Review of Allison’s book on US/China & nuclear destruction, and some connected thoughts on technology, the EU, and space

‘The combination of physics and politics could render the surface of the earth uninhabitable… [Technological progress] gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we have known them, cannot continue.’ John von Neumann, one of the 20th Century’s most important mathematicians, one of the two most responsible for developing digital computers, central to Manhattan Project etc.

‘Politics is always like visiting a country one does not know with people whom one does not know and whose reactions one cannot predict. When one person puts a hand in his pocket, the other person is already drawing his gun, and when he pulls the trigger the first one fires and it is too late then to ask whether the requirements of common law with regard to self-defence apply, and since common law is not effective in politics people are very, very quick to adopt an aggressive defence.’ Bismarck, 1879.

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Below is a review of Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?. Allison’s book is particularly interesting given what is happening with North Korea and Trump. It is partly about the most urgent question: whether and how humanity can survive the collision between science and politics.

Beneath the review are a few other thoughts on the book and its themes. I will also post some notes on stuff connecting ideas about advanced technology and strategy (conventional and nuclear) including notes from the single best book on nuclear strategy, Payne’s The Great American Gamble: deterrence theory and practice from the Cold War to the twenty-first century. If you want to devote your life to a cause with maximum impact, then studying this book is a good start and it also connects to debates on other potential existential threats such as biological engineering and AI.

Payne’s book connects directly to Allison’s. Allison focuses a lot on the circumstances in which crises could spin out of control and end in US-China war. Payne’s book is the definitive account of nuclear strategy and its intellectual and practical problems. Payne’s book in a nutshell: 1) politicians and most senior officials operate with the belief that there is a dependable ‘rational’ basis for successful deterrence in which ‘rational’ US opponents will respond prudently and cautiously to US nuclear deterrence threats; 2) the re-evaluation of nuclear strategy in expert circles since the Cold War exposes the deep flaws of Cold War thinking in general and the concept of ‘rational’ deterrence in particular (partly because strategy was dangerously influenced by ideas about rationality from economics). Expert debate has not permeated to most of those responsible or the media. Trump’s language over North Korea and the media debate about it are stuck in the language of Cold War deterrence.

I would bet that no UK Defence Secretary has read Payne’s book. (Have the MoD PermSecs? The era of Michael Quinlan has long gone as the Iraq inquiries revealed.) What emerges from UK Ministers suggests they are operating with Cold War illusions. If you think I’m probably too pessimistic, then ponder this comment by Professor Allison who has spent half a century in these circles: ‘Over the past decade, I have yet to meet a senior member of the US national security team who had so much as read the official national security strategies’ (emphasis added). NB. he is referring to reading the official strategies, not the explanations of why they are partly flawed!

This of course relates to the theme of much I have written: the dangers created by the collision of science and markets with dysfunctional individuals and political institutions, and the way the political-media system actively suppresses thinking about, and focus on, what’s important.

Priorities are fundamental to politics because of inevitable information bottlenecks: these bottlenecks can be transformed by rare good organisation but they cannot be eradicated. People are always asking ‘how could the politicians let X happen with Y?’ where Y is something important. People find it hard to believe that Y is not the focus of  serious attention and therefore things like X are bound to happen all the time. People like Osborne and Clegg are focused on some magazine profile, not Y. The subject of nuclear command and control ought to make people realise that their mental models for politics are deeply wrong. It is beyond doubt that politicians do not even take the question of accidental nuclear war seriously, so a fortiori there is no reason to have confidence in their general approach to priorities.

If you think of politics as ‘serious people focusing seriously on the most important questions’, which is the default mode of most educated people and the media (but not the less-educated public which has better instincts), then your model of reality is badly wrong. A more accurate model is: politics is a system that 1) selects against skills needed for rigorous thinking and for qualities such as groupthink and confirmation bias, 2) incentivises a badly selected set of people to consider their career not the public interest, 3) drops them into dysfunctional institutions with no relevant training and poor tools, 4) centralises vast amounts of power in the hands of these people and institutions in ways we know are bound to cause huge errors, and 5) provides very weak (and often damaging) feedback so facing reality is rare, learning is practically impossible, and system reform is seen as a hostile act by political parties and civil services worldwide.

I meant to publish this a few days ago on ‘Petrov day’, the anniversary of 26 September 1983 when Petrov saw US nuclear missiles heading for Russia on his screen but in a snap decision without consultation he decided not to inform his superiors, guessing it was some sort of technical error and not wanting to risk catastrophic escalation. (Petrov died a few weeks ago.) I forgot to post but my point is: we will not keep getting lucky like that, and our odds worsen with every week that the political system works as it does. The cumulative probability of disaster grows alarmingly even if you assume a small chance of disaster. For example, a 1% chance of wipeout per year means the probability of wipeout is about 20% within 20 years, about 50% within 70 years, and about two-thirds within a century. Given what we now know it’s reasonable to plan on the basis that the chance of a nuclear accident of some sort leading to mass destruction is at least 1% per year. A 1:30 chance per year means a ~97% chance of wipeout in a century…

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Review of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, by Graham Allison

Every day on his way to work at Harvard, Professor Allison wondered how the reconstruction of the bridge over Boston’s Charles River could take years while in China bigger bridges are replaced in days. His book tells the extraordinary story of China’s transformation since Deng abandoned Mao’s catastrophic Stalinism, and considers whether the story will end in war between China and America.

China erects skyscrapers in weeks while Parliament delays Heathrow expansion for over a decade. The EU discusses dumb rules made 60 years ago while China produces a Greece-sized economy every 16 weeks. China’s economy doubles roughly every seven years; it is already the size of America’s and will likely dwarf it in 20 years. More serious than Europe, it invests this growth in education and technology from genetic engineering to artificial intelligence.

Allison analyses the formidable President Xi, who has known real suffering and is very different to western leaders obsessed with the frivolous spin cycles of domestic politics. Xi’s goal is to ensure that China’s renaissance returns it to its position as the richest, strongest and most advanced culture on earth. Allison asks: will the US-China relationship repeat the dynamics between Athens and Sparta that led to war in 431 bc or might it resemble the story of the British-American alliance in the 20th century?

In Thucydides’ history the dynamic growth of Athens caused such fear that, amid confusing signals in an escalating crisis, Sparta gambled on preventive war. Similarly, after Bismarck unified Germany in 1870-71, Europe’s balance of power was upended. In summer 1914, the leaderships of all Great Powers were overwhelmed by confusing signals amid a rapidly escalating crisis. The prime minister doodled love letters to his girlfriend as the cabinet discussed Ireland, and European civilisation tottered over the brink.

Allison discusses how America, China and Taiwan [or Korea] might play the roles of Britain, Germany and Belgium. China has invested in weapons with powerful asymmetric advantages: cheap missiles can sink an aircraft carrier costing billions, and cyber weapons could negate America’s powerful space and communication infrastructure. American war-games often involve bombing Chinese coastal installations. How far might it escalate?

Nuclear weapons increase destructive power a million-fold and give a leader just minutes to decide whether a (possibly false) warning justifies firing weapons that would destroy civilisation, while relying on the same sort of hierarchical decision-making processes that failed in the much slower 1914 crisis.

Terrifying near misses have already happened, and we have been saved by individuals’ snap judgments. They have occurred, luckily, during episodes of relative calm. Similar incidents during an intense crisis could spark catastrophe. The Pentagon hoped that technology would bring ‘information dominance’: instead, technology accelerates crises and overwhelms decisions. Real and virtual robots will fight battles and influence minds faster than traditional institutions can follow.

Allison hopes Washington will rediscover its 1940s seriousness, when it built a strategy and institutions to contain Stalin. He suggests abandoning ‘containment’, which is unlikely to work in the same way against capitalist China as it did against Soviet Russia. It could drop security guarantees to Taiwan to lower escalation risks. It could promote new institutions to tackle destructive technology and terrorism. Since China will upend post-1945 institutions anyway, why not try to shape what comes next together? Perhaps, channelling Sun Tzu, the West could avoid defeat by not trying to ‘win’.

It is hard to see how the necessary leadership might emerge.

We need government teams capable of the rare high performance we see in George Mueller’s Nasa, which put man on the moon; or in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs such as Sam Altman and Patrick Collison. This means senior politicians and officials of singular ability and with different education, training and experience. It means extremely adaptive institutions and state-of-the-art tools, not the cabinet processes that failed in 1914. It means breaking the power of self-absorbed parties and bureaucracies that evolved before nuclear physics and the internet.

New leaders must build institutions for global cooperation that can transcend Thucydides’ dynamics. For example, the plan of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, to build a permanent moon base in which countries work together to harness the resources of the solar system is the sort of project that could create an alternative focus to nationalist antagonism.

The scale of change seems impossible, yet technology gives us no choice — we must try to escape our evolutionary origins, since we cannot survive repeated roulette with advanced technology. Churchill wrote how in 1914 governments drifted into ‘fathomless catastrophe’ in ‘a kind of dull cataleptic trance’. Western leaders are in another such trance. Unless new forces evolve outside closed political systems and force change we will suffer greater catastrophe; it’s just a matter of when.

I hope people like Jeff Bezos read this timely book and resolve to build the political forces we need.

(Originally appeared in The Spectator.)

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A few other thoughts

I’ve got some quibbles, such as interpretations of Thucydides, but I won’t go into those.

There are many issues in it I did not have time to mention in a short review…

1. Nuclear crises / accidents

In the context of US-China crises, it is very instructive to consider some of the most dangerous episodes of the Cold War that remained secret at the time.

Here are some of the near misses that have been declassified (see this timeline from Future of Life Institute).

  • 24 January 1961. A US bomber broke up and dropped two hydrogen bombs on North Carolina. Five of six safety devices failed. ‘By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted’ (Defence Secretary Robert McNamara).
  • 25 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A sabotage alarm was triggered at a US base. Faulty wiring meant that the alarm triggered the take-off of nuclear armed US planes. Fortunately they made contact with the ground and were stood down. The alarm had been triggered by a bear — yes, a bear, like in a Simpsons episode — pottering around outside the base. This was one of many incidents during this crisis, including one base where missiles and codes were mishandled such that a single person could have launched.
  • 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Soviet submarine was armed with nuclear weapons. It was cornered by US ships which dropped depth charges. It had no contact with Moscow for days and had no idea if war had already broken out. Malfunctioning systems meant carbon dioxide poisoning and crew were fainting. In panic the captain ordered a nuclear missile fired. Orders said that three officers had to agree. Only two did. Vasili Arkhipov said No. It was not known until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that there were also tactical nuclear missiles deployed to Cuba and, for the only time, under direct authority of field commanders who could fire without further authority from Moscow, so if the US had decided to attack Cuba, as many urged JFK to do, there is a reasonable chance that local commanders would have begun a nuclear exchange. Castro wanted these missiles, unknown to America, transferred to Cuban control. Fortunately, Mikoyan, the Soviet in charge on the ground, witnessed Castro’s unstable character and decided not to transfer these missiles to his control. The missiles were secretly returned to Russia shortly after.
  • 1 August 1974. A warning of the danger of allowing one person to give a catastrophic order: Nixon was depressed, drinking heavily, and unstable so Defense Secretary Schlesinger told the Joint Chiefs to come to him in the event of any order to fire nuclear weapons.
  • 9 November 1979. NORAD thought there was a large-scale Soviet nuclear attack. Planes were scrambled and ICBM crews put on highest alert. The National Security Adviser was called at home. He looked at his wife asleep and decided not to wake her as they would shortly both be dead and he turned his mind to calling President Carter about plans for massive retaliation before he died. After 6 minutes no satellite data confirmed launches. Decisions were delayed. It turned out that a technician had accidentally input a training program which played through the computer system as if it were a real attack. (There were other similar incidents.)
  • 26 September 1983. A month after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean passenger jet and at a time of international tension, a Soviet satellite showed America had launched five nuclear missiles. The data suggested the satellite was working properly but the officer on duty, Stanilov Petrov, decided to report it to his superiors as a false alarm without knowing if it was true. It turned out to be an odd effect of sun glinting off clouds that fooled the system.
  • 2-11 November 1983. NATO ran a large wargame with a simulation of DEFCON 1 and coordinated attack on the Soviet Union. The war-game was so realistic that Soviet intelligence thought it was a cover for a real attack and Soviet missiles were placed on high alert. On 11 November the Soviets intercepted a message saying US missiles had launched. Fortunately, incidents such as 26 September 1983 did not randomly occur during this 10 days.
  • 25 January 1995. The Russian system detected the launch of a missile off the coast of Norway that was thought to be a US submarine launch. The warning went to Yeltsin who activated his ‘nuclear football’ and retrieved launch codes. There was no corroboration from satellites. Norway had actually reached a scientific rocket and somehow this was not notified properly in Russia.
  • 29-30 August 2007. Six US nuclear weapons were accidentally loaded into a B52 which was left unguarded overnight, flown to another base where it was left unguarded for another nine hours before ground crew realised what they were looking at. For 36 hours nobody realised the missiles were missing.
  • 23 October 2010. The US command and control system responsible for detecting and stopping unauthorised launches lost all control of 50 ICBMs for an hour because of communication failure caused by a dodgy component.
  • A 2013 monitoring exercise found the US nuclear command and control system generally shambolic. Staff were found to be on drugs and otherwise unsuitable, the system was deemed unfit to cope with a major hack, and the commander of the ICBM force was compromised by a classic KGB ‘honey trap’ (when I lived in Moscow I met some of the women who worked on such operations and I’d bet >90% of male UK Ministers/PermSecs would throw themselves at them faster than you can say ‘honey trap’).

This is just a sample. The full list still understates the scale of luck we have had in at least two ways. First, the data is mostly from America because America is a more open society. The most sensible assumption is that there have been more incidents in Russia than we know about. Second, there is a selection bias towards older incidents that have been declassified.

Right now there are hundreds of missiles on ‘hair-trigger’ alert for launch within minutes. Decisions about how reliable a warning is and whether to fire must all be taken within minutes. This makes the whole world vulnerable to accidents, unauthorised use, unhinged leaders, and false alarms. This situation could get worse. China’s missiles are not on hair-trigger alert but the Chinese military is pushing to change this. Adding a third country operating like this would make the system even more unstable. It also seems very likely that proliferation will continue to spread. The West preaches non-proliferation at non-nuclear countries but this unsurprisingly is not persuasive.

