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A fortnightly amassment of science, technology, holy light shows and good news. Not necessarily in that order.
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The Crunch # 59


Move slowly, and don't break things. Plus, A Royal Wedding, ears grown in forearms, robot hives, good news on Indian coal, Mexican solar panels, Canadian forests, and tuberculosis. 


"If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late."

Reid Hoffman
Early investor in Facebook
Co-founder of LinkedIn
Old, Rich, White Guy
How's that for a quote that hasn't aged very gracefully? 

For many years, "move fast and break things" was gospel in Silicon Valley. Facebook's classic mantra represented a philosophy of trying out new ideas quickly so you could see if they survived in the marketplace. If they did, you refined them; if they didn't, you could throw them away without blowing more time and money on development.

That approach was ideal for a world where digital technologies were exploding into popular usage. Software engineers could deploy fast, safe in the knowledge that it was just code and that any mistakes or bugs could be fixed on the fly. A generation of startups swallowed the principle whole and an entire industry of consultants and soundbytes grew up around it, the Lean Startup, agile methodologies, Scrum, fail fast, done is better than perfect.

Today, a new class of technologies is emerging that's calling that entire mindset into question. We live in a world where 'digital' is no longer a glorified marketing department in a company, or an economic sector on its own, but a layer over everything. More than half of humanity is now online, using the internet every day. And as digital evolves into 'cognitive,' design decisions that may have seemed inconsequential can turn out to have significant and irreversible consequences further down the line. "Don’t be evil" and "Move fast and break things" served their purpose for a while, but they're now too vague and too dangerous for services that are so deeply interwoven into the daily lives of billions of people. It doesn’t exactly have the same ring, but maybe their replacements could be, “Is this algorithm toxic?”
Just over two months ago, an Uber car being driven by code on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, hit and killed a woman named Elaine Herzberg, who was crossing the darkened road with her bicycle. It was the first fatal crash involving a vehicle driven by a computer. As Slate reports:
 
Uber’s sensors first perceived Herzberg about six seconds before impact - more than twice the commonly accepted reaction time of 2.5 seconds. But the sensors struggled to classify Herzberg (first as an unknown object, then as a car, then as a bicycle) and determine her expected path across the road. At 1.3 seconds before impact, the system determined emergency braking was required, a function that was disabled under computer control “to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behaviour.”

The way the algorithm was designed to operate, and to be used, didn't take certain factors into account, including human error, and ended up costing Elaine Herzberg her life. 
 
View of the self-driving system data playback at about 1.3 seconds before impact, when the system determined an emergency braking maneuver would be needed to mitigate a collision. The emergency brakes were turned off because there was a human driver in the seat. Yellow bands are shown in meters ahead. Orange lines show the center of mapped travel lanes. The purple shaded area shows the path the vehicle traveled, with the green line showing the center of that path. (Source: NTSB)

Traditionally, the tech industry hasn't had to worry about stuff like this. Code has always been relatively harmless. Compared to transportation or medicine, daily interaction with pain, physical harm or death was a lot less likely if you were writing software for apps. Engineering culture dominated. In order to fulfill the ethical warrant of your profession, all you had to do was make the product work. It was up to other people to figure out the applications or the social mission for your object.

That's no longer the case; software these days can now propel giant hunks of steel and metal into human flesh, or be turned into propaganda by foreign agents. 

The big tech companies have been struggling to handle this, the unintended consequences of their build-it-first mindset. They didn't expect algorithms designed to maximise advertising spend to end up prioritising lewd content for children watching videos, to amplify mental health issues for teenagers, or to be manipulated into weaponised narratives to influence elections. Facial recognition software was supposed to help their customers unlock their phones, and now authoritarian regimes are using it identify ethnic minorities, and target political dissidents via credit scoring systems. The developers at big tech companies still seem a little baffled when told that the systems they’ve built (systems that are clearly working very well) are corrupting the public sphere. 

In part, this is due to the newness of the industry. Doctors for example, are technical people too, but they've been trained on a code of ethics developed over a very long time: First, do no harm. The tech sector has a different ethos: Build first and ask for forgiveness later. Now they're being called to account, as a result of becoming too powerful and too dangerous, too quickly. Silicon Valley's geeks need to do more than acknowledge criticisms, and start taking responsibility for their actions. They need to move beyond their obsession with customer centricity, and start thinking about how to serve society in general. As Laura Norén, a lecturer on data science ethics at NYU says, “We need to teach them that there’s a dark side to the idea that you should move fast and break things. You can patch the software, but you can’t patch a person's reputation, or their body.”

Shipping scrappy software should no longer be an option. In the rush to get stuff out the fastest way, time-consuming things like user testing, automation, analytics, monitoring, and manual testing get skipped. That's fine if you're building a food delivery app, but if you're building a neural network that manufactures 5,000 widgets a minute, then you can't afford bad design decisions, or poor oversight. Sure, exponential technologies can radically alter business models - but they also amplify your mistakes. 

