Artificial intelligence is (mostly) not intelligent

This is not AI-powered, even though it's about to forecast the weather.
This is not an artificial intelligence, even though it’s about to forecast the weather.

I last wrote about artificial intelligence here in February 2014. Four and a half years ago it wasn’t something that very many people were paying attention to. Artificial intelligence (AI) had been fashionable in computing circles back in the mid 1980s, but its popularity as a mainstream topic was long gone. Cognitive scientists and psychologists also appeared to have given up on the topic. For example, the Open University removed the chapters on cognitive modelling and connectionism from the final few presentations of DD303 sometime around 2011. Fortunately, this was after I’d taken the course.

However, you can’t help but notice that there’s been a huge surge in software companies jumping onto the AI bandwagon recently. Probably the most irritating manifestation of this trend is the shouty chap on the Microsoft TV advert. While what he’s peddling is interesting, it’s not a definition of AI that I recognise.

By these same standards, the camera on your smartphones isn’t using AI to take better photographs, regardless of manufacturer claims. Chess playing computers aren’t AIs. And self-driving cars – no, they’re not using AI to avoid obstacles.

All of these examples are simply using the vast computing power we have available today to scan for patterns in ever-larger datasets. Domain-specific algorithms are then used to obtain a result. Algorithms that enable them to play chess, avoid obstacles and take better photographs. The more computing power there is, the more options these algorithms can run, and the more intelligent they seem. But they use the power of brute force computing rather than anything resembling an artificial human – or biological – intelligence to obtain results.

If you ask your camera phone to play chess, you won’t get very far. Likewise, you’ll not find a self-driving car that can diagnose illnesses. There are people who can do both – maybe even simultaneously – and avoid obstacles while driving a car, figure out that Brexit is a bad idea and so on.

Having said all of that, these examples are still better uses of computing resources and power than cryptocurrency mining. At the time of writing this activity is consuming as much electricity as the whole of Austria and adding incrementally to climate change.

So if my earlier examples aren’t AI, what is?

The term AI should be reserved for systems that (a) simulate human cognition and (b) can subsequently be used to explain how human cognition works. An AI system should also not be inherently domain-specific. In other words, the computing framework (hardware plus software) used should be capable of being retrained to deliver solutions in multiple domains, potentially simultaneously, just as a person can.

Without such rigour being applied to the definition of AI, any or all computer programs could be called AI. Much as I love the algorithm I wrote for my premium bond simulator a few days ago, it’s not an AI. Neither is my weather forecaster.

I’m not trying to argue about the number of angels that will fit on a pin-head here. I have a real concern about the misuse of the term AI. There is genuinely interesting research being performed in artificial intelligence. SpiNNaker at Manchester University appears to be one such example.

However, nothing will stop the flow of funding to valuable AI research faster than the inevitable perception (I predict within 3 years) that AI has failed. This will happen because software marketeers don’t understand what AI is and don’t really care anyway. For them, AI is simply a means to shift more computing “stuff”. When it is no longer a hot topic it will be unceremoniously dumped and rubbished for the next “big thing”.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at the rise and fall of any big computing trend of the last 40 years. Object databases in the mid 1990s, for example. Computing has always been the equivalent of the fashion business for nerds (like me).

Transplant -4: Ranty Saturday

Yesterday afternoon I was rejoined at my bedside by grey Eeyore. Quite rightly, Jane decided he was a little too unhygienic to be in here at first. He’s now been through a full wash and tumble dry, so although he smells beautiful, he’s understandably a little ranty today. Even though the nurses love him.

Ranty grey Eeyore
Ranty grey Eeyore

His mood has rubbed off on me a little this morning. It’s not nine thirty yet and I’ve already had two good rants. The first was while I was chatting to my bed makers. Nothing to do with this hospital however! I was reminded of the time I was visited on the ward in Derby by a member of their trust board. I was more than happy to speak to her, until I realised that she simply seemed to be on a fishing expedition for complaints. Let me record now, that at both Derby and Nottingham, my treatment has been exemplary and the staff, at all levels, are amazing. The only time I’ve felt secondary is when being interviewed by that Derby trust board member. I wish I’d have taken it further at the time to be honest.