2. China’s weaknesses, including the tension between informational openness needed for growth and its political dangers

During the Cold War, many people from different political perspectives were agreed on one thing: that the Soviet Union was much stronger than it later turned out to have been. This view was so powerful that people like Andy Marshall, the founder and multi-decade head of the Office of Net Assessment, struggled to find support for his argument that the CIA and Pentagon were systematically overstating the strength of the Soviet economy and understating the burden of defence spending. They had, of course, strong bureaucratic reasons to do so: a more dangerous enemy was the best argument for more funding. It is important to keep in mind this potential error viz China.

1929 and 2008 each had profound effects on US politics. China, interestingly, was not as badly hit by 2008 as the West. What is the probability that it will continue to avoid an economic crisis somewhere between a serious recession and a 1929/2008-style event over the next say 20 years? If it does experience such a shock, how effective will its political institutions be in coping relative to those of America’s and Britain’s over the long-term? Might debt and bad financial institutions create a political crisis serious enough to threaten the legitimacy of the regime? Might other problems such as secession movements (perhaps combined with terrorism) cause an equivalently serious political crisis? After all, historically the country has fallen apart repeatedly and this is the great fear of its leaders.

China also has serious resource vulnerabilities. It has to import most of its energy. It has serious water shortages. It has serious ecological crises. It has serious corruption problems. It has a rapidly ageing population. Although it, unlike the EU, has built brilliant private companies to rival Google et al, its state-owned enterprises (with special phones on CEO desks for Communist Party instructions) control gigantic resources and are not run as well as Google or Alibaba. There has been significant emigration of educated Chinese particularly to America where they buy houses and educate their children (Xi himself quietly sent a daughter to Harvard). Many of these tensions result in occasional public outcries that the regime carefully appeases. These problems are not trivial to solve even for very competent people who don’t have to worry about elections.

In terms of the risks of war and escalation over flashpoints like Korea or Taiwan, major internal crises like a financial crash might easily make it more likely that an external crisis escalates out of control. When regimes face crises of legitimacy they often, for obvious evolutionary reasons, resort to picking fights with out-groups to divert people. Much of Germany’s military-industrial elite saw nationalist diversions as crucial to escape the terrifying spread of socialism before 1914.

I’m ignorant about all these dynamics in China but if forced to bet I would bet that Allison underplays these weaknesses and I would bet against another 20 years of straight line growth. In the spirit of Tetlock, I’ll put a number on it and say a 80% probability of a bad recession or some other internal crisis within 20 years that is bad enough to be considered ‘the worst domestic crisis for the leadership since Tiananmen and a prelude to major political change’ and which results in either a Tiananmen-style clampdown or big political change. (I have not formulated this well, suggestions from Superforecasters welcome in comments.)

Part of my reason for thinking China will not be able to avoid such crises is a fundamental dynamic that Fukuyama discussed in his much-misunderstood ‘The End of History’: economic development requires openness and the protection of individual rights in various dimensions, and this creates an inescapable tension between an elite desire for economic dynamism and technological progress viz competitor Powers, and an elite fear of openness and what it brings politically/culturally.

The KGB and Soviet military realised this in the late 1970s as they watched the microelectronics revolution in America but they could never develop a response that worked: they were very successful at stealing stuff but they could not develop domestic companies because of the political constraints, as Marshall Ogarkov admitted (off-the-record!) to the New York Times in 1983. China watched the Soviet Union implode and chose a different path: economic liberalisation combined with greater economic and information rights, but no Gorbachev-style political opening up. This caution has worked so far but does not solve the problem.

Singapore and China could not develop economically as they have without also allowing much greater individual freedom in some domains than Soviet Russia. Developing hi-tech businesses cannot be done without a degree of openness to the rest of the world that is politically risky for China. If there is too much arbitrary seizure of property, as in the KGB-mafia state of Russia, then people will focus on theft and moving assets offshore rather than building long-term value. Chinese entrepreneurs have to be able to download software, read scientific and technical papers, and access most of the internet if they are not to be seriously disadvantaged. China knows that its path to greatness must include continued growth and greater productivity. If it does not, then like other oligarchies it will rapidly lose legitimacy and risks collapse. This is inconsistent with all-out repression. It will therefore have to tread a fine line of allowing social unhappiness to be expressed and adapting to it without letting it spin out of control. Given social movements are inherently complex and nonlinear, plus social media already seethes with unhappiness in China, there will be a constant danger that this dynamic tension breaks free of centralised control.

This is, obviously, one of the many reasons why the leadership is so interested in advanced technology and particularly AI. Such tools may help the leadership tread this tightrope without tumbling off, though maintaining a culture at the edge-of-the-art in technologies like AI simultaneously exacerbates the very turbulence that the AI needs to monitor — there are many tricky feedback loops to navigate and many reasons to suspect that eventually the centralised leadership will blunder, be overwhelmed, collapse internally and so on. Can China’s leaders maintain this dynamic tension for another 20 years? As Andy Grove always said, only the paranoid survive…

3. Contrast between the EU and China

High-tech breakthroughs are increasingly focused in North East America (around Harvard), West Coast America (around Stanford), and coastal China (e.g Shenzhen). When the UK leaves the EU, the EU will have zero universities in the global top 20. EU politicians are much more interested in vindictive legal action against Silicon Valley giants than asking themselves why Europe cannot match America or China. On issues such as CRISPR and genetic engineering the EU is regulating itself out of the competition and many businesspeople are unaware that this will get much worse once the ECJ starts using the Charter of Fundamental Rights to seize control of such regulation for itself, which will mean not just more anti-science regulation but also damaging uncertainty as scientists and companies face the ECJ suddenly pulling a human rights ‘top trump’ out of the deck whenever they fancy (one of the many arguments Vote Leave made during the referendum that we could not get the media to report, partly because of persistent confusion between the COFR and the ECHR). Organisations like YCombinator provide a welcoming environment for talented and dynamic young Europeans in California while the EU’s regulatory structure is dominated by massive incumbent multinationals like Goldman Sachs that use the Single Market to crush startup competitors.

If you watch this documentary on Shenzhen, you will see parts of China with the same or even greater dynamism than Silicon Valley and far, far beyond the EU. The contrast between the reality of Shenzhen and the rhetoric of blowhards like Macron is one of the reasons why many massive institutional investors do not share CBI-style conventional wisdom on Brexit. The young vote with their feet. If they want to be involved in world-leading projects, they head to coastal China or coastal America, few go to Paris, Rome, or Berlin. The Commission publishes figures on this but never faces the logic.

Chart: notice how irrelevant the EU is

Screenshot 2017-09-28 16.42.08

We are escaping the Single Market / ECJ / Charter of Fundamental Rights quagmire that will deepen the EU’s stagnation (despite Whitehall’s best efforts to scupper the referendum). The UK should now be thinking about how we provide the most dynamic environment in Europe for scientists and entrepreneurs. After 50 years of wasting time in dusty meeting rooms failing to ‘influence’ the EU to ditch its Monnet-Delors plan, we could start building things with real value and thereby acquire real, rather than the Foreign Office’s chimerical, influence. Let Macron et al continue with the same antiquated rhetoric: we know what will happen, we’ve seen it since all the pro-euro forces in the UK babbled about the ‘Lisbon Agenda’ in 2000 — rhetoric about ‘reform’ always turns into just more centralisation in Brussels institutions, it does not produce dynamic forces that create breakthroughs and real value. Economic, technological, and political power will continue to shift away from an EU that cannot and will not adapt to the forces changing the world: its legal model of Single Market plus ECJ make fast adaptation impossible. We will soon be out of Monnet’s house and Whitehall’s comfortable delusions (‘special relationship’, ‘punching above our weight’) will fade. Contra the EU’s logic, in a world increasingly defined by information and computation the winning asset is not size — it is institutional adaptability.

Those on the pro-EU side who disagree with this analysis have to face a fact: people like Mandelson, Adair Turner, the FT, and the Economist have been repeatedly wrong in their predictions for 20 years about ‘EU reform’, and people like me who have made the same arguments for 20 years, and called bullshit on ‘EU reform’, have been repeatedly vindicated by actual EU Treaties, growth rates, unemployment trends, euro crises and so on. (The Commission itself doesn’t even produce fake reports showing big gains from the Single Market, the gains it claims are relatively trivial even if you believe them.) What is happening in the EU now to suggest to reasonable observers that this will change over the next 20 years? Every sign from Juncker to Macron is that yet again Brussels will double down on Monnet’s mid-20th Century vision and the entire institutional weight of the Commission and legal system exerts an inescapable gravitational pull that way.

4. ‘Anti-access / area denial’ (A2/AD)

One aspect of China’s huge conventional buildup is what is known as A2/AD: i.e building forces to prevent America intervening near China, using missiles, submarines, cyber, anti-space and other weapons. The US response is known as ‘AirSea Battle’.

I won’t go into this here but it is an interesting topic that is also relevant to UK defence debates. The transformation of US forces goes back to a mid-1970s DARPA project known as Assault Breaker that began a series of breakthroughs in ‘precision strike’ where computerised command and control combined with sensors, radar, GPS and so on to provide the capability for precise conventional strike. The first public demo of all this was the famous films in the first Gulf War of bombs dropping down chimneys. This development was central to the last phase of the Cold War and the intolerable pressure put on Soviet defence expenditure. Soviets led the thinking but could not build the technology.

One of the consequences of these developments is that aircraft carriers are no longer safe from cheap missiles. I started making these arguments in 2004 when it was already clear that the UK Ministry of Defence carrier project was a disaster. Since then it has been a multi-billion pound case study in Whitehall incompetence, the MoD’s appalling ‘planning’ system and corrupt procurement, and Westminster’s systemic inability to think about complex long-term issues. Talking to someone at the MoD last year they said that in NATO wargames the UK carriers immediately bug out for the edge of the game to avoid being sunk. Of course they do. Carriers cannot be deployed against top tier forces because of the vast and increasing asymmetry between their cost and vulnerability to cheap sinking. Soon they will not be deployable even against Third World forces because of the combination of cheap cruise missiles and exponential price collapse and performance improvement of guidance systems (piggybacking the commercial drone industry). Soon an intelligent terrorist with a cruise missile and some off-the-shelf kit will be able to sink a carrier using their iPhone: see this blog for details. The MoD has lied and bluffed about all this for 20 years, this Government will continue the trend, and the appalling BAE will continue to scam billions from taxpayers unbothered by MPs.

5. Strategy, Sun Tzu and Bismarck: Great Powers and ‘the passions of sheep stealers’

China is the home of Sun Tzu. His most famous advice was that ‘winning without fighting is the highest form of warfare’ — advice often quoted but rarely internalised by those responsible for vital decisions in conflicts. This requires what Sun Tzu called ‘Cheng/Ch’i’ operations. You pull the opponent off balance with a series of disorienting moves, feints, bluffs, carrots, and sticks (e.g ‘where strong appear weak’). You disorient them with speed so they make blunders that undermine their own moral credibility with potential allies. You try to make the opponent look like an unreasonable aggressor. You isolate them, you break their alliances and morale. Where possible you collapse their strategy and will to fight instead of wasting resources on an actual battle. And so on…

Looking at the US-China relationship through the lens of ‘winning without fighting’ and nuclear risk suggests that the way for America to ‘win’ this Thucydidean struggle is: ‘don’t try to win in a conventional sense, but instead redefine winning’. Given the unlimited downside of nuclear war and what we now know about the near-disasters of Cold War brinkmanship, it certainly suggests focus on the goal of avoiding escalating crises involving nuclear weapons, and this goal has vast consequences for America’s whole approach to China.

Allison’s ideas about how the US might change strategy are interesting though I think his ‘academic’ approach is too rigid. Allison suggests distinct strategies as distinct choices. If one looks at the world champion of politics and diplomacy in the modern world, Bismarck, his approach was the opposite of ‘pick a strategy’ in the sense Allison means. Over 27 years he was close to and hostile to all the other Powers at different times, sometimes in such rapid succession that his opponents felt badly disoriented as though they were dealing with ‘the devil himself’, as many said.

Bismarck contained an extremely tyrannical ego and an even more extreme epistemological caution about the unpredictability of a complex world and a demonic practical adaptability. He knew events could suddenly throw his calculations into chaos. He was always ready to ditch his own ideas and commitments that suddenly seemed shaky. He was interested in winning, not consistency. He had a small number of fundamental goals — such as strengthening the monarchy’s power against Parliament and strengthening Prussia as a serious Great Power — which he pursued with constantly changing tactics. He was always feinting and fluid, pushing one line openly and others privately, pushing and pulling the other Powers in endless different combinations. He was the Grand Master of Cheng/Ch’i operations.

I think that if Bismarck read Allison’s book, he would not ‘pick a strategy’. He would use many of the different elements Allison sketches (and invent others) at the same time while watching China’s evolution and the success of different individuals/factions in the governing elite. For example, he would both suggest a bargain over dropping security guarantees for Taiwan and launch a covert (apparently domestic) cyber campaign to spread details of the Chinese leadership’s wealth and corruption all over the internet inside ‘the Great Firewall’. Carrot and stick, threaten and cajole, pull the opponent off balance.

I think that Bismarck’s advice would be: get what you can from dropping the Taiwanese guarantees and do not create nuclear tripwires in Korea. He was contemptuous of any argument that he ought to care about the Balkans for its own sake and repeatedly stressed that Germany should not fight for Austrian interests in the Balkans despite their alliance. He often repeated variations on his famous line — that the whole of the Balkans was not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. Great Powers, he warned, should not let their fates be tied to ‘the passions of sheep stealers’. On another occasion: ‘All Turkey, including the various people who live there, is not worth so much that civilised European peoples should destroy themselves in great wars for its sake.’ At the Congress of Berlin, he made clear his priority: ‘We are not here to consider the happiness of the Bulgarians but to secure the peace of Europe.’ A decade later he warned other Powers not to ‘play Pericles beyond the confines of the area allocated by God’ and said clearly: ‘Bulgaria … is far from being an object of adequate importance … for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought.’

In order to avoid a Great Power war he stressed the need to stay friendly with Russia, and the importance of being able to play Russia and Austria off against each other, France, and Britain: ‘The security of our relations with the Austro-Hungarian state depends to a great extent on our being able, should Austria make unreasonable demands on us, to come to terms with Russia as well.’ This was the logic behind his infamous secret Reinsurance Treaty in which, unknown to Austria with which he already had an alliance, Germany and Russia made promises to each other about their conduct in the event of war breaking out in different scenarios, the heart of which was Bismarck promising to stay out of a Russia-Austria war if Austria was the aggressor. In 1887 when military factions rumbled about a preventive war against Russia to help Austria in the Balkans he squashed the notion flat: ‘They want to urge me into war and I want peace. It would be frivolous to start a new war; we are not a pirate state which makes war because it suits a few.’ Preventive war, he said, was an egg from which very dangerous chicks would hatch.

