The world has failed to halt global warming. Four years after the signing of the Paris Agreement, most experts predict global warming will exceed the agreed thresholds, with disastrous consequences. As much as the world faces a climate crisis, it also faces a climate governance crisis: we know what must be done to halt climate change but we do not know yet how to get there.
New mechanisms are evidently needed. Blockchain is one technology that has the potential to boost global cooperation for climate action, as I explore in new research. Blockchain is a data structure that stores information as a series of cryptographically linked blocks, which are distributed simultaneously to all participants in a network. The information stored on a blockchain is tamper-resistant. This is useful for generating a single source of truth for any kind of information.
Blockchain technology provides the building blocks for what are known as decentralised autonomous organisations, which have been discussed (and criticised) as potential alternative governance mechanisms at the national level. But the benefits of such a decentralised organisation at the international level would be much higher.
Imagine a decentralised climate organisation, based on blockchain, in which states, companies, and individuals participate and whose interactions are facilitated by so-called smart contracts. These contracts are pieces of computer code running on top of the blockchain, which makes them virtually unstoppable. A common token — let us call it greencoin — allows climate commitments by states to be linked with the flourishing ecosystem of transnational climate initiatives and individual climate action.
Such an organisation would help get the world together to act against climate change in three ways.
1. Boosting transparency
Coordinated action against climate change requires better information. One important task is to ensure that different stakeholders do not claim carbon credits for the same carbon-offsetting activity, such as two companies paying for the same forest to be planted.
Another (more challenging) task would be to verify that carbon-offsetting activities have actually occurred. Blockchain technology, combined with information feeds such as internet-of-things devices, could tap new information sources.
Meanwhile, smart contracts offer an efficient way to reward critical tasks like verifying emission reductions and adaptation measures at the local level.
2. Enforcing commitments
Climate change is an area ripe with broken promises. Consider the decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In other countries, worries have grown that the COVID-19 pandemic will thwart government efforts to honour their climate-related commitments.
Through smart contracts, blockchain technology could mitigate the risk of backsliding, provided that states underpinned their commitments with a monetary deposit. If states fail to comply with their emission reduction targets, their deposit could be taken and redistributed as greencoins to those that have abated carbon emissions, for example by planting trees, or other climate action.
More effective enforcement of commitments through smart contracts is only possible where resources have been staked upon commitments. An added benefit of eliminating uncertainty around enforcement is to entice more ambitious climate commitments from those who are concerned about being cheated upon by more powerful bodies.
3. Increasing ambition
Business as usual will not be enough to confront the impending climate crisis. A decentralised climate organisation would allow progressive transnational bodies to “buy” pro-climate transformation in laggard countries.
For example, transnational corporations including Apple, Google and Walmart, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and other firms criticised the US decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Under a decentralised climate organisation, they could have devised smart contracts offering compensation to affected workers in exchange for more robust commitment by the US government to decarbonise the economy.
A related benefit of this approach would be to make their demands transparent, which would help less powerful bodies hold corporations to account on their climate-related pledges. For example, Microsoft recently announced it would invest US$1 billion to become a carbon-negative enterprise. This is all very well, but it could be rhetoric. If Microsoft underpinned this pledge by a smart contract with an appropriate stake, it would become inevitable, with huge benefits for everyone whose fortunes depend on powerful players like Microsoft following through on their promises.
A decentralised climate organisation would combine the resources of billions and unite their efforts in combating climate change. Anyone in a blockchain network connected to the system could earn greencoins by planting trees (like “mining” in the Bitcoin system). This would be profitable because greencoins have real value — they would be linked to the international commitments by states that have staked monetary resources on them.
People could also purchase greencoins to support climate action. By increasing the exchange value of greencoins, these people would provide incentives for more rapid tree-planting. Blockchain technology is ideally suited to settle these transactions automatically, provided appropriate systems for verification and the incentive system underlying effective decentralised verification are in place.
Blockchain-based climate governance has undeniable theoretical benefits, but there would be significant obstacles to its realisation.
While the blockchain ensures that once-recorded data is tamper-resistant, it can do little to ensure that the data that is brought onto the blockchain can be trusted. Start-ups like Chainlink have proposed decentralised networks of information feeds as a promising solution to this problem, but for some applications, suitable solutions are hard to find.
A blockchain-based climate organisation might not come to fruition if key players decided not to join. Powerful states or companies might be especially unwilling to participate in a system that makes broken promises immediately transparent and that automates the punishment process. But as long as there was enough momentum, they might slowly be incentivised to get involved.
A virtual entity for climate governance would also require people to accept to be governed by algorithms. And at the moment, this might be the hardest challenge of all.
Amazon has taken a step into the highly lucrative world of gaming by releasing its first title, Crucible. A team-based action shooter, it hopes to rival industry giants like Fortnite. What makes the game unique is that it was developed to be as fun to watch as it is to play. This is because it was created with the company’s gaming live-streaming platform Twitch in mind.
Twitch was acquired by Amazon in 2014. It has become the major platform for gamers around the world to show off their skills and acquire massive fanbases, even rivalling YouTube. In 2019, it attracted 17.5 million average daily users and more than 600 billion minutes of gameplay were watched.
It is easy to understand why it is fun to battle your way across fictional lands but a bit confusing why so many people enjoy watching someone else do it. However, the reasons they do are not so far removed from their own gameplay.
The logic behind the growing popularity of simply watching others play games can be found in the phenomenon of mirror neurons. These are specialist brain cells that seem to play some role in an animal’s ability to mimic.
There is increasing evidence that babies use mirror neurons to copy and learn facial expressions, and to mimic sounds. The idea is that when we see, for instance, a facial expression for the first time, mirror neurons fire in our brains giving us a map of how to copy that same expression through the neural connections to our faces.
