Daniel Kahneman, 87, was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2002 for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. His first book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a worldwide bestseller, set out his revolutionary ideas about human error and bias and how those traits might be recognised and mitigated. A new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, written with Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein, applies those ideas to organisations. This interview took place last week by Zoom with Kahneman at his home in New York.
I guess the pandemic is quite a good place to start. In one way it has been the biggest ever hour-by-hour experiment in global political decision-making. Do you think it’s a watershed moment in the understanding that we need to “listen to science”? Yes and no, because clearly, not listening to science is bad. On the other hand, it took science quite a while to get its act together.
One of the key problems seems to have been the widespread inability to grasp the basic idea of exponential growth. Does that surprise you? Exponential phenomena are almost impossible for us to grasp. We are very experienced in a more or less linear world. And if things are accelerating, they’re usually accelerating within reason. Exponential change [as with the spread of the virus] is really something else. We’re not equipped for it. It takes a long time to educate intuition.
Do you think the cacophony of opinion on social media exacerbates that? I know too little about social media, there’s just too large a generational gap. But clearly the potential for misinformation to spread has grown. It’s a new kind of media that has essentially no responsibility for accuracy and not even reputational controls.
Could you define what you mean by “noise” in the book, in layman’s terms – how does it differ from things like subjectivity or error? Our main subject is really system noise. System noise is not a phenomenon within the individual, it’s a phenomenon within an organisation or within a system that is supposed to come to decisions that are uniform. It’s really a very different thing from subjectivity or bias. You have to look statistically at a great number of cases. And then you see noise.
Some of the examples you describe – the extraordinary variance seen in sentencing for the same crimes (even influenced by such external matters as the weather, or the weekend football results), say, or the massive discrepancies in insurance underwriting or medical diagnosis or job interviews based on the same baseline information – are shocking. The driver of that noise often seems to lie with the protected status of the “experts” doing the choosing. No judge, I imagine, wants to acknowledge that an algorithm would be fairer at delivering justice? The judicial system, I think, is special in a way, because it’s some “wise” person who is deciding. You have a lot of noise in medicine, but in medicine, there is an objective criterion of truth.
Have you been on a jury yourself – or spent much time in courtrooms? I haven’t. But I have had many conversations with judges about the possibility of doing research on how noise affects their judgment. But, you know, it’s not in the interest of the judicial community to investigate themselves.
I suppose people are instinctively or emotionally still more inclined to trust human systems than more abstract processes? That is certainly the case. We see that, for example, in terms of the attitude to vaccination. People are willing to take far, far fewer risks when they face vaccination than when they face the disease. So this gap between the natural and the artificial is found everywhere. In part that is because when artificial intelligence makes a mistake, that mistake looks completely foolish to humans, or almost evil.
You don’t talk about driverless cars in your analysis. But that, I guess, is becoming a key arena of this argument, isn’t it? However much safer automated cars might be statistically, every time they cause an accident, it will be excessively magnified? Being a lot safer than people is not going to be enough. The factor by which they have to be more safe than humans is really very high.
It’s 50 years since you and the late Amos Tversky first started researching these questions. Do you feel that your conclusions about measurable human bias and fallibility should have been more widely understood by now? You know, we didn’t have any particular expectations of changing the world when we did our research. And my own experience of how little this knowledge has changed the quality of my own judgment can be sobering. Avoiding noise in judgment is not really something individuals are going to be very good at. I really put my faith, if there is any faith to be placed, in organisations.
I wonder if you see your work in almost a satirical tradition, highlighting human folly? Not really. I see myself as really quite an objective psychologist. Obviously, humans are limited. But they’re also pretty marvellous. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, I really was trying to talk about the marvels of intuitive thinking and not only about its flaws – but flaws are more amusing so there is more attention paid there.
One of the things that struck me reading the book is that however much individuals and organisations profess the desire to be efficient and rational, there’s a fundamental part of us that is bored by predictability and just wants to roll the dice. Do you think you take enough account of that? There are many domains where you really want diversity and creativity. But there is also a need for uniformity in well-defined tasks. If the effort to achieve uniformity gets people unmotivated, or if it becomes excessively bureaucratic, that in itself can be a problem. That is something that organisations are going to have to negotiate.