His successors ditched his approach, ditched the Reinsurance Treaty, pushed Russia towards France, and made growing commitments to support Austria in the Balkans. This series of errors (combined with Wilhelm II’s appalling combination of vanity, aggression, and indolence which is echoed in a frightening proportion of leading politicians today) exploded in summer 1914.

Would Bismarck tie the probability of nuclear holocaust to the possibilities for extremely fast-moving crises in the South China Seas and ‘the passions of sheep stealers’ in places like North Korea? No chance.

Instead of taking the lead on Korea, I suspect Bismarck’s approach would be to go quiet publicly other than to suggest that China has a clear responsibility for Kim’s behaviour while perhaps leaking a ‘secret’ study on the consequences of Japan going nuclear, to focus minds in Beijing. Regardless of whose ‘fault’ it is, if the situation spirals out of control and ends with North Korea, perhaps because of collapsed command and control empowering some mentally ill / on drugs local commander (America has had plenty of those in charge of nukes) killing millions of Koreans and America destroying North Korea, who thinks this would be seen as a ‘win’ for America? Trump’s threats are straight out of the Cold War playbook but we know that playbook was dodgy even against the relative ‘rationality’ of people like Brezhnev and Andropov, never mind nutjobs like Kim…

So: avoid nuclear crises. Therefore do not give local security ties to Taiwan and Korea that could trigger disaster. What positive agenda can be pushed?

America should seek cooperation in areas of deep significance and moral force where institutions can be shaped that align orientation over decades. Three obvious areas are: disaster response in Asia (naval cooperation), WMD terrorism (intel cooperation), and space. China already has an aggressive space program. It has demonstrated edge-of-the-art capabilities in developing a satellite-based quantum communication network, a revolutionary goal with even deeper effects than GPS. It will go to the moon. The Cold War got humans onto the moon then perceived superiority ended American politicians’ ambition. Instead of rebooting a Cold War style rivalry, it would be better to try to do things together. One of the most important projects humans can pursue is — as Jeff Bezos has argued and committed billions to — to use the resources of space (which are approximately ALL resources in the solar system) to alleviate earth’s problems, and the logic of energy and population growth is to shift towards heavy manufacturing in space while Earth is ‘zoned residential and light industrial’. Building the infrastructure to allow such ambition for humanity is inherently a project of great moral force that encourages international friendship and provides an invaluable perspective: a tiny blue dot friendly to life surrounded by vast indifferent blackness. People can be proud of their nation’s contributions and proud of a global effort. (As I have said before, contributing to this should be one of the UK’s priorities post-Brexit — how much more real value we could create with this than we have in 50 years with the EU, and developing the basic and applied research for robotics would have crossover applications both with commercial autonomous vehicles and the military sphere.)

Of course, there must be limits to friendly cooperation. What if China takes this as weakness and increasingly exerts more and more power, direct and indirect, over her neighbours? This is obviously possible. But I think the Bismarck/Sun Tzu response would be: if that is how she will behave driven by internal dynamics, then let her behave like that, as that will do more than anything you can do to persuade those neighbours to try to contain China. Trying to contain China now won’t work and would be seen not just in China but elsewhere as classic aggression from an imperial power. China is neither like Hitler’s Germany nor Stalin’s Soviet Union and treating it as such is bound to provoke intense and dangerous resentment among a billion people who suffered appallingly for decades under Mao. But if America backs off and makes clear that she prefers cooperation to containment, and then over time China seeks to threaten and dominate Japan, Australia and others, then that is the time to start building alliances because that is when you will have moral authority with local forces — the vital element.

A Bismarckian approach would also, obviously, involve ensuring that America remains technologically ahead of China, though this is a much more formidable task than it was with Russia and that was seen for a while (after Sputnik) as an existential challenge (and famous economists like Paul Samuelson continued to predict wrongly that the Soviet economy would overtake America’s). Attempting to escape Thucydides means trying to build institutions and feelings of cooperation but it also requires that militaristic Chinese don’t come to see America as vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes. As AI, biological engineering, digital fabrication and so on accelerate, there may soon be non-nuclear dangers at least as frightening as nuclear dangers.

Finally, there is an interesting question of self-awareness. American leaders have a tendency to talk about American interests as if they are self-evidently humanity’s interests. Others find this amusing or enraging. Its leaders need a different language for discussing China if they are to avoid Thucydides.

Talented political leaders sometimes show an odd empathy for the psychology of opposing out-groups. Perhaps it’s a product of a sort of ‘complementarity’ ability, an ability to hold contradictory ideas in one’s head simultaneously. It is often a shock for students when they read in Pericles’s speech that he confronted the plague-struck Athenians with the sort of uncomfortable truth that democratic politicians rarely speak:

‘You have an empire to lose, and there is the danger to which the hatred of your imperial rule has exposed you… For by this time your empire has become a tyranny which in the opinion of mankind may have been unjustly gained, but which cannot be safely surrendered… To be hateful and offensive has ever been the fate of those who have aspired to empire.’ Thucydides, 2.63-4, emphasis added.

Bismarck too didn’t fool himself about how others saw him, his political allies, and his country. He much preferred boozing with revolutionary communists than reactionaries on his own side. When various commercial interests tried to get him to support them in China, he told the English Ambassador crossly:

‘These blackguard Hamburg and Lubeck merchants have no other idea of policy in China but to, what they call ‘shoot down those damned niggers of Chinese’ for six months and then dictate peace to them etc. Now, I believe those Chinese are better Christians than our vile mercantile snobs and wish for peace with us and are not thinking of war, and I’ll see the merchants and their Yankee and French allies damned before I consent to go to war with China to fill their pockets with money.’

There are powerful interests urging Washington to aggression against China. The nexus of commercial and military interests is always dangerous, as Eisenhower famously warned in his Farewell Speech. They will be more dangerous as jobs continue to shift East driven by markets and technology regardless of Trump’s promises. The Pentagon will overhype Chinese aggression to justify their budgets, as they did with Russia.

Bismarck was a monster and the world would have been better if one of the assassination attempts had succeeded (see HERE for other branching histories) but he also understood fundamental questions better than others. Those responsible for policy on China should study his advice. They should also study summer 1914 and ponder how those responsible for war and peace still make these decisions in much the same way as then, while the crises are 1,000 times faster and a million times more potentially destructive.

Such problems require embedding lessons from effective institutions into our systematically flawed political institutions. I describe in detail the systems management approach to complex projects developed in the 1950s and 1960s that is far more advanced than anything in Whitehall today and which is part of necessary reforms (see HERE, p.26ff for summary of lessons). I will blog on other ideas. Unless we find a way to build political institutions that produce much more reliable decisions from the raw material of unreliable humans the law of averages means we are sure to fall off our tightrope, and unlike in 1918 or 1945 we won’t have anything to clamber back on to…

The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #3: lessons on ‘capturing the heavens’ from the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet & PC

Below is a short summary of some basic principles of the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet and the personal computer. I wrote it originally as part of an anniversary blog on the referendum but it is also really part of this series on effective action.

One of the most interesting aspects of this project, like Mueller’s reforms of NASA, is the contrast between 1) extreme effectiveness, changing the world in a profound way, and 2) the general reaction to the methods was not only a failure to learn but a widespread hostility inside established bureaucracies (public and private) to the successful approach: NASA dropped Mueller’s approach when he left and has never been the same, and XEROX closed PARC and fired Bob Taylor. Changing the world in a profound and beneficial way is not enough to put a dint in bureaucracies which operate on their own dynamics.

Warren Buffet explained decades ago how institutions actively fight against learning and fight to stay in a closed and vicious feedback loop:

‘My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative”. In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligence, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned the hard way that isn’t so. Instead rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

‘For example, 1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law, any institution will resist any change in its current direction. 2) … Corporate projects will materialise to soak up available funds. 3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will quickly be supported by … his troops. 4) The behaviour of peer companies … will be mindlessly imitated.’

Many of the principles behind ARPA/PARC could be applied to politics and government but they will not be learned from ‘naturally’ inside the system. Dramatic improvements will only happen if a group of people force ‘system’ changes on how government works so it is open to learning.

I have modified the below very slightly and added some references.

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ARPA/PARC and ‘capturing the heavens’: The best way to predict the future is to invent it

The panic over Sputnik brought many good things such as a huge increase in science funding. America also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, which later added ‘Defense’ and became DARPA). Its job was to fund high risk / high payoff technology development. In the 1960s and 1970s, a combination of unusual people and unusually wise funding from ARPA created a community that in turn invented the internet, or ‘the intergalactic network’ as Licklider originally called it, and the personal computer. One of the elements of this community was PARC, a research centre working for Xerox. As Bill Gates said, he and Steve Jobs essentially broke into PARC, stole their ideas, and created Microsoft and Apple.

The ARPA/PARC project is an example of how if something is set up properly then a tiny number of people can do extraordinary things.

  • PARC had about 25 people and about $12 million per year in today’s money.
  • The breakthroughs from the ARPA/PARC project  created over 35 TRILLION DOLLARS of value for society and counting.
  • The internet architecture they built, based on decentralisation and distributed control, has scaled up over ten orders of magnitude (1010) without ever breaking and without ever being taken down for maintenance since 1969.

The whole story is fascinating in many ways. I won’t go into the technological aspects. I just want to say something about the process.

What does a process that produces ideas that change the world look like?

One of the central figures was Alan Kay. One of the most interesting things about the project is that not only has almost nobody tried to repeat this sort of research but the business world has even gone out of its way to spread mis-information about it because it was seen as so threatening to business-as-usual.

I will sketch a few lessons from one of Kay’s pieces but I urge you to read the whole thing.

‘This is what I call “The power of the context” or “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points”. Science and engineering themselves are famous examples, but there are even more striking processes within these large disciplines. One of the greatest works of art from that fruitful period of ARPA/PARC research in the 60s and 70s was the almost invisible context and community that catalysed so many researchers to be incredibly better dreamers and thinkers. That it was a great work of art is confirmed by the world-changing results that appeared so swiftly, and almost easily. That it was almost invisible, in spite of its tremendous success, is revealed by the disheartening fact today that, as far as I’m aware, no governments and no companies do edge-of-the-art research using these principles.’

‘[W]hen I think of ARPA/PARC, I think first of good will, even before brilliant people… Good will and great interest in graduate students as “world-class researchers who didn’t have PhDs yet” was the general rule across the ARPA community.

‘[I]t is no exaggeration to say that ARPA/PARC had “visions rather than goals” and “funded people, not projects”. The vision was “interactive computing as a complementary intellectual partner for people pervasively networked world-wide”. By not trying to derive specific goals from this at the funding side, ARPA/PARC was able to fund rather different and sometimes opposing points of view.

‘The pursuit of Art always sets off plans and goals, but plans and goals don’t always give rise to Art. If “visions not goals” opens the heavens, it is important to find artistic people to conceive the projects.

‘Thus the “people not projects” principle was the other cornerstone of ARPA/PARC’s success. Because of the normal distribution of talents and drive in the world, a depressingly large percentage of organizational processes have been designed to deal with people of moderate ability, motivation, and trust. We can easily see this in most walks of life today, but also astoundingly in corporate, university, and government research. ARPA/PARC had two main thresholds: self-motivation and ability. They cultivated people who “had to do, paid or not” and “whose doings were likely to be highly interesting and important”. Thus conventional oversight was not only not needed, but was not really possible. “Peer review” wasn’t easily done even with actual peers. The situation was “out of control”, yet extremely productive and not at all anarchic.

‘”Out of control” because artists have to do what they have to do. “Extremely productive” because a great vision acts like a magnetic field from the future that aligns all the little iron particle artists to point to “North” without having to see it. They then make their own paths to the future. Xerox often was shocked at the PARC process and declared it out of control, but they didn’t understand that the context was so powerful and compelling and the good will so abundant, that the artists worked happily at their version of the vision. The results were an enormous collection of breakthroughs.

‘Our game is more like art and sports than accounting, in that high percentages of failure are quite OK as long as enough larger processes succeed… [I]n most processes today — and sadly in most important areas of technology research — the administrators seem to prefer to be completely in control of mediocre processes to being “out of control” with superproductive processes. They are trying to “avoid failure” rather than trying to “capture the heavens”.

‘All of these principles came together a little over 30 years ago to eventually give rise to 1500 Altos, Ethernetworked to: each other, Laserprinters, file servers and the ARPAnet, distributed to many kinds of end-users to be heavily used in real situations. This anticipated the commercial availability of this genre by 10-15 years. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

‘[W]e should realize that many of the most important ARPA/PARC ideas haven’t yet been adopted by the mainstream. For example, it is amazing to me that most of Doug Engelbart’s big ideas about “augmenting the collective intelligence of groups working together” have still not taken hold in commercial systems. What looked like a real revolution twice for end-users, first with spreadsheets and then with Hypercard, didn’t evolve into what will be commonplace 25 years from now, even though it could have. Most things done by most people today are still “automating paper, records and film” rather than “simulating the future”. More discouraging is that most computing is still aimed at adults in business, and that aimed at nonbusiness and children is mainly for entertainment and apes the worst of television. We see almost no use in education of what is great and unique about computer modeling and computer thinking. These are not technological problems but a lack of perspective. Must we hope that the open-source software movements will put things right?

‘The ARPA/PARC history shows that a combination of vision, a modest amount of funding, with a felicitous context and process can almost magically give rise to new technologies that not only amplify civilization, but also produce tremendous wealth for the society. Isn’t it time to do this again by Reason, even with no Cold War to use as an excuse? How about helping children of the world grow up to think much better than most adults do today? This would truly create “The Power of the Context”.’

Note how this story runs contrary to how free market think tanks and pundits describe technological development. The impetus for most of this development came from government funding, not markets.

Also note that every attempt since the 1950s to copy ARPA and JASON (the semi-classified group that partly gave ARPA its direction) in the UK has been blocked by Whitehall. The latest attempt was in 2014 when the Cabinet Office swatted aside the idea. Hilariously its argument was ‘DARPA has had a lot of failures’ thus demonstrating extreme ignorance about the basic idea — the whole point is you must have failures and if you don’t have lots of failures then you are failing!