There is also some evidence of mirror neurons’ involvement in areas such as empathy. These mirror neurons appear to contribute to a brain system that helps us relate what we observe in others to our own experiences.
This could be key to understanding why so many are driven to watch others play games. When we are watching the action being streamed to our screens, it would be these circuits that fire up and make us feel the highs and the lows, as if it were us playing. This kind of passive psychological involvement is also seen with spectators of traditional sports, such as football.
Learning from watching
Many Twitch viewers watch so they can increase their knowledge and improve their own playing experience. This was found in a study looking at the behaviours of Twitch users specifically. Users reported that they would watch gamers playing to discover new strategies for gameplay and to find out how good certain games are before purchasing them. That second point suggests that Twitch makes a fantastic marketing platform.
What’s more, the study found that social factors were also major drivers for using the service. The more hours that a person spends watching game streams, the greater the opportunity for them to interact with other like-minded members of the online community.
However, the strongest motivator for using the service, by far, was found to be the release of tension. Viewers sought to use the platform for escapism and diversion from their day-to-day lives. This was found to be a major driver behind the number of individual streams that are accessed in one sitting.
It seems likely, then, that we are not only hard-wired to enjoy watching other people play, particularly if we play games ourselves, but also psychologically driven to see streaming platforms as a way of fulfilling our informational, social and escapist needs. This phenomenon creates a demand that Twitch is well placed to supply.
In light of this, it seems an obvious and natural step to begin crafting games that make effective streaming of play to audiences easier, as is the case with the aptly named Crucible. These are the ingredients from which gaming legends will be made.
Our planet is altering at a dangerous pace due to climate change. And at the same time, we seem to be entering a period of unprecedented technological transformation. Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and internet-connected devices are creating increasingly complex intelligent technological systems.
As pressures on the planet and its climate increase, so does the hope that these novel technologies will be able to help us detect, adapt and respond to the growing environmental crisis. There are plenty of examples of how artificial intelligence could do this.
But for that to happen, the people who make and regulate this technology need to rethink some simplistic assumptions about how AI will shape the future of our planet. It’s time to start a serious discussion about how to put AI to use for both people and planet.
Using AI to analyse data from social media and microsensors placed around cities could help us better understand how people use them, revolutionising urban planning and helping mega-cities prepare for a turbulent climate future. AI could even help design products that can be more easily recycled by more quickly narrowing down competing designs to meet sustainability criteria.
With such potential, it’s no wonder major tech companies, governments and other organisations around the world are becoming increasingly interested in the use of AI for sustainability. For example, the Indian government’s thinktank NITI Aayog has partnered with Microsoft to develop AI applications for small-scale farming. And China has launched a seven-year pilot program to develop automated farming technologies such as unmanned combine harvesters or robotic tractors.
If developed in a responsible way, this kind of AI could help create a prosperous future for all without adding to climate and environmental destruction. But that won’t happen until the key players revise their simplistic assumptions about AI.
A key issue is the incorrect idea that the benefits of advances in data analysis and automation will trickle down automatically to those who need it the most. The digitalisation of agriculture is likely to come with high investment costs and a need for developed infrastructure (such as rural internet access) and education among its users.
This might not be a problem for big corporations and rich landowners, but could leave behind many farmers, particularly small ones in emerging economies. We’ve already seen tensions developing between farmers in the US and large technology companies who want to use farmers’ data to create more valuable agricultural products and services.
What’s more, complex ecosystems underpinning food production don’t always benefit from increased efficiency and optimisation of agriculture. In fact, more intensive farming could mean many environments lose their resilience to the stresses and shocks that result from environmental change.
This indicates that current AI technology doesn’t necessarily make the best decisions about how to respond to a situation. Instead, it can end up replicating the same kind of processes that characterised past human decisions, complete with their biases.
The environment is facing a potentially very different set of circumstances to the past due to the changing climate. So applying our current predictive models based on historical data would make its forecasts and recommendations unfit for a new and turbulent ecological context.
Another significant problem for many of these technologies is that they are vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Malicious software can disrupt data collection and analysis or remotely control irrigation or nutrient delivery systems with the aim of destroying crop production. And the development of AI for use in cyber-attacks could make it harder to detect attacks and keep malicious software out.
The state of our planet and the potential risks and opportunities embedded in AI have until now been discussed separately. This must change. Technology giants, governments and civil society need to work with sustainability scientists to develop strong principles that guide the development of AI towards sustainability for all.
AI needs to be responsible, not only so that we understand how it makes its decisions and does so without discriminating, but also so that it doesn’t make environmental issues worse. No matter how intelligent technology becomes, its impact on people and the planet will always be our responsibility.
The video conferencing app Zoom gained about 2 million new users in the first two months of 2020 – and that was before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. With so many people now relying on video conferencing for contact with their friends, family and colleagues, it’s no wonder Zoom has seen a significant increase in its company stock price. But the firm has also attracted some negative press recently for issues related to its privacy and security.
I worked in the video conferencing industry for 10 years. During this time, I started a PhD on whether such systems meet the needs of organisations that have to communicate under adversarial circumstances, such as international NGOs and opposition groups under oppressive regimes. My near-finished research shows that Zoom has indeed had plenty of problems, but is far from the only platform with security and privacy issues.
A number of issues with Zoom have attracted public attention, most notably call hijacking or “Zoom-bombing”. Calls that are not set to private or password-protected can be accessed by anyone who inputs the nine- to 11-digit meeting code, and researchers have shown how valid meeting codes could easily be identified (something Zoom now says it prevents).
Zoom has also recently had to make changes to its iPhone and iPad apps to stop Facebook being able to collect data about users. And last year it was forced to fix a problem that could have allowed websites to turn on Mac users’ cameras without permission.
