Saturday, 31 December 2016

Podcast: Artificial Intelligence and Future of Work

What will automation and artificial intelligence mean for the future world of work?

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Friday, 16 December 2016

Podcast: Elections, what do they tell you?

Nick, Peter and Fraser discuss how much you can read into an election result.

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Friday, 9 December 2016

Podcast: Star Wars and Technology

Chris, Fraser, Nick and Peter talk about the technology of the Star Wars galaxy. Can you really have all that hardware but so little software? Why didn't R2D2 just commit the Death Star plans to Github? And what's the point of science fiction?

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Friday, 2 December 2016

Podcast: Currency Denominations

Nick, Peter and Fraser discuss why you never see £50 notes but get lots of €50 notes.

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Saturday, 26 November 2016

Podcast: Pseudo Science

Chris, Nick and Fraser discuss why pseudo science crops up in some areas of life but others.

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Thursday, 24 November 2016

Trump Scenario: Catch SSBN-22

This is the last in a suite of five scenarios developed by Aleph Insights, designed with the following question in mind:
“What will the US government’s principal strategic priorities be between 2017 and 2020?”
More background on the scenario development process, including caveats about scenario interpretation, is here. The baseline scenario is The Great-Again Gatsby. The other three alternative scenarios are Atlas HuggedFear and Loathing in Everywhere, and We Need to Talk about Donald.

Scenario Narrative

This scenario differs from the baseline in its assumptions about the US’s international position, and in particular its relationship with China.

Against the advice of Washington experts and his military chiefs, in the first few weeks of taking office, President Trump pointedly refused to affirm in unequivocal terms the US’s support for NATO, and has been evasive when questioned about his response to various Article V scenarios involving Russia and Eastern Europe. Although senior Representatives and NATO allies have emphasised that the US is bound to the Alliance regardless of the President’s statements, there has been clear nervousness internationally since Trump took office. Trump’s approach has been to build international trust through his personal relationships, in particular with Putin (“he’s also a guy who cares about getting a good deal”), rather than to trust in international bureaucracies.

But to many other governments, Trump’s approach is naive, and viewed as either a threat or an opportunity, depending on the nature of their historic relationship with the US. In 2018, Russia began to strengthen cooperation with China through an enhanced and more militarised Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The improved military and economic cooperation in the East mean that China and Russia have acted with a greater sense of immunity from potential US curbs to their power (such as US sanctions or diplomatic efforts), which in turn has emboldened their approach to international affairs.
(Photo: Kremlin)

EU-US trade relations have been undermined by Trump’s protectionist tendencies. America’s traditional European allies feel cut adrift and have felt compelled to reach their own agreements with a resurgent Russia and an increasingly muscular China. Asian democracies, meanwhile, have been increasingly alarmed about the unfettered reach of China across its expanding sphere of influence, torn between maintaining cordial relationships with China due to economic necessity, and confronting China over its ever more confident assertions about various disputed territories. By mid-2018 tensions in the Pacific are high.

Exacerbating these tensions, President Trump remained true to his word by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports. His negotiating style has been confrontational and theatrical, involving sound bites and ultimatums. Successive trade agreement talks have fallen through, and the US has threatened increased levies on Chinese goods imported by the US. The impact of this impasse between the world’s two largest markets has started to be felt by the global economy. Growth has slowed markedly and free trade is diminished. While the US is insulated from some of the most severe effects of this ‘global cooling’, consumers have seen prices of most goods rise in real terms, and are struggling to afford many foreign-produced technology goods (although US manufacturing has seen a short term boost in sales).

It is against this backdrop that, in mid-2019, a crisis occurred with echoes of the Hainan Island Incident of 2001. During uncomfortable trade negotiations with China, the White House was forced to issue a press statement about a ‘maritime incident’. The statement referred to an unspecified US Navy vessel being involved in a collision with a vessel of unknown origin in international waters near Okinawa. After only a few minutes, Press secretary Hope Hicks ended the session in the packed White House press room by saying “Sorry, we have no more details at this time”.

China Central Television subsequently reported that: “A US nuclear-armed submarine was discovered patrolling Chinese national waters and has collided with a Chinese submarine on a routine and peaceful patrol. Both vessels were heavily damaged, and despite the heroic efforts of her crew the Chinese Shang-class submarine was lost with all hands. The brave People’s Liberation Army Navy rushed to the aid of the USS Georgia which was forced to the surface without power and would have sunk without Chinese assistance. Our heroic sailors are currently towing the stricken US boat to port, and all surviving US crew are under the watchful care of Admiral Wu Shengli.”

The Pentagon immediately entered crisis mode and the State Department began frenetic attempts to negotiate the safe return of the US submarine. The implications of a state-of-the-art US submarine containing its full complement of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles falling into Chinese hands did not need to be spelled out.  The US boat was swiftly taken to port in Shantou, as the Chinese government stated that it was seeking to ‘guarantee the containment of potentially hazardous materials’ and also ‘offer the highest level of medical care for the wounded’. President Putin has offered to send search and rescue ships to attempt to raise the lost Chinese boat, equating the loss to the Kursk disaster.
Bad Memories: the Wreck of the Kursk

In response, the US quickly mobilised the Pacific Fleet, sending a carrier group to international waters 70 miles from Taiwan, to ‘provide support and monitor the delicate situation’. Meanwhile, a number of plausible excuses were given to delay China’s return of the damaged submarine and its crew. While the Chinese have avoided any overtly provocative actions, such as parading the crew on television, they have questioned the aptitude of the US submarine commander and decried the violation of Chinese sovereignty that his alleged incursion represented. Japan and South Korea were drawn into the war of words, expressing deep concern about the proximity of US nuclear weapons so close to friendly nations in the Western Pacific. The US rebutted the accusations of violating Chinese waters, but refused to release details about the patrol path of the vessel. The debate about the true position and intent of the two submarines has been rancorous. Moscow and other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation have expressed solidarity with China and offered assistance to “bring a swift and peaceful resolution” to the incident.

China too has mobilised its own naval presence in the area, and the proximity of the two fleets has become a cause for grave international concern. Chinese ships have had daily encounters with reconnaissance aircraft operating from the US carrier fleet. There have been a number of near misses in bad weather between the US aircraft and their Chinese interceptors. By the end of 2019 the situation has not been resolved, and China has largely been seen as winning the communications war. In November it offered a cynical ‘gesture of goodwill’ to the US families of the naval personnel still under guard in China, inviting them to visit for Thanksgiving at the expense of the Chinese people. The US government was able to do little to prevent the media circus of US families being greeted on Chinese soil.

