Let the facts speak for themselves

Hans Rosling’s name is not one that is widely known, but it should be. He died last year at what today is a young age – just 68 – but his last book (Factfulness) has recently been published (with his son and daughter as co-authors). He was a physician and statistician and professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute.

Bill Gates is quoted by the publishers as saying: “One of the most important books I’ve ever read – an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” Reviews have been almost universally positive (eg, from the FT, Why the world isn’t nearly as bad as you think it is) and Daniel Finkelstein has devoted his Times column to it this week (Here’s how to make the world a better place).

Rosling’s main thesis is that people are too pessimistic. When presented with a range of options for questions about human development and the state of the world, the answers given even by highly educated audiences (in fact, perhaps particularly by highly educated audiences) always err towards the negative, even though the objective evidence says otherwise. As some stories put it, random choices by a chimp would be closer to the truth. It’s not a question of people thinking they don’t know. They think they do know, and they always think things are worse than the reality.

The fact that his conclusions were based on hard evidence should please everyone, particularly those with scientific training. But there is also a danger, some will say, that this is a case of looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses and that we will become complacent about the real problems that still face too many people. By this line of thought, a degree of alarm is needed to raise awareness and keep focussed on the goal of, for example, eradicating poverty or malnutrition.

Whatever the reason, policymakers and opinion formers have been exposed to views like this from Rosling and others on a number of occasions, but they are still more susceptible to the messages from campaigners that highlight problems, and the mindset remains one of pessimism. The danger is that by thinking we are making no progress, we take our eyes of achievable goals while focussing on absolutes. The perfect then becomes the enemy of the good.

Rosling pointed out the facts, but did not ascribe the improvements to any particular policies or economic system. He also signed up to the consensus on the dangers presented by climate change. For that reason, he has not generally come in for the sort of criticism reserved for other optimists (more correctly, realists) such as Bjorn Lomborg or Matt Ridley. Nevertheless, despite the good reviews of his work and the sadness at his early death, we are unlikely to see his outlook becoming commonplace in political circles.

This suggests that pessimism is somehow hard-wired into our psyche. It may be a real benefit in modern societies, or it may be just another trait that was important for our more primitive ancestors but is more of a hindrance in today’s world. In practice, though, the facts still speak for themselves. At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that Rosling had died at an early age by today’s standards, where men can on average expect to live to about 80. However, in 1970, less than 50 years’ ago, the average life expectancy was just 69 and Rosling’s death would have been nothing out of the ordinary.

And to put the rate of human development into even sharper perspective, here is what Daniel Finkelstein has to say: “When Rosling was born in 1948, Sweden had the national income and many of the social circumstances found today in Egypt. In 1863, when his grandmother was born, it had been like Afghanistan is today; by 1891 it was like Lesotho; by 1921 like Zambia.”

Statistics like this point to why someone like Bill Gates is such a fan. Having made a fortune from Microsoft, Bill and his wife Melinda are now dedicated to spending most of that to make the world a better place. Their foundation takes a hard-headed, business-oriented approach to this. Rather than be steered by emotion about those suffering the most, an objective analysis is done of projects to choose those with the greatest likelihood of doing the most good.

As an example, much has been invested in trying to eliminate the scourge of malaria, which still kills far too many people – often children – in tropical areas. Distributing insecticide-treated bed nets is highly cost-effective, while improving ways to manufacture the most effective anti-malarial drug available (artemisinin) has made treatment more widely available. But, like any insect and parasite, the targets evolve to become resistant to existing treatments, so more money is being spent on alternative prevention and treatment strategies.

The point is that there are always bad things in the world and today we are more aware of them than ever, via the ubiquity of the internet. Some seem almost intractable and are essentially man-made: there is no simple answer to poor governance and civil war, in particular. But the world is getting richer, the number of people in absolute poverty is falling and the number of malnourished people, although remaining stubbornly at around 800 million, continues to fall as a percentage of the global population.

If we accept that good things are achievable, and that we need to focus our attention on those projects most likely to do the most good, continued progress will be made. The facts speak for themselves.

Posted in Newsletter, Progress | Leave a comment

Transforming transport

Undeniably we live in interesting times. Whether you consider that a curse or a blessing is probably down to your world view but, in any case, we all have to cope with it. Nearly every change lies somewhere on the grey scale between being beneficial or detrimental. Every development, however well intentioned, has some downside, while even technologies primarily developed for military use have some really useful spinoffs (satellite navigation, for example).