Another issue, recently highlighted by The Intercept, is that Zoom claims its calls can be encrypted, but doesn’t use the kind of end-to-end encryption that many people have come to understand as standard for private communication services. Messages or calls sent with end-to-end encryption are effectively locked with the receiving user’s public key that anyone can access, but can only be unlocked by the user’s private key. This system is used by messaging apps such as WhatsApp to ensure only a message’s recipient can read it – not even the app’s provider has access.
Zoom instead uses the AES-256 ECB method of encryption, which shares the key used to encrypt calls with Zoom’s servers around the globe. This potentially gives them full access to the audio and video streams, although the company has stated no user content is available to its employees or servers once encrypted.
Researchers have also found that encryption keys even up on Zoom servers based in China (where the company has development sites) even when no Chinese participants are in the call. This opens the possibility that the Chinese government, famed for its control of internet communications in the country, could eavesdrop on calls. Zoom has now started offering paying customers the ability to opt out of having data routed through China or other regions.
The problem for anyone looking for a more private system is that many of Zoom’s competitors have their own similar security issues. For example, Microsoft’s Skype and Teams services also use forms of encryption that give the company control over the keys.
So what are the alternatives? The most secure options are arguably those that use end-to-end encryption and are built with open-source code because it can be publicly reviewed to check it doesn’t have any hidden problems.
Signal is a messaging app that falls into this category and also provides video calling from smartphones, but not desktop video calls or video conferencing with multiple parties. Jitsi is also open source and provides end-to-end encrypted video calls via a web browser, and is working on doing the same for multi-party video conferencing.
If these options don’t suit you, then there are things you can do when using Zoom or other video calling services that have potential security issues to maximise your privacy and safety.
Enforce encryption by default and makes sure it’s end-to-end if possible
Lock and password-protect meetings
Unauthenticated users should be held in a waiting room so the organiser can check their identity before admitting them to the call
Make sure a meeting host monitors the participants list and ensures no unknown participant joins
Be careful with meeting recordings and get consent from the participants
Be aware that audio-only participants calling via a regular phone dial-in option will “break” the encryption
Be careful with file and screen-sharing capabilities. They could accidentally disclose sensitive information or be used to spread malicious programs.
In response to the issues raised in this article, a Zoom spokesperson said:
Zoom takes user privacy, security, and trust extremely seriously. Zoom was originally developed for enterprise use, and has been confidently selected for complete deployment by a large number of institutions globally, following security reviews of our user, network and datacenter layers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working around-the-clock to ensure that businesses, schools, and other organizations across the world can stay connected and operational. As more and new kinds of users start using Zoom during this time, Zoom has been proactively engaging to make sure they understand Zoom’s relevant policies, as well as the best ways to use the platform and protect their meetings.
Many new phrases have entered our vocabulary as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. “Zoom fatigue” refers to the mental exhaustion associated with online video conferencing.
We can change how we interact on video calls with adapted social behaviours such as scheduling shorter meetings. But theories from audio and sound research tell us that a lot of what determines how fatigued you become is based on what you are listening to.
The voices transmitted through the internet in real time are unedited and therefore crude to our ears. That is why we can wile away an hour listening to a podcast interview but feel drained after a video meeting – even if we didn’t have to contribute.
The good news is each one of us can contribute to reducing Zoom fatigue. You can change some simple things to improve everyone’s video meeting experience.
Subtle sounds such as key tapping and swallowing sounds will be captured and amplified through the system. Squeaky chairs, eating crunchy snacks and slurping coffee can sound to the listeners as if you are chewing in their ears.
If you want to limit the negative effect your voice might be having on other callers, the problem is you don’t know what it actually sounds like on their devices. Face to face we can hear ourselves in the same environment as our audience hears us and we adjust accordingly but that’s not possible online.
Step into your listener’s shoes: record a meeting on your own and listen back to understand how others hear you. Something as simple as adjusting the position, distance, or direction of your microphone could make a big difference. Switching from a laptop’s built-in microphone to a headphone microphone can mask a lot of environmental noises such as keyboard clicking or room echo.
Your new social space
While the content and topics of our video conversations may remain the same, we are constrained by the technology. Listening to group chats can be exhausting because we have lost the ways we use “back-channel” sounds to give turn-taking feedback.
Network problems can also impact speech clarity. Data loss in the audio feed can cause unnatural sounding voices and missing sounds. Our brain needs to do extra work to fill in the gaps. We use energy concentrating on unnatural voice changes that divert our concentration from understanding the message.
We must acknowledge the technical limits of video chats and adapt by cultivating new conversation etiquettes. Mute your microphones after saying hello and using text chat to interject or raise questions in group conversations. Articulate your own speech clearly (don’t mumble) and turn on closed captions to aid your comprehension. And make sure someone else in the house is not consuming all the bandwidth for Netflix while you are having a video conference.
Arrange your space
Conversations in a household environment bring background noises as well as echoes and reverberation due to room acoustics. Typical background conversations in open-plan offices can easily be filtered out subconsciously by our brain due to its ability to separate sounds by their location or direction.
These spatial cues allow us to focus on a single speaker in a crowded room. This is one reason why side-conversations held in parallel to the main discussion do not work on a video conference. Without the aid of directional information background noises and speech become a lot more intrusive. Rooms at home can produce reverberations that can reduce your ability to understand speech.
To make your home video environment more accommodating, close the door to at least keep pets out, even if it cannot stop kids interrupting. You may not want to convert your living room into a recording studio by putting egg cartons all over the wall but you can make the acoustic environment more “voice friendly” by reducing reverberation and echoes with soft furnishings like blankets or pillows instead of plain walls. The bookcase in the background is not just a pretty prop but also a good acoustic baffle.
Just like social distancing, improving the quality of your video call experience relies on a community effort. As many of us won’t be going back into the office for a long time, we must all work to reduce Zoom fatigue and make calls less of a strain for everyone.
