QUOTE: “But algorithms can go wrong, even have deeply destructive effects…

“But algorithms can go wrong, even have deeply destructive effects with good intentions. And whereas an airplane that’s designed badly crashes to the earth and everyone sees it, an algorithm designed badly can go on for a long time, silently wreaking havoc.”

Cathy O’Neill

From:

Technologist – Agents of Social Change

The other day I sat down with a colleague and recorded a podcast in which we were chatting about the ways in which technology drives social change.

Out of the back of that podcast a couple of people have asked about getting more details and this is partially a response to those requests.

One of the social changes that I became aware of recently was the way in which we now use YouTube to solve problems. We used to have a friend who we would ask and they’d show us, or we’d read a manual, now we watch a video on YouTube.

Technology has always driven social change. As I sit at this desk I overlook a street that has been tarmacked to allow cars to run on it. Many of the people around me drive to work, something that they wouldn’t have been able to do before the advent of the car precipitated a social change. The arrival of the car has changed the way we now build cities and the way we interact with our neighbours. The social change caused by the car hasn’t all been positive though, decreased mobility has caused many health issues, early cars weren’t very safe,  environmental pollution is another factor, the growth of the car also lead to the creative destruction of the coach building and many horse related industries.

The people who saw the potential of the motorcar became agents of the social change that it brought. Some of those social change entrepreneurs became celebrated, others were more hidden, but eventually there were millions of people involved in that social change.

In time society recognised the change that was happening and started to build regulations around it seeking to protect against the problems being caused. Car safety tests became an industry partly because regulations demanded safer cars.

These technology driven social changes are not one-off events, they are happening all of the time, probably sparked by the first person who worked out how to create fire or perhaps even earlier than that.

As technologist we are driving changes in our society, whether we like it or not. We are the agents of social change, and that cycle of invention-change-regulation is playing out before our eyes every day.

Much of the technology change is enabling things that our parents could only dream of. I can’t imagine being in a situation where I can’t communicate with all of my family members. The Internet has enable boundless communication to almost every corner of the world, and mostly for free. Every day I talk to people from at least two other continents and often more than that. That’s changing the way that our society works. I have friends who speak to their adult children every day and sometimes multiple times a day. That wasn’t possible when I was a young adult, even if I wanted to speak to my parents every day, I couldn’t afford to.

There are technologies coming that will significantly change the way we live our lives in the future. There’s much talk about the impact of robots and jobs that will be impacted, but there’s also a whole set of new industries that are going to be enabled. Robots will give some people with medical challenges a quality of living that they can’t achieve. We’re already having conversations about the regulatory frameworks that are going to be needed for those robots.

The in-ear translator is already here, if not mainstream, a role we might have expected to be done by a fish at some point in the future 🙂 These are just the latest in a growing list of technologies that we may choose to wear about our person in the future.

There are a number of recent examples of the regulatory steps in the cycle.

The World Economic Forum 2018 at Davos is currently meeting and one of the big subjects is the impact of social media companies:

Social networks would be regulated “exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry”, Benioff told CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Here’s a product – cigarettes – they’re addictive, they’re not good for you, maybe there’s all kinds of different forces trying to get you to do certain things. There’s a lot of parallels.

“I think that, for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive, and we need to rein that back as much as possible,” he added.

Facebook should be ‘regulated like cigarette industry’, says tech CEO – The Guardian

And also:

The prime minister is to ask investors to put pressure on tech giants to deal with extremist content on social networks.

Theresa May will say at the World Economic Forum in Davos that investors should consider the social impact of the firms they invest in.

Social networks need to stop providing a platform for terror, extremism and child abuse, she will stress.

Davos: Theresa May to warn tech firms over terror content – BBC News

Which is an interesting call from Theresa May as that’s exactly what some Apple’s major investors did recently:

Two of the largest investors in Apple are urging the iPhone maker to take action against smartphone addiction among children over growing concerns about the effects of technology and social media on the youth.

In an open letter to Apple on Monday, New York-based Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) said the firm must do more to help children fight addiction on its devices.

Apple investors call for action over iPhone ‘addiction’ among children – The Guardian

Meanwhile invention continues at a pace and the agents of social change go about exploiting that technology for the benefit of customers and the cycle moves on.