People later claimed that while PARC may have changed the world it never made any money for XEROX. This is ‘absolute bullshit’ (Kay). It made billions from the laser printer alone and overall Xerox made 250 times what they invested in PARC before they went bust. In 1983 they fired Bob Taylor, the manager of PARC and the guy who made it all happen.

‘They hated [Taylor] for the very reason that most companies hate people who are doing something different, because it makes middle and upper management extremely uncomfortable. The last thing they want to do is make trillions, they want to make a few millions in a comfortable way’ (Kay).

Someone finally listened to Kay recently. ‘YC Research’, the research arm of the world’s most successful (by far) technology incubator, is starting to fund people in this way. I am not aware of any similar UK projects though I know that a small network of people are thinking again about how something like this could be done here. If you can help them, take a risk and help them! Someone talk to science minister Jo Johnson but be prepared for the Treasury’s usual ignorant bullshit — ‘what are we buying for our money, and how can we put in place appropriate oversight and compliance?’ they will say!

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As we ponder the future of the UK-EU relationship shaped amid the farce of modern Whitehall, we should think hard about the ARPA/PARC example: how a small group of people can make a huge breakthrough with little money but the right structure, the right ways of thinking, and the right motives.

Those of us outside the political system thinking ‘we know we can do so much better than this but HOW can we break through the bullshit?’ need to change our perspective and gain 80 IQ points.

This real picture is a metaphor for the political culture: ad hoc solutions that are either bad or don’t scale.

Screenshot 2017-06-14 16.58.14.png

ARPA said ‘Let’s get rid of all the wires’. How do we ‘get rid of all the wires’ and build something different that breaks open the closed and failing political cultures? Winning the referendum was just one step that helps clear away dead wood but we now need to build new things.

The ARPA vision that aligned the artists ‘like little iron filings’ was:

‘Computers are destined to become interactive intellectual amplifiers for everyone in the world universally networked worldwide’ (Licklider).

We need a motivating vision aimed not at tomorrow but at changing the basic wiring of  the whole system, a vision that can align ‘the little iron filings’, and then start building for the long-term.

I will go into what I think this vision could be and how to do it another day. I think it is possible to create something new that could scale very fast and enable us to do politics and government extremely differently, as different to today as the internet and PC were to the post-war mainframes. This would enable us to build huge long-term value for humanity in a relatively short time (less than 20 years). To create it we need a process as well suited to the goal as the ARPA/PARC project was and incorporating many of its principles.

We must try to escape the current system with its periodic meltdowns and international crises. These crises move 500-1,000 times faster than that of summer 1914. Our destructive potential is at least a million-fold greater than it was in 1914. Yet we have essentially the same hierarchical command-and-control decision-making systems in place now that could not even cope with 1914 technology and pace. We have dodged nuclear wars by fluke because individuals made snap judgements in minutes. Nobody who reads the history of these episodes can think that this is viable long-term, and we will soon have another wave of innovation to worry about with autonomous robots and genetic engineering. Technology gives us no option but to try to overcome evolved instincts like destroying out-group competitors.

Watch Alan Kay explain how to invent the future HERE and HERE.

This link has these seminal papers:

  • Man-Computer Symbiosis, Licklider (1960)
  • The computer as a communications device, Licklider & Taylor (1968)

Part I of this series is HERE.

Part II on the emergence of ‘systems management’, how George Mueller used it to put man on the moon, and a checklist of how successful management of complex projects is systematically different to how Whitehall (and other state bureaucracies) work HERE.


Ps. Kay also points out that the real computer revolution won’t happen until people fulfil the original vision of enabling children to use this powerful way of thinking:

‘The real printing revolution was a qualitative change in thought and argument that lagged the hardware inventions by almost two centuries. The special quality of computers is their ability to rapidly simulate arbitrary descriptions, and the real computer revolution won’t happen until children can learn to read, write, argue and think in this powerful new way. We should all try to make this happen much sooner than 200 or even 20 more years!’

Almost nobody in education policy is aware of the educational context for the ARPA/PARC project which also speaks volumes about the abysmal field of ‘education research/policy’. People rightly say ‘education tech has largely failed’ but very few are aware that many of the original ideas from Licklider, Engelbart et al have never been tried and the Apple and MS versions are not the original vision.

 

Complexity and Prediction Part V: The crisis of mathematical paradoxes, Gödel, Turing and the basis of computing

Before the referendum I started a series of blogs and notes exploring the themes of complexity and prediction. This was part of a project with two main aims: first, to sketch a new approach to education and training in general but particularly for those who go on to make important decisions in political institutions and, second, to suggest a new approach to political priorities in which progress with education and science becomes a central focus for the British state. The two are entangled: progress with each will hopefully encourage progress with the other.

I was working on this paper when I suddenly got sidetracked by the referendum and have just looked at it again for the first time in about two years.

The paper concerns a fascinating episode in the history of ideas that saw the most esoteric and unpractical field, mathematical logic, spawn a revolutionary technology, the modern computer. NB. a great lesson to science funders: it’s a great mistake to cut funding on theory and assume that you’ll get more bang for buck from ‘applications’.

Apart from its inherent fascination, knowing something of the history is helpful for anybody interested in the state-of-the-art in predicting complex systems which involves the intersection between different fields including: maths, computer science, economics, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. The books on it are either technical, and therefore inaccessible to ~100% of the population, or non-chronological so it is impossible for someone like me to get a clear picture of how the story unfolded.

Further, there are few if any very deep ideas in maths or science that are so misunderstood and abused as Gödel’s results. As Alan Sokal, author of the brilliant hoax exposing post-modernist academics, said, ‘Gödel’s theorem is an inexhaustible source of intellectual abuses.’ I have tried to make clear some of these using the best book available by Franzen, which explains why almost everything you read about it is wrong. If even Stephen Hawking can cock it up, the rest of us should be particularly careful.

I sketched these notes as I tried to pull together the story from many different books. I hope they are useful particularly for some 15-25 year-olds who like chronological accounts about ideas. I tried to put the notes together in the way that I wish I had been able to read at that age. I tried hard to eliminate errors but they are inevitable given how far I am from being competent to write about such things. I wish someone who is competent would do it properly. It would take time I don’t now have to go through and finish it the way I originally intended to so I will just post it as it was 2 years ago when I got calls saying ‘about this referendum…’

The only change I think I have made since May 2015 is to shove in some notes from a great essay later that year by the man who wrote the textbook on quantum computers, Michael Nielsen, which would be useful to read as an introduction or instead, HERE.

As always on this blog there is not a single original thought and any value comes from the time I have spent condensing the work of others to save you the time. Please leave corrections in comments.

The PDF of the paper is HERE (amended since first publication to correct an error, see Comments).

 

‘Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental – indeed it is more than a monument, it is a land mark which will remain visible far in space and time.’  John von Neumann.

‘Einstein had often told me that in the late years of his life he has continually sought Gödel’s company in order to have discussions with him. Once he said to me that his own work no longer meant much, that he came to the Institute merely in order to have the privilege of walking home with Gödel.’ Oskar Morgenstern (co-author with von Neumann of the first major work on Game Theory).

‘The world is rational’, Kurt Gödel.

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems’ thinking — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’

This is the second in a series: click this link 201702-effective-action-2-systems-engineering-to-systems-politics. The first is HERE.

This paper concerns a very interesting story combining politics, management, institutions, science and technology. When high technology projects passed a threshold of complexity post-1945 amid the extreme pressure of the early Cold War, new management ideas emerged. These ideas were known as ‘systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’. These ideas were particularly connected to the classified program to build the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in the 1950s and successful ideas were transplanted into a failing NASA by George Mueller and others from 1963 leading to the successful moon landing in 1969.

These ideas were then applied in other mission critical teams and could be used to improve government performance. Urgently needed projects to lower the probability of catastrophes for humanity will benefit from considering why Mueller’s approach was 1) so successful and 2) so un-influential in politics. Could we develop a ‘systems politics’ that applies the unrecognised simplicities of effective action?

For those interested, it also looks briefly at an interesting element of the story – the role of John von Neumann, the brilliant mathematician who was deeply involved in the Manhattan Project, the project to build ICBMs, the first digital computers, and subjects like artificial intelligence, artificial life, possibilities for self-replicating machines made from unreliable components, and the basic problem that technological progress ‘gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we have known them, cannot continue.’

An obvious project with huge inherent advantages for humanity is the development of an international manned lunar base as part of developing space for commerce and science. It is the sort of thing that might change political dynamics on earth and could generate enormous support across international boundaries. After 23 June 2016, the UK has to reorient national policy on many dimensions. Developing basic science is one of the most important dimensions (for example, as I have long argued we urgently need a civilian version of DARPA similarly operating outside normal government bureaucratic systems including procurement and HR). Supporting such an international project would be a great focus for UK efforts and far more productive than our largely wasted decades of focus on the dysfunctional bureaucracy in Brussels that is dominated by institutions that fail the most important test – the capacity for error-correction the importance of which has been demonstrated over long periods and through many problems by the Anglo-American political system and its common law.

Please leave comments or email dmc2.cummings at gmail.com

 

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #1: expertise and a quadrillion dollar business

‘The combination of physics and politics could render the surface of the earth uninhabitable.’ John von Neumann.

Introduction

This series of blogs considers:

  • the difference between fields with genuine expertise, such as fighting and physics, and fields dominated by bogus expertise, such as politics and economic forecasting;
  • the big big problem we face – the world is ‘undersized and underorganised’ because of a collision between four forces: 1) our technological civilisation is inherently fragile and vulnerable to shocks, 2) the knowledge it generates is inherently dangerous, 3) our evolved instincts predispose us to aggression and misunderstanding, and 4) there is a profound mismatch between the scale and speed of destruction our knowledge can cause and the quality of individual and institutional decision-making in ‘mission critical’ institutions – our institutions are similar to those that failed so spectacularly in summer 1914 yet they face crises moving at least ~103 times faster and involving ~106 times more destructive power able to kill ~1010 people;
  • what classic texts and case studies suggest about the unrecognised simplicities of effective action to improve the selection, education, training, and management of vital decision-makers to improve dramatically, reliably, and quantifiably the quality of individual and institutional decisions (particularly 1) the ability to make accurate predictions and b) the quality of feedback);
  • how we can change incentives to aim a much bigger fraction of the most able people at the most important problems;
  • what tools and technologies can help decision-makers cope with complexity.

[I’ve tweaked a couple of things in response to this blog by physicist Steve Hsu.]

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Summary of the big big problem

The investor Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal and Palantir, early investor in Facebook) asks people in job interviews: what billion (109) dollar business is nobody building? The most successful investor in world history, Warren Buffett, illustrated what a quadrillion (1015) dollar business might look like in his 50th anniversary letter to Berkshire Hathaway investors.

‘There is, however, one clear, present and enduring danger to Berkshire against which Charlie and I are powerless. That threat to Berkshire is also the major threat our citizenry faces: a “successful” … cyber, biological, nuclear or chemical attack on the United States… The probability of such mass destruction in any given year is likely very small… Nevertheless, what’s a small probability in a short period approaches certainty in the longer run. (If there is only one chance in thirty of an event occurring in a given year, the likelihood of it occurring at least once in a century is 96.6%.) The added bad news is that there will forever be people and organizations and perhaps even nations that would like to inflict maximum damage on our country. Their means of doing so have increased exponentially during my lifetime. “Innovation” has its dark side.

‘There is no way for American corporations or their investors to shed this risk. If an event occurs in the U.S. that leads to mass devastation, the value of all equity investments will almost certainly be decimated.

‘No one knows what “the day after” will look like. I think, however, that Einstein’s 1949 appraisal remains apt: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”’

Politics is profoundly nonlinear. (I have written a series of blogs about complexity and prediction HERE which are useful background for those interested.) Changing the course of European history via the referendum only involved about 10 crucial people controlling ~£107  while its effects over ten years could be on the scale of ~108 – 10people and ~£1012: like many episodes in history the resources put into it are extremely nonlinear in relation to the potential branching histories it creates. Errors dealing with Germany in 1914 and 1939 were costly on the scale of ~100,000,000 (108) lives. If we carry on with normal human history – that is, international relations defined as out-groups competing violently – and combine this with modern technology then it is extremely likely that we will have a disaster on the scale of billions (109) or even all humans (~1010). The ultimate disaster would kill about 100 times more people than our failure with Germany. Our destructive power is already much more than 100 times greater than it was then: nuclear weapons increased destructiveness by roughly a factor of a million.

Even if we dodge this particular bullet there are many others lurking. New genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPR allow radical possibilities for re-engineering organisms including humans in ways thought of as science fiction only a decade ago. We will soon be able to remake human nature itself. CRISPR-enabled ‘gene drives’ enable us to make changes to the germ-line of organisms permanent such that changes spread through the entire wild population, including making species extinct on demand. Unlike nuclear weapons such technologies are not complex, expensive, and able to be kept secret for a long time. The world’s leading experts predict that people will be making them cheaply at home soon – perhaps they already are. These developments have been driven by exponential progress much faster than Moore’s Law reducing the cost of DNA sequencing per genome from ~$108 to ~$10in roughly 15 years.

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It is already practically possible to deploy a cheap, autonomous, and anonymous drone with facial-recognition software and a one gram shaped-charge to identify a relevant face and blow it up. Military logic is driving autonomy. For example, 1) the explosion in the volume of drone surveillance video (from 71 hours in 2004 to 300,000 hours in 2011 to millions of hours now) requires automated analysis, and 2) jamming and spoofing of drones strongly incentivise a push for autonomy. It is unlikely that promises to ‘keep humans in the loop’ will be kept. It is likely that state and non-state actors will deploy low-cost drone swarms using machine learning to automate the ‘find-fix-finish’ cycle now controlled by humans. (See HERE for a video just released for one such program and imagine the capability when they carry their own communication and logistics network with them.)

In the medium-term, many billions are being spent on finding the secrets of general intelligence. We know this secret is encoded somewhere in the roughly 125 million ‘bits’ of information that is the rough difference between the genome that produces the human brain and the genome that produces the chimp brain. This search space is remarkably small – the equivalent of just 25 million English words or 30 copies of the King James Bible. There is no fundamental barrier to decoding this information and it is possible that the ultimate secret could be described relatively simply (cf. this great essay by physicist Michael Nielsen). One of the world’s leading experts has told me they think a large proportion of this problem could be solved in about a decade with a few tens of billions and something like an Apollo programme level of determination.

