Effective action #4b: ‘Expertise’, prediction and noise, from the NHS killing people to Brexit

In part A I looked at extreme sports as some background to the question of true expertise and the crucial nature of fast high quality feedback.

This blog looks at studies comparing expertise in many fields over decades, including work by Tetlock and Kahneman, and problems like — why people don’t learn to use even simple tools to stop children dying unnecessarily. There is a summary of some basic lessons at the end.

The reason for writing about this is that we will only improve the performance of government (at individual, team and institutional levels) if we reflect on:

  • what expertise really is and why do some very successful fields cultivate it effectively while others, like government, do not;
  • how to select much higher quality people (it’s insane people as ignorant and limited as me can have the influence we do in the way we do — us limited duffers can help in limited ways but why do we deliberately exclude ~100% of the most intelligent, talented, relentless, high performing people from fields with genuine expertise, why do we not have people like Fields Medallist Tim Gowers or Michael Nielsen as Chief Scientist  sitting ex officio in Cabinet?);
  • how to train people effectively to develop true expertise in skills relevant to government: it needs different intellectual content (PPE/economics are NOT good introductory degrees) and practice in practical skills (project management, making predictions and in general ‘thinking rationally’) with lots of fast, accurate feedback;
  • how to give them effective tools: e.g the Cabinet Room is worse in this respect than it was in July 1914 — at least then the clock and fireplace worked, and Lord Salisbury in the 1890s would walk round the Cabinet table gathering papers to burn in the grate — while today No10 is decades behind the state-of-the-art in old technologies like TV, doesn’t understand simple tools like checklists, and is nowhere with advanced technologies;
  • and how to ‘program’ institutions differently so that 1) people are more incentivised to optimise things we want them to optimise, like error-correction and predictive accuracy, and less incentivised to optimise bureaucratic process, prestige, and signalling as our institutions now do to a dangerous extent, and, connected, so that 2) institutions are much better at building high performance teams rather than continue normal rules that make this practically illegal, and so that 3) we have ‘immune systems’ to minimise the inevitable failures of even the best people and teams .

In SW1 now, those at the apex of power practically never think in a serious way about the reasons for the endemic dysfunctional decision-making that constitutes most of their daily experience or how to change it. What looks like omnishambles to the public and high performers in technology or business is seen by Insiders, always implicitly and often explicitly, as ‘normal performance’. ‘Crises’ such as the collapse of Carillion or our farcical multi-decade multi-billion ‘aircraft carrier’ project occasionally provoke a few days of headlines but it’s very rare anything important changes in the underlying structures and there is no real reflection on system failure.

This fact is why, for example, a startup created in a few months could win a referendum that should have been unwinnable. It was the systemic and consistent dysfunction of Establishment decision-making systems over a long period, with very poor mechanisms for good accurate feedback from reality, that created the space for a guerrilla operation to exploit.

This makes it particularly ironic that even after Westminster and Whitehall have allowed their internal consensus about UK national strategy to be shattered by the referendum, there is essentially no serious reflection on this system failure. It is much more psychologically appealing for Insiders to blame ‘lies’ (Blair and Osborne really say this without blushing), devilish use of technology to twist minds and so on. Perhaps the most profound aspect of broken systems is they cannot reflect on the reasons why they’re broken  — never mind take effective action. Instead of serious thought, we have high status Insiders like Campbell reduced to bathos with whining on social media about Brexit ‘impacting mental health’. This lack of reflection is why Remain-dominated Insiders lurched from failure over the referendum to failure over negotiations. OODA loops across SW1 are broken and this is very hard to fix — if you can’t orient to reality how do you even see your problem well? (NB. It should go without saying that there is a faction of pro-Brexit MPs, ‘campaigners’ and ‘pro-Brexit economists’ who are at least as disconnected from reality, often more, as the May/Hammond bunker.)

Screenshot 2018-06-05 10.05.19

In the commercial world, big companies mostly die within a few decades because they cannot maintain an internal system to keep them aligned to reality plus startups pop up. These two factors create learning at a system level — there is lots of micro failure but macro productivity/learning in which useful information is compressed and abstracted. In the political world, big established failing systems control the rules, suck in more and more resources rather than go bust, make it almost impossible for startups to contribute and so on. Even failures on the scale of the 2008 Crash or the 2016 referendum do not necessarily make broken systems face reality, at least quickly. Watching Parliament’s obsession with trivia in the face of the Cabinet’s and Whitehall’s contemptible failure to protect the interests of millions in the farcical Brexit negotiations is like watching the secretary to the Singapore Golf Club objecting to guns being placed on the links as the Japanese troops advanced.

Neither of the main parties has internalised the reality of these two crises. The Tories won’t face reality on things like corporate looting and the NHS, Labour won’t face reality on things like immigration and the limits of bureaucratic centralism. Neither can cope with the complexity of Brexit and both just look like I would look like in the ring with a professional fighter — baffled, terrified and desperate for a way to escape. There are so many simple ways to improve performance — and their own popularity! — but the system is stuck in such a closed loop it wilfully avoids seeing even the most obvious things and suppresses Insiders who want to do things differently…

But… there is a network of almost entirely younger people inside or close to the system thinking ‘we could do so much better than this’. Few senior Insiders are interested in these questions but that’s OK — few of them listened before the referendum either. It’s not the people now in power and running the parties and Whitehall who will determine whether we make Brexit a platform to contribute usefully to humanity’s biggest challenges but those that take over.

