Driverless cars, perils of AI and the importance of creative thinking

September 18, 2015

Trolley tracks


We are discussing artificial intelligence tonight, said Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark, and we have some very intelligent humans with us to help us do it.

That, by the way, is a sort of Newsnight joke. I think.

Artificial intelligence and the driverless car

To be fair, there followed a very intelligent discussion by the very intelligent humans on the increasing impact of artificial intelligence and the ethical dilemmas raised, for example in the emerging era of the driverless car.

Unsurprisingly, one expert had been brought in to reassure us of the unlikely prospects of some disaster scenario of the ‘computers will take us over’ kind. Another took the contrary more cautious view. The debaters showed even more respect towards each other that was shown earlier in the day at PMQ by David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn.

Agency theory

At the core of the discussion is agency theory. I don’t mean the narrower ideas of corporate control between owners and managers or agents. I mean the great sociological issues of the nature of structures and the potential of humans to act as free agents.

In Newsnight, human agency was examined as potentially under threat by computers taking decisions. This introduces questions of whether the computers in cars and anywhere else will be able to deal with ethical issues on our behalf

To connect this to a problem of immediate practical importance, the case of driverless cars was introduced. The experts gently considered the possibility, concluding that it did not influence the positions they had outlined. But the Newsnight production team had their own secret weapon introduced by David Grossman, their excellent culture and technology editor.

The trolley problem

David has set up an experiment to replicate one of the famous ethical dilemmas known as the runaway rail truck or trolley problem.

Scientific American also had a look at it a few years ago, and I seem to remember a few references in The Economist. David, drawing on the BBC’s vast budget had obtained what looked like a bit of model rail track complete with a little red truck, and a switch that could be used to divert the truck way from the line that would kill five people and on to a branch line which would result in only one person being killed.

Grossman’s volunteers had the life or death choice of pulling the switch and after that the more tricky task of reflecting on the ethical dilemma to which they had been exposed. The volunteers conformed to the behaviours of countless laboratory subjects who had taken part in such experiments in the past. Yes, mostly they preferred to act. They also confirmed that it is jolly difficult to sort out that darn moral dilemma. What right had someone to take a life? Or not intervene to save five lives?

Hmm. What do you think?

When reintroduced to the viewers, the experts in ethics and artificial intelligence were given a chance to consider the implications of the experiment for philosophy, and the ethical problems of driverless cars. They tactfully avoided mentioning that a genius called Ludwig Wittgenstein has more or less drawn the poison out of ‘mind games’ as a bunch of linguistic traps.

More interestingly, one discussant pointed out a fundamental principle of creativity when anyone faces a tricky either-or decision. The concept is repeatedly found in my textbook Dilemmas of Leadership. A dilemma can be effectively re-framed if the binary nature of the ‘either-or’ is examined and its assumptions tested. You can apply that principle to the practically important issues of driverless cars, loss of human agency and ethical resolution of dilemmas.

I welcome comments and will elaborate on the conclusions later in an update to this post.

Muirfield should keep its men-only club rules and live in its self-elected bubble

July 18, 2013

How to defend two differing sets of human rights? There are ways, including setting up the sort of Apartheid-type approaches which eventually were overcome in South Africa

Much has been written about the men-only rules of the Muirfield Golf Club, as it hosts the 2013 Open Championship [July 2013]. Many members of the golfing fraternity disapprove of discrimination in all its forms, and have spoken up against Muirfield’s ‘weird’ rules (as one golfer put it).

South Africa, many years ago, had its own political rules about association between people of different races. It took decades of dissent to overturn the rules. Pressure on the Muirfield club will eventually probably result in a change of its rules, as took place recently at Atlanta.

There is another way. Muirfield has every right to stick to its rules, however weird they seem to others outside the club. Those who feel strongly about it, should ensure that the rules are protected from being weakened by forces from outside. For example, golfers who might dispute the rules could decide they would prefer not to play in competitions at the club. Broadcasters (encouraged by subscribers and sponsors) could decide they did not want to broadcast events held at the club. Spectators could decide not to spectate. And so on.

This would help Muirfield to preserve its rights of association of its male membership, and there would be one more major golf competition awarded to clubs with a set of rules more acceptable to other people, including women, living in the 21st century.

