in Aviation? Good question. Every futurologist has a place for Hydrogen (H) in their predictions. However, the range of optimistic projections is almost matched by the number of pessimistic ones.
There’s no doubt that aircraft propulsion generated using H as a fuel can be done. There’s a variety of way of doing it but, the fact is, that it can be done. What’s less clear is a whole mass of factors related to economics, safety and security and desirability of having a hydrogen-based society.
H can be a clean form of energy, as in its purest form the process of combustion produces only water. We need to note that combustion processes are rarely completely pure.
It’s an abundant element but it prefers to be in company of other elements. Afterall, the planet is awash with H2O. When H is on its own it has no colour, odour, or taste. In low concentrations, we humans could be oblivious to it even though there’s a lot of it in the compounds that make us up.
Number one on the periodic table, it’s a tiny lightweight element that can find all sorts of ways of migrating from A to B. Ironically, that makes it an expensive element to move around in commercially useable quantities. H is often produced far away from where it’s used. For users like aviation, this makes the subject of distribution a fundamental one.
Part of the challenge of moving H around is finding ways of increasing its energy density. So, making it liquid or pumping it as a high-pressure gas are the most economic ways of using it. If this is to be done with a high level of safety and security, then this is not going to come cheap.
There are a lot of pictures of what happens when this goes wrong. Looking back at the airships of the past there are numerous catastrophic events to reference. More relevantly, there’s the space industry to look at for spectacular failures. A flammable hydrogen–air mixture doesn’t take much to set it off. The upside is that H doesn’t hang around. Compared to other fuels H is likely to disperse quickly. It will not pool on the ground like Kerosene does.
In aviation super strict control procedure and maintenance requirements will certainly be needed. Every joint and connectors will need scrupulous attention. Every physical space where gas can accumulate will need a detection system and/or a fail proof vent.
This is a big new challenge to aircraft airworthiness. The trick is to learn from other industries.
NOTE: The picture. At 13:45 on 1 December 1783, Professor Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers launched a manned balloon in Paris. First manned hydrogen balloon flight was 240 years ago.
Artificial intelligence (AI) transition
There’s much that has been written on this subject. In fact, for a non-specialist observer it’s not so easy to get to grips with the different predictions and views that are buzzing around.
There’s absolutely no doubt that Artificial intelligence (AI) will change every corner of society. Maybe a few living off-grid in remote areas will remain untouched but every other human on the planet will be impacted by AI. Where there’s digital data there will be AI. Some will say this brings the benefits of AI into our everyday and others herald a pending nightmare where we lose control.
Neither maybe totally on the money but what’s clear is that this is no ordinary technological transition. Up until now, the software we use has been a tool. Built for a purpose and shaped by those who programmed its code. AI is not like that at all. It’s a step beyond just a tool.
Imagine wheeling a hammer that changed shape to suite a job, but the user had no control over the shape it took. How will we take to something so useful but beyond our immediate control?
In civil aviation, AI opens the possibility of autonomous flight, preventive maintenance, and optimal air traffic management. It may work with human operators or replace them in its more advanced future implementations. Even the thought of this causes some professional people to recoil.
I’ve just finished reading the book of a former Google chief officer, Mo Gawdat and he starts off being pessimistic about the dangers of widespread general AI. As he moves through his arguments, the book points to us as the problem and not the machines. It’s what we teach AI that matters rather than the threat being intrinsic to the machine.
To me, that makes perfect sense. The notion of GIGO or “Garbage In, Garbage Out” has been around as long as the computer. It does, however, put a big responsibility on those who provide the training data for AI or how that data is acquired.
Today’s social media gives us a glimpse of what happens when algorithms slavishly give us what we want. Anarchic public training from millions of hand-held devices can produce some undesirable and unpleasant outcomes.
It maybe that we need to move from a traditional software centric view of how these systems work to a more data centric view. If AI starts with poor training data, the outcome will be assuredly poor.
Gawdat dismisses the idea that general AI can be explainable. Whatever graphics or equations that may be contrived they are not going to give a useful representation of what goes on inside the machine after a period of running. An inability to explain the inner working of the AI maybe fine for non-critical applications but it’s a problem in relation to safety systems.
 Mo Gawdat. Scary Smart, the future of artificial intelligence and how you can save our world. 2021. ISBN 978-1-5290-7765-0.