Blockchain, another nascent foundational technology, is even less suited to Silicon Valley's traditional mindset. With machine learning, the code can at least be retracted and edited. Blockchain developers have no such luxury. Once a mistake has been deployed, it's part of the permanent record. In a centralised system it's possible to fix your bug, but in a decentralised one that's immutable by design, it's impossible. There is no “move fast and break things” in a blockchain. If you break things, you lose consistency and the blockchain becomes corrupted and worthless.

The crypto geeks learned that lesson the hard way in the case of the DAO hack on the Ethereum blockchain two years ago. Thrilled at the possibility of using complex smart contracts to run a decentralised corporation entirely on code, they rushed it into production, without proper quality assurance. The code however, turned out to have multiple bugs, including one that a hacker was able to exploit a few weeks later, draining $70 million dollars of funds in a few hours.

The Ethereum community was forced to implement a hard fork, creating an entirely new version of the database with the sole function of returning all the Ether taken from the DAO to a refund smart contract. While the fork solved the problem, it was a rude awakening for a community forged on romantic ideas about the hacker mentality. Part of the reason blockchain development seems to be moving a lot slower these days is that core programmers realise they can't afford to move as fast, and repeat those kind of mistakes.
 
So how do you solve the problem? Ironically, the answer might be found in industries that have been criticised for being slow and old fashioned. Engineers can't afford to build bridges with design flaws. Doctors can't afford to prescribe the wrong medicines and then fix their mistake a few days later. Airlines can't launch a product with 90% assurance Software developers would do well to take a leaf from their book. Aviation is a particularly good example to follow. In 2017, commercial aviation flew over 4 billion passengers on 38 million flights without a single fatality in a scheduled jet airliner. Its a remarkable example of what can be accomplished when political will, resources and expertise become focused on reducing accidents and injury.

It happened because the industry realised that individual efforts were never going to be good enough. Because real lives were at stake, ever-rising expectations forced the industry to constantly improve. Don't be evil didn't cut it, only zero fatalities would do. The standard wasn't do better, it was be perfect. Manufacturers had to build better, safer planes with improved design and performance. Pilots improved their skills. Regulators provided improved oversight, and accident investigators generated better analysis of the decreasing number of accidents. Flight attendants improved evacuations, and dispatchers built new tools to make better decisions. Maintenance technicians improved procedures to enhance reliability and safety. 

At the core of this success has been a simple tool: the checklist. Technicians and pilots are forced to step through an exhaustive, boring and very predictable set of instructions before every flight. Checklists aren't sexy, and you certainly won't see them flashed up on stage by thought leaders at expensive conferences on innovation. But they are effective. As Zach Holman points out in his excellent 2014 talk, they remove ambiguity. All the debate happens before something gets added to the checklist, not at the end. That means when you're about to launch a product (or take off from a runway) you need to worry less about implementation and more about process.

Good dev shops of course, do this as a matter of course. At Apple, they have an internal checklist that goes into great detail about the process of releasing a product from beginning to end, from who's responsible to who needs to be looped into the process before it goes live. Even before a team starts working on something, they make a checklist to prep for it. Do we have appropriate access to development and staging servers? Do we have the correct people on the team? When you're done, you check it off. Easy to collaborate on, and easy to understand.

At Github, they approach it slightly differently. While moving fast and breaking things is fine for some features, for others it's not. Their first step is identifying what cannot break, for example, things like billing code, upgrades and data migrations. Once they've identified these areas the challenge becomes how to leave them untouched, or at least, get 100% assurance on any changes, while still making fast and small edits in other areas. A little like changing an engine while a car is running, and just as slow and tricky. Upon deployment they then run simultaneous versions of the software. In a nutshell, the idea is running both the old and the new code, and only switching to the new code if it performs at least as well as the old version over a significant period of time. 

Ultimately though, these solutions don't fix the underlying problem. Facebook for example, changed its motto in 2014 to "Move Fast With Stable Infra" (catchy right?) implementing more automated tests, better monitoring and extra infrastructure to help identify bugs as early as possible. None of that helped them when fake news, election hacking and data privacy blew up in their faces. Their problem wasn't technical or procedural - it was cultural. Engineers at the company simply weren't able to conceive of use cases where their product could be abused by people who didn't share their worldview. 
 

That's why the next generation of technology engineers needs better training. Medical students spend a lot of their undergraduate years been taught to think critically about the ethical implications of their decisions. The same should be true of software engineers. And the good news is that this does seem to be slowly happening. Microsoft has a Hippocratic Oath for artificial intelligence, and Stanford University, the academic heart of Silicon Valley, is developing a computer science ethics course to train the next generation of technologists and policymakers to consider the ramifications of innovations like autonomous weapons or self-driving cars before they go on sale. As Mehran Sahami, one of the course's conveners says, “Technology is not neutral. The choices that get made have social ramifications."

