Tuesday, 5 March 2019

AI Crystal Ball


I went to very interesting talk by Howard Covington from the Alan Turing Institute on Glimpsing our AI Future at the Bayes Centre, University of Edinburgh. The talk was very interesting albeit short on technical detail and maybe somewhat worrying. This is a summary of what stuck in my mind together with some of my own thoughts.

The talk started with an overview of the evolution of computer technology and the software advances made possible by those changes. The web allowed the development of search engines. Internet shopping followed, then messaging and social networks. The next big disruptive technology will by self-driving cars, powered by ever more sophisticated AIs. Covington reckons that over the next decade or so renewables will become lots cheaper than fossil fuels displacing them.

The 2030ies will see agriculture revolutionised: Cultured meat grown in factories and vertical farms will totally change how we produce our food. In particular leafy vegetables can be grown very efficiently indoors using electricity from renewables powering LEDs optimised to emit light at the preferred wavelength of the plants.

The 2040ies will bring fully automated and autonomous factories. These factories need no human workers and can be reconfigured to produce different things using software. AIs will also revolutionise medicine, ranging from expert systems used for diagnosis to surgical robots. Quantum computing will break current encryption systems including blockchain.

These developments go hand in hand with pervasive sensor networks to measure all sort of things. These sensors are used to optimise energy and food systems and feed the AIs with information. They will also lead to deep surveillance. China is already using a social credit system which scores individuals depending on their behaviour. Certain privileges (such as high-speed travel) are only available to people with a high enough score.

Covington pointed out that the truly big big data companies are mostly based in the US and China, the only two European big data companies are SAP and ing. Covington reckons that the attitude towards risk and investment in Europe makes it difficult to create new multi-billion companies. China is investing huge amounts of money in infrastructure in Eurasia through their Belt and Road Initiative. Our future looks distinctly Chinese.

I am very worried about the way software systems are put together especially as they increase in complexity. Programming Sucks is an excellent article on software engineering (or the lack of it). Another aspect of our complex society is that we more and more depend on the frictionless operation of our society. There is potential for things to go spectacularly wrong. It gets very terrifying when we add vulnerability to cyber attacks on these critical infrastructures. These attacks will be made even bigger due to the monoculture of systems. For example, the social credit system built by the Chinese will be a desirable target as it would allow the subversion of an entire continent. Distributed systems using blockchain technology will help until quantum computing comes along.

One aspect was not touched at all: all these technologies reduce the need for human labour. What will all the people do that are no longer required to work? It is clear that it will hit the factory floor workers and delivery and taxi drivers. But it will also hit many white collar workers whose jobs can be automated. As a society we need to spend more effort on social jobs, such a looking after our kids and teaching them and looking after the vulnerable and old.

Howard Covington's talk finished with the prediction of collapse in 2050 due to climate change. A member of the audience asked why collapse when the technologies should allow us to reduce emissions of climate gases. Covington's answer was vested interests will get in the way.

In any case it is clear that technology evolution will accelerate over the next decades and we will face huge changes.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Brexit, People's Vote and Indy 2

People's Vote March, Edinburgh

We are still waiting to find out what Brexit might mean. Although, more and more voices from all directions are warning that it is going to be an absolute disaster that will affect everyone in the UK. I went to the People's Vote rally on Saturday in Edinburgh. It was well attended - a thousand people or so. Maybe not as many as I would have hoped for. I enjoyed the speeches even though some of the jokes made me cringe. It was good to feel not alone and hear some other sane voices.

