Monthly Archives: January 2021

The future in 2004

I was searching for a slide (didn’t find it) and stumbled across my 2004 presentation to the World Future Society conference, about AI, machine consciousness and human-machine convergence. It’s quite depressing how much the IT world has underachieved compared to our expectations back then, based on the current state of thinking and rate of progress back then. You can speculate yourself on the reasons for that, but we are where we are, and we should be much further on. Anyway, you may find some of the slides interesting because some of the concepts are still waiting.

Should the IT Industry now be formally represented as the 4th branch of US Government?

Joint blog with Bronwyn Williams

We’ve known for many years about the importance of the IT industry, and in particular its social media arm, in facilitating political campaigning. A few years ago, big data and AI also became prominent political forces. Now, server farms, cloud services and everyday app provision have also entered politics. There is nothing wrong with providing powerful platforms to facilitate politics; the point here is that they are powerful but remain under the control of big IT, not government. These technologies are developing rapidly, and will become more and more important forces in politics, governance, as well as in every field of control and provision of essential services and information. Cash is well on the way to being exclusively digital, phones track us and every aspect of our lives and even smart watches now play roles in medical insurance and services.

The last two elections have shown that IT vulnerabilities are often perceived as almost as important, potentially allowing malign overseas agents to influence opinions via social media or even to directly control or attack electoral software or machines. It makes no difference whether particular instances of corruption or fraud did or didn’t happen – that’s for historians to debate – what matters is that they could have and could in the future.

In this election, we have learned the enormous potential for such malign influences and even more so the enormous power exercised by big IT. We’re well used to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram censoring opinions they don’t like, now censoring all the way through the social media influencer ranks right up to the President, but we have this week seen Google, Apple, Amazon and Stripe acting in synch, as an oligarchy, flexing their muscles to remove entire business – including web hosting and payment processing – from their platforms, effectively denying those businesses the ability to operate. Censoring or removing individuals from posting on social media platforms is one thing (and could reasonably be understood within the frame of general freedom of association). A coordinated attack to deny a third party business the ability to trade is quite another. Such an ability goes beyond a businesses risk towards being a matter of national security – imagine, for example, the digital oligarchy described above joined forces to hold a government service or department (perhaps a national health service) reliant on consumer-facing cloud based third party platforms and services hostage?  

With IT hardware, comms, AI, cloud services, software, apps, social media, audio and video media, gaming, advertising, and extensive control over the retail and distribution industries, big IT now wields so much power over US life and politics that it could be considered a fourth branch of governance, alongside POTUS, Congress and SCOTUS. 

This has happened gradually over many years, and although most aspects of it were predicted well in advance, it is abundantly clear that politics was not and is not ready for it.

We have a conundrum. Freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right to refuse service are all key components of a free and fair society. But what happens when those freedoms come into conflict? Complex messy problems require clever solutions to ensure the cure is not worse than the disease. Simply handing power over digital communication networks and access from powerful private entities to government regulators only further centralises the risk of censorship and propaganda. As recent years have shown, politicians are not infallible, or altruistic. As with all systems, agents will act according to the incentives presented to them to maximise their own power and further their own agenda’s – be that profits, votes or popularity

One suggestion that might offer a middle way out of our Catch22, is to implement a new formal independent agency, representing big IT, let’s call it ITOTUS. It should be a body that includes key members of the main facets of the broad IT industry. It should, like SCOTUS, be staffed by people very expert in their field, and like SCOTUS, theoretically impartial (easier said than done, yes, but theoretically possible) . Its primary purpose should be to ensure a democratic level playing field that provides sound IT hardware and services to the US population without fear or favor, that is protected against political bias, corruption or malign foreign interests. As well as ensuring and guarding security and privacy and access to digital utilities (such as the ability to host a functional website or app and receive digital payments), it might also be the natural body to implement such upcoming fields as AI ethics, robot rights, human-machine convergence.

“one ought to design systems under the assumption that the enemy will immediately gain full familiarity with them” ~ Shannon’s maxim

ITOTUS is already needed, it is just late. The incoming administration will find an IT industry much aligned with its own politics, for now, but they will also soon realise that such alignment will not last for long, and this new body will very soon not only be desirable, but unavoidable.

Whatever path we choose, as citizens or states, we have to do so on the understanding that if not tomorrow (or on the 21st of January) then eventually, the system we design, the rules we choose, and the institutions we establish – be they public or private – will find themselves controlled by our ideological opponents. This is why it makes sense to advocate for an institution with a degree of autonomy from state, church (popular ideology) and business, to guard and tame the leviathan we have unleashed upon ourselves. 
A further question, perhaps, should be whether this oversight capacity should be national or international? After all, the same issues of domestic freedom of speech and trade are only magnified at an inter-state level. A fractured, nationalised global internet is no better for humanity than a fractured bi-parisan domestic internet.

Guest Author bio:

Bronwyn Williams is a futurist, economist and trend analyst.  

Her day job as a partner at Flux Trends involves helping business leaders to use foresight to  design the future they want to live and work in.  

You may have seen her talking about Transhumanism or Tikok on Carte Blanche,; or heard her  talking about trends on 702 or CNBC Africa where she is a regular expert commentator. When  she’s not talking to brands and businesses about the future, you will probably find her curled up  somewhere with a (preferably paperback) book. 


A new voyage of discovery

Well, it’s 30 years since I became a full-time futurologist. I am now pretty much retired, just doing occasional minor consultancy, but I am rediscovering my artistic leanings and experimenting. I have little talent or skill so my expectations are low but that means my personal threshold for amusement and delight is also low. With no need to sell anything, I will just do what I like and enjoy it.

