Tony Hoare (EN, 2018-09-25)
The Digital Transformation is currently changing all aspects of our lives fundamentally. In this series I discuss with people about their personal experiences regarding this Digital Transformation.
This episode: Sir Tony Hoare, Turing Award Winner (“Nobel Price” for Informatics): 1980 for fundamental contributions to the definition and design of programming languages. More about him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Hoare
The interview took place at the occasion of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in September 2018. You can watch it online here: https://youtu.be/udi3-m9CKEw.
Marc-Oliver Pahl: Tony, it’s a great pleasure having you here for the interview about “Being Human with Algorithms”. You are very well known to every computer scientist and if someone in the audience doesn’t know Tony Hoare, look him up, he’s a big one. Please present yourself briefly, for those knowing you and those not yet knowing you.
Tony Hoare: Perhaps I am rather unusual in the sense that I have no qualification in computer science and no qualification in mathematics. At 14 years old I took the last examination in mathematics. My primary degree is in philosophy. They always told me that philosophy was a good preparation for any career and it certainly has been in my case. I still love philosophy. I think I’ve been practicing it and teaching it and discovering ideas. Philosophical ideas underlie so much of my understanding of what computers are as intellectual tools.
Marc: And the Doctor of Philosophy is the only true doctor is what one always says.
Tony: I don’t have a doctorate in philosophy.
Marc: But it’s showing that the discipline is the true human discipline.
Tony: Yes, I think so.
Marc: So, the title of the interview series is “Being human with algorithms”. The goal of the series is to look at the effects of the digital transformation. What are the most apparent effects for you when you think about today and digital transformation? What are the most apparent effects of this digital transformation for you?
Tony: Oh, we see them all around us. I think they’re very familiar and I don’t need to even list them. I am amazed that even since the year 2000, which I thought was an immensely advanced technological state, every few years something comes out that completely changes the way some matter is approached or enjoyed. Every few months my computer software gets improved, gets more usable. It’s wonderful to be amazed so often.
Marc: How would you say do you shape this digital transformation?
Tony: I like to concentrate, because I think it’s often neglected, on the way that scientific and technological discoveries have had their influence on the way that human beings think about themselves and the world around them. The revolutions that were initiated, for example, by Newton. The idea that the future could be predicted by a mathematical calculation is now completely part of our culture. We just take that for granted. It was new in its day. Of course, being a philosopher, I’ve studied also ancient philosophy. So, I can look at the really seminal ideas in human history that have been originated by philosophers such as Euclid, a geometer and mathematician. And Aristoteles, whose method of doing logic is still in use today on computers. From then one could follow the same sort of idea and offer honorary positions in the history of computer science to philosophers as William of Ockham, Gottfried Leibniz, Bertrand Russell and of course Alan Turing, who was also interested in philosophy.
Marc: You already went a little bit into the direction of the pace of the current developments. At least I perceive it like that, that the changes are coming faster and faster. Like you said your software is updating each month.
Marc: Five years ago, it was updating less frequently.
Marc: From a philosophical point of view, do you see this speed as a challenge for a humankind? Or would you say in earlier times we also had this speed of change influencing the life of people, just not in the technical field?
Tony: I think the changes in social activities, writing WhatsApp messages or emails instead of letters, all these things are completely new, and they have come at a rate which is quite unprecedented until this century. In the end of the last century people really expected to live their lives in the same environment that they were born in. Isn’t that ridiculous?
Marc: It’s very interesting to see when you see it from a day to day perspective. Let’s talk about the Internet, which I see as a key factor for this digital transformation. With people having connections all over the planet.
Tony: And the World Wide Web which made it really productive for the human race.
Marc: Which made it productive and now has things like Facebook and fake news and filter bubbles.
Tony: Oh yes.
Marc: Any thoughts on that?
Tony: I think the changes are far faster than our political systems can really cope with. An example is the privacy regulation which forces every company to contact me individually and get my agreement that they are allowed to hold some of my data. The pain when you have to read five or ten pages of stuff.
Marc: Are doing that?
Tony: I’m not doing that.
Marc: Nobody is doing it.
Tony: Nobody is doing that. An easy political solution to this is to have a few standard agreements on privacy. And maybe if the politicians had thought of this in advance they would have been prepared and produced such standard agreements. A company would only say we guarantee privacy up to level 3 or 3a or whatever it is. So you can judge privacy levels that you’re interested in by reading quite a lot, but then you don’t have to read anything else. I’m a 3a person, under 5b.