Doing better requires reflecting on what we know about real expertise…

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How to distinguish between fields dominated by real expertise and those dominated by confident ‘experts’ who make bad predictions?

We know a lot about the distinction between fields in which there is real expertise and fields dominated by bogus expertise. Daniel Kahneman, who has published some of the most important research about expertise and prediction, summarises the two fundamental tests to ask about a field: 1) is there enough informational structure in the environment to allow good predictions, and 2) is there timely and effective feedback that enables error-correction and learning.

‘To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes. Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do. Many of the professionals we encounter easily pass both tests, and their off-the-cuff judgments deserve to be taken seriously. In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about.’ (Emphasis added.)

In fields where these two elements are present there is genuine expertise and people build new knowledge on the reliable foundations of previous knowledge. Some fields make a transition from stories (e.g Icarus) and authority (e.g ‘witch doctor’) to quantitative models (e.g modern aircraft) and evidence/experiment (e.g some parts of modern medicine/surgery). As scientists have said since Newton, they stand on the shoulders of giants.

How do we assess predictions / judgement about the future?

‘Good judgment is often gauged against two gold standards – coherence and correspondence. Judgments are coherent if they demonstrate consistency with the axioms of probability theory or propositional logic. Judgments are correspondent if they agree with ground truth. When gold standards are unavailable, silver standards such as consistency and discrimination can be used to evaluate judgment quality. Individuals are consistent if they assign similar judgments to comparable stimuli, and they discriminate if they assign different judgments to dissimilar stimuli.

‘Coherence violations range from base rate neglect and confirmation bias to overconfidence and framing effects (Gilovich, Griffith & Kahneman, 2002; Kahneman, Slovic & Tversky, 1982). Experts are not immune. Statisticians (Christensen-Szalanski & Bushyhead, 1981), doctors (Eddy, 1982), and nurses (Bennett, 1980) neglect base rates. Physicians and intelligence professionals are susceptible to framing effects and financial investors are prone to overconfidence.

‘Research on correspondence tells a similar story. Numerous studies show that human predictions are frequently inaccurate and worse than simple linear models in many domains (e.g. Meehl, 1954; Dawes, Faust & Meehl, 1989). Once again, expertise doesn’t necessarily help. Inaccurate predictions have been found in parole officers, court judges, investment managers in the US and Taiwan, and politicians. However, expert predictions are better when the forecasting environment provides regular, clear feedback and there are repeated opportunities to learn (Kahneman & Klein, 2009; Shanteau, 1992). Examples include meteorologists, professional bridge players, and bookmakers at the racetrack, all of whom are well-calibrated in their own domains.‘ (Tetlock, How generalizable is good judgment?, 2017.)

In another 2017 piece Tetlock explored the studies furtherIn the 1920s researchers built simple models based on expert assessments of 500 ears of corn and the price they would fetch in the market. They found that ‘to everyone’s surprise, the models that mimicked the judges’ strategies nearly always performed better than the judges themselves’ (Tetlock, cf. ‘What Is in the Corn Judge’s Mind?’, Journal of American Society for Agronomy, 1923). Banks found the same when they introduced models for credit decisions.

‘In other fields, from predicting the performance of newly hired salespeople to the bankruptcy risks of companies to the life expectancies of terminally ill cancer patients, the experience has been essentially the same. Even though experts usually possess deep knowledge, they often do not make good predictions

When humans make predictions, wisdom gets mixed with “random noise.”… Bootstrapping, which incorporates expert judgment into a decision-making model, eliminates such inconsistencies while preserving the expert’s insights. But this does not occur when human judgment is employed on its own…

In fields ranging from medicine to finance, scores of studies have shown that replacing experts with models of experts produces superior judgments. In most cases, the bootstrapping model performed better than experts on their own. Nonetheless, bootstrapping models tend to be rather rudimentary in that human experts are usually needed to identify the factors that matter most in making predictions. Humans are also instrumental in assigning scores to the predictor variables (such as judging the strength of recommendation letters for college applications or the overall health of patients in medical cases). What’s more, humans are good at spotting when the model is getting out of date and needs updating…

Human experts typically provide signal, noise, and bias in unknown proportions, which makes it difficult to disentangle these three components in field settings. Whether humans or computers have the upper hand depends on many factors, including whether the tasks being undertaken are familiar or unique. When tasks are familiar and much data is available, computers will likely beat humans by being data-driven and highly consistent from one case to the next. But when tasks are unique (where creativity may matter more) and when data overload is not a problem for humans, humans will likely have an advantage…

One might think that humans have an advantage over models in understanding dynamically complex domains, with feedback loops, delays, and instability. But psychologists have examined how people learn about complex relationships in simulated dynamic environments (for example, a computer game modeling an airline’s strategic decisions or those of an electronics company managing a new product). Even after receiving extensive feedback after each round of play, the human subjects improved only slowly over time and failed to beat simple computer models. This raises questions about how much human expertise is desirable when building models for complex dynamic environments. The best way to find out is to compare how well humans and models do in specific domains and perhaps develop hybrid models that integrate different approaches.‘ (Tetlock)

Kahneman also recently published new work relevant to this.