As for futures, well, my brain isn’t dead. It is deeply frustrating watching society and government right across the West squander the enormous techno-social opportunities they have been given, so often choosing the paths into disease-riddled bogs and snake-infest deserts instead of the ones to the beautiful peaceful gardens. My blogs and books have called the fantastic opportunities and warned of the risks ahead but I take less joy doing so as our leaders insist in taking our countries down the wrong paths, so although I will continue to analyse and predict, I will document far fewer of my future insights.

I fear for our children. They will not inherit the world they should have.

Multidimensional government incompetence needs to end

I haven’t written a COVID blog for several months. Some of what government is attempting now half-heartedly and badly echoes some of the advice of my blogs back in March and April, so my disapproval of some of their policies is not on the what but the when and how. Wiser government offering good leadership, backed up by a moderately competent public sector, would have got through with a tiny fraction of the deaths and economic destruction. It may well be the case now that public trust and cooperation have been squandered, leaving fear and coercion as the only still-working tools. The vaccines will help of course, but slow delivery and ongoing public sector incompetence will mean more unnecessary deaths for at least another year. Tens of thousands are dead from COVID who shouldn’t be, as well as perhaps well over 100,000 more who will die from other illnesses due to lack of timely diagnosis and treatment. We, our children and our grandchildren will pay heavily in lingering economic, social, political and cultural damage. It shouldn’t have been like this, it really shouldn’t. That a few other countries have performed almost as badly is little consolation.

Tempting though it is, I won’t present a forensic analysis of past errors. They can’t be undone so there is little point. However, government can still improve on vaccine roll-out.

Firstly, while it was essential to make sure that vaccines were developed quickly, I do not believe it a good idea to guarantee the developers freedom from litigation in the case of bad reactions, not to try to block any debate on the potential downsides of vaccination. Vaccination is one of the most valuable scientific contributions of all time, but trust in its safety and efficacy and hence support for rolling it out depend strongly on the freedom to discuss both sides and weigh them against each other.

Secondly, many retired health care workers who have offered to assist in a speedy vaccination programme are currently being blocked by irrelevant administrative requirements. While there may be debatable value in having some health workers undertaking diversity training or training in guarding against radicalization, it is hard to see why not having undertaken such training should prevent someone from safely vaccinating someone. Barriers such as these need to be removed immediately, since every day lost means lives lost needlessly. Worse, the existence of such barriers is strong evidence of the unsuitability of key administrators to the vaccination programme They should be replaced, quickly. With an estimated quarter of infections happening in hospitals, (as well as the many infected in care homes due to administrators forcing out elderly patients into homes without proper checking) there should be more focus on training staff how not to spread infections. It is surely more important that your nurse doesn’t give you COVID than whether they use an incorrect pronoun or may not be fully aware of some discrimination you may once have been exposed to.

Thirdly, government shows an ongoing fondness for authoritarianism that will leave socio-political damage that will last many years. Social relationships have suffered as people overly fond of rules have become informers. Many important freedoms we used to take for granted will in future depend on the whim of ministers in charge, greatly undermining the consent foundations of democracy. Good leadership would rely instead on strong use of education and skillful soliciting of cooperation. If people were made well aware of the very basics of relevant science – how viruses spread, and how that is likely to be affected by different types of behaviours, or different types of masks – and persuaded to follow well-designed protocols, that would have, and could still, reduce infection rates enormously. Instead, government scientists have fully reversed their position on masks and tried to enforce quite arbitrary and often illogical restrictions, making some areas watertight while opening or ignoring gaping holes. That guarantees maximum inconvenience, social distress and economic damage, while reaping minimal benefit, as evidenced by the remarkable lack of correlation between lockdowns and infection rates.

Fourthly, the NHS has been subjected to worship where admonishment was due. It was clearly not fit for purpose, hopelessly unprepared to deal with a pandemic that everyone knew would one day arrive. Almost a year on, it has almost become a single disease service. Having commissioned the Nightingale Hospitals, and given that most existing hospitals have numerous separate buildings, would it be so difficult to arrange for COVID patients to be treated and still treat other ailments in separate buildings, with separate staff? With so many highly paid administration staff, you might reasonably expect they’d have solved that by now. Many people will die from heart disease, cancer, diabetes or some other disease because they were not seen or treated until too late. Many of us have already lost loved ones due to this problem. It must be fixed.

Fifthly, and I’ll make this the last one for now because I’m reaching my boredom threshold, government needs to stop the enormous economic damage it is causing. Forcing lots of businesses to close forever while allowing infections to spread rapidly by other means is not good management. Killing so many small businesses by refusing them financial support while supporting others will not incentivise those business risk-takers to take future risks. Many business people have had to live on their life savings, while watching others being totally or partially insulated from adverse financial effects. Gratuitously harming entrepreneurial activity over such large swathes of the economy will slow both economic and cultural recovery.

I wrote recently about ongoing harmful effects of poor environmental policy, following green dogma instead of proper system-wide, full life-cycle thinking, so it is not only in COVID that government falls short. Defence of freedom of speech instead of political correctness, pursuit of true equality instead of surrendering to tribal demands and perhaps most of all firming up the foundations of freedom and democracy instead of dismantling them are other dimensions where government needs to perform better. In short, it is too late to undo the damage of the many errors of the past, but not yet too late to stop serious ongoing damage.