The move towards driverless cars isn’t just a chance for people to relax at the wheel. It’s an opportunity to revolutionise personal transport in a way that offers life-changing benefits to people with disabilities.
But for this to happen, we need the car industry to commit to more inclusive design practices that right now are widely absent, and overcome the challenges of designing new ways to interact with autonomous vehicles. The solution could involve manufacturers drawing inspiration from diverse areas of product design to get the balance right between style and real-world user-friendliness.
The term “inclusive design” is used to describe the consideration of the needs and abilities of a diverse range of people in the design process. The car industry has traditionally focused on designing for people with driving licences – who by definition tend to be the more able-bodied section of the population.
Yet people with disabilities make up a significant minority – 22% of people in the UK (13.9 million) as of 2016-17. Many of these people may be unable to drive today’s cars, whether due to issues such as sight loss, significant physical impairments or cognitive issues.
Having a disability and being reliant on public transport is fraught with difficulties. And having trouble getting around is key among the barriers disabled people cite as stopping them taking greater part in society, whether visiting friends and family or joining a club.
Anyone who has had to have a difficult conversation with an older relative, encouraging them to give up driving often because of cognitive or physical decline, will understand what this can mean. So making transport more accessible is key to enabling people to improve their quality of life – whether through better economic opportunities, less social isolation or restoring dignity.
While autonomous cars will increasingly take away the need for people to physically drive the vehicles, there are other barriers to disabled people using cars that need to be considered. Simply getting in and out of vehicles presents difficulties to many people with physical disabilities – not just wheelchair users – and to many older people as muscle strength decreases with age. This makes thoughtful design touches such as grab handles and side steps widely beneficial.
Operating features that require significant effort, such as folding car seats or tailgates, can be difficult so it’s essential they are designed to work with a reasonable level of force using handles and large contact surfaces. Seat belts also present difficulties as they can be difficult to reach and insert. Restraint systems need a fresh look and a redesign using inclusive design principles to ensure they can be easily used by all in the population.
And for those who are wheelchair users, a simple, easy-to-use restraint system is also required. That’s assuming there’s a well-designed ramp, lowered floor and appropriate space for the wheelchair user to first enter the vehicle.
Self-driving cars will also introduce new challenges, such as the need for interfaces to enable passengers to select a destination or receive information about their journey. To cater for disabled people, they can’t be reliant on only one type of input or feedback. Visual displays may not be suitable for some passengers, just as voice input may be inappropriate for others.
Yet, despite the considerable discussion and resources going into changing personal transport through the development of self-driving cars, there’s little evidence that inclusive design is a major part of the process. This includes from regulators, who are updating their codes to accommodate trials of autonomous vehicles, but apparently without considering how vehicle design could benefit people with disabilities.
Including inclusive design
It’s not difficult to design accessible cars if the needs and capabilities of a diverse population are considered early in the design process. A few car makers have adopted this philosophy, for example, Ford uses a “third age suit” that simulates the limited mobility, vision and sense of touch that many older people experience.
This helps the firm’s engineers and designers to get those important details right, such as their 360-degree door handles that allow the door to be easily opened from the outside using the the whole arm and hand, rather than pull-up handles that require the fingers and wrist to operate them.
Similarly, firms in other sectors have already found ways to develop accessible interfaces. Samsung’s work in producing smart TVs accessible for blind and partially sighted people received the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s Inclusive Society Award. The TV can read on-screen text back to the user and provides verbal feedback about the channel, volume and programme information. It even reads aloud the on-screen programme guide.
The car industry has a choice to make: business class travel for a select few, or truly accessible transport for the wider population, offering dignity and an enhanced quality of life to those who face significant challenges everyday. I know which I prefer.
Yet amid these worrying developments there are positive elements to be found. Many of those who have kept their jobs have found they can keep working without the need for a daily commute. Recent research suggests that up to half of UK workers can do their jobs remotely.
And it’s not just office workers. Teachers, GPs, politicians and judges have all swiftly adapted to professional isolation. In just a few weeks, the traditional workplace has been transformed.
Suddenly fears that technology will destroy job have given way to relief that it can help save them. (Although the prospect of robot doctors treating patients, drones transporting vaccines and 3D printers producing face masks does not seem like a bad idea all of a sudden.)
Of course, working from home (WFH) requires considerable levels of adjustment. But data from our ongoing research shows that, on the whole, people seem seem quite positive about this aspect of their restricted lives.
In the middle of March 2020, we collected tweets using the hashtags #Coronavirus and #COVID-19 to observe how people were reacting on social networks to the pandemic. After processing 60 million tweets and removing the retweets, we focused on 6,500 messages from March 14 to April 6 that contained the hastag #WFH.
The idea was to assess how people were feeling about working from home. Overall, we found that 70.6% of the tweets reflected a positive sentiment towards the idea. The tweets that came from UK users after the lockdown on March 23 saw a rise in the positive feedback sentiment to 78.6%.
We used something called “sentiment analysis” to assess the tweets. For our purposes this was a lexicon-based approach where every tweet is represented as a group of words, which are each scored on a scale from negative to positive. A mathematical algorithm is then applied in order to a make a final assessment of the tweet’s overall sentiment.
We were also curious about the topics people were talking about. One of the more popular methods to extract themes from text is called “topic modelling”, which is essentially a way of processing large amounts of data – in this case tweets – to find out what words and phrases are being used the most.
Words such as “respect”, “inspire” and “proactive” appeared between 1,000 and 3,000 times in the #WFH tweets, indicating a positive response to the concept of working from home over the course of the pandemic.
Generating a word-cloud to observe the frequency of the words appearing in the tweets during this period, we also found the overall sentiment of the social media response to #WFH to be positive. There is a clear sense of productivity, with words such as “team”, “tips”, “satisfaction”, “service”, “remote”, “support” and “good” among the most prominent.
