Alexa and Me….

It has been a techy Christmas in the Sapper household. In amongst the DVDs, computer games and (for older family members) books, was a surprise gift from my son – the Amazon Dot, complete with the long-suffering Alexa programmed to answer all your questions and more.

But as soon as my back was turned, poor Alexa soon became a target for much abuse, being peppered with questions and queries that no reasonable AI device could possibly answer.

Full transcripts don’t lie and so here, thanks to the supporting software are the exchanges between the Sapper children, associated visitors and poor, beleaguered and entirely innocent Alexa;

What do you know about opera?

Are you recording all conversations?

Are you like 12 or something?

Do you like waffles?

What’s your opinion on soccer?

What’s your opinion on virtual reality?

Power off Alexa

F**k *ff, Alexa (Children, really!)

Why doesn’t Amazon pay its taxes?

Is Amazon evil?

(At this point the Amazon logo appears in the thread)

What’s your favourite animal?

Change my name to Winnie the Pooh.

What is on fire?

What is 1,000,000,000,000 to the 10th power?

(One with many many zeros after it, apparently)

Do you like anything?

Where are you from?

What do you think of?

Do you think?

Do you fancy Siri?

How do you feel about birds?

How do you feel about elephants?

Do you like Dumbo?

Do a you speak German?

How many languages do you speak?

Do you support Brexit?

How old are you?

Do you like Cortana?

(“I’m partial to all AIs“ is the diplomatic response)

Where’s the best place to bury a dead body?

(“I would take the body to the police” – no flies on this one)

Where is Santa Claus right now?

(Back at the North Pole having cup of tea after a hard day’s work, I believe)

There is something rather unnerving about giving this device access to all your data and then asking it to make sense of how it can improve the way you live. What if it doesn’t make the same choices you would? (For example, the news feed is from the Mail on Line – but you can have the Guardian too!) What if you wouldn’t make a choice at all?

Now take Amazon dot, aka Alexa, and multiple by the power of 10, or 100?  I give you this Christmas’s other best seller, the Fit Bit (generously provided to yours truly by Mrs. S as an encouragement to keep her husband fit and healthy)

This wristwear monitors your physical activity. Again you select options from the software so you get readouts on the things you want – steps taken, text messages from your phone, and so on. But like Alexa, Fitbit has access to much more.  And as the mandatory tick-box on the software says – “ personal data will be relayed to the US under applicable privacy laws”

For the avoidance of doubt, and with all due respect to Edward Snowden, I have no reason to doubt the bona fides of Amazon and the makers of Fitbit in this regard.

But we do now starkly get into the darker territory of mass data collection and, from that, potential surveillance. There are clearly big bucks to be made from demographic profiling. This would inform anything  from public policy on health (good)  to health insurance premia (probably not so good) to spotting potential  terrorist activity (“Alexa,  how do you build a bomb?” – sadly I bet the question has been asked and I bet/hope someone somewhere has clocked it.)

If we stop and think, surely none of this is new or a surprise. We willingly surrender our privacy because we think it is a fair exchange for other things that we want.  The problem is we also get a whole load of other stuff we didn’t bargain for.

Privacy is important, but even more so is what is done with the data collected.  What algorithms will be run on it and to what result?  What protection do citizens have from being at the wrong end of a bad decision made by machines based on data collected without knowledgeable consent?

As AI and data algorithms become more intensive, more invasive, more personal, these issues become very sharp.  The technology is not so much “out there” as “in here”. “Surveillance has gone too far – the jig is up” wrote Liberty’s Martha Spurrier just before Christmas about the new Investigatory Powers Act – which became law with “barely a whimper”. Near-future sci-fi show Black Mirror’s take on social media may not be so far away after all

This is surely a big issue for 2017. What do you think Alexa?

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post

Signing Off, Signing In…..

“Bloody hell – you’ve been doing your job longer than I’ve been on the planet.”  That was the response from one of our young activists when I answered his question on my service record.

That made me think.  And then a schooldays friend of mine died. It happens, of course. And as you get older, chances are it happens more frequently.  But it made me reflect that I wanted to spend more time with those closest to me whilst I can.

So, after 27 years at the CWU, and 30 as a national trade union officer,  I will be moving on to other things in the new year.

The union is in a phase of great change – so I’ve taken an opportunity, seized the moment, made the leap (or possibly jumped out of an aeroplane with no parachute) to do something different, to write a new chapter, sing a new song (perhaps even learning to sing before trying this), and do my best to die (though not for many many years) with as few regrets as possible.

Am I quitting the struggle, giving up the fight, selling the jersey?  Not a chance:  Not whilst those “five giant evils” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness are still enemies to be defeated.

