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Sensemaker: Eyes off the prize

Sensemaker: Eyes off the prize

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK government hinted at softer Covid restrictions after case numbers fell by a third in the past month.
  • Iran’s supreme leader blamed Israel for the assassination of the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
  • The CEO of Lime, the e-bike and e-scooter rental firm, said it was making a profit for the first time. 

Eyes off the prize

In normal times you’d expect a rich country to plan for and invest in the future. In the UK’s case that would mean spending heavily on artificial intelligence, because – all hype apart – this country is good at AI. Or at least it was. Now, compared with rivals, it’s slipping. 

  • Britain remains the world’s third AI powerhouse after the US and China but has fallen back over the past year in research, talent retention and other key indicators measured by the Tortoise AI Index. Israel, the Netherlands and South Korea have surged up the index’s international ranking. 
  • Brexit puts the UK’s position in further doubt: failure to reach a deal this month could leave the country’s AI sector behind a “data wall” preventing the free flow of personal data from the EU. As a spokesperson for London tech firms and investors put it: “If we crash out and there’s no subsequent agreement around data flows, AI, machine learning or data analytics, businesses are really going to suffer.”
  • Public funding for AI research and infrastructure in the UK is dwarfed by what’s on offer across the Channel: Britain has earmarked £300 million as part of a five-year plan set out in 2018, compared with more than €4 billion committed by Germany for the 2018-24 period, and another €50 billion announced this year for a future-focussed tech fund to include investments in AI. France earmarked €1.5 billion for AI for the five-year period starting in 2018.
  • Computing should be booming in British universities, but isn’t. UK institutions on the Times Higher Education’s list of top universities for Computer Science fell by an average of three places this year. The UK also slipped in supercomputer numbers, from 11 to 10 of the world’s biggest.

AI performance matters especially now. Artificial intelligence underpins all the high-tech, high-growth industries, from biotech to fintech, on which countries that have spent heavily to survive the pandemic will depend to recover. And few countries have spent as heavily, per capita, as the UK. Extra borrowing is at £400 billion and counting. 

The irony. There was an AI evangelist in Number Ten – name of Dominic Cummings – but it’s not clear whether anyone left behind after his departure shares his enthusiasm.

The next superpower. The other big story from the first annual update of the Tortoise AI Index is China’s relentless rise as an AI behemoth. Against a maximum score of 100 for the US for 2019 and 2020, China climbed 10 points from 51 to 61 in the year. (The UK fell by eight, from 48 to 40. Israel, the Netherlands and South Korea gained five points each, to 36, 35 and 33 respectively.) Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, has highlighted China’s bid to set international AI standards as the international cutting edge of its “techno-authoritarianism”. Democracies, beware.

Don’t miss the Tortoise Global AI Summit on Thursday.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Rishi’s interests
When members of parliament take on ministerial roles, they become, rightly, subject to a greater degree of scrutiny. The ministerial code requires that those in public office declare any financial interests of their spouse and close family that might lead to a conflict of interest. But an investigation by the Guardian revealed that when he became chancellor, Rishi Sunak only added one of his wife’s financial ventures to his declaration – her ownership of a venture capital firm. Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty, the daughter of a wealthy Indian businessman, also has hundreds of millions of pounds of shares in the family company Infosys, a business that operates UK government contracts. A Treasury spokesperson said Sunak’s disclosures “followed the ministerial code to the letter”. What about the spirit? 

New things technology, science, engineering

Virus zappers latest
Last week we brought you news of a vase that doubles as a phone charger and disinfector, using UV light. In a similar vein it’s hard to resist the LightStrike virus-killing robot, deployed initially at San Antonio’s international airport. The maker of the robot, which is not really a robot in that it has to be pushed around by a human, claims it can destroy the coronavirus from seven feet, or about 2.5 metres, with high-intensity light pulses that mess with the virus’s DNA. It poses a risk to humans too, so can only be used when they are not in range. Unit price: $125,000. It will be interesting to see if this transitions quickly to the museum of quickly forgotten Covid tech, or becomes a familiar, blinding sight in public spaces. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Flight risk
A Russian airline has been forced to cancel a flight from Moscow to China after 190 passengers produced identical Covid antibody test results. The Pegas Fly flight to Zhengzhou was grounded last Wednesday when Chinese officials looked at the results and decided, as one diplomat put it, there was “no way to guarantee the accuracy of these tests”. Travellers – many of them Chinese nationals trying to get home – are known to have been buying forged negative Covid test results in Russia since the summer, the Moscow Times reports

