Turning it on again


Thanks to Beth Gittings and presumably Channel Four

It’s just over a year since I last tried (and failed) to restart this blog.

This time I’m sticking to Twitter, and plan to tweet links to developments specific to the human-machine relationship, as well as stuff on religion and technology in general.

There’s a lot more of the latter about than when I started this blog in 2014, so I’m hopeful I’ll find enough thought-provoking links to keep the momentum up.

Do follow Subtle Engine on Twitter: SubtleEngine

If you come here from Google, you might be looking for this post on what MPs studied at university. But be aware this is historical and related to MPs elected in 2010.

Since then, Nesta have taken the same approach of scraping Wikipedia for data on the education of 2017 parliamentary candidates, which will be more up to date.


Friday Links – 3rd June 2016

A bumper set of links this Friday, partly because I haven’t written one for over a year, and partly because there is quite a lot out there at the moment:

  • Chi Onwurah’s talk to the Hay Festival on the digital revolution and Labour’s role in securing fairness in the new economy: “We should never forget that while change is inevitable progress isn’t.”
  • Nesta have published an interesting comparative review of ten national innovation agencies, from Innovate UK to the USA’s DARPA and Finland’s Tekes
  • Huffington Post Tech has a series on Tech for Good, with contributions from NGOs and startups in the public and social sector, including a piece on London’s role
  • Tom Steinberg writes about two camps in the technology world: the mitigators and promoters: the former sceptical about technology’s social benefits, the latter less so
  • Cassie Robinson blogs on an evolving set of principles of what constitutes Tech for Good, including its ability to benefit the ‘99%’, its purpose, its provenance and more
  • Back in March, Demos Quarterly focused on tech, from AI to blockchains to h+: “technological advance over the last decade in particular has think tanks struggling to catch up” – yup!
  • Also not-new, but there have been a few posts and publications on basic income (partly in response to automation), including The Economist, the RSA and Adam Smith Institute
  • Speaking of automation, the OECD reckon estimates of how many of today’s jobs are at risk are overblown, and take a task-based approach to calculate that 9% of jobs could be automated
  • Lastly and enigmatically, Y Combinator announced HARC: Human Advancement Research Community, with a grand mission statement to “ensure human wisdom exceeds human power”

Technology in Parliament

Image from the Mail, with apologies to Baroness Trumpington

TheyWorkForYou has a great email alert service, which looks up Parliament’s Hansard and lets you know if a topic has been mentioned at Westminster, Holyrood or the Welsh Assembly.

The SubtleEngine twitter account is going to start tweeting occasional paragraphs from speeches that touch on technological trends, such as automation, artificial intelligence and enhancement.

Here’s the first, from Dean Lockhart MSP, during a speech at Holyrood on the Scottish economy:

Read the rest of the speech here.

GDS & The Internet of Things

Thanks to Marketoonist for the image

What does the Internet of Things (IoT) have to do with public service delivery? If, like me, you’re curious about the potential, here’s another good reason for wanting the election to be over…

In January, Mike Bracken, head of the Government Digital Service (GDS) blogged about a GDS / BIS (Department of Business, Innovation & Skills) IoT project, which aimed:

“… to find out how we can use our role in government to help in the [IoT] field; what are the most effective things we can do to help the sector grow and make sure these platforms are valuable for end users and businesses alike.”

Mike hired Matt Webb to work on the project. Matt was co-founder of the sadly-defunct Berg, the agency who put people at the centre of the IoT with some lovely inventions. Matt recently tweeted:

From Mike’s blog post, it sounds as if the four month project was expected to explore how the government could catalyse, support and guide the nascent IoT sector, partly through the role of standards:

“The same values [openness, interoperability and flexibility] have a place in the technologies around us too. Would an open, interoperable Internet of Things help the sector grow? How can we encourage that growth, and where might we lead the way?”

Since it was established, GDS has been focused first on building GOV.UK, a single domain for the UK government, then on developing tools that allow ‘transactional’ public services to be delivered online.

But this project doesn’t sound like public service delivery. It wasn’t, for example, exploring how the IoT might in future mediate the relationship between people and their government.

It sounds more like strategy development and industrial policy for the IoT: investigating how the sector’s foundations could best be laid.

So does this initiative suggest a shift in the role of GDS? Having built up its undoubtedly talented team, does its remit now include technology policy advice as well as building tools for delivery?