It seems that some people from the Scottish Independence movement have serious issues with the People's Vote movement: Brexit is an English problem; Scotland already voted to remain in the EU; a second EU referendum will divert attention from a second independence referendum; People's Vote is an English movement full of unionists; Brexit will facilitate Scottish independence. I think this is wrong. Yes, Scotland voted against Brexit (62%) as did Northern Ireland (55.8%) while England (53.4%) and Wales (52.5%) voted for Brexit. Yes, there is a massive imbalance in the UK makeup where England ends up outweighing the opinions of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. However, that is also true for London who voted 59.9% to remain with a population larger than Scotland. I do think that the UK needs to be reformed to balance out these regional tensions. I also think that this probably will not happen within the framework of the UK and that Scotland needs to become independent to embrace modern institutions fit for the 21st century (see also my posts on independence from September 2014).

However, independence is an entirely separate matter from Brexit and the People's Vote. Brexit is on a tight schedule and nothing else will be sorted until Brexit is dealt with next March. This schedule is not entirely due to Westminster invoking Article 50. It also depends on the upcoming elections for the EU parliament in May 2019. The position of the UK will need to be sorted by then. I am still not sure how to vote for Brexit happened. However, it is clear that the official leave campaign lied and broke electoral law. I also think the British press has a huge role to play using the EU as a convenient scapegoat for the last few decades.

Leading figures of the leave campaign are members of the current UK government. And yes, Scotland didn't vote for this government (although the Conservatives won 12 seats in Scotland in addition to their 1 seat they held previously). Scotland is part of the UK. And the Westminster Tory government is trying to figure out what Brexit means and what sort of Brexit should happen. And the Labour opposition seems to be keen on Brexit, too. Somehow they think that Brexit will allow the UK to become a socialist utopia. So Brexit is very much a Scottish problem as well because should Brexit happen Scotland will be dragged along if it wants it or not.

Giving the people of the UK another vote to decide which way Brexit should go when they have the options clearly before them is an obvious way to defuse this situation. If the people (and, yes, it will be mostly the English as they are the biggest group) decide that a no-deal Brexit or a blind Brexit is not desirable it will allow the government to withdraw from the brink of the cliff. On the other hand, I would have thought, that it would be a clear indication for an independent Scotland if the people of England decided that any Brexit should go ahead but Scotland decided it was a bad idea (again). If, however, Scotland decided Brexit should go ahead along with the English then, I am afraid, Scotland would sit in the same (sinking) boat as the rest of the UK.

I think another important aspect of the People's Vote and Indy 2 discussion should be that it would be a lot easier for Scotland to become independent if both Scotland and the rest of the UK were in the EU. The EU facilitates exchange of goods, services and people. This works very well as can be seen by the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The border between iScotland and rUK would look very similar and it would pose no problem as long as both parts are part of the EU. If, however, iScotland wanted to be a member of the EU and rUK was thoroughly brexited then the same issue of a hard border would arise as between the Republic of Ireland and a brexited Northern Ireland currently discussed.

So, I think because of timing and practicalities Scotland and the Indy2 movement should support the People's Vote. Brexit must be stopped as it is totally insane. The People's Vote campaign in Scotland shouldn't be too hard as the Scots don't need to be convinced. Relative numbers mean that Scotland won't come to the rescue of England - the English need to sort out the Brexit mess they created themselves. However, it is in Scotland's interest to avoid Brexit. The case for an independent Scotland remains as strong as ever and as the Brexit episode demonstrates should be pursued with some urgency once Brexit is out of the way.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

FLOSSUK Conference

The FLOSSUK conference was held in Edinburgh last week. I attended the two day conference and the hacking the raspberry pi workshop. The conference was excellent. Abstracts of all talks are on the FLOSSUK website. What follows are some notes from the talks I particularly liked.

