Thursday, 15 March 2018

Automation and AI: a late comeback for Luddite machine breaking?

The rise of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) is being touted as transformational in industry circles. That may be, but is it a force for good? It is almost heretical to say that technology is anything else but a force for good. It transforms lives; it has revolutionised the way we think about the world; most of us hope it may one day help us cheat death itself. 

But automation promises that the world of the future - or at least its richer bits - will be revolutionised by technology that takes up jobs previously performed far less efficiently by humans. Indeed, AI can process tasks in nanoseconds that would take a human team years by manual and mental processes.

This represents revolution. The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) to be specific. Is it a good thing? Most commentators are too evangelist to even pause to pose the question.

Rage against the machine, 1800s-style
Two centuries ago, the Luddites smashed the futuristic steam engines and burnt down the satanic mills that represented the new industrial revolution.

We are accustomed to mocking the machine breakers as foolish and doomed to fail against the march of technology. That may be. Or perhaps they were just ahead of their time.

Nevertheless, did the industrial revolution improve the lot of individual workers? It allowed wealth to accumulate among the middle class and elite; it fuelled a population shift (and population growth) towards cities.

But population growth is now recognised as dangerous, now we appreciate Earth's finite resources. And did it improve workers' lives? I recently read Sapiens, arguing individual humans enjoyed better quality of life as hunter-gatherers than as farmers once they had succumbed to the agricultural revolution. That shift allowed population growth and technological advances, too.

It isn't just me that worries about automation. This year's World Economic Forum (WEF) report took up the theme. And the WEF is pretty much the most tech-friendly, open markets, capitalism-friendly forum you can get.

Nevertheless, 2018's WEF report fretted that the opportunities afforded by automation and profound risks of social instability are dangerously intertwined.

A simpler life
Put frankly, AI might make us more efficient, but is it worth it? Will we be happier?

As more and more careers - starting with working class manufacturing jobs - fall prey to automation, is it still a force for good?

If workers and manual labourers become jobless, presumably they will need to learn new skills. AI is chasing them.

Office jobs are already in the cross hairs. Machine learning can do the job quicker, better and cheaper. So let's fire the team.

In the end, who benefits? I might seem a bit mad, but clearly even the WEF sees risk in strapping the human race to the forces of technology and automation, without considering the societal and socioeconomic costs. An elite might have accumulated sufficient wealth to be waited on by AI, while a restless, swelling majority of squeezed workers will surely question what they have gained and lost.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

More corporate BS that makes me die a bit inside

Cooking up the Schlieffen Plan for the mind
2018 is frequently described as a year cursed with uncertainty. But in the business world, of one thing we can at least be confident. Which is that, as we cycle back, take stock, and touch base, we have reached, leveraged and pulled the trigger on an inflexion point of corporate guff.

Across the interconnected landscape of the current economic environment, in bored rooms inhabited by C-suites, change managers and key stakeholders, the culprits have actioned a lexical paradigm shift inflicted upon the English language, evidencing a disconnect between the synergies of the sublime and the ridiculous.

But taking a deep-dive through the lens, what value-add can we evidence; what key learnings might we leverage? Maybe these dedicatedly client-focused, resolutely results-orientated, woefully misguided folks know not what they do. One thing is clear: we shouldn’t let them get away with it.

Here goes…

Best of breed
For the moments when SVPs fantasise they are running alongside their Cockapoo at Crufts, that they bred horses for a living, or are surrounded by long-haired Persian cats, rather than evaluating three spreadsheet management software providers.

Complexity with lots of connections all linked to each other, a bowl of sticky rice, or an angry kitten playing with a giant ball of string.

Deep dive
As in “Let’s do a deep dive into this data”. Let’s forget for a moment that data is a plural. I think it just means analysis, or putting in some work, detail or focus on whatever stats or topic is on the table.

Interface (verb)
Part of a wider trend of creating new verbs when perfectly adequate ones exist, then overusing them, so often that it seems no power-point presentation or report to your boss is complete without them.

Roadmap (verb)
“We’re roadmapping our way from Point B to Point S.” Pure bullshit. Why not say navigating?

It could mean acceleration (or deceleration, but I’ve never seen it used in this way). Again, it’s just about overusing tired phrases that make presentations sound like you’re speaking the same BS language as the recipients.