I was struck watching the American elections by just how often politicians of both sides appealed to God for guidance or help. You don’t talk about religion in the book, but does supernatural faith add to noise? I think there is less difference between religion and other belief systems than we think. We all like to believe we’re in direct contact with truth. I will say that in some respects my belief in science is not very different from the belief other people have in religion. I mean, I believe in climate change, but I have no idea about it really. What I believe in is the institutions and methods of people who tell me there is climate change. We shouldn’t think that because we are not religious, that makes us so much cleverer than religious people. The arrogance of scientists is something I think about a lot.
You end your book with some ideas for eliminating noise, creating checklists for decision making, having “designated decision observers” and so on. I was reminded of those studies that show how corporate efforts to reduce unconscious racial and gender bias through compulsory training have been either ineffective or counter-productive. How do you take account of such unforeseen consequences? There is always a risk of that. And those ideas you mention are largely untested but, we think, worth considering. Others in the book are founded on more experience, are more solid.
Do you feel that there are wider dangers in using data and AI to augment or replace human judgment? There are going to be massive consequences of that change that are already beginning to happen. Some medical specialties are clearly in danger of being replaced, certainly in terms of diagnosis. And there are rather frightening scenarios when you’re talking about leadership. Once it’s demonstrably true that you can have an AI that has far better business judgment, say, what will that do to human leadership?
Are we already seeing a backlash against that? I guess one way of understanding the election victories of Trump and Johnson is as a reaction against an increasingly complex world of information – their appeal is that they are simple impulsive chancers. Are we likely to see more of that populism? I have learned never to make forecasts. Not only can I certainly not do it – I’m not sure it can be done. But one thing that looks very likely is that these huge changes are not going to happen quietly. There is going to be massive disruption. The technology is developing very rapidly, possibly exponentially. But people are linear. When linear people are faced with exponential change, they’re not going to be able to adapt to that very easily. So clearly, something is coming… And clearly AI is going to win [against human intelligence]. It’s not even close. How people are going to adjust to this is a fascinating problem – but one for my children and grandchildren, not me.
Your own life began in even more extreme uncertainty – as a boy in occupied France: your father was first arrested by the Nazis as a Jew, then spared and your family escaped into hiding. How much of your lifelong interest in these questions – the need to understand human motivations – was rooted in those anxieties and fears do you think? When I look back, I think I was always going to be a psychologist. I had curiosity from a really early age about how the mind works. I don’t think that my personal history had much to do with it though, it was always there.
Do you feel that you’re fundamentally still the child that you were when you were six or seven? Yes. There’s certainly a continuity. I can still recognise something within myself.
When you embarked on this work, could you imagine you would still be hard at it at 87? No, I imagined I would be dead! But to my surprise, I still have the same curiosity. I’m collaborating on several projects and investigations since I finished the book. One is how the inability to solve the famous “bat and ball problem” correlates with belief in God and that 9/11 was a conspiracy. It’s all as fun to me as it ever was.
Chinese hackers could target heavily encrypted datasets such as weapon designs or details of undercover intelligence officers with a view to unlocking them at a later date when quantum computing makes decryption possible, a report warns.
Analysts at Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm, say Chinese hackers could also steal pharmaceutical, chemical and material science research that can be processed by quantum computers – machines capable of crunching through numbers at unprecedented speed.
In a report titled “Chinese threats in the quantum era”, the consultancy says encrypted data could be stolen by “Chinese threat groups”. It says quantum-assisted decryption will arrive faster than quantum-assisted encryption, giving hackers an edge.
“Encrypted data with intelligence longevity, like biometric markers, covert intelligence officer and source identities, social security numbers, and weapons’ designs, may be increasingly stolen under the expectation that they can eventually be decrypted,” the report says. It says “state-aligned cyber threat actors” will start to steal or intercept previously unusable encrypted data.
However, it adds there is a “very small” likelihood that quantum computing could break the latest encryption methods before 2030. The analysts say quantum computing’s advantages over classical computing – the computing used in everything from laptops to mobile phones – are at least a decade away.
“Although quantum computers’ current abilities are more demonstrative than immediately useful, their trajectory suggests that in the coming decades quantum computers will likely revolutionize numerous industries – from pharmaceuticals to materials science – and eventually undermine all popular current public-key encryption methods,” the report says.
Quantum computing is viewed as an exciting development. For example, experts say it could predict accurately what a complex molecule might do and thus pave the way for new drugs and materials.
China is already a strong player in the field, and Booz Allen Hamilton says it expected the country to surpass Europe and the US – where IBM recently made the most powerful quantum processor – in quantum-related research and development.
