Category Archives: politics

Lockdown must end very soon

It seems inevitable that the government will soon announce an extension to lockdown, and that it will be made more severe. Most of us will have several more weeks of being confined to homes, probably only except for trips to the supermarket or doctor. For many people, that means solitary confinement, in small flats with no garden. Even murderers in prison area allowed out for daily exercise.

Lockdown is due to be ‘reviewed’ soon, but it must end soon. The ongoing costs will be too damaging if it is allowed to continue, not just economic cost but extra deaths, mental health issues and lingering social and political damage

UK Health Authorities and Government negligence got us into this mess, but they are still making serious blunders

The handling of COVID by both the government, the health authorities and the police has been pretty poor so far. If you disagree, consider the following.

Experts have been warning frequently for decades that one of the biggest risks faced by humanity this century would be pandemics – every competent futurist has certainly always had it in their top three risks. They have been warned frequently that global travel and large city living would enable the very rapid spread globally of any new virus and that any time, a new outbreak could happen that would mean millions could die. Government cannot claim they did not have good warning that we would face a major pandemic. In fact, we’re fortunate this one only kills 0.66% of those it infects, it could have been far worse, it might have been 30%. Yet government and especially its Department of Health was very badly unprepared, with far too few incubators, intensive care beds, even face masks, let alone ensuring the ability to rapidly develop testing capability or vaccines. This unpreparedness goes back several governments. Hancock is doing his best and can reasonably claim he hasn’t been in that job long, but his many predecessors can’t escape condemnation. For example, I could never understand how someone who believes in homeopathy could possibly be be made Minister of Health, or why a PM would expect someone with such beliefs to have good analytical skills.

We knew COVID was a such a potential risk before the first cases were allowed to enter the UK.

In the weeks following, even though they knew large numbers of infected people were coming into the country, government did nothing. It didn’t close the airports. It made no attempt to prevent flights from infected areas, no attempt to check passengers even for obvious symptoms such as fever. It didn’t even give passengers any appropriate health guidance other than weakly suggesting they should consider self-isolating if they develop symptoms. It allowed passengers from infected area to be huddled closely together with others at passport control, greatly facilitating cross-infection. It made no attempt to quarantine anyone likely to be infected or to track their contacts. In short, government sat and watched as the virus spread beyond control, even helping it to do so.

During all that time, while it asked vulnerable people to isolate themselves, it allowed the idiot mayor of London to reduce tube services, forcing those who needed to travel into close proximity on platforms and trains, again facilitating the spread of the virus.

Faced with the choice to limit the virus coming into the UK, finding, isolating and contact tracking the manageable number of infectees, our government negligently watched as the virus became widespread. Its early policy was to achieve ‘herd immunity’, which needs 80% or more people to become infected. Many would develop serious symptoms and suffer terribly and many would go on to die horrible deaths. The estimated 250,000 deaths from a herd immunity approach contrast starkly with the few dozen that might have resulted from the alternative early action approach.

The governments response then changed to a ‘flatten the curve’ approach, still accepting that most people would be infected, but limiting the number of simultaneous cases to the small numbers the unprepared NHS could cope with. Because of their previous actions, they had little choice. They hoped that eventually, a vaccine might be developed, in 18 months or so.

When the virus seemed to be spreading too quickly, instead of reducing the rate of spread by concentrating on the gaping holes in their approach – allowing people to be crammed together in tube stations and passport control, and still letting others enter the country – they decided instead to introduce lockdown for a large part of the population, regardless of the level of infection in different areas, varying by as much as a factor of 20. Those people would suffer lockdown, while many others would still be crammed together spreading infection. In low infection areas, that lockdown could only reduce a small figure by a small amount. In other areas with high infection, a stricter lockdown would have achieved far more.

Many areas of London have very high infection rates. Given the 75% reduction in traffic, it would be extremely simple to lift London traffic controls and encourage as many as possible to use their private cars, especially for those living in the most infected areas, greatly reducing cross infection in the tube system. Instead, one of the heads of Public Health England made the comment that she was ‘slightly alarmed’ by the switch of travel from public transport to private vehicles. PHE has also stated that there is no point in wearing masks (a simple mask may not prevent you catching the virus, but they will greatly reduce how many virus-laden particles people emit when they talk, cough or sneeze and therefore will reduce the rate of infection. It may well be the case that PHE wants to reduce demand by the public for scarce masks so that enough will be available for those who need them, but if so, they should say so and not talk rubbish). I find it more than slightly alarming that people with such poor analytical skills should be in positions of decision making. Masks should be worn, prioritizing availability if need be to high infection areas.

People are still travelling between areas of very high infection and areas with very low infection. Many people in low infection areas will be needlessly infected. This will increase deaths. If we must have lockdown, there are far better ways to arrange it. Cellular lockdown, restricting travel between areas of markedly different infection rates would greatly reduce spread.

Even separating people from high and low infection areas in public transport would only require a simple ‘red and green’ trains system. Yet it seems beyond the comprehension of our authorities.

Some police forces have been intimidating people who are driving to open areas to exercise. Although a very few areas might attract occasional crowding greater than town footpaths, generally, urban footpaths will have far more joggers, walkers and cyclists, so exposure during exercise will generally be far higher by forcing people to exercise locally. That will increase cases and deaths. Closing parks and National Trust Gardens is similarly stupid and counter-productive. People will die because of that stupidity. Rather than take the side of common sense and logic, government threatens the people with stricter confinement if they continue to try to enjoy the outdoors, even when they are spread out.

Making it very hard to exercise away from other people will deter many people from doing so. Just when they have the greatest need to maintain peak fitness in case they become ill, their ability to do so is being reduced by officious police and busybodies. That will result in more deaths.

Watching such ongoing stupidity and negligence, I have very little confidence left in our government to make good decisions. I do not believe continuing lockdown is the right policy.

Lockdown

The current one-size-fits-all policy of lockdown is highly questionable, another mistake in a long line. A smarter form might have been justifiable to recover from the mess poor previous decisions got us into, but looking from where we are now, lockdown must be lifted soon, or it will cost far more than it saves.

Mental Health Costs

I was already self-isolating before lockdown, being ‘at risk’ but I don’t find isolation difficult. I’m introvert, normally work from home, and don’t normally leave my home more than a few times a month. I have a nice house and garden and a fantastic partner. So I have barely felt any change and am not suffering. Many are not so fortunate.

Many people live in tiny homes with no gardens and must find it distressing, especially those accustomed to going out frequently. Others live alone and many of them will be feeling very lonely. Still others will be experiencing relationship breakdowns, some of which will not mend when it’s all over. Lockdown will already be taking a severe toll on many people’s mental health. As lockdown continues the mental health costs will grow enormously. Some have already died via suicide and murder. Many more will follow, many will suffer extreme stress or fall into severe depression and start to suffer the wide range of ailments associated with those, especially many who are watching their business collapse.

Loneliness is a terrible problem that affects millions, particularly the old, and is known to contribute to ill health and death. Lockdown obviously is increasing loneliness for very many people, and will result in an unknown number of extra deaths.

Relationship breakdown as people are forced to live with each other 24/7 is inevitable. This is a well-known cause of stress, suicide and health reduction and will cause deaths directly and via reduced ability to deal with infection. Families of those concerned will also be affected.

Domestic violence is likely to increase similarly.

People’s energy bills will increase as they are confined to home. Many who already struggle to pay them will be greatly stressed by increased costs. Stress directly contribute to illness and deaths. If some old people who are already vulnerable have to turn down the heating because of worrying about energy bills, that will make them more physically vulnerable and mean even more deaths.

Death Costs

We now have some figures on the nature of the infection and its lethality. The Lancet suggest that 0.66% of those infected will die. If everyone were to be infected, that would be 430,000 UK deaths, and we’ve heard estimates around that before. On the other hand, the coronavirus app results suggest that as few as 25% of people have already been infected, suggesting future deaths due mainly to COVID might only be a few thousand (the majority of people dying who have COVID on their death certificate had other underlying issues and many would have died anyway, or soon).

