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– Its All Broken, but we can fix it

Democracy, the environment, work, healthcare, wealth and capitalism, energy and education - it’s all broken but we can fix it. This was the thrust of the talk given yesterday evening (19th March 2019) by 'Futurist' Mark Stevenson as part of the University of Cambridge Science Festival. Call me a subversive, but this is exactly what I have long believed. So I am enthusiastic to report on this talk, even though it is as much to do with my www.wellbeingandcontrol.com website than it is with AI and Robot Ethics.

Moral Machines?

This talk was brought to you, appropriately enough, by Cambridge Skeptics. One thing Mark was skeptical about was that we would be saved by Artificial Intelligence and Robots. His argument - AIs show no sign of becoming conscious therefore they will not be able to be moral. There is something in this argument. How can an artificial Autonomous Intelligent System (AIS) understand harm without itself experiencing suffering? However, I would take issue with this first premise (although I agree with pretty much everything else). First, assuming that AIs cannot be conscious, it does not follow that they cannot be moral. Plenty of artefacts have morals designed in - an auto-pilot is designed not to kill its passengers (leaving aside the Boeing 737 Max), a cash machine is designed to give you exactly the money you request and buildings are designed not to fall down on their occupants. OK, so this is not the real-time decision of the artefact. Rather it's that of the human designers. But I argue (see the right-hand panel of some blog page on www.robotethics.co.uk) that by studying what I call the Human Operating System (HOS) we will eventually get at the way in which human morality can be mimicked computationally and this will provide the potential for moral machines.

The Unpredictable...

Mark then went on to show just how wrong attempts at prediction can be. "Cars are a fad that will never replace the horse and carriage". "Trains will never succeed because women were not designed to travel at more than 50 mile per hour".
We are so bad at prediction because we each grow up in our own unique situations and it's very difficult to see the world from outside our own box - when delayed on the M11 don't think you are in a traffic jam, you are the traffic jam!  Prediction is partly difficult because technology is changing at an exponential rate. Once it took hundreds of years for a technology (say carpets) to be generally adopted. The internet only took a handful of years.

...But Possible

Having issued the 'trust no prediction' health warning, Mark went on to make a host of predictions about self-driving cars, jobs, education, democracy and healthcare. Self-driving cars, together with cheap power will make owning your own car economically unviable. You will hire cars from a taxi pool when you need them. You could call this idea 'CAAS - Cars As A Service' (like 'SAAS - Software As A Service') where all the pains of ownership are taken care of by somebody else.

AI and Robots will take all the boring cognitively light jobs leaving people to migrate to jobs involving emotions. (I'm slightly skeptical about this one also, because good therapeutic practices, for example, could easily end up within the scope of chatbots and robots with integrated chatbot sub-systems). Education is broken because it was designed for a 1950s world. It should be detached from politics because at the moment educational policy is based on the current Minister of Education's own life history. 'Education should be in the hands of educationalists' got an enthusiatic round of applause from the 300+ strong audience - well, it is Cambridge, after all.

Parliamentary democracy has hardly changed in 200 years. Take a Corbyn supporter and a May supporter (are there any left of either?). Mark contends that they will agree on 95% of day to day things. What politics does is 'divide us over things that aren't important'. Healthcare is dominated by the pharmaceutical industry that now primarily exists to make money. It currently spends twice the amount on marketing than it does on research and development. They are marketing, not drug companies.

While every company espouses innovation as one of its key values, for the most part it's just platitude or a sham. It's generally in the interest of a company or industry to maintain the status quo and persuade consumers to buy yet more useless products. Companies are more interested in delivering shareholder value than anything truly valuable.

Real innovation is about asking the right questions. Mark has a set of techniques for this and I am intrigued as to what they might be (because I do too!).

We can fix it - yes we can

On the positive side, it's just possible that if we put our minds to it, we can fix things. What is required is bottom up, diverse collaboration. What does that mean? It means devolving decision-making and budgeting to the lowest levels.

For example, while the big pharma companies see no profit in developing drugs for TB, the hugely complex problem of drug discovery can be tackled bottom up. By crowd-sourcing genome annotations, four new TB drugs have been discovered at a fraction of the cost the pharma industry would have spent on expensive labs and staff perks. While the value of this may not show on the balance sheet or even a nation's GDP, the value delivered to those people whose lives are saved is incalculable. This illustrates a fundamental flaw in modern capitalism - it concentrates wealth but does not necessarily result in the generation of true value. And the people are fed up with it.