President Trump and his entire cabinet have been heavily criticised by the media for their handling of the situation. European leaders have universally called for de-escalation of the situation, to be mediated by the UN, and pundits are seriously discussing triggers and likely outcomes for an armed conflict between China and the US. Public consciousness and cultural discourse has become filled with the imminent threat of war. The National Mall is occupied with an eclectic mix of peace campaigners, environmental activists and anti-Trump movement supporters. Popular musical artists have co-ordinated to stage a series of ‘One World’ peace concerts, which have acted as a focus for young people’s anxieties. In Oakland, California and Portland, Oregon, anti-war and anti-Trump protests have degenerated into riots resulting in a number of police officers being injured and millions of dollars of damage to private property being caused by fire.

Throughout the crisis, oil and other commodity prices have soared. The US economy has been hit by inflation and declining exports, with manufacturing in particular being badly affected by an increase in the cost of raw materials, although by early 2020 economic issues are far from the top of everyone’s concerns. Anti-US sentiment has increased around the world; the State Department has issued warnings against travelling to the Middle East, China and other parts of East Asia and advised ‘special precautions when traveling to Europe and Africa’. Stocks in big US multinational companies have fallen and the global situation has prevented free and easy travel. Financial institutions have begun making plans to close down major offshore departments to be repatriated to US soil. Trump has shouldered much of the blame for his management of the military and economic crisis. His prospects in the 2020 Presidential election look poor, in contrast to his potential Democratic rivals who are all offering a firm, sensible and decisive resolution to the situation.

Policy Implications

By early 2020, the US political system has become paralysed by the China submarine crisis. Resolving it and securing the return of the US submarine and its crew have been the sole focus of Trump’s administration. Economic conditions have worsened significantly, limiting the government’s ability to raise taxes, while spending on the military and intelligence agencies has risen dramatically during President Trump’s first term. The cumulative effect has been a significant squeeze on spending in by other departments and an increase in government borrowing. The US has lost standing internationally and has been made to appear aggressive and erratic. However, the very real threat of international conflict has forced NATO allies (reluctantly, in some cases) to support the US in its increasingly acrimonious diplomatic engagements with the Chinese and Russians.

Trump Scenario: We Need to Talk about Donald

This is the fourth in a suite of five scenarios developed by Aleph Insights, designed with the following question in mind:
“What will the US government’s principal strategic priorities be between 2017 and 2020?”
More background on the scenario development process, including caveats about scenario interpretation, is here. The baseline scenario is The Great-Again Gatsby. The three other alternative scenarios are Atlas HuggedFear and Loathing in Everywhere, and Catch SSBN-22.

Scenario Narrative

This scenario varies from the Baseline in its assumption about the personality and history of Donald Trump. In this scenario, President Trump is less pragmatic and less willing to listen to his advisers than in the baseline, and more divisive and unpredictable in his behaviour. Moreover, his personal history becomes a more significant issue during his tenure. 

From the start, the signs were that the Trump engine of government was disorganised and disunited. Trump remained indecisive over some key cabinet positions until mid-January, as he battled the conflicting interests of both rewarding his campaign supporters, and satisfying the GOP seniors. In the end, Trump went with loyalty over expertise, and the 2017 cabinet was light on experienced politicians and heavy with Trump cronies. Trump’s somewhat despotic image was reinforced by the high-profile firing of Steven Mnuchin over ‘political differences’, and media reports painted a picture of strong personality clashes and bureaucratic in-fighting between cabinet members and their staffers. Widespread accusations of bullying emerged, directed at senior White House officials and including high-profile Representatives, with insiders suggesting the oppressive culture was being driven from above by a President whose temperament and managerial style was a bad fit for the compromises and frustrations of political office. In public, the GOP remained united behind their President, but behind closed doors the party has seen a serious rift open up between Trump loyalists and the senior Republicans whose worst fears seemed to be coming to pass.

Meanwhile, outside the Oval Office, the liberal knives were out for President Trump from day one. The ‘Impeach Trump’ movement became more organised and better-funded, steered by a committee that included several technology billionaires as well as populist liberals such as Michael Moore. The movement called for whistle-blowers to come forward, and continued to conduct investigations into all facets of Mr Trump's business and political life. Impeach Trump continued to amass evidence of any dubious dealings in the President’s past, based on the assumption of guilt, with the tacit support of major media organisations whose relationship with Trump was abrasive from the start. 

Organised resistance
(Photo: David Shankbone)

The most damaging allegations that emerged related to Trump’s alleged use of various illegal tax avoidance schemes over a period of decades. These schemes, involving a series of sophisticated ‘cut out’ entities, foreign tax credits, offshoring, and several other tax dodges, proved difficult to trace back to the Trump business empire, let alone the man himself. Initially, the President was able to dismiss the claims as the imaginings of his embittered opponents, and for a time was able to turn the tables on his accusers and associate them with the ‘corruption that fills Washington’s swamp’. However, in late 2017 a cache of documents released by one whistle-blower, working for a transnational accountancy firm, proved a treasure trove for investigators. Documents obliquely suggesting that Donald Trump had directly authorised the use of the schemes emerged; further, the body of material cumulatively created a lurid picture of a network of investments and work-arounds which appeared to include laundering money for drug cartels via casinos and the breaking of US sanctions imposed against pariah regimes.

While many of Trump’s supporters were prepared to ignore the story, the US Department of Justice began preparations for a criminal investigation. The scandal has been exacerbated by Trump’s response to the case against him. For a long period of time, he simply refused to engage with any of the details. As evidence mounted, he continued to attack those making the allegations, rather than deal with the substance of the accusations. Finally, President Trump was forced to claim ignorance regarding the scheme. This has had a trebly damaging effect: first, the President has by implication been compelled to acknowledge this activity may have taken place; second, it has created severe doubts about the probity of a man who made trust a linchpin of his campaign for election; and finally, he has been made to look incompetent in his business dealings. By mid-2018, the ‘Trumpgate’ scandal had been dominating the news agenda for nearly a year, and combined with Trump’s temperamental and divisive leadership style, the President’s circle of friends in the House was dwindling rapidly.

The King in his Castle
(Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Although the Department of Justice investigation had barely begun, by Summer 2018 the talk on the Hill was of when, rather than if, Articles of Impeachment would be issued by Congress. A sufficient number of concerned Republicans were willing to support such a vote, the only disagreement being about whether or not the official investigation should be completed first. However, despite even his most trusted advisers urging him to step down for the good of the country and of the party, Trump’s erratic and combative behaviour only seemed to become more entrenched. Only when Vice-President Pence himself publicly called on the President to resign - following mid-term polls forecasting the worst Republican performance since 1974 - did Trump’s tactical withdrawal from office begin. Amid rumours of ill health, sparked by unexplained cancellations of public engagements, Trump stepped down in September 2018. In his final address to congress Trump talked of the progress he had achieved, how he had made America great again despite the conspiracies against him, and how he had no further work to do. Trump withdrew from public life and retreated with a small cadre of loyalists to Trump tower to reassume control of his business empire. Meanwhile, in DC, Mike Pence is limping on in 2020, immobilised by a strongly Democratic House and Senate, and the lack of a mandate. The resurgent Democratic party seem set for an easy victory in the upcoming Presidential election.

