Charmian Gooch: Meet global corruption’s hidden players

Speaker

Charmian Gooch is an anti-corruption campaigner who in 2014 was named on Bloomberg Markets’ 50 Most Influential list

Summary

When we imagine corruption it tends to be a minister or despot of a small overseas nation, living in fabulous luxury. Charmian lists a few perfect examples of this behaviour. However, these people cannot operate without support from the rest of the world. Their mansions and art purchases are arranged through global banks, and despots in oil-rich nations must do deals with the largest oil companies.

Many corrupt leaders make their profits through anonymous shell companies, which they secretly own. They are commonly used around the world to avoid paying taxes, but can also be used steal massive amounts of money from poor countries. A recent example involved Democratic Republic of Congo selling off state owned mining assets to a shell company, which quickly onsold them for massive profits. The people of Congo lost $1.3 billion from these deals – more then twice their education and health budgets combined. Charmian investigated the deal but many of the details are locked away in the shell companies.

There’s a view that corruption just happens, and it is impossible to change. But 2/3 of oil & mining companies (by value) are now covered by a transparency standard because groups demanded it. In a globalised world, corruption is a global business that needs solutions right here.

My Thoughts

There were a lot of examples throughout this talk, and I struggled to find a take-away message from it. The main point was that corruption is everywhere – involving companies that are household names, and they are part of the corruption instigated by international despots.

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Ken Jennings: Watson, Jeopardy and me, the obsolete know-it-all

Speaker

Ken Jennings is a game show star who holds the record for the longest winning streak on the U.S. game show Jeopardy! and as being the second highest-earning contestant in American game show history.

Summary

Ken Jennings loved game shows from a young age, and felt extreme satisfaction when he beat his parents at Trivial Pursuit “Knowledge is Power”. In 2004 he appeared on Jeopardy for the first time, but in 2009 he got a call from the producers asking him to play against IBM’s Jeopardy machine: Watson. Because of his love of the game he agreed, but also because he knew about AI at the time and thought he could win. It is extremely difficult for computers to understand language and the nuance of natural communication, so Ken was confident. As the time came closer, he saw graphs of Watson’s performance against other Jeopardy players’ skill level, slowly creeping towards his own. He knew the AI was coming for him – not in the gunsights of Terminator, but in a line of data slowly creeping upwards.

On the day IBM programmers came out to support Watson, and Watson won handily. He remembers feeling the same way a Detroit factory worker did – realising his job had been made obsolete by a robot. He was one of the first, but not only knowledge worker to have this feeling: pharmacists, paralegals, sports journalists are also slowly being overtaken by thinking machines. In a lot of cases, the machines don’t show the same creativity, but they do the job much more cheaply and quickly than a human.

As computers take over thinking jobs, do humans still need to learn anything, or know anything? Will our brains shrink as more tasks get outsourced, and computers remember more facts?

Ken believes having this knowledge in your head is still important because of volume and time.

  • Volume because the amount of information is doubling every 18 months, and we need to make good judgements on these facts. We need the facts in our head to assemble a decision, it is harder to judge these facts while looking them up.
  • Time because sometimes you need a quick decision, or need to know what to do. Ken talks about a child remembering a fact from Geography at the beach: the tide rushing out is a precursor to a Tsunami. Her knowledge and quick response on the day of the 2004 boxing day tsunami saved the people on that beach, which couldn’t be done unless she knew it.

Shared knowledge is also an important social glue: people can bond over a shared experience or knowing something in a way that can’t be simulated by looking things up together.

Ken doesn’t want to live in a world where knowledge is obsolete, or where humanity has no shared cultural knowledge. Right now, we need to make the decision of what our future will be like: will we go to an information golden age where we use our extra access to knowledge, or will we not bother to learn anymore? Ken wants us to keep being curious, inquisitive people – to have an unquenchable curiosity.