Without testing of statistically large enough randomized samples in each area, we really have no idea and the government is flying blind. Letting everyone out and not doing anything at all to limit infection might result a few thousand or a few hundred thousand more deaths caused primarily by COVID. We simply don’t know. What we do know is that to be at the higher end, the mortality figures would need to be that high and almost everyone would need to be infected, but firstly, we can strongly limit infection by implementing sensible policies, and secondly, if we do that, we will have a vaccine in time to prevent most people becoming cases. So the high end is far too high. If we lifted lockdown now in low infection areas and later in higher infection areas after we have significantly reduce infections by better policy implementation and some optimised testing, future deaths would likely be between 5000 and 20,000, a wet-finer estimate, but probably no wetter than the models government seems to be relying on.

Not everyone lives in homes with good ventilation. Some in poor quality housing will have a higher infection rate from both COVID19 and other diseases due to poor ventilation.

Many people still rely on coal or wood fires, both of which produce particulates that can cause breathing difficulty and contribute to respiratory-related deaths.

The deaths costs from the above causes will be high, probably running into hundreds if it is allowed to continue more than another week or two, and that has to be offset against any gains. But there is an even bigger factor that will worsen if continued lockdown causes severe economic damage. As well as the factors above, some economists have done their analyses and suggested that due to the inevitable recession – up to 17% drop in GDP – far more future deaths will result from economic decline than will be saved by lockdown. For a change, even though they’re economists, I’m not inclined to disagree.

Economic Costs

In terms of saving lives, there are many ways to save lives so with finite funds, we should spend where the most lives can be saved for given funding. If we only save 5000 lives, but spend £500Bn to do so, that works out at £100M each! The NHS currently won’t provide a drug unless it is likely to add an extra year of quality life for less than £30,000. A typical 65-year old dying of COVID today would only expect to have another 20 years of life on average, so the NHS won’t pay more than £600k to keep them alive if they were dying of something that isn’t COVID. Many of those dying are much older than 65 and most have other underlying factors that make their life expectancy much less than normal. Using the same valuations,, an average spending limit of £250k seems more realistic. At £250k each, even the highest current estimate of 250,000 deaths would have a cost limit of £60Bn. On harsh economic terms, we could save more lives by helping those with other illnesses if the cost will exceed £60Bn. If you look a little further, various studies over the last decade have shown that tens of thousands of deaths in hospitals result from negligence, errors and poor hygiene. We could reduce those even more cheaply.

So the cost of lockdown makes no sense in terms of the economic cost of saving lives – there are more cost-effective ways. We could save far more for the same spend.

Social Costs

But there is still another major cost: society. If you are on social media, you will have noticed the rising tension, the conflicts between those who believe in this policy versus those who believe another one, the ones who want to comply versus dissenters, the rule violators versus the snitches.

Confidence in the police is being strained to breaking point, as is confidence in government. NHS worshippers abound, but so do those who believe shelf stackers and binmen are just as important.

Inter-generational conflict will increase. The young see their futures being thrown away to buy a few more years for the very elderly who would die soon anyway.

There will be strong resentment of the private sector worker watching their pension evaporate while the public sector worker next door has their gold-plated pension protected. People who were laid off and have to survive on Universal Credit will likely resent others having 80% of their previous income paid by the state, as will those who had to watch their businesses thrown under a bus with receive no compensation at all. Everyone will have to pay, but only some were protected.

Many of these growing tensions, resentments, conflicts and tribal conflicts will not vanish when it’s all over. Scars will remain for decades. The lingering social costs may well be as high as the economic and death costs.

Political Costs

Finally, we should consider that politics will change too.

Privacy, freedom, free speech and respect for the authorities will be permanently damaged. Social cohesion is an important part of the foundations of democracy.

Respect for the police and the principle of  ‘policing by consent’ has already been eroded by some police gleefully abusing their power like bullies appointed school prefects.

Being left with enormous bills and a trashed economy, with many businesses dead, it will take decades to recover. We already know the huge effects of austerity in politics, but are rapidly adding enormously to the already massive national debt so future austerity will be deep and long-lived.

We can also be sure that this will not be the last virus. In a year or two there will be another, and because of the poor handling of this one, reactions by society and the markets will be even more panicky, and we may take more economic hits. We may take generations to get back to ‘normality’.

Summary

Whichever angle you look at it, lockdown is the wrong solution. It has high mental health costs, it saves fewer lives than freeing everyone, and costs more per life than almost any other way of saving them. And it comes with very high social and political costs.

Whether you look at it from an economic angle, a pragmstic angle or are trying to be compassionate, it still makes no sense.

It should end soon.

 

 

Will China be the global winner from COVID?

A joint blog by Tracey Follows, Bronwyn Williams and ID Pearson

Will China be the global winner from COVID?

There have been many conspiracy theories about China suggesting that the virus was deliberately made. We may never know the whole truth.

Regardless of that, it is clear that, however unlikely, there is a greater than zero chance the virus could have been man-made. More importantly, a new virus could be man-made. Now that the West has shown its economically suicidal response to this one, there is a massive temptation for any rogue regime or terrorist group to produce a GM virus variant that is as or more lethal, as or more contagious. Death cults that want population reduction (such as environmental reasons) might well consider sponsoring such virus production in secret labs.

There is already one clear win for China: No-one is really debating democracy versus authoritarianism as it pertains to Hong Kong any more. But then no-one is really debating that choice anywhere because nation-states like the UK, France and USA, built on the core notions of freedom, have removed liberty and imposed a lockdown. Indeed, the few governments who have resisted – or even just delayed draconian encroachments on hard-won human rights to freedom of speech, movement and trade have found themselves cast as at best ignorant and at worst downright villainous by the popular press. This, despite the fact that the epidemiological and economic data and models projecting the socio-economic costs of the various paths of action (or inaction) available to authorities are questionable at best, downright misleading at worst. Perhaps Friedrich Hayek put it best when he said “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”. In other words, when faced with incomplete information, the first priority for any government should be to do no harm. When it comes to complex systems, seemingly simple solutions can have serious unintended consequences. This, however, is easier said than done in the face of an imminent threat when citizens, accustomed to having their every need met by their leaders are baying for someone to do something. This may well prove to be the biggest threat of all because populations can get awfully content being told what to do and relying on authorities to make all the tough decisions for them. Some may even be persuaded that this kind of big state, this kind of total state, isn’t really so bad after all.

The trouble is that authoritarian measures – such as state surveillance of health and cellular data and restrictions on freedom of movement or trade – adopted during times of crisis do not tend to simply disappear after the short term threat is passed.. As military men and women will tell you, it is much easier to get into wars than to get out of them. Likewise, it is much easier to lose civil liberties than it is to regain them. Have any governments who have removed or restricted citizen rights outlined any form of exit strategy for how to return those privileged post pandemic? No. The long-term normalisation of surveillance and authoritarianism driven by short-term fear threatens to create a global generation of Stockholm syndrome sufferers, grateful to the generosity of their gilded cage key keepers.

Result: China 1  – West 0

Perhaps what is most notable is that there have been several pandemics in recent memory: Zika, SARS, Ebola, swine flu, bird flu. None of these caused similar panic. The question is why. The answer lies in the way the current crisis has been handled by both mainstream and social media, both of which thrive on the spread of panic (a viral disease in and of itself), and panic, in turn creates an opportunity for authorities to capitalise on the crisis and consolidate both power and capital to their own ends. New deadly diseases emerge from nature frequently and next time the first news breaks on a future outbreak, the panic cycle we have witnessed in recent months is likely to repeat itself. Panic buying will follow, the media and the public will demand action, stock markets will fall, governments will be tempted to rush to close airports and print more money and take on more debt, and so on so as not to be the last man standing. That means that future outbreaks, however caused, will likely cause panic, confusion and likely major economic damage.

After spending tens or more likely hundreds of billions of pounds to get through COVID19, it may well be the case that the economy is only starting to recover before the next outbreak. The economy may not recover properly until we can end that cycle.

However, China, with its now proven technology to control its people, its centralised economy, and its much more compliant populace, conditioned over centuries of dictatorial rule to obey or face the consequences, would be more able to avoid such crashes.

The West will learn that the only way to avoid coming off second best in a crisis is to emulate its opponent, further eroding human rights and freedoms in the process. 

That is, of course, the rub: liberty has proven to work for the West in the long run. However, in the short run, there are trade offs. Authoritarians can do things that free men and women will not. From current events and reactions, it does not appear that the West has the short term courage (or citizens with the personal responsibility) to pay the price of long term liberty.