Research has confirmed that in many tasks, experts’ decisions are highly variable: valuing stocks, appraising real estate, sentencing criminals, evaluating job performance, auditing financial statements, and more. The unavoidable conclusion is that professionals often make decisions that deviate significantly from those of their peers, from their own prior decisions, and from rules that they themselves claim to follow.’

In general organisations spend almost no effort figuring out how noisy the predictions made by senior staff are and how much this costs. Kahneman has done some ‘noise audits’ and shown companies that management make MUCH more variable predictions than people realise.

‘What prevents companies from recognizing that the judgments of their employees are noisy? The answer lies in two familiar phenomena: Experienced professionals tend to have high confidence in the accuracy of their own judgments, and they also have high regard for their colleagues’ intelligence. This combination inevitably leads to an overestimation of agreement. When asked about what their colleagues would say, professionals expect others’ judgments to be much closer to their own than they actually are. Most of the time, of course, experienced professionals are completely unconcerned with what others might think and simply assume that theirs is the best answer. One reason the problem of noise is invisible is that people do not go through life imagining plausible alternatives to every judgment they make.

‘High skill develops in chess and driving through years of practice in a predictable environment, in which actions are followed by feedback that is both immediate and clear. Unfortunately, few professionals operate in such a world. In most jobs people learn to make judgments by hearing managers and colleagues explain and criticize—a much less reliable source of knowledge than learning from one’s mistakes. Long experience on a job always increases people’s confidence in their judgments, but in the absence of rapid feedback, confidence is no guarantee of either accuracy or consensus.’

Reviewing the point that Tetlock makes about simple models beating experts in many fields, Kahneman summarises the evidence:

‘People have competed against algorithms in several hundred contests of accuracy over the past 60 years, in tasks ranging from predicting the life expectancy of cancer patients to predicting the success of graduate students. Algorithms were more accurate than human professionals in about half the studies, and approximately tied with the humans in the others. The ties should also count as victories for the algorithms, which are more cost-effective…

‘The common assumption is that algorithms require statistical analysis of large amounts of data. For example, most people we talk to believe that data on thousands of loan applications and their outcomes is needed to develop an equation that predicts commercial loan defaults. Very few know that adequate algorithms can be developed without any outcome data at all — and with input information on only a small number of cases. We call predictive formulas that are built without outcome data “reasoned rules,” because they draw on commonsense reasoning.

‘The construction of a reasoned rule starts with the selection of a few (perhaps six to eight) variables that are incontrovertibly related to the outcome being predicted. If the outcome is loan default, for example, assets and liabilities will surely be included in the list. The next step is to assign these variables equal weight in the prediction formula, setting their sign in the obvious direction (positive for assets, negative for liabilities). The rule can then be constructed by a few simple calculations.

The surprising result of much research is that in many contexts reasoned rules are about as accurate as statistical models built with outcome data. Standard statistical models combine a set of predictive variables, which are assigned weights based on their relationship to the predicted outcomes and to one another. In many situations, however, these weights are both statistically unstable and practically unimportant. A simple rule that assigns equal weights to the selected variables is likely to be just as valid. Algorithms that weight variables equally and don’t rely on outcome data have proved successful in personnel selection, election forecasting, predictions about football games, and other applications.

‘The bottom line here is that if you plan to use an algorithm to reduce noise, you need not wait for outcome data. You can reap most of the benefits by using common sense to select variables and the simplest possible rule to combine them…

‘Uncomfortable as people may be with the idea, studies have shown that while humans can provide useful input to formulas, algorithms do better in the role of final decision maker. If the avoidance of errors is the only criterion, managers should be strongly advised to overrule the algorithm only in exceptional circumstances.

Jim Simons is a mathematician and founder of the world’s most successful ‘quant fund’, Renaissance Technologies. While market prices appear close to random and are therefore extremely hard to predict, they are not quite random and the right models/technology can exploit these small and fleeting opportunities. One of the lessons he learned early was: Don’t turn off the model and go with your gut. At Renaissance, they trust models over instincts. The Bridgewater hedge fund led by Ray Dalio is similar. After near destruction early in his career, Dalio explicitly turned towards explicit model building as the basis for decisions combined with radical attempts to create an internal system that incentivises the optimisation of error-correction. It works.

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People fail to learn from even the great examples of success and the simplest lessons

One of the most interesting meta-lessons of studying high performance, though, is that simply demonstrating extreme success does NOT lead to much learning. For example:

  • ARPA and PARC created the internet and PC. The PARC research team was an extraordinary collection of about two dozen people who were managed in a very unusual way that created super-productive processes extremely different to normal bureaucracies. XEROX, which owned PARC, had the entire future of the computer industry in its own hands, paid for by its own budgets, and it simultaneously let Bill Gates and Steve Jobs steal everything and XEROX then shut down the research team that did it. And then, as Silicon Valley grew on the back of these efforts, almost nobody, including most of the billionaires who got rich from the dynamics created by ARPA-PARC, studied the nature of the organisation and processes and copied it. Even today, those trying to do edge-of-the-art research in a similar way to PARC right at the heart of the Valley ecosystem are struggling for long-term patient funding. As Alan Kay, one of the PARC team, said, ‘The most interesting thing has been the contrast between appreciation/exploitation of the inventions/contributions [of PARC] versus the almost complete lack of curiosity and interest in the processes that produced them. ARPA survived being abolished in the 1970s but it was significantly changed and is no longer the freewheeling place that it was in the 1960s when it funded the internet. In many ways DARPA’s approach now is explicitly different to the old ARPA (the addition of the ‘D’ was a sign of internal bureaucratic changes).