So that was my first rant. My second is on twitter, so you can follow the thread if you’d like to read it. Warning – contains NHS Brexit ranting, but if you would like to re-tweet it for me it would make me very happy!

In chemo news, I’ve just finished my third bag of cytarabine. I’m about to start bags three and four of etoposide. I’m still “functional” and putting on weight. 92.5kg this morning, although that’s probably mostly due to all the liquids that I’m having pumped into me. My appetite is still OK, but it’s more of a struggle to eat than it was a couple of days ago.

I’m wearing my happy socks (thank you to the Doyles! ) – maybe I will become less ranty as Saturday progresses.
Happy socks

Never auto-renew your car insurance with Allianz (or with anyone else, probably)

Martin Lewis over at offers this excellent advice when it comes to car insurance:

Never auto-renew. Loyalty is expensive

Nothing better illustrates car insurers preying on loyal customers than Sarah Cooper’s tweet. “My car insurance renewal is £1,200. New policy with same company is £690. How do they justify this?” They don’t. They just do it.

I’ve had my car insurance renewal notice from Allianz today. Comparing it with last year’s premium, they want an additional 51%! Nothing has changed – except that I’ve had another claim free year, bringing my total to 10. A quick check of a couple of price comparison websites showed that for the same cover the cheapest quotation was around £15 less than I’d paid this year, with 10s of quotations clustered around £10-£20 more expensive than last year. There were three or four (out of a hundred or so) that were more expensive than the Allianz renewal, but they were offering free unicorns as well. (OK, I’m fibbing about the unicorns).

I rang Allianz up. I was calm. I politely explained the situation. I was reasonable and persuasive. I asked that they considered renewing my policy at around the same price as last year, or perhaps on or around the median quotation I’d found for this year.

Their call handler was lovely, but her response was:

We don’t price match sir. I could re-quote you, but the result would be the same.

They wouldn’t budge by even a penny. I hate being taken for a fool and her excuses became less and less convincing as I suggested that they were guilty of sharp practice. I’ve cancelled my policy with them and I’ll do everything I possibly can do to make sure that I don’t use Allianz again any time soon.

So if customer loyalty is as worthless as it appears to be from this example, I wonder why so many software companies are marketing customer experience management and customer loyalty solutions?

Perhaps they’d be better off trying to sell customer disloyalty solutions instead.

We should let the Houses of Parliament fall gracefully into the Thames

News that it could take decades and several billion pounds of our money to restore the Houses of Parliament provides our country with a great opportunity – but I doubt that any of our leaders are bold enough to take it. My plan? Our politicians should hand over the site to English Heritage to be run as a tourist attraction. If it falls into the Thames in the process, so much the better. One of their more spectacular properties, Goodrich Castle (below), looks so much better in ruins today than it probably ever did when it was occupied.

Goodrich CastleA modern parliament could then be built on the partly cleared land (or perhaps on the site of the hideous QEII Conference Centre) at a fraction of the cost of restoring what is, by many impartial accounts and my own limited experience, a building totally unfit for its purpose. But of course, that would only make sense if you thought that our lawmakers had to be in London. They don’t, of course.

If our leaders were really smart, they’d move the whole machinery of government to the Midlands. It would have a positive impact on the political establishment and the civil service. The remaining citizens of London would benefit too, as such a move would ease the pressure on housing, office space, a creaking transport infrastructure (just think – we wouldn’t need a new runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow if we made better use of the Birmingham, Coventry and East Midlands Airports) and everything else that is in short supply, stupendously expensive or highly subsidised in the capital. And, of course, it would bring much-needed investment to the part of the country that is forever ignored by the metropolitan elites from the South and North of the UK.

Would anyone like to tell me why I’m wrong? Because you’ll need to have a far more convincing argument than any I’ve seen so far from the vested interests concerned to preserve the status quo.

Six reasons why I loathe LinkedIn

Let me count the ways I hate you, LinkedIn and the manner in which you encourage people to behave.

1. There’s far, far too much willy-waving going on. For some reason that completely escapes me, people write in a strange kind of LinkedIn-ese that you see nowhere else (except on CVs destined for the ‘reject’ pile).

