08 May, 2016

#SpecialFeature :: Stephen Oram talks about his fascination with algorithms

*** Special Feature - May 2016 ***

Stephen, looking at your work you seem to have a fascination with algorithms. Why is that?
I try to write in a way that makes tomorrow's questions about the effect of technology on our society as easy to get to grips with as possible.
Advances in artificial intelligence raise all sorts of questions and algorithms are one of the easiest ways of thinking about what AI might mean for our future.  If you think of an algorithm as a set of actions based on a set of decisions then they are everywhere. For example, every time you buy a train ticket and are asked if you want a return, standard class etc. you’re interacting with an algorithm that's deciding your options based on the choices you've already made.
Once upon a time I was computer programmer so this is a familiar concept and I know how difficult it is to get right. If you don’t believe me try writing a set of fool proof instructions for making a cup of tea, taking into account all the possible preferences. It’s hard, so I'm amazed and a little concerned at the amount of trust we place in the algorithms that affect our lives. That's not to say I think using algorithms is a bad thing – quite the opposite – after all they’ve been around since at least ancient Greece. But, we should all understand the basics a lot better than we do, otherwise apart from anything else we’ll never know if it’s possible to get a robot to make a decent cup of tea.

So how do you go about understanding the basics?
Society tends to change a lot slower than technology so thinking and writing about the near-future is my way of approaching it.
I look at the emerging technology and place it in today’s context so I can imagine how it might affect us. A hot topic at the moment is driver-less cars. The technology is one thing, but it's only when you start thinking about the sorts of ethical questions it raises that you get a sense of the complexity for the algorithms of the future.
For example, would a car be programmed by the manufacturer to prioritise passengers or pedestrians in a situation where it had to kill one or the other? With human drivers we tend to debate who was negligent or made the wrong choice after the event. However, with a driver-less car the decision is made at the point of manufacture – a sort of algorithmic pre-meditated murder.
This is difficult stuff and I was chuffed when a school in London used one of my pieces of flash fiction – The Driverless Car’s Dilemma – as a prompt for debate.

Your latest novel Fluence paints a dark future of social media algorithms. Where did these ideas come from?
As you say, one of the central themes of Fluence is the algorithm that calculates your social media influence rating and hence your job, where you live and to an extent your friends.
On the surface the thinking behind the Fluence algorithm is fairly obvious to anyone who takes part in any social media activity – we are slaves to ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘re-tweets’.
However, if you pause and think about how little we know about the decisions the search algorithms and social media feeds are making when they choose what to show us, and more importantly what not to show us, it gets scary.
We're familiar with manipulation by the media giants, but often we trust the algorithm-driven information providers such as Google, Facebook and Instagram implicitly.
When I was writing Fluence, I was surprised by how many people, young and old, hadn't considered that someone somewhere had made deliberate coding choices about how they wanted you to view the world.

So who’s to blame and what do we need to do to resist?
There’s a huge debate still to be had about who is accountable for the decisions of algorithms – is it the coder, the company that sold the product, the owner of the product or the algorithm itself.
As a society I don't think we're equipped with sufficient knowledge and language to have those debates and yet the decisions are already being made.
Typically, legislation is slow at keeping up with technology so we can’t rely on that - it's up to us, all of us, to wise up and start asking the right questions. Some would say you need to get down and dirty deep inside the tech to understand it and others would say that you need to get your face out of your phone and look around you. Maybe it’s a combination of both or maybe it’s as simple as reading good fiction that makes you think – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Are you saying that algorithms should be held responsible for their actions?
Yes, in a way. Algorithms are getting more and more sophisticated and can even rewrite themselves in a way that the original coder no longer knows what the algorithm is trying to achieve. Of course, the constraints built in to the original algorithm will determine the extent to which it veers away from the coder’s original intention.
We have to ask; at what point does the algorithm become intelligent enough to be responsible. And when it becomes responsible for its actions what punishment is appropriate or effective enough to stop it happening again.
On my website you'll find flash fiction that touches on this, such as an algorithm that imprisons it's owner for not upgrading it, an algorithm that crashed and now can't remember its owner's medical needs and an algorithm that decides who can have children. There’s also a stand-alone short story based in the world of Fluence called The Secret of the Algorithm.

This seems quite doom-laden. Where does it leave us in your view?
I'm really positive about the future even though I might sound like a grumpy so-and-so.
Technology has the power to globally democratise and equalise if it's harnessed by the right people for the right reasons. And, I guess that's my warning bell... the people with the money and the power won't give it up easily – you wouldn't expect them to. But, with any technical revolution there's an opportunity to ask the right questions and make the right decisions to transform the society we've inherited.
As citizens we have the right to be involved in shaping our future and as consumers we have the responsibility to make the right choices. I guess what I'm saying, and I'm sure you've heard many people say it already, technology is neutral. However, the way it's used isn't.
So let's get clued up and avoid being manipulated or sleepwalking into our future.
Or if that's not possible, let's create an algorithm that works out how to have the most fun with the least pain!

About the Book:

It’s the week before the annual Pay Day when strata positions are decided by the controlling corporations. The social media feed is frenetic with people trying to boost their influence rating while those above the strata and those who’ve opted out pursue their own manipulative goals.

Amber is ambitious. Martin is burnt out by years of struggling. She cheats to get what she wants while he barely clings on to what he has.

Set in a speculative near-future London, Fluence is a satirical story of aspiration and desperation and of power seen and unseen. It’s a story of control and consequence. It’s the story of the extremes to which Amber and Martin are prepared to go in these last ten thousand minutes before Pay Day. 

Book Links:
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About the Author:
Hippie-punk, religious-squatter, bureaucrat-anarchist; I thrive on contradictions. The tension they create fuels my slightly skewed fictional worlds and the complex characters that inhabit them. It’s hard to describe the sheer delight I get from taking reality, nudging it out of kilter and seeing what happens.

I was a teenager in a small market town in the UK when punk hit the scene and its ethos and energy rushed through me and my generation. It felt as if we could stick two fingers up to the establishment and do whatever we wanted, however we wanted to do it. I’m sure that’s a familiar feeling for every generation of teenagers, but there’s no denying that punk provoked a reaction. It was also the era of free festivals and the peace convoy; to a teenager at a time when nuclear war threatened to end the world at any moment the free festivals like Stonehenge seemed truly post-apocalyptic. I loved them. The mix of hippies, hells angels and punks all co-existing (fairly) peacefully without the police was an incredibly formative experience. I’ve been to festivals every year since and still find them a great way to re-calibrate normal.

Being a squatter and being in a cult were both out there experiences but not as dissimilar as they might seem at first glance; they both had a strong ideological desire for non-conformity and strong, albeit different, moral codes. That’s the sort of realisation that makes me want to wobble the world to see what falls out.

I’ve had some fun on the journey from that punk inspired teenager to this anarchy inspired bureaucrat and more often than not I’ve had a foot in more than one camp at a time: as an unwelcome hippie at punk gigs; a religious cult member in the hedonistic squatter scene; or a would-be anarchist working as a bureaucrat. Even where I live in Fitzrovia we see ourselves as a village in the heart of London, as an enclave of difference standing out against the corporate onslaught of blandness (but close enough in case we need it).

That’s only a small insight into the inspirations and experiences that helped form me, Stephen Oram the author. And, if I’m asked why I write I have more than one answer; it’s a mixture of wanting to create something entertaining, thinking I’ve got something to say and needing something to keep me out of mischief. One thing is for sure though, I’d love to set off some small firecrackers of thought to light the world slightly differently inside your head!

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2 digital Copies of Fluence by Stephen Oram

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