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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 04 May 2018, 6:14 pm

One bite at a time

We have to address the elephant in the room. Or rather, the elephant which is not in the room.

Where is the government's Chief Technology Officer?

During the election campaign the Labour party, led by its IT spokesperson Clare Curran, championed the idea that New Zealand needs a CTO. Someone with a vision who can bring together the disparate views of different government agencies, someone who could work across boundaries and silos, someone who would provide a vision for the future of digital New Zealand.

The government at the time poo-poohed the idea, although later it back-tracked and decided it actually would also consider a CTO should it reclaim the Silicon Throne (ED: OK, let's not start that nonsense).

Labour won the election, a cabinet paper was produced saying the role would have no staff, no authority, would produce a strategy document for the country and they'd work alongside the yet-to-be appointed advisory group which would help support the CTO. The role would be similar to that of the Chief Science Officer, in that the position would have no authority but would advise and guide the government (this is code for "can be ignored if we disagree").

That was in November. By February with the upcoming summit of digitally-inclined nations, the search was well underway with an estimated 60-odd candidates putting up a reasonable show of wanting the gig.

They must have been odd because nobody got it. The summit came and went, the Minister was applauded for not rushing the appointment on the basis that hiring the wrong person would be worse than hiring nobody.

And hiring nobody is exactly what we've done.

It's now May and we still have no sign of a CTO. There's not even a short list. There doesn't appear to be any movement on a job description and as far as anyone can tell there's been no effort to actually advertise the role further.

The advisory panel has been appointed and their role will be to find the CTO but hang on, aren't they supposed to be supporting this person, not hiring them? Surely that's a job for the Minister ably supported by her Ministry, not a bunch of digital volunteers?

I still support the need for a CTO. I think government all too often misses opportunities and all too often spends its time working in silos on complementary but competing projects. I would like to see someone act as a futurist and bring us back tales from beyond the seas, of other lands and new developments. I support the idea of someone who will hold the government to account for its digital designs and implementations, or lack thereof.

Unfortunately I am beginning to suspect the role cannot be filled.

The people who would be ideal are too busy off doing their own thing and unlikely to want to become a government lacky at a time in their careers when they could be setting the market on fire, and the people who do want to do the job don't have the gravitas and mana the Minister and her advisors are seeking.

Quite how that will be resolved at this point is anyone's guess.

CIO - Hon. Clare Curran: CTO proposal in the government's 100-day fast track

MBIE - CTO role job description cabinet paper

Minister's office - First appointments to Digital Advisory Group

Minister's office - Additional members for Digital Advisory Group

Minister's office - Search for CTO to be widened

Stuff - Tech think-tank led by 'chief technology officer' considered by National


CTO Wanted


AI forum

One of the important issues facing the government (with or without the CTO) is artificial intelligence.

I hate the term AI. I'm a science fiction fan and AI is a machine that can think for itself. It's an android or a space ship or a planet. It's not a piece of software that follows a set of instructions, because that's what they all do.

I much prefer "machine intelligence" because that seems to be more in line with what actually goes on. Machines are given a set of instructions and can learn and adapt to the environment in which they're operating, whether it's virtual or real world.

But we're stuck with AI and apparently, the AIs are coming for our jobs.

Not mine, obviously, because it's mine. But lawyers, they're definitely coming for you. And accountants. And bus drivers. And airline pilots. Doctors, you too are going to be assimilated.

Basically any job that involves processing or handing a packet of something from one side of a thing to the other (in all its myriad forms) is at risk.

However, in a report for the AI Forum, released this week, we seem to be a long way off from that at this point.

Yes, change will come, but it will take time. As with all technologies we have the hype cycle, followed by the Slough of Despond where we mock our younger, less worldly selves for being so eager, then we finally get the first iterations of the technology and then finally, many years later, it's an overnight success and we're all better off for it.

But what is clear at this point is we lack the people to get the job done. Should we wish to play in the AI space we are woefully under-baked as far as education and training goes and so we should probably focus on producing more STEM (and dare I say it STEAM) graduates and fewer management bods.