Root crops come in different shapes and forms. In Britain, most of our sugar comes from sugar beets. It’s weaned the country off colonial sourced sugar cane of decades ago. It’s a large home-grown industry that goes on under the radar. Given recent utterances, Government Ministers may not know that it exists.
There are deep cultural themes that are associated with root crops in Britan. Some of this imagery comes from a long history of growing root crops. Some of this comes from the British war time experience of ploughing up every available space for food production. In a time of food rationing the humble turnip played a key role. The turnip, Brassica rapa L., is one of the world’s oldest cultivated vegetables. Afterall they don’t require a lot of attention and can endure hostile weather quite well.
It’s a common myth that we (the British) all eat seasonally. It was mostly the poorer people in a community who had little choice.
My own recollection is of my father unsuccessfully growing a small field of turnips. They will grow in heavy Somerset clay soil but the mess of cultivating them on land that floods is beyond a joke. Machinery gets bogged down and the harvest is more dirt than turnips. I remember that the crop made good animal feed and little else. The field was quickly retuned to a new lay of grass.
This week, Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Therese Coffey told the UK Parliament: “lot of people would be eating turnips…”. This was a government statement addressing empty British supermarket shelves.
Now, I’m not about to have a downer on the poor turnip. They are a bit of an acquire taste but have meritorious qualities and are inexpensive. It’s more the silliness of the Minister’s utterance in the House of Commons that is surprising. It’s a naive exposition that casts the vital subject of food security as a comic game. The Minister doesn’t seem to have a command of her brief.
We all know that crop production can be sensitive to weather conditions throughout the growing season and at harvest. Farmers know that and live that fact. Supermarkets know that and live that fact. Both food production and distribution adapt, accordingly.
The British problem is that the cost of production has rocketed. Brexit and high energy costs have hammered farmers. Former specialisms in agriculture, like tomato production under glass, are not sufficiently supported to remain viable in current condition. In fact, tomato production is not alone in this respect.
What’s clear is that the UK’s Minister needs to get a grip. She needs to understand the nature of British agriculture and stop making foolish excuses.
Normal commercial air traffic control doesn’t go beyond 60,000 ft in altitude. That makes sense since civil flying activities have been limited to lower altitudes. In fact, modern commercial airliners are not designed to fly above about 45,000 feet. This is a compromise based on what works commercially as much as what’s works best. Aircraft instruments are calibrated making standard assumption about the atmosphere.
For some of its flight, Concorde cruised at a height of 60,000 feet. More like a military jet, with its speed it had the capability to make use of higher altitudes.
It’s even possible to fly above 50,000 feet without an engine. The world record glider flight by AIRBUS shows it’s possible.
The Earth’s atmosphere is not uniform. It changes its characteristics with altitude. The atmosphere can be divided into five layers, as the temperature and density change. They are named: Troposphere, Stratosphere Mesosphere, Ionosphere and Exosphere.
The Troposphere is a layer that goes from 8 kms (26,247 ft) on the poles to about 18 kms (59,055 ft) on the equator. This is the layer where weather is experienced.
On average, the Stratosphere goes up to about 40 kms (131,234 ft). The winds blows fast but they tend to be more consistent as they wrap around the globe. The lower portion of the Stratosphere is virtually isothermal (layer of constant temperature).
A medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon figured out that the air might support a ship in the same way that water supports ships. In the 13th Century that was a nice academic conclusion but little more.
With all the current controversy surrounding high altitude balloons, that the road to flight started with balloons, could be said to be a bit ironic. It’s long been known about that balloons fly well at high altitudes but it’s a new frontier as far as commercial activity is concerned. For science, weather balloons may go up to 40 km to measure the high level winds.
Some experimental work has been done on trying to commercially use the airspace above normally civil flying. The Google Loon trials are an example of an attempt to float a telecommunications platform high in the sky. These balloon trials were abandoned as difficulties proved greater than anticipated.
It’s not so easy to keep a high altitue balloon on-station.
Now, considering the news in North America, maybe high-altitude operations ought to be a matter of regulatory concern. This is not a subject that any one country can address alone.
There is some legal, regulatory and technical work underway in Europe but it needs to make progress. This is a subject for international collaboration.