Screenshot 2018-06-05 14.55.00

  • ‘Systems management’ was invented in the 1950s and 1960s (partly based on wartime experience of large complex projects) to deal with the classified ICBM project and Apollo. It put man on the moon then NASA largely abandoned the approach and reverted to being (relative to 1963-9) a normal bureaucracy. Most of Washington has ignored the lessons ever since — look for example at the collapse of ObamaCare’s rollout, after which Insiders said ‘oh, looks like it was a system failure, wonder how we deal with this’, mostly unaware that America had developed a successful approach to such projects half a century earlier. This is particularly interesting given that China also studied Mueller’s approach to systems management in Apollo and as we speak is copying it in projects across China. The EU’s bureaucracy is, like Whitehall, an anti-checklist to high level systems management — i.e they violate almost every principle of effective action.
  • Buffett and Munger are the most successful investment partnership in world history. Every year for half a century they have explained some basic principles, particularly concerning incentives, behind organisational success. Practically no public companies take their advice and all around us in Britain we see vast corporate looting and politicians of all parties failing to act — they don’t even read the Buffett/Munger lessons and think about them. Even when given these lessons to read, they won’t read them (I know this because I’ve tried).

Perhaps you’re thinking — well, learning from these brilliant examples might be intrinsically really hard, much harder than Cummings thinks. I don’t think this is quite right. Why? Partly because millions of well-educated and normally-ethical people don’t learn even from much simpler things.

I will explore this separately soon but I’ll give just one example. The world of healthcare unnecessarily kills and injures people on a vast scale. Two aspects of this are 1) a deep resistance to learning from the success of very simple tools like checklists and 2) a deep resistance to face the fact that most medical experts do not understand statistics properly and their routine misjudgements cause vast suffering, plus warped incentives encourage widespread lies about statistics and irrational management. E.g People are constantly told things like ‘you’ve tested positive for X therefore you have X’ and they then kill themselves. We KNOW how to practically eliminate certain sorts of medical injury/death. We KNOW how to teach and communicate statistics better. (Cf. Professor Gigerenzer for details. He was the motivation for including things like conditional probabilities in the new National Curriculum.) These are MUCH simpler than building ICBMs, putting man on the moon, creating the internet and PC, or being great investors. Yet our societies don’t do them.

Why?

Because we do not incentivise error-correction and predictive accuracy. People are not incentivised to consider the cost of their noisy judgements. Where incentives and culture are changed, performance magically changes. It is the nature of the systems, not (mostly) the nature of the people, that is the crucial ingredient in learning from proven simple success. In healthcare like in government generally, people are incentivised to engage in wasteful/dangerous signalling to a terrifying degree — not rigorous thinking and not solving problems.

I have experienced the problem with checklists first hand in the Department for Education when trying to get the social worker bureaucracy to think about checklists in the context of avoiding child killings like Baby P. Professionals tend to see them as undermining their status and bureaucracies fight against learning, even when some great officials try really hard (as some in the DfE did such as Pamela Dow and Victoria Woodcock). ‘Social work is not the same as an airline Dominic’. No shit. Airlines can handle millions of people without killing one of them because they align incentives with predictive accuracy and error-correction.

Some appalling killings are inevitable but the social work bureaucracy will keep allowing unnecessary killings because they will not align incentives with error-correction. Undoing flawed incentives threatens the system so they’ll keep killing children instead — and they’re not particularly bad people, they’re normal people in a normal bureaucracy. The pilot dies with the passengers. The ‘CEO’ on over £150,000 a year presiding over another unnecessary death despite constantly increasing taxpayers money pouring in? Issue a statement that ‘this must never happen again’, tell the lawyers to redact embarrassing cockups on the grounds of ‘protecting someone’s anonymity’ (the ECHR is a great tool to cover up death by incompetence), fuck off to the golf course, and wait for the media circus to move on.

Why do so many things go wrong? Because usually nobody is incentivised to work relentlessly to suppress entropy, never mind come up with something new.

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We can see some reasonably clear conclusions from decades of study on expertise and prediction in many fields.