Policy Implications

The US government system has resisted a vocal and bullying President. Trump has been largely frustrated in his bids for his most extreme interventions; however, the US has been left isolated and economically weakened. During this period the administration has failed to introduce any new significant legislation, due to the strength and breadth of resistance to the President. Routine government business has carried on under the stewardship of civil servants and some of the more pragmatic political appointees. There has been a lot of brinkmanship over the passing of Federal budgets, leading to widespread uncertainty over almost everything linked to Federal funding, but budgets were eventually passed, allowing public services to be delivered. The confrontation has eased since Donald Trump stepped down, and President Pence has reverted to a pre-Trump status quo approach to government. In the wake of the Trump catastrophe, there has been a growth in calls to reform the electoral system so that college votes and popular votes align. Both parties now strike a much more sober and conventional tone in their political rhetoric.

(Read the final alternative scenario: Catch SSBN-22.)

Trump Scenario: Fear and Loathing in Everywhere

This is the third in a suite of five scenarios developed by Aleph Insights, designed with the following question in mind:
“What will the US government’s principal strategic priorities be between 2017 and 2020?”
More background on the scenario development process, including caveats about scenario interpretation, is here. The baseline scenario is The Great-Again Gatsby. The three other alternative scenarios are Atlas HuggedWe Need to Talk about Donald, and Catch SSBN-22.

Scenario Narrative

This scenario differs from the baseline in its assumption about social cohesion and unrest.

In his inauguration speech, President Trump pledged to deliver on his pre-election promises. He stated that the ‘wall’ on America’s southern border will be completed by the end of his first term as President, that Muslims will be subjected to additional checks before being permitted access to the United States, and that police will be supported in applying a number of new law enforcement measures (including ‘stop and frisk’ and the continued introduction of military equipment for police forces). 

Even before these policies had started to be implemented, they began to have an effect. The vision painted by the speech acted as a fillip to those opposing President Trump. A series of nationwide protests were organised by a coalition of activist groups representing Muslims, African Americans, Latinos and other civil rights interests. Over a number of consecutive days the protests, held under the banner ‘United Against Prejudice’ (UAP), brought the downtown areas of a number of cities to a standstill. A march in Birmingham, AL, descended into violence and led to the shooting dead of five protesters, including a pastor, by police. Footage of the shooting supported two competing narratives, mirroring the divided public attitude towards the protests. Some saw the protesters as the inciting party, and believed the police were acting in self-defence; others saw the incident as clear evidence of the heavy-handed and unrestricted deployment of lethal force against innocent, unarmed and mainly black civilians. The ‘Birmingham Five’ became a symbol of the UAP and its resistance against state oppression. 

Throughout 2017 the UAP became increasingly associated with violent disturbances, despite its attempts to distance itself from extremist elements. In response to the wave of protests and riots, grassroots vigilante groups sprang up across the US, and particularly in the South, coalescing in some cases around existing ‘prepper’ and white supremacist organisations. During the spring of 2017, vigilante groups were involved in a number of violent altercations with UAP protesters, spontaneous demonstrations, and innocent bystanders. As the situation worsened, President Trump repeatedly condemned violence from both sides. But statements made (against the advice of senior Police Commissioners), supporting the “rights of citizens to defend their homes”, were seen as tacit support for vigilantes. On 4 July, three Hispanic men - US citizens from the same family - were shot dead outside their home by a ‘self-defence’ group in Arizona. Throughout July, a widening spiral of fatal revenge attacks across the US started to give the impression of a government losing control of a country that was falling apart.

August 2017 brought record temperatures, drought, and further unrest across the US. Starting with a demonstration, then a riot, in Memphis, large-scale violent protests, not affiliated with the UAP, rose up in Baltimore, Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio and a host of smaller cities, and commentators began talking about a ‘Summer of Rage’. Using the emergency powers still officially in effect following the September 11 2001 attacks (and renewed by President Obama in 2016), the National Guard were mobilised on 14 August and deployed to downtown areas in major US cities. By the time the protests had died down or been quelled, 2 Guardsmen, 13 police officers, and 87 civilians had been killed, and damage was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. President Trump and UAP leaders shared a platform vowing to work together to end “all violent means of settling differences” and vowing to “bring harmony back to this great nation”. But in the perception of most observers across the political spectrum, the situation was only an ‘uneasy truce’.   

Keeping the Peace
(photo: Maryland National Guard)

In many ways, the violence emboldened President Trump in his pursuit of his most divisive policies. The ‘wall’ began construction in late 2017 across portions of America’s southern border, and in 2018 a new trade levy on Mexican imports was enacted by executive order, in order (nominally at least) to fund its construction. Vigilante patrolling of the border increased with the help of larger numbers of volunteers for the self-defence groups that have sprung up across the country. 

Against this continuing backdrop of protests, riots and sporadic outbreaks of violence between divided sections of communities, containing civil unrest has become the dominant focus of the Presidency. Many commentators have likened the situation to the late 1960s and the overlapping unrest associated with Vietnam protests and the civil rights movement. The President’s economic plans have stalled as politicians on all sides responded to domestic instability. Many leading Democrats have become champions for the protesting minorities. The economy has suffered as America’s image as a place to do business has been severely undermined.

Against this backdrop, US foreign policy has been given little attention by the media or the Presidency, aside from Donald Trump’s signing of the Terrorist Vetting Directive (TVD). This legislation enables the enhanced vetting of travellers from designated countries (all of which have significant Muslim populations), it also explicitly permits the overt use of profiling at airports and other entry points to the US. The TVD has damaged relations with a number of key allies in the Middle East and Asia, and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have both threatened to withdraw all security cooperation with the US. France and the UK, with their significant Muslim populations, have also publicly criticised the policy.

By 2020, many Americans feel bruised by the experience of the last three years. As the President looks to the upcoming election, it seems as if the country has never been more divided. His hardline attitude to protesters and his determination to see through his electoral promises have consolidated his support amongst conservatives. Yet, it is these very policies which have also entrenched opposition to the prospect of his second term. Trump enters the election campaign with only one option: to continue along the path he has chosen and hope that his ardent supporters outnumber his highly motivated opponents. No one knows what the future brings, but the hope is that it cannot be worse than the recent past.

Policy Implications

In this scenario the US government has been entirely preoccupied with dealing with social division and unrest. The resources of the police and other components of the domestic security apparatus have been diverted to containing this crisis. The legislative process has also been bogged down in trying to create new laws to deal with protesters and civil disobedience. Social programmes and investment have targeted the most severely affected areas. Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election, it is likely to take a decade for the rifts between Americans to heal. The US must also look how to repair its international reputation. US global hegemony is diminished; China, which has maintained a low profile during this period, is now seen by many as a potentially more responsible partner than the US.