What we now call social media is a prime case in point. Facebook allows people to keep in touch and let each other know what they are doing, but it is also a largely unsupervised channel to make vile threats, peddle lies and bombard people with a mixture of cuteness and rubbish. In some cases, it seems largely a platform for self-promotion.

Neither should we forget the downside of sharing personal data. The coming General Data Protection Regulation may force organisations of all sizes to get (apparently) informed consent to hold even basic data on them, but that doesn’t stop people sharing quite personal information via their mobile phones. Mark Zuckerberg and others in the tech sector are being taken to task on this issue right now.

In this vein, consider the implications of the current policies on road transport, with the primary aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. One strand is the use of biofuels – ethanol, bio-diesel mainly – as a partial replacement for conventional petrol and diesel. At first glance, this seems relatively uncontroversial; taking renewable raw materials to create a cycle of carbon dioxide emission and recapture.

In practice, things are not so clear. CO2 emitted by burning biofuels one year can be theoretically recaptured by crops grown the following year. But this doesn’t take account of additional greenhouse gas emissions arising from growing and processing the crops in the first place. Nitrogen fertilizer, ploughing and processing starch into anhydrous alcohol (for example) all require significant energy and the net carbon dioxide savings can in practice be much lower than the theoretical ones.

Add to that the fact that most bioethanol is currently produced from food crops and we can see that there is also a distorting effect on food prices and a likely increase in the area of land needed. In the case of bio-diesel, the clearance of land for oil palm plantations also destroys the habitat for the orangutan. And for both types of fuel, the limited supply of available biomass means that replacement of fossil fuels can only be a partial one. Until the large barriers to fulfilling the potential of algae to produce much larger volumes of fuel without impinging on terrestrial farmland are overcome, biofuels look like a dead end.

Two other options for transport are to use hydrogen as an energy source, converted to electricity by fuel cells, or opt for battery power. Hydrogen may sound clean and green but, in the real world, storage is a real problem, distribution is virtually impossible on a practical level and it gradually escapes from even the best-sealed container. Add to that the fact that fuel cell technology still has a long way to go to reach economic energy production per unit weight and volume and currently this is pretty much a non-starter (despite a handful of demonstration projects).

Which really leaves battery power. Battery technology has progressed significantly, to the stage where cars such as the Tesla model S can provide an excellent driving experience plus a range of several hundred miles. For many people, this is more than enough, although the big problem that remains is the greater cost of such a car relative to its conventional cousin. For those with around £70,000 to spend, they may seem a good buy, but this is hardly a mass-market car.

This does not necessarily mean that all-electric cars are necessarily another blind alley. If Tesla ever manage to ramp up the production of their more affordable model 3, the potential for a real market shift may be demonstrated. But that may simply highlight some further issues, not least of which will be charging facilities. Suburban owners will usually have the luxury of off-road parking and their own private charging point, but for city dwellers who may not even be able to park outside their own home, things are different.

Matching supply of chargers with demand at an affordable price is a problem that remains unsolved for the time being. While fully electric cars are relatively uncommon, finding an available charger may not be too difficult, but if the market does take off, it may be nipped in the bud if there aren’t enough chargers to go round.

We also need to remind ourselves again that electric cars bring no net benefit to emissions unless the electricity is from nuclear or renewable sources (the same can be said for hydrogen if this ever becomes a viable option). There is still the localised environmental benefit of cleaner air in urban areas, which is an advantage being promoted at the moment, but that is a different issue.

So, the future of all-electric cars is by no means assured, unless the practical problems can be solved. However, the technology developed will not necessarily be wasted; in practice the transition away from the internal combustion engine is likely to be towards plug-in hybrid vehicles. For city-dwellers, they would probably be run on batteries most of the time, improving air quality, while for longer journeys drivers still have the freedom and flexibility of a conventionally-fuelled engine.

New developments are never wholly good or bad, but ultimately the market will choose which are the most useful without having unmanageable downsides.