  • Some fields are like extreme sport or physics: genuine expertise emerges because of fast effective feedback on errors.
  • Abstracting human wisdom into models often works better than relying on human experts as models are often more consistent and less noisy.
  • Models are also often cheaper and simpler to use.
  • Models do not have to be complex to be highly effective — quite the opposite, often simpler models outperform more sophisticated and expensive ones.
  • In many fields (which I’ve explored before but won’t go into again here) low tech very simple checklists have been extremely effective: e.g flying aircraft or surgery.
  • Successful individuals like Warren Buffett and Ray Dalio also create cognitive checklists to trap and correct normal cognitive biases that degrade individual and team performance.
  • Fields make progress towards genuine expertise when they make a transition from stories (e.g Icarus) and authority (e.g ‘witch doctor’) to quantitative models (e.g modern aircraft) and evidence/experiment (e.g some parts of modern medicine/surgery).
  • In the intellectual realm, maths and physics are fields dominated by genuine expertise and provide a useful benchmark to compare others against. They are also hierarchical. Social sciences have little in common with this.
  • Even when we have great examples of learning and progress, and we can see the principles behind them are relatively simple and do not require high intelligence to understand, they are so psychologically hard and run so counter to the dynamics of normal big organisations, that almost nobody learns from them. Extreme success is ‘easy to learn from’ in one sense and ‘the hardest thing in the world to learn from’ in another sense.

It is fascinating how remarkably little interest there is in the world of politics/government, and social sciences analysing politics/government, about all this evidence. This is partly because politics/government is an anti-learning and anti-expertise field, partly because the social sciences are swamped by what Feynman called ‘cargo cult science’ with very noisy predictions, little good feedback and learning, and a lot of chippiness at criticism whether it’s from statistics experts or the ‘ignorant masses’. Fields like ‘education research’ and ‘political science’ are particularly dreadful and packed with charlatans but much of economics is not much better (much pro- and anti-Brexit mainstream economics is classic ‘cargo cult’).

I have found there is overwhelmingly more interest in high technology circles than in government circles, but in high technology circles there is also a lot of incredulity and naivety about how government works — many assume politicians are trying and failing to achieve high performance and don’t realise that in fact nobody is actually trying. This illusion extends to many well-connected businessmen who just can’t internalise the reality of the apex of power. I find that uneducated people on 20k living hundreds of miles from SW1 generally have a more accurate picture of daily No10 work than extremely well-connected billionaires.

This is all sobering and is another reason to be pessimistic about the chances of changing government from ‘normal’ to ‘high performance’ — but, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will…

If you are in Whitehall now watching the Brexit farce or abroad looking at similar, you will see from page 26 HERE a checklist for how to manage complex government projects at world class levels (if you find this interesting then read the whole paper). I will elaborate on this. I am also thinking about a project to look at the intersection of (roughly) five fields in order to make large improvements in the quality of people, ideas, tools, and institutions that determine political/government decisions and performance:

  • the science of prediction across different fields (e.g early warning systems, the Tetlock/IARPA project showing dramatic performance improvements),
  • what we know about high performance (individual/team/organisation) in different fields (e.g China’s application of ‘systems management’ to government),
  • technology and tools (e.g Bret Victor’s work, Michael Nielsen’s work on cognitive technologies, work on human-AI ‘minotaur’ teams),
  • political/government decision making affecting millions of people and trillions of dollars (e.g WMD, health), and
  • communication (e.g crisis management, applied psychology).

Progress requires attacking the ‘system of systems’ problem at the right ‘level’. Attacking the problems directly — let’s improve policy X and Y, let’s swap ‘incompetent’ A for ‘competent’ B — cannot touch the core problems, particularly the hardest meta-problem that government systems bitterly fight improvement. Solving the explicit surface problems of politics and government is best approached by a more general focus on applying abstract principles of effective action. We need to surround relatively specific problems with a more general approach. Attack at the right level will see specific solutions automatically ‘pop out’ of the system. One of the most powerful simplicities in all conflict (almost always unrecognised) is: ‘winning without fighting is the highest form of war’. If we approach the problem of government performance at the right level of generality then we have a chance to solve specific problems ‘without fighting’ — or, rather, without fighting nearly so much and the fighting will be more fruitful.

This is not a theoretical argument. If you look carefully at ancient texts and modern case studies, you see that applying a small number of very simple, powerful, but largely unrecognised principles (that are very hard for organisations to operationalise) can produce extremely surprising results.

How to jump from the Idea to Reality? More soon…


Ps. Just as I was about to hit publish on this, the DCMS Select Committee released their report on me. The sentence about the Singapore golf club at the top comes to mind.

On the referendum #23, a year after victory: ‘a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points’ & ‘how to capture the heavens’

‘Just like all British governments, they will act more or less in a hand to mouth way on the spur of the moment, but they will not think out and adopt a steady policy.’ Earl Cromer, 1896.

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 management and head of the Apollo programme to put man on the moon.

Traditional cultures, those that all humans lived in until quite recently and which still survive in pockets, don’t realise that they are living inside a particular perspective. They think that what they see is ‘reality’. It is, obviously, not their fault. It is not because they are stupid. It is a historical accident that they did/do not have access to mental models that help more accurate thinking about reality.

Westminster and the other political cultures dotted around the world are similar to these traditional cultures. They think they they are living in ‘reality’. The MPs and pundits get up, read each other, tweet at each other, give speeches, send press releases, have dinner, attack, fuck or fight each other, do the same tomorrow and think ‘this is reality’. Like traditional cultures they are wrong. They are living inside a particular perspective that enormously distorts reality. 

