Wednesday 28 June 2017

New Year Resolutions: Can't beat the geeks? join them

In a future of artificial intelligence, Sarah Carey foresees the horror of an automated world where everything from cars to household appliances will run on software. Only 5pc of the population understand the code that controls critical systems, leaving humankind open to the realistic possibility that one day, the computers will take over, 'Terminator' style. For a control freak like her, there's only one option open: rule the code before the code rules you.

Sarah Carey. Photo: Kip Carroll
Sarah Carey. Photo: Kip Carroll
Sarah Carey

Sarah Carey

On August 1, 2012, in less than 45 minutes, a global financial services company called Knight Capital lost $440m on the stock exchange. Like many other similar companies, it was heavily reliant on automatic high-frequency trading - a computer-driven system that has displaced those guys you see in weird jackets on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. That day, the software went mad and the humans watched in horror as it lost Knight Capital $10m a minute. It destroyed the company.

I'll never forget when a geeky friend of mine, rather smugly, declared that if any of the executives had known a single line of code, they could've stopped the catastrophe.

As a practiced fantasist, I immediately saw myself in the role of under-rated employee who knew that line. Watching as panic broke out amongst the rich men in suits, I'd hesitate, but seeing there was no alternative, heroically jump in front of a computer and save the day - and the company. The owner would realise he'd got me all wrong. I wasn't just another blip in the world, but someone of true skill! How impressed he would be! How big the cheque he'd have written! At last! Glory and riches would be mine!

The only problem (apart from the fact that I don't work in a global financial services company) was that I don't know any code. I know what it looks like. But I haven't a clue what any of it means. Since I like to convert fantasy to reality, I was left with only one conclusion: I'd have to learn how to code.

Since I went to college, I've hung around with engineers and computer scientists. I seem to have the recessive gene that tunes me into their social network, though I lacked sufficient interest in maths or science to take any interest in the actual work they do. Something of a pragmatist, I didn't need Honours Maths, so never bothered with it. And as a realist, I copped on pretty quickly that I wasn't up to it anyway. I know my limits. So I stuck to the writing and indulged my nerdish tendencies through my keen interest in Star Trek. Still, hanging round with those geeks has left me with a persistent intellectual insecurity. It doesn't matter what I know - there is so much I don't know. That pang in my stomach won't go away until I do something about it.

Worse, being pals with the people who make software, I've often ended up working with them too and am deeply conscious of the caste system within the technological world. Those who can, code. Those who can't, can't: can't create; can't control; can't understand a bloody thing that drives our world.

It'd be easy to sail along, oblivious to the systems on which we depend. After all, we can drive a car without having to understand how it works. But a friend of mine is leading the development of self-drive cars and, she says, within 10 years, our children will ask us why we even bothered learning to drive.

So look at the trend here. Wasn't it wonderful when Helen Mirren in The Queen was able to look underneath her banjaxed Land Rover at Balmoral and describe the broken part to the chap back at the estate's office? She'd worked during the war and knew car mechanics. The queen is from a generation that could look at an engine and understand. She rocks.

My generation does not rock. We know how to drive, but have no idea how the car works. Soon, we won't even know how to drive. That'll be the computer's job. We'll sit there, like evolutionary spare parts, couriered around by a technology we don't understand. This is a relentless process of de-skilling, whereby humans and the tools on which we depend, become ever more disconnected. A terrifying gap will open up between the 5pc who understand and the rest of us, who'll wake up one day to a Knight Capital moment. I don't want a Knight Capital moment. I want to be in the 5pc.

Driving is only one example. The drive (metaphorical this time) in technology is towards what they call the 'Internet of Things', the process by which all our devices, including household appliances such as smoke alarms and heating systems, will be connected to the internet and to each other.

My joke is that one day the fridge will refuse to open because it knows you're on a diet. Except that's not really a joke because we're arming our appliances with piles of data so they can predict our behaviour for supposed convenience: the car will ask why you're going to the office because it's Saturday. This is leading to a genuine fear that, one day, the appliances will take control. In the world of artificial intelligence, some programmers are trying persuade the inventors of emerging technology to build limits into the software. Very smart people can honestly see a Skynet day - that's the company in the Terminator movies whose computers decided to exterminate humanity.

So let's recap. We've got the 1) 'Heroically saving the company' fantasy; 2) Intellectual anxiety; 3) Control freakery; and 4) Apocalyptic terror. You can see how the case for getting on top of technology is mounting. But there's one more reason to learn code. In typical middle-class fashion, I'm imbued with the imperative to ensure that my children are successful.

As wealth-inequality trends towards pre-French Revolution levels, I'm worried my children are doomed to a life of employment insecurity and collapsing State supports. Stooping is not an option. Their only hope is to conquer. Between an education system ill-equipped to teach code and their own innate inertia, they'll never get anywhere unless I force them. I have to learn, so I can teach them, so they'll create the next Google and we'll all be rich. Yes. I'm over 40 and have accepted that my dreams are now vicarious. I won't make a million. But maybe they will.

There are only two upsides in this. The first is that I'm reasonably confident that once I put my mind to it, I can learn. From what I know, it's a question of logic, precision and puzzle-solving. Sudoku frightens me, but not since I started on the children's versions. If I start at the kids' version of code, I'm sure I'll get the hang of it. The other thing is that technology and the internet has provided me with the means to learn.

Education is being democratised and so far I've taken a few Moocs (massive open online courses). These are free online courses run by proper universities in everything from economics to philosophy to engineering. Anyone can do them. All you need is the will to learn (and broadband - apologies to anyone in County Roscommon).

I've already sniffed out courses at places like that teaches computer languages and provides forums for students to collaborate and consult. As terrifying as technology is, it's some consolation that it also provides us with the tools to learn about it. And now that I've gone public with my intentions, I'm left with no choice but to get on with it.

Giving up is one thing. Giving up publicly, quite another. Therefore, I am resolved. This is the year I take back the world.

Sunday Independent

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