(Read the third alternative scenario: We Need to Talk about Donald.)

Trump Scenario: Atlas Hugged

This is the second in a suite of five scenarios developed by Aleph Insights, designed with the following question in mind:
“What will the US government’s principal strategic priorities be between 2017 and 2020?”
More background on the scenario development process, including caveats about scenario interpretation, is here. The baseline scenario is The Great-Again Gatsby. The three other alternative scenarios are Fear and Loathing in EverywhereWe Need to Talk about Donald, and Catch SSBN-22.

Scenario Narrative

This scenario differs from the baseline in its assumptions about President Trump’s economic and social policy.

In the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency, the new President laid out a radical programme of economic regeneration - the ‘Trump Plan’ - focusing on massive infrastructure projects and tax reduction. Many of the Trump Plan projects, geared towards renewing America’s transport, energy and communications infrastructure, have begun generating significant employment in ‘rust belt’ areas. Since 2017, employment has continued to rise (along its post-2009 trend) along with median wages, and some of the early, smaller projects have started delivering longer-term productivity benefits.

The Trump Plan

President Trump’s tax cuts have also been a political success. Republican control of both the House and Congress enabled the President to pass a number of measures favouring business and low-income earners. Consumer confidence has grown over Trump’s first term and commentators now refer to the ‘Trump Boom’ of 2017-18. US industrial output has been further buoyed by the President’s combative approach to international trade treaties. By early 2020, President Trump’s approval ratings have actually increased from their nadir when he took office.

To the surprise of many, President Trump also seems committed to a progressive, libertarian social agenda. Significantly, Trump Plan investment has been targeted on urban regeneration as well as heavy industry, the administration has actively back-pedalled on many of its pre-election pledges regarding immigration, and Trump has been vocal in his desire to ‘heal the wounds’ in American society. He has reached out to ethnic minorities, appointing a Muslim Attorney General in 2018 (“Muslims are great people - the best people”), and has expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, addressing a 2017 demonstration in Washington DC in terms linking prospects for black people to his economic program: "I want to make sure everyone in this country is safe, which means supporting the police, but it also means making sure people of color don’t have to live in fear. I'm going to make this country heal, make it whole, and make it great again. And I'm going to get this country working again. I want you to know that not only do I believe sincerely that black lives matter, I also believe that black jobs matter."

Not everybody is happy with this. The President’s failure to deliver on a number of key election promises, such as his commitment to reduce immigration, has frustrated some of his more radical supporters. This came into sharp focus in 2019 when a report was released detailing the significant number of non-legal immigrants working on Trump Plan infrastructure projects. Social conservatives are also mobilising in response to the President’s failure to appoint their preferred picks to the Supreme Court and his public refusal to support repeal of Federal gay marriage legislation or challenges to Roe v Wade. The 2018 State of the Union address was seen as a turning point for many social conservatives with President Trump declaring that “the choice of the individual will always come before the decree of the government”. This language was seen as particularly inflammatory in the context of women’s access to birth control and abortion services.

(Photo: Elvert Barnes Protest Photography)

Small-government Republicans, while happy with tax cuts, are increasingly resistant to the large increases in Federal spending and the longer-term economic consequences that go with it. They have become alarmed by the burgeoning deficit being racked up by the Government. The mid-terms, which saw the Republican majorities in both houses reduced, made it harder for the President to continue with his economic programme. The Trump Plan is starting to look vulnerable, and markets reflect longer-term concerns about its sustainability: the dollar has steadily declined through to 2020, and interest rates have been steadily rising to counter the inflationary effects of government spending. In the domestic arena then, President Trump’s most vociferous criticism is unexpectedly coming from his right.

There are also concerns that the President has weakened the US internationally. He has alienated the EU and other key allies through his lack of commitment to climate change agreements and his general indifference towards stability in the Middle East and the security of Eastern Europe. The US has also come into conflict with the EU and China over free trade and the implementation of US tariffs on key imported materials and goods - the so called ‘Trade Wall’ that President Trump has been accused of erecting - and by 2020 there are signs that the economic self-determination being promoted by the President is starting to have an effect on the global economy.

President Trump is gearing up for the 2020 election with a distinctly tarnished lustre. Pessimism surrounding the US economy’s longer-term prospects is emerging as the central theme of attack for his Democratic rivals. As the incumbent, and given his populist economic track record to date, he looks like the favourite to win, but many see a recession and subsequent disillusionment looming on the horizon.

Policy Implications

The focus of the US Government during President Trump’s first term has been on delivering economic growth and particularly increased employment (although Trump has also devoted an unexpected level of energy into trying to patch up the divisions in US society). Deficit reduction has been far from a concern for this administration, and the huge levels of spending that have gone towards funding infrastructure projects have raised significant concerns within the Treasury about inflation, longer-term economic prospects, and the spectre of stagflation. Trump Plan spending has also had to be counterbalanced by reduced spending in other areas, and throughout this period departments have been asked to identify efficiencies or divert their spending to support the overall goal of job creation; Federal government has also been mandated to purchase American-made goods whenever possible. With regards to international affairs, the President has taken a fairly laissez-faire approach, unless it has related to trade negotiations. His attention to security matters has tended to be sparing.

(Read the second alternative scenario: Fear and Loathing in Everywhere.)

Trump Scenario: The Great-Again Gatsby

This is the first in a suite of five scenarios developed by Aleph Insights, designed with the following question in mind:
“What will the US government’s principal strategic priorities be between 2017 and 2020?”
More background on the scenario development process, including caveats about scenario interpretation, is here. This is the baseline scenario. The four alternative scenarios are Atlas HuggedFear and Loathing in EverywhereWe Need to Talk about Donald, and Catch SSBN-22.

Scenario Narrative

After one of the strangest elections in US history, President Trump arrived in office on 20 January 2017 on a mandate to ‘make America great again’, and a promise to be a ‘President for all Americans’, but with few in the way of concrete and credible policy promises. Trump’s first cabinet was a mix of loyal Republican operators, compensating somewhat for his own lack of political experience, and ‘Trump people’ - a cadre of business leaders and former associates whom he believed could help him get things done in the Washington jungle.

In terms of style, Trump has wavered between ‘Presidential’, ‘straight-talking’, and ‘gaffe-prone’. He and his family (to whom he has divested his business interests, albeit temporarily) have continued to be a ‘story’ since he took office. Various financial scandals and sexual harassment suits have emerged, but have bounced off him in a way which eluded previous Presidents affected by such things. Despite his age - the oldest President ever elected - Trump has remained healthy and energetic throughout his first term.