Some examples:

“I am a multi talented individual …” – Good for you!

“I am a results oriented business leader.” – What kind of results do you get?

“I operate at the most senior levels to make things happen.”  – What things? Are they good, bad or indifferent?

“I continuously remove obstacles preventing sales in order to reach my objectives” – Sounds ominous to me.

“… strategically managing multiple hard-to-fill and urgent job requisitions.” – Pardon?

“As a sales hunter, I drive myself to reach my goals …” – So no points on your driving licence then?

2. Oh dear.

Homeopathy on LinkedIn

3. I see endless examples of ageism and sexism, in the guise of humour or “research says that …”. Here’s part of a milder example. As anyone who’s ever studied occupational psychology knows, someone’s age or gender isn’t correlated with how well people do at work.

Ageist tosh

4. I detest the corporate shill – someone who only ever posts company propaganda. LinkedIn at its best is personal – and nothing is more impersonal and lazy than simply regurgitating everything that your marketing department produces. That’s not to say that it’s never appropriate – it may well be. But if your status updates only consist of that material, then you’re not providing much of value to your network.

5. The constant entreaties by email and on LInkedIn itself to take out a free trial of their premium service. No thanks. If there was a way of permanently stopping you from asking me about this several times a month I’d probably like LinkedIn a little more.

No, I don't want to upgrade

6. The many and varied ‘intelligence tests’ that appear to be the only thing that some people post. I particularly hate these if the person concerned can’t tell the difference between “your” and “you’re”.
A LinkedIn intelligence test


However, I won’t be deleting my account any time soon. At its best, LinkedIn is a useful source of information and contacts. In particular, it’s been a good way on staying in touch with people who I’ve enjoyed working with in the past, as well as with my current colleagues. Within the last month, a person I worked with more than 15 years ago contacted me as he’d heard about my lymphoma. Without LinkedIn, I doubt whether that would have been possible. It’s these moments of humanity, in amongst all the willy-waving that makes me grateful that LinkedIn exists after all.


Why is it so difficult to report an illegible number plate?

I have a pet peeve. Well, ok, I have more than one pet peeve as regular readers will know. But this one is reasonably high up the list. I’m thinking about people who deliberately misrepresent their number plates and more specifically, people who misrepresent them to such an extent that they become illegible, offensive or both.

I followed one such miscreant driving a blue BMW through the centre of Derby this morning. When it was safe to do so, I pulled over to the side of the road, parked, and took a photograph of their number plate with the intention of reporting it later to either the DVLA or the Derbyshire Constabulary. Much as the practice of misrepresenting number plates annoys me I’ve never thought about reporting someone for it before, but this particular misrepresentation made what should have been a fairly innocuous registration mark both illegible and offensive.


However, I’ve now reluctantly given up on reporting it.

It would seem that neither the DVLA nor the police are particularly interested in the issue, even though there is a fine of up to £1,000 for the offence. It’s important that vehicles have legible number plates as if the car concerned was to be involved in a future incident, a witness being able to accurately recall the registration mark may become significant.

However, the DVLA don’t provide any mechanism I can find for reporting such offences (online, by telephone or in person) and it appears that there’s no easy way to report anything other than some very specific concerns to Derbyshire Constabulary online. So reluctantly, I decided to try the 101 non-emergency number. It seems ridiculous that the only way of reporting a petty offence is to either do it in person at a police station or to have to wait for ages on the ‘phone to talk to someone.

In the end I got fed up of the hold music. The incident will go unreported. I hope that the car saw isn’t involved in any future incident where someone’s inability to understand the number plate turns out to be important.


The Samsung whistle and cocktail parties

Yesterday, on a train traveling between London and Derby, I very nearly snapped. The reason? I had to listen to someone’s ‘phone constantly alerting them using the five notes that form the “Samsung whistle”. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an even more irritating noise than the Nokia tune made infamous by Dom Joly on Trigger Happy TV at the turn of the century.