Science note: the antibody tests in question did not just deliver a binary yes / no result. They measure antibody levels, which is why 190 identical results strained credulity.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Big and reasonably clean
Last month a Florida-based power firm that Tortoise’s UK-based readers may be forgiven for never having heard of briefly surpassed Exxon in terms of market value. Meet NextEra, which Bloomberg calls the world’s most valuable utility, and one of four “clean supermajors”. It produces and sells 22 GW of wind and solar power to US customers. That’s a lot for one firm – enough to power Belgium and close to half the UK’s total installed renewable capacity. And NextEra’s scale, along with that of Spain’s Iberdrola, Denmark’s Orsted and Italy’s Enel, underpins Bloomberg’s argument that a new era of green energy giants is upon us. There’s a catch, of course. NextEra and its subsidiaries still sell a heck of a lot of coal and gas-fired power, as does Enel. But the idea is that these firms’ direction of travel leads to a place where renewables grow inexorably because they produce more revenue, and fossil fuels atrophy because they yield less. Goldman Sachs says the point at which investment in renewables exceeds that in oil and gas for the first time could come next year.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Democracies unite
The FT reports that the EU has prepared an 11-page memo outlining “a new EU-US agenda for global change”, to present to the incoming Biden administration. It’s partly a granular proposal for more cooperation on technocratic challenges like taxing tech giants and rolling out Covid vaccines in an equitable way. But its broader aim is much more important: to suggest that the world’s richest democracies present a united front again after four years in which the US under rogue management has taken a Fortnite-style pick-axe to liberal democratic norms, and China has adroitly filled the global leadership vacuum. Phew. 

The week ahead

30/11 – second Commons reading of Telecommunications (Security) Bill, which bans use of Huawei equipment in UK’s 5G network; appeal hearing for convicted killers of PC Andrew Harper; Manchester Arena bombing inquiry continues, 1/12 – ONS publishes latest death figures for England and Wales; MPs vote on new Covid tier system; justice secretary Robert Buckland discusses impact of Covid on prisons and courts before select committee, 2/12 – England’s Covid lockdown due to end, replaced by a tier system; Dove, L’Oréal Paris and Boohoo appear before select committee session on body image, 3/12 – environment secretary George Eustice discusses flooding before select committee; Saudi foreign minister speaks at Chatham House, 4/12 FT Live summit on future of the car, 5/12 – 15th anniversary of Civil Partnership Act; Electoral Reform Society annual conference

30/11 – Zoom reports third quarter results; European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaks at Schengen forum, 1/12 – OECD economic outlook report released; Eurozone inflation figures released; Salesforce reports third quarter results, 2/12 – EU health ministers meet to discuss pandemic; UN secretary-general António Guterres gives State of the Planet address; US  treasury secretary and Federal Reserve chair testify before House committee on pandemic response, 3/12 – Lancet report on health and climate change released, 4/12 – deadline for ByteDance to sell TikTok’s US business; Brazil reports third quarter GDP, 5/12 – US president Donald Trump expected to visit Georgia ahead of Senate runoff, 6/12 – Venezuelan parliamentary elections

opinion: Matthew d’Ancona

Since when were MPs experts on pandemics?

A certain tribe of Conservative backbenchers is kicking up a fuss over new Covid restrictions. But this really isn’t a time – or a matter – for base politicking

One of my favourite political lines of 2020 was delivered on Friday’s Channel 4 News, by Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP for Romford. In a discussion of the government’s proposed new system of tiered Covid restrictions, to come into force after national lockdown ends in England on Wednesday, Rosindell offered this verdict: “I understand why it has to be done – but I think, when we look back, I fear it’s going to be seen as a huge over-reaction.”

So: to recap, the tiered structure of local measures that will be implemented from Thursday – if Boris Johnson can secure the backing of the Commons tomorrow – is both necessary and totally disproportionate.

Confused? Not as confused as Rosindell, who went on to insist, rather sweepingly, that “all the figures are being muddled up and inaccurately recorded as well”, and then to declare, in the manner of a 1970s public service announcement: “Let’s get Britain working again.”

What is so infuriating about such sloganeering is the presumption that those advocating continued emergency measures to suppress coronavirus infection have no care for the economy, or jobs, or future prosperity. As if the argument for a second national lockdown were wilfully and recklessly hostile to the interests of UK plc.

Yet there is an overwrought strand of Conservative instinct that detects incipient authoritarianism everywhere: and now that the menace of “Brussels bureaucracy” has been seen off by Brexit, it needs new enemies. Lockdowns, tiered restrictions and other supposed threats to our ancestral liberties – well, they fit the bill perfectly.

Indeed, it should be no surprise that there is a significant overlap between the so-called Coronavirus Recovery Group of libertarian Tory MPs and the hardline pro-Brexit European Research Group – notably in the central role played in both by Steve Baker, ex-chairman of the ERG and presently deputy chairman of the self-styled corona-pimpernels.

It is less than a year since Johnson assumed the mantle of a latter day Margaret Thatcher, having secured the largest Conservative victory since 1987. This week, in spite of his working majority of 85, the PM more closely resembles the hapless John Major after the 1992 election, scrambling for the votes he will need tomorrow to win without having to plead for Labour’s support.