Some technological solutions include 'Blockchain',that Mark describes as 'double entry bookkeeping on steroids'. Blockchain can deliver contracts that are trustworthy without the need for intermediary third parties (like banks, accountants and solicitors) to provide validation. Blockchain provides 'proof' at minuscule cost, eliminating transactional friction. Everything will work faster, better.

Organs can be 3D printed and 'Nanoscribing' will miniaturise components and make them ridiculously cheap. Provide a blood sample to your phone and the pharmacist will 3D print a personalised drug for you.

I enjoyed this talk, not least because it contained a lot of the stuff I've been banging on about for years (see: www.wellbeingandcontrol.com). The difference is that Mark has actually brought it all together into one simple coherent story - everything is broken but we can fix it. See Mark Stevenson's website at: https://markstevenson.org

Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson

– Can we trust blockchain in an era of post truth?

Post Truth and Trust

The term ‘post truth’ implies that there was once a time when the ‘truth’ was apparent or easy to establish. We can question whether such a time ever existed, and indeed the ‘truth’, even in science, is constantly changing as new discoveries are made. ‘Truth’, ‘Reality’ and ‘History’, it seems, are constantly being re-constructed to meet the needs of the moment. Philosophers have written extensively about the nature of truth and this is an entire branch of philosophy called ‘epistemology’. Indeed my own series of blogs starts with a posting called ‘It’s Like This’ that considers the foundation of our beliefs.

Nevertheless there is something behind the notion of ‘post truth’. It arises out of the large-scale manufacture and distribution of false news and information made possible by the internet and facilitated by the widespread use of social media. This combines with a disillusionment in relation to almost all types of authority including politicians, media, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, lawyers and the operation of law generally, global corporations, and almost any other centralised institution you care to think of. In a volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous world who or what is left that we can trust?

YouTube Video, Astroturf and manipulation of media messages | Sharyl Attkisson | TEDxUniversityofNevada, TEDx Talks, February 2015, 10:26 minutes

All this may have contributed to the popularism that has led to Brexit and Trump and can be said to threaten our systems of democracy. However, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous remark ‘democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others’. But, does the new generation of distributed and decentralising technologies provide a new model in which any citizen can transact with any other citizen, on any terms of their choosing, bypassing all systems of state regulation, whether they be democratic or not. Will democracy become redundant once power is fully devolved to the individual and individuals become fully accountable for their every action?

Trust is the crucial notion that underlies belief. We believe who we trust and we put our trust in the things we believe in. However, in a world where we experience so many differing and conflicting viewpoints, and we no longer unquestioningly accept any one authority, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what to trust and what to believe.

To trust something is to put your faith in it without necessarily having good evidence that it is worthy of trust. If I could be sure that you could deliver on a promise then I would not need to trust you. In religion, you put your trust in God on faith alone. You forsake the need for evidence altogether, or at least, your appeal is not to the sort of evidence that would stand up to scientific scrutiny or in a court of law.

Blockchain to the rescue

Blockchain is a decentralised technology for recording and validating transactions. It relies on computer networks to widely duplicate and cross-validate records. Records are visible to everybody providing total transparency. Like the internet it is highly distributed and resilient. It is a disruptive technology that has the potential to decentralise almost every transactional aspect of everyday life and replace third parties and central authorities.

YouTube Video, Block chain technology, GO-Science, January 2016, 5:14 minutes

Blockchain is often described as a ‘technology of trust’, but its relationship to trust is more subtle than first appears. Whilst Blockchain promises to solve the problem of trust, in a twist of irony, it does this by creating a kind of guarantee, and by creating the guarantee you no longer have to be concerned about trusting another party to a transaction because what you can trust is the Blockchain record of what you agreed. You can trust this record, because, once you understand how it works, it becomes apparent that the record is secure and cannot be changed, corrupted, denied or mis-represented.

Youtube Video, Blockchain 101 – A Visual Demo, Anders Brownworth, November 2016, 17:49 minutes

It has been argued that Blockchain is the next revolution in the internet, and indeed, is what the internet should have been based on all along. If, for example, we could trace the providence of every posting on Facebook, then, in principle, we would be able to determine its true source. There would no longer be doubt about whether or not the Russian’s hacked into the Democratic party computer systems because all access would be held in a publicly available, widely distributed, indelible record.

However, the words ‘in principle’ are crucial and gloss over the reality that Blockchain is just one of many building-blocks towards the guarantee of trustworthiness. What if the Russians paid a third-party in untraceable cash to hack into records or to create false news stories? What if A and B carry out a transaction but unknowing to A, B has stolen C’s identity? What if there are some transactions that are off the Blockchain record (e.g. the subsequent sale of an asset) – how do they get reconciled with what is on the record? What if somebody one day creates a method of bringing all computers to a halt or erasing all electronic records? What if somebody creates a method by which the provenance captured in a Blockchain record were so convoluted, complex and circular that it was impossible to resolve however much computing power was thrown at it?