Economically, Trump has done his best to deliver for what he sees as his core supporters. A lowering of business rates, new investment subsidies and tax breaks for manufacturers, and a reining-in of environmental and commercial regulation, have boosted industrial output growth, although irreversible technological factors mean that employment in the sector has not kept pace. Trump has honoured his promise to increase military spending, and the defence budget has risen by $30bn a year, with missile defence being reinvigorated as a priority. Although looking financially competent is an important personal goal, balancing the books hasn’t been an overriding priority for Trump compared to boosting jobs, and government debt has increased year-on-year for the last four years.
Great Again
(photo: Gage Skidmore)

In social and domestic policy areas, Trump has also tried to deliver on his promises - kinda. The ‘wall’ has ended up for most of its length as a double fence, and Mexico hasn’t paid for it. The ‘repeal’ of Obamacare turned into an ‘amendment’ that removed mandatory insurance but kept most of the key provisions. Immigration controls have been tightened, particularly from unstable parts of the world - inevitably focusing on the Middle East - but the ‘complete shutdown on Muslims entering the US’ hasn’t been enacted due to recognition of its total unworkability. And Hillary Clinton remains at liberty.

On other sensitive domestic issues - abortion, gun control, rights for gay and transgender people, marijuana legalisation - the Trump administration has broadly avoided taking sides by advocating the rights of individual states to determine their own laws. Despite the fears of some of his liberal opponents, Trump has had no appetite to expend political capital either on introducing or repealing any Federal legislation covering these tricky issues.

President Trump has enjoyed the limelight of the international stage. His diplomatic style is based on personal relationships rather than alignment of national interests, and his focus has been on ‘getting a good deal’ for the US. Trump has picked his fights carefully, tempering populism with pragmatism, and has avoided endangering access to global markets to any countries or in any sectors that really matter to the US economy. In 2017, the US, Canada and Mexico formally began renegotiating NAFTA, widely blamed by many Trump supporters for US job losses. But besides a few high-profile protectionist measures for specific industries (including tariffs on non-US-produced cars and hydrocarbons, and tax breaks for US companies operating at home) none of the three countries have any real appetite to reduce free trade across the board, and as of 2020 the new deal is still officially being worked out.

Regarding international relations, a key early priority for Trump - on the strong advice of his military chiefs - was to affirm the US’s support to NATO, albeit with some lecturing about other nations paying their fair share. To an extent, however, tensions with Russia have eased because of the personal rapport between Trump and Putin, and the two countries have co-operated somewhat in the Middle East and in the sharing of counterterrorism intelligence. Overall, Trump’s administration has been less interventionist, and has made little fuss over human rights abuses or environmental degradation in other countries. Relations with the EU have been publicly frosty, not helped by Trump’s reinvigoration of the ‘special relationship’ with the UK in the run-up to its exit from the EU in 2019 which included some high-profile (though limited) trade pledges. Trump has used publicly competitive language regarding China, although relations are smooth behind the scenes.

In Washington DC, there was something of a party atmosphere in 2017. The Republicans went into the new administration riding high, with control of the White House and the Capitol, and a soon-to-be-balanced Supreme Court. It is true that for a vocal few in the GOP - its traditionalist, intellectual establishment - Trump is seen as a disaster: an embodied legitimisation of electoral nastiness, steered from below by a hard-to-control mob; a populist with no long-term strategy who will destroy the party when he fails to deliver on his unfulfillable promises. But for most Republicans, any concerns about Trump’s temperament were quickly swept under the carpet in the aftermath of the election, and GOP representatives were queuing up to be seen shaking hands with the new POTUS.

For the Democrats, however, the 2016 election ushered in a period of soul-searching about the loss of the traditional support base, and the party has moved somewhat to the left, talking more about workers rights, abuses by big business, and social cohesion. The Democrats remain committed to progressive values and are searching - so far in vain - for the next JFK. The 2018 mid-term election handed the House back to the Democrats with a small (224 to 211) majority, representing disillusionment with and apathy towards Trump from some of the 2016 voters.

Away from the Hill, the country is more divided than ever by 2020. An anti-Trump ‘movement’ of sorts has emerged from the loose coalescing of various liberal political and protest groups. But the Democratic party is not the primary focus or spearhead of this movement; instead its expression is mainly online and its figureheads include fringe politicians, Silicon Valley CEOs and YouTube gurus. ‘Resistance’ to the government in these forums takes various forms, including concerted assertions of digital and online rights including freedom of expression, evasion of US government intelligence collection efforts, cyberattacks and the co-ordination of assistance to illegal immigrants.
No Thanks
(photo: Elvert Barnes Protest Photography)

Real-world expressions of unrest remain sporadic. Black Lives Matter, and associated organisations including those representing Latinos, have become more vocal, and minorities express higher levels of fearfulness in Trump’s America. Riots in response to killings by police have become slightly more frequent, with a changed narrative that places institutional oppression at a national, rather than local, level. An incident in 2017 in which a Hispanic family was killed by a vigilante group for failing to stop at a ‘checkpoint’ has raised perceptions of a deepening and dangerous divide. President Trump has repeatedly condemned racial violence, but a small minority of his supporters nevertheless feel emboldened by the message that they have read into his 2016 electoral victory.

In contrast to the President’s pre-election fearmongering, Islamist terrorism has been largely a non-issue for the last four years. Two avowedly Islamist-inspired deadly attacks have occurred (a sniper attack on a shopping mall in 2017, and the bombing of an Army base in 2019) but most low-level political violence in the US continues to be associated with conservative and right-wing groups (including attacks on abortion centres and mosques). Statistically speaking, Trump’s presidency has had no significant impact on Islamist or any other form of terrorism in the US, despite popular narratives - on both sides - linking the two phenomena.

The 2020 elections are approaching. Despite the fears of his detractors, and the hopes of his more-fanatical supporters, Trump’s first term has been largely uneventful in terms of national policy initiatives or crises. The polls once again suggest a close race.

Policy Implications

Donald Trump’s main challenge has been to deliver on his promises to, and so retain the support of, the ‘middle Americans’ who deserted the Democrats in 2016. His focus has been on delivering economic growth, and particularly higher employment, with a mixture of tweaks to the tax and benefits system and a few high-profile initiatives. The US is neither significantly greater nor significantly less great than in 2016: it is not a new Jerusalem, but the world hasn’t ended either.

(Read the first alternative scenario: Atlas Hugged.)

The Donald Trump Scenarios

Hail to the Chief
(photo: Gage Skidmore)

The following scenarios are narrative sketches of possible future worlds. They have been designed with the following question in mind:
“What will the US government’s principal strategic priorities be between 2017 and 2020?”
The scenarios were developed by Aleph Insights using a structured, collaborative, driver-based scenario generation method. They are not forecasts, but narrative scenarios. Narrative scenarios are a tool that is useful for contingency planning and the collaborative identification of key concerns, opportunities and threats. They are not, and should not be, assessed in terms of their probability.