They are trapped in thinking about today and their careers. They are trapped in thinking about incremental improvements. Almost nobody has ever been part of a high performance team responsible for a complex project. The speciality is a hot take to explain post facto what one cannot predict. They mostly don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t understand the decentralised information processing that allows markets to enable complex coordination. They don’t understand how scientific research works and they don’t value it. Their daily activity is massively constrained by the party and state bureaucracies that incentivise behaviour very different to what humanity needs to create long-term value. As Michael Nielsen (author of Reinventing Science) writes:

‘[M]uch of our intellectual elite who think they have “the solutions” have actually cut themselves off from understanding the basis for much of the most important human progress.’

Unlike traditional cultures, our modern political cultures don’t have the excuse of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We could do better. But it is very very hard to escape the core imperatives that make big bureaucracies — public companies as well as state bureaucracies — so bad at learning. 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.’

Almost nobody really learns from the world’s most successful investor about investing and how to run a successful business with good corporate governance. (People read what he writes but almost no investors choose to operate long-term like him, I think it is still true that not a single public company has copied his innovations with corporate governance like ‘no pay for company directors’, and governments have consistently rejected his and Munger’s advice about controlling the looting of public companies by management.) Almost nobody really learns how to do things better from the experience of dealing with this ‘institutional imperative’. We fail over and over again in the same way, trusting in institutions that are programmed to fail.

It is very very hard for humans to lift our eyes from today and to go out into the future and think about what could be done to bring the future back to the present. Like ants crawling around on the leaf, we political people only know our leaf.

Science has shown us a different way. Newton looked up from his leaf, looked far away from today, and created a new perspective — a new model of reality. It took an extreme genius to discover something like calculus but once discovered billions of people who are far from being geniuses can use this new perspective. Science advances by turning new ideas into standard ideas so each generation builds on the last.

Politics does the equivalent of constantly trying to reinvent children’s arithmetic and botching it. It does not build reliable foundations of knowledge. Archimedes is no longer cutting edge. Thucydides and Sun Tzu are still cutting edge. Even though Tetlock and others have shown how to start making similar progress with politics, our political cultures fiercely resist learning and fight ferociously to stay in closed and failing feedback loops.

In many ways our political culture has regressed as it has become more and more audio-visual and less and less literate. (Only 31% of US college graduates can read at a basic level. I’d guess it’s similar here. See end.) I’ve experimented with the way Jeff Bezos runs meetings at Amazon: i.e start the meeting with giving people a 5-10 page memo to read. Impossible in Westminster, nobody will sit and read like that! Officials have tried and failed for a year to get senior ministers to engage with complex written material about the EU negotiations. TV news dominates politics and is extremely low-bandwidth: it contains a few hundred words and rarely uses graphics properly. Evan Davis illustrates a comment about ‘going down the plughole’ with a picture of water down a plughole and Nick Robinson illustrates a comment about ‘the economy taking off’ with a picture of a plane taking off. The constant flow of bullshit from the likes of Robert Peston and Jon Snow dominates the medium because competition has been impossible until recently. BUT, although technology is making these charlatans less relevant (good) it also creates new problems and will not necessarily improve the culture.

Watching political news makes you dumber — switch it off and read books! If you work in it, either QUIT or go on holiday and come back determined to subvert it. How? Start with a previous blog which has some ideas, like tracking properly which people have a record of getting things right and wrong. Every editor I’ve suggested this to winces and says ‘impossible’. Insiders fear accountability and competition.

Today, the anniversary of the referendum, is a good day to forget the babble in the bubble and think about lessons from another project that changed the world, the famous ARPA/PARC team of the 1960s and 1970s.

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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 has created over 35 TRILLION DOLLARS of value for society and counting.

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!

Why is this relevant to the referendum?

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.

In a previous blog I outlined how the ‘systems management’ approach used to put man on the moon provides principles for a new approach.

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Ironically, one of the very few people in politics who understood the sort of thinking needed was … Jean Monnet, the architect of the EEC/EU! Monnet understood how to step back from today and build institutions. He worked operationally to prepare the future:

‘If there was stiff competition round the centres of power, there was practically none in the area where I wanted to work – preparing the future.’

Monnet was one of the few people in modern politics who really deserve the label ‘genius’. The story of how he wangled the creation of his institutions through the daily chaos of post-war politics is a lesson to anybody who wants to get things done.

But the institutions he created are in many ways the opposite of what the world needs. Their core operating principle is perpetual centralisation of power in the hands of an all powerful bureaucracy (Commission) and Court (ECJ). Nothing that works well in the world works like this!

Thanks to the prominence of Farage the dominant story among educated people is that those who got us out of the EU want to take us back to the pre-1914 era of hostile competing nation states. Nothing could be further from the truth. The key people in Vote Leave wanted and want not just what is best for Britain but what is best for all humanity. We want more international cooperation, not less. The problem with the EU is not that it is about international cooperation but that it is so bad at it and actually undermines it.

Britain leaving forces those with power to ask: how can all European countries trade freely and cooperate without subscribing to Monnet’s bureaucratic centralism? This will help Europe in the long-term. To those who favour this bureaucratic centralism and uniformity, reflect on the different trajectories of Europe and China post-Renaissance. In Europe, regulatory competition (so Columbus could chase funding in Spain after rejection in Portugal) brought immense gains. In China, centrally directed uniformity led to centuries of stagnation. America’s model of competitive federalism created by the founding fathers has been a far more effective engine of civilisation, growth, and new knowledge than the Monnet-Delors Single Market model.

