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I’ve been reading a lot recently about how we have adapted to the various types of lockdown or other restrictions that we have faced around the world as we respond to SARS-COV-2 and the Covid-19 pandemic in our various ways.

Of course the adaptations have been greatly influenced by personal circumstances, regional and national responses and the wider geopolitical situation. My life here in Stonesdale in North Yorkshire among a farming community is very different to that of someone in Delhi or Sao Paolo or Melbourne, or even London. It’s something we’ve tried hard to respect each week on Digital Planet, where our experience as a production team is shaped by local circumstances so can’t be generalised. …


The cover of the book Augmented Reality, resting on a HP Laptop
The cover of the book Augmented Reality, resting on a HP Laptop

If you thought surveillance capitalism was troubling, then Mark Pesce’s new book on augmented reality will give you a lot more to worry about.

In his usual easy, accessible style he shows just how data-hungry effective augmented reality will be and explores the implications of handing both data and technologies over to corporations and governments. He also points out that the freedom to to add a digital overlay to a scene is largely unconstrained, so that we have no effective way to stop anyone ‘writing’ on public or private spaces

What emerges is a vision of a world in which spaces, locations and even our gaze are fully monitored by businesses and governments in order to give us access to digital overlays that will largely be created by those same corporations and governments, as late stage capitalism moves from mere surveillance to…


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The fjord in Ålesund

Three years ago I woke up in a hotel in the beautiful Norwegian city of Ålesund, gathered my stuff and set off to meet my old friend Andy Budd and a disparate group of thinkers to drive across Norway to Valldal and the Juvet Landscape Hotel, well known as one of the locations for Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina

It was to be our home for the next three days to as we tried to figure out some of the ethical issues raised by AI in an amazing setting, with the best food I’ve ever eaten. …


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Trinity Street, Cambridge, during lockdown

It’s usually dangerous to draw analogies between computing and any other field except possibly mathematics, because the way we do things in computing is so bounded by technical constraints, business models, and naive modelling assumptions that trying to apply our approach in other domains is either laughably simplistic or clearly unhelpful.

However as I reflect on the state of the world as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic continues to disrupt so much about the lives of so many, it seems that one idea from our profession offers a useful way of thinking about what we are going through.

That idea is ‘technical debt’: the cumulative impact of taking the easy path to delivering a solution instead of doing it properly that will one day be repaid, either by redoing the work as bug reports come through, or through lost data, lost effort and lost trust in the software. …


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Wm Gibson at Cheltenham, October 1999

Although he came up with the term ‘cyberspace’ in the early 1980’s, William Gibson entered a version of it for the first time on October 9, 1999, in a darkened room in Cheltenham Town Hall during the town’s literary festival. I know, because I was his guide and he told me so.

We had just come off the main stage after a discussion about his recently published novel ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, and I’d invited him to the festival’s online zone to hang out with me in LinguaMOO, a text-only teaching system where I had a virtual office.

After he’d signed some books we went into the computer room and he logged in as Bill_Gibson, chatting for a few minutes with members of the the LinguaMOO community, including the TrAce writing community that I was part of. He started off…


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St Catharine’s College, Cambridge

I had just turned 19 when arrived in Cambridge in October 1979, with a full grant and a maintenance payment which meant it didn’t cost me or my parents anything.

I’d been brought up by my mum in a council house on one of the tougher council estates in Corby, Northants, and we weren’t in a position to pay fees or well-disposed to taking out loans and if it hadn’t been for the implementation of the Robbins Report I doubt I’d have gone to any university.

Find out about the Robbins Report

Corby was a thriving new town with a massive steelworks when we moved there in 1965, moving down from Tyneside with my mum and sister. One of my earliest memories is arriving in Brixham Walk, parking near a lamppost and walking from the road to the house in the dark. We lived there for the next fourteen years. …


By Gabriel Straub and Bill Thompson

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus , painting
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus , painting

The enthusiasm with which data scientists have embraced data-driven business models, along with a lack of concern for the needs of users and society, means that we are flying very close to the sun in terms of the potential negative consequences of the technologies we are developing. It’s time to look more carefully at the real impact of the choices we make, before we end up crashing into the sea: our emerging profession is not yet so firmly established that we cannot consider rethinking its boundaries, obligations, regulation — and perhaps even its name.


by Gabriel Straub and Bill Thompson

A bronze figurine of Daedalus. Who landed safely.
A bronze figurine of Daedalus. Who landed safely.
Daedalus — who landed safely. Photo by Petre Stojkovski — http://media.a1.com.mk/media/golemi/otkritie-dedal.jpg, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8602817

Having argued that data scientists must think carefully about their work and its impact, here we outline some steps that can be taken. We believe we can ameliorate the risks posed by the application of data science by being open about our higher level goals, taking accountability for the outcomes of our work, and being transparent about the choices and tradeoffs we make.

We will look at this in the context of the BBC, as our current employer and an example of an organisation that is obliged to open about its internal deliberations in many areas. …


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On September 21 2009 I sat with Roly Keating, at the time the Director of Archive Content for the BBC, outside this Starbucks in what was the BBC’s Media Centre, and talked to him about taking on a six month role to work in his team as the Head of Partnership Development. It was a quick job, sorting out a partnership strategy for the recently formed BBC Archive Development team run by Tony Ageh and setting up a couple of key agreements.

I’d been asked to go for the job by Tony as he and I had worked together back in 1994 when he ran The Guardian’s innovation group, the PDU, and I’d come over from PIPEX to run the New Media Lab and build the first iteration of The Guardian’s online presence. We’d stayed in touch since, and I’d been involved after he had arrived at the BBC in 2001. After working to develop the website and iPlayer, Tony was currently trying to make the archive more accessible, especially to other cultural institutions. …


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MT Media Lab Homepage

Over the last few weeks the degree of complicity between the technology community and the financier Jeffrey Epstein has started to become apparent, and it makes difficult reading for all of us in that community, because it shows that many of the people we believed were sincere in their attempts to develop technologies that could sustain humanity were happy to have a convicted paedophile in their midst and listen to his ill-formed ideas, take his money, burnish his reputation and even lie about his involvement in their work.

It’s hard to believe we’re all working to enhance the human condition when that’s the case, and the awareness of our involvement should be the occasion for some serious reflection and changes to our assumptions and behaviour. …

About

Bill Thompson

I'm a hack and pundit

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