To build a deeper understanding of these positive feelings, we then mapped the sentiment generated from the tweets per day before the lockdown in the UK.
As the effects of coronavirus and lockdown intensified, so too did the mentions of working from home on Twitter. But there were dips too, most noticeably at the end of March 27, where there was a steep drop in #wfh references of nearly 50% which lasted for three days. We believe this could align with media reports highlighting concerns about children’s wellbeing during lockdown and widely expressed worries about the security of online meeting software, which were also expressed in some of the tweets.
There were negative experiences recorded too. For workers with children to look after, the changed dynamic of domestic life created new and widespread challenges. Yet this also inspired moments of gratitude and offers of help. The tweets we looked at showed evidence of small online communities forming, with people very happy to share #WFH tips and ideas.
Of course, working from home is not a new concept. But coronavirus has, in a very short space of time, forced it to become a normality for much wider sectors of the workforce. And overall, our research shows that the response to this has been positive.
This raises a new quandary about what will happen after the lockdown is lifted. Will businesses start to widen the practice to allow more flexibility to their employees? And if they don’t, how will employees feel about a return to the “old” ways of doing things? No doubt the response on social media will give us some clues.
Nestled between Lancashire’s stand-out beauty, the Forest of Bowland, and the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire Dales, the serene, postcard-perfect village of Clapham seems far removed from the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the British government announced a nationwide lockdown in mid-March, Clapham went on high alert.
Local residents formed what they dubbed “Clapham COBRA”, a volunteer emergency response initiative that aimed to mitigate the negative effects of isolation by sharing information, delivering supplies, and checking in on one another. Like many rural villages, Clapham is fairly geographically isolated and home to an ageing population, with most of its roughly 600 residents over the age of 45. But when it came to confronting extreme isolation, it also has a unique advantage: unlike much of rural England, Clapham boasts one of the best internet connections in the country – and the locals built it themselves.
Ann Sheridan remembers well the moment she got Broadband for the Rural North, known as “B4RN” (pronounced “barn”), to her house in Clapham in March 2016. She recounted to me over the phone:
I remember my next door neighbours nearly coming to blows because their son downloaded the whole series of Game of Thrones on a 2 megabits per second (Mbps) internet connection. And none of them could do anything else on the internet for days, right? So it was obvious that if the community wasn’t going to be left behind … we had to do something.
B4RN started planning to roll out its fibre-to-the-home network in Clapham in 2014, and by the end of 2018, around 180 homes out of 300 in the village had been hooked up with an affordable full gigabit-per-second symmetrical connection (currently only around 10% of homes in Britain are even capable of receiving such a connection). The speeds are impressive, especially in a rural context where internet connectivity lags horrendously behind urban areas in Britain. Rural download speeds average around 28Mbps, compared to 62.9Mbps on average in urban areas. B4RN, meanwhile, delivers 1,000Mbps.
The internet is more important than ever during the lockdown, where lack of access exposes other inequalities in internet use and skills. But B4RN means much more to digitally and geographically isolated communities than the internet service it provides.
A community network
B4RN is registered as a Community Benefit Society, which means the business belongs to the communities who need it: community members own the enterprise, and in B4RN’s case, they also actually build a lot of the infrastructure themselves. As a result, the process of “getting” B4RN involves a substantial commitment – of time, training, money, and physical labour.
Ann Sheridan was a B4RN “champion”, meaning that she – along with three other volunteers – headed the effort to build B4RN in her village. The role involved “all kinds of things”, she recalls. Building a fibre-optic internet network from scratch involves a steep learning curve and a lot of teamwork. Community members need to map their coverage area, secure permissions (called wayleaves) to cross their neighbours’ land, and dig trenches across fields and gardens to lay plastic ducting for the fibre-optic cable.
This article is part of Conversation Insights The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.
In the end, the connections B4RN facilitates in a place like Clapham are more than technological – they’re personal. And the impact of those connections is especially evident now. “Everybody in the village knows every everyone, it was like that anyway,” Sheridan explains. “But B4RN put rocket boosters under it.”
Over the last year, I have visited and spoken with people in many different communities that have had a hand in building B4RN, and each time I have heard a similar story: you dig B4RN into your own back garden, but B4RN also digs into you. The mutual understanding and genuine friendships fostered among local people during the building process last well beyond the installation itself. In Clapham, the collaborative effort that went into B4RN contributed to a pre-existing rapport that helped in the face of the coronavirus lockdown.
As Sheridan put it: “We know each other. We know our strengths and weaknesses, so we can just crack on with things.”
The connectivity divide
B4RN was born of necessity. To date, traditional profit-making telecommunications companies have struggled to reach rural communities. Mobile coverage lags behind, too: 83% of urban premises have complete 4G coverage, but in rural areas, it’s just 41%. In some areas, including many of the places B4RN operates, there’s no coverage whatsoever.
A major reason for this disparity is that private telecom companies have few financial incentives to extend their networks to rural areas. More physical infrastructure is needed to reach scattered villages and homes, and there are rarely enough potential paying customers in these sparsely populated areas to offset the costs.
Government incentives, such as subsidies and voucher schemes, have helped to spur private companies to take on less commercially viable “builds”, but companies are still slow to carry them out and tend to prioritise bolstering existing infrastructure over building entirely new networks. Year on year, the pervasive digitisation of everyday life, from banking to entertainment, has made this rural-urban digital divide even more profound.
According to the UK’s telecommunications regulator Ofcom, around 11% of rural premises cannot access even a 10 Mbps connection, and although Ofcom observes 95% coverage of “superfast” broadband (30 Mbps) nationwide, those statistics are collected from telecom companies themselves. Rural users often describe much worse service.
In a 2019 survey of National Farmers Union members, 30% said they experienced less than a 2Mbps connection, and only 17% could access a 24Mbps connection. Rural communities are getting left behind, and their experiences of disconnection are invisible in aggregate statistics.
