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Who authors the automation?

Posted By Tim Morgan, Thursday, June 20, 2019

Tim Morgan published his sixth blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by checking the possibility of building intended and unintended governance into automation. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? This question penned by the ancient poet Juvenal may have more urgency in the current automation age than it did two thousand years ago in the palaces of Rome.

 

Our money is stored as data and flows digitally at the speed of light. We socialize online. We play online games and stream movies. Apps record our exercise, sleep, and heartbeats. News comes via feeds customized based on our observed interests. Search engines return ranked results based on more than just the keywords. All of it is done via algorithms written by someone for a specific reason. Even self-learning AIs are ultimately built to fulfill a human desire or need. Automations are systems which embody someone’s values.

 

What values are being intentionally and unintentionally encoded into the automated backbone of current society? What intended and unintended governance is being built into automation? As automation advances and becomes ubiquitous, what we develop and how we apply it becomes critical.

 

Most automation is developed to meet specific requirements. Quality Assurance professionals analyze and validate software via requirements-based testing and analysis. Automations are systems, be they games or banking apps or robots.

 

Complex systems have complex behaviors. Complex systems create and reinforce values consistent with that system. Systems promote the values embedded into the software, whether or not the developer intended to embed them. Testing rarely goes beyond the mere functional requirements to measure the systemic impacts of automation against the larger world. The current Institutional and Market watchers are insufficient to that task.

 

Proactive policing software promotes racially biased patrolling patterns when systemic biases have been unintentionally embedded into data and code based on existing policing practices. Voting rolls are purged of legal voters because of erroneous, and sometimes intentional, partial name matches with convicted criminals. Traffic light cameras are used more for automated revenue enhancement than for protecting public safety. Social media and news media both use dynamic consumer metrics to automatically amplify attention-getting divisive stories ahead of socially uplifting ones. Successful games exploit known psychological triggers to promote compulsive game-play, even when embedding those triggers were not a conscious programming choice. Successful games, news, and social media have quickly evolved into attention predators via market selection. Automation is evolving, but market and institutional selection mechanisms are not necessarily socially benign.

 

The future holds some interesting values questions around advanced automation. Could we go beyond normal Don’t-Hit-A-Pedestrian safety programming in self-driving cars, adding in Good Samaritan assistance behaviors for the roadside stranded or injured? Will consumers ever get a Make-My-Life-Better setting on their social media? Will we find ways to create new Social Awareness algorithms and new Social Quality Assurance testing standards for commercial and institutional automation?

 

Failure to anticipate the untested social impacts of new automation before it is deployed turns the entire world into an increasingly bug-filled, chaotic, free-for-all of externalized impacts and socialized costs. How technology is applied is a choice. How to encourage development of future automation which balances profit or control with social good is an epic challenge of our current era for both developers and users alike.  Who authors the automation? Who watches the watchers? Ultimately, we all do if we want a better world.

 

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  governance  technology 

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Can democracy solve our wicked problems?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, April 18, 2019

Robin Jourdan checks the possibility of solving wicked problems by democracy in her fourth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

We are living in an age of wicked problems. These are problems that generally have a social or cultural component that makes it difficult to solve. They’re more often complex, connected to other grand-scale issues, a substantial economic burden, and often incomplete knowledge. Wicked problems as a marketing concept didn’t come into being until the early 1970s.

 

Historic wicked problems would include polio, cholera, typhoid, cancer, poverty, and more. Often these problems created a sense of fear, vulnerability, uncertainty, chaos, and ambiguity. Out of control societies witnessed break-downs in politics, economics, and culture. What these problems had in common included a lack of knowledge over things like hygiene, sanitation, microbes. In other instances, what was lacking often was the political willpower to create the needed changes.

 

Democracies haven’t yet solved these problems due to many factors, some technical, some social, some political. For example, approached with caution and skepticism, often analysts tackle the wrong question in such a complex challenge set. In the West, think tanks and research laboratories are most often charged with finding an answer. Problems and solutions can be overly politicized and at the mercy of wrong motivations. Science and education can be discounted as elitism and fakery. This adds to the challenge.  The same people who would doubt climate change science will stop eating broccoli when science says it’s contaminated.

 

Technocratic and autocratic strengths and weakness are the reliance on technological solutions. If based on short-term incentives, these technologies allow us to continue in our ignorant ways. Then we blame the technology when they fail. Thus, devices alone are incomplete solutions for global woes. Overreliance on this path alone may also widen the gap between solutions and willingness to implement them. Incremental thinking relying on today’s think tank structure will continue to face skepticism from the general public.

 

Short-term thinking spurred by economic priorities will compete for resources in these systems as well. Governance systems that can marshal enormous amounts of resources are likely to be positioned well for moving the needle on solutions as is seen by China's checkbook diplomacy and internal focus on climate change solutions. This assembling vast amounts of resources itself isn’t the lone tool, as squandering resources will increasingly be frowned upon.

