Reclaiming the technology juggernaut: A review of Azeem Azhar’s ‘Exponential’

  • Azeem Azhar, Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving us Behind and What to Do About It, Cornerstone, 2021
Azeem Azhar

The central message of Azeem Azhar’s new book, ‘Exponential’, is that technology is a force that humanity can direct, rather than a force which will enslave us.  This may seem optimistic, given the alarmingly fast rate of change which new technologies are bringing about in the world, but as well as explaining in clear terms why these changes are happening so fast and why this is a problem, the book also sets out a manifesto for how we can match technology to meet human needs and begin to address some of the social impacts of rapid change.

‘Exponential’ identifies four key technology domains which form the bedrock of the global economy and where capabilities are accelerating at ever-increasing rates while, at the same time costs are plummeting.  The four technologies are computer science, where improvements are driven by faster processors and access to vast data sets; energy, where renewables are causing the price of generating power to drop rapidly; the life sciences, where gene sequencing and synthetic biology are allowing us to develop novel biological components and systems, and manufacturing, where 3D printing is enabling the rapid, localized production of anything from a concrete building to plant-based steaks.  These are all ‘general purpose technologies’: just like electricity, the printing press, and the car, they have broad utility and the potential to change just about everything.

However, while these technologies are taking off at an exponential rate, society has been unable to keep up.  Businesses, laws, markets, working patterns, and other human institutions have at the same time been able to evolve only incrementally and are struggling to adapt.  Azhar calls this the ‘exponential gap’ – the rift between the potential of the technologies and the different types of management that they demand.  Understanding the exponential gap can help explain why we are now facing technology-induced problems like market domination by ‘winner takes all’ businesses such as Amazon, the gig economy, and the spread of misinformation on social media.

The book detail the impacts of the exponential growth in technology on business and employment as well as on geopolitical issues such as trade, conflict, and the global balance of power.  It shows how the ‘exponential gap’ is shaping relations between citizens and society through the power of tech giants which increasingly provide platforms for our conversations and relationships while collecting and commodifying data about us in order to manipulate our choices. Read more

Military applications at centre of Britain’s plans to be AI superpower

The UK government published its National AI Strategy in mid-September, billed as a “ten-year plan to make Britain a global AI superpower”.  Despite the hype, the strategy has so far attracted curiously little comment and interest from the mainstream media.  This is a cause for concern  because if the government’s proposals bear fruit, they will dramatically change UK society and the lives of UK Citizens.  They will also place military applications of AI at the centre of the UK’s AI sector.

The Strategy sets out the government’s ambitions to bring about a transition to an “AI-enabled economy” and develop the UK’s AI industry, building on a number of previously published documents – the 2017 Industrial Strategy and 2018 AI Sector Deal, and the ‘AI Roadmap‘ published by the AI Council earlier this year.  It sets out a ten year plan based around three ‘pillars’: investing in the UK’s AI sector, placing AI at the mainstream of the UK’s economy by introducing it across all economic sectors and regions of the UK, and governing the use of AI effectively.

Unsurprisingly, in promoting the Strategy the government makes much of the potential of AI technologies to improve people’s lives and solve global challenges such as climate change and public health crises – although making no concrete commitments in this respect.  Equally unsurprisingly it has far less to say up front about the military uses of AI.  However, the small print of the document states that “defence should be a natural partner for the UK AI sector” and reveals that the Ministry of Defence is planning to establishment a new Defence AI Centre, which will be “a keystone piece of the modernisation of Defence”, to champion military AI development and use and enable the rapid development of AI projects.  A Defence AI Strategy, expected to be published imminently, will outline how to “galvanise a stronger relationship between industry and defence”.  Read more

RAF drone programmes fly into stormy skies

BAe System image of Tempest aircraft with accompanying drones

Funding for the ‘Tempest’ Future Combat Air System which is intended to replace the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft is “significantly less than required” and “adds significant overall programme risk” to delivery of the new jet, according to a report on government project management published jointly by HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

In its first assessment of the Tempest programme the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which reports jointly to the two government departments, reveals that successful delivery of the aircraft is already “in doubt”.  Another high profile drone project, delivery of the RAF’s new ‘Protector’ aircraft, rated a similar assessment.