In the opinion of the scenario developers, the key drivers of the US’s strategic priorities between 2017 and 2020 will be: President Trump’s personality and leadership style, his economic policy focus, his social policy focus, his international trade policy focus, external political events and trends, domestic political events and trends, US social cohesion and unrest, and violent extremism. Yes, that’s more-or-less ‘everything’ but that’s what you might expect: the US is an important, highly-connected, country. Each of the following scenarios is built on a slightly different set of assumptions concerning these drivers, and is set in early 2020.

The first scenario is the 'baseline', corresponding to a set of assumptions that (in the view of the developers) are most plausible. However, again it is not a forecast, and should not be considered in any sense 'likely'. The other four scenarios represent plausible alternatives based on changed assumptions. These should be assumed broadly to follow the baseline where not explicitly stated otherwise.

Our scenarios are:

Friday, 18 November 2016

Podcast: No Man's Sky - Death of Marketing?

Nick, Peter and Fraser look at the controversy surrounding 'No Man's Sky', and ask if the information revolution has killed marketing.

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Friday, 11 November 2016

Podcast: Why don't the trains run on time?

Chris, Peter and Fraser discuss the decisions that create problems in public services.

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Friday, 4 November 2016

Podcast: Entertainment and Data

Fraser, Peter and Chris discuss how data is making entertainment even more entertaining.

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Friday, 28 October 2016

Podcast: What does the sale of British Bake off tell us about IP?

Nick, Peter and Fraser discuss what the Great British Bake off tells us about intellectual property.

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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The Input Insensitivity Illusion

Some things are simple. They are governed by well understood rules, they can be measured, modelled and predicted with good accuracy. They seem to take care of themselves. These are simple systems and we don’t need to worry about them, right?

Take William Foster, Michael Douglas’s character in the film Falling Down. On the face of it, he is a walking simple system. He is a law abiding citizen going about his day in a routine fashion. The same inputs, the same outputs. Sure, there have been some adjustments to his system recently, he is now unemployed and separated from his family - but he is coping with these changes and continues to function normally. We don’t need to worry about him, right?

Those of you who have seen the film [spoiler alert] will know that we definitely do need to worry about him. He ends up going on a cathartic shooting spree, railing against all the petty injustices he has begrudgingly tolerated for years. What gives the movie its power is the idea of an Everyday Joe going off the rails - a simple system acting unpredictably.

Marcus du Sautoy’s book, What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge, provides some excellent examples of simple systems behaving chaotically. One of its central messages is the idea that even incredibly simple systems, driven by totally deterministic rules, can seem to exhibit totally unpredictable behaviors.

Think of a pendulum. We can predict its behaviour accurately: where it moves, at what velocity. It is governed by extremely well understood physical rules. This predictability has been successfully harnessed by time-keeping technology for centuries. Now, if we attach a second pendulum to the bottom of the first - making a double pendulum - it will still be governed by the same rules and we should be able to continue to predict its behaviour.  The system is DETERMINISTIC - i.e. if you know the beginning state (input), you can calculate the state at any future time (output). In this case, if you could start the pendulum off in exactly the same conditions then it would follow the same path. Note that the 'crazy' pendulum movement is not the issue here - that bit is predictable.
Source: Wikipedia - 100Miezekatzen
It turns out the system is very sensitive to tiny variations in the starting position and many other factors. Slight differences in the starting position, temperature and airflow (tiny nuclear forces caused by cosmic radiation events?), can result in large differences in the behaviour of this system: very different 'crazy' paths. These slight differences in the input are - in practical terms - imperceptible to us, but they have a very noticeable impact on the observable output. This means the double pendulum is to all intents and purposes both DETERMINISTIC and UNPREDICTABLE. 

The same is true of many systems. I won’t get into a discussion here regarding the validity of the distinction between aleatory and epistemic uncertainty (perhaps a topic for another blog post), but there are many things which it is theoretically possible, yet actually impractical to predict (e.g. the outcome of a dice throw). Most of these systems do not cause us a problem, because we view them as highly complex or even chaotic systems and treat them as random, and predictable only in terms of a probability distribution based on observed outcomes. In other words, we know they are unpredictable and take this into account in our decision-making.

It should be noted that a chaotic system is not necessarily entirely unpredictable; rather such chaotic systems may have a ‘horizon’ beyond which it is not practically possible to predict its outputs. In the 1950s the prediction horizon for weather systems was about 18 hours, today it is about one week. This may sound like a huge improvement, but consider the ~x2 fold increase in transistor density each year that Moore’s Law suggests, or the actual increase in processing power the real supercomputers used to model the weather. In 1959 The Met Office’s Ferranti Mercury, nicknamed Meteor, was capable of doing 30,000 calculations a second, and the modern day Cray Supercomputer is estimated to complete 16,000 trillion per second. It is thought there is a practical ceiling of 14 days even with perfectly accurate input data and greater computer power. There is clearly a diminishing return in accuracy with ever more powerful machines and accurate models. Nevertheless, the weather, despite being a massively complicated system, is still to some degree predictable.

But, as I mentioned, it is not the known chaotic systems or highly complex systems which are a problem. Thinking back to our movie analogy, these systems are more like a Nicholas Cage character. We know they are crazy, we expect them to act erratically, so we take precautions or stay out of their way.

Our real problems arise when we view something as simple, we believe we can predict its outcome accurately and we act accordingly, and yet it actually possesses hidden complexity, which can lead to strategic surprise. This is the ‘Input Insensitivity Illusion’.

The balance of power, which held the peace (more-or-less) in Europe for the best part of a century, is a good example of a highly complex system, which some experts began to view as simple and deterministic. It has been argued that the resulting miscalculations led to a far greater catastrophe (the First World War) than would have occurred had the relevant decision-makers recognised the unpredictability of the system within which they were operating.

It is an easy trap to fall into. When you know your business, market, customers, processes and systems, it’s tempting to believe that you ‘totally get it’. Over years of experience you will have developed models (either statistical data-driven models or heuristic brain-based models) that give you a feel for what might happen next. Moreover, in systems which are driven by simple deterministic logic it’s easy to believe that you know how it all works, so you may think you can predict how it will behave. Unlike some decision-making mistakes, the ‘input insensitivity illusion’ is more likely to affect those with more experience of a given system, because they will have developed more confidence in their models of the system.

There is an inevitability about humans succumbing to this illusion. We are driven to minimise complexity and impose simplicity in our conceptualisation in order to get things done. In many cases reductionism serves us well, and we could not model most systems at all without some simplification. The problem is not the simplification itself, it is the amount of trust we place in that simplification and our overconfidence in the resultant predictions.  The problem is distinct from oversimplification, another common decision-making failure modes. In this case, we are assuming that ‘negligible’ variations in input will result in a small variation in output.

So how can we maximise the gains of conceptually reducing complexity, while guarding against its inherent risks? The answer lies in remaining honest with ourselves.

