Our values as a society in tech

I know it’s been a long time since I wrote anything even remotely technology related here. This is almost tangential.

About 10 days ago, quite a lot of the world was hit by a piece of malware which has come to be known as WannaCry. It was a piece of ransomware which took over your machine if you were so unlucky, encrypted your files and demanded money to hand them back. I call that amoral, but it appears to be a viable business option for some people as occasionally the ransoms get paid.

The impact of WannaCry was tempered by a piece of work done by a young malware researcher whose name I don’t know but you can find him on Twitter as MalwareTech here. He discovered by accident that if you registered a particular domain name and pointed it at something, the malware stopped replicating from one computer to another. WannaCry reached a lot of computers but it was stopped reaching a lot more by this. In the grand scheme of things this guy is a hero, should be able to name his price for security consultancy and after that, if he wants the glory and the stardom, well that’s his choice. If he does not, however, that’s another kettle of fish.

Today I learned that in general terms, he wasn’t up for celebrity status, but this did not stop the UK press going after him. He got doxxed – lovely word that – by a major UK newspaper and journalists from a couple of others went after his girlfriend and other friends. You can read the twitter thread here. He is apparently moving house because of this.

To be honest, I think trying to pay people to spill the beans on their friends is a fairly amoral thing to do. What sort of a human being do you have to be to do it? Sure, we all think UK media is a cesspit of despair, particularly certain of its newspapers, but still… wouldn’t it be nice if instead of going after people who never meant to be famous, who did something quite special as part of their day job, and who would like to go back to doing that day job in peace, they went after people who seek the limelight, and control? How much time have UK newspapers devoted to actually holding Jeremy Hunt to account before now? Where were they when he and his team decided to nix the NHS’s support contract for their XP machines? Is’t it just too easy to go after members of the public who aren’t actually limelight hunting? I don’t know this guy but I don’t think he’s being hypocritical by wanting to stay out of the limelight. He’s not preaching one thing and doing another. I’m not sure there’s a single journalist with the nous to be able to figure out if he is, like, doing all his work on an unpatched Windows Vista machine…

The problem is this: we need guys like MalwareTech. We need them a lot. Security defence is a thankless job, it is largely not sexy and it seems to only gain importance when something goes wrong. Before that, it’s release early and often and if it opens up a risk…well we’ll fix it in the next release. Great stuff and we’re all making money until we are not.

Seriously, how good is it if your fridge can be held hostage? We are massively and increasingly dependent on computerised systems, and connected devices (although I defy anyone to explain to me why a toaster might ever need to be connected to anything other than a power socket). The least we can do is ensure they  do not create risk vectors for our lives. To protect us from skullduggery of a digital nature, the world needs young tech people turning their mind to security and malware investigation in order to mitigate our risks here.

It would help if we didn’t also allow our media to exploit them and doxx them just for the sake of a few page turns and clicks. It is not bringing anything to the world and it is not in anyone’s interest to be invading the privacy of someone in whose life the sole interest is prurience.

Treaty of Accession 1972, status of Irish, status of English

I went to the open day at the European Court of Justice and during a question and answer session I am near certain I heard the President of the Court state that in fact, Ireland had named both Irish and English as official languages for the purposes of the European Union. Malta, too, had nominated both Maltese and English.

Why does this matter? Well, the country most associated with English, when we skip the US, is the United Kingdom and they clearly nominated English. However, they decided last year they were taking the path less travelled, as it were. This led to a lot of discussion – to put it mildly – hysteria might be a better description – about how English would no longer be an official language in the European Union after Brexit.

The problem is, this idea of nominating languages by country is not something I have really found in the official documentation. Clearly I am not a European lawyer, and I don’t work at the European Court of Justice. But.

If you read Alexander Drechsel’s piece on the subject, he will tell you that language and linguistic arrangements are covered by Resolution number 1 in 1958 Article 1 of which states that the

The official languages and the working languages of the institutions of the Community shall be Dutch, French, German and Italian.

Slight lack of English there but bear with me.

