December 6, 2017

It’s tempting, indeed it’s necessary, to oversimplify the world: we require stories to filter the signals that bombard our consciousness. Otherwise we would fall into paralysis, overwhelmed by the complexity of life.

Without stories, without the imposition of meaning onto pattern, all we’d have left would be a sequence of events, some predictable and others random. Patterns themselves carry no meaning: the irony is that fiction, literally a lie, is where we go for truth.

Not coincidentally, given what we’ll discuss below, one measure of the success for artificial intelligence would be for machines to pass beyond the pattern recognition that is their current limit. “You need to buy more cat food,” says Alexa, without explicitly revealing its logic: “because I’ve noticed that you previously ordered more cat food when the stocks of cat food were low, and they are low again, ergo you will want to order more.” This is a pattern recognition algorithm, the simulation of intelligence, not the real thing.

Only when Alexa — having emailed the order to the supermarket — follows up with: “That sentimentality you exhibit for animals… it’s the other side of not trusting people, isn’t it?” — then, and only then, I’ll start worrying that the robots are after my job.

The UK needs a vision for its future to match the revolutionary zeal of its young people, something more exciting than the old lecture on how socialism tends not to turn out awfully well…

So stories matter, and stories are good. But they remain fiction, and therein lies their danger. Computers are able to identity and record the patterns of near-uncountable many phenomena, which is how machine-learning works: they can build and discard explanatory models more quickly than we can, before honing in the “best” one (Alexa records everything you do but notices that the stock of cat food is predictive of your tendency to order more, while the number of baths you take per week is not.)

Humans, on the other hand, tend to become stuck in “comfort narratives”, stories that we’re used to, regardless of the explanatory power of those fictions. In the media, this tendency manifests itself as “chunkability”, treating complex, interwoven stories as simple and discrete.

There are three stories that have dominated the British media over recent weeks:

  1. the antipathy of young people towards capitalism;
  2. Britain’s departure from the European Union; and
  3. the government’s new Industrial Strategy.

I’ve read countless stories about each of these; I don’t think I’ve read one which linked them together. But together they fit. Let’s have a go at making the narrative complete.

“Everyone knows” that the current generation of young people, caught in the pincers of both the great university mis-selling scandal and a lack of affordable housing, have turned against capitalism. So atrophied has the image of capitalism become that more than twice as many people under 45 in the UK believe Jeremy Corbyn is on their side as believe the same of Theresa May’s party.

Over twice as many people under 45 believe Jeremy Corbyn is on their side compared to Theresa May. Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Wire/PA Images

Unless you’re happy to wait around until this cohort elects Corbyn, whose government would destroy your pension and ruin the country, then the centre-Right needs to win back the trust of young people. So far, most of the suggestions veer between the useful but reactive — build more houses; well, yes — and the fatuous (free railcards).

Now imagine yourself a twenty-something graduate, wondering what Britain will be like in two decades’ time. You switch on the news: Brexit-Brexit-Brexit and nearly all of it pictures of old white guys arguing about trade fees. On the table lies your unopened mail: student loan due, and a final demand from your rich-as-Croesus landlord. I think even Alexa would be able to predict your vote.

But, last week, in amongst this noise, these stories of Brexit and youthful anti-capitalism, there came a policy agenda which might just deal with both issues at once – by aiming for something more important than either.

Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business in Theresa May’s government, launched his industrial strategy. Greg isn’t a showy-offy type of man but is that rare beast, a genuinely clever politician with a PhD in quantitative methods. (Disclosure: I worked for him in 2015-16 — on sabbatical from industry — as a speech-writer).

Imagine yourself a twenty-something graduate; on the table lies your unopened mail: student loan due, and a final demand from your rich-as-Croesus landlord. I think even Alexa would be able to predict your vote.

The man is not independent of the policy…

Tony Blair’s industrial strategy was rock stars in sweaty rooms, to fan his Cool Britannia neuroticism…

The EU’s industrial strategy is to bugger Greece and protect Germany…

Jeremy Corbyn’s industrial strategy is the misery of Venezuela, with less agreeable weather.

Greg Clark’s industrial strategy is a narrative, thank God, rooted in reality, yet visionary in its ambition.

The white paper announces a sequence of “Sector Deals”, to cover construction, life sciences, the automotive industry… and Artificial Intelligence, where we came in. Britain’s at the front of the field in these areas, says the paper: so let’s maximise our competitive advantage and be the best in the world. Each sector is intellectually exciting, redolent of well-paid careers spent developing medicines and machines to improve life for people in need. (Britain is more than parasitical banks, is the not-very-silent subtext).

Those specific sectors may or may not float your boat, and the white paper itself (perhaps he’s lost a good speech-writer :-)) employs too much cliché about “innovation” (as though anyone ever stood up in a business meeting and said “Let’s not innovate”.) But it’s refreshing to read of government ideas about how the country might flourish after the EU’s clammy hands have been prised away.

Business Secretary Greg Clark is one of the few genuinely clever politicians. Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

More than refreshing, it’s vital. Maybe Greg’s strategy will change over time; perhaps AI will never move beyond the order-cat-food level. But the UK needs a vision for its future to match the revolutionary zeal of its young people, something more exciting than the old lecture on how socialism tends not to turn out awfully well.

I said humans need stories to overcome the paralysis of signal overload: neither young British voters, nor middle-aged Tory politicians, are exceptions to this rule. For the last two years, the British centre-Right has been paralysed by the dominance of the “Young people love Jezza” story on the one hand, and the “Goodness, isn’t negotiating with a bunch of horrible EU bureaucrats difficult?” on the other. Into the gap has moved the Left, spinning its yarns of utopian paradise; artificial unintelligence, you might say.

How do we save capitalism from electoral extinction? And what do we do after Brexit? Greg Clark’s industrial strategy is Chapter One of an exciting new book: The Future Is Bright. The Future Can Still Be Tory. I found it a compelling read, and think it deserves a wider audience. I hope there’s a second chapter, and soon.