#AI apps to save Australia & the UK? Cognitive Interfaces to the rescue…

The collaborative space of the future is already relying on Cognitive Interfaces to create documents and knowledge that many authors have pitched in to. It is the idea of crowdsourcing that took place on the internet. Now the American inventors Alan Kay and Bret Victor want to turn actual space into a computer.

Their vision has a vocal supporter in Westminster: Dominic Cummings, the personal and policy adviser to Britain’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. However as I discuss below, Cumming’s ideas on how to deploy the not yet fully developed tech are a dystopian in his technocratic application, if not downright threatening some of the values and societal standards the people of Britain hold dear.

This is what the “Dynamicland vision” from the US epitomises:

If the dynamic medium is to serve as the foundation for new modes of thought and communication, it must lift all people, not just those traditionally advantaged by technology. There is no product we can ship to achieve this goal. Instead, we are building Dynamicland as a community space, where the people of Oakland will come to “live in the future” and shape the medium with us. We are actively drawing our community from a diverse set of people, with a focus on those who are underserved or alienated by current forms of computing. This community space is a model for a new kind of civic institution — a public library for 21st-century literacy.

This sounds idyllic, the idyll of true community-spirited living together where every citizen is an equal contributor to the group’s common destiny and environment. As a technologist in the Cognitive Interfaces space (the means for collaborative authoring of commonly visualised documents as well as human-machine interaction), I appreciate this futuristic intervention embodied by Oakland’s Dynamicland. I am also a big fan of public libraries so it gets even better about access to knowledge and the creation of marginal histories or non-mainstream narratives and oral history, fact finding, checking and actual fact creation.

There are several “Buts” at this point and I will summarise them here so you can check the sources and see if you agree with me (in the spirit of openly and democratically debating and gathering knowledge!):

  1. the way Kay & Victor create the “Seeing Room” that will encompass everyone, their thoughts and ideas, is to have one single computer system that monitors it all. This begs the question — who creates, owns and controls the all-encompassing computer enabling the cognitive interfaces we are meant to engage with communally?
  2. By not addressing the Master Computer issue from the start, it is a disingenuous stance to say “Trust me, trust our community project, we are all collaborators together having submitted to the Master System controlling our environment”.
  3. Most worryingly is the co-option that such a well-intentioned cognitive computing environment can end up in. For example, Whitehall and Westminster. Notorious and controversial PM adviser Dominic Cummings recently blogged about how he wants to pay the US lab “a couple of million” so they can send British technicians over to Oakland to learn and copy what goes on there. And then replicate it in the “non public” or Confidential matters of 10 Downing St, in the “classified” discussions of Parliamentary meeting rooms and the hundreds of Whitehall offices of power.
  4. That in itself is fine as a specific application, but Cummings has drawn a lot of criticism from trade unions representing white collar workers and other commentators on standards for employment and workers’ rights. In the blog post following his vision of applying Dynamicland’s principles and emerging tech to the rooms of Whitehall & Westminster, he scathingly called failed recruits trash — “I will bin you if you don’t work out/you will be binned…”.
  5. Most disturbingly, in the Cumming implementation of British technocracy, mathematicians, data analysts & businesspeople have an intrinsic value ranked automatically higher than Humanities and non techie people. One high profile British mathematician, AI expert and academic from University of College London, Dr Hannah Fry, wrote an opinion piece against the PM’s advisor’s recent Job Ad for “weirdos & misfits” to work closely with him at Downing Street. He warns his future young proteges that “you will not have time for a boy or girlfriend” due to their excessive working hours on week nights and weekends. Compulsory overtime in other words and promises it to the point of burn out as par for the course.

His specific ageism (his new PA must be around 21, no older) and his anti-public school “Oxford English graduates”, has been widely condemned for a devaluing and demeaning ranking of people.

