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learning Archives - Eve Poole

Is SciFi Prophecy?

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When Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, he established in Europe a long tradition of imagining alternative worlds and the different kinds of societies they might have. These days we call books like that SciFi, and when I was young they were definitely shelved at the nerdy end of the library. In our own galaxy, we’re currently nearing a state of existential overwhelm about AI. What will the future hold, and what on earth do we do about it? Luckily, we know. Because I think SciFi is actually prophecy. Of course it was written for entertainment, with storylines inevitably containing jeopardy and villains; binge-watching such stories is not reducing our anxiety. But what if we were instead to pan back a bit, and remember that at heart this genre has always functioned as a safe space to take dangerous ideas for a walk?

So zooming out across the whole genre reveals the full range of scenarios played out for us in every conceivable permutation. As prophecy, or at least scenario planning, these writers show us the kinds of questions we’ll need to get right in any future AI scenario. Even if you take a minimalist view, questions of control, accountability and unintended consequences are endlessly showcased in the genre. And if you want to take a maximalist view (which can even cater for the inclusion of aliens, lightspeeds permitting), the genre repeats the same themes over and over again: conflicts are resolved either by domination, or by agreement through law or democracy.

In particular, laws are generally in place to govern both property and personal rights, and to enforce hierarchies in either direction between the human and non-human. Plotlines about cyborgs, hybrids, superheroes and enhanced humans show us the range of imagined protections about cloning and augmentation together with options for dealing with entities that have abilities that surpass the average. We had not thought to turn our SciFi conventions into policy jams, but perhaps now we should: there is nothing the fans don’t know about how this might play out.

One example of prophecy in the genre is the trope about us inevitably forming relationships with AI, because it’s an area where policy could get ahead while we still have some time to think. At the moment, the relevant law for AI tends to be property law, and many SciFi scenarios show this as the dominant future for AI, being owned by humans (or aliens) and subject to their control. It helps that most AI globally is in the hands of private corporations.

But as soon as AI becomes a more generally available consumer product, this default becomes problematic. We all remember giving names and backstories to our toys when we were young, so we know that it is a fundamentally human trait to subjectify objects. As David Gunkel puts it, anthropomorphism isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. As children, our tendency toward anthropomorphisation is designed to teach us healthy lessons about respect, play and relationships. The grown-ups tell us off if we ‘abuse’ our toys by harming them, and the lessons learned from dolls and teddies are then extrapolated to household pets, who tend to give children memorable feedback on any attempts at mistreatment.

But if an AI is just property like a toy and not a pet, because there are no additional rules in play, there is a danger that as adults we deploy AI only as a servant, and increasingly use AI because we want to avoid the obligations that come with deploying humans (or animals) instead. Autonomous weaponry and sexbots may epitomise this, but there is certainly potential for the full range of abuses along the way. This legal situation risks dehumanising us, and would also provide AI with dreadful training data, particularly in view of Stuart Russell’s AI Principles which hold that in any scenario an AI should regard observed human behaviour rather than any pre-stated rules on preferences as the ultimate source of guidance. The stories show us how this invariably ends, but in real life we have the tools to change the story if we want to.

SciFi as a genre is full of fruitful seams like this, from which we might mine future AI policy. Whether it’s developing a more forensic definition of what constitutes being human, or even just working out which laws on the statute books now require future-proofing, SciFi can be a safe space to take dangerous policy ideas for a walk, too. We had to learn from the tragedy of the Post Office scandal the error of the English common law presumption that computer evidence is considered automatically reliable. Would it not be safer to learn these lessons from SciFi instead, given the wide range of AI scenarios it has to offer? And if we invited a SciFi convention to the next conference on AI regulation, their subject matter expertise would enable them not only to QA emerging regulation, but also to spot gaps in the genre where fresh SciFi could help push our collective thinking forward…

Leadersmithing TEDx

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Here is my script for the TEDx I gave about Leadersmithing on 11 March 2017. You can also watch it here.

Hello. You’re probably wondering what’s with the pearls. Well, pearls have a dirty secret, and I’m here to tell you about it. It’s all about the pearls. So if you only remember 1 thing about this talk, remember the pearls.

Pearls are associated with such glamour, aren’t they? I inherited my first set, from a great grandmother who had been brought up at Hampton Court Palace. My second set were from Hatton Garden, given to me by my boyfriend when we worked next door at Deloitte Consulting. I bought my third set in Beijing when I took our Ashridge MBA students out there on a study trip.