China 2 – West 0

Even as it becomes clear that China covered up the initial outbreak, denying other nations the benefits of foresight, and manipulated mortality rates, skewing economic and epidemiological models that could have been used to make better policy decisions, we may never know the full extent of China’s responsibility for this one. However, we can be sure they won this round, and will be the long term winners too, if our response here in the West is anything to go on.

About Tracey Follows

company: https://futuremade.consulting

twitter: twitter@traceyfutures

side hustle: https://www.femalefuturesbureau.com

Forbes contributor: tracey follows 

About Bronwyn Williams

Bronwyn Williams is a futurist, economist and trend analyst, who consults to business and government leaders on how to understand the world we live in today and change the world’s trajectory for tomorrow. She is also a regular media commentator on African socio-economic affairs. For more, visit http://whatthefuturenow.com

Twitter: twitter@bronwynwilliams

About ID Pearson

Dr Pearson has been a full time futurologist for 29 years, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment and is a chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society and Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science

twitter: twitter.com@timeguide

timeguide.wordpress.com

Don’t listen unquestioningly to ‘experts’

Listen to the experts! Follow the science! Shut up, you aren’t an epidemiologist! You’re probably as sick of hearing those remarks as I am.

An expert is generally regarded as someone who has been doing something for so long (10k hours or more) that they have become highly proficient at it. If you do a task 5 hours a day for 200 days a year, it takes about 10 years before you could be regarded as an expert. Nevertheless, there are many experts in every field, and some have a lot more than 10k hours. However…

The vast majority of experts are specialists, working in a particular field. They have vast knowledge and expertise – in that field. They may be somewhat knowledgeable in some other areas, especially if they are closely related, but their degree of knowledge generally becomes lower as you move further away from their core field.

Other experts are generalists. In engineering circles, they are often called systems engineers. In medical circles, they might typically be GPs or general surgeons, or vets. They typically have similarly sized brains, intelligence and knowledge to specialists, but their expertise is spread more thinly across a broader domain, often a much broader domain. Depending on career history, they may still have some regions where they are more knowledgeable than others, but their most important skill is considering many different but interacting parts of a system simultaneously.

“Epidemiology is the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations.” Epidemiologists are therefore exactly the sort of people we need right now to advise on the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions. I wouldn’t dare to think I know better than an expert epidemiologist in that regard and neither should you.

Outside that well-defined domain, their expertise quickly evaporates and they quickly lose their claim to expertise. I would not bother to ask an epidemiologist for their advice on many other important factors such as politics, economics policy, nutrition, cardiovascular health, exercise or mental health factors of lockdown, loneliness, transport policy, policing, sociology, relationships, divorce or family breakdown.

COVID affects all of the above areas so we need people who can consider all of them, considering all the interactions within the system. That means generalists, not specialists, since no human brain can be expert in all relevant fields. Generalists can make informed decisions on the best overall approach. They would consider inputs from epidemiologists of course, but also inputs from experts in all the other fields too, assimilate and then consider the entire system.

I would suggest therefore that government and media are giving far too much attention and power over decision making to one particular expert group – epidemiologists – and giving far too little consideration to the whole system and the generalists who are the appropriate experts in that domain.

Indeed, even politicians are somewhat generalist. Few have any particular field of expertise other than those skills needed to persuade people to vote for them.

However, an intelligent PM like Boris should be able to make a good overall judgement on the best overall approach to dealing with COVID, taking due account not just of ‘the scientific advice’ but of all the relevant factors – the pain, suffering and deaths resulting from the spread of COVID, social and health issues related to lockdown, the many factors governing the health of the economy, the massive future debts that will need to be repaid and the inevitable severe austerity resulting, social cohesion, the trust in the police, justified fears about state intrusion, mass surveillance, loss of liberty, and many more.

He should certainly not be abdicating decision making to people who are only expert in one of those areas.

And neither should you.

 

The rise of Dr Furlough, Evil Super-Villain

Too early for an April Fool blog, but hopefully this might lighten your day a bit.

I had the enormous pleasure this morning of interviewing the up-and-coming Super-Villain Dr Furlough about her new plans to destroy the world after being scorned by the UK Government’s highly selective support policy. It seems that Hell has no fury like a Super-Villain scorned and Dr Furlough leaves no doubt that she blames incompetent government response for the magnitude of the current crisis:

Bitmoji Image

Dr Furlough, Super-Villain

“By late January, it should have been obvious to everyone that this would quickly grow to become a major problem unless immediate action was taken to prevent people bringing the virus into the country. Flights from infected areas should have been stopped immediately, anyone who may have been in contact with it should have been forcibly quarantined, and everyone found infected should have had their contacts traced and also quarantined. This would have been disruptive and expensive, but a tiny fraction of the problem we now face.  Not to do so was to give the virus the freedom to spread and infect widely until it became a severe problem. While very few need have died and the economy need not now be trashed, we now face the full enormous cost of that early refusal to act.”

“With all non-essential travel now blocked”, Dr Furlough explained, “many people have had their incomes totally wiped out, not through any fault of their own but by the government’s incompetence in handling the coronavirus, and although most of them have been promised state support, many haven’t, and have as Dr Furlough puts it ‘been thrown under a bus’. While salaried people who can’t work are given 80% of their wages, and those with their own business will eventually receive 80% of their average earnings up to £2500/month whether they are still working or not, the two million who chose to run their small business by setting up limited companies will only qualify for 80% of the often small fraction of income they pay themselves as basic salary, and not on the bulk of their income most take via dividends once their yearly profits are clearer. Consequently many will have immediately dropped from comfortable incomes to 80% of minimum wage. Many others who have already lost their jobs have been thrown onto universal credit. The future high taxes will have to be paid by everyone whether they received support or were abandoned. Instead of treating everyone equally, the state has thus created a seething mass of deep resentment.” Dr Furlough seems determined to have her evil revenge.

Bitmoji Image

With her previous income obliterated, and scorned by the state support system, the ever self-reliant Dr Furlough decided to “screw the state” and forge a new career as a James-Bond-style Super-Villain, and she complained that it was long overdue for a female Super-Villain to take that role anyway. I asked her about her evil plans and, like all traditional Super-Villains, she was all too eager to tell. So, to quote her verbatim:

“My Super-Evil Plan 1: Tap in to the global climate alarmist market to crowd-fund GM creation of a super-virus, based on COVID19. More contagious, more lethal, and generally more evil. This will reduce world population, reduce CO2 emissions and improve the environment. It will crash the global economy and make them all pay. As a bonus, it will ensure the rise of evil regimes where I can prosper.”

She continued: “My Evil Super-Plan 2: To invent a whole pile of super-weapons and sell the designs to all the nasty regimes, dictators, XR and other assorted doomsday cults, pressure groups, religious nutters and mad-scientists. Then to sell ongoing evil consultancy services while deferring VAT payments.”

Bitmoji Image

“Muhuahuahua!” She cackled, evilly.

“My Super-Plan 3: To link AI and bacteria to make adaptive super-diseases. Each bacterium can be genetically enhanced to include bioluminescent photonic interconnects linked to cloud AI with reciprocal optogenetic niche adaptation. With bacteria clouds acting as distributed sensor nets for an emergent conscious transbacteria population, my new bacteria will be able to infect any organism and adapt to any immune system response, ensuring its demise and my glorious revenge.”

laugh cry

By now, Dr Furlough was clearly losing it. Having heard enough anyway, I asked The Evil Dr Furlough if there was no alternative to destroying the world and life as we know it.

“Well, I suppose I could just live off my savings and sit it all out” she said.

 

HS2 is world class stupidity

£106Bn is the new estimated cost of HS2, with a new delivery date of 2040

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/20/hs2-costs-government-review-west-midlands-manchester-leeds

We hear figures in the billions all the time, and I guess politicians especially lose their sense of what they really mean. A few billion here, another few billion there, so £106Bn just sounds like a decent sized public infrastructure project, equivalent to a few power stations, what’s the big deal? Let’s do some simple sums to find out and get some perspective.

The money has to come from tax and regardless of the diverse routes it takes, people ultimately pay all that tax. There are 66.5 million people in the UK, so that’s only £1600 each. Most of those people will never or hardly ever use HS2.