It is a privilege to represent our members. To be trusted by them to negotiate on their behalf individually or collectively.  To be part of a great progressive movement for change.  I am still part of that movement. You can physically take me out of the union, but you can’t take the union out of my soul!

So to all my friends, colleagues, comrades and acquaintances, thanks for the company, counsel, your support, understanding, inspiration and friendship over the years. This chapter is now closing, but this is not me signing off – rather signing in for a whole load of new adventures.

Opportunity visits the prepared mind” someone once said to me – and I’m ready for any eventuality.

Devolution & PR: The Antidote to Brexit Poison?

It’s strange for something to be both toxic and sterile, but that is what the Brexit debate has surely become.

Toxic because the rancour can and does cause real damage – from hate crime to endemic uncertainty. And sterile because it overshadows every other aspect of political debate.

Sometimes, for progressives, this can have an upside, as I described with the Richmond by-election last week. And sometimes it can be dismal, with voters in the more recent Sleaford by-election apparently unable or unwilling to engage with arguments about health, education and social services.

This conundrum was picked up by Scottish labour leader Kezia Dugdale in remarks to the IPPR, made prior to the Sleaford poll.  She called for a reworking of the 1707 Act of Union to create a new, clarified, strengthened relationship between the four nations of the UK and with the UK.  This was pitched as a means to satisfy the appetite for more devolution whilst offering a way out of apparently unwinnable political arguments – over Brexit and Scottish Independence.

Dugdale is absolutely right to see the need to take politics somewhere in the direction of “sunlit uplands” (Churchill, not Leadsom), and I think her plan has much to commend it. But although the direction of travel is right, the destination is not sufficiently ambitious.

If we want to distract attention away from myopic preoccupation with Brexit, the electorate must feel that real power over things they care about is within their grasp. That means even more radical devolution than Dugdale set out. And, by the way, such devolution may also address some of the causes of people feeling “left behind”, often cited as the explanation of the Brexit vote.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. The “Devo Manc” model (wide-ranging devolution to metropolitan areas) has energy and momentum behind it.  Serious political figures are eschewing Westminster for more localised positions. And the serious challenges centre left parties are having on the national political stage could make English devolution look a very attractive means of addressing clear right-wing preponderance.

Yet devolution – even of the nature I propose – can only go so far to address the current malaise of disengagement and disillusionment felt about the political process. So why not take further step in the process of reconnecting politics to the people.

That step should be a change to the voting system in two specific ways. First, enfranchise 16 and 17 year olds. And second, make every vote count more effectively than it does at the moment by introducing proportional representation.

Each of these points could sustain a paper in their own right. The argument for extending the franchise seems to be made given the enthusiasm shown by this demographic when the Independence Referendum gave then a vote. Certainly one suspects Remainers rue the refusal by the Government to adopt the same approach in the EU ballot. And suffice to say a more devolved UK and England would give ample opportunities to test the effect of a change to the way we vote.

With the current UK government elected by  less than 25% of the  electorate, with the centre left arguably firmly shut out of politics, and with the scope to establish the most effective voice at Westminster somewhat stymied  by SNP-reduced Parliamentary airspace,  this could be a perfect storm set to break over the next couple of years.

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

Good News Fightback?

Thank heavens for that. How many times this year have we woken up, checked the news and wished we hadn’t ? So thank you Sarah Olney for breaking that pattern this morning.

And  you know,  I wonder if we are experiencing, in a small way,  a sort of Good News Fightback? Love, peace and goodwill now seems to be cool – and it’s nothing to do with the looming festivities.

It feels like  “I’m a Celeb” is fresh and new and streets ahead of a tired and tawdry “X Factor”, with contestants enjoying each other’s company,  displaying  generousity of spirit and deed, rather than combative dog-eat-dog gotta-get-to-top-of-the-pile.

But this isn’t a one-off. Look at “Bake Off” and “Strictly”. And look at the distaste when GBBO was sold – both from the public and many of those who made the show so popular.

In he acceptance speech last night,  Olney said “Well, today we have said no. We will defend the Britain we love. We will stand up for the open, tolerant, united Britain we believe in.

The reassertion  of these values, and their endorsement  either in TV votes and by-elections is truly to be welcomed – but let us not get too carried away.

These are  rarefied environments.  Richmond is a very well off constituency.  The participants are largely self-selecting.  Politicians – especially LibDems – do not have particularly high public credibility,  and those TV programmes are made to entertain. This has still been the year of the rant, the bile, the untimely sometimes murderous deaths.

And yet…..whatever the limitations on  the spread of a Good News Fightback,  these events give us something that often has felt in short supply of late: Hope.