Posted in Climate change, Energy, Newsletter, Transport | Leave a comment

With us or against us: revisiting the facts

At one time, many people could be neatly pigeon-holed according to their beliefs. In the 1990s, the great majority of those categorising themselves as environmentalists could reliably be assumed to oppose the use of pesticides, air- and water-pollution from industrial processing, nuclear power and genetically modified crops, with (anthropogenic) climate change rapidly reaching the top of the list. But in the early 21st Century, things are often less clear-cut.

But in some circles, if you don’t subscribe to this basket of beliefs, you become persona non gratis in the green movement. Older readers will remember the naturalist David Bellamy as an almost ubiquitous presence on television, but he disappeared from UK screens in the early 2000s, largely for the sin of not agreeing with the orthodoxy on climate change (although a foray into politics for the anti-EU Referendum Party may not have helped). Certainly his views on climate change led to him being marginalised by the Wildlife Trust.

James Lovelock, a near-contemporary of Bellamy and well-known for putting forward the Gaia theory of life on Earth, was at this time convinced of the dangers of global warming. In January 2006, he said in an interview with the Independent “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable” by the end of the 21st century.

Four years later, he argued that “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while” (James Lovelock: Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change). His only sin as far as other activists were concerned was that he backed nuclear energy as being necessary to reduce the projected rise in temperatures.

By September 2016, however, we can read this in the Guardian: What has changed dramatically, however, is his position on climate change. He now says: “Anyone who tries to predict more than five to 10 years is a bit of an idiot, because so many things can change unexpectedly.” But isn’t that exactly what he did last time we met? “I know,” he grins teasingly. “But I’ve grown up a bit since then” (James Lovelock: ‘Before the end of this century, robots will have taken over’).

Lovelock now believes that “CO2 is going up, but nowhere near as fast as they thought it would. The computer models just weren’t reliable. In fact,” he goes on breezily, “I’m not sure the whole thing isn’t crazy, this climate change. You’ve only got to look at Singapore. It’s two-and-a-half times higher than the worst-case scenario for climate change, and it’s one of the most desirable cities in the world to live in.”

This position has infuriated many environmentalists, although Lovelock is difficult to dismiss because of his important work in the area. Some think he is simply a contrarian, always going against the grain once the majority has come round to his previous point of view; others dismiss him as going senile, although he shows no sign of this, even in his late 90s. Whatever their view, mainstream greens are uncomfortable with someone so identified with their movement being dismissive of IPCC projections, pro-nuclear and (more recently) pro-fracking.

Another high-profile change of heart came from Mark Lynas, a committed environmentalist and one-time destroyer of GM crop field trials. On January 3, 2013, he spoke to the Oxford Farming Conference, starting with these words: “My lords, ladies and gentlemen. I want to start with some apologies, which I believe are most appropriate to this audience. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I’m also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

Lynas is still deeply committed to the mainstream views on climate change and indeed has been towards the more alarmist end of the spectrum. But for a change of mind on the issue of crop biotechnology he has come in for intense criticism from his former friends. An attack published on the GMWatch website (Why Mark Lynas changed his mind) starts by rubbishing his claim to have been a leading light in the anti-GM movement, describing him as “more like a johnny-come-lately carpetbagger.”

It then goes on to criticise the evidence he quotes for his change of mind and suggests that this came about more for political than rational scientific reasons. His primary sin seems to have been losing faith in a left-wing version of environmentalism and selling out. As quoted in a Guardian article from 2011, “Is the green movement a leftwing, anti-capitalist movement? Mark Lynas believes it is, and that those who style themselves as greens should be marginalised and allowed to die off so that they can be replaced by a new breed of market-friendly environmentalists like him.”

It is surely healthy that people should change their minds from time to time, not necessarily just because the facts change, as Keynes said, but also because they begin to take a different point of view on something they feel strongly about. This is the sign of an open mind, in contrast, for example, to middle-aged Marxists who are blind to the obvious failure of their ideology in practice.

As for politics, policies are usually successful when made on the middle ground. Activists play an important role in raising awareness and applying pressure, but all too often they remain rigid in the purity of their views or become even more extreme. Progress is most often made by combining the righteous anger of the activist with the pragmatism of practical politics.

A first step is to look beyond the more extreme arguments and try to look objectively at what opponents have to say. If we begin to understand the reasons for their stance we may learn something and alter our own position to some extent. We may even go for the full Damascene conversion, although this is relatively rare. In any case, useful progress can often be made through compromise.