“Chinese threat groups will likely soon collect encrypted data with long-term utility, expecting to eventually decrypt it with quantum computers,” the report says. “By the end of the 2020s, Chinese threat groups will likely collect data that enables quantum simulators to discover new economically valuable materials, pharmaceuticals and chemicals.”
Good news for those in the UK with primary school-aged kids and wondering what to do when the next bout of home-schooling hits: design a logo for the first UK satellite launches.
2022 could be a big year for launching satellites from Blighty’s shores as the first launchers gear up for a historic blast-off. Assuming the facilities have been built and all the necessary consents given and boxes ticked.
There are currently seven possible spaceport sites across the UK, from Cornwall in England through Llanbedr in Wales and up to the Western Isles in Scotland. Cash has been lobbed Cornwall’s way to support a horizontal launch by Virgin Orbit from Spaceport Cornwall and more toward Scotland for Orbex’s ambitions to launch vertically from Sutherland.
Should all the approvals happen and construction be completed, there is every chance the UK might host its first launch at some point in 2022.
Hence the need for a logo and thus a competition aimed at inspiring kids to consider a career in the space industry. And, of course, it is all worthy stuff: “Logo designs,” intoned the UK Space Agency, “should reflect how data from small satellites can help inform solutions to climate change as well as generate a source of pride in the UK’s space ambitions.”
What, we wondered, could possibly go wrong?
We put this question to Rob Manuel, one of those behind web stalwart b3ta.com. B3ta has a long history of (among other things) image challenges, the results of which tend to pop up, often unattributed, in timelines around the world. Now heading into its third decade, the site continues to push out a weekly Friday newsletter to email subscribers.
In terms of how to engage participants, Manuel said: “If anyone asks me, and they rarely do, I encourage competitions to be as open as possible – publish the results as they’re coming in. Try and create a buzz that something is happening rather than everything going in the bin.”
“As for things going wrong,” he went on, “well, there’s always an element who’ll want to subvert it.”
The competition is open to children aged 4-11 and will run until 11 March 2022. There are two age categories (4-7 and 7-11) over 12 regions in the UK. Designs can be drawn, painted, or created on a computer and either submitted on the logoliftoff.org.uk site or via post. Some basic questions also need to be answered, and children can work on their own or in a team of up to four.
We asked the UK Space Agency if it would take Manuel’s advice and post entries ahead of the competition close. We will update should it respond. ®
The Galway tech start-up was one of two winners at the sport-focused pre-accelerator programme.
A start-up developing real-time video analytics for sports has been named ‘most investable’ at SportX, a new pre-accelerator in Ireland for founders with sports and wellness business ideas.
RugbySmarts took the title at the inaugural SportX showcase last week, securing a cash prize.
The Galway-based start-up aims to automate and simplify sports analytics using AI, machine learning and computer vision, helping coaches to improve player and team performance with a platform that could also be transferred to other sports.
RugbySmarts was founded last year by CTO William Johnstone, who has previously worked with Connacht Rugby, and CEO Yvonne Comer, who is a former Ireland international rugby player.
Meanwhile, the award of ‘best impact on sport’ was given to TrojanTrack. This start-up, founded in 2021 by Dublin-based Stephen O’Dwyer, is looking to combine quantitative biomechanical analysis with deep neural network tech in the equine industry.
The aim is to gain feedback on a horse’s injury or gait imbalance without using invasive technology, such as motion-tracking software that requires markers to be attached to the animal’s skin.
‘Next-gen sports-tech entrepreneurs’
SportX was launched earlier this year by advisory firm Resolve Partners, Sport Ireland and ArcLabs – the research and innovation centre at Waterford Institute of Technology.
The aim of the pre-accelerator programme was to build on tech and business ideas for the sport and wellness industries, giving founders access to academic, clinical and commercial resources.
The six-week programme involved workshops and engagement with advisers, entrepreneurs, subject experts and investors. Participants also had the opportunity to pitch to the US-based Techstars Sports Accelerator.
At the SportX showcase last week, nine teams had five minutes each to pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges.
The two winners were selected by the panel, which featured Gary Leyden of the ArcLabs Fund 1 GP, Sport Ireland’s Benny Cullen and Niall McEvoy of Enterprise Ireland.
At the launch of SportX earlier this year, Leyden said the goal of the programme was to find “the next generation of sports-tech entrepreneurs who can leverage the amazing enterprise and sports-related supports within the south-east of Ireland”.
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