And would it be speculating too far to think that projects like this (combined with rumours of the abolition of BIS under the Tories) indicate that GDS might evolve  into a new Ministry of Technology?

We’ll have to wait until after purdah to find out.

#GE2015 & Technology

The Guardian recently published a short piece by Dr Sue Black, known for her championing of the campaign to restore Bletchley Park. Dr Black takes issue with the seven leaders of the UK political parties who appeared in ITV’s debate last Thursday:

Last night’s election leaders’ debate was notable for the almost complete absence of technology, bar a hesitant reference to “IT” from Ed Miliband. Not one of the seven candidates spoke about technology as an enabler, as a tool that offers us the capability to completely revitalise our economy.

There’s no doubt that technology has been missing from election messaging — but that’s understandable as it’s hardly a vote-winning issue in the same way that the NHS, the economy (as a whole), employment and zero-hour contracts are.

Dr Black’s piece continues:

Now is the time for a new inspiring vision of the future, from a leader who can not only lead but who is not afraid to connect and collaborate. A leader who understands and can leverage the massive opportunities available, someone that our innovative, inventive and creative population can believe in. We need a leader who understands the capabilities inherent in modern technology and has the ability to use them to solve our problems. We need that leader now.

Absolutely. Though I would also add that we need leaders who understand the risks of quickly-developing technology (e.g. to jobs, health, social mobility etc.) as well as the rosy promises that some technologists and businesses make.

Apologies for quoting a Labour politician on their own (rather than finding good examples from both sides of the Commons), but one candidate that sprung to mind on reading Dr Black’s piece was Liam Byrne, who fairly recently wrote (in the context of jobs):

… here’s the really bad news.

Technology and trade may be about to make the problem even tougher.

Technology may prove the more important short term force because of the way it is simply transforming the future of work. Technology has now automated huge numbers of what were once reasonably skilled, reasonably paid jobs. It’s a long trend, treated extensively in Labour and the Scientific Revolution back in 1963, but the pace feels like it’s getting faster.

Our ability to combine technology – processing power, cheap sensors, robotics, networks, social media, big data – means we’re now at an inflection point in our ability to combine and recombine technologies to do new things, revolutionising technology from Google’s driverless cars to better diagnosis of diseases.

First technology took the blue collar jobs. Now it’s the white collar jobs as well. …

The above is a paraphrased from Chapter Two of Byrne’s Robbins Rebooted: How we earn our way in the second machine age, which outlines some of Labour’s thinking on the future of higher education.

It’s good to see some traction for the risks that fast-developing autonomous systems might have for jobs and social mobility. It would be better to see a whole lot more.

Responsible Innovation – Jack Stilgoe


Metropolis’s Rotwang: do mad scientists make irresponsible innovators?

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.

So said Stephen Hawking to the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones a few weeks ago. Hawking’s caution followed a similar statement about artificial intelligence from tech entrepreneur Elon Musk earlier this year.

How do we balance the need to invent and innovate our way out of the challenges we face (often caused by the unexpected side-effects of yesterday’s technologies), while avoiding the dangers of other technologies which influential people are warning us of?

Subtle Engine spoke to Jack Stilgoe of UCL’s Department of Science and Technology Studies about the relationship between technology and society, and what has become known as responsible innovation, which might provide part of the answer. Continue reading “Responsible Innovation – Jack Stilgoe”

Friday Links – 12th December 2014

The BBC gets to

The BBC gets to grips with robot cameras

This week’s links:

  • Pete Phillips of Durham’s CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology speaks on Transhumanism for Premier Radio (in Nov): “We are all cyborgs already. We are all transhuman already.”
  • The BBC’s Jane Wakefield writes about a Swedish implant party: “People bond over the experience and start asking questions about what it means to be a man and machine.”
  • Redditors discuss whether to refer to themselves as futurists or transhumanists when asked whether they have a religion: “I don’t call myself a futurist because the name is kind of silly imo.”
  • The Independent reports that the BBC’s robot cameras continue to wind up presenters, as Martine Croxhall said in one forced voice-over: “If I sidle in you can pretend you haven’t noticed.”
  • Wired reports that Google is replacing Captchas with algorithms that distinguish between people and machines, including detecting tiny movements that happen when people move their mouse
  • Sandor Veres of Sheffield writes on The Conversation about a new ESRC-funded project that will “examine how to formally verify and ultimately legally certify robots’ decision-making processes”
  • The Guardian re-posted an article from December 1981“Robot kills factory worker: The accident was the first of its kind in Japan, a nation which has the largest robot workforce in the world”
  • The BBC’s Padraig Belton writes about robots in retail: “robots on the shop floor could bring back the personal service while shopping we associate more with the past, than the future.”