But their glamour is hard-won. They have grit in their hearts. Their beauty and lustre is the result of a defence mechanism, designed to protect the oyster against a threatening irritant. I’m from Scotland, and in Scotland they don’t say ‘pearls’: they say ‘perils.’ And perils is exactly what the beauty of a pearl is bearing witness to – it owes its very existence to the oyster being in peril. Read More

Robot Dread

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I sense a morbid fear behind our catastrophizing about androids, which I reckon is to do with a loss of autonomy. It’s true that for periods in history tribes and people have assumed they have no autonomy, life being driven by the fates or by a predetermined design or creator, so this could be a particularly modern malady in an era that luxuriates in free will. But concern about the creep of cyborgism through the increasing use of technology in and around our bodies seems to produce a frisson of existential dread that I have been struggling to diagnose. Technology has always attracted its naysayers, from the early saboteurs to the Luddites and the Swing Rioters, and all the movements that opposed the Industrial Revolution, but this feels less about livelihoods and more about personhood. Read More

For the sake of honour

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Honour is one of those words that gets bandied about rather a lot. Sometimes it’s used just as a label, as in the Honours of Scotland; ‘it wasn’t me, Your Honour’; and ‘she gave him a gong in the Honours’. We also talk about ‘honour’ killings, as well as Honorary degrees. But what does it mean when we say things like: ‘I’m honoured to meet you;’ ‘I promise on my honour;’ or even ‘wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her?’ These usages seems to invoke a sense of respect and virtue, something that is more about an orientation or a behaviour.

Honour is one of those old-fashioned words, like manners. But when we use it of someone, we refer to that rather rare and durable characteristic of their being reliably moral. We think people are honourable if they do the right thing. We tend to notice it all the more if it proves costly: our mental picture is probably of a tweedy and stoic English gent standing on a lonely pier, waving goodbye to his true love because she deserves better. So is honour as outdated as curtsying to cakes, and should we have none of it? On the contrary, we need honour more than ever, and we need to start teaching it to our children again. Read More

Is it worth being a nasty boss?

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This week I was struck by a piece in the FT arguing that “nasty leaders can be successful – if they don’t cross the line.’ The piece described some bullies who had seemingly produced excellent results, and who were not as unpopular as their behaviour might suggest. The article was careful not to suggest bullying as a strategy, of course, but the subtext is clear. If you get results, you can usually ‘get away’ with bad behaviour.

And we know this to be true, because we see it every day in our organisations, both public and private, and in politics as much as in the professions. But before you nod sadly and move swiftly on, please stop for a moment. You are being had. This is classic ‘end justifies the means’ morality, and we are so used to it as the prevailing ethical narrative that it seems irrefutable and unremarkable. Read More

Leadersmithing – TEDx Durham University

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Speech at TEDx, Durham, 11th March 2017 (watch here)

Hello. You’re probably wondering what’s with the pearls. Well, pearls have a dirty secret, and I’m here to tell you about it. It’s all about the pearls. So if you only remember one thing about this talk, remember the pearls.

Pearls are associated with such glamour, aren’t they? I inherited my first set, from a great grandmother who had been brought up at Hampton Court Palace. My second set were from Hatton Garden, given to me by my boyfriend when we worked next door at Deloitte Consulting. I bought my third set in Beijing when I took our Ashridge MBA students out there on a study trip.

But their glamour is hard-won. They have grit in their hearts. Their beauty and lustre is the result of a defence mechanism, designed to protect the oyster against a threatening irritant. I’m from Scotland, and in Scotland they don’t say ‘pearls’: they say ‘perils.’ And perils is exactly what the beauty of a pearl is bearing witness to – it owes its very existence to the oyster being in peril. Read More

Vicarious Learning

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As you know from my blog, I’m no introvert, and I’m not drawn to being a reflective learner by preference. But lots of my friends are still reading Quiet, and I know that lots of introverts hate the sort of learning that feels like making a fool of yourself in public, so I thought you’d be interested in this. Read More

Shopping around…

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Hurray for Professor Michael Mainelli who has provided me with the best business case ever for shopping. At a Gresham College lecture I attended some while back, he described a eureka moment he’d recently had about the matter. Reflecting on his wife’s ‘bizarre bazaar’ behaviour, where she seemed to want to drift around looking at things for hours on end while he stood idly by, he realised that the key difference between the sexes is that, while women shop, men purchase. Read More