Like me, Fry was all for more data and stats being used in decision making, especially by those who govern. However it should not be at the expense of ridiculing and denigrating Humanities experts and their “drivel”, according to Cumming’s opinion of their various contributions to society.

As a collaborative step for improving communications and decision-making, this would be a brilliant move by Cummings & Co. However the technology is limited to only converting equations and signifiers that it is currently familiar with. On the all encompassing bringing together of “valid evidence and statistics”, it may fall short. Apart from the fact, who as a human being decides which sources are valid & verified as input data for the Master System to which Civil Servants & Members of Parliament must subject themselves to in order to make unequivocally sound, well-informed, highly rational and undeniably objective decisions?

Yes a perfected Master Computer system that turns a meeting room into a Seeing Room with cognitive interfaces to tap into and consolidate knowledge and facts would be a godsend to break deadlocks, disinformation and communications blockades. You can’t argue with evidence and facts, although recent polarised community divisions show us that actually large swathes of people can despite the overwhelming evidence and folders of facts provided, even in a Court (eg. President Trump’s impeachment not convincing his supporters of his guilt) and this opposition to the “truth” can last for decades despite growing evidence and facts to the contrary.

I am in favour of creating such a dynamic, collaborative space based on AI-powered statistic gathering and holographic rendering of data with the evident provisos eg transparency about who creates and controls the master system that is enabling the cognitive tech to empower decision-makers. I actually see it improving governance and the civil service, as Dominic Cummings descriptively detailed in his blog post. On that I do agree with him in principle — better informed players make better decisions and it reduces conflict and disagreement.

More importantly, it could be the one way to derail the communications and thinking blockade of the conservative Party in power in Australia — the Liberals who ironically are not liberal at all because of their staunch defence of casting doubt on the “reality” of climate change. And their immoral insistence that the current bushfire and drought catastrophes are all “natural disasters” and therefore signifying they are not man-made, therefore nothing to do with man-made climate change and global environmental heating.

Imagine if you put the Prime Minister Scott Morrison & Co in a Westminster-run Seeing Room in London. The Australians would turn up in all brazenness like they did at the Madrid climate change emergency conference, stating there is no emergency and they are obliged to continue their fossil fuel mining and exporting to protect Australians’ jobs and the economy. Cumming’s Cognitive Interfaces should, theoretically, make quick work of them!

Throwing up in holographic form the images, statistics and videos analysed by Artificial Intelligence the half a billion animals killed by the bushfires and excessive heatwaves. The stats on farmers put out of business, the data on economic losses in the billions as a direct result of climate change in Australia and environmental damage.

Above all, the economic cost of a) millions of sick Australians made ill by the hazardous, deadly dust and smoke b) business closures due to the disruption of people not able to turn up to work c) loss of tax revenues when foreign companies decide not to be located in a place where they will be exposed regularly in future to toxic air more than 20 x over the dangerous limit for pollution.

The billion dollar losses suffered by the tourism industry which is the country’s number one “asset” selling visits and trips to see the wildlife, landscapes, flora and fauna that has in months been wiped out.

The all seeing, all knowing Cognitive Interfaces room could become one that our leaders and decision-makers want to escape! If they can be confronted with truths, then I am all for it. If the collective, collaborative power of “dynamic authoring tools” can bring about fundamental change to save the planet and the various societies afflicted by poverty, ill health and lack of equal opportunity, then “bring it on” as your average Aussie would call.

However on a sad note, the Australian scientists at the forefront of trying to predict and fight the bushfires have admitted that their current scientific modelling is overwhelmed. Climate change has brought unprecedented catastrophes that their computer models simply cannot process, analyse or report on to help the humans it was designed to support. There goes the all Seeing Room, it can only see as far as the current human-designed science allows it.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.



Tania Peitzker: New Tech / AI Strategist & Author

Visit the Peitzker Prizes @ SmartGreenTours.com for the link to my Spotify podcast "Innovations Solving the Climate Crisis". See also muckrack.com/taniapeitzker