Ireland, the UK, Norway and Denmark negotiated membership of the European Economic Communities in 1972. The Treaty agreed between the four countries seeking membership and the EEC as it was at the time was subject to ratification (which Norway did not complete, hence it is not a member) was drafted in the then 4 official languages of the EEC, as listed above. It has some provisions relating to linguistic arrangements. The Treaty itself was drawn up in 8 languages.

This Treaty, drawn up in a single original in the
Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Irish, Italian
and Norwegian languages, all eight texts being
equally authentic, will be deposited in the archives of
the Government of the Italian Republic, which will
transmit a certified copy to each of the Governments
of the other signatory States.

(Article 3)

The corresponding Council Decision was also drawn up in the same languages. The point to note here is that Irish is listed.

The texts of the acts of the institutions of the Communities
adopted before accession and drawn up by
the Council or the Commission in the Danish, English
and Norwegian languages shall, from the date of
accession, be authentic under the same conditions as
the texts drawn up in the four original ‘languages.
They shall be published in the Official Journal of the
European Communities if the texts in the original
languages were so published.

(Article 155)

The key point to note here is that Irish is not listed.

The texts of the Treaty establishing the European
Economic Community and the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community, and the
Treaties amending or supplementing them, drawn up
in the Danish, English, Irish and Norwegian languages,
shall be annexed to this Act. These texts shall
be authentic und6r the same conditions as the original
texts of the Treaties referred to above.

(Article 160)

Without wanting to be too predictable but the key point to note here is that Irish is listed.


1 . Council Regulation No 1 of 15 April 1958
OJ No 17/385, 6 October 1958

Article 1 is replaced by the following:

” The official languages and the working
languages of the institutions of the Community
shall be Danish, German, English, French, Italian,
Dutch and Norwegian.”

This is a modification to the Council Regulation I mentioned at the start. Note that Irish is not included here.

(Annex 1)

The texts of the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community and of the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community, together with the Treaties amending or supplementing them, in the Danish, English, Irish and Norwegian

(FINAL ACT  Documents included – D)

However, the Final Act of the treaty which lists the documents which should be in annex, specifies that the texts of the Treaties, and any treaties amending or supplementing them, should be in Irish (plus the other three languages assuming Norway had chosen to ratify in the end).

Irish is missing from two places – the modification to Article 1, Regulation 1/58. It is also missing from Article 155 which relates to acts drawn up by the institutions. In 1972, at least, it seems clear that English was acceptable to Ireland as an official and working language. The status of Irish is commonly described as “Treaty language”. The primary legislation needed to be translated into Irish but it was not a working or official language otherwise. I made a cursory look at the Irish National Archive’s website to see if perhaps there was any way of finding any internal Irish Government discussions on the matter but a quick review brought nothing and of course there is the added issue that documents from 1972 may not have been digitised either. Obviously the status of the Irish language changed in 2007 when it became a full official and working language with the derogations allowing gradual implementation.

What does this mean for English? Well strictly speaking, as I understand it, any changes to Article 1 of Regulation 1/58 needs to be agreed by the Council unanimously. I am not sure Malta and Ireland would agree with removing English. For now, at least, there were 24 official and working languages, and de facto, the institutions still have 3 procedural languages (English, French and German).  In the meantime, the legal underpinning of this concept of notifying official languages to the EU still eludes me.


Regulation 1/58 EN

Treaty of Accession EN


Interpreting Donald Trump

A couple of months ago, there was a flurry of online media pieces about the difficulties people had rendering Donald Trump’s speeches into AN Other Languages Not English.

During the week, the Troublesome Terps podcast (and if you are interested in languages for international communication, that really is worth your while) had a chat with Franz Kubaczyk who had the privilege, as it were, of doing it for a few German TV stations. You can find the podcast episode here, they are also available on a range of podcast management outfits like iTunes as far as I know. Also, follow them on twitter.

I found a couple of things interesting about this episode that I would not normally think about and which are not especially linked to Donald Trump per se. In the grand scheme of things, while Donald Trump brings certain challenges (I really do not know how one deals with “and I’m gonna Make America Great Again” without wanting to scream after about the second one), what is most interesting to me about this piece is the mechanics of interpreting for television.