The composer, Joongsam Yun, is quoted in a Guardian article from 2013 saying that the ringtone was designed to represent what customers think of the Samsung brand – innovative, friendly and trustworthy. Really. Well, I bet he’s not been stuck on a train for the best part of an hour and a half being force-fed the wretched thing tens and tens of times. I certainly wasn’t ascribing those particular values to Samsung by the time the train reached Leicester and the miscreant got off. Every time I thought I was going to get a few minutes peace to concentrate on a particularly tricky presentation that I’m trying to put together, my attention was completely disrupted by this truly appalling sound. Until it is banished from their equipment forever, I’m going to make a specific point of not buying anything (else) from them. (I’m looking at these words as I type them on a new Samsung monitor, so that threat is a little hollow at the moment as they’ve already had my cash).

In the end I gave up working on my presentation and thought instead about why the whistle seems to grab all of my attention every time I have the misfortune to hear it. Other ringtones don’t have this effect on me, so why is this one so intrusive?

Auditory attention is unlike visual attention as we don’t really have much of a choice about the sounds that reach our ears. If we don’t want to see something we can avert our gaze. That’s not possible with sounds – we can’t help but hear every noise in our immediate environment. However, our brains have evolved a clever trick which means that we can attenuate the sounds we don’t want to listen to and concentrate on the things we do want to hear. There are some neat psychological experiments which show that if two different stories are played through headphones, one into the right ear and one into the left, people have little difficulty in understanding and repeating the story they’ve been asked to follow, even if the experimenter switches the stories around between the ears part way through the task.

However, the story of auditory attention isn’t that simple. Imagine you’re talking to a group of friends and someone on the other side of the room says your name so that you can hear it. You weren’t expecting your name to be said, but your attention is immediately snapped away from the conversation you were having. Rather pleasingly, cognitive psychologists call this “the cocktail party effect”. One of the explanations for this is that because our name is a particularly important to us, when someone says it, even if we aren’t expecting it, our automatic systems take over and we can’t help but shift our attention away from what we were originally concentrating on. And of course, it’s not just hearing our name that can have this effect, but anything that is particularly salient to us.


So perhaps the “Samsung whistle” is, for some reason, particularly salient to me. The problem is, I really don’t buy that explanation. I don’t have a Samsung ‘phone, even if I did I’d never use that ringtone, and I’ve spent the last couple of years studiously trying to ignore the noise. It doesn’t mean anything to me at all.

It would seem to me that the “cocktail party effect” explanation therefore doesn’t apply here. I’ve no idea what psychological mechanism is at work, even having done a brief trawl of the literature this lunchtime.

But if someone could put me out of my misery and explain it to me, I’d give you my undivided attention while you did. Truly I would. Unless, of course, someone in the room had a Samsung ‘phone switched on.


You can’t have too many …

You can’t have too many …

Television Channels. When I was growing up in the 1970s, we had three – and these didn’t start broadcasting until mid-morning, finishing around midnight with the national anthem. My YouView box reports that I have around a hundred or so available and if I felt like disfiguring the side of the house with a satellite dish I know I could view even more. Three channels certainly didn’t mean better quality – have a look at the Radio Times archive for the 1960s or 1970s if you don’t believe me. Television didn’t start to get interesting until at least the introduction of Channel 4 in November 1982. Countdown. The Comic Strip Presents. The Word (ok, maybe not The Word). And where would we be today without the Top Gear Channel Dave?

Political Parties. One is never enough – the failure of single party states is well documented. Two certainly aren’t enough – it’s why the UK got itself into the mess it did before 2010 and why, no doubt, the USA will still be in a mess after the midterm elections today. Three seems better and four, five or six, each with a distinctly different platform and a willingness to compromise sounds ideal to me. Of course, we need to introduce the single transferable vote and multi-member constituencies to make that work properly and the “willingness to compromise” part my be a bit too much for some politicians, particularly on the far left and right of the political spectrum.

Cuddly Toys. I confess – I possibly do have rather too many of these. I’m 50 – I should have outgrown them by now, surely. But they are all so … cuddly.