Marc: To me there’s always the difficulty in the complexity. There are many complex contracts in this case that you have to take and complex systems that you have to interact with. Would you say the world is also getting more complicated through the digital transformation?
Tony: I think it is and the complexity is, is in this particular example of the privacy, being transmitted to the general public. I don’t object to complexity that’s hidden behind the computer doors, that doesn’t obtrude. I know that a lot of that technology is there in order to give me more convenient and easier and more comprehensible access to the facilities being provided. I don’t mind complexity in itself in its place, which is where I don’t see it.
Marc: Switching a little bit to Big Data. What I often tell people is we have Big Data now for some years. Companies are collecting data because it’s not costly. Now having artificial intelligence, we have a powerful tool that enables the mining of this data, as of taking conclusions out of the data. This is where for me it becomes dangerous. It is also very important to act now as a society and to start thinking about what we allow. Who should get which data and should be allowed to do what with this data? What is your standpoint on that?
Tony: These are the same problems that have been an integral part of enterprise data processing. Well back in in the last century, one could see publications about consistency of data base checking, consistency merging of data bases, accept pattern matching in databases. Not quite as long as I can remember. The ideas are the same but it’s different because of its urgency and scale. The implementation of the solutions is much more difficult and it’s much more urgent to do. It would be in time almost, one would say.
Marc: What is also striking me is that the data that is processed is becoming more and more privacy relevant data. When you think about Facebook where people put in their entire lives. And then think it further to the IoT. Where sensors are measuring all the time because it’s their integral purpose to measure you all the time. Then you have all this very personal information. This, I think is a big change to what we had before.
Tony: The information has been there, but it hasn’t been linked together, it hasn’t been linked to me. It wasn’t a sort of data linkage that enables this level of exploitation. A lot of the technologies that have popped up to serve perfectly legitimate and serious needs are now exploited by malware and bit chain hackers and even politicians, I’m afraid.
Marc: Or opinion manipulators.
Tony: Exactly. A lot of people in my country believe that we should have another referendum in which we can hopefully reject leaving the European Union. There is no more protection now against attack by foreign countries, even. Not just individual parties which will tip the balance of the vote Anyway, there are also failings like that the campaign is driven by hate and not by respect and that’s new. Possibly the social media have contributed to that. But hate has always been an illness, xenophobia, a hatred of foreigners. Hatred of the other has always been there, but now it just seems to be getting more prevalent.
Marc: And also better organized because the tools allow minorities that are extreme to organize better, because they can get into contact with each other. The thing you said about foreign countries or intelligences starting changes from the base. Not from the hat to the bottom but the other way around, influencing the voters.
Tony: The mass movement.
Marc: Indeed. What would you say is the biggest challenge of this digital transformation that we have today?
Tony: I couldn’t say but I think a very big one is the influence on politics. This is not too new. The politicians who learnt to master the radio also misused it. I mean Hitler was one of the first to really make the radio his medium of communication with the masses.
Marc: And with Goebbels he also had a mastermind really driving that to a, at that point in time, very perfect utility for their uses.
Tony: We’re now facing a challenge of a similar nature. It seems to be the right-wing exploiting the technology to push an agenda which many people regard as highly repugnant.
Marc: This is especially in Germany a big problem at the moment. A lot of people are responding to that because some inner needs seem to be met by the offerings there.
Tony: That’s another thing. And of course, the privacy information they have about us individually can be tuned to convey the right message to cause you to vote in this way. A different message from the same party, a contradictory one, can be sent to somebody else. They have no control of that.
Marc: Interestingly, I don’t know if you aware of that, the ultra-right-wing party managed to acquire some votes from the people from other parties, but they especially managed to motivate people who were non-voters in Germany to vote. They managed to mobilize these people to vote, which I consider a good thing that those people are voting. But they had the wrong incentives. As were talking about politicians, in Germany I have the impression that slowly people are coming to power in politics that are digital technology users. Angela Merkel has a smartphone, but she seems not really to use it. Now is the first time when younger politicians come that also used the internet more natively. do you also see this gap between the generations? The ones that had the power so far and the younger people using totally different media to communicate. They have some kind of different life, because the younger ones have an online life that is a significant part of their lives and the older ones don’t.