Not only is our destructive and disruptive power still getting bigger quickly – it is also getting cheaper and faster every year. The change in speed adds another dimension to the problem. In the period between the Archduke’s murder and the outbreak of World War I a month later it is striking how general failures of individuals and institutions were compounded by the way in which events moved much faster than the ‘mission critical’ institutions could cope with such that soon everyone was behind the pace, telegrams were read in the wrong order and so on. The crisis leading to World War I was about 30 days from the assassination to the start of general war – about 700 hours. The timescale for deciding what to do between receiving a warning of nuclear missile launch and deciding to launch yourself is less than half an hour and the President’s decision time is less than this, maybe just minutes. This is a speedup factor of at least 103.

Economic crises already occur far faster than human brains can cope with. The financial system has made a transition from people shouting at each other to a a system dominated by high frequency ‘algorithmic trading’ (HFT), i.e. machine intelligence applied to robot trading with vast volumes traded on a global spatial scale and a microsecond (10-6) temporal scale far beyond the monitoring, understanding, or control of regulators and politicians. There is even competition for computer trading bases in specific locations based on calculations of Special Relativity as the speed of light becomes a factor in minimising trade delays (cf. Relativistic statistical arbitrage, Wissner-Gross). ‘The Flash Crash’ of 9 May 2010 saw the Dow lose hundreds of points in minutes. Mini ‘flash crashes’ now blow up and die out faster than humans can notice. Given our institutions cannot cope with economic decisions made at ‘human speed’, a fortiori they cannot cope with decisions made at ‘robot speed’. There is scope for worse disasters than 2008 which would further damage the moral credibility of decentralised markets and provide huge chances for extremist political entrepreneurs to exploit. (* See endnote.)

What about the individuals and institutions that are supposed to cope with all this?

Our brains have not evolved much in thousands of years and are subject to all sorts of constraints including evolved heuristics that lead to misunderstanding, delusion, and violence particularly under pressure. There is a terrible mismatch between the sort of people that routinely dominate mission critical political institutions and the sort of people we need: high-ish IQ (we need more people >145 (+3SD) while almost everybody important is between 115-130 (+1 or 2SD)), a robust toolkit for not fooling yourself including quantitative problem-solving (almost totally absent at the apex of relevant institutions), determination, management skills, relevant experience, and ethics. While our ancestor chiefs at least had some intuitive feel for important variables like agriculture and cavalry our contemporary chiefs (and those in the media responsible for scrutiny of decisions) generally do not understand their equivalents, and are often less experienced in managing complex organisations than their predecessors.

The national institutions we have to deal with such crises are pretty similar to those that failed so spectacularly in summer 1914 yet they face crises moving at least ~103 times faster and involving ~106 times more destructive power able to kill ~1010 people. The international institutions developed post-1945 (UN, EU etc) contribute little to solving the biggest problems and in many ways make them worse. These institutions fail constantly and do not  – cannot – learn much.

If we keep having crises like we have experienced over the past century then this combination of problems pushes the probability of catastrophe towards ‘overwhelmingly likely’.

*

What Is To be Done? There’s plenty of room at the top

‘In a knowledge-rich world, progress does not lie in the direction of reading information faster, writing it faster, and storing more of it. Progress lies in the direction of extracting and exploiting the patterns of the world… And that progress will depend on … our ability to devise better and more powerful thinking programs for man and machine.’ Herbert Simon, Designing Organizations for an Information-rich World, 1969.

‘Fascinating that the same problems recur time after time, in almost every program, and that the management of the program, whether it happened to be government or industry, continues to avoid reality.’ George Mueller, pioneer of ‘systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’ and the man most responsible for the success of the 1969 moon landing.

Somehow the world has to make a series of extremely traumatic and dangerous transitions over the next 20 years. The main transition needed is:

Embed reliably the unrecognised simplicities of high performance teams (HPTs), including personnel selection and training, in ‘mission critical’ institutions while simultaneously developing a focused project that radically improves the prospects for international cooperation and new forms of political organisation beyond competing nation states.

Big progress on this problem would automatically and for free bring big progress on other big problems. It could improve (even save) billions of lives and save a quadrillion dollars (~$1015). If we avoid disasters then the error-correcting institutions of markets and science will, patchily, spread peace, prosperity, and learning. We will make big improvements with public services and other aspects of ‘normal’ government. We will have a healthier political culture in which representative institutions, markets serving the public (not looters), and international cooperation are stronger.

Can a big jump in performance – ‘better and more powerful thinking programs for man and machine’ – somehow be systematised?

Feynman once gave a talk titled ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’ about the huge performance improvements possible if we could learn to do engineering at the atomic scale – what is now called nanotechnology. There is also ‘plenty of room at the top’ of political structures for huge improvements in performance. As I explained recently, the victory of the Leave campaign owed more to the fundamental dysfunction of the British Establishment than it did to any brilliance from Vote Leave. Despite having the support of practically every force with power and money in the world (including the main broadcasters) and controlling the timing and legal regulation of the referendum, they blew it. This was good if you support Leave but just how easily the whole system could be taken down should be frightening for everybody .

Creating high performance teams is obviously hard but in what ways is it really hard? It is not hard in the same sense that some things are hard like discovering profound new mathematical knowledge. HPTs do not require profound new knowledge. We have been able to read the basic lessons in classics for over two thousand years. We can see relevant examples all around us of individuals and teams showing huge gains in effectiveness.

The real obstacle is not financial. The financial resources needed are remarkably low and the return on small investments could be incalculably vast. We could significantly improve the decisions of the most powerful 100 people in the UK or the world for less than a million dollars (~£106) and a decade-long project on a scale of just ~£107 could have dramatic effects.

The real obstacle is not a huge task of public persuasion – quite the opposite. A government that tried in a disciplined way to do this would attract huge public support. (I’ve polled some ideas and am confident about this.) Political parties are locked in a game that in trying to win in conventional ways leads to the public despising them. Ironically if a party (established or new) forgets this game and makes the public the target of extreme intelligent focus then it would not only make the world better but would trounce their opponents.

The real obstacle is not a need for breakthrough technologies though technology could help. As Colonel Boyd used to shout, ‘People, ideas, machines – in that order!’

The real obstacle is that although we can all learn and study HPTs it is extremely hard to put this learning to practical use and sustain it against all the forces of entropy that constantly operate to degrade high performance once the original people have gone. HPTs are episodic. They seem to come out of nowhere, shock people, then vanish with the rare individuals. People write about them and many talk about learning from them but in fact almost nobody ever learns from them – apart, perhaps, from those very rare people who did not need to learn – and nobody has found a method to embed this learning reliably and systematically in institutions that can maintain it. The Prussian General Staff remained operationally brilliant but in other ways went badly wrong after the death of the elder Moltke. When George Mueller left NASA it reverted to what it had been before he arrived – management chaos. All the best companies quickly go downhill after the departure of people like Bill Gates – even when such very able people have tried very very hard to avoid exactly this problem.

Charlie Munger, half of the most successful investment team in world history, has a great phrase he uses to explain their success that gets to the heart of this problem:

‘There isn’t one novel thought in all of how Berkshire [Hathaway] is run. It’s all about … exploiting unrecognized simplicities… It’s a community of like-minded people, and that makes most decisions into no-brainers. Warren [Buffett] and I aren’t prodigies. We can’t play chess blindfolded or be concert pianists. But the results are prodigious, because we have a temperamental advantage that more than compensates for a lack of IQ points.’

The simplicities that bring high performance in general, not just in investing, are largely unrecognised because they conflict with many evolved instincts and are therefore psychologically very hard to implement. The principles of the Buffett-Munger success are clear – they have even gone to great pains to explain them and what the rest of us should do – and the results are clear yet still almost nobody really listens to them and above average intelligence people instead constantly put their money into active fund management that is proved to destroy wealth every year!

Most people think they are already implementing these lessons and usually strongly reject the idea that they are not. This means that just explaining things is very unlikely to work:

‘I’d say the history that Charlie [Munger] and I have had of persuading decent, intelligent people who we thought were doing unintelligent things to change their course of action has been poor.’ Buffett.

Even more worrying, it is extremely hard to take over organisations that are not run right and make them excellent.

‘We really don’t believe in buying into organisations to change them.’ Buffett.

If people won’t listen to the world’s most successful investor in history on his own subject, and even he finds it too hard to take over failing businesses and turn them around, how likely is it that politicians and officials incentivised to keep things as they are will listen to ideas about how to do things better? How likely is it that a team can take over broken government institutions and make them dramatically better in a way that outlasts the people who do it? Bureaucracies are extraordinarily resistant to learning. Even after the debacles of 9/11 and the Iraq War, costing many lives and trillions of dollars, and even after the 2008 Crash, the security and financial bureaucracies in America and Europe are essentially the same and operate on the same principles.

Buffett’s success is partly due to his discipline in sticking within what he and Munger call their ‘circle of competence’. Within this circle they have proved the wisdom of avoiding trying to persuade people to change their minds and avoiding trying to fix broken institutions.

This option is not available in politics. The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution give us no choice but to try to persuade people and try to fix or replace broken institutions. In general ‘it is better to undertake revolution than undergo it’. How might we go about it? What can people who do not have any significant power inside the system do? What international projects are most likely to spark the sort of big changes in attitude we urgently need?

This is the first of a series. I will keep it separate from the series on the EU referendum though it is connected in the sense that I spent a year on the referendum in the belief that winning it was a necessary though not sufficient condition for Britain to play a part in improving the quality of government dramatically and improving the probability of avoiding the disasters that will happen if politics follows a normal path. I intended to implement some of these ideas in Downing Street if the Boris-Gove team had not blown up. The more I study this issue the more confident I am that dramatic improvements are possible and the more pessimistic I am that they will happen soon enough.

Please leave comments and corrections…

* A new transatlantic cable recently opened for financial trading. Its cost? £300 million. Its advantage? It shaves 2.6 milliseconds off the latency of financial trades. Innovative groups are discussing the application of military laser technology, unmanned drones circling the earth acting as routers, and even the use of neutrino communication (because neutrinos can go straight through the earth just as zillions pass through your body every second without colliding with its atoms) – cf. this recent survey in Nature.

On the referendum #20: the campaign, physics and data science – Vote Leave’s ‘Voter Intention Collection System’ (VICS) now available for all

‘If you don’t get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. You’re giving a huge advantage to everybody else. One of the advantages of a fellow like Buffett … is that he automatically thinks in terms of decision trees and the elementary math of permutations and combinations… It’s not that hard to learn. What is hard is to get so you use it routinely almost everyday of your life. The Fermat/Pascal system is dramatically consonant with the way that the world works. And it’s fundamental truth. So you simply have to have the technique…

‘One of the things that influenced me greatly was studying physics… If I were running the world, people who are qualified to do physics would not be allowed to elect out of taking it. I think that even people who aren’t [expecting to] go near physics and engineering learn a thinking system in physics that is not learned so well anywhere else… The tradition of always looking for the answer in the most fundamental way available – that is a great tradition.’ Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s partner.

During the ten week official campaign the implied probability from Betfair odds of IN winning ranged between 60-83% (rarely below 66%) and the probability of OUT winning ranged between 17-40% (rarely above 33%). One of the reasons why so few in London saw the result coming was that the use by campaigns of data is hard to track even if you know what to look for and few in politics or the media know what to look for yet. Almost all of Vote Leave’s digital communication and data science was invisible even if you read every single news story or column ever produced in the campaign or any of the books so far published (written pre-Shipman’s book).

Today we have made a software product available for download – Vote Leave’s ‘Voter Intention Collection System’ (VICS) – click HERE. It was named after Victoria Woodcock, Operations Director, known as Vics, who was the most indispensable person in the campaign. If she’d gone under a bus, Remain would have won. When comparing many things in life the difference between average and best is say 30% but some people are 50 times more effective than others. She is one of them. She had ‘meetings in her head’ as people said of Steve Wozniak. If she had been Cameron’s chief of staff instead of Llewellyn and Paul Stephenson had been director of communications instead of Oliver and he’d listened to them, then other things being equal Cameron would still be on the No10 sofa with a glass of red and a James Bond flick. They were the operational/management and communications foundation of the campaign. Over and over again, those two – along with others, often very junior – saved us from the consequences of my mistakes and ignorance.

Among the many brilliant things Vics did was manage the creation of VICS. When we started the campaign I had many meetings on the subject of canvassing software. Amazingly there was essentially no web-based canvassing software system for the UK that allowed live use and live monitoring. There have been many attempts by political parties and others to build such systems. All failed, expensively and often disastrously.

Unfortunately, early on (summer 2015) Richard Murphy was hired to manage the ground campaign. He wanted to use an old rubbish system that assumed the internet did not exist. This was one of the factors behind his departure and he decided to throw in his lot with Farage et al. He then inflicted this rubbish system on Grassroots Out which is one of the reasons why it was an organisational/management disaster and let down its volunteers. After Vote Leave won the official designation, many GO activists defected, against official instructions from Farage, and plugged into VICS. Once Murphy was replaced by Stephen Parkinson (now in No10) and Nick Varley, the ground campaign took off.

We created new software. This was a gamble but the whole campaign was a huge gamble and we had to take many calculated risks. One of our central ideas was that the campaign had to do things in the field of data that have never been done before. This included a) integrating data from social media, online advertising, websites, apps, canvassing, direct mail, polls, online fundraising, activist feedback, and some new things we tried such as a new way to do polling (about which I will write another time) and b) having experts in physics and machine learning do proper data science in the way only they can – i.e. far beyond the normal skills applied in political campaigns. We were the first campaign in the UK to put almost all our money into digital communication then have it partly controlled by people whose normal work was subjects like quantum information (combined with political input from Paul Stephenson and Henry de Zoete, and digital specialists AIQ). We could only do this properly if we had proper canvassing software. We built it partly in-house and partly using an external engineer who we sat in our office for months.

Many bigshot traditional advertising characters told us we were making a huge error. They were wrong. It is one of the reasons we won. We outperformed the IN campaign on data despite them starting with vast mounts of data while we started with almost zero, they had support from political parties while we did not, they had early access to the electoral roll while we did not, and they had the Crosby/Messina data and models from the 2015 election while we had to build everything from scratch without even the money to buy standard commercial databases (we found ways to scrape equivalents off the web saving hundreds of thousands of pounds).

