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Showing posts from 2017

Thoughts on Chess and AI

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In 1997, Gary Kasparov, one of history’s most gifted chess players, lost to Deep Blue, a $10 million specialized supercomputer programmed by a team from IBM. When I met Gary over dinner one night in London in 2001, I don’t think even he would have predicted how far and how fast the related fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning would develop in the twenty years since that match; moving beyond Chess, to Atari arcade games and finally the greatest board game challenge of them all, the game of Go.

It was Soviet mathematician and computer scientist, Alexander Kronrod’s idea that “chess is the Drosophila of artificial intelligence.” In other words, looking at chess is one way to make sense of the broader picture, just as the humble fruit fly has helped us decipher human genetics.

In today’s big data world, AI and machine learning applications already analyze massive amounts of structured and unstructured data and produce valuable insights in a fraction of the time.  A chess…

A Day at The Shard

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One of those days in a lifetime to remember.
Today, I had to fly a banner around London’s iconic landmark, The Shard.

The occasion was a marriage ceremony at the top of the building. Sonya and Paul were having their big day, courtesy of the ITV, ‘This Morning’ programme, and I had to cap-it-off with a large programme logo, followed by a ‘Just married’ message with a large red heart, at exactly 12:18. The public and clients really don’t understand what a significant challenge placing an aircraft over central London involves. Why would they? Other than the simple logistics of the aircraft - it has to be a twin-engine - crew and ground crew, one has to gain the permission of NATS at Swanwick, Heathrow, Special Branch and quite possibly even the Archbishop of Westminster. London is now an intense security space and the authorities are somewhat ‘twitchy’ at the thought of any non-scheduled aviation activity inside it’s tightly policed borders. Bringing the plan together, involved borrowing the…

Nothing New Here Folks

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“Parliament leaks like a sieve.” - That takes me all the way back to a weblog entry in 2002.

News today that the emails of Members of Parliament may have been compromised, stolen, hacked; you name it, comes as no great surprise. In fifteen years or more since I was invited in to discuss a similar problem with Parliament’s head of security, a former police officer, I somehow doubt very much has changed.

MPs were reportedly informed about the hack on Friday night and later told of difficulties in accessing their emails away from the Westminster estate.

The issue, I think we need to grasp, is that there’s a big difference between the .GSI, the Government Secure Internet and the personal email of Members of Parliament. In my time, one was built to be secure and the other assumed, that much like herding cats, the communications of MPs was intrinsically insecure; much, I discovered, like that of local councillors, during my brief foray into politics.

However, what is likely to be substantive…

Civilisational Data Mining

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It’s a new expression I haven’t heard before. ‘Civilisational data mining.’

Let me start by putting it in some context. Every character, you or I have typed into the Google search engine or Facebook over the last decade, means something, to someone or perhaps ‘something,’ if it’s an algorithm.


In May 2014, journalists revealed that the United States National Security Agency, the NSA, was recording and archiving every single cell-phone conversation that took place in the Bahamas. In the process they managed to transform a significant proportion of a society’s day to day interactions into unstructured data; valuable information which can of course be analysed, correlated and transformed for whatever purpose the intelligence agency deems fit.

And today, I read that a GOP-hired data company in the United States has ‘leaked’ personal information, preferences and voting intentions on… wait for it… 198 million US citizens.

Within another decade or so, the cost of sequencing the human genome …

The’Big Bang’ isn’t Quite What We Thought it Was.

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I’ve been struggling with a book on the latest theories in physics, the Higgs particle, quantum gravity and scalar fields. At which point your eyes may glaze over and I would quite understand.

For me, at least, it’s fascinating, if only because our view of the universe has changed so dramatically in my own lifetime and even more so over the last decade.

But understanding how it all fits together is a challenge; particularly when like me, you might have been tipped as the student most likely to become a Jesuit rather than a physicist.

Today is the most beautiful of summer’s days and the first time in a year, that I’ve found a moment to drag my kayak the hundred metres or more down to the sea and enjoy a moment of contemplation, bobbing-up and down in the bay, here on the North Kent coast.

The tide is in and there’s a brisk offshore breeze, with a late afternoon Sun creating a shimmering pathway on the water towards the West and the Isle of Sheppey.

So there I was, several hundred yards…

Catching-up with Tomorrow

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“I'm not trying to predict the future, I’m trying to prevent it” – Ray Bradbury.

Nobody has a clue what the world will look like in five years and yet we are all preparing for the future.  Studies of information-technology adaptation suggest there is generally a gap of between five and fifteen years, between investments we make in new technology and the appearance of measurable returns in productivity associated with that investment.

After decades of exaggerated prediction, the internet is finally transforming both business and politics, but not quite in the way the digital prophets expected. It’s twenty years this month since Gary Kasparov was beaten at Chess by IBM’s Deep Blue computer. In the interval since, the human Rubik's cube record has dropped to 5 seconds while the machine record is now an astonishing 0.637 seconds.