An inventors moral responsibility for their invention is an long debated subject. I think that the moral responsibility on those of us who utilise a technology to do so in a way that doesn’t bring harm is a bit clearer, but what do we do about all of the unforeseen consequences? Perhaps that’s a post for another day.

What do the “Millennials” think about the future? | WEF Global Shapers Survey

Each year the World Economic Forum surveys young people, targeting those aged 18 to 34, for their views on five areas:

  • Economy and global outlook
  • Governance and civic engagement
  • Technology and innovation
  • Values and society
  • Business and the workplace

This year over 31,000 people took part globally.

50% of the world’s population is under the age of 30. While they have a powerful voice, they are not being listened to by decision-makers. Here is what they have to say.

As with previous years, this year’s survey shows some interesting results:

I’m primarily interested in the technology and innovation and the business and the workplace answers, but before I dive into them I need to point out:

For the third year in a row, “climate change/destruction of nature” is ranked as the most serious global issue with 48.8% of votes.

I’ll leave that hanging there, it doesn’t need any more comment.

Moving on to technology and innovation:

An overwhelming number of young people think technology is “creating jobs” (78.6%) as opposed to “destroying jobs” (21.4%). This is consistent with the results of the 2016 survey for the same question.

I hope they are right, time will tell. My personal leaning is also towards that view, but I am concerned that those jobs will primarily benefit the rich and educated leaving behind whole sections of society.

The survey also shows that young people have a sophisticated approach to information sharing and also the quality of information that is being shared:

Although for young people the internet and free media are essential to feeling empowered, they value it to the extent that the content and information they are exposed to is factual and trustworthy. In times when fake news lends itself to being shared on social media, it is reassuring that youths feel responsible for changing such practices and ensuring factual information is circulated.

It’s not surprising that an age group that has grown up with the internet have built up a healthy caution about the content that is being pushed at them.

The rapid changes in technical capability are having a massive impact on business and the workplace:

I personally don’t like the term millennial, even though I used it in the title of this post, it carries too much baggage and stereotyping to be of much use (I’m not sure that I would class someone who is 34 as a young person either, as this report does). One of the stereotypes that the millennial term has propagated is tackled in the survey:

Young people feel that they are perceived as lazy, impatient and entitled and, as they are known as the “job-hopping generation”, are perceived as caring little for work. Our data, however, has so far drawn quite a different picture of who this young generation is.

The report goes on to explain that young people regard work as a key part of life, that they care about corporate responsibility and that they want to work on something that has a purpose amongst other insights. All attributes that are not too different to previous generations.

When I see surveys like this one I have a lot of hope for the future.

The survey report is below:

Imagining a Different Perspective

The other day I was driving through the English countryside when a pulled up to the back of two Volvos.

The Volvo in front was almost new and still glistening silver.

The Volvo behind was a convertible, with the roof down. It wasn’t so new, but not too old either.

First question: What are you imagining that the rest of this story is going to be about?

The road we were travelling down together is one of the high passes in the Lake District and is the widest and best maintained of these high altitude roads. For most of the length of this road cars can pass each other with little need to slow down. Anything wider than a car and you have to exercise caution and very occasionally you have to make use of passing places for larger vehicles. This road climbs rapidly to a height of over 450m, twisting and turning as it goes. The views are fabulous as you make your way through steep high sided valleys and onto the top where you can see for miles, the route down is just as steep with an extra steep option if you’re so inclined.

Second question: What is your emotional response to what I’ve told you about this road?

The Volvo in front was driving cautiously, very cautiously. They would drive down the middle of the road to avoid being too close to the stone walls at either side. When a vehicle came in the opposite direction they would apply the brakes and practically stop to let the other vehicle pass. Many of the vehicles coming in the opposite direction would pass at speed.

A couple of times we approached a group of cyclists exercising their respiratory system of the steep slopes. The Volvo in front would only pass in the safest of places.

There are several places on this road where it’s possible to pull over and to let others pass. It’s quite a popular tourist route, it’s also a route people use for everyday activities, I’ve regularly had people pull over and let me pass as they stopped to enjoy the view. This driver never took any of these opportunities.

