Automatic for the People

Futurama's Bender, borrowed from

Futurama’s Bender, adapted from

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?


MPs’ Degrees: What Do They Know?

September 2017: The below post relates to MPs elected in 2010. If you’re interested in more up-to-date data, see some of the sources in this Twitter thread (click on the tweet to see the rest in the thread):

An earlier post quoted Carl Sagan, who was convinced that not enough people really understand science and technology: “a prescription for disaster”, he said. So what fields of knowledge are our national decision-makers most comfortable in?

There’s been plenty of media noise in recent years about ‘professional politicians’ and more recently about Labour’s choice of candidates, as well as the occasional FoI request to government departments to find out what qualifications ministers have.

But information on MPs’ qualifications doesn’t seem to be readily available… Until now perhaps! The data in the chart below was collected by a script which looks up the Wikipedia entry for each MP, searches for mention of their degree, and if found, categorises it:


Data collected by a script that looks up each MP’s Wikipedia entry

Of 650 MPs in the 2010-2015 parliament, the script found data on the degrees of 374 MPs, about 58% of the total. The other 276 may not be graduates, or their Wikipedia entry may not mention it, or be specific enough to categorise (some entries refer to a BSc or BA).

Of the sample, the most common subject area (using HESA’s subject areas) was social studies, which includes geography, economics etc. Following a sharp drop, the next category was law, and historical and philosophical studies, before another fall to languages.

The most common STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Maths) subject area (based on this definition) was physical sciences (14 MPs in the sample qualified in chemistry, physics etc.). 8 MPs had degrees in maths, 6 in engineering & technology and 2 in computer sciences.

Is the high proportion of social studies graduates in parliament actually unusual, or does it simply reflect the popularity of those subjects? This chart compares the distribution of MPs across subject areas with full-time students at UK universities in 2012/13:


MPs’ degrees vs. 2012/13 students

Of the three biggest parties; 11.3% of Conservative MPs, 11.9% of Labour MPs and 23.7% of Liberal Democrat MPs in the sample studied STEM subjects. However, taking sample sizes into account, the Lib Dems’ lead on STEM isn’t statistically significant.

About 32 MPs (9% of the sample) studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford. A recent BBC article about PPE in Westminster quoted graduate and columnist Nick Cohen talking about his subject’s penetration in government:

[PPE is] a degree for generalists, and British society has always loved generalists … But I think we’d certainly benefit from more scientists and engineers at the top.

Does this matter? Of course degrees in subject areas other than STEM are valuable; qualifications in politics or history are obviously appropriate for an MP. And of course it’s true that many social studies graduates have an excellent understanding of technology.

But the bias away from STEM is still striking. One humdrum argument for more tech know-how in Westminster is that as public services become more IT-dependent, ministers need a better understanding of the pitfalls of technology. As the Institute for Government found:

Ministers frequently do not pay sufficient attention to the IT dimension of policy announcements

But the more interesting arguments are related to future trends; say if human enhancement becomes commonplace, or robots have a big effect on the labour market. Legislators are keen to promote STEM, but does parliament itself have the knowledge it needs to keep up?

There’s now a sequel to this post that looks at Lords’ degrees.

Note on the script

The above charts may not be completely accurate; they depend on the MP’s Wikipedia entry to correctly record the degree, as well as the script’s ability to correctly categorise degrees into subject areas. The script is on Github, if you’d like to see it – or improve it!

Thanks to TheyWorkForYou for making the list of MPs available, and to Wikipedia for making its data available via an API, as well as its contributors for researching MPs and keeping their articles up to date. Any errors are highly likely to be the author’s.

Public Technology


Image of The Brains Trust borrowed from the BBC

“There’s no think tank for technology in the UK” someone said to me once.

They were right. There are think tanks with political leanings, like IPPR or Policy Exchange, there are think tanks for some of the big policy areas, such as RUSI or The Kings Fund, and there are think tanks about the processes of government itself, like the Institute for Government.

There is at least one tech think tank in the US, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who “formulate and promote public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity”. Perhaps the closest thing in the UK are academic research groups such as SPRU and the OII, or Demos’s social media project.

Why are think tanks important? In their lesser moments their ideas are obscure and superficially evidenced, funded by murky sponsorship deals. In their better moments they make new ideas viable, test them with rigorous research and raise levels of public understanding and debate on important issues.

Astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan wrote in 1996:

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.

There are an abundance of technological trends: big data, machine learning, the internet of things… One that’s particularly interesting – for the questions it raises and the future it suggests – is the future of people and technology: human enhancement, robots replacing workers, the changing relationship between people and machines.

That’s what this blog is about. Providing news reports on developments in personal technology; analyses of new products and prostheses; interviews with experts and so on. It’s not a think tank, it’s just a blog – but like a think tank it does hope to spread ideas and provoke thought.