Azeem Azhar’s Weekly Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
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A word from Azeem
This week, I am away on a short family break. My old friend, Tom Loosemore, has agreed to step in and give you his own exponential view.
I’ve known Tom for nearly 25 years. He asks the right questions, can conceive of alternate futures, and, yet, when the rubber hits the road he is capable of ensuring organisations are pointing in the right direction and that the code actually gets shipped. If you are in the UK and have used government services or BBC Online, you’ve likely been directly influenced by his work.
He is one of the most qualified individuals in the world to help us think through the future of government in the exponential age.
Thank you, Tom!
About Tom Loosemore
I’m delighted to have this chance to share my work and thinking with you all. I first met Azeem in 1995 when we were both tech journalists; he for The Economist, and me for Wired. Even back then, he was way ahead of the pack.
My fascination is not just what an exponential future brings, but how existing organisations must reinvent themselves in order to respond with sufficient boldness.
I am a partner at Public Digital, a consultancy which helps governments and other large institutions adapt to this internet era. I’ve co-authored a book about digital transformation at scale, and we publish a newsletter covering the topic. Eight years ago I co-founded the UK Government Digital Service, whose impact saw the UK rise to No. 1 in the UN e-government rankings. Prior to this, I lead digital transformation at the likes of the BBC, UK’s communications regulator OFCOM and the Co-op group. In my spare time, I helped found mySociety, a global civic tech charity.
To stay in touch with me, find me on Twitter @tomskitomski.
Dept of podcasts 🎧
The Exponential View podcast is created in partnership with the Harvard Business Review.
In the second episode of the new season, Azeem is in conversation with one of the leading AI researchers, Professor Joanna Bryson.
They discuss the meaning of intelligence, understanding AI as a human artifact, responsible design, and why anthropomorphising intelligence can lead to problematic outcomes.
Dept of the near future
💯 Demystifying AI through games and simulations. Thought-provoking.
One can imagine thousands and thousands of AI network simulations at different scales, at different speeds, with different aspects, factors, data sets, and degrees of influencing each other. These worlds might indeed change one’s opinions and behaviors in the “real” world. In their goallessness, they would develop more like nature, with no notion of control.
🌍 Africa is on the path to become the world’s largest single currency and free movement region. Large companies will increasingly want their piece of cake. Facebook, for example, is engaged in a number of ways: the company is reportedly looking into connecting more users within Africa by running undersea data cables, and their researchers are using computer vision and machine learning to map out the population density of the continent in the greatest detail ever yet.
🤔 I know Azeem had covered the Boeing 737 Max crash, and shared this article exploring the red flags that the two tragedies raise for autonomous driving. Does automation break the promise of making our jobs, including security, harder rather than easier? Perhaps.
Dept of government platforms
Governments are increasingly keen to embrace a platform model; what Tim O’Reilly termed “Government as a platform”. But the hard part isn’t the vision, as my former colleague Richard Pope, now Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, discusses on his excellent Platformland blog:
Government as a Platform is the approach of reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs, open-standards and canonical datasets. […] A better framing would be this: we already know something of what makes a good platform ecosystem from the FAANG’s of the world, so how can we understand what if anything is unique about the government context; which bits are hard for technical reasons, and which bits are just plain hard? (Spoiler alert: most of them are not technology problems, although there are some.)
Getting accountability, security and privacy right will require breaking a lot of new ground. Funding models are already a challenge, and the highly-siloed culture within government will not change overnight of its own volition.
But the prize is huge. The first nation, or city, or state that creates new ‘horizontal’ institutions with the values, sentiment, business models and culture of the internet-era is going to win big.
Not just because it will be able to offer more efficient and more empathetic public services, but also because those institutions will provide a new foundation, a new digital infrastructure serving the whole of society. It’s still early days, but platforms will trigger exponential change in the capabilities of government, for good or for ill.
🆔 Arguably the most fundamental of all government platforms is digital identity. What role should the state play in you proving that you are who you say you are, when online?
Australia just announced it’s spending another AU$67million on MyGovID, part of its digital identity platform. The Aussies’ digital identity strategy sensibly talks about a federation of multiple identity providers sharing open standards, not just one run by the government. I hope this strategy is actually made real, since the dangers of adopting a single digital identity, controlled exclusively by the state, are yet to be fully appreciated, India’s well-documented problems with its Aadhaar ID system notwithstanding.
Here’s what worries me the most. Imagine a full-scale hybrid war between nation states. And now imagine what a competent cyber adversary could do to your nation’s capacity to function if your government had foolishly decided to control and centralise all your citizens’ identities. All your eggs. One basket. Messy.