Thought leadership
This old chestnut. I don’t know why I didn’t include it in previous lists. It’s just good marketing, highlighting that a firm is taking a lead on a certain topic, demonstrating innovation, and showing that “yeah, we know stuff” – a phrase I’d like to see used more often.

Key takeaways
Points of summary, or a late-night Lamb Kofta?

Unlocking the value proposition
Deriving value from this thing? Levering profit out of that thing? Beloved by business development managers or comms and marketing merchants for explaining how some good idea, a societal trend, or the hard work of some back-office grunt can be turned near-effortlessly into the sales team's next epic bonus.

Driven by robust decisions
As opposed to what: tea-leaves; spin the bottle; Nostradamus? Stop saying this.

And that's it for now. I'd love to hear more.

For previous iterations of my corporate crap lists, offering equally horrible examples of finance, marketing and PR platitudes, you can read the first and second instalments ... here and here.

Elsewhere online, I recommend the writings of Lucy Kellaway, formerly at the FT, before she took up teaching, and also revising the sublime BS of Stewart Pearson, the fictional Tory spin-doctor strategist charlatan in The Thick of It.

My own favourite phrase of Stewart Pearson's is "We're cooking up the Schlieffen Plan for the mind, here!" Try yelling that if I interrupt your next power-point presentation.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Trump voters are culpable for what comes next

via Gage Skidmore, Flickr
Should we empathise with Donald Trump’s supporters? Are they all racists and bigots? Likely not – to both questions.

By giving Trump their votes, supporters have granted him a mandate to implement a racist and xenophobic policy agenda. That’s democracy.

While not all Trump fans are racists, it's about turning a blind eye to what Trump says about other groups in society, and voting to give him that mandate. Trump fans are therefore culpable: they share the responsibility.

That’s the message of this opinion piece, much of which I tend to agree with. I don't like the headline, though: people are the sum of their actions, and can't be judged good or bad by just one.

In any case, just because I or you believe someone's wrong doesn't make them bad. It's political polarisation. The same mud has been thrown at Conservative voters by UK Lefties, who seem to equate voting right of centre with immorality. I'm wary of this.

My main reservation is that after politics has become so polarised (to the detriment of positive instincts towards compromise and sensible centrist policies), there is now a firm risk of further entrenchment in the years to come.

However, I agree with the nub of the Slate op-ed. It contains this uncompromising message to Trump fans who are indignant at being painted as racists, bigots or xenophobes – because they in many cases aren’t – but they still voted for a candidate whose rhetoric suggests that he is all those things.

“That you have black friends or Latino colleagues, that you think yourself to be tolerant and decent, doesn’t change the fact that you voted for racist policy that may affect, change, or harm their lives. And on that score, your frustration at being labeled a racist doesn’t justify or mitigate the moral weight of your political choice,” writes the Slate article.

Consider this. Not all those millions of Germans who voted for the Nazis in November 1932 saw themselves as anti-Semitic.

But nonetheless they were prepared to vote for a candidate to lead Germany who clearly was, judged by his rhetoric at the time, and confirmed in history's hindsight.

While it's an extreme example, I am going to maintain this dark comparison.

That's because the non-racially-motivated reasons why Germans voted NSDAP in 1932 are remarkably similar to those of Trump's US voters in 2016.

Think about it: disillusion with mainstream political consensus; distrust of a generation of politicans; patriotic rally rhetoric to make Germany/America great again; jobs for blue collar Germans/Americans; a law and order platform amid racial strife; and to provide strong national leadership.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Donald Trump Doomsday scenario

Donald Trump is the next President of the United States of America. It's still sinking in. 

Of course we know very little about what a Trump presidency will bring, because the man plays fast and loose with the truth, and flip-flops on so many populist policies.

But foreign policy is a massive question mark, so let's have some fun by speculating about an end to civilisation as we know it.

I read an interesting blog today, about the connectivity of political and geopolitical developments in 2016, particularly Brexit in Europe, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and now Trump in the White House.

The piece stressed historical parallels for how individual shock events can rapidly snowball into global crises, citing the spiraling catastrophe of the First World War in Europe, which was at its peak exactly a century ago.

