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Podcast: The Computer Weekly Downtime Upload – episode 46

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna are joined by special guest Hannah Foulds, head of marketing and membership at the Open Data Institute, who flags stories about humans tricking AI. The group then discusses the Women in Software Powerlist, the loan charge and online targeting

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna are joined by special guest Hannah Foulds, head of marketing and membership at the Open Data Institute (ODI), who flags stories about humans tricking artificial intelligence (AI). The Women in Software Powerlist, the “loan charge” that is blighting the lives of many IT contractors, and online targeting are also discussed.

  • Hannah tells the CW trio about the ODI’s work and its Week in Data newsletter. The goal of the newsletter is to make world news about data more widely available, and to do so in an entertaining fashion.
  • She shares three stories with the team, the first two of which are under the theme, “What kind of trickery is this?”. These figure different generations and places: a Berlin conceptual artist and a group of Maryland teenagers fooling, respectively, Google Maps and Instagram. Stories abound of AIs fooling humans, but in these instances the tables were turned, however temporarily.
  • The Berlin artist Simon Weckert has been tricking Google Maps into thinking there is a traffic jam by pulling 99 smartphones around with him in a tiny red handcart (shades of 99 red balloons? one wonders). “He is exploring how [digital] maps are having an impact on society, and playing with that,” says Hannah. Clare and Caroline ask if he is attempting shape drawing with his efforts, a practice which can be NSFW, and of which Brian seems to be ignorant.
  • Hannah then tells the team about a bunch of Maryland teenagers who are rebelling against Instagram by grouping together to share account details so that individualised ad targeting is foiled, and the system thereby gamed.
  • “Stories like these,” says Hannah, “can show how people who are not techie can engage with the dialogue about data, and so conversations about data are not just something that regulators, governments or chief data officers have, but real people.”
  • Hannah’s third story from the world of data is one of scientists collaborating by sharing data in the now epic battle between humans and the Coronavirus, which originated in China and is now spreading to other parts of the globe.
  • Traditionally, says Hannah, researchers have been quite private about their data and findings to make a splash with career-defining journal papers. But this seems not to be the case with the study of the development and geographical spread of the Coronavirus.
  • Clare says she is of the “every person for themselves” attitude in an apocalypse, and Brian expresses concern about the globe-trotting that is imminent for many IT conference attendees.
  • In the meantime, Clare tells us about last week’s launch of the Women in Software Powerlist, over which she’d had to draw a veil of secrecy at the end of the previous week’s podcast. The list was established in 2019 by Makers, a software engineering bootcamp. This is its second year, and Clare is one of the judges. As Clare reports, alongside the Women in Software list, the bootcamp is also this year launching a Changemakers list to highlight people making a positive change to diversity and inclusion in the UK’s tech sector.
  • This and other lists – such as Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Women in Technology list – draw attention to the ongoing need to increase the power of women in business and public life. That would include life in Parliament, and Caroline next tells the group about her trip to the Palace of Westminster last week, in pursuance of her ever-growing body of work on the loan charge that is afflicting IT contractors. She attended the inaugural meeting of the newly formed loan charge all-party parliamentary group, and took her sandwiches with her. (See Loan charge MPs quiz contractors on ‘unreasonable behaviour’ claims made about HMRC’s case handling).
  • There are, Caroline reminds us, tens of thousands of people in the UK – a large proportion of whom are IT contractors – from whom HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is demanding six-figure tax bills from relating to work done a decade or more ago because they opted to be remunerated for that work in the form of a non-taxable loan instead of a conventional salary.
  • Caroline narrates the meeting of the parliamentary group, which took place on 4 February. She tells of one woman who had been compelled to sell her house to pay off a £400,000 tax bill, only to be presented with a further bill by HMRC.
  • Caroline’s growing authority as a national journalist on the related topics of IR35 and the loan charge does not overshadow her role as Computer Weekly’s resident expert on all matters cloud. It would seem, from its most recent numbers, that Google Cloud Platform is enjoying a fresh lease of life under the leadership of Thomas Kurian, well known in the enterprise IT world as a long-term Oracle veteran. Will Google’s cloud growth bring it into Larry Ellison’s sights as a rival to be railed against at this year’s Oracle Open World in the autumn?
  • Google is one of the online platforms analysed in last week’s report from the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), which, Hannah says on the podcast, the ODI has welcomed. The centre is recommending regulation of social media algorithms as part of a drive to make user targeting safe and ethical.
  • Brian goes over the main lines in the report, which is about online targeting in a broad sense – targeting that often benefits us as consumers, but which the centre, as a government adviser, is recommending be regulated. Brian says the centre speaks of “online platforms”, but we know it means Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (GAFA).
  • Roger Taylor, chair of the CDEI, writes in the foreword to the report: “Most people do not want targeting stopped. But they do want to know that it is being done safely and ethically. And they want more control. These are very reasonable desires. But that does not mean it is easy – or even possible – to accommodate them. In making our recommendations we are proposing actions that kick-start the process of working out how public expectations can best be met.”
  • The report recommends that the proposed online harms regulator “should have the power to require platforms to give independent researchers secure access to their data where this is needed for research of significant potential importance to public policy”.
  • Hannah says the ODI is especially welcoming of a proper interrogation of how opportunity ads, like job adverts, are served up and to whom on social media.
  • “When you are targeting someone by their age for a job or for credit or for housing based on protected characteristics, that really has an impact on people’s lives,” she says.
  • And she adds, with respect to public services to citizens: “If everybody had a wealth of information about everything, then we would be overwhelmed, so targeting is needed.” But we need, she says, to know that that is being done ethically and transparently.
  • Finally, Brian comments that the struggle between Facebook et al. on the one hand, and governments and regulators on the other, seems unequal at present, with the former having most of the power and money.

Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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