However, according to the Office of National Statistics, HMRC, only 31.2 million of those people pay income tax, so they contribute an average £3400 each. But actually the top 50% of those, 15.6 million people, pay 90% of the tax, so that means HS2 will effectively cost them £95.4Bn, a whopping £6115 each. I could go more sums but you get the point.

It’s a fair bet that the half of UK taxpayers paying over £6000 each for HS2 could write a long list of things they’d rather have than the option to buy an expensive rail ticket that might save some people, but probably not them, 20 minutes on a journey to London, but for most people might actually take them longer if they have first to get a slow train to one of the privileged HS2 stations.

6000 quid, each, 12k for a professional couple. For a slightly faster train? Remember, the original spec was for very fast trains, but they had to wind the speed down because it was discovered that trains might sometimes derail due to lethal combinations of aerodynamics and subsidence, so the realistic spec is about 150mph, compared to 125mph for a normal intercity.

This is the economics of the madhouse.

Trains are 19th and 20th century technology. 21st century technology allows driverless pod systems that would be far cheaper, far more versatile, far more socially inclusive, and far faster end to end. Pods could carry people or freight. Pod systems could start off mixing with conventional trains by grouping to make virtual trains. As antique old stock is gradually upgraded, along with stations, we would end up with a totally pod-based transport system. Pods could just as easily run on roads as on rails. The rails could be ripped up and recycled, railways tarmacked over, and public transport could seamlessly run on roads or the old railways. With potential occupancy of up to 95%, compared to the 0.4% typical of conventional rail, the old railways could carry 237 times more traffic! That wouldn’t eliminate congestion – there would still be some choke points – but it would make one hell of a dent in it. It would be faster because someone could have a pod pick them up at their home or office, maybe swap onto a shared one at a local node, and then go all the way to their destination at a good speed, with hardly any delays en-route, now waiting for the next scheduled train or having to make pointless journeys to get to a mainline station. They could simply go straight to where they want, and save much more time than HS2 would ever have saved.

Pod systems could serve the whole country, not just the lucky few living near the right stations. Fixing ‘the North-South divide’ still favours pod systems, not HS2. Everyone benefits from pods, hardly anyone benefits from HS2. Everyone saves money with pods, everyone is worse off with HS2. Why is the idea still flying?

The problem we have is that too few of our politicians or senior civil servants have any real understanding of technology and its potential. They are blinded by seeing figures in billions sever day, so have lost their understanding of just how much £100Bn is. They are terrified of pressure groups and always eager to be seen to be doing something, however stupid that something might be if they examined it.

HS2 is a stupid idea, world-class stupidity. It is 20th century technology, an old idea long past its use-by date. It locks in all the huge disadvantages and costs of old-style rail for several more decades We should leapfrog over it and go instead for a 21st century solution – cheap driverless pods. We’d save a fortune and have a far superior result.

 

 

Apocalypse Tomorrow

This post was co-authored with Bronwyn Williams (details below)

I recently watched a documentary about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, where 918 Peoples Temple followers died, many of them children, killed by their own parents. Before it even started, my own memories of it in the news made me realize that the current global socio-political climate makes such an ‘unthinkable’ event likely to happen again, possibly on a much bigger scale, perhaps even in several places at once.

The biggest factor by far is the global replacement of religion (mostly Christianity) by secular religion substitutes. These secular substitutes for the meaning, direction and purpose formerly provided by religion take many forms, from a revived interest in paganism, witchcraft, and general “no name brand” spiritualism and mysticism, through to a new almost religious fervor for political causes. Now, while finding solace for the horror of the human condition in crystals or astrology is relatively benign (unless you are getting into debt betting your children’s school fees on the stocks recommended in your daily horoscope app, for example); mass movements driven by tribes of True Believers, are far more concerning.

New converts to any mass movement – religious or secular – are invariably among the most passionate believers, so we now have a massive and global pool of people newly susceptible to the same forces that enabled Jim Jones to do what he did. Every day on social media we witness first hand that enthusiasm, driving the secular equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition and targeting anyone and everyone not devoutly following every detail of their new faith. Jones strongly policed his followers and strictly punished any rule breaking or heresy. That same practice is greatly amplified in social media, to billions of people instead of the thousand followers Jones had influence on.

I’ve written many times about the strong similarities between religion and belief in catastrophic climate change, environmentalism, woke doctrine, veganism, New Ageism, and others. All these triggers tap in to the same anchors in human nature, first of which makes people want to believe they are ‘good people’ on the right side of history; the second of which is tribalism, the basic human instinct of wanting to belong to a group of like-thinking people, while clearly marking the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. At the same time, as people are forced to decide which side to stand on, the gulf between the “us” and ‘them’ is always widening, amplifying both the fear of – and the real consequences of – being cut out of the circle of trust of their chosen tribe, just as Jim Jones did.

Importantly, the scientific truth and proven facts behind these causes are less important than how the causes make the new true believers feel; particularly when it comes to signalling the moral superiority of the in group compared to the infidel, unconverted out-group.  As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer, for the adherents of most mass movements, “The effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.”.

Now, these tribal drivers are immensely strong forces, the likes of which have underpinned crusades and wars since the days of ancient civilizations. Now that far fewer people believe in formal religions, many of those who previously would have been enthusiastic believers have turned instead to these secular substitutes that push the same psychological buttons. Another documentary this week on veganism shows exactly the same forces at play being harnessed as in religion – secular equivalent to sin, shaming sinners, fear of rejection, tribalism, and especially demonstrating the impact of a charismatic ‘priest’. Jones was highly charismatic, and a master at using these forces. Compare the influence today that a single person can have in pushing a particular agenda in the name of social justice or climate change action.

Fear was a very powerful weapon used constantly by Jones, and today’s climate catastrophists do all they can to ensure as many other people share their fear as possible. It seems that every negative news item is somehow tied to ‘climate change’. If the climate isn’t enough, rising seas, ocean acidification, plastic pollution are all linked in to enhance the total fear, exaggerating wildly while a scared media lets them get away with it. Millions of people now pressurize governments and social media, screaming and shrieking “DO SOMETHING, NOW!!!!!”. Jones enhanced fear by talking frequently about death, even using mock suicides to amplify the general climate of fear. Now, witness the frequent death cult demonstrations of animal rights protesters and climate change catastrophists. Extinction rebellion excel in this area, with their blood-red meta-religious uniforms. It is impossible not to see parallels with Jones’ cult followers.

Jones was also adept in creating fake news. He used fake healings and even a fake resurrection to amplify faith and ensure his reign as leader. Fake news in today’s work is virtually indistinguishable from reality, and worse still many people don’t care, as long as it backs up what they already believe.

Another strong parallel is socialism. Jones gift-wrapped his cult in socialism Utopianism. Most people won’t join a movement just from fear alone, there needs to be a strong attractor to get them to join up, and fear can keep them there afterwards. Today we see a new enthusiasm among young people (a gospel enthusiastically spread to young minds via their state school teachers) for socialism. Via skillful use of Orwell’s doublespeak, with activists redefining words over a decade or more, they are presented with all the wonderful Utopian claims of ‘fairness’, ‘equality’, ‘love’, ‘tolerance’ and so on, while non-believers are listed as ‘evil’, ‘deplorable’, ‘fascists’, and ‘deniers’. Even the USA is seeing strong enthusiasm for socialism and even communism, something that would have been impossible to imagine just 25 years ago.

Socialism, environmental catastrophism and religious fervor make a powerful trio. Promised salvation, status and utopia if you follow, doom and catastrophic punishment such as social ostracizing and career destruction on the light end, and complete civilizational and environmental collapse if you don’t.

Other forces still add to this. Generations raised on social media and social credit scores (both official and unofficial) are rewarded (in status and income) for narcissism and self-censorship and reversion to the group mean. This, of course, further reinforces echo-chamber group-think and a sincere, yet unfounded superiority complex, creating a tribal inter-generational hostility to older people that prevents them from accepting accumulated wisdom. They happily absorb emotional fake news and distortion as long as it massages their need for affirmation. Likes outweigh facts any day. Indeed, even holding a PhD is no longer an effective immunization against collective delusion, in a world where social scientists are punished with their careers for publishing results of scientific studies that falsify popular politically correct consensus opinions (As Eric Hoffer said, “There is an illiterate air about the most literate true believer.”)