My Thoughts

I’m unclear if Ken is talking out against AIs in general, or just about how we manage a transition to increasingly prevalent AIs. I agree with him that people must continue to learn and do things, however I also feel like there is no reason to force us to do jobs once a computer can do it. Instead people should be free to explore, learn, find new hobbies for themselves.

This talk is interesting, especially if you are a fan of Jeopardy or Ken. His experience is one that I’m sure a lot of people will have over the coming years. However, it is mostly of the anecdotal variety: I don’t think it adds much insight to the topic of AI. Regardless, it isn’t supposed to: know that going in and it should be great.

I for one welcome our new robot overlords

Ben Goldacre: Battling Bad Science

Speaker

Ben Goldacre is a physician, academic and science writer. As of 2014 he is a Wellcome research fellow in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a founder of the AllTrials campaign to require open science practices in clinical trials.

Summary

As an epidemiologist, Ben’s job is to use evidence and science to decide what is good for the body. An example of bad science is newspaper headlines, which categorise things that increase or decrease cancer risk – and sometimes contradict themselves by declaring coffee in both categories. The thrust of this talk discusses ways evidence can be manipulated through either ignorance or deception.

Bad science uses authorities – people or experts while ignoring their evidence. Good science should be carried by the weight of argument or evidence rather than who says it. Authority status can be easily contrived – TV doctors can create a pHd after their name or sign up online for advanced certificates of something or other.

Evidence can also be confused: a newspaper headline declared red wine reduces breast cancer risk. The study this was sourced from looked at a single chemical extracted from grape skins fighting some cancer cells in a petri dish – it has no relevance outside of this scenario. In truth the alcohol content of wine increases your cancer risk.

Another example was a study showing decreased skin wrinkles in people who eat olive oil and vegetables. The paper was correct that people who ate olive oil and vegetables had fewer wrinkles, but they also tended to be wealthier, better educated, do less manual labour, smoke less, drink less. These other factors had far more to do with fewer wrinkles.

The medical trial is one of the bases of epidemiology, and should be the basis for a doctor’s decisions, but so many people still get it wrong.

  • A trial on fish oil tablets in school children didn’t use a control group – instead comparing their results against a projection of their results taken a year ago.
  • The placebo is a place to abuse trials: the placebo is a powerful effect but new medicines should be testing themselves against the current best medicines rather than just a placebo. It is much more useful to see how a drug compares to the best competitors – since we would never prescribe a placebo.
  • New drugs can compare themselves to a competitor that is not dosed correctly. For example they can prove themselves more effective by taking the alternative in too low a dose. They can also prove they have fewer side effects by taking the competitor’s drug in too high a dose.

For these reasons industry sponsored trials give a flattering result 4 times more often than independent trials. But this is true even when the industry’s trial is done correctly, because negative data can go missing. This can be analysed with statistics, with normal data giving a mix of false positives and false negatives and a few large trials with low error. If data has been hidden, the small false negatives will not be visible – the worst results will be the largest low error trials. Ben discusses one pill he has prescribed to patients, and discovered 75% of all the trials had never been released. Likewise Tamiflu has had billions invested in it because governments want to show it reduces serious complications associated with flu, but none of the evidence for this has been released.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. All results should be published, but they are currently protected by a forcefield of tediousness.

My Thoughts

Interesting to see how pharmaceuticals can abuse evidence by not publishing. I can understand commercial pressures not to publish negative results though, and not sure what the solution is. Should it be compulsory for companies to run trials through a central organisation and under specific rules?

Even more concerning is the ethics of treating people with excessive or insufficient doses of a drug. This is unforgivable – effectively putting someone’s health at risk to prove that an opponent’s drug is dangerous or ineffective. Directly hurting people as a marketing tactic doesn’t sit well with me at all.

Tali Sharot: The optimism bias

Speaker

Tali Sharot is an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London.

