Monday, 12 March 2012

The Way the Future Was - Part 2

This is a second posting from the report of the 1984 Mensa Conference at Cambridge, by Paul Johnson, and written up for "Thinks!", the Channel Island Mensa Magazine edited by Ken Webb, with assistant editor being myself.

The film Terminator had come out in 1984, about a future society in which machines, programmed for war, and with artificial intelligence, had taken over the world. Chris Lee's Mensa talk on power politics shows just how much a part of the culture this thinking was.

In fact the scenario of machines making decisions too quickly for human beings to take control back has come to pass - but not in the field of the military. Rather, it is the clever computer programs, designed to make split-second decisions, that are undoubtedly one of the major factors in having a stock exchange that is so volatile.

In September 2011, Computerworld UK Magazine ran a feature on "Algorithmic stock trading rapidly replacing humans, warns government paper":

Algorithmic trading, including high frequency trading (HFT), is rapidly replacing human decision making, according to a government panel which warned that the right regulations need to be introduced to protect stock markets. Around one third of share trading in the UK is conducted by computers fulfilling commands based on complex algorithms, said the Foresight panel in a working paper published yesterday. Nevertheless, this proportion is significantly lower than in the US, where three-quarters of equity dealing is computer generated. (1)

The panel concluded that there was no direct evidence of causality, but that the programs could increase volatility and cause massive damage:

There was "no direct evidence" that the computer trading in itself increased volatility, it said, but in specific circumstances it was possible for a series of events with "undesired interactions and outcomes" to occur and cause massive damage. One such event is self-reinforcing feedback loops, whereby small changes, perhaps driven by data delays or news events, loop back on themselves and trigger a bigger change, which again loops back. Another event, normalisation of deviance, is more psychological: unexpected and risky events come to be seen as ever more normal until a stock market crash occurs.(1)

Of course, part of the credit crunch was bundling of "toxic debt", mortgages and loans that could not be repaid, and that was a human decision. But when the market began to panic, the computer systems, with built in programs, made the matter worse with a rapidity that would not have been as likely in 1984.

Sir John Butterfield's vision of future dangers in health care is interesting. He is partly right in his assessment of behavioural diseases, but quite why he puts "speed" - by which is clearly meant going fast, rather than drug use - is not clear.

Again the films of the 1980s may provide a clue. The film Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run 2 (1984) show that there speeding was considered the kind of sport you might do for fun and the adrenalin rush. The Road Traffic Regulation Act of 1984 shows that speed was high on the agenda. Outside of Top Gear, however, and the odd lunatic speeder - one was clocked in Jersey at over 100 mph - most people don't get a kick out of speeding; they are far more concerned about limiting the amount of petrol they use.

What he fails to spot, which would become an increasing issue, is obesity and obesity related diseases - heart, arteries and diabetes. These - rather than speeding - would be the major behavioural killers of our decade.

Sir John Butterfield, OBE, FRCP (1920-2000) was a leading British medical researcher, clinician and administrator. He was in fact a specialist in diabetes, although he clearly he did not spot that as an obesity related disease in 1984:

In the course of his studies of burns he noted that a significant number of patients with burns developed a form of temporary diabetes akin to steroid diabetes. His interest in diabetes began with this study and continued throughout his career. He is credited with pioneering automated chemistry to measure blood sugar. He also organized a large-scale epidemiological study of diabetes in Bedford.(2)

Mensa at Cambridge shows how difficult it is for even experts in the field to predict future trends, and perhaps only H.G. Wells has achieved anything like success in this field with The Land Ironclads (1903) which envisaged tanks in a World War I scenario and "The World Set Free" (1914) in which he predicted a kind of nuclear weaponry.

Report by Paul Johnson

2nd August

During the morning we heard Chris Lee give a very sobering talk on defence and power politics. He felt that war was becoming too technical, and that by 2020 the machines will make all the tactical decisions. The commander will have a flood of information and a button marked "ABORT". As an example he cited the case of H.M.S.Sheffield. By the time the captain realised he was under attack, the ships computers had sounded the alarms and fired radar chaff. Before anything else could be done the missile hit.

The wars themselves will be more likely to start by accident, with a border skirmish resulting from misunderstanding and escalating into a nuclear exchange. A full scale exchange would be unlikely. Instead a few cities would be destroyed and then peace talks start.

After the lecture I spent 1/4 of an hour trying out the Sinclair QL installed in the Erasmus Room. This room had been set up as a "Hospitality Suite" with free snacks and drink all day. After that I went punting with some friends. With seven of us in the boat there was very little freeboard. We borrowed a bottle of wine and some glasses from the Erasmus room and took turns trying to steer a straight course along the river. No one fell in, but I nearly lost the pole. Twenty minutes after setting off, the heavens opened, so we took hurried shelter under a bridge. Even then we got soaked. Fortunately we had not gone in period costume as planned.

After lunch we heard from Professor Sir John Butterfield on health care in the future. He is of the opinion that the big killers of the present day will grow even larger in the future. These are the behavioral diseases; smoking, drinking, drugs, speed in any form and gambling. Therefore the biggest growth will have to be in health education; teaching children why these occupations are dangerous.

Organisations such as ASH and the Anonymous societies are a start, but much more will be needed.

Instead of evening dinner, a barbeque was held behind the college pub. I spoke to Madsen Pirie who was very pleased with the press coverage we had received, especially articles in national papers and local television.


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