Into the Roaring Twenties

Into the Roaring Twenties

Plague “The darkest hour is just before the dawn,” said an English theologian called Thomas Fuller in 1650, and many people since. Covid-19 has been a terrible plague, like many terrible plagues before. At the time of writing it has killed two million people worldwide, and tragically, it will kill many more this year. Two million people have left widows and orphans to grieve them, and millions more face economic ruin or lasting insecurity. In some countries, incompetent and dishonest political leaders have made the situation far worse than it need have been. The recovery is likely to be K-shaped,...
Ten lasting impacts of the virus

Ten lasting impacts of the virus

We’re all wondering how to survive the virus: how to stay alive, and also solvent. Assuming we manage that, what will be its lasting impacts? 1. Appreciation of exponentials The rising death tolls in many countries has been shocking to watch. Many people are getting their first up-close-and-personal view of the astonishing power of exponential growth. We have seen it for decades in the dramatic growth of computing power described by Moore’s Law, but like the mythical boiling frog in the saucepan (it really is a myth: frogs are not that daft), we acclimatise to improvements on that timescale, and...
Change has never been this fast.  It will never be this slow again

Change has never been this fast. It will never be this slow again

The 2010s were an ironic decade. Most metrics show that human welfare improved at an extraordinary rate, but many of us seem to be fearful or resentful, or both. The world is far richer in 2020 than it was in 2010, and global inequality is declining. There is still plenty of poverty, egregious inequality, and injustice, and there are still brutal wars and civil unrest. But overall, life expectancy is sharply up, and child mortality and deaths during childbirth are sharply down. Despite global warming, the number of deaths and injuries from climate-related disasters has fallen significantly, and many rich...
Has AI ethics got a bad name?

Has AI ethics got a bad name?

Amid all the talk of robots and artificial intelligence stealing our jobs, there is one industry that is benefiting mightily from the dramatic improvements in AI: the AI ethics industry. Members of the AI ethics community are very active on Twitter and the blogosphere, and they congregate in real life at conferences in places like Dubai and Puerto Rico. Their task is important: they want to make the world a better place, and there is a pretty good chance that they will succeed, at least in part. But have they chosen the wrong name for their field? Artificial intelligence is...
The greatest generations

The greatest generations

Every generation thinks the challenges it faces are more important than what has gone before. American journalist Tom Brokaw bestowed the name “the greatest generation” on the people who grew up in the Great Depression and went on to fight in the Second World War. As a late “baby boomer” myself, I certainly take my hat off to that generation. The Boomers were named for demography: they were a bulge in the population (“the pig in the python”) caused by soldiers returning from the war. They saw themselves as special, and maybe they were. They invented sex in the 1960s,...
Road rage against the machines?  Self-driving cars in 2018 and 2019

Road rage against the machines? Self-driving cars in 2018 and 2019

Self-driving cars – or Autos, as I hope we’ll call them – passed several important milestones in 2018, and they will pass several more in 2019. The big one came at the end of the year, on 5th December: Google’s Autos spin-out Waymo launched the world’s first commercial self-driving taxi service, open to citizens in Phoenix, Arizona, who are not employees of the company, and not bound by confidentiality agreements. This service, branded Waymo One, was an extension of the company’s EasyRider programme, which was launched back in April. In that programme, selected members of the public who were willing...
Reviewing last year’s AI-related forecasts

Reviewing last year’s AI-related forecasts

As usual, I made some forecasts this time last year about how AI would change, and how it would change us. It’s time to look back and see how those forecasts for 2018 panned out. The result: a 50% success rate, by my reckoning. Better than the previous year, but lots of room for improvement. Here are the forecasts, with my verdicts in italics. 1. Non-tech companies will work hard to deploy AI – and to be seen to be doing so. One consequence will be the growth of “insights-as-a-service”, where external consultants are hired to apply machine learning to...
Algocracy