There are a number of areas where organisations commonly forget to ask themselves questions about supposed simple systems and predictive models. Avoiding these pitfalls can help mitigate the risk posed by the simplicity illusion:

  • Beware of prediction decay - As I’ve stated, simplicity in a system does not equate to predictability of output. Don’t simply extend the trend line and error bars for a predictive model over time. This may be fine for short term or micro level predictions, but longer term predictions or forecasts that are affected by the surrounding macro system may be subject to significant prediction errors over time. Also understand that prediction decay may be catastrophic in nature, not simply fading in a linear fashion. If this is the case, you could end up not just being wrong, but being very wrong.
  • Search for false precision - Organisations are particularly susceptible to false precision with the explosion in new sources of data. The increase in quantification can give the impression that we can measure everything accurately. It is important to probe the validity of new sources of data. They may not measure what they claim to measure, in which case your model’s assumptions may be violated. Ultimately such data should be judged by its predictive power, but all the while it is a relatively new and untested data source we should be particularly wary. Being Bayesian helps to protect against an over-reliance on new unverified data.
  • Know the limits of your knowledge - Be clear what you can’t know. This shouldn’t stop you from trying to reduce uncertainty, but understand what the information currently available to you permits you to be sure about. You can waste valuable resources (not to mention make costly predictive errors) by trying to model the unknowable. Work within the chaos. Any chaotic deterministic system will be predictable up to a point for a give required level of fidelity: The ‘chaos prediction horizon’. For the accurate weather forecasts, there is an expected maximum prediction horizon of approximately 14 days, and for a double pendulum it’s probably in the first couple of swings (if you release by hand). 
  • Simplicity + Certainty = Caution - Simplicity is an alluring concept, so is certainty. We want to understand how things work and we want to be sure that our understanding is true. Unfortunately, the two concepts coincide less frequently than we would like. Occam’s Razor may be a useful approach for choosing between hypotheses in some circumstances, but it is not a licence to abandon query about simple explanations - especially when they are expressed with absolute certainty.
All of the above are really just heuristics designed to prompt our scepticism. They can all be summed up by the maxim - Always ask: How sure am I? Remembering to pose this question at every step when building predictive models, particularly when the system you are modelling appears simple, should help you avoid being overconfident.

So don’t forget, next time you are standing in line behind someone muttering under their breath about poor service, just think: are they really the simple system they appear to be?

Friday, 21 October 2016

Podcast: Remember your passport - Why are some things hard to remember?

Nick, Peter and Fraser discuss why it is hard to remember some important things, but easy to remember others?

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Saturday, 15 October 2016

Risk-taking is Literally for Losers

A large number of situations involve making a trade-off between expected reward, and risk. In many walks of life, risk is treated as a bad thing and the trade-off typically involves taking more risk in order to achieve a higher average reward, or less risk for a lower one. Taking insurance is costly, but lowers risk by compressing the probability distribution of outcomes. Sometimes it might make sense to drive faster, and more dangerously, in order to get somewhere faster, on average. Deciding not to travel overseas lowers risk but also denies you potentially-enjoyable situations.

What about situations in which we are offered more risk for a lower average reward? Is it ever rational to want to pay for additional risk? Gambling involves this kind of trade-off. Playing the UK National Lottery will lose you 50p on average for every £1 you pay. For these decisions to be rational - i.e. for them to be the decisions that maximise expected returns - we have to make some particular assumptions about the decision-maker's goals.

They may just enjoy the thrill of gambling itself. Alternatively, the returns they receive from income might increase rather than decrease: £100 might be more than 100 times better than £1. Normally, this would be a very demanding assumption, since studies invariably demonstrate that the opposite is nearly always true: that £100 is considerably less than 100 times better than £1. The first pound might stop you starving. but your options with the hundreth pound are considerably less critical.

However, there is a very common situation in which winning does have increasing returns: where there is a positional element to utility, because what you are playing for (e.g. income, points or poker chips) are only instrumental in determining your final payoff. This happens all the time in games: it doesn't much matter if you lose a football match 5-4 or 5-0 - the key thing you still lost. When you're 5-3 down, you'd rather play a risky strategy that might net you three more goals, than a conservative one that would certainly net you exactly one goal.
There are only tools.
There is an interesting disparity between the optimal strategies of winners and losers in situations like this. People who are ahead should, in general, play to maximise their expected score. If taking risks is costly to the expected score, they should minimise risk. People who are losing, however, should play in a way that pushes as much of the probability distribution as possible above the opponent's expected score. Where risk-taking is costly to expected score, this will often mean playing riskily at the expense of the scoreline.

This phenomenon isn't confined to games. When we see people paying to take risks, and particularly those at the bottom of the scale, we should suspect a positional element to payoffs. The fact that poorer people are more likely to play the lottery and take more risks in general points to the fact that it's not just income, but also relative income that people care about. Most of the time we think in terms of paying to avoid risk. But when you're losing, and winning is what really matters, sometimes the rational thing to do is buy more of it.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Podcast: Changing lanes

Nick, Peter and Fraser discuss whether lane changing gets you anywhere.

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Saturday, 8 October 2016

Podcast: Shop front Signalling

Nick, Peter and Fraser talk about what the presentation of shop fronts tells up about signalling and quality.

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Friday, 30 September 2016

Podcast: Fraud Detection and Machine Learning

Fraser, Peter, and Nick discuss how machine learning can be used to fight online fraudsters, with special guest Mairtin O'Riada, CIO of Ravelin.

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Friday, 23 September 2016

Podcast: The value of games

Nick, Peter and Fraser discuss the value of playing games and whether they can help you learn.

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Friday, 16 September 2016

Podcast: Investing in Yahoo - Spotting Potential

Nick, Peter and Fraser discuss why it is so hard to spot future potential in ideas.

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Friday, 9 September 2016

Podcast: How long should a podcast be? What is the size of an idea?

Nick, Peter and Fraser ponder the length of podcasts and what that tells us about the size of an idea.

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Friday, 2 September 2016

Podcast: Sunspring

Peter, Nick and Fraser discuss the film Sunspring, written by an artificial intelligence. Is it a novelty or a sign of things to come?

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Rational Mass Panic

Over the last few weeks there has been an apparent increase in the frequency of incidents of what turned out to be baseless mass panic in US public buildings. Often, mass panic is reported as a kind of irrational hysteria. But these phenomena can arise quite naturally from individually-reasonable beliefs. The explanation points to factors that ought to influence the design of public spaces, but it also tells us something about organisational information flow that is helpful to consider in other contexts.