It has been an ignominious spectacle. On Saturday, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, published a long and lapidary essay in The Times, in which he made an uncompromising case both for the second lockdown now approaching its conclusion and the toughened tier system that is set to replace it.

As hard as such measures undoubtedly were, Gove wrote, they were essential to stop the NHS being overwhelmed in what are now assumed to be the final months before a vaccine is approved and becomes generally available. His message was aimed foursquare at mutinous Conservative MPs: “When the country is facing such a national crisis, the truth is that all of us who have been elected to parliament, not just ministers, must take responsibility for difficult decisions.”

Within hours, however, Gove’s tough line had been supplanted by a spirit of concession – as the PM offered a series of sweeteners to the 70 or so Tory rebels. The review of the system on 16 December, he signalled, would be an opportunity to shift specific areas to a lower, less restrictive tier; and the entire structure could be dismantled in only nine weeks time, if MPs so decided. On Sunday, the government disclosed that it would offer more subsidies to the hospitality sector, which has been grievously affected by the pandemic.

Expect further demands today and tomorrow. Having tasted blood, the Tory sharks will take as many bites as they can out of the beleaguered prime minister in the next 24 hours – each snap of the jaws weakening the new system due to come into force later this week.

But are they right? The supposedly inviolable premise upon which the Conservative rebels operate is that lifting restrictions in and of itself will turbocharge economic recovery. Lift lockdown, relax the tiers and watch the British economy spring vigorously back into life. If only it were so simple.

According to a study by the IMF published last month: “By bringing infections under control, lockdowns may… pave the way to a faster economic recovery as people feel more comfortable about resuming normal activities. In other words, the short-term economic costs of lockdowns could be compensated through higher future economic activity, possibly even leading to positive net effects on the economy.”

In August, McKinsey & Co drew similar conclusions: “[T]he facts now show that the ultimate economic impact is not driven solely by lockdowns, whose economic effects have been highly varied. Lifting lockdown restrictions may not by itself be sufficient to restart growth.”

The common conclusion in such research is that the key variable in economic recovery is not the removal of restrictions but the restoration of public confidence. As long as infections are high – and, though they have declined during this lockdown, they are still high – the engine of growth will splutter and groan.

Premature relaxation of regulations, furthermore, will reliably lead to fresh surges of infection which, in turn, will suppress consumer confidence (witness, for instance, the present spike in Canada that followed poorly regulated social mixing over Thanksgiving on and around 12 October). What Baker, Rosindell et al should be lobbying for is not a hasty end to the tiering system but a test-and-trace system that is something other than an international disgrace, and a swift and orderly rollout of the vaccine.

Consider, too, what is happening right now, this very day, in the Commons, in the horse-trading between MPs and their whips – who, I hear, are informally offering rebels jobs in the forthcoming reshuffle in return for support in Tuesday’s vote. The intricacies of public health policy – literally, in this case, a matter of life and death – are being lost in the gossipy rancour of Westminster WhatsApp groups.

Does it have to be said that this is no way for an advanced nation to plot a route out of the pandemic? I think it does. It is often blithely proclaimed in such situations that “Parliament is sovereign” (Brexiteers used to say that a lot, before they decided that their true allegiance was to “the People”), In fact, sovereignty resides in the Queen-in-Parliament: that is to say, the Crown acting in tandem with the legislature.

The distinction is important. Parliament, quite rightly, does everything in its power to hold government to account: one of the systemic success stories of 2020 has been the performance of the Commons select committees, especially Health and Social Care under Jeremy Hunt, and Science and Technology, chaired by Greg Clark.

But there is a thin line between accountability and operational control. Witness the mess last year when the Commons tried to take over the nation’s Brexit policy by seizing control of the order paper (the setting of daily business in the House).

Witness, too, the ludicrous convention that has arisen since the Commons vote to endorse action against Saddam Hussein in 1998, whereby MPs effectively have a veto over the use of military force – a nonsense in an age when the sheer complexity of modern warfare requires governments to be more nimble than ever. The difference between legitimate parliamentary scrutiny and pre-emptive obstruction was perfectly demonstrated in 2013, when Labour MPs prevented David Cameron from taking action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over his use of chemical weapons.

Seven years later, the parallel is striking. MPs are no more epidemiologists than they are military analysts. In an emergency, parliamentarians have a solemn responsibility to stop the government from acting autocratically, illegally or against the national interest. But they themselves have a corresponding duty not to make it impossible for ministers to steer a country through a crisis.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has surely made mistakes this year. But it would be a travesty if the group’s advice to Johnson and his colleagues were overruled by the bombastic amateurism of Tory backbenchers.

In the next 24 hours we shall see if Boris Johnson cares more about being a statesman or popular among his MPs. Better for the prime minister to depend upon Labour votes than to jeopardise lives and risk a third Covid wave – all in the name of something as transient as Conservative unity. As the Iron Lady herself said to President Bush Sr on the eve of the first Gulf War: “This is no time to go wobbly.”

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Ella Hill