Summary

Optimism bias is a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of good things happening to you, and underestimating bad things. For example 40% of people divorce, but people marrying assume the probability for them is zero. Even people marrying for a second time don’t see it: “Remarrying is the triumph of hope over experience”. People tend to be optimistic about themselves and their family, while at the same time predicting a bad future for the world in general.

Optimism about your own traits gives you a confidence and sets you up for success. But are low expectations the secret to happiness? This will mean you will be happy with success in love and career, but are not disappointed if it doesn’t happen. Tali argues the opposite, that optimistic people are happier because:

  • optimists interpret things differently. Whether they win or lose, they interpret successes as due to their own traits and failures as poor luck or biases.
  • anticipation makes people happy – something pleasant (a kiss from a celebrity) immediately isn’t as enjoyable as one in 3 days time – which lets you look forward to it
  • optimism acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy – it makes you try harder to achieve your goals. Optimism leads to success.

So how do we maintain optimism in the face of reality? That is: stay optimistic despite evidence to the contrary. Tali did a study – asking people to estimate their cancer risk (for example), then giving the population rate (30%) and asking them again their likelihood. People did change their estimate, but they changed it a lot more if their first estimate was high (ie changing their estimate from 50% to 35%) rather than when it was low (going from 10% to 11%). Tali found that there were 2 regions of the brain: one responsible for receiving good news and one that processes bad news. The ‘bad news region’ did not trigger in optimistic people: they kept the rose tinted spectacles on.

She went a step further – passing a magnetic pulse through these regions of the brain to temporarily disable them, and found that she could switch off or increase the optimism bias. This led to the question: Given the benefits would you switch off the optimism bias if you could? Optimism can lead to risky decisions: for example firefighters being surprised by the movement of a fire despite the hints being obvious, or underestimating the cost to implement a city project.

Tali thinks we can gain the benefits of optimism while staying realistic about risk, just by better understanding the bias. Knowing about the bias doesn’t prevent optimism in general life, but it does make people aware when making risky decisions. You need to be able to imagine a better world before you can make it happen.

My Thoughts

The biggest surprise for me from this talk is that you can switch off parts of the brain. Whoa!

Aside from that it is important to acknowledge the points that optimism bias can be beneficial, despite being called a bias. People often oppose anything labelled a bias or fallacy, and while that is fair in pure economics or logic, it might not apply in general life.

Ýmir Vigfússon: Why I teach people how to hack

Speaker

Ýmir Vigfússon is an Icelandic hacker and a computer security expert.

Summary

The hacking community is one that values only knowledge, rather than social class, money, looks, background. They feel a thrill when they discover an exploit or serious bug after hours of searching, for example one of Ýmir’s friends was playing with his online banking app and discovered he could transfer negative amounts (effectively taking money from other people’s accounts). As a youngster, Ýmir was hacking into a server when his parents used the phone. This disconnected him, and left the server broken so that even Ýmir couldn’t get back in. He owned up to the system administrator and thankfully found the admin an amateur hacker, quite accepting and interested in Ýmir’s indiscretions.

There is an attitude that security can be bought in a big expensive box – that a single piece of equipment like a firewall or a server will protect people. Ýmir sees it differently – like a house with a massively secure front door but all the windows wide open. Hackers think about the system as a whole, asking “how would I break in”, and so can build a much more secure system by constantly challenging it. Defending against a cyberattack is difficult, since you need to set up a defense against every possible attack, while the attacker needs to find only a single vulnerability.

Ýmir wanted to transfer this mindset to others.

  • He has set up a university course to teach students the techniques to hack, with 30 graduates per year.
  • Formed a consulting firm to simulate cyber-attacks on big businesses, and lead them through the process to improve their security.
  • Set up hacking competitions. He starts by asking people to hack a server on the internet, then selects finalists to hack each other on stage. This gets a lot of public excitement, and lets him reach out to ‘lay’ audiences & media with his methods.