Self-hate is another powerful trend; the dishonor of being born Western (or even more damningly, male) has strong Biblical parallels to man being born into sin; and the need to recognize, confess and atone for the sins of one’s birth and forefathers.

So where does this take us?

Jones was highly charismatic. He was a natural master of using strong emotional forces built into human nature. History has many examples of equally charismatic leaders (from Obama to Oprah), who used their charm and power for good. (Unfortunately, history also provides us with myriad of converse examples, from Hitler and Stalin to Jones). It likely that we will now see new leaders emerge to galvanize today’s new tribes of true believers. Whether the new leaders exploit the passion of the masses for good or ill; or march them to the Promised Land or into a catastrophic Great Leap forward into famine, disaster and mass death, only time will tell.

Already, we have heard many activists talk about how we need to greatly reduce human population. As an example, just days ago, The Guardian published this article. The radical vegan anti-natalist movement, advocating for the extinction of the human race as the only way to save planet Earth is growing in popularity around the (mostly Western) self-hating world. Some activists have even suggested mass-killing climate change deniers.

Similarly, controversially, there is a related emerging enthusiasm for abortion. Far beyond a woman’s right to choice and autonomy over her own body, the new celebration of abortion – not as a woman’s right, but as something actively encouraged and applauded by extreme environmentalists- marks a distinct turning point in society’s values towards human life in general.  Would-have-been parents claim they are so sure about climate doom that they can’t bear to bring a child into this world; similarly, young men are getting vasectomies as a sign of commitment to their cause (not unlike religious circumcision). It’s voluntary sterilization as virtue signalling, as a political message, sacrificing a child to make a point.  Abortion rates may well start to rise again after a long steady decline as Climatism makes its mark.

(Indeed, the anti-fertility campaigns of Western aid and health workers in low income African and Asian countries is symptomatic of how human life is increasingly perceived as a form of pestilence, to be minimized, if not eradicated (by its own kind if necessary); rather than something intrinsically valuable.)

Following along these lines, we can see echoes of Jonestown. At the end, Jones made sure that adults gave poison to their kids first before taking it themselves. He knew that if parents had deliberately killed their kids, they would be much more likely to kill themselves.

Imagine therefore that a new charismatic leader were to spring up, adept at social media and in manipulating language, emotions, and people. Imagine that they were to gain a large following across the English-speaking world. That they advocate reducing human population, targeting heretic ‘climate change deniers’, reducing carbon footprint via vegetarianism, veganism, giving reparations to developing countries for climate damage, supporting no-borders to allow anyone to immigrate as a ‘climate refugee’, encouraging abortion to reduce birth rate. Such a package would find a very large audience who demonstrably want to feel holy, that they are good while others are evil. A charismatic leader could thereby create a strong tribe. Using abundant funding from the membership, they might well build socialist Utopian towns. Maybe in a jungle like Jones, but just as likely out in the wilds in Canada, the USA, or Australia, a Scottish island, or all of these. Perhaps they could have hundreds of thousands of people join, with millions more online ‘associates’. Millions compared to Jonestown’s thousand.

And then perhaps, in the end, to force the rest of humanity to listen by means of a coordinated mass suicide, to go down in history as martyrs to the environment, saviors of the Earth.

Is an anti-civilizational suicide pact inevitable? No, not at all.

But imaginable, feasible, perhaps even likely? In my opinion, yes it is. And it could well happen in the next few years, while this perfect storm of forces is peaking.

About Bronwyn Williams

Bronwyn Williams is a futurist, economist and trend analyst, who consults to business and government leaders on how to understand the world we live in today and change the world’s trajectory for tomorrow. She is also a regular media commentator on African socio-economic affairs. For more, visit http://whatthefuturenow.com

 

 

The future of reproductive choice

I’m not taking sides on the abortion debate, just drawing maps of the potential future, so don’t shoot the messenger.

An average baby girl is born with a million eggs, still has 300,000 when she reaches puberty, and subsequently releases 300 – 400 of these over her reproductive lifetime. Typically one or two will become kids but today a woman has no way of deciding which ones, and she certainly has no control over which sperm is used beyond choosing her partner.

Surely it can’t be very far in the future (as a wild guess, say 2050) before we fully understand the links between how someone is and their genetics (and all the other biological factors involved in determining outcome too). That knowledge could then notionally be used to create some sort of nanotech (aka magic) gate that would allow her to choose which of her eggs get to be ovulated and potentially fertilized, wasting ones she isn’t interested in and going for it when she’s released a good one. Maybe by 2060, women would also be able to filter sperm the same way, helping some while blocking others. Choice needn’t be limited to whether to have a baby or not, but which baby.

Choosing a particularly promising egg and then which sperm would combine best with it, an embryo might be created only if it is likely to result in the right person (perhaps an excellent athlete, or an artist, or a scientist, or just good looking), or deselected if it would become the wrong person (e.g. a terrorist, criminal, saxophonist, Republican).

However, by the time we have the technology to do that, and even before we fully know what gene combos result in what features, we would almost certainly be able to simply assemble any chosen DNA and insert it into an egg from which the DNA has been removed. That would seem a more reliable mechanism to get the ‘perfect’ baby than choosing from a long list of imperfect ones. Active assembly should beat deselection from a random list.

By then, we might even be using new DNA bases that don’t exist in nature, invented by people or AI to add or control features or abilities nature doesn’t reliably provide for.

If we can do that, and if we know how to simulate how someone might turn out, then we could go further and create lots of electronic babies that live their entire lives in an electronic Matrix style existence. Let’s expand on that briefly.

Even today, couples can store eggs and sperm for later use, but with this future genetic assembly, it will become feasible to create offspring from nothing more than a DNA listing. DNA from both members of a couple, of any sex, could get a record of their DNA, randomize combinations with their partner’s DNA and thus get a massive library of potential offspring. They may even be able to buy listings of celebrity DNA from the net. This creates the potential for greatly delayed birth and tradable ‘ebaybies’ – DNA listings are not alive so current laws don’t forbid trading in them. These listings could however be used to create electronic ‘virtual’offspring, simulated in a computer memory instead of being born organically. Various degrees of existence are possible with varied awareness. Couples may have many electronic babies as well as a few real ones. They may even wait to see how a simulation works out before deciding which kids to make for real. If an electronic baby turns out particularly well, it might be promoted to actual life via DNA assembly and real pregnancy. The following consequences are obvious:

Trade-in and collection of DNA listings, virtual embryos, virtual kids etc, that could actually be fabricated at some stage

Re-birth, potential to clone and download one’s mind or use a direct brain link to live in a younger self

Demands by infertile and gay couples to have babies via genetic assembly

Ability of kids to own entire populations of virtual people, who are quite real in some ways.

It is clear that this whole technology field is rich in ethical issues! But we don’t need to go deep into future tech to find more of those. Just following current political trends to their logical conclusions introduces a lot more. I’ve written often on the random walk of values, and we cannot be confident that many values we hold today will still reign in decades time. Where might this random walk lead? Let’s explore some more.

Even in ‘conventional’ pregnancies, although the right to choose has been firmly established in most of the developed world, a woman usually has very little information about the fetus and has to make her decision almost entirely based on her own circumstances and values. The proportion of abortions related to known fetal characteristics such as genetic conditions or abnormalities is small. Most decisions can’t yet take any account of what sort of person that fetus might become. We should expect future technology to provide far more information on fetus characteristics and likely future development. Perhaps if a woman is better informed on likely outcomes, might that sometimes affect her decision, in either direction?

In some circumstances, potential outcome may be less certain and an informed decision might require more time or more tests. To allow for that without reducing the right to choose, is possible future law could allow for conditional terminations, registered before a legal time limit but performed later (before another time limit) when more is known. This period could be used for more medical tests, or to advertise the baby to potential adopters that want a child just like that one, or simply to allow more time for the mother to see how her own circumstances change. Between 2005 and 2015, USA abortion rate dropped from 1 in 6 pregnancies to 1 in 7, while in the UK, 22% of pregnancies are terminated. What would these figures be if women could determine what future person would result? Would termination rate increase? To 30%, 50%? Abandon this one and see if we can make a better one? How many of us would exist if our parents had known then what they know now?

