This year’s BCS Insights Conference - the third iteration - took place on 24 June 2021 and was a great success. Titled Defining good, Doing good, the virtual event placed the BCS mission of making IT good for society at its heart.
Across 11 sessions, the conference explored how an ethically charge, diverse, inclusive and professionalised IT industry can contribute to meeting many of the world’s grand scale challenges, including:
- How can IT help solve the climate crisis?
- How do we protect the internet from political and commercial forces that might undermine its defining openness?
- How do we ensure the web remains a safe space for people to talk, express themselves and freely exchange ideas?
- How do we maintain privacy in the days of big data?
- Is the internet of things a force for good or one loaded with unintended and unforeseen outcomes?
The virtual event was attended by over 200 viewers from 17 different countries including USA, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka. They watched and participated in sessions that included:
- Professor Dame Wendy Hall: The four internets
- Google’s Vint Cerf: The internet of things, security and scaling
- Chris Adams of the Green Web Foundation: How to be a technologist in a climate emergency
- Adam Thilthorpe, BCS Director of Professionalism: Professionalism is not a four-letter word
- John Higgins, BCS President; Jackie Weaver, Chief Officer, ChALC, Holly Porter, Director of Membership, BCS: Panel debate: A roadmap for good
- And many more.
Debates and presentations
If you didn’t attend Insights 2021 on the day, don’t worry. Here’s a rundown of the other sessions and conversations, along with video links so you can enjoy the day’s events.
Dame Wendy Hall, DBE, FRS, FREng is Regius Professor of Computer Science, Associate Vice President (International Engagement), and is an Executive Director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton.
The COVID pandemic and the resulting lockdown forced huge changes on society: confined to our homes for work, play, socialising and support, the world placed a sudden and huge burden on the internet.
‘We all piled onto the internet in in our billions... using video and it stayed up and running right. It's hugely resilient and robust,’ says Dame Hall. ‘It's a fantastic testament to the pioneers, my friends: Vint Cerf and Bob Khan, who invented TCP/IP, and of course, Tim Berners-Lee, who invented HTML and HTTP.’
Internet under threat
But for all its good and the great things it can do and has done, the internet is under threat. Increasingly, the internet is become a place where we can’t trust what we read, where people aren’t safe and where commercial drives are overtaking citizens rights.
‘In the West we are beginning to discuss how we control the internet,’ she says. ‘How we stop bad things happening. How we keep people safe online. The UK Government is going to put up its new Internet safety regulations [soon]. But, we've had to puzzle about why do people do bad things on the internet and how we can stop that happening. How we control the tech giants who've become so dominant in our lives and absorb all our data and give us back adverts...’
The four internets
Against this backdrop, Hall and Kieran O'Hara have written a book called The Four Internets.
The book charts the internet’s rise from its original design and its pioneers’ desire to the internet to be free and open and remain so.
At the heart of the book is the idea that different countries and regions have radically different views about what the internet is, how it should work and who should be in charge of it - if anybody. The four models are:
- The Silicon Valley open internet - light on regulation where ‘move fast and break things’ seems to dominate
- A European model with Brussels takes a legislative lead
- Beijing’s authoritarian internet - a heavily surveilled internet
- Washington DC’s commercial internet - a model founded on commercialisation
Elsewhere, India and Russia are forming and formulating their own ideas about how the internet should work and for what it should be used. Four internets may five way to five, six or more models.
The key question, Hall says, is: ‘How do we keep all this going?’ A universal internet helped the world survive COVID, but we need to recognise that, increasingly, there isn’t one single internet. And this fragmentation may well make facing climate change harder and managing AI more difficult.
Vint Cerf, Google Chief Web Evangelist and co-inventor of the internet protocol gave a talk on the internet of things, security and scaling.
How many devices do you have? Not just your current phone, or PC. What about the devices you no longer use, items with an IP address that’s still rattling around in your sock drawer or garage? Or even your heating system? Vint added up around 30 in his home… there could be more.
As devices become more numerous and ubiquitous, he calls for interoperability. Commonality. A universal language that will work across devices from all manufacturers. There’s currently more than one standard across producers, and he urges simplicity for the sake of both security and manageability.
Cerf says: ‘I used to joke that someday every lightbulb will have its own IP address. Well, that’s not a joke anymore, because they make lightbulbs with IP addresses now. The reason that’s important is, that if you think of an internet-enabled house as a thing which lets you interact with devices in the house, maybe voice interaction. The question then is, if you say, “Turn on the lights,” which light did you mean?’
So, you may give the lights names like Frank, George and Eddie. What’s the right way to deal with scaling and identification? Also, families have different members and you may not want every member to have the same authorities. Parents should have greater responsibility of the security. How do you distinguish who is giving a command? Do you use voice recognition?
What if you have guests for dinner who just want to use the facilities? Do you give them a list of commands? And you don’t want them to still have control of your home when they leave. What about maintenance people? What about criminals who wander by and say, “Open the door.” Do creators always think about the different scenarios? Do they have the solutions?
Security and source code
‘Some of these devices are likely to have long lifetimes,’ says Cerf. ‘So, heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems, for instance, go on for 10, 15, 20 years. And if they are software driven, one of the big issues is updating the software to fix bugs or to add new functionality. And here it’s very important that the device be able to know where the software’s coming from. Has it been altered between the source and the destination? So, hashing and digital signatories are once again, our friend.’