Reproducible Build

Talk by Chris Lamb, the current Debian Project Leader. Very interesting talk on the need to be able to produce reproducible builds, ie the same source code in the same build environment always produces the same binaries. The reason for wanting to do this is to be able to trust binaries distributed by Linux distributions. At the moment we can look at the source code and make sure that it has no back doors built in. We then compile it and distribute it. When we download and install these binaries we trust the provider that the binaries are good. However, we do not know if their build environment is good or if they have been asked to compile modified sources (with a backdoor). Reproducible builds allow a number of people to build these binaries. If they all agree then chances of a compromised binary are reduced. Obviously, the compiler might be compromised itself. This is very difficult to establish and probably takes a new platform and cross compilation.
Anyway, Debian is now 94% reproducible. Chris introduced a very interesting tool - diffoscope which is a clever diff. It allows to compare binaries in some meaningful way. It would be really cool if this could be made to work with scientific dataformats such as HDF or netCDF.
I think the reproducible builds are also interesting from a scientific software perspective. Debian uses BuildInfoFiles to record the particular environment in which the package was build. This could be used to build scientific programs that require a particular environment.

Small Things for Monitoring

I really enjoyed this talk on IoT stuff. I was interested to hear about the ESP8266 based systems which look ideal for monitoring applications as they come with wifi on board. In particular the wemos D1 systems look cool. I am thinking of getting some of those with temperature and humidity sensors for my flat. Apart from the hardware I was very interested in the MQTT protocol which is a machine to machine IoT communication protocol on top of TCP. It can be used to move measurements around. This might also be interesting for the piccolo platform I am working on. There is also a similar protocol for serial connections called MQTT-SN. MQTT and the ESP8266 systems get combined using the homie project. Now I just need to find some time.

Internet of Things at the Uni of Edinburgh

IS is providing a LoRaWAN network in central Edinburgh that can be used for IoT applications. It is used for the CitySounds project. So if you have some interesting IoT project for central Edinburgh in mind you can use this for communication with your devices. More info on IoT in Edinburgh here: iot.ed.ac.uk/
One interesting thing I learned is that you can switch off the HDMI output of the Pi to save power. Would be good for the piccolo system.

Other Talks

  • Roy Thompson gave an excellent after dinner talk on climate change and how he used one line of R to tackle the relationship between temperature, CO2 and the economy. Somewhat gloomy but with a clear pointer of what could be done.
  • Lorna Campbell's keynote on the Open Knowledge Landscape was also most excellent. Interesting to hear about the various projects, approaches and platforms which was a suitable introduction of the subject to the geeky audience. Lorna then moved on to talking about the gender cap and misrepresentation of minority groups. Finally she talked about the Cost of Freedom and the tribute to Bassel Khartabil a Syrian internet activist who ultimately paid with his life for his involvement in open knowledge.
  • Being a photographer as well I really enjoyed Simon Biles talk on forensic photography

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Strike for USS

Strike for USS

We are now halfway through the 14 day strike over changes to our pension scheme. A further 14 days of strike are on the table depending on the progress of the negotiations between the union, the employers and the pension fund. At the centre of the dispute are different views on what the world will be like in 20 years. The employers UUK and the pension fund USS see a deficit in the future. They anticipate this deficit due to a number of assumptions: above inflation salary rises, steady increase of life expectancy and, most crucially, they prepare for the worst-case scenario of a sectorial collapse which would require the unwinding of the entire scheme. The union UCU contests these assumptions. The details of these assumptions are discussed in great detail elsewhere.

When the union asked us to support industrial action I was very sceptical. My previous experience of UCU strikes over pay was very half-hearted. Some of us went on strike, our pay was docked and our demands were ignored. I assumed this action would be similar. My heart sunk further when I heard that we were asked to strike for 14 days. At home we had big discussions of what to do. Ten years of effective pay cuts due to below-inflation salary rises and austerity and kids that are growing up and getting more expensive has left us in a tight financial situation. A job that used to allow us to live quite comfortably ten years ago now covers the basics but requires us to consider everyday expenses. Major expenses are fairly catastrophic. Yet our household income is well above the median household income. The loss of income due to the strike will hurt. Finally, my crystal ball is particularly dim looking ahead to the time when I might think about retiring in 20 years or so. The way I see it is either our world will be very dismal if we do not sort out the big problems of climate change, automation and rising inequality; or we will have sorted them out and we might well not need pensions as a universal basic income will be available.

