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)):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Cameron

(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):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquess_of_Salisbury

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:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Gascoyne-Cecil,_7th_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.

Why Technology Isn’t Just Applied Science

Image from the British Library's collection on Flickr

Image from the British Library’s collection on Flickr

Do you love the nuances of a subtle definition, or do technicalities often strike you as trifling details? In case it’s the latter, please bear with this post, as defining what is (and isn’t) meant by technology is important for the early stages of a blog about tech and people!

Anyway, here’s Chambers’ (21st C) attempt as an opening example:

technology noun (technologies) 1 the practical use of scientific knowledge in industry and everyday life. 2 practical sciences as a group. 3 the technical skills and achievements of a particular time in history, of civilization or a group of people.

Chambers’ broad definition is typical of other sources. Is technology the application of science; an activity or practice; a specific branch of knowledge; the study of certain techniques; or something else? Is it one or more – or even all of – the above?

In The Nature of Technology, economist W Brian Arthur describes such definitions as “badly fused together and possibly even contradictory”. He offers a definition that seems thoughtful and precise, as well as representing the word’s common usage.

There are three parts to his definition:

1. Technology is always a “means to fulfill a human purpose”.

As a means, a technology might be a device (like an engine), or a process (filtration), or a method (like an algorithm). It might be complicated (like artificial intelligence) or simple (like a pulley), it could be something you could touch, or something intangible.

2. Technology is an “assemblage of practices and components”.

Some technologies (e.g. biotech or electronics) are also assemblies of other technologies. Later in the book. Arthur writes at some length about the recursive structure of technologies, each comprising assemblies or components which are technologies in their own right.

3. Technology is the “entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture”.

This is the collective meaning of technology, used when we talk about technology as ‘the solution for climate change’, or as the reason for ‘the pace of modern life’, for example. Arthur notes it’s the same idea that technologist Kevin Kelly refers to with his term the technium.

Arthur’s book is well worth reading for more on technology, not so much on the opportunities or risks of new tech, but on what technology actually is. He aims to set out what he thinks is missing: a theory – or “-ology” – of technology.

Let’s end with the common idea that technology is simply the application of science. Arthur thinks it’s more complicated – powered flight emerged with no need for science, and it’s only since the mid 1800s that tech has borrowed scientific knowledge.

Modern technology does use scientific ideas, but so does science rely on technology. The telescope enabled modern astronomy as much as Copernicus, and Watson and Crick (and Franklin) relied on X-ray diffraction methods to discover the structure of DNA.

The reality, Arthur argues, is that science is deeply woven into technology, as technology is into science.

Automatic for the People

Futurama's Bender, borrowed from hollywoodhatesme.wordpress.com

Futurama’s Bender, adapted from hollywoodhatesme.wordpress.com

In July 2014, the BBC, Guardian, FT and Wired covered a document that the Guardian described as “the UK’s first official robotics strategy”. But that makes it sound more official than it really is.

It’s been written – not by BIS or any other government department – but by members of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group (RAS SIG) of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

There were 19 members of the RAS SIG who contributed: 3 academics (inc. one co-chair), 2 from EPSRC, 2 from Knowledge Transfer Networks – and 12 from the private sector (inc. the other co-chair).

Read this then, as a fairly apolitical piece of advice to government from industry.

The report suggests that AUVs could roam Loch Linnhe, and driverless cars through the roundabouts of Milton Keynes. That Sellafield and Boulby Mine would make great testing grounds.

It’s heavy on the skills, networks, partnerships and assets that could help the UK capture a bigger slice of the robot economy. It’s light to non-existent on what you might call ‘thought leadership’ of robots.

As automation becomes more prevalent, there are big implications for the workers of the future economy. Where technology once replaced brawn, future software might easily replace brain.