If you want to make big improvements in communication, my advice is – hire physicists, not communications people from normal companies and never believe what advertising companies tell you about ‘data’ unless you can independently verify it. Physics, mathematics, and computer science are domains in which there are real experts, unlike macro-economic forecasting which satisfies neither of the necessary conditions – 1) enough structure in the information to enable good predictions, 2) conditions for good fast feedback and learning. Physicists and mathematicians regularly invade other fields but other fields do not invade theirs so we can see which fields are hardest for very talented people. It is no surprise that they can successfully invade politics and devise things that rout those who wrongly think they know what they are doing. Vote Leave paid very close attention to real experts. (The theoretical physicist Steve Hsu has a great blog HERE which often has stuff on this theme, e.g. HERE.)

More important than technology is the mindset – the hard discipline of obeying Richard Feynman’s advice: ‘The most important thing is not to fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.’ They were a hard floor on ‘fooling yourself’ and I empowered them to challenge everybody including me. They saved me from many bad decisions even though they had zero experience in politics and they forced me to change how I made important decisions like what got what money. We either operated scientifically or knew we were not, which is itself very useful knowledge. (One of the things they did was review the entire literature to see what reliable studies have been done on ‘what works’ in politics and what numbers are reliable.) Charlie Munger is one half of the most successful investment partnership in world history. He advises people – hire physicists. It works and the real prize is not the technology but a culture of making decisions in a rational way and systematically avoiding normal ways of fooling yourself as much as possible. This is very far from normal politics.

(One of the many ways in which Whitehall and Downing Street should be revolutionised is to integrate physicist-dominated data science in decision-making. There are really vast improvements possible in Government that could save hundreds of billions and avoid many disasters. Leaving the EU also requires the destruction of the normal Whitehall/Downing Street system and the development of new methods. A dysfunctional broken system is hardly likely to achieve the most complex UK government project since beating Nazi Germany, and this realisation is spreading – a subject I will return to.)

In 2015 they said to me: ‘If the polls average 50-50 at the end you will win because of differential turnout and even if the average is slightly behind you could easily win because all the pollsters live in London and hang out with people who will vote IN and can’t imagine you winning so they might easily tweak their polls in a way they think is making them more accurate but is actually fooling themselves and everybody else.’ This is what happened. Almost all the pollsters tweaked their polls and according to Curtice all the tweaks made them less accurate. Good physicists are trained to look for such errors. (I do not mean to imply that on 23 June I was sure we would win. I was not. Nor was I as pessimistic as most on our side. I will write about this later.)

VICS allows data to be input centrally (the electoral roll, which in the UK is a nightmare to gather from all the LAs) and then managed at a local level, whether that be at street level, constituency or wider areas. Security levels can be set centrally to ensure that no-one can access the whole database. During the campaign we used VICS to upload data models which predicted where we thought Leave voters were likely to be so that we could focus our canvassing efforts, which was important given limited time and resources on the ground. The model produced star ratings so that local teams could target the streets more likely to contain Leave voters.

Data flowed in on the ground and was then analysed by the data science team and integrated with all the other data streaming in. Data models helped us target the ground campaign resources and in turn data from the ground campaign helped test and refine the models in a learning cycle – i.e. VICS was not only useful to the ground campaign but also helped improve the models used for other things. (This was the point of our £50 million prize for predicting the results of the European football championships, which gathered data from people who usually ignore politics – I’m still frustrated we couldn’t persuade someone to insure a £350 million prize which is what I wanted to do.) In the official 10 week campaign we served about one billion targeted digital adverts, mostly via Facebook and strongly weighted to the period around postal voting and the last 10 days of the campaign. We ran many different versions of ads, tested them, dropped the less effective and reinforced the most effective in a constant iterative process. We combined this feedback with polls (conventional and unconventional) and focus groups to get an overall sense of what was getting through. The models honed by VICS also were used to produce dozens of different versions of the referendum address (46 million leaflets) and we tweaked the language and look according to the most reliable experiments done in the world (e.g. hence our very plain unbranded ‘The Facts’ leaflet which the other side tested, found very effective, and tried to copy). I will blog more about this.

These canvassing events represented 80-90% of our ground effort in the last few months, hence some of the reports by political scientists derived from Events pages on the campaign websites, which did not include canvassing sessions, are completely misleading about what actually happened (this includes M Goodwin who is badly confused and confusing, and kept telling the media duff information after he was told it was duff). There was also a big disinformation campaign by Farage’s gang, including Bone and Pursglove, who told the media ‘Vote Leave has no interest in the ground campaign’. This was the opposite of the truth. By the last 10 weeks we had over 12,000 people doing things every week (we had many more volunteers than this but the 12,000 were regularly active). When Farage came to see me for the last time (as always fixated only on his role in the debates and not the actual campaign which he was sure was lost) he said that he had 7,000 activists who actually did anything. He was stunned when I said that we had over 12,000. I think Farage et al believe their own spin on this subject and were deluded not lying. (Obviously there was a lot of overlap between these two figures.) These volunteers delivered about 70 million leaflets out of a total ~125 million that were delivered one way or another.

While there were some fantastic MPs who made huge efforts on the ground – e.g. Anne Marie Trevelyan – it was interesting how many MPs, nominally very committed to Leave, did nothing useful in their areas nor had any interest in ground campaigning and data. Many were far more interested in trying to get on TV and yapping to hacks than in gathering useful data, including prominent MPs on our Board and Campaign Committee, some of whom contributed ZERO useful data in the entire campaign. Some spent much of the campaign having boozy lunches with Farage gossiping about what would happen after we lost. Because so many of them proved untrustworthy and leaked everything I kept the data science team far from prying eyes – when in the office, if asked what they did they replied ‘oh I’m just a junior web guy’. It would have been better if we could have shared more but this was impossible given some of the characters.

VICS is the first of its kind in the UK and provided new opportunities. It is, of course, far from ideal. It was developed very quickly, we had to cut many corners, and it could be improved on. But it worked. Many on the ground, victims of previous such attempts, assumed it would blow up under the pressure of GOTV. It did not. It worked smoothly right through peak demand. This was also because we solved the hardware problem by giving it to Rackspace which did a great job – they have a system that allows automatic scaling depending on the demand so you don’t have to worry about big surges overwhelming the system.

There were many things we could have done much better. Our biggest obstacle was not the IN campaign and its vast resources but the appalling infighting on our own side driven by all the normal human motivations described in Thucydides – fear, interest, the pursuit of glory and so on. Without this obstacle we would have done far more on digital/data. Having seen what is offered by London’s best communications companies, vast improvements in performance are clearly possible if you hire the right people. A basic problem for people in politics is that approximately none have the hard skills necessary to distinguish great people from charlatans. It was therefore great good fortune that I was friends with our team before the campaign started.

During the campaign many thousands of people donated to Vote Leave. They paid for VICS. Given we spent a lot of money developing it and there is nothing equivalent available on the market and Vote Leave is no more (barring a very improbable event), we thought that we would make VICS available for anybody to use and improve though strictly on the basis that nobody can claim any intellectual property rights over it. It is being made available in the spirit of the open source movement and use of it should be openly acknowledged. Thanks again to the thousands of people who made millions of sacrifices – because of you we won everywhere except London, Scotland and Northern Ireland against the whole Government machine supported by almost every organisation with power and money.

I will write more about the campaign once the first wave of books is published.

PS. Do not believe the rubbish peddled by Farage and the leave.EU team about social media. E.g. a) They boasted publicly that they paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for over half a million Facebook ‘Likes’ without realising that b) Facebook’s algorithms no longer optimised news feeds for Likes (it is optimised for paid advertising). Leave.EU wasted hundreds of thousands just as many big companies spent millions building armies of Likes that were rendered largely irrelevant by Facebook’s algorithmic changes. This is just one of their blunders. Vote Leave put our money into targeted paid adverts, not buying Likes to spin stories to gullible hacks, MPs, and donors. Media organisations should have someone on the political staff who is a specialist in data or have a route to talk to their organisation’s own data science teams to help spot snake oil merchants.

PPS. If you are young, smart, and interested in politics, think very hard before studying politics / ‘political science’ / PPE at university. You will be far better off if you study maths or physics. It will be easy to move into politics later if you want to and you will have more general skills with much wider application and greater market value. PPE does not give such useful skills – indeed, it actually causes huge problems as it encourages people like Cameron and Ed Balls to ‘fool themselves’ and spread bad ideas with lots of confidence and bluffing. You can always read history books later but you won’t always be able to learn maths. If you have these general skills, then you will be much more effective than the PPE-ers you will compete against. In a few years, this will be more obvious as data science will be much more visible. A new interdisciplinary degree is urgently needed to replace PPE for those who want to go into politics. It should include the basics of modelling and involve practical exposure to people who are brilliant at managing large complex organisations.

PPPS. One of the projects that the Gove team did in the DfE was funding the development of a ‘Maths for Presidents’ course, in the same spirit as the great Berkeley course ‘Physics for Presidents’, based on ideas of Fields Medallist Tim Gowers. The statistics of polling would be a good subject for this course. This course could have a big cultural effect over 20 years if it is supported wisely.

‘Standin’ by the window, where the light is strong’: de-extinction, machine intelligence, the search for extra-solar life, autonomous drone swarms bombing Parliament, genetics & IQ, science & politics, and much more @ SciFoo 2014

‘SciFoo’ 8-10 August 2014, the Googleplex, Silicon Valley, California.

On Friday 8 August, I woke up in Big Sur (the coast of Northern California), looked out over the waves breaking on the wild empty coastline, munched a delicious Mexican breakfast at Deetjen’s, then drove north on Highway 1 towards Palo Alto where a few hours later I found myself looking through the windows of Google’s HQ at a glittering sunset in Silicon Valley.

I was going to ‘SciFoo’. SciFoo is a weekend science conference. It is hosted by Larry Page at Google’s HQ in Silicon Valley and organised by various people including the brilliant Timo Hannay from Digital Science.

I was invited because of my essay that became public last year (cf. HERE). Of the 200+ people, I was probably the only one who made zero positive contribution to the fascinating weekend and therefore wasted a place, so although it was a fantastic experience for me the organisers should not invite me back and I feel guilty about the person who could not go because I was there. At least I can let others know about some of the things discussed… (Although it was theoretically ‘on the record unless stated otherwise’, I could tell that many scientists were not thinking about this and so I have left out some things that I think they would not want attributed. Given they were not experienced politicians being interviewed but scientists at a scientific conference, I’m erring on the side of caution, particularly given the subjects discussed.)

It was very interesting to see many of the people whose work I mentioned in my essay and watch them interacting with each other – intellectually and psychologically / physically.

I will describe some of the things that struck me though, because there are about 7-10 sessions going on simultaneously, this is only a small snapshot.

In my essay, I discuss some of the background to many of these subjects so I will put references [in square brackets] so people can refer to it if they want.

Please note that below I am reporting what I think others were saying – unless it is clear, I am not giving my own views. On technical issues, I do not have my ‘own’ views – I do not have relevant skills. All I can do is judge where consensus lies and how strong it is. Many important issues involve asking at least 1) is there a strong scientific consensus on X among physical scientists with hard quantitative data to support their ideas (uber-example, the Standard Model of particle physics), b) what are the non-science issues, such as ‘what will it cost, who pays/suffers and why?’ On A, I can only try to judge what technically skilled people think. B is a different matter.

Whether you were there or not, please leave corrections / additions / questions in the comments box. Apologies for errors…

In a nutshell, a few likely scenarios / ideas, without spelling out caveats… 1) Extinct species are soon going to be brought back to life and the same technology will be used to modify existing species to help prevent them going extinct. 2) CRISPR  – a new gene editing technology – will be used to cure diseases and ‘enhance’ human performance but may also enable garage bio-hackers to make other species extinct. 3) With the launch of satellites in 2017/18, we may find signs of life by 2020 among the ~1011 exoplanets we now know exist just in our own galaxy though it will probably take 20-30 years, but the search will also soon get crowdsourced in a way schools can join in. 4) There is a reasonable chance we will have found many of the genes for IQ within a decade via BGI’s project, and the rich may use this information for embryo selection. 5) ‘Artificial neural networks’ are already outperforming humans on various pattern-recognition problems and will continue to advance rapidly. 6) Automation will push issues like a negative income tax onto the political agenda as millions lose their jobs to automation. 7) Autonomous drones will be used for assassinations in Europe and America shortly. 8) Read Neil Gershenfeld’s book ‘FAB’ if you haven’t and are interested in science education / 3D printing / computer science (or at least watch his TED talks). 9) Scientists are desperate to influence policy and politics but do not know how.

Biological engineering / computational biology / synthetic biology [Section 4]

George Church (Harvard), a world-leading biologist, spoke at a few sessions and his team’s research interests were much discussed.  (Don’t assume he said any specific thing below.)

The falling cost of DNA sequencing continues to spur all sorts of advances. It has fallen from a billion dollars per genome a decade ago to less than a thousand dollars now (a million-fold improvement), and the Pentagon is planning on it reaching $100 soon. We can also sequence cancer cells to track their evolution in the body.

CRISPR. CRISPR is a new (2012) and very hot technology that is a sort of ‘cut and paste’ gene editing tool. It allows much more precise and effective engineering of genomes. Labs across America are rushing to apply it to all sorts of problems. In March this year, it was used to correct faulty genes in mice and cure them of a liver condition. It plays a major part in many of the biological issues sketched below.

‘De-extinction’ (bringing extinct species back to life). People are now planning the practical steps for de-extinction to the extent that they are scoping out land in Siberia where woolly mammoths will roam. As well as creating whole organisms, they will also grow organs modified by particular genes to test what specific genes and combinations do. This is no longer sci-fi – it is being planned and is likely to happen. The buffalo population was recently re-built (Google serves buffalo burgers in its amazing kitchens) from a tiny population to hundreds of thousands and there seems no reason to think it is impossible to build a significant population from scratch.

What does this mean? You take the DNA from an animal, say a woolly mammoth buried in the ground, sequence it, then use the digitised genome to create an embryo and either grow it in a similar animal (e.g. elephant for a mammoth) or in an artificial womb. (I missed the bit explaining the rationale for some of the proposed projects but, apart from the scientific reasons, one rationale for the mammoth was described as a conservation effort to preserve the frozen tundra and prevent massive amounts of greenhouse gases being released from beneath it.)

There are also possibilities of using this technology for conservation. For example, one could re-engineer the Asian elephant so that it could survive in less hospitable climates (e.g. modify the genes that produce haemoglobin so it is viable in colder places).

