Friday, 31 August 2018

Are computers making too many decisions about us?


In today's Times Edward Lucus writes "Tech Giants must come clean with us - Too many decisions  about our careers, love-lives and credit-worthiness are being made by secretive online algorithms."

He is right to point out that the use of computers, particularly by very large of powerful companies, to make decisions which affect our lives needs watching - but on the online comments page I have pointed out that decisions made by humans may not be any more reliable. I wrote:
But are humans any more reliable? We all have biases and make generalizations which have little or no foundation in reality.
To give an example. Before I retired I worked in a university teaching Computer Science on a sandwich course basis - which meant that the department regularly had to find about 90 placements for students for "on the job" training with mainly local firms. Almost invariably the last 10 or 20 to be placed included a disproportionate number of students who either had foreign-sounding surnames or were not white anglo-saxon in appearance - irrespective of how well they were doing on the course.
One of my personal first year tutees, who had just failed an interview for a job working with a computer in a sales department with a small firm, asked me whether there might have been racial discrimination. What seems to have happened in the interview was that the computer manager realised that the student was no familiar with commercial English (for example the difference between "invoice" and "statement") - and probably assumed (wrongly) that as he looked foreign he did not understand English. While of course the manager might have been directly discriminating on the grounds of race it was far more likely that he had not realised how little the average 18 year old knew of commercial jargon, and jumped to an inappropriate conclusion.
A very different example, where I nearly acted on an inappropriate "racist" assumption. 50 years ago we lived in a small town where the population was almost exclusively white. We went to a family wedding in London, taking with us our 2 year old daughter. We took it for granted that on one side of the aisle nearly everyone would be of european origin - and on the other side nearly everyone would be of asian origin. As everyone was waiting for the bride (who was five minutes late) my daughter suddenly stood up in the pew and pointed towards the people on the other side of the aisle and shouted "Look Mummy, look." I looked to see where she was pointing to see what she had seen to make her get excited. All I could see was the crowd of asians and before I could grab her and put my hands over her mouth to stop her making a raciest comment she shouted out "There's Mary with baby Jesus." What was new and exciting to her was that she had never been in a Roman Catholic church before!
While I am concerned with "Black box" computers making decisions it is likely that those decisions reflect the biases of the programmers who designed the system OR are based on the statistical analysis of "Big Data" and are likely to be more reliable than a human. As I see it the problem is that the computer systems making the decisions are "black boxes" and cannot explain what it is doing in a way that those can understand.
(In any case, if someone make a racist comment to you - would you ask them why they said it - and would you really expect an honest reply in every case.)

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Mission Statement

We are all, both individually and as a society, trapped by boxes - some physical, some mental. Some of these boxes are built from our childhood experiences, some from the customs and beliefs of the society in which we live, some are imposed by the technology we use, and ultimately we cannot escape the planet on which we live. 

The aim of this site is to look creatively at some of the issues involved and present them in an educational and educational way. So I will include posts about ways that technology (and particularly computers) affect our lives and also the social and political issues that limit our actions. In addition I plan to continue my Science Limericks and post pictures I find attractive or thought provoking under the heading "Trapped by the Camera."

The big change is that in future posts relevant to the evolution on human intelligence, and the computer language CODIL, will be posted on the blog "A Evolutionary Model of Human Intelligence"

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Trapped by the Camera

Laying a new gravel path in Wendover Woods.
.I was attracted by the black and white pattern (faintly touched with colour) that was created as a new path between the trees was being constructed in Wendover Woods, near Chesham, Bucks.
[Significant changes are taking place in the central area in Wendover Woods. A large new car park has been opened, and the existing "Cafe in the Woods" is to be replaced with a much bigger cafe with a striking view over part of the Chiltern Hills.]
For pictures of the changes see my photographs on Geograph.

Monday, 27 August 2018

We live in a Wonderful World.

Libby Purves writes an article in today's Times "Aggressive Atheism denies Culture and History" and this attracted a lot of comments. My contributions included my reply to the idea that that if you didn't believe in god it took all the mystery out of life. I responded:

Recently I was walking in some National Trust woodland and decided to sit down and admire the view. I turned to someone sitting nearby and said how wonderful it was to be there and observe nature at work.
He replied "It's wonderful and its all Gods' work" and it was clear he had no idea how wonderful it really is, when seen by an atheist who understands science. To me nature is fully of partly explored mysteries and there is alway room for creative imagination in trying to understand the underlying science - and the evolutionary implications.
The ideas of looking at the wonders of nature and having only one answer "God did it" would seem boring, boring, boring to me. To him there was no mystery and no need to think creatively - one meaningless and unsupportable answer and you can sit back and let your mind stagnate.
Religious people who hide their lack of imaginative thinking behind a screen of ancient myths may find it satisfying - I am more interested in actively exploring the wonders of the real world."

Friday, 17 August 2018

Keep young by learning

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80.
Anyone who keeps learning
is young
Henry Ford
I have just started on the FutureLearn course "Psychology and Mental Health" being run by the University of Liverpool and decided I would mention it on this blog - because not only is it interesting - but I find it personally invigorating to be in a learning situation interacting with lots of other students, of very different backgrounds.