There’s an interesting difference between renditions in English on English language TV of foreign language interviews/speeches (specifically British in my experience) in that very often, the renditions in English are not given by native English speakers. That they carry a foreign accent of some description. This does not seem to be the case with Donald Trump into German for example and given that the online pieces on the matter tended not to feature English native speakers working into a foreign or B language, this could imply (without any data to support or dismiss this theory) that maybe English media is alone in doing this. Or possibly it is source language specific.

The other point is the episode also contains a discussion on the need for acting skills, and the fact that for the inauguration at least the interpreting was not live but the interpreters had opportunities to re-record parts. Leaving aside the fact that the inauguration in general is not the most common type of piece which needs to be interpreted for newsmedia, what struck me there was there seemed to be a very thin line between interpreting and dubbing in this respect.

I have to confess that interpreting for television was never something which really struck me as a career option but I tend to find the mechanics of cross cultural communications quite interesting and how you approach the problem of a politician like Donald Trump is something that we don’t perhaps think about very often.



Junior Cert Languages in Ireland

For pretty much most of my adult life I have been regretting the fact that we do not teach languages effectively in Ireland. One of my key concerns is that as a country, Ireland does not value those skills.

During the week, Richard Bruton, Minister for Education, announced that in the future, all students for the Junior Certificate (this is the exam taken at around age 15 or 16 in Ireland) would study a foreign language. He is quoted as saying a couple of things which interested me:

“We are going to have to, post-Brexit, realise that one of the common weaknesses of English speaking countries – that we disregard foreign languages – has to be addressed in Ireland.

He is also targeting a 10% increase in the number of students taking languages at Leaving Certificate level. There is also a desire to expand the range of languages taught in Irish schools. All of this is laudable.

“We need now to trade in the growth areas – and many of those speak Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin. Those are the languages that we need to learn to continue to trade successfully.”

One of the key issues which we need to address, however, is the lack of teachers in these areas. And we need to take a long hard look at how successful we have been with the more common languages like French. It is one thing to say we will teach more languages. It is an entirely different kettle of fish when it comes to acknowledging we have made a hamfisted mess of it so far. We teach people Irish from the age of 5 and have not yet got that right for example.

There are other issues. If you take a look at the availability of languages at third level, you’ll find Spanish has reasonable coverage. The others do not. It might be possible to take Portuguese in UCC under their world languages program but most common across the university system in Ireland are French, German and Spanish with possibly Japanese as the outlier.

Against that, in absolute terms, more students study foreign languages in Ireland (even if we don’t count Irish as a second language) than do in England and Wales.

On the plus side, I’m really happy to see that there is a will to fix the gaps in foreign language acquisition in the Irish school system. But I think there is a lot to do outside simply putting a curriculum together and getting kids to study it at school. What does not support language acquisition in Ireland is the chronic lack of credible media in foreign languages. If you listen to radio in most European countries, they are playing a wider range of pop music in a bunch of different languages. Our media is incredibly anglo centric. When I was at school in the 1980s there were two French pop songs in the charts, one called Voyage Voyage and one called Joe Le Taxi (it catapulted Vanessa Paradis into the big time). Foreign language television tends to be relegated to the smaller stations, in Ireland TG 4 and in the UK, BBC 4. The rep for TV5 has his heart broken on twitter trying to make it clear that TV5Europe is available on most sat systems available in Ireland.

I learned an awful lot of my French by watching of all things Beverly Hills 90210 dubbed into French.

If we are going to say “We, in Ireland, recognise that we need to learn foreign languages”, we also need to say “And we will try and get the media to get their asses in gear to support this”.

In a way, this is recognised by his counterpart in opposition, Thomas Byrne.

Any modern language strategy must be across all Government departments as well. It can’t just be about the education system – it has to be how we live our lives, how we interact with the wider world.