As computing has become embedded in everything from our cars and our telephones to our financial markets, raw technological complexity has obscured our c…

The Nature of Nurture?

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Recently, I found myself in a fascinating four-way Twitter exchange, with Professor Adam Rutherford and two other science-minded friends The subject, frequently regarded as a delicate one, genetics and whether there could exist an unknown but contributory genetic factor(s) or influences in determining what we broadly understand or misunderstand as human intelligence.

I won’t discuss this subject in any great detail here, being completely unqualified to do so, but I’ll point you at the document we were discussing, and Rutherford’s excellent new book, ‘A Brief History of Everyone.”

What had sparked my own interest was the story of my own grandfather, Edmond Greville; unless you are an expert on the history of French cinema, you are unlikely to have ever hear of him but he still enjoys an almost cult-like following for his work, half a century after his death.

I've been enjoying the series "Genius" on National Geographic about the life of Albert Einstein. The four of us ha…

Swinging Voters.

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One of those windy, hot summer’s days, which makes my life as a pilot, (weekend job) awkward when trying to thread an aircraft with precision, between two poles, ten feet off the ground.

Back home again and time to relax before my dinner of Quorn burgers. I’ve given-up on meat both for ethical and health reasons and to be honest, I rarely miss it now and feel rather better for the change. It was all prompted by reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book, ‘Homo Deus’ when I was on the way to give a talk in Abu Dhabi and I haven’t looked back since.

As I was away, speaking at a conference yesterday and didn’t arrive home until late, I managed to avoid writing my own thoughts on the results of our dysfunctional General Election, like a million other people. Without going into any great detail, because you all likely know it by now, several things struck me most about the result.

Firstly, reportedly 120 people out of over 40 million voters decided the result in removing the Government’s overall maj…

Don't Take Me Too Seriously

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It might be the day of a General Election but it’s also the anniversary of the date of the publication, in 1949 of George Orwell’s 'Indignant and prophetic novel' of the future, 1984. It's also a day which marks the tragic death of a man whose debt of gratitude our country never paid; Alan Turing, who died on this day 63 years ago.

On the BBC news, I’m watching a report from Afghanistan. The Taliban are back in Helmand province and it’s like they never left. The schools crammed with chanting boys, memorising verses of the Holy Koran in Arabic, a language they don’t understand a word of. The girls and women are visibly absent and the beards are long. Remind me, what has any conqueror ever achieved in Afghanistan? Ask Rudyard Kipling.

Meanwhile, Tom Holland, in The Spectator magazine, has written an excellent opinion piece on the return of intolerance and religious wars. Something we thought we had left behind us in Europe in the 17th century with the 30 Years War.

Come the …

No Easy Day in June

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It’s the 7th June and I wanted to post an iconic photo of ‘Easy Company,’ the paratrooper heroes made famous in the series, ‘Band of Brothers,’ standing together, in the square of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day.

Quite extraordinary , brave men at an extraordinary time in our history. Ahead of them still lay the snow of the Ardennes, Holland and finally, Hitler's own abandoned headquarters, Berchtesgaden.

Tomorrow, Britain decides with yet another General Election. Other than voting like everyone else, I have another job and that’s flying, with my colleagues, the Labour Party’s aerial campaign across marginal seats in the Midlands, the North-east and the North-west. Given the weather forecast for Thursday, I’m doubtful whether any of the aircraft with their big sheet banners will get into the air but you never know, we may get lucky. The English summer is such an unpredictable thing.

Watching the news on TV, I would love to be able to ask some of the people…

Business as Usual

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I’m giving a talk in London on Tuesday night. Am I worried? Of course not. I've already avoided one terrorist incident when the IRA blew-up my place of work, one Saturday in 1975. I recall it quite clearly. I was playing rugby that afternoon for Rosslyn Park again Esher and in those days before mobile phones and the internet, I only found out when I arrived home. Several of my friends, girls I had flirted with on a daily basis, weren’t so lucky.

There’s a more extreme version of Murphy’s law, sometimes called Sod’s law. This simply says that the worst possible outcome always happens. Our intuitive grasp of probability isn’t good. The rarer the event, the less we know about its odds and the chances of being caught-up in another terrorist incident, is about the same for you and me of drowning on holiday; possibly rather much less. Unfortunately, the media swiftly build-up a surrounding atmosphere of panic, which infects those who don’t stop and think about the risks and the very lo…

Newspeak - Orwell was Right.

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What to write, or indeed, what it might even be appropriate to write tonight?

Another terrorist incident, this time in London, has lines of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism experts, lining-up to offer their mix of platitudes and opinions to the media.