Whether and how late terminations should be permitted is still fiercely debated. There is already discussion about allowing terminations right up to birth and even after birth in particular circumstances. If so, then why stop there? We all know people who make excellent arguments for retrospective abortion. Maybe future parents should be allowed to decide whether to keep a child right up until it reaches its teens, depending on how the child turns out. Why not 16, or 18, or even 25, when people truly reach adulthood? By then they’d know what kind of person they’re inflicting on the world. Childhood and teen years could simply be a trial period. And why should only the parents have a say? Given an overpopulated world with an infinite number of potential people that could be brought into existence, perhaps the state could also demand a high standard of social performance before assigning a life license. The Chinese state already uses surveillance technology to assign social scores. It is a relatively small logical step further to link that to life licenses that require periodic renewal. Go a bit further if you will, and link that thought to the blog I just wrote on future surveillance: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2019/05/19/future-surveillance/.

Those of you who have watched Logan’s Run will be familiar with the idea of  compulsory termination at a certain age. Why not instead have a flexible age that depends on social score? It could range from zero to 100. A pregnancy might only be permitted if the genetic blueprint passes a suitability test and then as nurture and environmental factors play their roles as a person ages, their life license could be renewed (or not) every year. A range of crimes might also result in withdrawal of a license, and subsequent termination.

Finally, what about AI? Future technology will allow us to make hybrids, symbionts if you like, with a genetically edited human-ish body, and a mind that is part human, part AI, with the AI acting partly as enhancement and partly as a control system. Maybe the future state could insist that installation into the embryo of a state ‘guardian’, a ‘supervisory AI’, essentially a deeply embedded police officer/judge/jury/executioner will be required to get the life license.

Random walks are dangerous. You can end up where you start, or somewhere very far away in any direction.

The legal battles and arguments around ‘choice’ won’t go away any time soon. They will become broader, more complex, more difficult, and more controversial.

Future Surveillance

This is an update of my last surveillance blog 6 years ago, much of which is common discussion now. I’ll briefly repeat key points to save you reading it.

They used to say

“Don’t think it

If you must think it, don’t say it

If you must say it, don’t write it

If you must write it, don’t sign it”

Sadly this wisdom is already as obsolete as Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. The last three lines have already been automated.

I recently read of new headphones designed to recognize thoughts so they know what you want to listen to. Simple thought recognition in various forms has been around for 20 years now. It is slowly improving but with smart networked earphones we’re already providing an easy platform into which to sneak better monitoring and better though detection. Sold on convenience and ease of use of course.

You already know that Google and various other large companies have very extensive records documenting many areas of your life. It’s reasonable to assume that any or all of this could be demanded by a future government. I trust Google and the rest to a point, but not a very distant one.

Your phone, TV, Alexa, or even your networked coffee machine may listen in to everything you say, sending audio records to cloud servers for analysis, and you only have naivety as defense against those audio records being stored and potentially used for nefarious purposes.

Some next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and UHD cameras that can even see blood flow in your skin. If these are hacked or left switched on – and social networking video is one of the applications they are aiming to capture, so they’ll be on often – someone could watch you all evening, capture the most intimate body details, film your facial expressions and gaze direction while you are looking at a known image on a particular part of the screen. Monitoring pupil dilation, smiles, anguished expressions etc could provide a lot of evidence for your emotional state, with a detailed record of what you were watching and doing at exactly that moment, with whom. By monitoring blood flow and pulse via your Fitbit or smartwatch, and additionally monitoring skin conductivity, your level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify pedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, and it is likely that that will be one of the justifications authorities will use for its use.

Millimetre wave scanning was once controversial when it was introduced in airport body scanners, but we have had no choice but to accept it and its associated abuses –  the only alternative is not to fly. 5G uses millimeter wave too, and it’s reasonable to expect that the same people who can already monitor your movements in your home simply by analyzing your wi-fi signals will be able to do a lot better by analyzing 5G signals.

As mm-wave systems develop, they could become much more widespread so burglars and voyeurs might start using them to check if there is anything worth stealing or videoing. Maybe some search company making visual street maps might ‘accidentally’ capture a detailed 3d map of the inside of your house when they come round as well or instead of everything they could access via your wireless LAN.

Add to this the ability to use drones to get close without being noticed. Drones can be very small, fly themselves and automatically survey an area using broad sections of the electromagnetic spectrum.

NFC bank and credit cards not only present risks of theft, but also the added ability to track what we spend, where, on what, with whom. NFC capability in your phone makes some parts of life easier, but NFC has always been yet another doorway that may be left unlocked by security holes in operating systems or apps and apps themselves carry many assorted risks. Many apps ask for far more permissions than they need to do their professed tasks, and their owners collect vast quantities of information for purposes known only to them and their clients. Obviously data can be collected using a variety of apps, and that data linked together at its destination. They are not all honest providers, and apps are still very inadequately regulated and policed.

We’re seeing increasing experimentation with facial recognition technology around the world, from China to the UK, and only a few authorities so far such as in San Francisco have had the wisdom to ban its use. Heavy handed UK police, who increasingly police according to their own political agenda even at the expense of policing actual UK law, have already fined people who have covered themselves to avoid being abused in face recognition trials. It is reasonable to assume they would gleefully seize any future opportunity to access and cross-link all of the various data pools currently being assembled under the excuse of reducing crime, but with the real intent of policing their own social engineering preferences. Using advanced AI to mine zillions of hours of full-sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure and extensive and ubiquitous video surveillance, they could deduce everyone’s attitudes to just about everything – the real truth about our attitudes to every friend and family member or TV celebrity or politician or product, our detailed sexual orientation, any fetishes or perversions, our racial attitudes, political allegiances, attitudes to almost every topic ever aired on TV or everyday conversation, how hard we are working, how much stress we are experiencing, many aspects of our medical state.

It doesn’t even stop with public cameras. Innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street private surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone, sometimes with benign declared intentions such as making self-driving vehicles safer, sometimes using social media tribes to capture any kind of evidence against ‘the other’. In depth evidence will become available to back up prosecutions of crimes that today would not even be noticed. Computers that can retrospectively date mine evidence collected over decades and link it all together will be able to identify billions of real or invented crimes.

Active skin will one day link your nervous system to your IT, allowing you to record and replay sensations. You will never be able to be sure that you are the only one that can access that data either. I could easily hide algorithms in a chip or program that only I know about, that no amount of testing or inspection could ever reveal. If I can, any decent software engineer can too. That’s the main reason I have never trusted my IT – I am quite nice but I would probably be tempted to put in some secret stuff on any IT I designed. Just because I could and could almost certainly get away with it. If someone was making electronics to link to your nervous system, they’d probably be at least tempted to put a back door in too, or be told to by the authorities.

The current panic about face recognition is justified. Other AI can lipread better than people and recognize gestures and facial expressions better than people. It adds the knowledge of everywhere you go, everyone you meet, everything you do, everything you say and even every emotional reaction to all of that to all the other knowledge gathered online or by your mobile, fitness band, electronic jewelry or other accessories.

Fools utter the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. Do you know anyone who is innocent? Of everything? Who has never ever done or even thought anything even a little bit wrong? Who has never wanted to do anything nasty to anyone for any reason ever? And that’s before you even start to factor in corruption of the police or mistakes or being framed or dumb juries or secret courts. The real problem here is not the abuses we already see. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions and police authorities who consider themselves better than the law. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but rarely malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, only a few are corrupt, but most are technologically inept . With an increasingly divided society, there’s a strong chance that the ‘wrong’ government or even a dictatorship could get in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We’ve already lost the battle to defend privacy. The only bits left are where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Pretty much everything about you will be available to an AI-upskilled state and its police.

Who controls AI, controls the world

This week, the fastest supercomputer broke a world record for AI, using machine learning in climate research:

https://www.wired.com/story/worlds-fastest-supercomputer-breaks-ai-record/

I guess most readers thought this is a great thing, after all we need to solve climate change. That wasn’t my thought. The first thing my boss told me when I used a computer for the first time was: “shit in, shit out”. I don’t remember his name but I remember that concise lesson every time I read about climate models. If either the model or the data is garbage, or both, the output will also be garbage.

So my first thought reading about this new record was: will they let the AI work everything out for itself using all the raw, unadjusted data available about the environment, including all the astrophysics data about every kind of solar activity, human agricultural, industrial activities, air travel, all the unadjusted measurements of or proxies for surface, sea and air temperatures, ever collected, any empirical evidence for any corrections that might be needed on such data in any direction, and then let it make its own deductions, form its own models of how it might all connected and then watch eagerly as it makes predictions?