‘I wanted broadband’
On arrival in Clapham in spring 2019, I met Chris Conder, a straight-talking farmer’s wife who was arguably the driving force behind B4RN. Her unwavering campaign for broadband for her village, Wray, has spanned almost two decades and spurred more than one experimental infrastructure project. Like many people I’ve spoken to in rural villages, Conder’s desire for broadband was personal.
“I was a carer for granddad, who had dementia,” Conder told me. Getting him proper care at their rural farm was difficult, but she had heard about telemedicine, and it seemed like exactly the thing she needed.
I would ring the doctor, and I would say, look he’s just thrown the newspaper in the fire and nearly set fire to the house because he’s read something in it that upset him, or he’s fallen on the floor, will you please send somebody out? And the doctor would send the psychiatric nurse a week on Tuesday. And when the psychiatric nurse came, there was a lovely old man sat in his chair, drinking his tea, happy as Larry. So, I couldn’t get any help with his medication, and his condition got worse and worse. And I knew I could do video conferencing if I had broadband, so I tried everything to get broadband … I just thought, if only the doctor could see what he was doing, he would say, oh my goodness, yes, let’s just change his medication.
At first, she investigated options through a major telecom provider. But the costs were high, and villages would have to endure a long wait. In some cases, communities were told to raise tens of thousands of pounds for a company to install a fibre cabinet nearby, but when it arrived, speeds in people’s homes, which were often miles away from the cabinet connection, were still abysmal.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had someone visit us without their own car,” I remember Conder saying on the phone to me in 2018, when I was planning that first excursion up to B4RN from Oxford. “How will you get around here?” Although not far from cities like Lancaster or Manchester, the train station where Conder ultimately met me was decidedly remote in certain consequential ways. One glance across the undulating hills dotted with forests and sliced through by rocky rivers, and it’s obvious why getting the internet here is no small feat.
Building resilient, fibre-fed networks in rural areas is challenging and expensive for any telecom operator. In recognition of this fact, the UK government has committed £5 billion to rolling out rural fibre networks. The high costs are due to many factors. Homes are often spread far apart, and getting a connection from one property to the next requires obtaining legal permission to cross big stretches of privately held land. In addition, there’s old infrastructure in place – mostly copper wires laid to carry telephone signals – which companies have largely preferred to repurpose for carrying internet connections, rather than put down new fibre-optic lines across the many rivers, roads, railway lines, and ancient stone walls that stand in the way.
So, Conder and a few exasperated friends began investigating alternative options, like wireless mesh networking. Those efforts brought her into contact with computer network engineers at the University of Lancaster, and after years of collaborating, campaigning and cajoling, B4RN was established in 2011 – with Barry Forde (now B4RN CEO), a professor of computer networking at Lancaster University, at the helm. He contributed his technical expertise while Conder exercised her chutzpah.
Conder and Forde, along with a few other local advocates, made up the founding management committee, and all that remained was to turn their ambitious vision into reality without breaking the bank. And that’s how the B4RN motto was minted: “JFDI”; “just flipping do it”.
Just Flippin’ Do It
The B4RN management team started raising money for their network by selling shares in the business, but communities still needed to fundraise aggressively to afford the build, which could easily could have reached into the hundreds of thousands of pounds for materials and specialist contractors. They needed to keep costs down, and that’s when, according to Conder, the local postman in Wray made a game-changing suggestion.
Conder sometimes ran a small hair cutting business out of her farmhouse, and the postman was in for a trim one day while she nattered away about the B4RN plans. After listening to her various apprehensions about actually pulling it all off, he said: “You’re farmers, right? You’ve got diggers. Why not dig it in yourselves?”
And the rest was history. Conder and the other founding members had already been volunteering nearly full time for B4RN, but they realised that if they recruited almost every new subscriber as a volunteer (responsible for digging in their own connection), that would expedite the whole process and keep the costs low. Early adopters recruited neighbours, and neighbours recruited neighbours. They negotiated free wayleaves to cross each other’s land and pooled resources like spades, diggers, drills, and other equipment. The first village to get connected was Quernmore in 2012, and Conder’s village, Wray, nearly 20km away, came online in 2014.
When Conder requested a quote from BT for laying fibre from the nearest mast in Melling to Wray, BT told her it would cost £120 per metre. B4RN’s first round of shares raised £300,000 to purchase the ducting, cabling, and other equipment for their own build, and they compensated volunteers £1.50 per metre of core ducting they put down. Not only did they save money on the initial network roll-out across rural farmland, but they kept the funding entirely in the community from start to finish.
Today, B4RN has connected roughly 7,000 homes in the rural north-west of England. Alongside the volunteers who still carry out the local build, they employ 56 permanent staff members to run the network day-to-day. A connection costs £150 per subscriber, and the monthly subscription for a full 1000Mbps connection is a flat £30 per month. It’s difficult to compare broadband prices meaningfully across UK providers, but Cable.co.uk reports that the average cost of broadband in the UK is about £0.86 per megabit per month. B4RN’s monthly price is closer to £0.03 per megabit.
For other communities considering their options in hard-to-reach areas across the country, B4RN now features as a “case study” in the government’s guidance on community-led broadband projects. And before lockdown, B4RN’s periodic “show and tell days” offered prospective communities the chance to visit B4RN-land and learn how to do it first-hand. As a result of this knowledge exchange, B4RN has inspired and trained other projects in places like Norfolk and Devon and Somerset.
Over time, recognition of the importance of affordable broadband connectivity has slowly grown, reflected in several important initiatives to spur infrastructure development in rural areas. And just as the scale of the COVID-19 crisis necessitated an imminent national lockdown in March, the government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) came into effect. It grants people in the UK the right to request a decent broadband connection (of at least 10 Mbps).