In short, I was not convinced by the strike. I was surprised at how strong the support for the strike is. We even managed to picket both our buildings at King's Buildings, the University of Edinburgh Science and Engineering campus which is not known as a hot bed of industrial activism. I am also extremely pleased by the support we are receiving from our students. They are bearing the consequences of the strike by missing lectures and tutorials. My first concern was proven incorrect and although both the financial burden and my view of the future still remain I now fully support the industrial action.

So far, during the strike we have learned a lot about pensions and the assumptions and models that are used to assess their viability. We have also found out about the governance of our universities, their management and the finacialization of higher education. Universities in the UK are strange beasts, sometimes they are seen as public sector organisations and other times as private sector. As a member of staff I see myself as a public sector worker. I hope I contribute to society by helping to educate people to understand both our physical and social environments and by directly contributing to research. Management also sees university as public sector entities when it comes to our remuneration and below inflation pay rises. However, management see universities also as private sector entities when it comes to their remuneration, student fees (which are less of an issue in Scotland although oversee students face huge fees) and our pensions. The rise of zero hour contracts and precarious working conditions also point to a private sector view of the world. It also turns out that university governance and in particular the employer organisation UUK are very opaque.

Having seen the arguments brought forward by both sides, the unity of staff and students and management of many universities breaking rank with the UUK position I wonder how our world works. I am a geophysicist. I have a good understanding of how our physical world works, I have some idea of how our biological environment works but I have no idea of how our society works. I find it deeply irrational. How can the £400k salary of our principal be justified? Why are our pensions attacked using dubious assumptions when there seems to be no need to do so? How can our government, even if they are Tories, push through the hardest of BREXITs? Why are we not dealing with air pollution and the resulting deaths as a matter of urgency? What about climate change and the social implications of automation? Does our society work by the people with influence, money and power trying to get away with as much as possible, shaping our world to their needs and the rest of us forced to struggle against them? This post on narratives gave me a lot to think about.

The world is changing. It must change as continuing as we did in the past is not possible: there cannot be indefinite growth, our resources are limited; climate change is happening; digitalisation and automation is fundamentally changing how we work and most importantly how much human labour is required. This is then a struggle of where these unavoidable changes lead us to. Will the powerful exclusively benefit to the detriment of the majority? Can we come up with an alternative? I think this is exactly what the universities should attempt to do. And we need to start transforming the universities themselves.

Update: The Manifesto for the University of the Future is well worth a read. There is also the Aberdeen Manifesto which strikes a similar vein. This is the sort of thing I have in mind.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Life in 2017

shop ing

Life in 2017 is pretty shit.

It's not that I can complain about anything in particular, it's more a general feeling of utter crapness on all sorts of levels - some expected, others totally unnecessary.

Level I: Family life is busy and the boys keep us well occupied with their various minor arguments, needs and demands. This is entirely expected and I suppose as at it should.

Level II: Work is busy and I embarked on a new adventure lecturing on a Master course. I am looking forward to that but there is a lot of work I need to do to prepare the lectures. Luckily, I do not need to start from scratch. Some of the other projects just have to wait. But that is ok and as I have chosen.

Level III: We just got our pay settlement, a measly 1.7% pay rise. In the past we went on strike which changed nothing - apart from loosing a few days of salary. I guess our position is not unlike the National Philosphers'. This has been ongoing since the crash in 2008 and according to some study, the UK is at the bottom of the wage growth league: Our real wages have dropped by 10% over the last decade. I think we are starting to notice that now. I used to be quite happy with my wage and I suspect the boys are somewhat more expensive than they used to be (as one would expect). Steadily rising bills do not help. This policy of austerity sucks. We can afford the necessities. It is the niceties that do not happen since everything is so stinkingly expensive.