Cerf explores source code and how we should be thinking about programming regimes - how do we know things are functioning correctly? ‘Think about a refrigerator that gets attacked, running Linux,’ he posits. ‘It’s doing everything it’s supposed to do, but is also sending out spam and doing a bunch of other things. But as long as our ice cream is cold, we don’t notice that the refrigerator is doing some bad thing. The result is that harm occurs and we don’t know that. It’s a tough problem.’
In the session, Cerf answered:
- What is the impact of technical churn on the environment?
- Do you worry about 5G?
- How do we balance data collection in minors?
- How do you think historians will look back on us?
- Is ransomware payback time for everything we didn’t do?
- And more.
Who needs to be involved in a workable roadmap for responsible and beneficial tech? How do we get them involved? And what’s the order of priority for tackling problems?
In the final session of BCS Virtual Insights 2021, hosted by Holly Porter, BCS Director of Membership, the main themes of the day converge in a discussion exploring the roadmap for good in tech and what needs to be happen to achieve the shared vision.
Jackie Weaver, Chief Officer at ChALC - now a household name – brings to the debate her experience in working for an established institution (The Cheshire Association of Local Councils), forced unceremoniously by the pandemic to move forward from practices established in 1972.
John Higgins, BCS President - brings his deeply held belief that technology is a force for good, an awareness of how broad the issue is that needs to be dealt with and the challenges that we, collectively, need to overcome.
Chris Adams, Co-Director of the Green Web Foundation - shares his point of view that technology is an accelerant for what is already there and is something to be mindful and thoughtful of, when considering how it should be applied to problems facing us.
There’s work to do across the board - in terms of education: from policy makers, industry professionals, young people and the public - about the key issues in tech. The four main topics of discussion for the panel include:
- Professionalism and ethics
- The digital divide
- The work towards net zero
- Diversity and inclusion
The key points
John Higgins: ‘There two aspects of professionalism: competence and being a champion of ethical values. Competence, to some extent, is the easier part, but ethics is a fast-changing thing. If you think about some the ethical challenges that we have, such as making an ethical framework for AI, with changing societal values and new technology coming together, it’s quite difficult to keep track of that.
‘There’s no doubt that having the right ethical values, combined with the right competencies, is really important. Our job now is to equip, empower and give confidence to our professional leaders, both on the demand side (so companies insist on only employing professionals) and the supply side, who will then respond to that need. It’s about professionalism in the leaders - that’s the way to change it.’
Jackie Weaver: ‘For local town and parish councils, access to broadband is an issue. We have made huge strides forward in accessibility, but it’s those “hard to reach” places that remain hard to reach. It’s those very places that would benefit most from being able to access digital technology, such as those who are very isolated or trying to run businesses from rural areas.’
‘One of the precious few positives that came out of COVID, was the ability for local authorities to use virtual meetings. Unfortunately, the legislation that enabled that fell on the 7th of May, but what we were seeing was that council meetings were getting a 20% better attendance (virtually) than they ever had before. That means more and more people were showing an interest and by definition, we were getting greater diversity. But to have lost that ability to hold those [virtual] meetings now, is preposterous.’
Chris Adams: ‘One thing we are seeing quite a lot on the climate front, is the inclusion of the voices of younger people, who are likely to be saddled with the impacts of the climate for a longer time. The use of digital technology is making it possible to include some of their wishes from different parts of the world. In Germany, young people have been able to have access to government and get laws changed to come up with more equitable outcomes.’
Innovation and entrepreneurship are an engine - what does good innovation look like? Getting away from the ‘move fast and break things’ mentality. Dr Chen Mao Davies, CEO, Latchaid and Liz Ashall-Payne, Co-founder and CEO, ORCHA discuss, debate and explore.
Is it time to reimagine how we educate children about and with computers - and what principles can we take into how we communicate thorny tech the issues to broader society?
Our panellists were:
- Dr Saima Rana, CEO, GEMS World Academy
- Cat Scutt, Director of Education and Research, Chartered College of Teaching
- Jim Knight, The Rt Hon Lord Knight of Weymouth
- Gary Spracklen, Headteacher, The Prince of Wales School, Dorchester
- Niel McLean, BCS Head of Education (chair)
Competent, accountable and ethical IT professionals want to say ‘yes’. How can they be supported to speak up when ethically difficult situations arise - and to help others understand alternatives? Adam Thilthorpe, BCS Director of Professionalism, explores the topic.
What is technology’s part in fuelling and also facing the climate crisis? Chris Adams, organiser of ClimateAction.tech and director of the Green Web Foundation, explores this expansive and urgent topic. ‘Winning slowly is the same as failing’ he warns while delivering actionable contributions which IT professionals can make.
How do we create conditions to allow people to express themselves online when repressive governments play whackamole with people's rights? Tony Roberts, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, founder of Computer Aid, discusses freedom on the internet.
How do we balance the opposing forces of tech’s benefit and the drawbacks it fosters? The panel considers practical technology strategies to pursue to help with the climate emergency, including reconsidering upgrade cycles; hardware use and reuse, recyclability and getting away from the novelty mindset.
- Chris Adams, director of the Green Web Foundation
- Amanda Brock, CEO OpenUK
- John Booth, MD / Principal Consultant, Carbon3IT
- Brian Runciman MBCS (Chair)