In front of No10. the Prime Minister is once again warning of the very visible threat from a demonstrably violent and radical Salafi Islamic orthodoxy. Urging us she needs to be able to introduce legislation to take greater control of both internet 'Safe Spaces' and encryption.

I’m suddenly reminded of George Orwell’s ’Newspeak’ from his novel, 1984. It’s defined as “Ambiguous, euphemistic language used chiefly in political propaganda.’ The objective, to ensure universal orthodoxy of ideology and politics among the the people.

Orwell, explains that Newspeak is a language characterised by a continually diminishing vocabulary, “Complete thoughts reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning,’ and that, I fear is where our s…

New Technologies are Not an Answer to a Politician's Prayers

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I’m rather wondering if we are hovering on the edge of a precipice? A week, being a very long time in politics, will tell.

I heard repeated references to ’New technologies” on BBC Question Time, last night and it did all rather remind me of the Fuehrer’s ‘Miracle weapons’ of another century.

These new technologies will, like the new skills I referred to in my last weblog, transform the UK economy and its workforce, introducing a well-paid utopia in which all will share equally.

Or will they? Call me a cynic but won’t these same miracle technologies also be available in China or indeed the United States or Germany, where technology investment is invariably higher than the UK and whose societies share the same problem that we do?

I was reading on Bloomberg today how Morgan Stanley is introducing algorithms, not only to support their trading but also to replace many of their highly paid brokers. Pause for a moment to consider what re-skilling is required of a broker earning close to half…

The Elixir of Life

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Another night, another ‘Leaders Debate,’ or more accurately, it’s BBC Question Time tonight with a ‘Carefully selected’ audience. Sorry BBC but on past experience one can reasonably expect a studio audience somewhat to the left of Marx; I exaggerate of course but tonight, perhaps I will be proved wrong?

What does make me cringe, and it’s common to all political parties in this General Election, is the use of ‘Skills’ or more accurately, how any Party plans to solve the ‘Skills’ problem.

Head and shoulders above his rivals and still very much catching-up with the 21st century, is Mr Corbyn, who clearly has very little idea of what the world might look like in five years, let alone ten.

I grew-up in the 1960s and 1970s. They are gone now. It wasn’t a great time for Britain’s economy and I remember doing my homework by candlelight when it was our turn for a power cut.

I was extraordinarily lucky in being sent to an American university to study; no power cuts there and one day, meeting Ha…

North by North-west

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"Nothing to worry about sir,” he said. “I’m calling from the Metropolitan Police."

Having quickly dismissed the idea that a glass of whiskey and Twitter had got the better of me last night, I guessed what it might be about  as I had applied for for the airspace over Westminster, one day this month, for one of our national broadcasters and invariably, Special Branch will call-up to make sure I’m not more of a suspicious character than I’ve proved to be already.

On this occasion, the police officer told me he has a bit of a problem with my application. This was a consequence of it falling on the same day as the State opening of Parliament and the inconvenient fact that Her Majesty, the Queen, would be arriving at the very moment I had planned to, hauling a banner between the bridges for a new TV production.

I quite understand,’ I said. “I’m happy to authorise the next day,” he replied. “Unfortunately that won’t work for the producer,” I added, and we parted company the best o…

Covfefe Time

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Other than "Covfefe," several items of interest caught my attention on Twitter today. The first, new genetic research from Egyptian mummies, that reveals what some historians had already guessed but others prefer to ignore; namely that the mix of ancient peoples don't always closely reflect populations today.

Egypt has always been a tough one as it's frequently demonstrated an unfortunate collision between those that wanted the pharaohs to be black African and those who wished for the polar opposite. The scientific reality of their genetics, as you’ll read, lies vaguely in between and settles a long-running and completely meaningless argument.

What we do appear to know very clearly now is that ancient migrations from both Africa and the near-east and Europe made populations quite different from modern times; you only have to look at the depictions of the battles with both Sea Peoples and Libyans on the mortuary temple of Ramses III.

So, in the Berber people of North Afr…

Return of the Native

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I had been writing for years. Features, magazine articles, this weblog and even a book, once upon a time and then I quite suddenly lost my muse, my urge, my Mojo or whatever you might choose to call it.

So, outside of Tweeting’ prolifically, this is my first attempt to climb back in the saddle; going somewhat ‘retro’ and low tech with my very simply but somewhat ‘cool’ - in a Bohemian sort of way; OK, pretentious, Freewriter.

Quite what I’ll write about, I really don’t know yet but it’s very likely to involve technology or science or a bit of both, which is what I mostly do these days, when the world isn’t trying to drag me into being a full-time pilot.

Should you look back to the very beginning of this weblog; 2002 I think, you’ll notice how much the world has changed. There was no Social Media to speak of, no Facebook, Google was a big search engine among several and Microsoft desperately wanted the world to ‘Trust’ its Windows operating system. Bad people were starting to do nasty…