The safest bulwark against baking bad ideas and flaws into code however, is ultimately diversity. Group think is a deadly enemy in a world of hyper connectivity, exponential technologies, and unintended consequences. Diversity mitigates against it. The ability to draw on multiple worldviews, and to run ideas through teams that differ across age, race, neurology, class, profession and cultural background ends up building far more robust products that are likely to do less harm once unleashed upon the world.

These are aims shared by the vast majority of people working in tech. It's an industry that's united by a belief that digital technologies are a remarkable tool for improving human lives in a truly transformational manner. The question is: can the tech people be better stewards of what they've built? Can they learn to move a little slower, and stop breaking as many things, in the interests of building a society that works for everyone? We're all going to find out, one way or another. 
 


Good news you probably didn't hear about


Repsol has become the first major fossil fuels producer to say it will no longer be seeking new growth for oil and gas, and will reduce its reserves to only eight years. Bloomberg

India's coal industry is in big trouble. Thanks to plummeting clean energy prices, 20% of coal plants are stressed assets, and a fourth of those are now unviable. Quartz

Mexico has almost finished building the largest solar farm in Latin America, a "sea of panels turning the desert green." Once switched on, it will power a million homes. SBS

Annual deaths from tuberculosis (TB) the most deadly vaccine-preventable disease, have been reduced from 1.8 million in 1990 to 1.21 million in 2016. OurWorldinData

Following a successful five year pilot in its capital, Estonia is set to become the first country in the world to make public transport free everywhere, for everyone. Popupcity

Canada has signed another conservation deal with its First Nations people, creating the largest protected boreal forest (an area twice the size of Belgium) on the planet. BBC

Evidence of an environmental Kuznet's curve? Between 1990 and 2015, forest cover increased by 1.31% per year in rich countries and by 0.5% in middle income nations. BBC

Following a decade long drive by scientists and volunteers, South Georgia's birds are safe from rats for the first time in two centuries, the largest eradication effort of all time. NPR

Indistinguishable from magic


A neural network trained to navigate mazes spontaneously developed the digital equivalent of grid cells, the same system mammalian brains use to move through space. Ars Technica

The world's largest metal 3D printer has just been unveiled in Melbourne. It's over 40m long, and capable of creating aircraft wings, ship hulls, submarines and rockets. SBS

The first restaurant with a robotic kitchen that cooks complex meals has opened in Boston, thanks to MIT robotics engineers and Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud. LMT

A team of US and Chinese scientists have used CRISPR/Cas9 to develop a variety of rice that produces up to 31% more grain than standard varieties. Purdue

Neuroscientists at UCLA have transferred memories between snails via injections of RNA, upending existing theories of where and how memories are stored in the brain. STAT

US Army surgeons have built a new ear for a soldier from rib cage cartilage, placed it in her right forearm, and successfully transplanted it to her head. WTF. Smithsonian

A cathedral in Montreal is using projection mapping to create a light show that would have counted as a religious experience for any time traveller from the 19th century. In The Know

The information superhighway is still awesome


We disappeared down a Queen shaped rabbit hole this week, and found their 20 minute set from Live Aid in 1985. Freddie Mercury's finest moment, true rock glory. Youtube

Two of the people we admire most, Daniel Kahneman and Erik Brynjolfsson, in a long chat about robots, human versus algorithmic bias, and AI systems in the workplaces. Youtube

Well, that was fun. Our heartfelt thanks to Anthony Lane, the New Yorker's literary critic, for some much needed sanity in the aftermath of the Royal Wedding. Very, very funny. 

Add another one to the evolutionary trick bag. When you're stressed, and feeling anxious, you become a lot better at processing bad news, even if it's unrelated. Aeon

The legends at Africa Parks are the 21st century equivalent of Noah's Ark, rescuing animals from around the continent and relocating them to places empty of wildlife. WaPo

They call it "the hive." Welcome to the warehouse of the future, courtesy of British supermarket Ocado, who are doing some truly extraordinary things with robots. The Verge

What would it look like if you took all of the solar system's terrestrial surfaces, and overlaid them on a map of the earth? Who the hell even asks questions like that? xkcd, that's who.

And that, as they say in many respectable establishments when it gets close to midnight, is that. We are all done for this fortnight, thank you as always for reading. 

Actually hold on that's not true. One last thing. We would really appreciate your support if you feel like this newsletter is valuable to you. For the price of a crappy USB stick, you can become a paid subscriber, and feel smug in the knowledge that your subscription money will all be given away to charities and volunteers doing great things for the world with science and technology. 

Much love,

Gus and Tane
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