At some point all political leaders of whatever ideological disposition get a technology ‘messiah’ complex, for better or worse. In the 1960s, JFK’s ambition took America to the moon; in 2019, his successor wants his own Space Force to play with, whatever that turns out to mean.
In the UK, back in the 1960s, the talk was all about “the white heat of technology”, a heat that unfortunately barely reached a rolling boil. In the early 21st century, Prime Minister Tony Blair committed the taxpayer to a £13 billion bill for NHS IT that didn’t work and a pursuit of ID cards on the basis that the nation owed this to the cause of “modernity”.
And more recently, no UK senior government figure has seen a US tech firm that he or she didn’t like, with a disproportionate number of Cabinet ministers loitering around the Microsoft UK lobby in search of a photo opp.
And now there’s Boris Johnson. The two-months-in-office UK Prime Minister addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York yesterday to big up Brexit Britain as a technology leader and a place to be if you want to be on the bleeding edge of innovation and advancement.
Not the best of days
Now it’s fair to say that yesterday was not a good day for Boris. Sitting in his Manhattan hotel room, he had to watch as the UK Supreme Court found him guilty of unlawfully suspending Parliament, with the unspoken rider that this may have involved lying to the Queen. So rather than basking in the aftermath of his latest photoshoot with Trump, he was all too aware that he now had to high-tail it back to London overnight to face the music today.
Against that backdrop, maybe his mind wasn’t entirely on the task at hand in New York. Except of course that the speech he delivered to the world’s assembled leaders was written for him before the constitutional crisis exploded and as such there’s really no excuse for the Prime Minister to be dribbling on about what AI will mean for the world as :
Helpful robots washing and caring for an ageing population or pink-eyed Terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race?
Who does he think he is? Elon Musk? Whatever the rationale, “digital authoritarianism” and ensuing dystopian futures was the theme that the Prime Minister decided to own. Try this for size:
Data is the crude oil of the modern economy and we are now in an environment where we don’t know who should own these new oil fields. We don’t always know who should have the rights or the title to these gushers of cash and we don’t know who decides how to use that data. Can these algorithms be trusted with our lives and hopes?…Are we doomed to a cold and heartless future in which computer says yes or computer says no with the grim finality of an emperor in the arena? How do you plead with an algorithm?
This isn’t like the good old days, complained the leader of a country that wants to pitch itself as a hotbed of technological innovation to foreign investors:
When I think of the great scientific revolutions of the past - print, the steam engine, aviation, the atomic age - I think of new tools that we acquired but over which we - the human race - had the advantage, which we controlled. That is not necessarily the case in the digital age.
And bearing in mind that the past few years have seen government ministers falling all over themselves to attract US tech investment in the UK, it was clearly going to be a good idea to take a potshot or two in the direction of Google and Amazon:
You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor – even your personal trainer – but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google. And if that is true today, in future there may be nowhere to hide…this technology could also be used to keep every citizen under round-the-clock surveillance. A future Alexa will pretend to take orders. but this Alexa will be watching you. clucking her tongue and stamping her foot
And it’s going to get worse, he warned:
In the future, voice connectivity will be in every room and almost every object: your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese, your front door will sweep wide the moment you approach, like some silent butler; your smart meter will go hustling - of its own accord - for the cheapest electricity.
And every one of them minutely transcribing your every habit in tiny electronic shorthand, stored not in their chips or their innards - nowhere you can find it, but in some great cloud of data that looms ever more oppressively over the human race, a giant dark thundercloud waiting to burst and we have no control over how or when the precipitation will take place.
Ever the classicist, Johnson looked to the past to predict the threats from the future:
It is a trope as old as literature that any scientific advance is punished by the Gods. When Prometheus brought fire to mankind in a tube of fennel, as you may remember, that Zeus punished him by chaining him to a Tartarean crag while his liver was pecked out by an eagle And every time his liver regrew the eagle came back and pecked it again...In fact it was standard poetic practice to curse the protos heuretes - the person responsible for any scientific or technical breakthrough. If only they had never invented the ship, then Jason would never have sailed to Colchis and all sorts of disasters would never have happened.
To which the only response can be - WTF was anyone in 10 Downing Street thinking about, sending the Prime Minister out on a Brexit begging trip armed with drivel like this? After years of work by academia and industry in the UK to establish entirely justified credentials in fields such as AI, robotics and fintech, the Prime Minister is banging on about eagles pecking out the livers of mythological Greeks!
The big sell came at the end as after all the preceding declarations of oncoming doom and gloom, Johnson suddenly declared despite all preceding evidence to the contrary that :
I totally reject this anti-scientific pessimism. I am profoundly optimistic about the ability of new technology to serve as a liberator and remake the world wondrously and benignly.
And there was a Brexit Britain vision thing as well, albeit somewhat shrouded in Boris-speak, as an invitation was extended to the rest of the world:
Here’s the good news - I invite you next year to a summit in London, a wonderful city, where by the way it is not raining 94% of the time, and where at one stage - when I was Mayor of London - we discovered that we had more Michelin starred restaurants even than Paris. The French somehow rapidly recovered by a process that I wasn’t quite sure was entirely fair.
But we still have by far, in the UK, by far the biggest tech sector - fintech, biotech, meditech, nanotech, green tech - every kind of tech - in London - the biggest tech sector anywhere in Europe, perhaps half a million people working in tech alone. I hope you will come there, where we will seek to assemble the broadest possible coalition to take forward this vital task, building on all that the UK can contribute to this mission as a global leader in ethical and responsible technology.
I cringed through every minute of this speech - and that’s no mean achievement given that there’s so much embarrassment to choose from at the moment on the UK political scene. So much work has gone into growing the British tech sector and if Boris gets his Brexit, the UK is going to need a strong digital economy with lots of inward investment from US and other International tech firms to complement the domestic champions. This sales pitch from Britain’s very own digital Cassandra - putting it in language the Prime Minister might understand - will have done nothing to help. At a time when Silicon Valley is talking about the Fourth (and Fifth) Industrial Revolutions, the UK Prime Minister is looking back at the first - and seemingly through the eyes of the Luddites.