If Britain were to focus on science and education with huge resources and a new-found seriousness, then this regulatory diversity would help not just Britain but all Europe and the global science community. We could make Britain the best place in the world to be for those who can invent the future. Like Alan Kay and his colleagues, we could create whole new industries. We could call Jeff Bezos and say, ‘Ok Jeff, you want a permanent international manned moon base, let’s talk about who does what, but not with that old rocket technology.’ No country on earth funds science as well as we already know how it could be done — that is something for Britain to do that would create real long-term value for humanity, instead of the ‘punching above our weight’ and ‘special relationship’ bullshit that passes for strategy in London. How we change our domestic institutions is within our power and will have much much greater influence on our long-term future than whatever deal is botched together with Brussels. We have the resources. But can we break the system open? If we don’t then we’re likely to go down the path we were already going down inside the EU, like the deluded Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard claiming ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.’

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Vote Leave and ‘good will’

Although Vote Leave was enmeshed in a sort of collective lunacy we managed, barely, to fend it off from the inner working of the campaign. Much of my job (sadly) was just trying to maintain a cordon around the core team so they could deliver the campaign with as little disruption as possible. We managed this because among the core people we had great good will. The stories of the campaign focus on the lunacy, but the people who really made it work remember the goodwill.

A year ago tonight I was sitting alone in a room thinking ‘we’ve won, now…’ when the walls started rumbling. At first I couldn’t make it out then, as Tim Shipman tells the story in his definitive book on the campaign, I heard ‘Dom, Dom, DOM’ — the team had declared victory. I went next door…

Thanks to everybody who sacrificed something. As I said that night and as I said in my long blog on the campaign, I’ve been given credit I don’t deserve and which rightly belongs to others — Cleo Watson, Richard ‘Ricardo’ Howell, Brother Starkie, Oliver Lewis, Lord Suart et al. Now, let’s think about what should come next…

 

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

* Re the US literacy statistic, cf. A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century, National Assessment of Adult Literacy, U.S. Dept of Education, NCES 2006.

 

 

 

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 #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.

screenshot-2017-01-16-12-24-13

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’.

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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.

Times op-ed: What Is To Be Done? An answer to Dean Acheson’s famous quip

On Tuesday 2 December, the Times ran an op-ed by me you can see HERE. It got cut slightly for space. Below is the original version that makes a few other points.

I will use this as a start of a new series on what can be done to improve the system including policy, institutions, and management.

NB1. The article is not about the election or party politics. My suggested answer to Acheson is, I think, powerful partly because it is something that could be agreed upon, in various dimensions, across the political spectrum. I left the DfE in January partly because I wanted to have nothing to do with the election and this piece should not be seen as advocating ‘something Tories should say for the election’. I do not think any of the three leaders are interested in or could usefully pursue this goal – I am suggesting something for the future when they are all gone, and they could quite easily all be gone by summer 2016.

NB2. My view is not – ‘public bad, private good’. As I explained in The Hollow Men II, a much more accurate and interesting distinction is between a) large elements of state bureaucracies, dreadful NGOs like the CBI, and many large companies (that have many of the same HR and incentive problems as bureaucracies), where very similar types rise to power because the incentives encourage political skills rather than problem-solving skills, and b) start-ups, where entrepreneurs and technically trained problem-solvers can create organisations that operate extremely differently, move extremely fast, create huge value, and so on.

(For a great insight into start-up world I recommend two books. 1. Peter Thiel’s new book ‘Zero To One‘. 2. An older book telling the story of a mid-90s start-up that was embroiled in the Netscape/Microsoft battle and ended up selling itself to the much better organised Bill Gates – ‘High Stakes, No Prisoners‘ by Charles Ferguson. This blog, Creators and Rulers, by physicist Steve Hsu also summarises some crucial issues excellently.)

Some parts of government can work like start-ups but the rest of the system tries to smother them. For example, DARPA (originally ARPA) was set up as part of the US panic about Sputnik. It operates on very different principles from the rest of the Pentagon’s R&D system. Because it is organised differently, it has repeatedly produced revolutionary breakthroughs (e.g. the internet) despite a relatively tiny budget. But also note – DARPA has been around for decades and its operating principles are clear but nobody else has managed to create an equivalent (openly at least). Also note that despite its track record, D.C. vultures constantly circle trying to make it conform to the normal rules or otherwise clip its wings. (Another interesting case study would be the alternative paths taken by a) the US government developing computers with one genius mathematician, von Neumann, post-1945 (a lot of ‘start-up’ culture) and b) the UK government’s awful decisions in the same field with another genius mathematician, Turing, post-1945.)

When I talk about new and different institutions below, this is one of the things I mean. I will write a separate blog just on DARPA but I think there are two clear action points:

1. We should create a civilian version of DARPA aimed at high-risk/high-impact breakthroughs in areas like energy science and other fundamental areas such as quantum information and computing that clearly have world-changing potential. For it to work, it would have to operate outside all existing Whitehall HR rules, EU procurement rules and so on – otherwise it would be as dysfunctional as the rest of the system (defence procurement is in a much worse state than the DfE, hence, for example, billions spent on aircraft carriers that in classified war-games cannot be deployed to warzones). We could easily afford this if we could prioritise – UK politicians spend far more than DARPA’s budget on gimmicks every year – and it would provide huge value with cascading effects through universities and businesses.