Algocracy

Powerful new technologies can produce great benefits, but they can often produce great harm. Artificial intelligence is no exception. People have numerous concerns about AI, including privacy, transparency, security, bias, inequality, isolation, oligopoly, and killer robots. One which perhaps gets less attention than it deserves is algocracy. Decisions about the allocation of resources are being made all the time in societies, on scales both large and small. Because markets are highly efficient systems for allocating resources in economies characterised by scarcity, capitalism has proved highly effective at raising the living standards of societies which have adopted it. Paraphrasing Churchill, it...
Sunny side up

Sunny side up

Satisfying stories feature a hero or heroine facing jeopardy and triumphing over adversity. This explains why most science fiction is dystopian: that’s where the jeopardy is. This gives us a problem. Science fiction provides the metaphors we use to think about and discuss the future, and unfortunately, for every Star Trek there are multiple Star Wars and Terminators. Fear of the future stops many of us from thinking about it seriously. Maybe we should offset the likes of Black Mirror with some White Mirror. So here is a description of the world in which AI has turned everything upside down...
Putting your money where your mouth is

Putting your money where your mouth is

Robert Atkinson and I have made the 749th Long Bet shown above (and online here). Robert is president and founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. Robert’s claim With the rise of AI and robotics many now claim that these technologies will improve exponentially and in so doing destroy tens of millions of jobs, leading to mass unemployment and the need for Universal Basic Income. I argue that these technologies are no different than past technology waves and to the extent they boost productivity that will create offsetting spending and investment, leading to offsetting job...
In the future, education may be vacational, not vocational

In the future, education may be vacational, not vocational

This post is co-written with Julia Begbie, who develops cutting-edge online courses as a director of a design college in London. Some people (including us) think that within a generation or two, many or most people will be unemployable because machines will perform every task that we can do for money better, faster and cheaper than we can. Other people think that humans will always remain in paid employment because we will have skills to offer which machines never will. These people usually go on to argue that humans will need further education and training to remain in work –...
The Simulation Hypothesis: an economical twist (part 2 of 2)

The Simulation Hypothesis: an economical twist (part 2 of 2)

Offending Copernicus Of course this is all wild and ultimately pointless speculation, so I won’t be at all upset if you decide it is more worthwhile to go watch a game of baseball or cricket instead of reading the rest of this post. But if you’re still with me, then isn’t it a curious coincidence that you happen to be alive right at the time when humanity is rushing headlong towards the creation of AGI and superintelligence? And that you might very possibly be alive to see it happen? Doesn’t that situation offend against the Copernican principle, also known as...
The Simulation Hypothesis: an economical twist (part 1 of 2)

The Simulation Hypothesis: an economical twist (part 1 of 2)

Are we living in the Matrix? Are we living in the Matrix? This question seems futuristic, a theme from a science fiction movie. (Which of course it is.)  But the best science fiction is philosophy in fancy dress, and philosophers have been asking the question since at least the ancient Greeks. The question generated considerable interest in June this year when Elon Musk said the chance that we live in a “base reality” was “one in billions”. But as long ago as 380 BC, when the Greek philosopher Plato wrote “The Republic”, he included the Allegory of the Cave, which argued...
Science fiction gives us metaphors to think about our biggest problems

Science fiction gives us metaphors to think about our biggest problems

Science fiction, it has been said, tells you less about what will happen in the future than it tells you about the predominant concerns of the age when it was written. The 1940s and 50s is known as the golden age of science fiction: short story magazines ruled, and John Campbell, editor of Astounding Stories, demanded better standards of writing than the genre had seen before. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, AE van Vogt, and Robert Heinlein all got started in this period. The Cold War was building up, but the West was emerging from the destruction and austerity of...
Science fiction is philosophy in fancy dress

Science fiction is philosophy in fancy dress

Looking back, I think I have always understood that science fiction is philosophy in fancy dress.  My favourite science fiction stories are the ones that make you think – the ones that ask, “what would it be like if…”  That is what I tried to do in my novel, Pandora's Brain. I started reading the stories of Arthur C Clark, Isaac Asimov, JG Ballard and the rest as a young boy, and that was also when I formed my first lasting ambition – to study philosophy at Oxford.  (I still don’t know where that ambition came from.  Perhaps it was something...