The prospect of an isolationist Trump government dividing Nato and weakening Europe, to the point where Vladimir Putin annexes the Baltic countries and parts of Eastern Europe, was explored in the blog.

Now, this being a  Strangelove blog, let’s broaden the Doomsday scenario to become a nightmarish global conflict. Just for a laugh.
Trump has been isolationist and soft on Russia, splitting Nato and allowing some of the US’s European allies to be attacked (Ukraine and the Baltics), weakened (Poland) and undermined (Germany, France, Italy) by Putin's Kremlin.

Despite the decline of IS, the Middle East remains a diplomatic mess, with its complicated nexus of proxy relationships between local actors supported and propped up by great powers.
Meanwhile, facing a faltering US economy, Trump has taken a tougher stance on China, including enacting high trade tariffs, nationalising and then auctioning off Chinese-owned US assets, and reneging on US government debts to China.
While the US has turned its back on Europe, the situation in the South China Sea is still escalating, and also in the East China Sea with nationalist Japan, which with Trump’s encouragement, develops a nuclear programme.
For its part, China, cultivates strengthened strategic, political and military ties with Russia, Indonesia and the Philippines, while cutting off diplomatic relations with Tokyo and ramping up rhetoric with the Trump White House.

China’s economy faces a debt crisis at home, an ageing population demographic, government corruption scandals, middle class unrest with Beijing’s single party regime, a new rebellion among its Xinjiang Province’s Muslim Uighur population, and an emboldened secessionist movement in Hong Kong.
China’s “Nine Dashed Line” of the disputed islands with Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia, which have drawn closer to the US, along with its long-cherished designs on Taiwan, and perceived US isolationism, lead the Chinese to simultaneously strike southwards and eastwards.

The Philippines and Indonesia grant their support. Southeast Asia mobilises for war, and then Australia and New Zealand, fearing authoritarian Indonesia to their north.
China formally annexes the islands of the East and South China Seas disputed with Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan. It also launches amphibious invasions of Taiwan and of the Malay Peninsula, including Singapore, to control the Strait of Malacca.

A wave of air and missile attacks rain down on the militaries of its Southeast Asian opponents, while also crippling Japan’s fleet as it steams to contest the Senkaku Islands.
China's occupation of the Malacca Strait brings India into the conflict. Border skirmishes break out along their land border, with China generally coming out on top.

In the Indian Ocean, India's fleet counters the Chinese for control of the strategic Malacca Strait, creating casualties on both sides, but without a clear outcome.

India’s military response to Chinese expansion triggers Beijing in turn to pressure Pakistan, Iran and several African recipients of “One Belt One Road” economic partnerships to declare their support for China.
In the East China Sea, the destruction of much of Japan’s fleet by Chinese air and missile strikes puts domestic pressure on Trump to intervene before China wins. Japan's nascent nuclear programme has failed as a deterrent, with Tokyo unable to act without backing from its US ally.

Sensing China is emerging victorious, opportunistic North Korea, always unpredictable, seizes the opportunity to strikes, moving to settle an old score by attacking Seoul, sparking a new war on the Korean Peninsula. 

China reluctantly supports the North's attack against US-backed South Korea, once the North's antiquated forces run into trouble, after some initial gains. Chinese aircraft and naval units meet American counterparts in direct conflict for the first time, with both sides taking casualties.

The US and China are unofficially at war, whether Trump likes it or not. The US, awakened from isolation, (much like in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and Japan’s 1941-2 occupation of Southeast Asia) moves to prop up its faltering European allies.
France and Germany have been politically undermined into inertia, while the UK remains a lonely hawk in Europe, but too weak to face Russia militarily.

Trump decides to belatedly roll back expansionist China in the Pacific. The two sides are now formally at war.
We would now have a global conflict. As conventional warfare casualties grow, the only questions would be at which point and how nuclear weapons would be deployed.

For further reading, try recent novel Ghost Fleet, which examined a similar scenario in the Pacific, or this recent war game tried by the good people at Foreign Affairs.
Strange things are happening in the world today.  All of this might seem a little far-fetched, but look at 2016 so far. Would you have believed the world could be like this, just ten years ago?