Now that we have sequenced the genome for Neanderthals (and learned that humans interbred with them, so you have traces of their DNA – unless you’re an indigenous sub-Saharan African), there is no known physical reason why we could not bring a Neanderthal back to life once the technology has been refined on other animals. This obviously raises many ethical issues – e.g. if we did it, they would have to be given the same legal rights as us (one distinguished person said that if there were one in the room with us we would not notice, contra the pictures often used to illustrate them). It is assumed by many that this will happen (nobody questioned the assumption) – just as it seemed to be generally assumed that human cloning will happen – though probably not in a western country but somewhere with fewer legal restrictions, after the basic technologies have been refined. (The Harvard team gets emails from women volunteering to be the Neanderthal’s surrogate mum.)

‘Biohacking’. Biohacking is advancing faster than Moore’s Law. CRISPR editing will allow us to enhance ourselves. E.g. Tibetans have evolved much more efficient systems for coping with high altitude, and some Africans have much stronger bones than the rest of us (see below). Will we reengineer ourselves to obtain these advantages? CRISPR obviously also empowers all sorts of malevolent actors too – cf. this very recent paper (by Church et al). It may soon be possible for people in their garages to edit genomes and accidentally or deliberately drive species to extinction as well as attempt to release deadly pathogens. I could not understand why people were not more worried about this – I hope I was missing a lot. (Some had the attitude that ‘nature already does bio-terrorism’ so we should relax. I did not find this comforting and I’m sure I am in the majority so for anybody influential reading this I would strongly advise you not to use this argument in public advocacy or it is likely to accelerate calls for your labs to be shut down.)

‘Junk’. There is more and more analysis of what used to be called ‘junk DNA’. It is now clear that far from being ‘junk’ much of this has functions we do not understand. This connects to the issue that although we sequenced the human genome over a decade ago, the quality of the ‘reference’ version is not great and (it sounded like from the discussions) it needs upgrading.

‘Push button’ cheap DNA sequencers are around the corner. Might such devices become as ubiquitous as desktop printers? Why doesn’t someone create a ‘gene web browser’ that can cope with all the different data formats for genomes?

Privacy. There was a lot of talk about ‘do you want your genome on the web?’. I asked a quick informal pop quiz (someone else’s idea): there was unanimity that ‘I’d much rather my genome was on the web than my browsing history’. [UPDATE: n<10 and perhaps they were tongue in cheek!? One scientist pointed out in a session that when he informed his insurance company, after sequencing his own genome, that he had a very high risk of getting colon cancer, they raised his premiums. There are all sorts of reasons one would want to control genomic information and I was being a bit facetious.]

In many ways, computational biology and synthetic biology have that revolutionary feeling of the PC revolution in the 1970s – huge energy, massive potential for people without big resources to make big contributions, the young crowding in, the feeling of dramatic improvements imminent. Will this all seem ‘too risky’? It’s hard to know how the public will respond to risk. We put up with predictable annual carnage from car accidents but freak out over trivia. We ignore millions of deaths in the Congo but freak out over a handful in Israel/Gaza. My feeling is some of the scientists are too blasé about how the public will react to the risks, but I was wrong about how much fear there would be about the news that scientists recently deliberately engineered a much more dangerous version of an animal flu.

AI / machine learning / neuroscience [Section 5].

Artificial neural networks (NNs), now often referred to as ‘deep learning’, were first created 50 years ago but languished for a while when progress slowed. The field is now hot again. (Last year Google bought some companies leading the field, and a company, Boston Dynamics, that has had a long-term collaboration with DARPA.)

Jurgen Schmidhuber explained progress and how NNs have recently approached or surpassed human performance in various fields. E.g. recently NNs have surpassed human performance in recognising traffic signals (0.56% error rate for the best NN versus 1.16% for humans). Progress in all sorts of pattern recognition problems is clearly going to continue rapidly. E.g. NNs are now being used to automate a) the analysis of scans for cancer cells and b) the labelling of scans of human brains – so artificial neural networks are now scanning and labelling natural neural networks.

Steve Hsu has blogged about this session here:

http://infoproc.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/neural-networks-and-deep-learning.html?m=1

Michael Nielsen is publishing an education project online for people to teach themselves the basics of neural networks. It is brilliant and I would strongly advise teachers reading this blog to consider introducing it into their schools and doing the course with the pupils.

http://neuralnetworksanddeeplearning.com

Neil Gershenfeld (MIT) gave a couple of presentations. One was on developments in computer science connecting: non-‘von Neumann architecture’, programmable matter, 3D printing, ‘the internet of things’ etc. [Cf. Section 3.] NB. IBM announced this month substantial progress in their quest for a new computer architecture that is ‘non-Von Neumann’: cf. this –

http://venturebeat.com/2014/08/07/ibms-synapse-marshals-the-power-of-the-human-brain-in-a-computer/view-all/

Another was on the idea of an ‘interspecies internet’. We now know many species can recognise each other, think, and communicate much better than we realised. He showed bonobos playing music with Peter Gabriel and dolphins communicating. He and others are plugging them into the internet. Some are doing this to help the general goal of figuring out how we might communicate with intelligent aliens – or how they might communicate with us.

(Gershenfeld’s book FAB led me to push 3D printing into the new National Curriculum and I would urge school science teachers to watch his TED talks and read this book. [INSERTED LATER: Some people have asked about this point. I (I thought obviously) did not mean I wrote the NC document. I meant – I pushed the subject into the discussions with the committees/drafters who wrote the NC. Experts in the field agreed it belonged. When it came out, this was not controversial. We also funded pilots with 3D printers so schools could get good advice about how to teach the subject well.] His point about 3D printers restoring the connection between thinking and making – lost post-Renaissance – is of great importance and could help end the foolishly entrenched ‘knowledge’ vs ‘skills’ and academic vs vocational trench wars. Gove actually gave a speech about this not long before he was moved and as far as I could tell it got less coverage than any speech he ever gave, thus proving the cliché about speeches on ‘skills’.)

There were a few presentations about ‘computational neuroscience’. I could not understand anything much as they were too technical. It was clear that there is deep concern among EU neuroscientists about the EU’s  huge funding for Henry Markram’s Human Brain Project. One leading neuroscientist said to me that the whole project is misguided as it does not have clear focused goals and the ‘overhype’ will lead to public anger in a few years. Apparently, the EU is reconsidering the project and its goals. I have no idea about the merits of these arguments. I have a general prejudice that, outside special circumstances, experience suggests that it is better to put funding into many pots and see what works, as DARPA does.

There are all sorts of crossovers between: AI / neuroscience / big data / NNs / algorithmic pattern recognition in other fields.

Peter Norvig, a leader in machine intelligence, said that he is more worried about the imminent social implications of continued advances making millions unemployed than he is about a sudden ‘Terminator / SKYNET’ scenario of a general purpose AI bootstrapping itself to greater than human intelligence and exterminating us all. Let’s hope so. It is obvious that this field is going to keep pushing boundaries – in open, commercial, and classified projects – so we are essentially going to be hoping for the best as we make more and more advances in AI. The idea of a ‘negative income tax’ – or some other form of essentially paying people X just to live – seems bound to return to the agenda. I think it could be a way around all sorts of welfare arguments. The main obstacle, it seems to me, is that people won’t accept paying for it if they think uncontrolled immigration will continue as it is now.

Space [Section 2]

There was great interest in various space projects and some senior people from NASA. There is much sadness at how NASA, despite many great people, has become a normal government institution – ie. caught in DC politics, very bureaucratic, and dysfunctional in various ways. On the other hand, many private ventures are now growing. E.g. Elon Musk is lowering the $/kg of getting material into orbit and planning a non-government Mars mission. As I said in my essay, really opening up space requires a space economy – not just pure science and research (such as putting telescopes on the far side of the moon, which we obviously should do). Columbus opened up America – not the Vikings.

There is another obvious motive. As Carl Sagan said, if the dinosaurs had had a space programme, they’d still be here. In the long-term we either develop tools for dealing with asteroids or we will be destroyed. We know this for sure. I think I heard that NASA is planning to park a small asteroid close to the moon around 2020 but I may have misheard / misunderstood.

Mario Livio led a great session on the search for life on exoplanets. The galaxy has ~1011 stars and there is ~1 planet on average per star. There are ~1011 galaxies, so a Fermi estimate is there are ~1022 planets – 10 billion trillion planets – in the observable universe (this number is roughly 1,000 times bigger than the number you get in the fable of putting a grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard and doubling on each subsequent square). Many of them are in the ‘habitable zone’ around stars.

In 2017/18, there are two satellites launching that will be able to do spectroscopy on exoplanets – i.e. examine their atmospheres and detect things like oxygen and water. ‘If we get lucky’, these satellites will find ‘bio-signatures’ of life. If they find life having looked at only a few planets, then it would mean that life is very common. ‘More likely’ is it will take 20-30 years and a new generation of space-based telescopes to find life. If planets are found with likely biosignatures, then it would make sense to turn SETI’s instruments towards them to see if they find anything. (However, we are already phasing out the use of radio waves for various communications – perhaps the use of radio waves is only a short window in the lifetime of a civilisation.) There are complex Bayesian arguments about what we might infer about our own likely future given various discoveries but I won’t go into those now. (E.g. if we find life is common but no traces of intelligent life, does this mean a) the evolution of complex life is not a common development from simple life; b) intelligent life is also common but it destroys itself; c) they’re hiding, etc.)

A very impressive (and helpful towards the ignorant like me) young scientist working on exoplanets called Oliver Guyon demonstrated a fascinating project to crowdsource the search for exoplanets by building a global network of automated cameras – PANOPTES (www.projectpanoptes.org). His team has built a simple system that can find exoplanets using normal digital cameras costing less than $1,000. They sit in a box connected to a 12V power supply, automatically take pictures of the night sky every few seconds, then email the data to the cloud. There, the data is aggregated and algorithms search for exoplanets. These units are cheap (can’t remember what he said but I think <$5,000). Everything is open-source, open-hardware. They will start shipping later this year and will make a brilliant school science project. Guyon has made the project with schools in mind so that assembling and operating the units will not require professional level skills. They are also exploring the next move to connect smartphone cameras.

Building the >15m diameter space telescopes we need to search for life seems to me an obvious priority for scientific budgets –  it is one of the handful of the most profound questions facing us.

There was an interesting cross-over discussion about ‘space and genetics’ in which people discussed various ways in which space exploration would encourage / require genetic modification. E.g.1 some sort of rocket fuel has recently been discovered to exist in large quantities on Mars. This is very handy but the substance is toxic. It might therefore make sense to modify humans going to live on Mars to be resistant. E.g.2 Space travel weakens bones. It has been discovered that mutations in the human population can improve bone strength by 8 standard deviations. This is a massive improvement – for comparison, 8 SDs in IQ covers people from severely mentally disabled to Nobel-winners. This was discovered by a team of scientists in Africa who noticed that people in a local tribe who got hit by cars did not suffer broken bones, so they sequenced the locals’ genomes. (Someone said there have already been successful clinical trials testing this discovery in a real drug to deal with osteoporosis.) E.g.3 Engineering E. Coli shows that just four mutations can improve resistance to radiation by ?1,000 times (can’t read my note).

Craig Venter and others are thinking about long-term projects to send ‘von Neumman-bots’ (self-replicating space drones) across the universe containing machines that could create biological life once they arrive somewhere interesting, thus avoiding the difficult problems of keeping humans alive for thousands of years on spaceships. (Nobel-winning physicist Gerard t’ Hooft explains the basic principles of this in his book Playing with planets.)

This paper (August 2014) summarises issues in the search for life:

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/08/01/1304213111.full.pdf

Finding the genes for IQ and engineering possibilities [Section 5].

When my essay came out last year, there was a lot of mistaken reporting that encouraged many in the education world to grab the wrong end of the stick about IQ, though the BBC documentary about the controversy (cf. below) was excellent and a big step forward. It remains the case that very few people realise that in the last couple of years direct examination of DNA has now vindicated the consistent numbers on IQ heritability from decades of twin/adoption studies.

The rough heritability numbers for IQ are no longer in doubt among physical scientists who study this field: it is roughly 50% heritable at age ~18-20 and this number rises towards 70-80% for older adults. This is important because IQ is such a good predictor of the future – it is a better predictor than social class. E.g. The long-term Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, which follows what has happened to children with 1:10,000 ability, shows among many things that a) a simple ‘noisy’ test administered at age 12-13 can make amazingly accurate predictions about their future, and b) achievements such as scientific breakthroughs correlate strongly with IQ. (If people looked at the data from SMPY, then I think some of the heat and noise in the debate  would fade but it is a sad fact that approximately zero senior powerful people in the English education world had even heard of this study before the furore over Plomin last year.)

Further, the environmental effects that are important are not the things that people assume. If you test the IQ of an adopted child in adulthood and the parents who adopted it, you find approximately zero correlation – all those anguished parenting discussions had approximately no measurable impact on IQ. (This does not mean that ‘parenting doesn’t matter’ – parents can transfer narrow skills such as playing the violin.) In the technical language, the environmental effects that are important are ‘non-shared’ environmental effects – i.e. they are things that two identical twins do not experience in the same way. We do not know what they are. It is reasonable to think that they are effectively random tiny events with nonlinear effects that we may never be able to track in detail – cf. this paper for a discussion of this issue in the context of epidemiology: http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/40/3/537.full.pdf+html

There remains widespread confusion on this subject among social scientists, education researchers, and the worlds of politics and the media where people were told misleading things in the 1980s and 1990s and do not realise that the debates have been transformed. To be fair, however, it was clear from this weekend that even many biologists do not know about new developments in this field so it is not surprising that political journalists and education researchers do not.

(An example of confusion in the political/media world… In my essay, I used the technical term ‘heritable’ which is a population statistic – not a statement about an individual. I also predicted that media coverage would confuse the subject (e.g. by saying things like ‘70% of your IQ comes from genes’). Sure enough some journalists claimed I said the opposite of what I actually said then they quoted scientists attacking me for making a mistake that not only did I not make but which I actually warned about. Possibly the most confused sentence of all those in the media about my essay was the line ‘wealth is more heritable than genes’, which was in Polly Toynbee’s column and accompanying headline in the Guardian. This sentence is a nonsense sentence as it completely mangles the meaning of the term ‘heritable’. Much prominent commentary from politicians and sociologists/economists on ‘social mobility’ is gibberish because of mistaken assumptions about genes and environment. The Endnote in my essay has links to work by Plomin, Hsu et al that explains it all properly. This interview with Plomin is excellent: http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8970941/sorry-but-intelligence-really-is-in-the-genes/. This recent BBC radio programme is excellent and summarises the complex issues well: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b042q944/episodes/guide)

I had a fascinating discussion/tutorial at SciFoo with Steve Hsu. Steve Hsu is a professor of theoretical physics (and successful entrepreneur) with a long interest in IQ (he also runs a brilliant blog that will keep you up to speed on all sorts). He now works part time on the BGI project in China to discover the genes responsible for IQ.