Posted in Biotechnology, Climate change, Newsletter, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Happiness and Progress

Increasing affluence has given us more and more to worry about. Rather than simply spending each day finding enough to eat and avoiding danger – like most animals and our earlier ancestors – most of us now have the luxury of a wide range of concerns to choose from. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, we find the search for new ways to be offended, with simple words taking on a significance far beyond their intention.

But even away from the bewildering world of identity politics and the attempted erasure of public figures tainted by colonialism from history, concerns about what were once relatively peripheral issues have come high up the agenda. To look at it another way, perhaps, it seems fair to say that many people are finding new ways to be unhappy. Which seems a little ironic, given that the achievement of happiness has always been important. As the founding fathers of the USA put it in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In the modern world, the pursuit of money sometimes seems to trump the search for happiness. GDP is the primary measure of progress, although there has always been a significant body of dissenters. Bhutan famously measures its state of happiness, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised in 2010 to measure gross national happiness, although this either seems to have been quietly dropped or else is no longer publicised.

This measure was based on a survey of the sort used by the OECD in their Better Life Initiative, covering eleven dimensions: personal security, environmental quality, civic engagement, social connections, health status, income and wealth, jobs and earnings, housing, education and skills, work-life balance and subjective well-being. More wide-ranging is the series of World Happiness reports, published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. This year, the headline is that Finland came out on top, but Denmark, Switzerland and Norway have been recent number ones.

This perhaps illustrates the difficulties of measuring something as intangible as happiness. Surveys are shaped by the preconceptions of their designers and may tend to confirm biases as much as reveal objective truth. Finland, as others have pointed out, has its share of misery, and a particularly high suicide rate. Include some of the negatives, and things may look rather different. The World Happiness reports also have another agenda, focussing to a large degree on the results of migration in both home and host countries.

Dissatisfaction seems to be intrinsic to the human condition. Although poverty causes hardship, money in itself cannot buy happiness. Most people need to feel some sense of fulfilment rather than just engage in the pursuit of pleasure. Without some goal in mind, life can lack meaning, so the happier billionaires seem to be those who use their resources to achieve something. Bill and Melinda Gates are probably extreme examples, but there are plenty of others who don’t simply spend time comparing superyachts.

A degree of dissatisfaction with life is necessary for progress to be made, and addressing that dissatisfaction can help to make us happy. A state of permanent happiness, on the other hand, is a recipe for stagnation. If as Dr Pangloss, you believe we live in the best of all possible worlds, why should we try to improve it?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has ‘self-actualisation’ at the top of the pyramid, after basic existential and relationship needs are met. This is a difficult concept to define but, in essence, it is an open-ended quest to ‘find ourselves’ or ‘do something with our lives’. It encapsulates the need for something to occupy and stimulate us.

Our generation enjoys a better standard of living than any previous one, and vastly better than that lived by people living just a century ago. But it seems that every generation looks back to some golden age and sees things getting worse. In the present day, we worry about standards of education, addiction to social media, housing affordability, air pollution and plastics in the environment, to name just a few issues.

Meanwhile, we take for granted such things as the freedom to travel, the availability of a vast range of information and services at the touch of a smartphone, and a demonstrably cleaner environment than that enjoyed by our parents and grandparents. True, these things haven’t made us noticeably happier, but the truth is that nothing will. Innovation is the flipside of dissatisfaction and we will continue to make progress while this is the case.

Humans have become the dominant species because our intelligence is capable to seeing how to do things differently and better. It is impossible to conceive of a state of development at which everyone is perfectly happy and nothing changes. That in itself would imply a change in the human psyche that could herald the decline and extinction of societies. Nuclear war, artificial intelligence or virulent strains of disease have all been posited as destroyers of the human race. If we survive those, boredom could well prove the end of us.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may indeed by unalienable rights, but it is the pursuit of happiness rather than the achievement of it that is the source of satisfaction and lies at the heart of our humanity. Onwards and upwards, as they say.

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Electric cars: are we being too optimistic?

The number of electric cars sold in Britain has fallen by a third since the start of the year, amid concerns that motorists are being put off by high prices, limited battery range and a lack of roadside charging points. These are the opening words of an article in the Times this week (Electric car sales tumble over price and plugs). The question is, are these just inevitable teething problems or are the plans for a grand phase out of internal combustion engines fatally flawed at this stage of technology development?