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

EU Referendum: Britain’s past and future

Two visions of Britain compete: one is a shiny Pret-a-Manger, frequented by a mix of sharp-suits and younger hipsters in skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses; the other vision is very different. It’s a tea room on the windswept pier of a neglected English seaside town, frequented by a shabby but proud clientele of reminiscent, forgetful pensioners, while some unemployed men and a few sullen teens drift past its fading frontage.

While it's a caricature and not representative of many voters' outlooks, it is emblematic of the split between many voting "Bremain" or for "Brexit" in tomorrow’s UK referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. Whoever writes The Economist’s Bagehot column must think along similar lines, describing the UK Independence Party’s leader "[Nigel] Farage’s vision of England: a hazy confabulation of content without modernity; of warm beer, bowler hats, faces blackened by coal dust; of bread-and-dripping, fish and chips, hope and glory".

Britain has changed. It is not the same country as it was thirty, fifty or one hundred years ago, and it can never go back. Britain is a liberal, dynamic, globalised, diverse and innovative power house. We are among just a handful of countries able to call ourselves leaders in diplomatic, cultural and economic might. The Little Englander's tea room is an archaism from which little or nothing can be gained.

The source of our power has changed over the decades, as well as declined from its Victorian peak. Insular instincts should not win out in trying to somehow roll back the years – the whole world is different. Harking back to an imperial past is redundant, and our great history is instead reflected in the cosmopolitan makeup of modern UK society and in our shared liberal values and cultural bonds with countries beyond our shores  in Europe and elsewhere.

Clearly I’m voting “In”, largely for economic reasons, which I think are supported by the bulk of expertise and reports published in recent months, particularly relating to trade deals and single market access. I’m not going to go into detail on this. I think everybody in the UK is close to overdose, and there’s been no shortage of rhetoric from both camps.

Tomorrow’s vote is very much an English question: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are together a minority of the UK’s population, poorer than England, and more europhile. Their own provincial nationalism – most conspicuously in Scotland – has been traditionally directed against the English. The same jingoistic anachronisms exist within the English, but are traditionally directed against the French, the Germans – rival great powers in Europe’s history.

The Scottish National Party is eerily quiet on tomorrow, knowing that if the English cave to their own xenophobic wants and vote to leave the EU, the Scots will likely get a second independence referendum within this generation, on the strength that Scotland on its own would never have voted to leave the EU. A vote for Brexit is therefore also likely a vote to break up Great Britain.

My analogy for the two competing visions of Britain, or England, to be more specific, hints at the schism across society on this issue. Older white voters are more eurosceptic, with caveats for those in London and the rich Southeast. Most ethnic minorities are pro-EU, although the effect is lessened with time since migration, with some in the Windrush generation potentially as pro-Brexit as their white British peers. The Kippers who back Farage’s UKIP and favour Brexit are largely drawn from England’s sleepy coastal towns and the poorer post-industrial parts of the Midlands and the North.

Labour’s voters are split. In London its ethnically diverse voters back Remain. Elsewhere, many of its older working class voters come from the eurosceptic swathes of the poorer Midlands and the North that are less cosmopolitan and more suspicious of Polish plumbers, taxi drivers and cleaners taking away their blue collar jobs through EU freedom of movement rules.

The Tories are of course the most publicly split party on this issue. The whole referendum was promised in an irresponsible gamble to end the party’s civil war on Europe. Economically liberal minded Conservatives, exemplified by George Osborne and David Cameron, are campaigning to remain. They look to the big business voices that say to leave will cost market access, jobs, prosperity and GDP, and fear the market forces that have already sent stocks tumbling in recent weeks. And Boris Johnson has cynically struck out for Leave only to differentiate himself from his rivals, without regard for personal integrity or the national interest. 

The broader Conservative base, particularly older voters in rural areas, is largely for Brexit. These are the old fashioned Tories, who in their hearts have little in common with the European project. Like their grimy UKIP cousins, they hark back to times that no longer exist, or now only exist within the sheltered comfort of their country pubs and WI fetes, but cannot represent Britain any further than their nearest largish town.