I’d also add that in one respect, I think that Richard Bruton maybe should reconsider this:

At the moment if you look at Leaving Cert and Junior Cert, French dominates. French is a lovely language, but we need to recognise that we need to diversify into other languages

In the grand scheme of things, he is probably aware that a stated element of Irish foreign policy at the moment is to encourage and support as many people as the country can into the European institutions. One of the key issues we have in this respect is that not enough people come out of school with fluent French or German. We may need to diversity into other languages but I think we need to ensure that in the future, we are not looking at one foreign language, but two and that Irish people have a command of two of the working languages of the institutions of the European Union.

I’m very glad that education policy is being looked at in this context. It would be interesting to see more concrete plans and a timeframe for making this reality.

The report on the matter is here on the Newstalk site.

New home

I moved the blog from treasalynch.com/blog to treasalynch.com as part of a wider tidy up of my online “resources”.

I registered my first domain about 2003 and built and unbuilt sites and as when I required them for different purposes. This has led to a situation where I had a bunch of websites, a bunch of WordPress installs and not a lot of use for all of them. So today, I decided to do some consolidation.

There is still a little bit of overlap between here and my “personal” (and oldest) site at www.windsandbreezes.org which may lead to me consolidating the two sites again later.

I do not currently have a photography site up and running as Living for Light was decommissioned as part of this clean up. This is linked to the fact that some time ago, the image hosting for that site shut down its servers before I had an opportunity to fix this (in fact the shut down happened before I found out). It is regrettable but happens in the world of online services.

Regarding my current set of websites, the only other one of interest is probably www.eiremarkings.org which is a resource marking the neutrality markers built along the Irish coast in tandem with the Coastal Watch during the 1940s. I am working on one other project which I may or may not push out to the public.

I will be having a look at my social media presence too over the coming few months so there is a chance that I will shut down LinkedIn.

Interpreters – male or female?

I was catching up with Troublesome Terps earlier today and was interested to have a listen to their views, and the views of their guest speaker on the question of the male female split in interpreting. You can have a listen to the piece here and they have provided some reading material which I have not yet had a chance to have a look at.

In summary though, the theme of their piece is that the gender split in interpreting is not even and there is a preponderance of women and they discussed why that may be. Amongst the items being discussed were rationales along the lines of career opportunity and whether men desired a clear promotional structure.

I found it interesting to listen to the discussion, and it covered a lot of interesting things relating to voice, and the different use of language depending on whether the speaker was male or female. If you are interested in interpreting, it is certainly worth a listen, and some of it is thought provoking.

One point which was only barely touched upon came from a passing comment of Jonathan Downie on the subject of the pipeline. I don’t think he called it that, but pipeline is the accepted term in technology for the incoming cohort of people training to come into the sector, and I think it’s a suitable term also for upcoming potential interpreters. The pipeline is core to discussions about the lack of women in the tech sector. In truth, the tech sector has a chronic lack of women, and its problem is largely two fold: comparatively few women study fields that would line them into technical roles in the technology sector, and of those who do, a lot of them drop out of the sector, or the technical roles, over time. The pipeline is often targeted as a useful and simple solution of the “if we only got more women studying comp sci, it would all be more diverse later”. For various reasons, this is probably not enough but I will come to that later.

Jonathan made the comment that in the interpreting pipeline, it wasn’t so much the lack of men which he noticed at masters level as the lack of British students in the field. As it happens, I’ve previously done some number crunching in the language pipeline for the UK excluding Scotland, and Ireland, going back to 2015. You’ll find a very quick overview of the findings here. The reason Scotland isn’t included is that at the time I ran those numbers (ages ago now), I did not have access to the corresponding figures for the Scottish Highers. The key line that I want to take away from this however is this:

on average, twice as many girls study languages at school leaving stage in both the Irish leaving certificate system and at A-level stage in England/Wales

If I recall correctly, the general finger in the area calculation for the split of interpreters between female and male was around 2:1 or 3:1. It can vary slightly depending on the language.