Estonia, the world’s leading e-state, faced this challenge in 2017 when a security flaw in its biometric ID system threatened to impact more than 700,000 people, including through identity theft and decrypting private citizens’ data. In 2014, 80% of the South Korean population was exposed when hackers ransacked country’s national ID system. Singapore suffered a breach last year through SingHealth (largest healthcare provider in Singapore), which gave hackers access to large range of personal, non-medical information including all the details on national ID cards.
Centralise identity at your peril.
💬 If you have any experience, ideas or questions you’d like to share, I’d appreciate a discussion. Comment by clicking here or hitting this gorgeous red button:
The aforementioned Richard Pope has form; back in 2016, when we all naively thought that political developments couldn’t get any weirder, he wrote an essay entitled Software is Politics, saying: “Digital services wield power. They can’t be designed simply for ease of use—the goal at most companies and organizations. Digital services must be understandable, accountable, and trusted. It is now a commercial as well as a moral imperative.” Yes, yes, yes.
- Scotland is exploring what should be a more robust and resilient federated route to enable citizens to digitally prove their identity. Chapeau!
- Meanwhile, here’s an interesting take on why the newly-announced Apple Card could be part of a wider Apple strategy to manage your digital identity, be that in the private or public realm. Last year, Apple published a patent to take identification data from the RFID chip on a passport and store this securely in the Secure Element that sits inside iPhones, and is tamper-resistant and adheres to strict security protocols.
- Argentina developed a digital driving licence in 65 days. People can now prove that they have the right to drive just using their phone, no paper or plastic licence required. Key success factors: 1) a great digital team, 2) no separate “policy” process, just one multi-disciplinary team, 3) they’d already built a platform for digital credentials “MiArgentina”, 4) strong political support from President Macri.
- 💡 What’s your big idea for the future of government? UK-based charity/think-tank Nesta is laying down the gauntlet with a public call for radical ideas: “We are interested in views which challenge existing orthodoxies, as well as those which take current trends, technologies or ideas to a new frontier.” You’ve got until 28 April to pitch a 300-word idea; if you’re successful, Nesta will fund a way for you to bring it to life.
🌏💨 Climate catastrophe
Each week, we’re going to remind us of the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. We must avoid a level of 450 parts per million for a chance to keep global warming below 2°C. If we don’t change how we do things, we’re likely to exceed the target in 10-15 years.
- The latest measurement (as of April 5): 411.91ppm
- 12 months ago: 409ppm
- 50 years ago: 326.66ppm
- 250 years ago, est: 250ppm
Share this with your friends by forwarding this email or via Twitter.
🌊 The Australian and Queensland Governments have quietly begun funding feasibility studies looking into manipulation of oceanic and atmospheric conditions to cool down the waters around the Great Barrier Reef. These so-called geoengineering techniques involve shading the reef with a polymer screen, increasing the brightness of clouds (both to reflect sunlight) and mixing warmer shallow waters with colder waters pumped up from the ocean depths. This is highly controversial stuff, but the situation is now critical. The international community is only beginning to scratch the surface of the complex legal, ethical, technical, political and security issues at stake (with attempts to kickstart a debate in the UN recently blocked by the usual suspects – Saudi Arabia and the US).
Even the most ardent supporters of geoengineering agree that the focus must remain firmly on cutting emissions. And here we are faced with a conundrum. Governments have solemnly agreed to the Paris Agreement’s 2˚C and 1.5˚C global goals, but national targets add up to somewhere upwards of 3˚C. What to do?
For many veterans of the climate change process, the answer now lies in litigation. Climate change is notoriously difficult to litigate, but the Paris Agreement’s globally agreed temperature goals, coupled with the stark warnings from the IPCC (whose report summaries are formally endorsed by governments) over the impacts of breaching the 1.5 and 2˚C thresholds, is providing legal ammunition for NGOs and concerned citizens. Governments are being sued for weak policies that are inconsistent with the global goals, or that violate human rights by exposing vulnerable people to climate change. Large fossil fuel majors are being sued for spreading misinformation about climate change. The Urgenda case, which has forced the Dutch government to rethink its climate policy, has blazed a trail for many others to follow.
Dept of social media regulation
Much of Europe has a long tradition of effective regulation of companies by politically neutral regulators to achieve social objectives. These can be aimed at reducing harm (ie. in health and safety at work), or to achieve social or educational outcomes (regulation of broadcast TV and radio, for example). A statutory duty of care on social media to be enforced by a regulator announced by the United Kingdom government, if passed, will continue this tradition. See here a summary of what this entails.