The first thing I did was to select the above quotation - and almost immediately I got a new email - it was the British Psychological Society Research Digest.
And what was the headline article - a blog post "Do people with a high IQ age more slowly." The blog relates to a paper behind a pay wall which I can't access entitled "Higher IQ in adolescence is related to a younger subjective age in later life: Findings from the Wisconsin Longditudinal Study."
I particularly like the observation "Perhaps a higher IQ, which helps us to process complex information more easily, also increases our curiosity about the world, and it’s that sense of wonder and excitement that can make us feel more youthful."
This really sums up why I enjoy doing FutureLearn courses and while, at 80, I am still actively interested in research. If I ever loose my sense of curiosity  or fail to get excited when I learn something new I am sure I would loose the will to live.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

In prison for being mentally ill?

An article "Research into the Mental Health of prisoners, digested" in today's British Psychological Society Research Bulletin interested me because it is clear that many people in prison have mental health problems and there is a real danger that if someone who is mentally ill is put in prison punishing them it will not help anyone if they are treated in a way that makes their mental illness worse.
 
The subject interests me because there is a link to the picture in the heading of this blog which shows someone trapped behind the screen of a laptop trying to break out. It is meant to represent the way that we are all becoming trapped, in one way or another, by the way that computers control the way that society works. However it also is a personal reminder of what happened to my daughter Lucy, In 1984 she spent some time as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Shortly after her discharge, but still an outpatient, she became hyperactive, and was asked to stop attending the rehabilitation class as she was disturbing the others, Shortly afterwards her behaviour became so extreme that it came (rightly) to the attention of the police, Because a doctor ruled she was "not mentally ill" she ended up on remand in "The Muppet House" in Holloway prison. She was transferred to a psychiatric hospital, badly damaged by the experience, shortly after the Court of Appeal had ruled, in the case of the young mentally ill lady in the next cell, that the NHS should not use prisons as a dumping ground to save money. Lucy killed herself a year after her arrest thinking that she must be really wicked to have ended up being treated so abominably. I was shattered by these events - and my post traumatic stress disorder was one of the main reasons why I abandoned my CODIL research.

Friday, 8 June 2018


If you have the M C 4 R gene
When you grow you'll be fat and not lean
A drug li_rag_glu_tide
Your excess weight will hide
And you'll eat much less food as a teen

 
The Melanocortin 4 Receptor (MC4R) is a key regulator of body weight. People with genetic mutations tend to gain weight from early childhood. The main clinical feature in MC4R deficiency is hyperphagia (an increased drive to eat) as well as impaired satiety (not feeling full after a meal).

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Trapped by the Banks - How accessible is your money?

We are becoming increasingly dependent on online banking. In the small town where I live there were three banks three years ago. HSBC was the first to close and the building is now a restaurant. Barclays closed their bank last year and the building is still empty. In a couple of weeks time NatWest closes its doors for the last time. While there will be cash machines at the local supermarket and the Post Office (with its already long queues) is likely to remain, anyone wanting a bank will have to travel at least 5 miles or be forced to go online.
 
Of course, when everything is working smoothly, online banking can be very convenient, and using credit and debit cards means you rarely need cash, except for the most trivial purchases. But of course the real world is a complex place and things do not always work as planned.
 
Yesterday there was a problem with Visa cards all across Europe - where attempted payments were being refused. As one hungry customer complained on twitter "Just had my card declined at McDonald. Went out fuming like a  panda only to be turned down by KFC too. Who knew that Visa had so much control on our hard earned cash." At supermarkets customers with a full trolley of goods were having to leave empty-handed - but it was the retailer who had the real problems at restaurants and petrol stations as the customer had already got the goods before it was discovered they were unable to pay. There were also problems at the Severn Bridge where drivers were unable to pay the toll fees. Another complication was that cash machines were still working and so many people rushed to get cash that many of the machines ran out of money.
 
Visa processes most of the debit cards for a wide range of banks, and it seems that the cause of the fault was comparatively simple. When a customer wants to make a payment the retailer's machine send a message to a Visa computer to check that the  payment is valid and then send a message back. Due to a hardware fault the message was not being sent back correctly so the retailer's machine rejected the transaction. What is not clear to me is whether the money transaction went through - and the customer was charged and retailer paid before the corrupted "transaction OK" message was sent out. I am sure we will hear more of this ...
 
The TSB problem is very different. Basically TSB continued to use (and pay for) Lloyds Bank online system since it was purchased by its current owner, the Spanish bank Sabadell.  It would appear that TSB planned to bring in new software to provide their own system and to make the changeover from the old to the new overnight. However modern banking systems are very complicated and the major problem is in testing any such a major changeover to ensure that there are no serious bugs, As I know from my own experiences 50 years ago this is no trivial matter if you are running batch applications, where the same transactions can be run through the old and new systems to spot any problems. It is very much harder with online systems, particularly when something starts to go wrong and thousands of angry customers try every damned option to try and get their transaction to go through - or to report problems via the phone when there is a long queue of other angry customers.  In fact the continuing problems seem to suggest a number of very different failures - some of which, relating to security, may be design errors which cannot be quickly fixed. 
 
I am sure we will be hearing more about the causes of the TSB problems - but it will undoubtedly raise a general problem associated with computers and software - which I face in a very much smaller and unimportant way myself. My Genealogy in Hertfordshire web site is maintained using the Microsoft package Frontpage - and Microsoft support ended for this package in about 2004 and it will not run under Windows 10. It would be very nice to migrate my web site to use other much more up-to-date software but the cost of moving it makes such an upgrade prohibitive. The problem TSB had was orders or magnitude greater than the one I face but is one which will be faced by more and more large companies who are currently relying on old and out-of-date software that works but which really needs a major upgrade or total replacement. Many such companies will look at what the current problems are costing TSB and seriously wondering whether they can run the risk of introducing completely new and, in theory, better systems.