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Lies, Damned Lies, and AI

Lies, Damned Lies, and AI

By Diane Coyle, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.

CAMBRIDGE – Algorithms are as biased as the data they feed on. And all data are biased. Even “official” statistics cannot be assumed to stand for objective, eternal “facts.” The figures that governments publish represent society as it is now, through the lens of what those assembling the data consider to be relevant and important. The categories and classifications used to make sense of the data are not neutral. Just as we measure what we see, so we tend to see only what we measure.

As algorithmic decision-making spreads to a wider range of policymaking areas, it is shedding a harsh light on the social biases that once lurked in the shadows of the data we collect. By taking existing structures and processes to their logical extremes, artificial intelligence (AI) is forcing us to confront the kind of society we have created.

The problem is not just that computers are designed to think like corporations, as my University of Cambridge colleague Jonnie Penn has argued. It is also that computers think like economists. An AI, after all, is as infallible a version of homo economicus as one can imagine. It is a rationally calculating, logically consistent, ends-oriented agent capable of achieving its desired outcomes with finite computational resources. When it comes to “maximizing utility,” they are far more effective than any human.

“Utility” is to economics what “phlogiston” once was to chemistry. Early chemists hypothesized that combustible matter contained a hidden element – phlogiston – that could explain why substances changed form when they burned. Yet, try as they might, scientists never could confirm the hypothesis. They could not track down phlogiston for the same reason that economists today cannot offer a measure of actual utility.

Economists use the concept of utility to explain why people make the choices they do – what to buy, where to invest, how hard to work: everyone is trying to maximize utility in accordance with one’s preferences and beliefs about the world, and within the limits posed by scarce income or resources. Despite not existing, utility is a powerful construct. It seems only natural to suppose that everyone is trying to do as well as they can for themselves.

Moreover, economists’ notion of utility is born of classical utilitarianism, which aims to secure the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. Like modern economists following in the footsteps of John Stuart Mill, most of those designing algorithms are utilitarians who believe that if a “good” is known, then it can be maximized.

But this assumption can produce troubling outcomes. For example, consider how algorithms are being used to decide whether prisoners are deserving of parole. An important 2017 study finds that algorithms far outperform humans in predicting recidivism rates, and could be used to reduce the “jailing rate” by more than 40% “with no increase in crime rates.” In the United States, then, AIs could be used to reduce a prison population that is disproportionately black. But what happens when AIs take over the parole process and African-Americans are still being jailed at a higher rate than whites?

Highly efficient algorithmic decision-making has brought such questions to the fore, forcing us to decide precisely which outcomes should be maximized. Do we want merely to reduce the overall prison population, or should we also be concerned about fairness? Whereas politics allows for fudges and compromises to disguise such tradeoffs, computer code requires clarity.

That demand for clarity is making it harder to ignore the structural sources of societal inequities. In the age of AI, algorithms will force us to recognize how the outcomes of past social and political conflicts have been perpetuated into the present through our use of data.

Thanks to groups such as the AI Ethics Initiative and the Partnership on AI, a broader debate about the ethics of AI has begun to emerge. But AI algorithms are of course just doing what they are coded to do. The real issue extends beyond the use of algorithmic decision-making in corporate and political governance, and strikes at the ethical foundations of our societies.

While we certainly need to debate the practical and philosophical tradeoffs of maximizing “utility” through AI, we also need to engage in self-reflection. Algorithms are posing fundamental questions about how we have organized social, political, and economic relations to date. We now must decide if we really want to encode current social arrangements into the decision-making structures of the future. Given the political fracturing currently occurring around the world, this seems like a good moment to write a new script.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.


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Following reverse listing, public can now acquire shareholding in Paratus Namibia


20 February 2020, Windhoek, Namibia: Paratus Namibia Holdings (PNH) was founded as Nimbus Infrastructure Limited (“Nimbus”), Namibia’s first Capital Pool Company listed on the Namibian Stock Exchange (“NSX”).

Although targeting an initial capital raising of N$300 million, Nimbus nonetheless managed to secure funding to the value of N$98 million through its CPC listing. With a mandate to invest in ICT infrastructure in sub-Sahara Africa, it concluded management agreements with financial partner Cirrus and technology partner, Paratus Telecommunications (Pty) Ltd (“Paratus Namibia”).

Paratus Namibia Managing Director, Andrew Hall

Its first investment was placed in Paratus Namibia, a fully licensed communications operator in Namibia under regulation of the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN). Nimbus has since been able to increase its capital asset base to close to N$500 million over the past two years.

In order to streamline further investment and to avoid duplicating potential ICT projects in the market between Nimbus and Paratus Namibia, it was decided to consolidate the operations.

Publishing various circulars to shareholders, Nimbus took up a 100% shareholding stake in Paratus Namibia in 2019 and proceeded to apply to have its name changed to Paratus Namibia Holdings with a consolidated board structure to ensure streamlined operations between the capital holdings and the operational arm of the business.

This transaction was approved by the Competitions Commission as well as CRAN, following all the relevant regulatory approvals as well as the necessary requirements in terms of corporate governance structures.

Paratus Namibia has evolved as a fully comprehensive communications operator in Namibia and operates as the head office of the Paratus Group in Africa. Paratus has established a pan-African footprint with operations in six African countries, being: Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

The group has achieved many successes over the years of which more recently includes the building of the Trans-Kalahari Fibre (TKF) project, which connects from the West Africa Cable System (WACS) eastward through Namibia to Botswana and onward to Johannesburg. The TKF also extends northward through Zambia to connect to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which made Paratus the first operator to connect the west and east coast of Africa under one Autonomous System Number (ASN).

This means that Paratus is now “exporting” internet capacity to landlocked countries such as Zambia, Botswana, the DRC with more countries to be targeted, and through its extensive African network, Paratus is well-positioned to expand the network even further into emerging ICT territories.

PNH as a fully-listed entity on the NSX, is therefore now the 100% shareholder of Paratus Namibia thereby becoming a public company. PNH is ready to invest in the future of the ICT environment in Namibia. The public is therefore invited and welcome to acquire shares in Paratus Namibia Holdings by speaking to a local stockbroker registered with the NSX. The future is bright, and the opportunities are endless.