The Great (Human) Anti-Hack (new piece in The Startup, via Medium) by Robert Smith


“The medium is the message” has never been truer than it is for social media. The natural dynamics of that media, plus the algorithms that are essential to it, encourage social division, what I call digital segregation. And that leads to digital gerrymandering, and the manipulation of us all, of the sort revealed in the must-see documentary, Netflix’ The Great Hack.

It’s also what the analytical results from colleagues of mine (and I) at UCL indicate. But in this new piece on The Startup (a Medium publication), I try to suggest (based on those results) how we might be able to change all that, hopefully in time for 2020 (and maybe even an upcoming UK general election).

Robots Can Do Our Jobs? No: That’s Algorithmic Pseudoscience at Work by Robert Smith

The FT has just published a new article (paywalled) entitled Workplace automation: how AI is coming for your job, which draws its analysis from a PWC report on the future of work, which in turn bases its methodology on the famous Frey and Osbourne paper that I describe in detail in Rage. And coincidentally, I’ve just this morning published a new article on that subject, entitled Robots Can Do Our Jobs? No: That’s Algorithmic Pseudoscience at Work, in The Startup (a Medium publication).

I believe this new variety of infographic rich, methodologically obscure, algorithmic pseudoscience is a rising problem. And, ironically, the more algorithms do our job of reasoning (as is the case in most studies and articles on the “future of work”), the worse this problem will get.

A Bookshelf Moment... by Robert Smith

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Exciting and gratifying: my friend Steve sent me this picture of Rage proudly displayed as a “feature book” at Waterstones Westfields in London. It’s with some good company, including Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future (which I’m ordering right away, as I admire Mr Mason’s work, and his book seems to have a message quite resonant with things in Rage).

The writeup card below Rage reads “Is technology really apolitical and morally neutral? A timely warning for our AI age.”

I'm in good company on the Chiswick Author's Timeline! by Robert Smith

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Last night I was glad to participate in the local author’s event of the Chiswick Book Festival, and I’m excited to have been included on their prestigious list of local authors from the place I call home. The list reaches back to Alexander Pope in 1688, and includes authors like WB Yeats, EM Forster, Anthony Burgess, Iris Murdoch, Eric Morecambe, JG Ballard, Harold Pinter, Lynne Redgrave, and Roger Daltry (yes, of The Who, and he did write a book, too). And now I am some tiny part of perhaps the most literary neighbourhood in London. Who’d a thunkit?

Review of Rage at BoingBoing (Again)! by Robert Smith


In honour of the USA publication of Rage, Cory Doctorow has posted a review of the book at BoingBoing again. Amongst other things, he sez:

“This is a vital addition to the debate on algorithmic decision-making, machine learning, and late-stage platform capitalism, and it's got important things to say about what makes us human, what our computers can do to enhance our lives, and how to to have a critical discourse about algorithms that does not subordinate human ethics to statistical convenience.”

Thanks so much Cory!

Publication Day (2): Rage Inside the Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All by Robert Smith

Excited to say that the book is how shipping in the USA and Australia. It’s been out for a couple of months in the UK, and the reviews and feedback at promotional events has been great. I know quite a few people have pre-ordered in the USA and Oz, so I really look forwarding to hearing people’s feedback from those countries soon. I really hope you all enjoy it, and that it sparks new, much-needed conversations about technology, and how it fits into our lives.

How can AI be used to drive diversity?: Canvas8 Interview by Robert Smith

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Market research organisation Canvas8 has published a new piece called HOW CAN AI BE USED TO DRIVE DIVERSITY? that draws on a recent breakfast talk I gave to some of their members here in London. The piece features a few quotes from me and a slew of data about the current perceptions of AI. Some are frightening, like “67% of Britons say AIs should be able to report people if they engage in illegal activities.”

But I believe the article ends with some good recommendations based on what Canvas8 got out of my ideas. In particular, they note how recommendation engines generate pretty unsatisfactory results for consumers (and generate only 16 per cent of sales), and how diversity as a goal could improve those sales. This may seem like a small thing, but applications with diversity as their goal and an economic imperative could get the work done of developing tech that can better diversify algorithmic impacts on people more generally. And I’m all for that!

My Talk@Google on Rage is now available online! by Robert Smith

I was lucky enough to be invited to give an hour-long talk on Rage at Google recently, and I’m glad to say it’s now online. Those at the talk seemed to really enjoy it, and the organiser called it “fantastic” and “an ML talk unlike any other ML talk.”

I’ll be excerpting it a bit later for those who want to get a shorter feel for what’s in the book via video.

The Curse of Meritocracy by Robert Smith

RSA has posted an excellent “minimate” video from the wonderful Michael Sandel, on how the (false) idea that the world is meritocratic - that people “get what they deserve” - leads to the social disfunction and populist politics of today, curses that we need to overcome. Highly recommended viewing.

There’s a subtle connection here to an idea in my book, Rage Inside the Machine. Around 56 seconds into the minimate, you’ll see a sketch of The Fates. In Rage, I talk about how the idea of these fateful figures, who actually worked above the Gods, and would respond to no plea or prayer, were abandoned as a concept with the widespread adoption of a single omniscient God, and the invention of probability theory in the Renaissance.

That development leads directly to the idea held by many AI technologists that if we just calculate the right set of statistics from big data, we can make the highest merit decisions about the future. But, this overlooks the fact that probability theory does not model the complexity of the real world, and never can.

So the abandonment of the concept of The Fates leads not only to the tyranny of meritocracy that Michael Sandel talks about, but also a “decision meritocracy” based on faith in big data algorithmics. This new faith overlooks the real-world uncertainty that non-probabilistic, human decision-making has been adapted specifically to address.

So it’s not just that we have a false idea of social merit that’s connected to our divisive world, it’s the idea that we can make decisions of inherently high merit based on algorithms and big data. We need to re-centre humanity in our decision-making and be more humane in accepting that much of our success and failure lies in the hands of Fate.

And I also recommend Sandel’s fantastic book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Hurrah: Turing to be on the new 50 pound note by Robert Smith


Alan Turing, the man who created computer science, while simultaneously saving the entire world from fascism through his critical role in winning WWII, only to later be chemically castrated and driven to suicide as a punishment for the crime of homosexuality, is to finally be honoured by appearing on British currency, in particular the new 50 pound note.

My book, Rage, retells some stories about Turing, including a re-appraisal of his eponymous “test” (aka The Imitation Game), a casting of new light on how Universal Computation relates to human thought, and Turing’s little known role in evolutionary algorithms.
But all that’s by-the-by. Turing was a great hero, and bestowing this public honour on him is a small start at redressing the historic injustice he faced. For my money, he should be on the far-more-used 20, but none this less, this is a triumph. Hurrah.

Do Algorithms Have Business Ethics? (New Article Online) by Robert Smith

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I’m happy to say I have an article in this month’s AMBITION, the magazine of AMBA, The Association of MBAs. The piece is entitled “Do Algorithms Have Their Own Business Ethics” (and you can read it online by clicking through on the title). Those of you who know me, or have read Rage, won’t be surprised to know that I think they do, but you may find this slightly different take on the subject interesting.