Mass panic of this kind has a snowballing character. It starts with one or two people forming a strong enough belief (due to an external stimulus of some kind - popping balloons, backfiring exhausts or nearby applause) to motivate a behaviour change: running away, raising the alarm, communicating to others and so on. Subsequently, the observation of this behaviour becomes sufficient evidence for observers (who may include security officials) to act. At this point the panic spreads until it has 'burnt itself out' by spreading to everyone in the vicinity.
Who started it? Photo: redjar
There are therefore two phases of belief-formation here: the 'nucleation' phase, in which an external stimulus prompts action, and the 'crystallisation' phase in which other people's behaviour prompts action. But in each case, the calculation is the same: what are the relative benefits of panicking and staying put, and specifically the costs of getting it wrong under the 'threat' and 'no threat' scenarios? As we outline here, optimal decision-making involves looking at this cost / risk ratio, which shows how jumpy we should be. In this case, how much worse is staying put when there's a threat, compared to running away when there isn't? Plausibly, several orders of magnitude. This suggests that only a 1-in-100 or perhaps 1-in-1000 probability of a threat should motivate panic.

By itself, this suggests that by the time a panic has got to the 'crystallisation' phase, it will be difficult to stop. Baseless mass panics are not vanishingly rare, but they're also not common. Getting data might be hard, but it's plausible that baseless mass panics occur with a frequency of a similar order-of-magnitude to genuine threats. This means that observing a mass panic should raise the probability of a genuine threat being present easily to above the 1-in-100 or so required to motivate evasion.

The interesting bit - the part to which the outcome is most sensitive - is therefore the 'nucleation' phase. What does it take for there to be more than (say) a 1% probability of a genuine threat? The answer is 'not much'. In fact, situations in which we believe there to be a 1% probability of (say) a terrorist attack ought to be 100 times more frequent than actual terrorist attacks. Why aren't mass panics more frequent then? Continuing the thought, it suggests that nearly all potential mass panics must dissolve at the 'nucleation' point. Why?

The answer plausibly lies in the speed with which new information resolves the issue. Normally, it doesn't take long to confirm that popping balloons or a backfiring exhaust are just that and not sounds of a terrorist attack. Where this kind of confirmatory feedback is not forthcoming, mass panics can quickly escalate to crystallisation, at which stage snowballing panic ceases to be stimulus-driven and becomes self-sustaining.

Designing against baseless mass panic should therefore involve taking into account ways in which information (that there isn't an attack) can spread quickly - fast enough to get to people before they can start taking flight. Large open spaces should be less vulnerable than spaces with lots of corridors and subspaces. Reducing extraneous noise might also help to increase the speed with which information can travel. On the other hand, we might think that occasional mass panics are a price worth paying for other principles to be emphasised in the design of public spaces. They are not very frequent, and when they do occur, they don't necessarily suggest that something's going wrong with our decision-making.

The model of mass panics presented above provides a useful analogy to decision-making within organisations. Governments, businesses, and other groups will often make decisions based on a set of beliefs. But most people in them don't, and don't need to, know what the reasons for those beliefs are. If enough other people believe that the decision's a good one, that's evidence in itself that someone must know what's going on. This of course is the origin of groupthink, and while not necessarily evidence of organisational irrationality, it's been at least one driver for a number of high-profile decision errors, arguably including the Bay of Pigs invasion, the surrender of France in 1940, the collapse of Kodak and the invasion of Iraq. As with our design of public spaces, reducing organisational 'mass panics' is a matter of increasing the speed of information (real information, that is, not propaganda). This is one way of interpreting the recommendations of the Chilcott Report into the UK decision processes underpinning the Iraq war, which we discussed in the Cognitive Engineering podcast a couple of weeks ago.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Podcast: Olympics and Marginal Gains

Nick, Peter and Fraser discuss what the Olympics show us about the the human pursuit to reach for the limits of performance.

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Friday, 19 August 2016

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Podcast: Ad Blockers

Nick, Peter and Fraser discuss ad blocking and what it can tell us about messaging.

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Friday, 5 August 2016

Podcast: Summer Classification

Peter, Nick and Fraser discuss what summer is, and how we know when it's started.

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Friday, 29 July 2016

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Podcast: Referendums, experts and forecasting

Fraser, Nick and Peter wonder if they have had enough of experts. To subscribe to the podcast, add this RSS feed to your preferred player.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Podcast: Brexit and Referenda

In the wake of the Brexit vote, Peter, Nick and Fraser discuss what referendums can tell us, and what technology means for democracy. To subscribe to the podcast, add this RSS feed to your preferred player.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Podcast: Return to the Library of Babel

Nick, Peter and Fraser return to the Library of Babel and discuss how to go about building one. To subscribe to the podcast, add this RSS feed to your preferred player.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Is Tesla's 'Autopilot' mode safe?

Self-driving cars were in the news again last week, as it emerged that the crash that killed Joshua Brown on 7 May happened while his Tesla's 'Autopilot' feature was enabled. The crash seems to have occurred because Autopilot's visual and radar sensors were not able to identify a lorry that was crossing the highway, perhaps due to the ride height and colour of the lorry making it too-closely resemble an overhead sign.

The death was the first in around 130m miles of Autopilot-enabled driving, according to Tesla, compared with one death on average in the US for every 94m miles of normal, unassisted driving. According to some media outlets, this means that Autopilot-enabled driving is safer than unassisted driving. This is incorrect though. By itself, the statistic only means that it might be.

Where there is a large sample size - for example, for deaths in non-autonomous cars - we can be fairly certain of the 'true rate' of these deaths. This 'true rate' won't of course be much good for evaluating any specific journey, which will depend on the type of car, roads, weather conditions, and so on. But we can be fairly certain that averaged across all types of car journeys, the death rate is around one per 94 million miles for non-autonomous driving in the US.

But with Tesla's Autopilot, we only have one death so far. The 'true rate' of deaths for Autopilot-enabled driving could conceivably be significantly higher than 1 per 130m miles (and so far, we've been lucky) or significantly lower (and Mr Brown was very unlucky). Using a simple model for the way these kinds of events occur (based on the Poisson distribution), and if we have no other assumptions about how safe or dangerous Autopilot is (i.e. if our prior probability distribution is locally flat), the probability we should place on the hypothesis that it's more dangerous than normal driving should in fact be quite high - just over 60% in fact. This is shown below as the area beneath the curve that is to the right of the long-run average death rate of 1 every 94 million miles.

This is only a starting point of course. On one hand, we might think the probability is more likely to be lower because of our understanding of the technical characteristics of the Autopilot feature. Indeed, since Autopilot is only meant to augment human driving, we might think that used properly it cannot possibly be less safe. On the other hand, however, we might think that having the Autopilot feature enabled will encourage people to drive more dangerously with less attention, perhaps more than offsetting the safety benefit (consistent with research showing that drivers tend to 'consume' safety increases by 'buying' additional speed). And bugs and other unforeseen technical problems are of course an ever-present possibility for any new technology.

We will not know for some time, of course. The single Autopilot fatality in 130m miles so far is information, but it's not much information. It certainly doesn't mean that Autopilot is more dangerous than normal driving, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's safer either.

[Edit on 13 July: maths error - area to the right of the long-run rate is actually 60% of the total probability density, not 40% as originally stated]