By the way, in absolute terms, more students study higher level French in Ireland than take A-Level French in England/Wales (I can’t remember if Northern Ireland was included in those figures). Additionally, the supply of language teaching at third level is drying up in the UK with a couple of very common languages (I did research on that too) scattered across the UK and, I think, 2 or 3 schools dealing with the wider range of less common languages.

However, that is all by way of an aside. In the UK and Ireland, at least there is a serious pipeline issue with language skills for boys. In general there are at least 2 girls for every one boy studying language at advanced secondary level. However, it is wrong to extrapolate from the experience in the UK and Ireland to any other country for a variety of reasons, the key one being that other countries make a better fist of teaching their young people foreign languages in general terms (cf Finland, the Netherlands and how to make me feel inadequate Luxembourg), so the lack of a cohort prepared for specialist language courses is potentially not such an issue there. However, it looks in practical terms as though men are not following them. The question is why. I am pretty sure that the answer to that question is not straightforward, but similar to the situation for women in computer science, for example, it has its roots far earlier in the school system. There is research around to suggest that girls are caused to be disinterested in maths and science related subjects based on how they are treated as early as primary school. Socialisation may have a lot to do with how people perceive their strengths for different subjects at an early age. This is a useful piece dealing with that, although it’s six years old and I’m pretty sure there’s been more in depth stuff, particularly in terms of mathematics, in the interim.

So this is one issue with the pipeline. The second issue with the pipeline relates to the perception of the job itself, and this is where I’m going to pop up with a certain amount of speculation. Because of how the system in Ireland works in terms of winning places at university, there is evidence to suggest that a key motivator for some students in terms of their choice of university studies is the likelihood of economic success. In Ireland, that tends to be law and veterinary sciences, with pharm a little way back, and then, things vary according to economic fashion. The bottom fell out of architecture and construction related courses, comparatively speaking, a few years ago, for example. Language related careers are rarely up there with their name in lights. No one mentioned interpreting to me at school (I hardly knew they existed) and we did family research before we even tracked down translation because the school was more interested in marketing courses which were trendy when I was a young one.

So, generalising wildly, there’s a pipeline issue because boys are funneled towards technical courses and in general terms, the career of interpreter is not necessarily high profile as a good earning opportunity.

I suppose the question which next arises is what happens to men once they are in the pipeline and in the industry. I cannot really answer this question as I don’t currently work as an interpreter. I took an interest in this piece because I trained as an interpreter but work primarily in the tech sector where matters are largely inverse, and where there is a great deal of discussion on the question of women in the pipeline, women in the industry, diversity in the industry. Yesterday or the day before, Susan Fowler, a site reliability engineer, published this on her blog. My personal experience has involved men telling me the only reason women go to college is to get married and anyway they don’t know how to work (imagine a 21 year old bachelor student saying this to a female masters student with more than 10 years experience working in the tech sector and you’ll get an idea of just how stupidly obnoxious some people can be).

Is the interpreting sector sexist? I don’t know if it is, or whether the split is a symptom of wider attitudes in society which have their roots at a far earlier stage of education. It seems to me, however, that there is not necessarily a similar level of pushing men out of interpreting as can be seem in certain parts of the tech sector. Would we better off with a better balance? I think yes we probably would but that’s because in general, society is better off with a better balance across most jobs. Do I think interpreting as a skill is adequately valued? The straight answer to that is right now, and depending on your culture, probably not. Clearly, the large international organisations could not function without interpreters. Nor could the US or British armies in Iraq and Afghanistan. However – anecdote alert – when I did CPD in Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh last year – one course participant noted that historically, in her country, at certain times, interpreters tended to be men because it was a distinguished role and could not be left to mere women. Strangely enough, software development and programming, in the early days, was left to women because it was not considered to be particularly difficult (hah) and the men did more praiseworthy and important work with hardware engineering. It seems culture and perception have an awful lot to answer for on both fronts.

WordPress tells me this is nearly 1,500 words, so for the tl;dr version: it strikes me as though the lack of men in interpreting is programmed into the system quite early, and subsequently, the lack of economic value linked with the role may serve to lessen the attraction for men who tend to target economically important jobs (or perceived better paying roles anyway), or who potentially tend to get paid more when the majority of their cohort are also male.