This is a young market and doubtless prone to hiccups, and a key factor in its growth is government policy. In the UK as in many other countries sales of electric vehicles are subsidised to develop the market. At present, this means a grant of £4,500 per car, which cynics might categorise as rich consumers being given a price reduction by poor taxpayers, since the majority of purchasers are comparatively affluent first adopters. Since the claimed advantages of battery power are also more relevant to urban areas and relatively short trips, this is also in part a subsidy for prosperous city-dwellers at the expense of their country cousins. In any event, this is a form of regressive taxation.

The future of this grant seems in doubt: the Times reports it is to end in April although it seems unlikely that the government will not extend it in some form. In practice, its absence might make little difference to the early adopters, who have made the pricy Tesla model S as common a sight on Britain’s roads as the more mainstream Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) and Renault Zoes. But affluent consumers who can afford to buy the latest toys and environmentally-conscious city-dwellers are not enough to create sustained growth and a switch away from petrol and diesel.

The Times article quotes figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, showing that less than a thousand fully electric cars were sold in the UK in the first two months of the year. The total for the whole of last year was 13,600, which sounds high but still represents just half a percent of total sales. More popular by far are hybrids. Over 11,500 conventional/electric hybrids were sold in January and February, of which more than 3,800 were plug-ins. This compares to just 990 pure electric cars.

Despite the relative popularity of hybrids, we should put this in perspective. The total number of hybrids and electric vehicles sold in the UK in the first two months of the year is just 12,500, or a tad over 5% of the total. There is no major shift in the market away from petrol and diesel engines. And to give a better gloss on the situation, governments, including the Westminster one, when speaking of the growing market for electric cars, deliberately conflating the various categories.

The reality seems to be that consumers who move from conventional cars are much more interested in hybrids that purely electric cars, and only about two thirds of hybrid owners are shelling out for the plug-in versions. Even these have severely limited range on battery; fine for short commuting, but the engine is certainly needed for anything more significant. Given that they come at a significant price premium to shorter range, non-plug-in hybrids, their market is currently limited.

These facts have to be seen in light of the stated intention of both the UK and French governments to halt the sale of purely petrol- or diesel-fuelled cars by 2040. Many politicians are indeed upping the ante on this, for example we read this week that MPs warn of ‘poisonous air’ emergency costing £20bn a year, and have demanded a faster phase-out of the internal combustion engine.

Despite the headlines, air quality has improved considerably over recent decades. The problems that remain – nitrogen dioxide and small particulates – tend to exacerbate existing health conditions and it would surely be a benefit the air we breathe could be cleaner still. But the real problems are localised, particularly on busy urban streets and next to main roads, and don’t affect the whole country. Local solutions may be needed for local problems.

If all the cars currently on the road could be removed overnight, the problem wouldn’t disappear. PM2.5 and other small particles come from a variety of other sources, and nitrogen dioxide is found in the flues from gas boilers, for example. If all cars in cities were replaced by electric vehicles – assuming the logistical problems of charging could be overcome – the cars would still put additional particulates into the air from brake and tyre wear.

Using the latest petrol and diesel engines would contribute a small amount of nitrogen dioxide, but in other respects would be very similar to using battery power. But the big difference is it would be more affordable for the average motorist, and the existing refuelling infrastructure could accommodate it.

The other factor, which we can forget now that air pollution is such a big issue, is carbon dioxide emissions reduction, the reason why so many people were encouraged to buy the now-demonised diesel cars in the first place. Switching to the latest petrol and diesel engines would reduce emissions in comparison to older cars, but electric vehicles could in principle cut them further. The elephant in the room, though, is the need to do this using low-emission electricity generation.

Generating capacity would need to be significantly increased to cope with charging demand and, in the absence of new nuclear stations in the short to medium term, this would doubtless be wind and solar farms, needing additional gas-fired backup. The net effect on emissions is unlikely to be large, if power is to be delivered when it is needed.

If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on the car fleet in 2040 being largely hybrids rather than pure electric. Simply waving a magic policy wand won’t achieve the impossible.