In a public recognition of the UK’s digital divide, the 2019 general election manifestos of all three major parties contained ambitious broadband plans. Labour even promised to nationalise British Telecom (BT) in order to provide free broadband to the country, which was roundly derided. But the coronavirus crisis has trained a spotlight on the importance of broadband in everyday life and arguably given substance to the hotly contested supposition that internet access is a question of basic rights.
“Most people at the moment would switch the gas off, I think, rather than switch the broadband off,” Jorj Haston, the B4RN Volunteer Coordinator and Training Officer told me over the phone in April.
Right now, B4RN is in the middle of building out the network in around two dozen communities. A further two dozen are in the planning stages. The process can take time, as communities scrape together funding and coordinate volunteer “dig days” to move a project forward. Lockdown has inevitably slowed things down, but the volunteer-driven nature of each community build, along with the open lines of communication between community champions and B4RN staff, have offered unexpected advantages when it comes to getting people connected under lockdown conditions.
In Silverdale, near Morecambe Bay, local B4RN champion Martin Lange is responding quickly to “desperate” local residents who are waiting on connections. Silverdale is mid-build, with around 400 homes online so far. “Over the last two years, we’ve learned all the tricks,” Lange says, talking about B4RN. “I’ve got all of this kit in my garage.” The decentralised nature of B4RN builds, where community volunteers often do much of the technical installation, has meant that champions like Lange can continue to make connections and identify local priority cases based on word-of-mouth.
The week I spoke with him, Lange had just connected a Silverdale man and his family, who were self-isolating due to illness. The man had emailed saying they urgently needed the internet to do work and school online, with one child who has special needs. Lange blew the fibre to the man’s house: sending the fibre-optic cable through plastic ducting using compressed air. This is a job that would normally take an hour with two volunteers but took Lange four, working alone to observe social distancing guidelines. Then, wearing gloves, he fused the fibre into the router, working outside the house. Finally, he passed the sterile router back through the window.
B4RN volunteers and staff have been coming up with “quick fixes” rapidly in recent months, getting creative about how to install connections without getting too close. That’s a challenge for B4RN, which has been built in many ways on physical proximity. On “dig days”, villages would typically come together to work on various aspects of the network together. And there’s something for everyone to do.
“People who maybe necessarily couldn’t dig, think, oh, this project isn’t really for me, but there’s so much more to it than that,” Mike Iddon, a B4RN champion in Burton-in-Kendal, says. They need people to draw the local network maps or to clearly label the ducting. Some folks contribute by providing tea and cake.
These days, B4RN staff and volunteers – like Lange and Iddon – are passing routers through windows, walking people through the digging and installation process over the phone, and setting up wireless hotspots in areas where the fibre hasn’t quite reached the homes. Where they can, B4RN staff are also implementing temporary connections for key workers and organisations. In recent weeks, they have connected a policewoman in the Ribble Valley on the COVID-19 response team, a haematologist in Cumbria who needed to set up a home office to serve his self-isolating patients, and a pharmaceutical warehouse in Lancashire supplying the NHS.
Lockdown has highlighted the importance of the internet. But paradoxically, B4RN’s model for success has more to do with the power of human connections that have long been integral to geographically isolated rural communities.
Modern times and trends have eroded many facets of rural life, as local institutions like village halls and shops have buckled under the economic pressures of ever-increasing centralisation of services in metropolitan areas – or online. Young people have fled the countryside for educational and economic opportunities in cities. In this context, B4RN offers a new local venue for community-building – a social space forged in and of the digital age.
During normal times, a small bunch of B4RN volunteers – led by Conder – organise a weekly “computer club” at B4RN headquarters in Melling. People from all over B4RN’s northwest coverage area trundle in with their devices and questions, and get advice from local folks on how to set up a wifi booster or ring the grandkids on Skype. Under lockdown, it’s these in person services that are missed most.
In this rural corner of the country, B4RN is succeeding – doggedly, gradually – where other attempts at extending digital connectivity have failed. This mostly comes down to local commitment and local knowledge. The coronavirus pandemic has made apparent something these communities have felt for a long time – the internet is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity for participating fully in an increasingly digitised society.
In the process, communities have shored up their personal ties and re-energised a community spirit that can do more than get the internet to a few hundred local living rooms. In Ann Sheridan’s words, “It builds community resilience”. And that resilience is plainly apparent now. One thing’s for sure: come rain or shine, or a global pandemic, B4RN will keep making connections. They will just flippin’ do it.
China announced in 2017 its ambition to become the world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030. While the US still leads in absolute terms, China appears to be making more rapid progress than either the US or the EU, and central and local government spending on AI in China is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars.
The move has led – at least in the West – to warnings of a global AI arms race and concerns about the growing reach of China’s authoritarian surveillance state. But treating China as a “villain” in this way is both overly simplistic and potentially costly. While there are undoubtedly aspects of the Chinese government’s approach to AI that are highly concerning and rightly should be condemned, it’s important that this does not cloud all analysis of China’s AI innovation.
The world needs to engage seriously with China’s AI development and take a closer look at what’s really going on. The story is complex and it’s important to highlight where China is making promising advances in useful AI applications and to challenge common misconceptions, as well as to caution against problematic uses.
Nesta has explored the broad spectrum of AI activity in China – the good, the bad and the unexpected.
China’s approach to AI development and implementation is fast-paced and pragmatic, oriented towards finding applications which can help solve real-world problems. Rapid progress is being made in the field of healthcare, for example, as China grapples with providing easy access to affordable and high-quality services for its ageing population.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, medical AI applications have surged as Chinese researchers and tech companies have rushed to try and combat the virus by speeding up screening, diagnosis and new drug development. AI tools used in Wuhan, China, to tackle COVID-19 – by helping accelerate CT scan diagnosis – are now being used in Italy and have been also offered to the NHS in the UK.