2. The lessons of why and how it works – such as incentivising goals, not micromanaging methods – have general application that are useful when we think generally about Whitehall reform.

Finally, government institutions also operate to exclude from power scientists, mathematicians, and people from the start-up world – the Creators, in Hsu’s term. We need to think very hard about how to use their very rare and valuable skills as a counterweight to the inevitable psychological type that politics will always tend to promote.

Please leave comments, corrections etc below.

DC


 

What Is to Be Done?

There is growing and justified contempt for Westminster. Number Ten has become a tragi-comic press office with the prime minister acting as Über Pundit. Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg see only the news’s flickering shadows on their cave wall – they cannot see the real world behind them. As they watch floundering MPs, officials know they will stay in charge regardless of an election that won’t significantly change Britain’s trajectory.

Our institutions failed pre-1914, pre-1939, and with Europe. They are now failing to deal with a combination of debts, bad public services, security threats, and profound transitions in geopolitics, economics, and technology. They fail in crises because they are programmed to fail. The public knows we need to reorient national policy and reform these institutions. How?

First, we need a new goal. In 1962, Dean Acheson quipped that Britain had failed to find a post-imperial role. The romantic pursuit of ‘the special relationship’ and the deluded pursuit of a leading EU role have failed. This role should focus on making Britain the best country for education and science. Pericles described Athens as ‘the school of Greece’: we could be the school of the world because this role depends on thought and organisation, not size.

This would give us a central role in tackling humanity’s biggest problems and shaping the new institutions, displacing the EU and UN, that will emerge as the world makes painful transitions in coming decades. It would provide a focus for financial priorities and Whitehall’s urgent organisational surgery. It’s a goal that could mobilise very large efforts across political divisions as the pursuit of knowledge is an extremely powerful motive.

Second, we must train aspirant leaders very differently so they have basic quantitative skills and experience of managing complex projects. We should stop selecting leaders from a subset of Oxbridge egomaniacs with a humanities degree and a spell as spin doctor.

In 2012, Fields Medallist Tim Gowers sketched a ‘maths for presidents’ course to teach 16-18 year-olds crucial maths skills, including probability and statistics, that can help solve real problems. It starts next year. [NB. The DfE funded MEI to turn this blog into a real course.] A version should be developed for MPs and officials. (A similar ‘Physics for Presidents‘ course has been a smash hit at Berkeley.) Similarly, pioneering work by Philip Tetlock on ‘The Good Judgement Project‘ has shown that training can reduce common cognitive errors and can sharply improve the quality of political predictions, hitherto characterised by great self-confidence and constant failure.

New interdisciplinary degrees such as ‘World history and maths for presidents’ would improve on PPE but theory isn’t enough. If we want leaders to make good decisions amid huge complexity, and learn how to build great teams, then we should send them to learn from people who’ve proved they can do it. Instead of long summer holidays, embed aspirant leaders with Larry Page or James Dyson so they can experience successful leadership.

Third, because better training can only do so much, we must open political institutions to people and ideas from outside SW1.

A few people prove able repeatedly to solve hard problems in theoretical and practical fields, creating important new ideas and huge value. Whitehall and Westminster operate to exclude them from influence. Instead, they tend to promote hacks and apparatchiks and incentivise psychopathic narcissism and bureaucratic infighting skills – not the pursuit of the public interest.

How to open up the system? First, a Prime Minister should be able to appoint Secretaries of State from outside Parliament. [How? A quick and dirty solution would be: a) shove them in the Lords, b) give Lords ministers ‘rights of audience’ in the Commons, c) strengthen the Select Committee system.]

Second, the 150 year experiment with a permanent civil service should end and Whitehall must open to outsiders. The role of Permanent Secretary should go and ministers should appoint departmental chief executives so they are really responsible for policy and implementation. Expertise should be brought in as needed with no restrictions from the destructive civil service ‘human resources’ system that programmes government to fail. Mass collaborations are revolutionising science [cf. Michael Nielsen’s brilliant book]; they could revolutionise policy. Real openness would bring urgent focus to Whitehall’s disastrous lack of skills in basic functions such as budgeting, contracts, procurement, legal advice, and project management.

Third, Whitehall’s functions should be amputated. The Department for Education improved as Gove shrank it. Other departments would benefit from extreme focus, simplification, and firing thousands of overpaid people. If the bureaucracy ceases to be ‘permanent’, it can adapt quickly. Instead of obsessing on process, distorting targets, and micromanaging methods, it could shift to incentivising goals and decentralising methods.

Fourth, existing legal relationships with the EU and ECHR must change. They are incompatible with democratic and effective government

Fifth, Number Ten must be reoriented from ‘government by punditry’ to a focus on the operational planning and project management needed to convert priorities to reality over months and years.

Technological changes such as genetic engineering and machine intelligence are bringing revolution. It would be better to undertake it than undergo it.