Or will they just input their own models, CO2 blinkering, prejudices and group-think, adjusted datasets, data omissions and general distortions of historical records into biased models already indoctrinated with climate change dogma, so that it will reconfirm the doom and gloom forecasts we’re so used to hearing, maximizing their chances of continued grants? If they do that, the AI might as well be a cardboard box with a pre-written article stuck on it. Shit in, shit out.

It’s obvious that the speed and capability of the supercomputer is of secondary important to who controls the AI, and its access to data, and its freedom to draw its own conclusions.

(Read my blog on Fake AI: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/)

You may recall a week or two ago that IBM released a new face database to try to address bias in AI face recognition systems. Many other kinds of data could have biases for all sorts of reasons. At face value reducing bias is a good thing, but what exactly do we mean by that? Who decides what is biased and what is real? There are very many potential AI uses that are potentially sensitive, such as identifying criminals or distinguishing traits that correlate with gender, sexuality, race, religion, or indeed any discernible difference. Are all deductions by the AI permissible, or are huge swathes of possible deductions not permitted because they might be politically unacceptable? Who controls the AI? Why? With what aims?

Many people have some degree of influence on  AI. Those who provide funding, equipment, theoreticians, those who design hardware, those who design the learning and training mechanisms, those who supply the data, those who censor or adjust data before letting the AI see it, those who design the interfaces, those who interpret and translate the results, those who decide which results are permissible and how to spin them, and publish them.

People are often impressed when a big powerful computer outputs results of massive amounts of processing. Outputs may often be used to control public opinion and government policy, to change laws, to alter balance of power in society, to create and destroy empires. AI will eventually make or influence most decisions of any consequence.

As AI techniques become more powerful, running on faster and better computers, we must always remember that golden rule: shit in, shit out. And we must always be suspicious of those who might have reason to influence an outcome.

Because who controls AI, controls the world.

 

 

The caravan and migration policy

20 years ago, fewer than half of the people in the world had ever made a phone call. Today, the vast majority of people have a smartphone with internet access, and are learning how people in other parts of the world live. A growing number are refusing to accept their poor luck of being born in poor, corrupt, or oppressive or war-torn countries. After all, nobody chooses their parents or where they are born, so why should people in any country have any more right to live there than anyone else?  Shouldn’t everyone start life with the right to live anywhere they choose? If they don’t like it where they were born, why shouldn’t someone migrate to another country to improve their conditions or to give their children a better chance? Why should that country be allowed to refuse them entry? I’d like to give a brief answer, but I don’t have time. So:

People don’t choose their parents, or where they are born, but nor did they exist to make that choice. The rights of the infinite number of non-existent people who could potentially be born to any possible combination of parents at any time, anywhere, under any possible set of circumstances is no basis for any policy. If lives were formed and then somehow assigned parents, the questions would be valid, but people don’t actually reproduce by choosing from some waiting list of would-be embryos. Even religious people don’t believe that their god has a large queue of souls waiting for a place and parents to be born to, assigning each in turn to happiness or misery. Actual people reproduce via actual acts in actual places in actual circumstances. They create a new life, and the child is theirs. They are solely responsible for bringing that life into existence, knowing the likely circumstances it would emerge into. The child didn’t choose its parents, but its parents made it. If they live in a particular country and choose to have a baby, that baby will be born with the rights and rules and all the other attributes of that country, the skin color, religion, wealth and status of its parents and so on. It will also be born in the prevailing international political and regulatory environment at that time. Other people in other countries have zero a priori political, social, economic or moral responsibility towards that child, though they and their country are free to show whatever compassion they wish, or to join international organisations that extend protection and human rights to all humans everywhere, and so a child anywhere may inherit certain internationally agreed rights, and countries will at some point have signed up to accept them. Those voluntary agreements or signings of international treaties may convey rights onto that child regarding its access to aid or  global health initiatives or migration but they are a matter for other sovereign bodies to choose to sign up to, or indeed to withdraw from. A poor child might grow up and decide to migrate, but it has no a priori right of entry to any country or support from it, legally or morally, beyond that which the people of that country or their ancestors choose to offer individually or via their government.

In short, people can’t really look any further than their parents to thank or blame for their existence, but other people and other countries are free to express and extend their love, compassion and support, if they choose to. Most of us would agree that we should.

Given that we want to help, but still don’t have the resources to help everyone on the planet to live in the standard they’d like, a better question might be: which people should we help first – those that bang loudly on our door, or those in the greatest need?

We love and value those close to us most, but most of us feel some love towards humans everywhere. Few people can watch the migrant caravan coverage without feeling sympathy for the parents trying to get to a better life. Many of those people will be innocent people running away from genuine oppression and danger, hoping to build a better future by working hard and integrating into a new culture. The proportion was estimated recently (Channel 4 News for those who demand sources for every stat they don’t like) at around 11% of the caravan. We know from UK migration from Calais that some will just say they are, advised by activists on exactly what phrases to use when interviewed by immigration officials to get the right boxes ticked. Additionally, those of us who aren’t completely naive (or suffering the amusingly named ‘Trump derangement syndrome’ whereby anything ‘Fake President’ Trump says or does must automatically be wrong even if Obama said or did the same), also accept that a few of those in the caravan are likely to be drug dealers or murderers or rapists or traffickers or other criminals running away from capture and towards new markets to exploit, or even terrorists trying to hide among a crowd. There is abundant evidence that European migrant crowds did conceal some such people, and we’ll never know the exact numbers, but we’re already living with the consequences. The USA would be foolish not to learn from these European mistakes. It really isn’t the simple ‘all saints’ or ‘all criminals’ some media would have us believe. Some may be criminals or terrorists – ‘some’ is a very different concept from ‘all’, and is not actually disproved by pointing the TV camera at a lovely family pushing a pram.

International law defines refugees and asylum seekers and makes it easy to distinguish them from other kinds of migrants, but activist groups and media often conflate these terms to push various political objectives. People fleeing from danger are refugees until they get to the first safe country, often the adjacent one. According to law, they should apply for asylum there, but if they choose to go further, they cease to be refugees and become migrants. The difference is very important. Refugees are fleeing from danger to safety, and are covered by protections afforded to that purpose. Migrants don’t qualify for those special protections and are meant to use legal channels to move to another country. If they choose to use non-legal means to cross borders, they become illegal immigrants, criminals. Sympathy and compassion should extend to all who are less fortunate, but those who are willing to respect the new nation and its laws by going through legal immigration channels should surely solicit more than those who demonstrably aren’t, regardless of how cute some other family’s children look on camera. Law-abiding applicants should always be given a better response, and law-breakers should be sent to the back of the queue.

These are well established attitudes to migration and refugees, but many seek to change them. In our competitive virtue signalling era, a narrative constructed by activists well practiced at misleading people to achieve their aims deliberately conflates genuine refugees and economic migrants to make their open borders policies look like simple humanitarianism. They harness the sympathy everyone feels for refugees fleeing from danger but and routinely mislabel migrants as refugees, hoping to slyly extend refugee rights to migrants, quickly moving on to imply that anyone who doesn’t want to admit everyone lacks basic human decency. Much of the media happily plays along with this deception, pointing cameras at the nice families instead of the much larger number of able young men, with their own presenters frequently referring to migrants as refugees. Such a narrative is deliberately dishonest, little more than self-aggrandizing disingenuous sanctimony. The best policy remains to maintain and protect borders and have well-managed legal immigration polices, offering prioritized help to refugees and extending whatever aid to other countries can be afforded. while recognizing that simple handouts and political interference can be sometimes counter-productive. Most people are nice, but some want to help those who need it most, in the best way. Moral posturing and virtue signalling are not only less effective but highly selfish, aimed at polishing the egos of the sanctimonious rather than the needy.

So, we want to help, but do it sensibly to maximize benefit. Selfishly, we also need some migration, and we already selfishlessly encourage those with the most valuable skills or wealth to migrate from other countries, at their loss (even after they have paid to educate them). Every skilled engineer or doctor we import from a poorer country represents a huge financial outlay being transferred from poor to rich. We need to fix that exploitation too. There is an excellent case for compensation to be paid.