 

A key lesson from success over these past wicked problems is the need to get to a long-term, root cause understanding. Systems thinking is a tool that can support and enable transitioning to that longer-term thinking.  Root cause understanding and multi-nation cooperation often result in action.  Such will no doubt be aided by technologies, perhaps yet to be discovered. This complements a most significant ingredient to past victory over specific wicked problems: diligence and resilience during the sometimes-long journey.

 

As the future is further transformed, the longevity economy will likely have specific influences as well. When people live longer, the higher the chance they will face the outcomes of decisions guided by short-term thinking. Having the ability to simulate results by way of systems thinking and problem-solving, but not acting logically regarding them would reveal illogical mindsets.

       

Democracies as a social construct rather than a governance system support the conditions to share what is learned on the march. This is not to suggest that the steps nor the efforts are easy or linear. Adequate investment and emotional diligence are needed are not traits ascribed to a single governance system. However, in a democracy, people can create a groundswell of interest, urgency, and memory to challenge political priorities accordingly.

 

© Robin Jourdan 2019

Tags:  democracy  governance  wicked problems 

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Economics lessons from wild nature

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s sixth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores some economics lessons to be learned from nature. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

If we try to apply Darwin’s theory of evolution to economic systems, would we conclude that capitalism “better suits to the environment” (better suits us) than communism? After all, most of the ex-communist countries shifted to capitalism and the majority of the few remaining are now transitioning to free market economies. Have we naturally selected the better way? Apparently, only a half of us would agree. According to a recent online survey of twenty thousand people in 28 countries run by the research company Ipsos, half of respondents around the globe think that now, in the XXI century, “socialist ideals are of great value for societal progress”.

What exactly are these ideals? Here are some stats:
•9 in 10 believe that education should be free and that free healthcare is a human right
•7 in 10 think that everyone should have the right to an unconditional basic income (UBI).
•Interestingly, about the same number (7 in 10) also agree that it is right for people who are talented to earn more than those who are less gifted, and that free-market competition brings out the best in people.
It seems that although the benefits of free markets in fostering progress are valued when it comes to the essential aspects of life – health, welfare, education – many of us are craving for a more egalitarian system; the one alleviating the polarizing inequality that capitalism has created.

With so many innovations fostering humanity’s progress being inspired by nature, we are curious: what examples of democratic distribution of resources exist in the wild world? One study particularly attracted our attention. A Belgian-French group of scientists studied self-organised collective decision-making by animals when it comes to choosing between alternative resources.

They ran an experiment where 50 cockroaches (Blattella germanica) were presented with three shelters, each with a capacity to hold 40 individuals. For cockroaches, who prefer dark to light, such a shelter is a resource, and they quickly filled them in. But instead of doing this in a chaotic manner, the cockroaches split into two equal groups of 25 occupying two shelters and leaving the third one empty. While in a scenario with larger shelters – each big enough for the whole group – only one of the shelters got occupied. The researchers were astonished by how cockroaches maximise the benefit of limited resources, trading off being together and access to shelter resources and finding a balance between collaboration and competition. “Without elaborate communication, global information, and explicit comparison of available opportunities, […] the collective decision emerges from the interactions between equal individuals, initially possessing little information about their environment. It is remarkable, then, that these rules should produce a collective pattern that maximizes individual fitness.”

Economic democracy observed in behaviour of cockroaches presents some of the features where capitalism and representative democracy did not quite succeed: egalitarian distribution of resource and decision-making benefiting all (or at least the majority of) individuals. It might seem too simplistic to directly compare the economic problems faced by Blattella germanica and those of Homo sapiens. But if we think of some emerging movements – collaborative mobile democracy, participatory budgeting, commons-based economic governance – are they not technologically empowered forms of truly collective decision-making, replicating those observed in nature? With new technologies making us more interconnected, we now have a unique opportunity to access the knowledge and opinions of all interested citizens and reshape the way we, as a society, take decisions and distribute value.

Following nature’s principle of evolution, only a better system, distributive by design and maximising the fitness of more individuals, will be able to replace capitalism by making it obsolete. Mother nature offers us many lessons, and the lesson of balancing collaboration and competition has been one of the hardest to comprehend. It requires both individual engagement and strong leadership ability to connect knowledge and talents from the community and to facilitate the best ideas evolving in something new.

As American sociologist Erik Olin Wright suggests, we cannot smash or escape capitalism, but we can tame or erode it. By slowly introducing new elements, inspired by nature and enabled by technology, we might start shifting the focus from maximising financial value and growth to real value creation and more equality. And then who knows… maybe one day this will make capitalism in its classical form obsolete.

© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  capitalism  economics  governance 

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