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”