From that point of view – and it kills me to say it – one of the best things female workers in areas which are predominantly female staffed (so nursing, teaching, interpreting, translation) could do to improve their earning potential is to increase significantly the number of men in their sector.

And a corollary of this, by the way, strikes me as being a likely motivation for getting more women into computer science and related fields – namely reducing the cost of those roles.

Okay. I might revisit this later when I am awake.




Github alerts on Inbox

A day or so ago, the product team at Google Inbox made some updates in terms of how the application handles email coming from Github. I think they made similar changes to Trello too but I haven’t been using Trello much (tbh I had forgotten about it and it looks like I set up my account 4 years ago) so this probably applies to Trello if you have teams using Trello and as a result, receive lots of emails from Trello. I don’t.

I am watching a dozen or so Github open source projects, however, none of them huge, but a couple of them are relatively active and generating email on a regular basis.

One of the reasons I liked Inbox was that it effectively sorted my email into stuff that was worth annoying me about and stuff that wasn’t. This means that for all those Facebook, Twitter and other automated and mass email sendings, my phone didn’t bother me and I could review those at my leisure, like waiting for stuff to cook or whatever. Github was sorted into the Forums post and this suited me because anyone who needs to check who has updated a Github repo on their phone while they are out is not really the sort of person I tend to consort with.

As of yesterday though, this has stopped. Inbox now informs me every single time I get an email from Github. The sad part about that – for me probably – is that there are a good deal more Github notifications yesterday for one project than a) usual and b) I get from human beings on a day to day basis. As a result, Inbox has been annoying me with Github alerts, alerts which I can only get rid of by unwatching the projects in Github. Amongst the things I cannot tell Inbox to do at the moment is not to send lock screen/audible alerts to the phone for Github originating email.

The way they bundled Github in the Inbox itself is nice. But I cannot understand why it occurred to no one in Google land that enforcing an audible/buzz alert on the phones without a way to switch that off was a stupid, stupid idea which had the potential to wreck Inbox utility for some users. As for anyone whose subscribed to a lot of Github projects, their phones must be going crazy. Mine was annoying because it meant that a buzz alert no longer meant that I’d gotten actual email from a human for the most part, only that someone somewhere had updated a Git repo. Essentially, my phone started crying wolf over the email it was receiving. It used to alert me to personal/potentially important email. Now it alerts me to definitely not urgent for me email, email I want to receive, but do not want a lockscreen alert for.

I sometimes think that people working in the tech sector work inside a bubble and do not have access to a diverse enough pool of users for testing purposes. The first thing I would have said to someone if I’d been testing this is “You have to give users the options to switch off audible and lock screen alerts for these things. For many people, they may represent non-essential, non-urgent email and you’re stripping away useful meaning of those alerts”.

Up to yesterday I knew that if my phone buzzed an email alert, it was probably something I needed to look at now. As of yesterday, now if it buzzes, it’s probably a Github alert. This does not improve my life.

Google’s mic drop

I like to think that somewhere in Mountain View, a kindly manager of product managers is holding a meeting with the Gmail product team and shaking her head in disappointment over what I would personally consider to be a serious fiasco on 1 April.

Drop Mic was bad on so many levels, it is hard to decide where to start with the wrongness. The other issue is that it was so obviously wrong, it is hard to understand why anyone involved in letting it out into the wild didn’t realise it was a mess.

Typically, one of the core things which any company should be doing is protecting the integrity of their product. Do they have a product which has built up a lot of trust over years? And are various other parts of their business dependent on that product? The answer to both those questions was yes.

In a lot of respects, I suspect Google is heavily dependent on the continued will of people to actually sign into google accounts to maximise their advertising revenue. Gmail might be “free” at the point of use but it is not really free at all because the average google user, by signing into their gmail – and hence google – account is paying for it in cold hard data about their habits and interests. It is unlikely that the micdrop stunt will stop massive numbers of people using gmail…but they may trust it a little less. Google’s interests are served by people continuing to use Gmail. Someone, somewhere in GoogleLand should be saying “Do Not Mess With The Product For A Joke” over and over again.