Apps on an iPad. Look, I know I can never find the one that I need at any particular given time, but who knows when it might be absolutely vital to have an app on hand that shows me how much income tax and national insurance I’ve paid in the last year and to which of 15 or so arbitrary categories of spending it’s been assigned too. Note to George Osborne – it’s better to know the value of what we’ve contributed to society than simply what it’s cost. Personally, I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilisation.

Elephants. You definitely can’t have too many of those.

Elephant Soup… and I could go on in this vein all night I think. You’re probably relieved that I’m not going to if you’ve managed to read this far.

But what I really wanted to say is that there are definitely three things that you can’t have too much of (sorry, I know that’s not strictly ‘too many’, but, my blog, my rules and all that …)

They’re faith, hope and love. I think I knew that before the lymphoma struck, but I certainly know it now. Thank you, St. Paul.


And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.


1 Corinthians 13, New King James Version

Written in response to this week’s #post40bloggers writing prompt


When I am in charge …

… these will be seven of the things that I will change (*).

Now, I realise that I’m hardly likely to get elected to high office on the basis of this manifesto but some things really do need fixing. If I have to scream and rant to get my way, trashing my Liberal credentials in the process, then so be it.


Any university continuing to give out honorary degrees and doctorates to celebrities, politicians, business leaders and the like will have their charter revoked immediately. Studying for a degree or higher qualification is bloody hard work (I should know!) and honorary degrees devalue the efforts of all real students.

Unpaid Internships

These are completely unacceptable and stifle social mobility. Volunteering is fine, but those taking part in such activities must be genuine volunteers, free to stop or vary their commitment at any point that suits them, rather than the kind of ‘volunteer’ intern sought by the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust a couple of years ago.

Software Developers

Continuing to use a floppy disc icon to mean ‘save’ is almost as archaic as using a cassette tape icon for the same function. From the moment I come to power, all software developers will have 24 hours to find, agree on and implement something a little more 21st century. Now that’s what I’d call agile …

Floppy disc iconThe National Lottery

Has always been a tax on the poor. I’m not going to abolish the lottery per se as it’s still relatively popular and I have my eyes on a second (and perhaps third) term in power. Instead, I’m going to turn the lottery into something indistinguishable from premium bonds where the original stake is never lost. Good causes that might otherwise lose out through the lack of lottery funding will be able to apply for the same funds raised from something a little more progressive – let’s call it taxation.

Ensuring that everyone understands that demonstrating a correlation is not the same as demonstrating cause and effect

Showing that the amount of cheese eaten correlates with golf course revenues doesn’t mean that excessive cheese eating causes higher golf course revenues, or vice-versa. Well durr. More seriously though, mistaking correlations for cause and effect might be behind the increases seen in potentially serious, but preventable diseases such as measles.

Prime Minister’s Questions

I’m going to set up an independent panel to assess each answer the Prime Minister (who, of course, will be reporting to me) gives at PMQs. If they judge that a question hasn’t been answered, the PM will have another chance to answer the same question in a new ritual I’ve decided to call Prime Minister’s Detention. This will take place in an empty Commons chamber after all of the other MPs have returned home on a Friday afternoon. If the panel still regards their answer as unsatisfactory, they will have the ability to fine, imprison or force a by-election in their constituency. If this policy is successful, it will be extended to cover all other ministers and eventually, any politician who appears on the Today programme or Newsnight.

Daily Mail Readers

As a good Liberal, I believe that the Daily Mail should be free to publish whatever distortions it wants to, provided it stays within the letter of the law of course. The real problem is the people who choose to read it. Without its readers, it would soon disappear off the face of the planet. I’m therefore going to tackle the root cause and introduce a tax of a few pence per copy sold that will go straight to charities supporting things that the average Daily Mail reader would loathe. I’m very hopeful that the emotional conflict caused by such a strategy will wean these readers away to less harmful newspapers, like, errr, … ok, I admit this policy needs a bit of work. And the other six might do as well. Time to get back to the day job …


(*) Yes, of course I want world peace etc. etc., but I think there needs to be a little bit of realism in my manifesto. After all, I’m rarely in charge in my own house, so I’m hardly likely to become president of the world. Many thanks to Tattooed Mummy for providing the inspiration for this article rant.