Ethically, people could be concerned about Ýmir arming a wider audience to hack. But he has to put his faith in students to act ethically: as does a martial arts or chemistry teacher. Ethics is a part of his course, and he believes his methods have swayed young hackers into a more useful career than destructive hacking. He thinks of himself similarly to the sysadmin who encouraged him when he made a mistake as a delinquent hacker.

My Thoughts

An important reminder that having a ‘dangerous’ skill does not necessarily make someone dangerous.

James A. White Sr.: The little problem I had renting a house

Speaker

James A. White Sr. is an executive coach and management consultant. The owner and president of Performance Consulting Services in Columbus, Ohio.

Summary

53 years ago James was having significant problems renting a house. He was moving to a small town in Idaho with his family, to join the air force. He called ahead at a number of places, but when they saw he was black they suddenly had no vacancies. He eventually bought a trailer from another airman, but couldn’t find a trailer park to park it at.

In the 3 months before the Ferguson shooting (where a young black man was shot by police), 8 unarmed African-Americans had been shot to death by police or white home-owners. It seems that driving while black, talking while black, walking while black are dangerous. James’ grandsons are stopped by police and searched more than their white friends. Their white friends say they should rise up and start resisting, but the consequences are too great.

James does not have the luxury of being angry, but uses his energy instead to educate then expose and counter racism. He appeals to all Americans of all races to question insane ideas, and say they do not accept the shooting of unarmed people regardless of race.

My Thoughts

A story of racism and a sad indictment of the people who refused to deal with him. In my opinion he labours the point a bit – the first 10 minutes was about failing to get a house. It is the crux of his talk and the story is entertaining, however I feel it went too long.

The rest of the talk was about recent events – about blacks being targeted by police with shootings and ‘random’ checks. As an Australian I was not aware the problem was that bad, so appreciated the insight. I wonder if similar racism is happening here.

Navi Radjou: Creative problem-solving in the face of extreme limits

Speaker

Navi Radjou is an innovation and leadership advisor based in Silicon Valley. Navi is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review online. Previously, he served as Vice-President at Forrester Research in Boston and San Francisco.

Summary

Navi talks of the Hindi concept of Jugaad – clever solutions born out of adversity or doing more with less (equivalent term in English would be a ‘hack’). This is important in developing countries, where less resources force them to find cheap and simple solutions. The talk is a list of examples of this:

  • A potter in India has designed a fridge out of clay, needing no electricity.
  • A bicycle-powered mobile phone charger
  • Peru is a high-humidity area with limited fresh water. They developed a billboard to condense 90L water per day out of the air.
  • In China a telemedicine solution is building easy-to-use medical appliances that can be used by nurses or technicians. This will make rural medicine cheaper to deliver.
  • MPesa: a banking network based on phone transactions
  • MPesa energy: a solar powered minimalist electricity kit including a panel, 3 lights and a phone charger. This can be bought in microtransactions over a year, so it can be made affordable.
  • SMS powered internet: to let people connect to the internet without a wifi or mobile internet connection
  • Traffic monitoring and optimization by using cheap low resolution webcams to gauge traffic conditions.

In the developed world people are spending a lot on R&D to charge more for products: more for more. However, natural resources are running low and the products are getting so expensive that more people are being left out of the market. The West could learn to make more with less. Some are doing this: for example a yoghurt factory that is 10% the size of a usual factory, and uses more manual labour in place of expensive automation. This greatly decreases startup costs. The West is also starting to use tools like mobile banking or simpler medical appliances to deliver services at lower costs.

3 ideas to help you innovate frugally

  • Keep it simple
  • Leverage off existing services eg SMS,
  • Think horizontally – decentralised, rather than central operations / manufacturing.

My Thoughts

A lot of examples. They build up to the big 3 points at the end – how to apply the principles. Also useful to point out that R&D can’t keep being an expensive process, at the expense of squeezing more and more consumers out of the market.