Starbucks’ tax arrangements store up trouble for the brand

October 16, 2012

This week Starbucks was identified as a company that has used creative accounting to avoid paying any tax in the UK for three years, a period in which sales reached £1.2bn, and when its senior executives were on record as praising the UK financial performance

A special report by Reuters explains how the accounting scheme works:

We have identified three cunning, although legal, methods by which Starbucks has been able to avoid paying taxes to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), Britain’s tax authority. They involve payments between companies that fall under the greater Starbucks corporate group. By charging subsidiaries high-priced royalty fees on intellectual property, requiring chunks of funds be allocated to other subsidiaries in the supply chain, and shifting money to low-tax areas via inter-company loans, Starbucks has been able to essentially make its reported profits in the U.K. vanish into the foggy London air.

The practice of charging royalties on intellectual property is a method pioneered by tech companies like Google and Microsoft, and is used by Starbucks to drastically reduce the amount of taxable income it must report. Starbucks charges its international operations, including its U.K. unit, fees in order to use various elements of the corporation’s intellectual property, such as its brand and business processes.

Starbucks’ high ethical standards

LWD had been following Starbucks as an example of a company placing diversity at the heart of its corporate values. Its own website reads:

“Aside from extraordinary coffee, Starbucks has made a business out of human connections, community involvement and the celebration of cultures. We’re committed to upholding a culture where diversity is valued and respected. So it’s only natural that as a guiding principle, diversity is integral to everything we do.

Starbucks is dedicated to creating a workplace that values and respects people from diverse backgrounds, and enables its employees to do their best work. We honor the unique combination of talents, experiences and perspectives of each partner, making Starbucks success possible. As such we expect our partners to act with a spirit of kinship, tolerance and humanity toward all customers making our brand welcoming to everyone.”

The welcoming brand

Starbucks places ethical standards at the heart of its operations. It leaves it more vulnerable to damaging attacks on its integrity through stories of its global financial arrangements.

Barclays in a spin. Bob Diamond goes, Marcus Agius comes back

July 3, 2012

[Update] In twenty four hours, the LIBOR scandal at Barclays bank results in exit of Marcus Agius as Chairman. Then CEO Bob Diamond quits, and Mr Agius returns as Executive Chairman through the revolving door of fate

Yesterday LWD noted the departure of Mr Agius, and speculated on the future of Bob Diamond. Diamond Bob had gone out of his way to reassure significant financial individuals in and outside Barclays that the story would fade away leaving financial institutions relatively unscathed.

Within twenty four hours, the matter had become the centre of a political as well as a financial storm. It seems that the establishment of parliamentary enquiries to investigate the LIBOR affair had resulted in a decision by Mr Diamond to quit immediately [BBC’s financial sleuth Robert Peston, 8.30 am, July 3rd 2012, shortly after the announcement was made public]

I speculated yesterday that Mr Diamond was a financial asset whose value could fall as well as rise. The fall was more rapid than I could have imagined.

A storm brews

The story is escalating as quickly as any I have followed over many years. In 24 hours there have been debates in the House of Lords and House of Commons. Those impacted include very senior civil servants, the head of the Bank of England, the fomer head of Barclays, John Varley, high-profile political figures such as George Osborne [who seems to have some part to play in any political story in the UK at present]. Oh, yes, and various financial executives at Barclays and elsewhere who found yesterday a good day for resigning their posts.

Update [6th July 2012]

The Diamond performance to the commons committee attracted widespread attention. The opinions varied from ’10 out of 10’ [for avoiding any ‘confessional’ statement that might be held against him ], to much lower ratings for failing to convince the committee of his integrity [laughter at his perceived obfuscations], and an error of judgment in trying to be too familiar [use of first names . The committee was also rated in some commentaries, but I couldn’t find any assessment that was positive.