Level IV: I live in a beautiful city that is getting pimped out to tourists leaving few benefits to the locals. More car traffic into the city? More hotels that displace services for the locals such as schools and libraries and public spaces? More venues that put on shows that are too expensive? I enjoy the buzz of the festivals and I do like going to see the buskers on the Royal Mile. We will probably see one show - for the four of us it is about £40 plus the transport of getting there, ie a usual day out. We can afford that about once or twice a month - see Level III above.

Level V: The UK is in the throes of Brexit. I still cannot see what the aim is - taking back control? Control is fairly meaningless in a globalised world where very few things happen at local level and people, ideas, goods and problems are shared globally. I am not so much worried about my personal status as a mainland European in the UK but I am worried about what a post-Brexit UK will look like: even more austerity, even less production, even less social protection and open flood gates to get the undiluted crap (chlorine-washed chicken, etc) from the rest of the world? The pound has already tanked and although this should help export it doesn't appear to. So, what remains is that this is just adding to the pressures of Level III above. This is happening now, even before Brexit has occurred. And it is also not considering any of the racist and anti-immigrant crap that is going on.

Having said that, thankfully, I haven't experienced any of that personally and so far all my admittedly gilded world in Edinburgh has been very good to me - I have good friends, my colleagues at work are as nice and tolerant as always, my bosses are very supportive and my local politicians from councillors to MSP and MP and Scottish Government are listening to my concerns and are making the right noises. Unfortunately, the people that do matter, the UK government and the opposition are lost in Brexit contortions.

Level VI: Our friends from across the pond have elected a racist president that recently threatened a nuclear attack and emboldens the white supremacists. In case you have never seen it, this BBC film from the 80ies is a good reminder of what a nuclear war might be about. Like Brexit, it is hard to see how this situation is going to calm down. If we are lucky it will just fizzle out.

Level VII: On top of all this we have the ongoing catastrophe that is the Anthropocene. We are destroying our environment by building more and more stuff that no-one really needs, killing off species and changing the climate by burning fossil fuels. I suppose if the Level VI nukes don't get us we in Northern Europe might get away with it, although at what cost? Are we going to install automatic guns on the outside of our compounds to keep away the refugees? Will I be on the inside? Or do we just let them drown in the sea?

Levels III and VII are linked in that they expose the failures at either end of the spectrum of our systems. We have plenty of stuff that doesn't get distributed equitably. A lot of the stuff that we do produce and do not need trashes our world only increasing the pressures on limited resources. Levels V and VI are displacement activities that distract from tackling the real issues of capitalism in the Anthropocene.

The real frustration is that we do understand these issues but totally fail to do something about them and instead go for the demagogues of Levels V and VI.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Save the Royal High School

Old Royal High

One of the finest buildings in Edinburgh - the former Royal High School - is under threat to be developed into an exclusive 5 star hotel.

The Royal High School is one of the finest examples of the Greek Revival style and is of international importance.

The economic merits of the proposed scheme can be argued over. However, the demolition of several listed buildings to make room for huge hotel buildings made of materials in an architectural style that does not fit into the surroundings will cause irreversible damage to the conservation area.

The Royal High School occupies a very prominent location that can be seen from many vantage points in the city. The proposed new builds will dwarf and crowd the main building carefully designed by Thomas Hamilton to fit the landscape and form the cityscape. Should the proposed hotel development go ahead, one of the most classic views of Edinburgh will get permanently and irreversibly spoilt.

The Royal High School is situated in a conservation area and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The proposed development will adversely affect the conservation area and, by extension, the World Heritage Site. It will also damage the city's international reputation as an architectural gem and as the iconic Athens of the North.

Architectural and aesthetic damage aside, there is the second, equally important question over whether a public building dedicated to learning should be turned into an exclusive commercial space. Edinburgh has plenty of hotels in central locations and there is scope to develop less important sites.