AI Forum - Shaping a Future New Zealand

Stuff - While artificial intelligence is tipped to be 'as significant as electricity', it's not coming for your job, yet

Computerworld - AI: different tech, same impact says NZ AI Forum


Carry on Regardless

I've discovered the real killer of democracy.

It's the non-chronological timeline of our social media feeds.

Yes, I have been drinking, but hear me out.

In 2013 (that's five years ago) around 1.9 million New Zealanders used Facebook every day. Facebook has become the predominant form of media for a vast swathe of New Zealand citizens, and for many it's the only direct source of news they consume on a regular basis.

That number has only gone up in the past five years and today I would say the vast majority of New Zealanders use Facebook on at least a daily basis.

Forget the six o'clock news. Forget the morning papers. Forget the newspapers' websites - for most of us the source of our information is Facebook.

If you're like me, that will have sobered you up and given you an instant headache in one fell swoop, because I've seen what passes for "news" on Facebook.

I've had family members post obscure Brexit nonsense from the UK. I've had friends post obscure Canadian isolationism content from North America. I've had long forgotten friends tell me the truth about vaccines and (surprise plot twist) it was not the actual truth.

But worse than all that, I've had my timeline mangled so now I don't see those things. Instead, I see the posts that Facebook's algorithm has decided should be upper most in my feed.

So, forget about those friends' posts. Forget about the posts from those clubs or associations you belong to. You can even forget about those posts from the brands that you've decided you want to engage with. The top of your news feed will be populated by posts that have paid Facebook the most to be at the top and the rest are lost further down the feed, never to be seen again.

This manipulation means despite your preferences you will get what Facebook wants you to get, and Facebook wants you to get whatever it's paid to deliver.

My day job is in public relations and communications and one of the biggest trends in recent years is the destruction of the newsroom. Where once there were multiple journalists covering a single round, today we have singular journalists covering multiple rounds. They have no time to devote to complex matters, they have no experience to use to decide what to devote their time to and they have little or no support from senior staff because they've all left.

That means the PR world has turned to social media as an avenue to promote our clients' wares and largely, for the consumer market, that means Facebook.

In the old days (a couple of years ago) you'd slap up a video, get a bunch of people to like it and sit back. Before that, you'd slap up a photo of a prize, run a competition, get a bunch of people to like it and sit back.

That doesn't work anymore.

Today, you have to pay Facebook to promote your content otherwise nobody will see it. Nobody. You might get a handful of responses but nothing like what you used to see.

The first "advertisers" to cotton on to this were, of course, the propogandists. They aren't placing ads in your news feed, they're placing fake news and the new model Facebook has introduced rewards them for it.

Cambridge Analytica, the data consultancy behind the Trump campaign and, apparently, heavily involved in the Brexit work in the UK, has decided to shut up shop because of the outcry over exactly this kind of activity. CA's defence is that it has done nothing illegal or even immoral because this is precisely what Facebook is set up to do, and I have some sympathy with them for that view.

CA appears to have crossed a line in deploying sleight of hand to access the user data that it did access, but even so Facebook has gathered that data and built a system that encourages companies to do just that.

So Cambridge Analytica is no more. In a statement that howled with outrage, the company said it was forced to shut up shop because its suppliers and customers had all fled.

For a real business, this would indeed be a catastrophe but of course, Cambridge Analytica wasn't a real company. It didn't care about making a profit or a loss, it didn't care about customers or suppliers. Its goal was to promote the views of its owners and to influence political decision making on a scale only dreamed about previously.

Because of that, Cambridge Analytica's "demise" is nothing more than a game of find the lady. Fortunately, it's not too difficult to see where they've hidden her - the principals of the business have a new vehicle for their intellectual property - Emerdata was registered in August last year and will, no doubt, carry on as before.

Medium - Chart: Emerdata Limited - the new Cambridge Analytica/SCL Group?

The Guardian - Cambridge Analytica closing after Facebook data harvesting scandal

Techblog - RIP Cambridge Analytica


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