I urge students of leadership to get hold of a full copy of proceedings. Also note that for MBA business presentations (not to mention for Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman) the interviewee would certainly be more promptly advised to deal directly with a simple question (but that’s a bit more advanced than media training 101)

The ancient business of money-lending as updated by Wonga

May 13, 2012

Wonga has been accused of being the latest success in the history of exploiting poverty through money-lending. Errol Damelin, Wonga’s founder, sees it differently

Wonga is another Google

Mr Damelin sees his company having a similar business model to firms like Google, Amazon, PayPal and Netflix:

“Wonga is a platform for the future of financial services, the digital revolution has not yet begun in financial services . .. Wonga is on a multi-year and multi-decade journey to build the future of financial services, using data and technology to make objective and unprejudiced decisions.

We have built the world’s first, completely straight-through processing system for credit, so when somebody comes to Wonga as an individual, or as a business-owner, and applies for a cash advance, the whole process is completely automated”

Responsible lending

The Wonga website explains its code of contact and its approach to responsible lending

Our service is designed to put you in control of your cash flow, for those occasional times when an unexpected expense catches you by surprise. Unlike most lenders, we enable you to choose exactly how much money you want to borrow – down to the last pound – and for exactly how many days. We don’t force you to borrow a fixed sum you might not need, nor do you accrue interest for longer than necessary. The amount you apply for and the length of the loan naturally affect the cost of repayment too, so you can make adjustments until you’re happy with all elements of your application.

Our technology enables us to assess applications in seconds and helps to ensure we only lend to people whom we believe are able to repay us – we simply aren’t interested in lending to anyone who isn’t. Because we carry out a credit check as part of the application process, you may also see an improvement to your credit history when you repay an online cash advance from Wonga. That’s because we inform our credit bureau partner of your trustworthy behaviour with any timely repayment.
We urge you to think carefully before applying for a Wonga loan, because we expect it to be repaid when you promise to. We describe the potential consequences of failing to do so, [and] offer tips for anyone already struggling with debt.

Applying for any form of credit isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Please remember that if your Wonga application is approved, it becomes a two-way street and you’ll need to keep a serious promise. We want our relationship to be a happy and trusting one, so we lay out the facts as clearly as possible. Only you can decide whether to apply or not, however, so please only do so if you’re confident you’ll have the funds to comfortably make repayment on your chosen date.

The Business Model

The interest rates are explosively high. And yet, there remains a dilemma. A corporate spokesperson explains the rates in terms of someone deciding to take a black cab for convenience, even if it is expensive.

The Guardian newspaper explored Wonga’s business model.

Last week, [May 2012] the Office of Fair Trading launched a review of the payday lending sector in response to concerns that “some payday lenders are taking advantage of people in financial difficulty” and not meeting “guidance on irresponsible lending”. The OFT said it aimed to drive out companies that are not fit to hold consumer credit licences.

Wonga does not expect to be one of the companies driven out of the market, and the company’s advertising strategy tries to set Wonga aside from the myriad of evocatively named rival online companies that offer money if you Google payday loans.

Note to students of leadership

Wonga is a word found in English vernacular, where it (roughly) means money. Wonga sponsors Blackpool football club. Its business model repays a close study. Breaking news: The Economist examines Wonga’s business.

See also growing media attention to the underlying problems of people needing pay day bridging loans

Lei Feng is a Chinese role model and an example of servant leadership

March 27, 2012

March 5th is “Learn from Lei Feng Day”. A self-sacrificing soldier, Lei is celebrated in China as a role model of selflessness and modesty. Similarities with Servant Leadership are noted

Many LWD subscribers will be unaware of the story of Lei Feng and the esteem he is held in China. Lei’s fame arises from the days of Mao when he became a popular icon for the ideal soldier as ordinary hero. His fame remains today although the State now is opening up debate on such historical stories, for example through social media sites.

The Chinese social media site Sina Weibo is now providing an English language service

Sina Weibo correspondents were quoted extensively in a “China Daily article on Lei Feng recently [March 5th 2012] on the 49th anniversary of his death.

“While Lei Feng’s name still resonates in China and elsewhere, some begin to wonder whether the spirit of the Good Samaritan is still relevant in an age of intense materialistic pursuit and whether the image of helping grandmas cross the road is somewhat outdated.”