It is not a case of people not having a sense of humour. It is a case of people expecting their tools to be reliable and not trying to kill them. Sure the micdrop button was orange but it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It was located right next to the send button, in a location where a lot of users have a send and archive button. To say that it was put in the most stupid possible place is fair. It was guaranteed to cause problems. It got pulled quite quickly which suggests to me that in Google, at least one grown up works.

But possibly only one.

Google’s initial message to announce pullage was insulting “Oh it looks like we pranked ourselves” and an implication that if one or two bugs hadn’t existed it would have been fine. It was never fine. The subsequent follow up did not consider the fact that they should never have tried to actually implement it either. For this reason, even though Google has probably done some internal investigation and talking about this, they probably have not quite worked out that they should never have tried to implement it at all.

People in Gmail land need to recognise that one of the cornerstones on which their company’s wider business interests lie is trust in the gmail product and that when they mess with the integrity of that product, it can cost money.


Hysteria of Hype

Somewhere around the web, there’s a cycle of hype which generally pins down where we are in terms of a hype cycle. I have not the time to go looking for it now but put simply, it has bunch of stages. I have decided it is too complicated for the tech sector.

Basically, the point at which you start seeing comments around X is the next big thing is the point at which something else is the next big thing. Sounds contradictory? Well yeah, it is.

Most people talking about the next big thing being X tend not to know a whole lot about X. Their primary objective is to make money off X. They do not really care what X achieves, so long as it makes them money.

Five years ago up to oh I don’t know, middle of 2014, early 2015 sometime, Big Data Is The Next Big Thing. Being blunt about it, there has been very little obvious Life Changing going on courtesy of Big Data and that is because by the time people started screaming about big data in the media and talking about how it was the future, it had ceased to be the future in the grand scheme of things. Artificial intelligence and machine learning, now they are the next big thing.

I have to declare an interest in machine learning and artificial intelligence – I wrote my masters dissertation on the subject of unsupervised machine learning and deep learning. However, I am still going to say that machine learning and artificial intelligence are a) a long way short of what we need them to be to be the next big thing b) were the next big thing at the time everyone was saying that big data is the next big thing.

It is particularly galling because of Alpha Go and the hysteria that engendered. Grown men talking about how this was the N.

Right now, artificial intelligence is still highly task limited. Sure it is fantastic that a machine can beat a human being at Go. In another respect, it isn’t even remotely special. AlphaGo was designed to do one thing, it was fed with data to do one thing. Go, and chess to some extent, are the same thing as brute forcing a password. Meanwhile, the processes designed to win games of Go and chess are not generally also able to learn to be fantastic bridge players, for example. Every single bit of progress has to be eked out, at high costs. Take machine translation. Sure, Google Translate is there, and maybe it opens a few doors, but it is still worse than a human translator. Take computer vision. It takes massive deep learning networks to even approximate human performance for identifying cats.

I’m not writing this to trash machine learning, artificial intelligence and the technologies underpinning both. I’m saying that when we have a discussion around AI and ML being the next big thing, or Big Data being the next thing, we are having the equivalent of looking at a 5 year old playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and declaring he or she will be the next Yehudi Menuhin. It doesn’t work like that.

Hype is dangerous in the tech sector. It overpromises and then, screams blue murder when delivery does not happen. Artificial intelligence does not need this. It’s been there before with the AI winter and the serious cuts in research. Artificial intelligence doesn’t need to be picked on by the vultures looking for the next big thing because those vultures aren’t interested in artificial intelligence. They are only interested in the rentability of it. They will move on when artificial intelligence fails to deliver. They will find something else to hype out of all order. And in the meantime, things which need time to make progress – and artificial intelligence has made massive jumps in the last 5 or 6 years – will be hammered down for a while.

For the tl;dr version, once you start talking about something being the next big thing, it no longer is.