Don’t expect issues like these to be thoughtfully explored in the RAS SIG’s document. On page 8 the authors briefly acknowledge there could be pros and cons to robotics and autonomous tech:

Whilst [Robotics and Autonomous Systems are] a positive development, RAS technologies will raise concerns – some legitimate, some very far-fetched. Of course, films and novels have explored some of these issues, and there is potential for RAS technology to be used for both good and bad.

They also mention “There will be many reasonable and appropriate questions for public debate”. But ultimately, they see their role as campaigning for these technologies:

People often find it difficult to envisage the potential uses of robots until they are presented with specific examples, such as improved prosthetic hands, or on demand parcel delivery. Greater awareness of the multiplicity of roles RAS are capable of performing can therefore lead to an increase in support from the general public.

This is all fine, so long as it’s understood that this is the work of an industry group who are enthusiastic about the potential for the technologies they develop and want others to agree with them.

The net economic benefits to the UK’s economy might well be very significant. The Telegraph report the global market could be $70bn each year by 2025. Nothing wrong with that, either.

What is the problem then? It’s the lack of debate, understanding and preparation for the downside of automation. Stian Westlake writes in his introduction to NESTA’s recent pamphlet on robots:

It is hard for governments – or indeed for anyone – to accurately diagnose whether an innovation is sufficiently bad to ban. But politicians should encourage an open and informed debate about it, backed up with the capability to regulate effectively if necessary, and approach that researchers like Richard Owen and Jack Stilgoe have called ‘responsible innovation’.

The risks of automation aren’t unlikely or small, nor are the implications relevant only to the far future. On same day that the RAS SIG’s strategy was published, David Willetts was expected to say:

Robots have often been positioned as a thing of the future, but today’s strategy-launch emphasises the fact that they are very much of the here and now.

Technology moves oh, so quickly. Much faster than policy. Informed public debates and good public strategy on robots (and other technologies) matter. Can we have some, please?

Falling for It

Image adapted from a woodcut by Bernard Saloman

Image adapted from a woodcut by Bernard Saloman

Who decides whether technological modifications to a person are an enhancement or not? Theologian Ronald Cole-Turner asks this question in his introduction to Transhumanism and Transcendence.

The modification might be medicine that makes you smarter, an implant that gives you a ‘new’ memory, or perhaps a physical prosthetic that allows you to control devices with your brain.

Secular approaches to bioethics, he explains, inevitably end with the subject of the change deciding for themselves whether the modification is an improvement or not.

This leads Cole-Turner towards an interesting question:

What are we to think if, after the technological enhancement, there is a change of mind – literally? Before the modification, the person completely understands and truly believes that the change is an enhancement. After the modification, the person completely understands and believes that it is not an enhancement, not because anything went wrong but because the enhancement worked and the moral core of the person has been changed. In such case, is the change an enhancement?

The thought experiment is a reminder of a much older story:

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”

“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

The serpent convinces Eve to be disobedient by convincing her of the fruit’s enabling power. Eve quickly realises that though the serpent told the truth, the ‘enhancement’ was a trap:

“The serpent deceived me,” she replied. “That’s why I ate it.”

And according to the Christian story, the consequences are realised by Eve, humanity – and ultimately by God – at incalculable cost.

Technology is Neutral

Martin Heidegger wrote the following introductory lines to establish the scope and approach of his 1954 essay The Question Concerning Technology:

We shall be questioning con­cerning technology, and in so doing we should like to prepare a free relationship to it. The relationship will be free if it opens our human existence to the essence of technology …

Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology. When we are seeking the essence of “tree,” we have to become aware that That which pervades every tree, as tree, is not itself a tree that can be encountered among all the other trees.
Likewise, the essence of technology is by no means any­ thing technological. Thus we shall never experience our relation­ ship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it.

What struck me most was the next paragraph:

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as some­ thing neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we par­ticularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

The concept of neutral technology (it’s what you do with it that counts) is surely as prevalent today as it was when Heidegger wrote – at least among those who develop tech.