🛡️ First proposed last year by the Carnegie Trust, the idea behind such a duty of care is that companies will need to have systems in place to keep people safe, with an emphasis on safety by design. It is not a simple “take-down” regime such as the one Australia is contemplating — that merely tries to clear up problems after the event.
The content on social networks is there as a result of choices made by the companies that run them: choices about terms of service, about service design, about software and about the resources put into enforcement of their policies. A statutory duty of care makes companies factor safety into those choices more than they would do otherwise, but does not define how such a duty should be enacted. In theory, it’s a relatively futureproof regulatory model and is—again at least in theory—less damaging to competition than more prescriptive regulatory approaches.
In the UK there is now widespread public support for social media regulation. The fact the UK government felt confident enough to publish these proposals while mired in unprecedented Brexit chaos is testament to that. Tragedies such as the suicide of a 14-year-old child for which her father blamed Instagram has contributed to vocal calls to go beyond companies’ self-regulation. The social media landscape is highly concentrated, and its three-sided market means that competitive forces have not been sufficient to force companies to respond adequately to the concerns of users and advertisers. Self-regulation has failed. I wish it hadn’t, but it has.
There will be many, many devils in the details, not least in defining what is “harmful” content. But at least the proposed regulation appears systemic by design. And the systemic beats the palliative.
- There are concerns that the UK’s social media laws could lead to censorship. Note that the proposals came jointly from the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Of the two, the Home Office is far more powerful, and they have a woeful track record when it comes to clunky, draconian internet regulation (see: Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000).
- Jeff Jarvis’ overview of proposals for technology regulation (including internet courts).
- Ben Evans’ on-point comment: some content regulations will clash with the American constitution.
- A UK think-tank, doteveryone, proposes consequence scanning, a new step in the agile product development process. This would allow teams to systematically assess the positive and negative potential consequences of their product. (See also: what is agile BS, as outlined by the US Dept of Defense.)
- London-based ethical technology studio, IF, created a tool to showcase how cloud data can be verifiably monitored using the same Merkle Tree cryptography that underpins the blockchain.
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Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties
🦠 The International Space Station is thriving with nasty bacteria.
💕 Charting mangrove swamps using machine learning. You know a 200-year-old organisation stands a chance of keeping up with exponential change if it’s blogging great stuff like this.
93% of Paint Splatters are Valid Perl programs. Super silly and geeky, but I’d argue that watching the geeks at play is just sensible horizon scanning.
Another geek alert: AI could learn about its mistakes using quantum computing.
😬 NYC failed in its first attempts at deploying facial recognition. See also: how Chinese schools use facial recognition in their classrooms.
♿ Accessibility matters: I love the ThisAbles project from Ikea Israel, which makes their furniture products more accessible to more people through clever 3D-printed accessories and adaptations. All the print patterns are free to anyone, not just Ikea customers.
The world’s biggest corporate borrowers are… tech companies. 💰💰💰
📸 Well done to the scientists who brought us the first ever image of a black hole. How much larger is the M87 compared to our solar system? This much. (See also: all questions about M87 answered.)
Azeem’s end note
Thank you Tom for stepping up to the plate and letting me enjoy some time off this week!
Please take a moment to thank Tom personally via Twitter.
P.S. Do scroll down for some exciting news from EV readers.
This issue has been supported by our partner: Ocean Protocol.
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What you are up to—notes from EV readers
Horace Dediu’s Micromobility conference is coming to Berlin in October. Early bird tickets are available.
Stephanie Hare was part of the BBC One's Panorama programme "Can We Trust Huawei?”, looking at the geopolitics of telecommunications in regards to the most recent events. Stephanie also researched, wrote and presented this short broadcast on workforce surveillance technologies for the BBC World Service.
Ahmed Zaidi and the team at Transport for London are conducting a feasibility study to assess potential opportunities for technological innovation in preventing suicide on rail and underground networks. If you’re interested to help the project by filling out a brief questionnaire, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Multi-platinum-selling songwriter Benbrick has been working with George The Poet on his podcast “Have You Heard George’s Podcast?”. It was just nominated for 6 awards at the 2019 British Podcast Awards. Congrats!
Jason Stockwood shares his book Reboot: A Blueprint for Happy Human Business in the Digital Age.
Alex Weidauer and his team at Rasa, an open-source platform for third parties to design and manage their own conversational AI chatbots, raised a $13m Series A led by Accel. Congrats!