Clearly, a new purpose needs to be found for the building. I whole heartedly support the competing proposal to make the Royal High School the new home of the St Mary's Music School. I do realise this plan also requires some demolition. However, the scale of the music school development is smaller and does not alter the general design of the site. Furthermore, housing a school maintains the spirit of the building and provides a new civic purpose for one of the finest buildings in Edinburgh.

I hope the planning process and everyone else involved in the decision making takes these concerns into consideration so that future generations both locals and visitors can enjoy the magnificent view and be taught inside this great building.

There is still some time to object to the proposed hotel development. More details can be found on the Save the Royal High School page.

Old Royal High School

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Future of GradSchool Conference

Yesterday we had a big gradschool forum where the future of the GradSchool Conference was discussed. This post repeats and expands my initial thoughts yesterday.

I work at the School of GeoSciences which is at the triple intersection of traditional geo-sciences (ie if you want to be provocative supplying talent to the extractive industries), environmental sciences and social sciences. Sometimes clear fault lines arise. We have many postgraduate students covering the spectrum outlined above. The GradSchool organises and annual conference where first year and third year students present their work. The conference is large and is partly funded by industry. Industry tends to be extractive industry, although not exclusively. Not surprisingly some people object to industry sponsorship in general and extractive industry in particular. To the extend that some boycott the conference.

Some thoughts on these issues. I think it is a huge opportunity for the school to cover the entire spectrum from humanities to hard geophysics via geomorphology, geology, environmental sciences, meteorology. It is important to get everyone under one roof for one weekend which allows people to meet and exchange ideas and be challenged with different points of view. Given the size, it is expensive. Smaller won't do because you loose some of the spectrum. Industry sponsorship is not palatable to some. One suggestion was to get the school to fund the conference. However, at the end of the day the school is also funded by the same industries. So, that would be merely sweeping the issue under the carpet.

My issue with the uncompromising stand point is that it opens up accusations of hypocrisy. I suspect at the very least they quite like a warm flat, the occasional shower, food and that shiny laptop. At the end we live in a very connected world and it is very difficult to be strictly principled.

So, there is a spectrum of grey between the black and white and everyone locates themselves somewhere on that spectrum. And thus, it is a personal decision of what is acceptable and what is not. The GradSchool conference offers a forum where everyone can present their work. Not only do the people who boycott the conference miss this opportunity they also deny the others the chance to find out about their work.

I would like to hear about the social impacts of mining (be it in Africa or Europe or where-ever). I think it is great opportunity for those who work on the scientific/technical side of the extractive industry to be aware of the social consequences. At the same time, I also think it would be helpful for the human geographers to get some idea of what the underlying science is.

I was accused of being condescending for suggesting to just ignore the company logos - my apologies for that. It was an ill-thought out statement. It was a short-hand for saying that the presence of industry is not very visible. It is up to individuals to seek them out and have a chat. I don't think the GradSchool conference is particularly good for networking. There are plenty of better opportunities.

One of the students said that they are not only considering the extractive industries and are trying to figure out how to distance themselves from the world of big business. I am sure they do. However, we are also trying to figure out how to tackle the looming issues of global resource depletion and deteriorating environmental conditions. We are also discussing the greater issues of wealth distribution and the crisis of capitalism.

We need to work together to address the issues facing the world, it will take science, technology and social sciences. The school is in a unique position where the entire spectrum is covered. And the GradSchool conference is one of the few opportunities where we can all meet and exchange ideas. It would be a shame to not make use of this opportunity.

Personally, I have some issues with the extractive industries, although I have worked for an oil service company. I have bigger issues elsewhere. So on balance, I think this is not a stand point worth fighting about. I have no idea how to tackle the bigger issues though. And that is exactly why I would very much like that dialogue with the human geographers.

Finally, I have a request: I think it would be useful to know how large the GradSchool Conference is, how much it costs and what the options for accommodation/conference places are. In the past it was not very transparent to find out what it takes to run the conference. It just happened.