The young – vital to this vote – are also divided. Generationally, twenty-somethings are much more in favour of the EU than their parents, despite never growing up with the spectre of the security nightmare that spawned the treaties of Paris and Rome in the years following the Second World War. Millennials' EU enthusiasm is borne from free travel, cheap holidays, cultural globalisation, growing up in an era when jokes about national stereotypes become less the norm, and less attachment to previous generations’ clinging view of a Britain in post-colonial decline.

That said, plenty of young people are in favour of Brexit, for similar reasons to their parents, whether in rural communities or post-industrial towns. Kids tend to vote like their parents. The other big question mark is in whether the young will turn out in sufficient numbers to be a decisive influence on the result. Oldies usually vote, but in this case, young people are more enthused by the issue at stake, even if they are divided.

I wonder which vision will have triumphed by the time the UK wakes up on Friday morning.

Monday, 18 April 2016

US prepares to ramp up IS war – and Syria risks

The US has been accused of not doing enough in its leadership of the West’s bid to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Intervention is still highly limited by political opposition to placing large numbers of Western boots on the ground in either war torn country.

In Iraq the US will be doing more, by sending in more special forces, additional helicopter gunships and artillery, as well as sending additional financial backing for the Iraqi Kurds, for example.

While it is often necessary to think of the two countries as one war (especially in the context of defeating IS), Syria is of course by far the more complicated conflict. IS itself adheres to this single-conflict view, by conspicuously dismantling the Iraqi/Syrian border, set up by Sykes-Picot a century ago, along the territory it controls.

But these are still two countries. Any practical scenario for a post war peace will recognise this (leaving aside the question of the Kurds as a potential third entity). What is also clear is the complexity in Syria, where multiple sides are fighting against each other, like some sort of far-fetched multiplayer strategy gaming scenario come true.

The problem is that it is impossible to defeat IS in one country and not the other – much like fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan while neighbouring Pakistan has offered safe havens. However, by ramping up involvement in Syria in the same way as Iraq, the mess of combatants involved means the consequences are tougher to control, to game, or even to visualise.

For example, news that the CIA has plans to arm Syrian rebels with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (so-called “MANPADS”) – to bring down enemy helicopters or jets – has clear consequences. The skies above Syria belong to several players, but essentially two sides: the US and its coalition; and Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian air force plus its major Russian ally.

It is only months since Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military jet on its Syrian border caused international consequences and stoked fears of conflict between Nato member Turkey and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, briefly reminding people of the risk of a return to Cold War-era Doomsday scenarios.

Such a move edges Syria ever closer to a full-blown proxy war between Russia and the West, with the mess of local actors in-between. A major historical parallel is the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the so-called “Charlie Wilson’s War”, in which the CIA armed the Mujahideen with shoulder-fired missiles to destroy Soviet gunships and armoured vehicles, thereby turning the tide of that messy conflict.

Arming Syrian rebels with similar weapons would see them aimed once more at Russian airpower, as well as Assad’s Syrian government aircraft. It has little to do with IS. Of course it might succeed in curbing Assad’s ambition of becoming the dominant player in Syria’s peace negotiations for a post war settlement. Some of them might end up in the wrong (IS) hands, however, and potentially be fired at US and Western gunships and planes engaged in bombing IS.

The move also risks escalating the conflict, internationally, towards the Cold War level of tension which we see glimpses of with Russian aircraft buzzing the Americans as Nato exercises off Russia’s Baltic Sea coast, to warn Putin against aggression against the Baltic states (Nato members) in a potential repeat of what has done in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

How would the Russians respond to one or more of their fighter aircraft or gunships being shot down by a rebel-fired missile supplied by the US? It might be poetic justice after what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 – shot down by Russian troops embedded with Ukrainian rebels in eastern Ukraine - killing 298 people, many of them western civilians. 

Putin is not known for moral scruples, so the hypocrisy of crying foul about a hypothetical shoot down of a Russian military plane in Syria would probably be lost on him. How far would he go in response?

While nobody wants a major conflict, history is littered with examples of wars (or costly skirmishes) being sparked by unplanned events on the ground running away from what decision-makers have planned for. What I mean by that is that the web of complexity that is Syria is fertile ground for far-reaching unintended consequences in international security.

Just something to consider before bedtime…

(Excuse: Written quickly without first clearly ordering my thoughts on the matter.)