I am not saying that Blockchain is no good. It seems to be an essential underlying component in the complicated world of trusting relationships. It can form the basis on which almost every aspect of life from communication, to finance, to law and to production can be distributed, potentially creating a fairer and more equitable world.

YouTube Video, The four pillars of a decentralized society | Johann Gevers | TEDxZug, TEDx Talks, July 2014, 16:12 minutes

Also, many organisations are working hard to try and validate what politicians and others say in public. These are worthy organisations and deserve our support. Here are just a couple:

Full Fact is an independent charity that, for example, checks the facts behind what politicians and other say on TV programmes like BBC Question Time. See: https://fullfact.org. You can donate to the charity at: https://fullfact.org/donate/

More or Less is a BBC Radio programme (over 300 episodes) that checks behind purported facts of all sorts (from political claims to ‘facts’ that we all take for granted without questioning them). http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00msxfl/episodes/player

However, even if ‘the facts’ can be reasonably established, there are two perspectives that undermine what may seem like a definitive answer to the question of trust. These are the perspectives of constructivism and intent.

Constructivism, intent, and the question of trust

From a constructivist perspective it is impossible to put a definitive meaning on any data. Meaning will always be an interpretation. You only need to look at what happens in a court of law to understand this. Whatever the evidence, however robust it is, it is always possible to argue that it can be interpreted in a different way. There is always another ‘take’ on it. The prosecution and the defence may present an entirely different interpretation of much the same evidence. As Tony Benn once said, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. It all depends on the perspective you take. Even a financial transaction can be read a different ways. While it’s existence may not be in dispute, it may be claimed that it took place as a result of coercion or error rather than freely entered into. The meaning of the data is not an attribute of the data itself. It is at least, in part, at attribute of the perceiver.

Furthermore, whatever is recorded in the data, it is impossible to be sure of the intent of the parties. Intent is subjective. It is sealed in the minds of the actors and inevitably has to be taken on trust. I may transfer the ownership of something to you knowing that it will harm you (for example a house or a car that, unknown to you, is unsafe or has unsustainable running costs). On the face of it the act may look benevolent whereas, in fact, the intent is to do harm (or vice versa).

Whilst for the most part we can take transactions at their face value, and it hardly makes sense to do anything else, the trust between the parties extends beyond the raw existence of the record of the transaction, and always will. This is not necessarily any different when an authority or intermediary is involved, although the presence of a third-party may have subtle effects on the nature of the trust between the parties.

Lastly, there is the pragmatic matter of adjudication and enforcement in the case of breaches to a contract. For instantaneous financial transactions there may be little possibility of breach in terms of delivery (i.e. the electronic payments are effected immediately and irrevocably). For other forms of contract though, the situation is not very different from non-Blockchain transactions. Although we may be able to put anything we like in a Blockchain contract – we could, for example, appoint a mutual friend as the adjudicator over a relationship contract, and empower family members to enforce it, we will still need the system of appeals and an enforcer of last resort.

I am not saying is that Blockchain is unnecessarily or unworkable, but I am saying that it is not the whole story and we need to maintain a healthy scepticism about everything. Nothing is certain.


Further Viewing

Psychological experiments in Trust. Trust is more situational than we normally think. Whether we trust somebody often depends on situational cues such as appearance and mannerisms. Some cues are to do with how similar one persona feels to another. Cues can be used to ascribe moral intent to robots and other artificial agents.

YouTube Video, David DeSteno: “The Truth About Trust” | Talks at Google, Talks at Google, February 2014, 54:36 minutes


Trust is a dynamic process involving vulnerability and forgiveness and sometimes needs to be re-built.

YouTube Video, The Psychology of Trust | Anne Böckler-Raettig | TEDxFrankfurt, TEDx Talks, January 2017, 14:26 minutes


More than half the world lives in societies that document identity, financial transactions and asset ownership, but about 3 billion people do not have the advantages that the ability to prove identity and asset ownership confers. Blockchain and other distributed technologies can provide mechanisms that can directly service the documentation, reputational, transactional and contractual needs of everybody, without the intervention of nation states or other third parties.

YouTube Video, The future will be decentralized | Charles Hoskinson | TEDxBermuda, TEDx Talks, December 2014, 13:35 minutes