But there are also elements of China’s use of AI which are seriously concerning. Positive advances in practical AI applications which are benefiting citizens and society don’t detract from the fact that China’s authoritarian government is also using AI and citizens’ data in ways that violate privacy and civil liberties.
Most disturbingly, reports and leaked documents have revealed the government’s use of facial recognition technologies to enable the surveillance and detention of Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province.
The emergence of opaque social governance systems which lack accountability mechanisms are also a cause for concern.
In Shanghai’s “smart court” system, for example, AI-generated assessments are used to help with sentencing decisions. But it is difficult for defendants to assess the tool’s potential biases, the quality of the data and the soundness of the algorithm, making it hard for them to challenge the decisions made.
China’s experience reminds us of the need for transparency and accountability when it comes to AI in public services. Systems must be designed and implemented in ways that are inclusive and protect citizens’ digital rights.
But a closer look at the dynamics of China’s AI development reveals the importance of local government in implementing innovation policy. Municipal and provincial governments across China are establishing cross-sector partnerships with research institutions and tech companies to create local AI innovation ecosystems and drive rapid research and development.
Beyond the thriving major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, efforts to develop successful innovation hubs are also underway in other regions. A promising example is the city of Hangzhou, in Zhejiang Province, which has established an “AI Town”, clustering together the tech company Alibaba, Zhejiang University and local businesses to work collaboratively on AI development. China’s local ecosystem approach could offer interesting insights to policymakers in the UK aiming to boost research and innovation outside the capital and tackle longstanding regional economic imbalances.
China’s accelerating AI innovation deserves the world’s full attention, but it is unhelpful to reduce all the many developments into a simplistic narrative about China as a threat or a villain. Observers outside China need to engage seriously with the debate and make more of an effort to understand – and learn from – the nuances of what’s really happening.
It should have been artificial intelligence’s moment in the sun. With billions of dollars of investment in recent years, AI has been touted as a solution to every conceivable problem. So when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, a multitude of AI models were immediately put to work.
Some hunted for new compounds that could be used to develop a vaccine, or attempted to improve diagnosis. Some tracked the evolution of the disease, or generated predictions for patient outcomes. Some modelled the number of cases expected given different policy choices, or tracked similarities and differences between regions.
The results, to date, have been largely disappointing. Very few of these projects have had any operational impact – hardly living up to the hype or the billions in investment. At the same time, the pandemic highlighted the fragility of many AI models. From entertainment recommendation systems to fraud detection and inventory management – the crisis has seen AI systems go awry as they struggled to adapt to sudden collective shifts in behaviour.
The unlikely hero
The unlikely hero emerging from the ashes of this pandemic is instead the crowd. Crowds of scientists around the world sharing data and insights faster than ever before. Crowds of local makers manufacturing PPE for hospitals failed by supply chains. Crowds of ordinary people organising through mutual aid groups to look after each other.
COVID-19 has reminded us of just how quickly humans can adapt existing knowledge, skills and behaviours to entirely new situations – something that highly-specialised AI systems just can’t do. At least yet.
At Nesta, we believe that the solution to these complex problems is to bring together the distinct capabilities of both crowd intelligence and machine intelligence to create new systems of “collective intelligence”.
In 2019, we funded 12 experiments to help advance knowledge on how new combinations of machine and crowd intelligence could help solve pressing social issues. We have much to learn from the findings as we begin the task of rebuilding from the devastation of COVID-19.
In one of the experiments, researchers from the Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione in Rome studied the use of an AI system designed to reduce social biases in collective decision-making. The AI, which held back information from the group members on what others thought early on, encouraged participants to spend more time evaluating the options by themselves.
The system succeeded in reducing the tendency of people to “follow the herd” by failing to hear diverse or minority views, or challenge assumptions – all of which are criticisms that have been levelled at the British government’s scientific advisory committees throughout the pandemic.
In another experiment, the AI Lab at Brussels University asked people to delegate decisions to AI “agents” they could choose to represent them. They found that participants were more likely to choose their agents with long-term collective goals in mind, rather than short-term goals that maximised individual benefit.
Making personal sacrifices for the common good is something that humans usually struggle with, though the British public did surprise scientists with its willingness to adopt new social-distancing behaviours to halt COVID-19. As countries around the world attempt to kickstart their flagging economies, will people be similarly willing to act for the common good and accept the trade-offs needed to cut carbon emissions, too?
COVID-19 may have knocked Brexit off the front pages for the last few months, but the UK’s democracy will be tested in the coming months by the need to steer a divided nation through tough choices in the wake of Britain’s departure from the EU and an economic recession.
In a third experiment, a technology company called Unanimous AI partnered with Imperial College, London to run an experiment on a new way of voting, using AI algorithms inspired by swarms of bees. Their “swarming” approach allows participants to see consensus emerging during the decision-making process and converge on a decision together in real-time – helping people to find collectively acceptable solutions. People were consistently happier with the results generated through this method of voting than those produced by majority vote.
In each of these experiments, we’ve glimpsed what could be possible if we get the relationship between AI and crowd intelligence right. We’ve also seen how widely held assumptions about the negative effects of artificial intelligence have been challenged. When used carefully, perhaps AI could lead to longer-term thinking and help us confront, rather than entrench, social biases.
Alongside our partners, the Omidyar Network, Wellcome, Cloudera Foundation and UNDP, we are investing in growing the field of collective-intelligence design. As efforts to rebuild our societies after coronavirus begin, we’re calling on others to join us. We need academic institutions to set up dedicated research programmes, more collaboration between disciplines, and investors to launch large-scale funding opportunities for collective intelligence R&D focused on social impact. Our list of recommendations is the best place to get started.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to experiment with novel combinations of crowd and machine intelligence, including launching the next round of our grants programme this autumn. The world is changing fast and it’s time for the direction of AI development to change, too.