Tony: I’ve seen this in my own family. My son’s wife has just recently become a labour councillor, having won an election rather unexpectedly in the last round of the local elections only this year. She has children and they are different from her too. I don’t think that’s harmful. Children have always attempted to accentuate their differences from their parent’s generation.
Marc: That’s right, but in this case, I think, the difference is that it’s a fundamentally different style of living. Before it was listening to rock music or to other music, so it was more like a notion of how you change your life to differentiate from your parents. When you’re spending all your spare time in front of the smartphone, for instance, it’s totally different from going outside and playing.
Tony: If you take a 10-year time scale though, things will probably settle down and we’ll move out of that phase. And people will wonder what this Facebook problem was. The fashions change so quickly in this world. That’s a good thing. There was a time not so long ago where we worried about terrorists exploiting the Internet. That certainly took place at one time, but it doesn’t seem to be happening very much now, very fortunately.
Marc: Or it seems not to be a problem at least. Do you think about attacks against critical infrastructures or something like that?
Tony: Yes, indeed. Mass bombings were planned, I suspect. Now, I think, the Internet is used more to catch such crimes before they are committed.
Marc: This is also another interesting point, if you allow me to get to that, namely surveillance in the Internet. Surveillance is one point, but net neutrality is another. What would your opinion towards net neutrality be?
Tony: Neutrality being …?
Marc: Neutrality being that you have the same access conditions to all kinds of services. Meaning Google can easily offer faster access to its own services, because they have a backbone and the front end. But telephone companies in Europe started, in Portugal for instance, to say: You get a plan, in this plan you get only WhatsApp and Facebook and email and if you want to use other services you have to pay extra. This is then not neutral access to services in the internet anymore.
Tony: I don’t have much to say about this. I mean it happened. Perhaps even more surprising then is the willingness of the big and more responsible companies to work together to create a level playing field. This is very largely enforced by European and other regulations.
Marc: This openness of the infrastructure.
Tony: Microsoft has been fined a vast amount by the European Union for creating an environment which other people cannot infiltrate. Google, I suffer from it myself because I have an Android phone and Google is so intrusive. It’s constantly assuming that I want to register for something, wanting me to talk to his lady who is going to help me, but I don’t like that. The trouble is this manufacturer of the phone is trying the same thing.
Marc: Because data is valuable to them it’s an asset. They want to have it. The underlying question to me is: Is the internet something like a global good that people should have free access to? Because this is how it started. The internet was an uncontrolled room at the beginning. Even German legislation, that is typically fast in regulating something, struggled for many years to regulate an Internet service that I access in the US, that is responsible for controlling the access. With net neutrality this is a little bit shifting towards it not being such a totally free resource anymore. This is why for me it’s interesting as a general question: Should the internet be a totally open resource for all humans so that they can access freely the resources that are available there. Which was, I think, the current state until some years ago and now, because of business interests, may shift a little bit.
Tony: Well the roads are sort of free to pedestrians, aren’t they? But the people who use them for more serious transport purposes have to pay. Why shouldn’t we have the same thing for the Internet? If you think about the road, I’m an antic, the same sort of principles applies.
Marc: That’s a good analogue.
Tony: I think that’s reasonable because I don’t like advertisements. This is the way they pay for it at the moment. I refuse enrol to Sky television because they not only take my money, but they give me advertisements as well. Newspaper advertisements I can ignore, mostly, because they are not moving, but moving advertisements are just terrible.
Marc: I totally agree to that. What would you say is the biggest chance of the digital transformation? World peace? Do you think it will advance society?
Tony: At the moment I think the benefits should be weighed against the serious drawbacks and problems that we’ve been talking about. If we can master those problems, then one could be more enthusiastic about the benefits.
Marc: That’s a good statement. Last question: “Being human with algorithms” was the motto of our symposium. It’s a very broad sentence. What does it mean to you “Being human with algorithms” in today’s world?
Tony: I don’t use the word “algorithms” very much but being human in the presence of a very rigorous discipline which is imposed on programmers and people who design programs and the people who implement them. I think that sort of modes of rigorous thinking that have to be mastered and successfully practiced contribute something to the development of the human intellectual culture. I welcome that and it’s been fascinating to me all my life.
Marc: Very good last statement. Thank you very much Tony.
Tony: Thank you.