Posted in Energy, Pollution, Transport | 3 Comments

Here’s to Elon Musk

Last week, I mentioned Elon Musk’s deep pessimism about the impact of artificial intelligence on the human race. I don’t share that pessimism, but it seems to be one of the key motivators of this driven, innovative and (so-far) very successful individual. Musk is one or a kind, combining analysis of problems from first principles (so deciding that space travel should be cheaper and easier than it seemed, for example) with creativity, showmanship plus the essential quality of being able to convince investors to take a chance.

He also mixes the ability to take a broad view of complex issues and products with a degree of micro-management (nano-management, in his own words) that keeps him aware of all the small details that need to be right. He seems something like a blend of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, but his scope and ambition goes far beyond theirs.

Having co-founded a web software company (called Zip2, publishing online city guides) he made $22 million from its sale just four years later. $10 of this he used to co-found an online email payment company (X.com), which later merged with PayPal, of which he became CEO. Just two and a half years later, he was $165 million richer, following the sale of the company to eBay.

Most people might have expected to continue investing in Internet service companies such as this, but Musk had other plans. Even while running PayPal, he had put forward the idea of landing a miniature greenhouse on Mars (Mars Oasis) and had begun to explore how this could be done.

The difference is that Musk is a scientist by training. He has a degree in physics (plus one in economics) and had started a PhD in applied physics at Stanford before leaving to start life as an entrepreneur. X.com and PayPal made his initial fortune, but his ambitions were wider than that. More than a clever and charismatic businessman such as Richard Branson, more than a design- and detail-obsessed Steve Jobs, he wants to achieve big goals that are defined by his understanding of the basic limitations of physics.

This is driven largely by his pessimistic view of the future of human life. Giving us the wherewithal to colonise Mars could create an alternative future for a society that he believes likely to carry the seeds of its self-destruction, whether that be via the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence or the impact of our activities on the climate and environment of our home planet.

So, to build on his ‘Mars Oasis’ concept, he tried to buy surplus intercontinental ballistic missiles from the Russians, only to refuse to pay the price they demanded. He reckoned he could run a profitable business while reducing launch costs by 90%. $100 million went into setting up SpaceX in 2002, even before PayPal had been sold. Musk was still only 31 at the time.

Being CEO and Chief Technology Officer of such a company would be more than enough for most people, but in 2004 Musk became chairman of Tesla, following his large investment in the then year-old company. In 2008, he became CEO of Tesla and very much its public face. Despite missing a series of challenging production targets, the company has kept the confidence of investors and now has a stock market valuation greater than either Ford or General Motors.

Musk also was behind the launch of SolarCity, now a major manufacturer and supplier of solar panels and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tesla. Supplying batteries for electric vehicles and as backup for renewable energy, the enormous Gigafactory 1 in Sparks, Nevada, is now ramping up production, and a second one is planned for Buffalo, New York.

None of this activity seems to have reduced the efforts of SpaceX, which recently used its giant Falcon heavy rocket to send a Tesla roadster into space. The company makes its own engines and can now recover booster rockets, a significant step towards the goal of cutting the cost of space travel by a factor of ten. The next development slated is an even more powerful launch vehicle than the Falcon heavy, known as the BFR (yes, it really does stand for what you’re thinking!).

Add in the Hyperloop concept for rapid transit (being taken to a practical level by Branson-backed Hyperloop One), the Boring Company (trying to reduce the cost of tunnelling by a factor of ten), plus OpenAI and Neuralink, which respectively seek to minimise the dangers of AI and use implants to merge human and artificial intelligence, and it seems that Musk’s ambitions and capabilities know few bounds.

I have to say that I was dubious about what he was offering via Tesla and SpaceX, when I thought of him as just another clever tech entrepreneur who had identified opportunities addressing high-profile societal concerns. But, whether or not you believe he is right to be so concerned about humankind’s future, the fact is that he is using the principles of physics, coupled with innovative design and economies of scale to develop practical and economic answers to the problems identified.

This is true science-based entrepreneurism that holds the potential to provide practical, game-changing leaps in technology. At the moment, many of his hugely ambitious targets are being missed, but investors are still happy to go along with that as long as they see real progress being made. Teslas are a common sight on our streets and SpaceX provides the preferred and most economic launch platform for now. One of his enterprises – most likely Tesla given the rate it is spending money – could go bust, but it is still likely to have transformed the car market in the meantime.