Well-managed migration can and does work well. The UK sometimes feels a little overcrowded, when sitting in a traffic jam or a doctor waiting room, but actually only about 2% of the land is built on, the rest isn’t. It isn’t ‘full’ geographically, it just seems so because of the consequences of poor governance. Given sensible integration and economic policies, competently executed, immigration ought not to be a big problem. The absence of those givens is the main cause of existing problems. So we can use the UK as a benchmark for reasonably tolerable population density even under poor government. The UK still needs migrants with a wide range of skills and since some (mainly old) people emigrate, there is always room for a few more.

Integration is a growing issue, and should be a stronger consideration in future immigration policy. Recent (last 100 years) migrants and their descendants account for around 12% of the UK population, 1 in 8, still a smallish minority. Some struggle to integrate or to find acceptance, some don’t want to, many fit in very well. Older migrations such as the Normans and Vikings have integrated pretty well now. My name suggests some Viking input to my DNA, and ancestry research shows that my family goes back in England at least 500 years. Having migrated to Belfast as a child, and remigrated back 17 years later, I know how it feels to be considered an outsider for a decade or two.

What about the USA, with the migrant ‘caravan’ of a few thousand people on their way to claim asylum? The USA is large, relatively sparsely populated, and very wealthy. Most people in the world can only dream of living at US living standards and some of them are trying to go there. If they succeed, many more will follow. Trump is currently under fire from the left over his policy, but although Trump is certainly rather less eloquent, his policy actually closely echoes Obama’s. Here is a video of Obama talking about illegal immigration in 2005 while he was still a Senator:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4656370/sen-barack-obama-illegal-immigration

Left and right both agreed at least back then that borders should be protected and migrants should be made to use legal channels, presumably for all the same common sense reasons I outlined earlier. What if the borders were completely open, as many are now calling for? Here are a few basic figures:

Before it would get to UK population density, the USA has enough land to house every existing American plus every single one of the 422M South Americans, 42M Central Americans, 411M Middle Easterns, the 105M Philippinos and every African. Land area isn’t a big problem then. For the vast majority in these regions, the average USA standard of living would be a massive upgrade, so imagine if they all suddenly migrated there. The USA economy would suddenly be spread over 2.5Bn instead of 325M. Instead of $60k per capita, it would be $7.8k, putting the USA between Bolivia and Guatemala in the world wealth rankings, well below most of Central and South America (still 40% more than Honduras though). Additionally, almost all of the migrants, 87% of the total population would initially be homeless. All the new homes and other infrastructure would have to be paid for and built, jobs created, workforce trained etc. 

Even the most fervent open borders supporter couldn’t pretend they thought this was feasible, so they reject reasoning and focus on emotion, pointing cameras at young families with sweet kids, yearning for better lives. If the borders were open, what then would prevent vast numbers of would-be migrants from succumbing to temptation to better their lives before the inevitable economic dilution made it a worthless trip? Surely opening the borders would result in a huge mass of people wanting to get in while it is still a big upgrade? People in possession of reasoning capability accept that there need to be limits. Left and right, Obama and Trump agree that migration needs to be legal and well managed. Numbers must be restricted to a level that is manageable and sustainable.

So, what should be done about it. What policy principles and behaviors should be adopted. The first must be to stop  misuse of language, particularly conflating economic migrants and refugees. Activists and some media do that regularly, but deliberate misrepresentation is ‘fake news’, what we used to call lies.

Second, an honest debate needs to be had on how best to help refugees, whether by offering them residency or by building and resourcing adequate refugee camps, and also regarding how much we can widen legal immigration channels for migrants while sustaining our existing economy and culture. If a refugee wants to immigrate, that really ought to be a separate consideration and handled via immigration channels and rules. Dealing with them separately would immediately solve the problem of people falsely claiming refugee status, because all they would achieve is access to a refugee camp, and would still have to go through immigration channels to proceed further. Such false claims clog the courts and mean it takes far longer for true refugees to have their cases dealt with effectively.

Thirdly, that debate needs to consider that while countries naturally welcome the most economically and culturally valuable immigrants, there is also a good humanitarian case to help some more. Immigration policy should be generous, and paralleled with properly managed international aid.

That debate should always recognize that the rule of law must be maintained, and Obama made that argument very well. It still holds, and Trump agreeing with it does not actually make it invalid. Letting some people break it while expecting others to follow it invites chaos. Borders should be maintained and properly policed and while refugees who can demonstrate refugee status should be directed into refugee channels (which may take some time), others should be firmly turned away if they don’t have permission to cross, and given the information they need to apply via the legal immigration channels. That can be done nicely of course, and a generous country should offer medical attention, food, and transport home, maybe even financial help. Illegal immigration and lying about refugee status should be strongly resisted by detainment, repatriation and sending to the back of the queue, or permanently denying entry to anyone attempting illegal entry. No country wants to increase its population of criminals. Such a policy distinguishes well between legal and illegal, between refugees and migrants, and ensures that the flow into the country matches that which its government thinks is manageable.

The rest is basically ongoing Foreign Policy, and that does differ between different flavors of government. Sadly, how best to deal with problems in other countries is not something the USA is known to be skilled at. It doesn’t have a fantastic track record, even if it usually intends to make things better. Ditto the UK and Europe. Interference often makes things worse in unexpected ways. Handouts often feed corruption and dependence and support oppressive regimes, or liberate money for arms, so they don’t always work well either. Emergencies such as wars or natural catastrophes already have polices and appropriate agencies in place to deal with consequences, as well as many NGOs.

This caravan doesn’t fit neatly. A few can reasonably be directed into other channels, but most must be turned away. That is not heartless. The Mediterranean migration have led to far more deaths than they should because earlier migrants were accepted, encouraging others, and at one point it seemed to be the EU providing a safe pickup almost as soon as a trafficker boat left shore. The Australian approach seemed harsh, but probably saved thousands of lives by deterring others from risking their lives. My own solution to the Mediterranean crisis was:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-mediterranean-crisis/ and basically suggested making a small island into a large refugee camp where anyone rescued )or captured if they managed to make the full trip) would be taken, with a free trip home once they realized they wouldn’t be transferred to mainland Europe. I still think it is the best approach, and could be replicated by the USA using a large refugee/migrant camp from which the only exit is back to start or a very lengthy wait from the back of the legal migration queue.

However:

My opening questions on the inequity of birth invite another direction of analysis. When people die, they usually leave the bulk of their estates to their descendants, but by then they will also have passed on a great deal of other things, such as their values, some skills, miscellaneous support, and attitudes to life, the universe and everything. Importantly, they will have conveyed citizenship of their country, and that conveys a shared inheritance of the accumulated efforts of the whole of that countries previous inhabitants. That accumulation may be a prosperous, democratic country with reasonable law and order and safety, and relatively low levels of corruption, like the USA or the UK, or it may be a dysfunctional impoverished dictatorship or anything between. While long-term residents are effectively inheriting the accumulated value (and problems) passed down through their ancestors, new immigrants receive all of that for free when they are accepted. It is hard to put an accurate value on this shared social, cultural and financial wealth, but most that try end up with values in the $100,000s. Well-chosen immigrants may bring in value (including their descendants’ contributions) greatly in excess of what they receive. Some may not. Some may even reduce it. Whether a potential immigrant is accepted or not, we should be clear that citizenship is very valuable.

Then analysis starts to get messier. It isn’t just simple inheritance. What about the means by which that happy inherited state was achieved? Is one country attractive purely because of its own efforts or because it exploited others, or some combination? Is another country a hell hole in part because of our external interference, as some would argue for Iraq or Syria? If so, then perhaps there is a case for reparation or compensation, or perhaps favored immigration status for its citizens. We ought not to shirk responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Or is it a hell hole in spite of our interference, as can be argued for some African countries. Is it a hell hole because its people are lazy or corrupt and live in the country they deserve, as is possible I guess, though I can’t think of any examples. Anyway, heredity is a complex issue, as is privilege, its twin sister. I did write a lengthy blog on privilege (and cultural appropriation). I probably believe much the same as you but in the hostile competitive offence-taking social media environment of today, it remains a draft.

Sorry it took so many words, but there is so much nonsense being spoken, it takes a lot of words to remind of what mostly used to be common sense. The right policy now is basically the same as it was decades ago. Noisy activism doesn’t change that.