Friday Links – 5th December 2014

Amazon’s Kiva robots perform The Nutcracker’s No.2 March

Each Friday, this blog will be posting links to stuff on the web on technology (and more specifically on the relationship between tech and people). Here’s this week’s:

Send a tweet or leave a comment if you think of something else that should be included here.

Lords’ Degrees

This post is a sequel to a previous post on MPs’ degrees

In June, Subtle Engine posted a chart that showed which subject areas were studied by a sample of MPs while at university. A few people suggested that it would also be interesting to see what fields of knowledge the Lords were most comfortable with. So here we go…

TL;DR – Like MPs, members of the Lords primarily studied degrees in arts rather than science or technology subject areas. About 17% of Lords studied STEM subjects (more than MPs’ 13%).

Data collected by a script that looks up each Lord’s Wikipedia entry (click for full size image)

As with MPs, data on Lords’ degrees isn’t published. The approach used in this post (and the previous) is to use an automatic script that looks up Lords’ entries in Wikipedia, and searches for phrases that mention HE qualifications, e.g. “gained a first in…” or “graduated in…”.

Using a list of 858 current Members of the Lords (from They Work For You), the script found Wikipedia entries for at least 636 Lords. Of the 636 entries it was possible to find references to and categorise 260 Lords’ degrees (about 30% of the House) into subject areas.

The four most common subject areas (accounting for 75% of the sample) were identical to those of MPs – Social studies, Law, Historical & philosophical studies and Languages. Again, as with the MPs, there was a fairly rapid drop to the less popular subjects.

About 17% of the sample studied subject areas generally thought of as STEM; slightly higher than the sample of MPs, of which 13% studied STEM subjects. The most popular STEM subject area was physical sciences, followed by Medicine & dentistry and Mathematical sciences.

Comparing the Lords’ subject areas to those of the population of students at UK universities in 2012/13 shows the bias towards Social studies, Law and Historical and philosophical studies – and away from others, such as Creative arts and design, or Biological sciences:

Lords’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students

Lords’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students (click for full size image)

As with the previous blog post on MPs’ degrees, the point of this post isn’t that non-STEM degrees aren’t valuable, but that there is a noticeable lack of representatives in the Lords who have studied science and technology subjects at university.

At the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, there’s no better illustration of the need for Lords who are informed of technology than the recent story of Lady O’Cathain (whose Wikipedia article doesn’t mention her degree) and her horror at the discovery of Google Maps:

I was horrified the other day when I was giving a certain website to look at. I could see the roses in my garden. It was on a Google map or something, and I have no idea how it was taken.

Lady O’Cathain joined a new committee called Digital Skills, appointed in June to “examine what [rapidly changing technology] means for the labour market”. Perhaps the Lords should start with themselves?

Note on the script and sample

It’s slightly harder to automatically look up Lords than MPs on Wikipedia, as the URLs of their articles are more colourful. It’s generally easy for a script to find an MP’s Wiki page by concatenating their first and last name (sometimes appending _(politician)):


(Hereditary) Lords are referred to by their title, like The Marquess of Salisbury, but searching for this on Wikipedia results in the page for the title rather than the current holder of that title (searching for the bishops results in a similar issue):


What we want for our purpose is to find the incumbent’s page, but there’s no consistent way of linking from the title’s page to the current holder (some pages do, and some pages don’t). Here’s the page we actually want for the Marquess of Salisbury:


This is by way of an aside, but is mentioned to show that the initial sample of 636 Lords is probably biased towards life peers (who, like MPs, have less ambiguous Wikipedia URLs) and away from hereditary peers and the lords spiritual.

As with the previous post, these charts will not be perfectly accurate, but should show the broad trend fairly reliably. They depend on correct Wikipedia entries as well as the script’s ability to correctly categorise degrees into subject areas.