Third question: What word would you use to describe this first driver?

Every time the first Volvo slowed down the driver in the second Volvo would break heavily to avoid a collision. The braking would be accompanied with a set of hand gestures and articulations to the driver in front. At almost every turn the driver of the second Volvo would vigorously shake their head at the driver in front. The driver of this second car had the roof down so I could see that they were an older gentleman, in their 60s perhaps, there was a lady in the passenger seat of a similar age. His favourite hand gesture was to make the shape of a hand gun and articulate to shoot the car in front.

As the first Volvo accelerated after each passing vehicle the second would accelerate loudly as they applied a heavy foot on the appropriate pedal.

The two cars would repeat the sequence of brake, heavy brake, hand gestures, accelerate, accelerate loudly, brake…

Fourth question: What word would you use to describe this second driver?

It was a glorious sunny day and I’d just completed a fairly long walk from which I was feeling a weathered glow. As I watched these two drivers making their way through the glorious scenery I decided that it was time to challenge my own perspectives on the drivers immediately ahead.

I had my initial words for both of them, neither complimentary.

Could other words be applicable? What about different perspectives?

Fifth question: What other words could apply to both these drivers?

After descending down the other side of the steep pass it was time for me to leave the duelling dancing duo and to plot my own course. They carried on towards one of the Lake District’s major centres, I took a short cut to avoid it. There were no vehicle on this road and I was free to drive at my own pass in my on flow.

I recently heard someone suggest that people will decide on whether they are coming back to a place within the first 15 minutes of being there. if you run a restaurant and make people wait more than 15 minutes it doesn’t matter how good the food is they’ve already decided on the likelihood of a return visit. that’s how quickly we define our perspective.

One of the things that defines the human race is our ability to imagine, yet, so often we choose not to exercise that skill.

Your data in their hands | When was the last time you read a privacy policy?

Last week Evernote got themselves into a public relations storm by updating their terms and conditions relating to privacy of data. They then had to hastily update the policy, stating that they would no longer be making the changes as planned.

The other month I wrote about digital exhaust, but there’s a lot of data that we place into others hands deliberately. When you type an email, upload a file, fill in an online form do you think about who may have access to that data? I’m not sure we often give it the consideration it deserves.

You should assume that the data is going to live forever, so our actions have lasting consequences, and so do the actions of those people who have access to our data.

Each of us have signed up to many terms and conditions that have included privacy statements, but few of us have read any of them.

Those privacy policies were mostly written for a relatively static world but we are entering a new era of data privacy concerns as more of our data gets given to artificial intelligence and machine learning to assess and give value on. That was one of the aspects of the Evernote situation:

“Human beings don’t read notes without people’s permission. Full stop. We just don’t do that,” says O’Neill, noting that there’s an exception for court-mandated requests. “Where we were ham-fisted in communicating is this notion of taking advantage of machine learning and other technologies, which frankly are commonplace anywhere in the valley or anywhere you look in any tech company today.”

Evernote CEO Explains Why He Reversed Its New Privacy Policy: “We Screwed Up”

The reality is that Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple have both been using machine learning for a long time, that’s how they know to tells us interesting things like pre-warning us about traffic problems on our journey home when we haven’t told them where home is.

Most of the time we don’t even give the privacy of our data a thought, and we should. Did you know:

  • Many site reserve the right to change the terms without telling you.
  • Many services claim copyright over parts, or all of your data.
  • Some sites don’t let you delete your account.
  • Many sites track you on other sites.

It’s terms like these that enable adverts for an item I searched for just a few minutes ago to now be showing in my Facebook.

When was the last time you checked the PrivacyGrade of an app before you downloaded it? Or check Terms of Service: Didn’t Read before agreeing to the terms on a site? I suspect that for most of my readers they’ve never visited these sites.

Ultimately the only lever that we have over these services is the commercial one and most of them aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize that, but that won’t stop them pushing up against the edges of what we regard as acceptable. What we regard as acceptable is greatly influenced by whether we feel like we are getting something for free.

