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.

CS Lewis and the Transhumanists

Cap

Image borrowed from Twisty Turny Lanes

That Hideous Strength was published in 1945, the third of CS Lewis’s ‘space trilogy’. It’s a curious book, weaving dystopian sci fi, magic from the Dark Ages of Britain and Christian allegory into an adventure story about progress.

George Orwell thought the end result too unruly, commenting in a review for the Manchester Evening News:

Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways…

However if you can stand the lack of discipline (Orwell thought it ultimately a ‘book worth reading’ by the way), Lewis is thought-provoking on the natural world, technological progress in general, and the idea that we now call transhumanism in particular.

Sugar and spice, and all things nice

The villains of That Hideous Strength are the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (or NICE – to the discomfort of present-day clinical readers), an ambiguous and elastic organisation who claim to take a scientific approach to solving the social problems of the modern world.

To the general public, NICE’s purposes are fuzzy but benign. Mark Studdock, a young social scientist with a fellowship at a nearby university is ambitious and curious about the organisation. When discussing NICE with his academic peers, Mark speaks enthusiastically:

The real thing is that this time we’re going to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state, just as war has been backed by the whole force of the state in the past. One hopes, of course, that it’ll find out more than the old free-lance science did; but what’s certain is that it can do more

Through flattery and coercion on the part of some NICE staff with whom he makes contact, Mark abandons his fellowship and starts to work for the institute. Gradually he is initiated into NICE’s inner circle and trusted with NICE’s true purpose.

One night Filostrato, an Italian scientist, draws him to one side and tells him:

This Institute – Dio meo; it is for something better than housing and vaccinations and faster trains and curing the people of cancer. It is for the conquest of death: or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer. They are the same thing.

Filostrato has successfully preserved, by regulating the atmosphere and blood supply, the decapitated but still-living head of a notorious scientist, which regularly gives instructions to members of NICE. In time, Mark discovers the head (unknown to Filostrato) is actually a conduit for instructions from ‘macrobes’ – rather like fallen angels.

Merlin

The NICE scientists’ objective of defeating death (or organic life) is contrasted with an alternative, and typically Lewis, perspective inspired by ancient British myth and Christianity. This view is embodied, and fought for, by a small resistance who are joined by Merlin, who wakes from hundreds of years of sleep.

Merlin has lain interred under a wood since the dark ages and proves to be a wild nature-lover with 5th century habits and behaviours. He is aided, and becomes indwelt, by the Oyéresu (good angels who preside over nearby planets, and the inverse of the macrobes) to destroy NICE, including its scientists and the preserved Head.

As a side note, a running joke and symbol of NICE’s ambiguity is the obfuscatory language used by Wither, the organisation’s Deputy Director, who pulls the strings of the institute. Wither talks rather like Sir Humphrey Appleby. When asked by Mark to tell him exactly what his role at NICE would constitute, Wither replies:

We do not really think, among ourselves, in terms of strictly demarcated functions, of course. I take it that men like you and me are – well, to put it frankly, hardly in the habit of using concepts of that type. Everyone in the Institute feels that his own work is not so much a departmental contribution to an end already defined as a moment or grade in the progressive self-definition of an organic whole.

In the final chapters of the book, Merlin defeats NICE and distributes some poetic justice by casting the curse of Babel over NICE’s employees, causing them to become completely unable to understand each other. Finally, they are eaten in a bloody scene by the animals used in NICE’s experiments.

Aluminium trees

Like other dystopias, That Hideous Strength is a warning about what happens when progress is delegated to ideology of the few and divorced from the needs of the many. NICE professed to be working on public health and sanitation and other worthy goods, but instead were pursuing a madcap agenda, guided by dubious forces.

That Hideous Strength is also a commentary on what is lost when we rely on technology to fulfill our dreams. NICE’s real agenda was a war on nature. At one point, Filostrato orders a row of beech trees to be cut down, explaining to his colleagues that his idea of perfection would be to synthesise trees:

At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet … And why not? It is simple hygiene.

Oxford in the 1940s seems very far from 21st century California, but the ideas that Lewis attributed to NICE and Filostrato are fresh as ever – and increasingly popular. Ray Kurzweil, an inventor (currently employed by Google) and leading proponent of transhumanism, is impatient with nature’s pace:

Biological evolution is too slow for the human species. Over the next few decades, it’s going to be left in the dust.

Kurzweil imagines a time when people will transcend the “limitations of our biological bodies and brain” and predicts humanity will soon be able to scan human brains in such detail that it becomes feasible to reverse engineer them.

Once this is possible, the next logical step is for humans to be able to upload their brains to computers, effectively protecting themselves from bodily decay and becoming immortal – an idea now familiar through various films.

Matter of Britain

Merlin, the wild man, stands out in clear contrast to NICE’s techno-utopia. Where NICE want to eliminate biology, Merlin is deeply connected with nature. At one point, Dimble, another academic and one of Merlin’s allies in the resistance, muses about the difference between Merlin’s worldview and the NICE scientists:

Merlin is the reverse of Belbury [where NICE is based]. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse.

After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead – a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people, who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their power by tacking onto it the aid of spirits – extra-natural, anti-natural spirits [i.e. the macrobes] …

In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way.

Through That Hideous Strength,  Lewis warns that the power that technology appears to give us threatens our relationship with the natural world. While we may appear to have the ability to synthesise nature, we have forgotten just how interlinked we are; made of the same stuff and by the same Creator.

It’s easy to read Lewis as anti-progress, in his novels and other writings. When approached by the (presumably tongue-in-cheek) Society for the Prevention of Progress with an invitation of membership he replied in similar style, signing the letter “Yours regressively”:

While feeling that I was born a member of your Society, I am nevertheless honoured to receive the outward seal of membership. I shall hope by continued orthodoxy and the unremitting practice of Reaction, Obstruction, and Stagnation to give you no reason for repenting your favour.

This blog hopes to take a more open or curious (perhaps technorealist) approach. There may be parts of transhumanism thinking that are compatible with Christian views, which will be explored in future posts.

But any worldview which views nature as an expendable and replaceable commodity should send alarm signals to readers who take That Hideous Strength to heart.