Elon Musk may be unique for the moment, but we can only hope he is blazing a trail for other visionaries who see hard opportunities justified on scientific principles and have the guts and determination to make them work. Whatever his motivation and however his various businesses pan out, he deserves a toast.

Posted in AI, Climate change, Energy, Newsletter, Science, Transport | Leave a comment

Artificial Intelligence: blessing or curse?

For decades, writers and film makers have imagined a world in which computers and robots have advanced to the stage where they are, at least in some respects, more capable than their creators. Science fiction allows us to explore both the practical and moral implications of such changes, but we are now perhaps on the cusp of science fiction becoming science fact, when potential problems will become of more than just theoretical importance.

Many of the imagined worlds are dystopian and serve as a warning and we should certainly always be aware of the unintended consequences of what we do. But artificial intelligence – the usual name for the technologies that will underpin our brave new world – is likely to bring enormous benefits. The debate has started, but it’s already polarised, with some public figures (Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk among them) being deeply pessimistic about the impact of AI.

Pessimism and risk avoidance seem to be the default position of many people today, and precaution is increasingly being codified into regulation, at least in Europe. But precaution has its costs and could endanger the very innovation on which our future may depend. On the other hand, innovation doesn’t have to come from Europe or America as it usually has in the past. Many citizens of rich countries, despite real problems for those struggling on the lower rungs of the social scale, have lost the drive to improve and tackle challenges. Tomorrow’s game-changing developments may come from China, from India or from immigrants benefitting from rich country university education. But the deciding factor may be the regulatory and cultural environment, which can either foster or discourage them.

However, the factor that may still militate against stagnation and a quashing of inventiveness in rich countries is the ready acceptance both of things that improve lives and of novelty. AI has the capacity to deliver both in abundance. The problem is that, as the capabilities of AI increase, they may get out of human control in ways that we cannot conceive. Already, large computer programs are so complex that even the programmers don’t fully understand all that goes on through the intricate lines of code they have written.

When machine learning is involved, as employed by the chess- or go-playing computers that can now beat any human player, really understanding what is going on in silico becomes even more difficult. It’s easy under these circumstances to believe that we may be capable of creating something approaching artificial consciousness, with unknown consequences.

Science fiction writers have, of course, explored such issues decades ago. Perhaps most famously, Isaac Asimov put forward the three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  1. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

He later added a fourth law to precede the others (the zeroth law):

  1. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

These have been mulled over, tweaked and had their potential consequences examined in a variety of fictional situations, but the truth is that there is (as yet, at least) no foolproof way to codify programmed behaviour that is incapable of causing harm. In practice, what we define as artificial intelligence is a spectrum of capabilities which we are only now beginning to tap into. And the first embodiments will be very far from the humanoid robots envisaged by Asimov and others.

Autonomous vehicles may not be far away. Modern cars already use sophisticated software to manage their engines, and processing capabilities (effectively the speed of data handling) have evolved to the stage where cars can theoretically operate safely on public roads. There are remaining problems, of course. Some are of a technical nature, such as ensuring the control systems can detect all likely hazards and that they are fail-safe. Others offer moral dilemmas.

In particular, although self-driving cars should in principle be safer than ones driven by real people, they will still encounter hazardous situations in which some kind of damage limitation is needed. Then, it may come to a choice between protecting the occupants and avoiding harm to other road users. Whereas a human driver would instinctively try to take evasive action, computers don’t have instincts, only programmed behaviour.

If someone is badly injured or killed in an incident involving an autonomous car, public reaction would be different than if the car had a human driver. Human error is accepted, but mistakes by machines are less forgivable. The parallel is with railway travel: the safety record is much better than for roads, but the rare fatal accidents often lead to calls for expensive additional safety measures.

What we have to bear in mind is that, whatever the downsides of any particular application of AI, be it accidents involving autonomous cars or anything else, they ultimately have a human cause. People have designed the cars, built and installed the sensors and, most importantly, written the software to control everything. If something goes wrong, it is because of the unforeseen consequences of a particular program, something unforeseen by the human programmer.

And so it has always been with things we now take for granted. Because something is new, it is very difficult to foresee all potential problems. Nevertheless, we continue to make progress as a species, as long as we recognise and correct our mistakes. Identifying potential major problems with AI, as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have done, should only serve to help us avoid them. It shouldn’t stop us trying to get the best out of innovation.

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