@Guaiguaideayuan Radio host at Zaozhuang Station:

There is nothing wrong with Lei Feng Spirit. It’s not the fault of those “Lei Fengs” (those who follow Lei’s example) that the spirit is now challenged and even doubted by some. It’s the reality and people’s perception of the reality: we want more from the others and from the society, and when the desires can’t be fully satisfied, we blamed something or somebody [other than ourselves].

@Wenxinfoshan Sina Weibo user

Today the new definition for Lei Feng Spirit should be as follows: 1. Try to do good, no matter how small it is; 2, try to be responsible; 3, try to be independent and do regular self-introspection; 4, try to put yourself in the others’ shoes, as often as possible; 5, and try to persevere in everything you do.

Global values and ordinary heroes

Western readers tend to reject stories from the time of Mao as State propaganda. There is even debate about the very existence of Lei Feng as portrayed officially. We can liken this to Western ‘ordinary heroes’ such as Robin Hood whose existence is challenged but whose story is accepted and romanticised.

Xinghuaqi, the biographer of Lei Feng puts it this way:

We promote Lei Feng Spirit because Lei Feng is an “ordinary” hero. His “heroics” were done in his daily life, and we can do the same if we wish. His spirit isn’t about communism or socialism – nothing ideological – but about the basic human nature. If everyone could follow Lei Feng’s path, the community will become much healthier.

The similarity to the work of Robert Greenleaf on servant leadership is clear. According to Dilemmas of Leadership, [p 190] servant leadership is essentially about “the development of followers into morally responsible and autonomous leaders”. This idea cuts across 20th century leadership “maps” which place emphasis on “the fallacy of the industrial paradigm” [p 239] and subsequent ethical dilemmas.

Creative leadership needed for Remploy

March 8, 2012

The economic squeeze in the UK has hit Remploy, a government-backed scheme for people with disabilities, and a long-established component of the welfare system. The leadership dilemmas are clearer than satisfactory courses of action

The BBC takes up the story in March 2012

Remploy, which provides work for people with disabilities, is planning to close 36 of its 54 factories, putting more than 1,700 jobs at risk. Minister for Disabled People Maria Miller said the sites could be closed by the end of the year as they were not financially viable.

Remploy factories were established 66 years ago as part of the creation of the welfare state. Its workers are employed in enterprises that vary from furniture and packaging manufacturing to recycling electrical appliances and operating CCTV systems and control rooms. The government says “non-viable” factories should close, with the money, part of a £320m annual budget for disability employment, re-invested into other schemes to help disabled people find work.

It follows an independent review conducted by Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, into the way in which the government spends its disability employment budget. Her report recommended that government funding should focus on support for individuals, rather than subsidising factory businesses. She recommended the cash should be diverted into the Access to Work fund, which provides technology and other help to firms for the disabled, whose average spend per person is £2,900.

The Department for Work and Pensions said about a fifth of that budget was currently spent on Remploy factories, but added that almost all of the factories were loss-making and last year lost £68.3m.

Remploy’s official website announced the change of policy [downloaded March 8th 2012].

The Remploy Board has proposed a series of significant changes to its operations as a result of the Government decision to reduce current funding for Remploy – this was announced to Parliament as part of a package of reforms to maximise the number of disabled people supported into work.Remploy will now consult with its trades unions and the management forums on the proposed closure in 2012 of 36 of its factories which it believes are not commercially viable, and on the potential compulsory redundancy of 1,752 employees directly or indirectly involved with these businesses.

During this consultation Remploy will consider all measures to avoid redundancies. Remploy will issue a consultation document on the proposed factory closures and will start discussions with the trades unions and the management forums to begin formal consultation on the proposals.

In the second stage, Remploy will work with the Department for Work and Pensions to explore whether the remaining factory-based businesses and CCTV contracts could exit from Government ownership and, if so, agree how this might be achieved.

Dismay and anger

Unsurprisingly, the story has been met with dismay and anger from those affected. One source with experience of the Remploy factories told Leaders we deserve “It’s a difficult one. Remploy started after the war [of 1939-1945] for disabled soldiers, but that’s changed over the years.”

Creative leadership

The debate will rage on. Many who engage in it will be close to the pain. Others will be close to deeply held beliefs about socialism, and the nature and level of state intervention. There is still space for creative leadership here.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,166 other followers