IQ is very similar to height from the perspective of behavioural genetics. Height has the advantage that it is obviously easier to measure than IQ but it has roughly the same heritability. Large scale GWAS are already identifying some of the genes responsible for height. Hsu recently watched a talk by Fields Medallist Terry Tao and realised that a branch of maths could be used to examine the question – how many genomes do we need to scan to identify a substantial number of the genes for IQ? His answer: ‘roughly 10k moderately rare causal variants of mostly negative effect are responsible for normal population variation’ and finding them will require sequencing roughly a million genomes. The falling cost of sequencing DNA means that this is within reach. ‘At the time of this writing SNP genotyping costs are below $50 USD per individual, meaning that a single super-wealthy benefactor could independently fund a crash program for less than $100 million’ (Hsu).

The BGI project to find these genes has hit some snags recently (e.g. a US lawsuit between the two biggest suppliers of gene sequencing machines). However, it is now expected to start again soon. Hsu thinks that within a decade we could find many of the genes responsible for IQ. He has just put his fascinating paper on this subject on his blog (there is also a Q&A on p.27 that will be very useful for journalists):

http://infoproc.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/genetic-architecture-of-intelligence.html

Just discovering a substantial fraction of the genes would be momentous in itself but there is more. It is already the case that farmers use genomes to make predictions about cows’ properties and behaviour (‘genotype to phenotype’ predictions). It is already the case that rich people could use in vitro fertilisation to select the egg which they think will be most advantageous, because they can sequence genomes of multiple eggs and examine each one to look for problems then pick the one they prefer. Once we identify a substantial number of IQ genes, there is no obvious reason why rich people will not select the egg that has the highest prediction for IQ. 

This clearly raises many big questions. If the poor cannot do the same, then the rich could quickly embed advantages and society could become not only more unequal but also based on biological classes. One response is that if this sort of thing does become possible, then a national health system should fund everybody to do this. (I.e. It would not mandate such a process but it would give everybody a choice of whether to make use of it.) Once the knowledge exists, it is hard to see what will stop some people making use of it and offering services to – at least – the super-rich.

It is vital to separate two things: a) the basic science of genetics and cognition (which must be allowed to develop), and b) the potential technological applications and their social implications. The latter will rightly make people deeply worried, given our history, and clearly require extremely serious public debate. One of the reasons I wrote my essay was to try to stimulate such debate on the biggest – and potentially most dangerous – scientific issues. By largely ignoring such issues, Westminster, Whitehall, and the political media are wasting the time we have to discuss them so technological breakthroughs will be unnecessarily  shocking when they come.

Hsu’s contribution to this research – and his insight when listening to Tao about how to apply a branch of mathematics to a problem – is also a good example of how the more abstract fields of maths and physics often make contributions to the messier study of biology and society. The famous mathematician von Neumann practically invented some new fields outside maths and made many contributions to others. The physicist-mathematician Freeman Dyson recently made a major contribution to Game Theory which had lain unnoticed for decades until he realised that a piece of maths could be applied to uncover new strategies (Google “Dyson zero determinant strategies” and cf. this good piece: http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.16112,y.0,no.,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx).

However, this also raises a difficult issue. There is a great deal of Hsu’s paper – and the subject of IQ and heritability generally – that I do not have the mathematical skills to understand. This will be true of a large fraction of education researchers in education departments – I would bet a large majority. This problem is similar for many other vital issues (and applies to MPs and their advisers) and requires general work on translating such research into forms that can be explained by the media.

Kathryn Ashbury also did a session on genes and education but I went to a conflicting one with George Church so unfortunately I missed it.

‘Big data’, simulations, and distributed systems [Section 6&7]

The rival to Markram’s Brain Project for mega EU funding was Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich) and his project for new simulations to aid policy-making. Helbing was also at SciFoo and gave a couple of presentations. I will write separately about this.

Helbing says convincingly: ‘science must become a fifth pillar of democracies, besides legislation, executive, jurisdiction, and the public media’. Many in politics hope that technology will help them control things that now feel out of control. This is unlikely. The amount of data is growing at a faster rate than the power of processing and the complexity of networked systems grows factorially therefore top-down control will become less and less effective.

The alternative? ‘Distributed (self-)control, i.e. bottom-up self-regulation’. E.g. Helbing’s team has invented self-regulating traffic lights driven by traffic flows that can ‘outperform the classical top-down control by a conventional traffic center.’

‘Can we transfer and extend this principle to socio-economic systems? Indeed, we are now developing mechanisms to overcome coordination and cooperation failures, conflicts, and other age-old problems. This can be done with suitably designed social media and sensor networks for real-time measurements, which will eventually weave a Planetary Nervous System. Hence, we can finally realize the dream of self-regulating systems… [S]uitable institutions such as certain social media – combined with suitable reputation systems – can promote other-regarding decision-making. The quick spreading of social media and reputation systems, in fact, indicates the emergence of a superior organizational principle, which creates collective intelligence by harvesting the value of diversity…’

His project’s website is here:

http://www.futurict.eu

I wish MPs and spads in all parties would look at this project and Helbing’s work. It provides technologically viable and theoretically justifiable mechanisms to avoid the current sterile party debates about delivery of services. We must move from Whitehall control to distributed systems…

Science and politics

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of grumbling about politicians, regulation, Washington gridlock, bureaucracy and so on.

Much of it is clearly justified. Some working in genetics had stories about how the regulations forbid them to tell people about imminently life threatening medical problems they discover. Others were bemoaning the lack of action on asteroid defence and climate change.

Some of these problems are inherently extremely difficult, as I discuss in my essay. On top of this, though, is the problem that many (most?) scientists do not know how to go about changing things.

It was interesting that some very eminent scientists, all much cleverer than ~100% of those in politics [INSERT: better to say ‘all with higher IQ than ~100% of those in politics’], have naive views about how politics works. In group discussions, there was little focused discussion about how they could influence politics better even though it is clearly a subject that they care about very much. (Gershenfeld said that scientists have recently launched a bid to take over various local government functions in Barcelona, which sounds interesting.)

A few times I nearly joined in the discussion but I thought it would disrupt things and distract them. In retrospect, I think this may have been a mistake and I should have spoken up. But also I am not articulate and I worried I would not be able to explain their errors and it would waste their time.

I will blog on this issue separately. A few simple observations…

To get things changed in politics, scientists need mechanisms a) to agree priorities in order to focus their actions on b) roadmaps with specifics. Generalised whining never works. The way to influence politicians is to make it easy for them to fall down certain paths without much thought, and this means having a general set of goals but also a detailed roadmap the politicians can apply, otherwise they will drift by default to the daily fog of chaos and moonlight.

Scientists also need to be prepared to put their heads above the parapet and face controversy. Many comments amounted to ‘why don’t politicians do the obviously rational thing without me having to take a risk of being embroiled in media horrors’. Sorry guys but this is not how it works.

Many academics are entirely focused on their research and do not want to lose time to politics. This is entirely reasonable. But if you won’t get involved you can have little influence other than lending your name to the efforts of others.

Working in the Department for Education, I have experienced in England that very few scientists were prepared to face controversy over the issue of A Levels (exams at 18) and university entry / undergraduate standards even though this problem directly affected their own research area. Many dozens sought me out 2007-14 to complain about existing systems. I can count on the fingers of one hand those who rolled the dice and did things in the public domain that could have caused them problems. I have heard many scientists complain about media reports but when I’ve said – ‘write a blog explaining why they’re wrong’, the answer is almost invariably ‘oh, the VC’s office would go mad’. If they won’t put their heads above the parapet on an issue that directly touches their own subject and career, how much are they likely to achieve in moving political debate in areas outside their own fields?

Provided scientists a) want to avoid controversy and b) are isolated, they cannot have the leverage they want. The way to minimise controversy is to combine in groups – for the evolutionary biologists reading this, think SHOALS! – so that each individual is less exposed. But you will only join a shoal if you agree a common purpose.

I’m going to do a blog on ‘How scientists can learn from Bismarck and Jean Monnet to influence politics‘. Monnet avoided immediate battles for power in favour of ‘preparing the future’ – i.e. having plans in his pocket for when crises hit and politicians were desperate. He created the EEC in this way. In the same way people find it extremely hard to operationalise the lessons of Thucydides or Bismarck, they do not operationalise the lessons from Monnet. It would be interesting if scientists did this in a disciplined way. In some ways, it seems to me vital if we are to avoid various disasters. It is also necessary, however, to expose scientists to the non-scientific factors in play.

Anyway, it would be worth exploring this question: can very high IQ people with certain personality traits (like von Neumann, not like Gödel) learn enough in half a day’s exposure to case studies of successful political action to enable them to change something significant in politics, provided someone else can do most of the admin donkey work? I’m willing to bet the answer is YES. Whether they will then take personal risks by ACTING is another question.

A physicist remarked: ‘we’re bitching about politicians but we can’t even sort out our own field of scientific publishing which is a mess’.

NB. for scientists who haven’t read anything I’ve read before, do not make the mistake of thinking I am defending politicians. If you read other stuff I’ve written you will see that I have made all the criticisms that you have. But that doesn’t mean that scientists cannot do much better than they are at influencing policy.

A few general comments

1. It has puzzled me for over a decade that a) one of the few things the UK still has that is world class is Oxbridge, b) we have the example of Silicon Valley and our own history of post-1945 bungling to compare it with (e.g. how the Pentagon treated von Neumann and how we treated Turing viz the issue of developing computer science), yet c) we persistently fail to develop venture capital-based hubs around Oxbridge on the scale they deserve. As I pottered down University Avenue in Palo Alto looking for a haircut, past venture capital offices that can provide billions in start-up investment, I thought: you’ve made a few half-hearted attempts to persuade people to do more on this, when you get home try again. So I will…

2. It was interesting to see how physicists have core mathematical skills that allow them to grasp fundamentals of other fields without prior study. Watching them reminded me of Mandelbrot’s comment that:

‘It is an extraordinary feature of science that the most diverse, seemingly unrelated, phenomena can be described with the same mathematical tools. The same quadratic equation with which the ancients drew right angles to build their temples can be used today by a banker to calculate the yield to maturity of a new, two-year bond. The same techniques of calculus developed by Newton and Leibniz two centuries ago to study the orbits of Mars and Mercury can be used today by a civil engineer to calculate the maximum stress on a new bridge… But the variety of natural phenomena is boundless while, despite all appearances to the contrary, the number of really distinct mathematical concepts and tools at our disposal is surprisingly small… When we explore the vast realm of natural and human behavior, we find the most useful tools of measurement and calculation are based on surprisingly few basic ideas.’

3. High status people have more confidence in asking basic / fundamental / possibly stupid questions. One can see people thinking ‘I thought that but didn’t say it in case people thought it was stupid and now the famous guy’s said it and everyone thinks he’s profound’. The famous guys don’t worry about looking stupid and they want to get down to fundamentals in fields outside their own.

4. I do not mean this critically but watching some of the participants I was reminded of Freeman Dyson’s comment:

‘I feel it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands. To release the energy that fuels the stars. To let it do your bidding. And to perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky, it is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is in some ways responsible for all our troubles, I would say, this is what you might call ‘technical arrogance’ that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.’ 

People talk about rationales for all sorts of things but looking in their eyes the fundamental driver seems to be – am I right, can I do it, do the patterns in my mind reflect something real? People like this are going to do new things if they can and they are cleverer than the regulators. As a community I think it is fair to say that outside odd fields like nuclear weapons research (which is odd because it still requires not only a large collection of highly skilled people but also a lot of money and all sorts of elements that are hard (but not impossible) for a non-state actor to acquire and use without detection), they believe that pushing the barriers of knowledge is right and inevitable. Fifteen years on from the publication by Silicon Valley legend Bill Joy of his famous essay (‘Why the future doesn’t need us’), it is clear that many of the things he feared have proceeded and there remains no coherent government approach or serious international discussion. (I am not suggesting that banning things is generally the way forward.)

5. The only field where there was a group of people openly lobbying for something to be made illegal was the field of autonomous lethal drones. (There is a remorseless logic that means that countermeasures against non-autonomous drones (e.g. GPS-spoofing) incentivises one to make one’s drones autonomous. They can move about waiting to spot someone’s face then destroy them without any need for human input.) However, the discussion confirmed my view that even if this might be a good idea – it is doomed, in the short-term at least. I wonder what is to stop someone sending a drone swarm across the river and bombing Parliament during PMQs. Given it will be possible to deploy autonomous drones anonymously, it seems there may be a new era of assassinations coming, apart from all the other implications of drones. Given one may need a drone swarm to defend against drone swarm, I can’t see them being outlawed any time soon. (Cf. Suarez’s Kill Decision for a great techno-thriller on the subject.)

(Also, I thought that this was an area where those involved in cutting edge issues could benefit from talking to historians. E.g. my understanding is that we filmed the use of anthrax on a Scottish island and delivered the footage to the Nazis with the message that we would anthrax Germany if they used chemical weapons – i.e. the lack of chemical warfare in WWII was a case of successful deterrence, not international law.)

6. A common comment is – ‘technology X [e.g. in vitro fertilisation] was denounced at the time but humans adapt to such changes amazingly fast, so technology Y will be just the same’. This is a reasonable argument in some ways but I cannot help but think that many will think de-extinction, engineered bio-weapons, or human clones are going to be perceived as qualitative changes far beyond things like in vitro fertilisation.

7. Daniel Suarez told me what his next techno-thriller is about but if I put it on my blog he will deploy an autonomous drone with face recognition AI to kill me, so I’m keeping quiet. If you haven’t read Daemon, read it – it’s a rare book that makes you laugh out loud about how clever the plot is.

8. Von Neumann was heavily involved not only in the Manhattan Project but also the birth of the modern computer, the creation of the hydrogen bomb, and nuclear strategy. Before his tragic early death, he wrote a brilliant essay about the political problem of dealing with advanced technology which should be compulsory reading for all politicians aspiring to lead. It summarises the main problems that we face – ‘for progress, there is no cure…’

http://features.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2013/01/13/can-we-survive-technology/

As I said at the top, any participants please tell me where I went wrong, and thanks for such a wonderful weekend.