Tempest is under joint development by Italy, Sweden, and the UK as the next generation combat aircraft for the three nations – a high performance, high cost system consisting of a core aircraft, which is likely to be able to fly in both crewed and uncrewed modes, with an associated network of swarming drones, sensors, and data systems.

The IPA, which each year rates the performance of government departments in delivering major projects, has scored the Future Combat Air System programme with an Amber / Red risk rating in its report for the 2020-21 financial year.  This means that “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and assess whether resolution is feasible”.  Read more

Technology and the future of UK Foreign Policy – Our submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry

Click to open

In a timely and welcome move, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has recently launched an investigation into ‘Tech and the future of UK foreign policy‘.  Recognising that new and emerging technologies are fundamentally altering the nature of international relations and the rapidly growing influence of private technology companies, the Committee’s inquiry intends to focus on how the government, and particularly the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) should respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies.

A broad selection of stakeholders have already provided written evidence to the Committee, ranging from big technology companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, and BAE Systems, to academics and industry groups with specialist interests in the field.  Non-government organisations, including ourselves, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International UK, and the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have also provided evidence.

Not surprisingly, submissions from industry urge the government to support and push ahead with the development of new technologies, with Microsoft insisting that the UK “must move more quickly to advance broad-based technology innovation, which will require “an even closer partnership between the government and the tech sector”.  BAE Systems calls for “a united front [which] can be presented in promoting the UK’s overseas interests across both the public and private sectors”.  Both BAE and Microsoft see roles for new technology in the military: BAE point out that “technology is also reshaping national security”, while Microsoft calls for “cooperation with the private sector in the context of NATO”. Read more

The iWars Survey: Mapping the IT sector’s involvement in developing autonomous weapons

A new survey by Drone Wars has begun the process of mapping the involvement of information technology corporations in military artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics programmes, an area of rapidly increasing focus for the military.  ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’, the recently published integrated review of security, defence, development, and foreign policy, highlighted the key roles that new military technologies will play in the government’s vision for the future of the armed forces and aspirations for the UK to become a “science superpower”.

Although the integrated review promised large amounts of public funding and support for research in these areas, co-operation from the technology sector will be essential in delivering ‘ready to use’ equipment and systems to the military.  Senior military figures are aware that ‘Silicon Valley’ is taking the lead in  the development of autonomous systems for both civil and military use’. Speaking at a NATO-organised conference aimed at fostering links between the armed forces and the private sector, General Sir Chris Deverell, the former Commander of Joint Forces Command explained:

“The days of the military leading scientific and technological research and development have gone. The private sector is innovating at a blistering pace and it is important that we can look at developing trends and determine how they can be applied to defence and security”

The Ministry of Defence is actively cultivating technology sector partners to work on its behalf through schemes like the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA). However, views on co-operation with the military by those within the commercial technology sector are mixed. Over the past couple of  years there are been regular reports of opposition by tech workers to their employer’s military contacts including those at Microsoft and GoogleRead more

Humans First: A Manifesto for the Age of Robotics. A review of Frank Pasquale’s ‘New Laws of Robotics’

In 2018, the hashtag #ThankGodIGraduatedAlready began trending on China’s Weibo social media platform.  The tag reflected concerns among Chinese students that schools had begun to install the ‘Class Care System’, developed by the Chinese technology company Hanwang.  Cameras monitor pupils’ facial expressions with deep learning algorithms identifying each student, and then classifying their behaviour into various categories – “focused”, “listening”, “writing”, “answering questions”, “distracted”, or “sleeping”. Even in a country where mass surveillance is common, students reacted with outrage.

There are many technological, legal, and ethical barriers to overcome before machine learning can be widely deployed in such ways but China, in its push to overtake the US as world’s leader in artificial intelligence (AI), is racing ahead to introduce such technology before addressing these concerns.  And China is not the only culprit.

Frank Pasquale’s book ‘The New Laws of Robotics: Defending Human Expertise in the Age of AI’ investigates the rapidly advancing use of AI and intelligent machines in an era of automation, and uses a wide range of examples – among which the ‘Class Care System’ is far from the most sinister – to highlight the threats that the rush to robotics poses for human societies.  In a world dominated by corporations and governments with a disposition for centralising control, the adoption of AI is being driven by the dictates of neoliberal capitalism, with the twin aims of increasing profit for the private sector and cutting costs in the public sector.  Read more