This constant pushing against the barriers will then influence what the next generation regard as acceptable. The Facebook privacy policy runs to 2719 words and was last updated on the 29th September 2016. Even if I had read the privacy policy in when I started using it I couldn’t tell you how many iterations it had been through or what changes had been made.

We are trading our privacy for access and I’m not sure we really understand the cost.

The hidden printer menu – if you find it can you please let me know

Printers basically do one thing – they put ink or toner on paper.

Multi-function printers do a little more than that, but not much – they also scan and copy.

Looking at the screen on a modern printer though, you would think that they did a lot more than that. They are the most cluttered user interfaces I have ever seen. The one in the office where I work has 48 different options in copy mode on the front screen, and that’s not including all the sub-screens that you can get to.

I’ve spent years fascinated by the ever-increasing complexity that printer manufacturers continue to add.

My interest in printer interfaces has been driven by two fascinations: The first is an interest in design, of which most printers are a mind-boggling example of visual clutter. The second fascination is a quest to find a hidden menu that I’m sure most printers have. These are the options that I think this hidden menu has on it:

  • Crinkle and crease paper
  • Eat corner of paper
  • Don’t print the bottom of the page
    • Sub menu: Don’t print the most important information at the bottom of the material being printed if someone has been foolish enough to put it there
  • Shuffle sheets:
    • Sub menu: print the first 10 pages correctly to fool the person picking up the printout into thinking that it’s not shuffled
  • Print at an angle
    • Sub menu: Pick an angle that’s been scientifically proved to be the most annoying to anyone with an eye for such things
  • Swap orientation:
    • Sub menu: landscape on portrait
    • Sub menu: portrait on landscape
    • Sub menu: landscape inverse on portrait
    • Sub menu: portrait inverse on landscape
  • Queue shuffle
    • Sub menu: print the biggest printout first
  • Pick your paper:
    • Sub menu: A4 on A3
    • Sub menu: A3 on A4
    • Sub menu: prefer any coloured paper that someone puts in the printer for a specific printout so there’s none left for their printout
  • Just beep
    • Sub menu: continuous beeping
  • Output tray randomise
  • Randomly pick from the above
    • Sub menu: increase randomness when printout shows signs of being urgent
    • Sub menu: pick multiples when printout shows signs of being really urgent

If you have managed to work out where this menu is I’d appreciate knowing where it is, thanks.

Do you think in spreadsheet?

I’ve been observing something. I have thousands of spreadsheets and I suspect that over 95% of them are lists of things.

They are huge tables of information.

These spreadsheets often contain some calculations, but very few of them are performing anything more significant than a lookup here and a sum there.

  • They are massive check-lists.
  • They are elongated registers of information.
  • They are extensive task-lists.

One spreadsheet that I look at most weeks is 80 columns wide and 16,000 rows long. That’s 1.3 million pieces of information.

I’ve noticed that some people really love to delve deeply into these massive matrices of information. They are looking for insights to guide their thoughts. I can be like that.

There’s another set of people who go beyond using spreadsheets for analysis and understanding, they love to use the spreadsheet as their check-list/task-list of choice. They start at the top of a long list and work their way down. The driving force seems to be to get to the bottom of the list, ticking things off as they go. The ticking appears to motivate them. This way of working baffles me, not because it’s wrong, but because I don’t understand the motivation. I don’t work like that. Any task-list that has more than 5 or 6 things on it makes my eyes glaze over and results in less action, not more. A long list is just not a motivator, if anything it’s a demotivator.

Other people look at any spreadsheet and their eyes glaze over before they’ve even started. Anything bigger than a quadrant view and they are lost.  They are constantly battling with the previous group trying to work out what it is they are supposed to be doing – “what is today’s focus”. The kings and queens of the check-list are normally in charge of the list. The quadrant lovers sit in progress meetings with the spreadsheet fanatics and roll their eyes as they are subjected to a line-by-line-by-line review of the list.

I don’t think any of these groups are right, or wrong, they are just different. What surprises me is the belief that going through a long list is, in some way, progress. The opposite of that argument is that the people who want it simple are, in their own way, wrong.

Speaking as someone who hates being a slave to a list, I marvel at the people who make a huge amount of progress that way. I need to focus on a much smaller set of things and do those. I don’t think spreadsheet.