The mood in advance of this year’s Budget has been one of contradictions. On the one hand, it was widely expected to be a low-key affair, both fiscally and politically. Finalising and getting the Brexit deal through Parliament remains the priority; that coupled with the Conservatives’ lack of a parliamentary majority, means this was unlikely to be a budget of sweeping reforms. Certainly not with ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ at the helm.
But Theresa May gave the Chancellor some hospital passes with her pledges for £20 billion more for the NHS, to maintain the freeze on fuel duty and, most challenging of all, to put an ‘end to austerity’.
So how did the Chancellor manage to meet the spending commitments while also keeping Britain’s public finances on the straight and narrow?
With a classic May Government move: a fudge.
The Chancellor indeed declared that “the era of austerity is finally coming to an end.”
But the policies which backed this were limited: plans to raise the income tax thresholds were brought forward to April 2019 (enabling the Tories to tick off the ‘tax-cut’ box), business rates were cut for smaller businesses, and additional spending for the MoD and NHS was delivered.
The controversial Universal Credit, a pre-Budget crisis area for the Tories, was granted an additional £1 billion, and the work allowance under the scheme was increased – a policy which makes a big difference to those on Universal Credit at modest cost to the Treasury.
While the net spending commitments in the Budget were higher than for any Budget since 2010, it didn’t have the feel of a ‘giveaway’ Budget.
The end of austerity was actually achieved by unofficially abandoning the objective to eliminate the deficit; Hammond announcing that borrowing will be around £20 billion a year in 2023/24, beyond which date no figures are offered. This left the manifesto promise of a budget surplus well beyond the horizon. Perhaps the Conservatives could be accused of finding their own ‘magic money tree’.
Yes, the public mood has turned against the concept of austerity. Abandoning the Conservatives’ fiscal policy rhetoric of the past decade, without having achieved the actual end goal, leaves the party in a tricky spot. Trying to deliver the public’s raised expectations for investment in public services while having not actually built the strong fiscal position needed to do so will prove a challenge. If the economy deteriorates, the Government will be hostages to fortune and some will claim all the hardship experienced under austerity was for naught.
True to form for the May Premiership, there was no grand plan. Hammond positioned the Conservatives as a bit like Labour, but more responsible: blue, but with hues of red. As Hammond ended the Conservatives decade old fiscal policy, he didn’t have anything to plug the gap, bar a few stolen Labour policies – the ending of PFI contracts, for instance.
This is surely the central challenge for the Conservatives. Will people vote for “Labour light” when the full fat version is available? Hammond and May have blurred the dividing lines on fiscal policy – will they come to regret it?
Perhaps the most interesting story this week was the sale at auction of an AI composed portrait painting for a huge £337,000. As reported by the Beeb, The Paris-based collective Obvious created the painting using an algorithm and a data set of 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th and 20th Centuries.
This makes the artwork not just a portrait of the subject, but also of the myriad styles of 600 years of portrait painting. Debate has been raging about whether AI generated creative arts (from paintings to music to literature) can truly be considered artistic creations and whether people would accept them as such. As with so much nascent use of machine learning algorithms though, the human inputs here are undeniable, and AI becomes simply another mode of creation.
Whether you’d want to hang it on your wall is a matter of taste, however. Oscar Wilde might have had reservations. “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known,” he once said. Roland Barthes, who famously celebrated the “death of the author”, might enjoy it more. The reality is, of course, some very human artists just made a lot of money out of this!
Facebook uses machine learning to remove indecent child images
Facebook managed to mitigate the fall-out from its rather paltry, pre-GDPR-level fine from the ICO with an announcement that it has removed 8.7 million posts identified as related to the exploitation of children. In a coup for “new big blue”, the algorithm was able to identify and remove 99 percent of them before they were flagged by users as harmful content. As Catherine Shu reports for TechCrunch, the tech isn’t perfect yet, and parents have complained about the removal of innocuous pictures of their kids. This is probably collateral damage we can all live with given the context, and Facebook has done a good job communicating why it needs to accept false positives.
Facebook knows it has to get machine learning right here and quickly, amid lawsuits from former moderators due to what they are subjected to, and increasing calls for platforms to be held to the same standards as publishers when it comes to material onsite.
A new report from Big Innovation Centre, including input from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Artificial Intelligence, suggested that the UK can solidify 3rd place in a global arms race and dominate AI innovation within healthcare and fintech. Lord Clement-Jones CBE, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on AI and Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, said: “As shown in the report of the UK AI landscape, we have now reached the inflection point which can be reasonably described as the Cambrian Explosion of AI in the UK.
Since the inadvertent discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, we have had the privilege of living through the Golden Age of antibiotics. Antibiotics were understandably considered ‘miracle drugs,’ and more than proved their capability to treat diseases which, just years before, had been responsible for millions of deaths worldwide.1
Now, in the 21st century, we are starting to learn the hard way that there can be too much of a good thing. Due to improper use, over-prescribing and a lack of understanding, our beloved antibiotics are losing their potency. Microorganisms are evolving resistance faster than we can develop and market new drugs and this accelerating resistance should be placed front and centre of our global health concerns.
The crisis is so pressing that some experts have warned that if patterns continue as they do, we would be plunged back into the “dark ages of medicine,”2 where minor ailments, such as a scratch or an ear infection, could escalate into life-threatening conditions. A panel led by economist Jim O’Neil looked at the rising prevalence of drug-resistant bacteria and predicted that by 2050, more deaths would be caused by drug-resistant infections than by cancer; equating to an estimated 10 million deaths each year.3
But it’s not just rising death rates that are cause for concern. We have become so accustomed to effective medicines, that the growing risk of superbugs is too removed from public perception. To bring the problem into the public’s focus, we need to look towards educating from the bottom-up to raise awareness about our collective responsibility to use antibiotics properly, rather than relying on an overstretched NHS and overworked doctors.
There is a current gap in the UK for communications campaigns that directly address this public misperception through education on safe practices when using antimicrobial agents. It was touched upon in a TV advert campaign, launched in October 2017 from Public Health England, titled ‘Keep Antibiotics Working,’ which highlighted the need for patients to adhere to their individual antibiotic treatment plans. With 1.2 million views on social media and 49% of consumers in the North West aware of the campaign,4 we can certainly see a way for this to be built on in order to drive home the message of the global threat of antimicrobial resistance, and educate about steps that can be taken in everyday practice to minimise the risk of contributing to antibiotic resistance. Indeed, we look forward to seeing the wider impact on public perception following today’s launch of the next stage of this campaign.
It goes without saying that advancements in pharmaceutical research are paramount to addressing the problem of antimicrobial resistance. However, while researchers race to develop alternative microorganism-targeting treatments, communications campaigns that build on the message started by Public Health England are essential to run in tandem with these efforts, so we can minimise the rate of antimicrobial resistance, while we still have some drugs that are effective.
Juliet Kitson is a Programme Executive at Madano, a fully integrated communications consultancy that specialises in advising clients in sectors (healthcare; energy; technology; investment, development and regeneration) where communications are critical to success. Find out more about us here.
The emerging link between medicine and artificial intelligence has unravelled a new chapter following research, which reveals that drug development could be accelerated using a new AI program labelled neural network. It is reported that the AI studies information about which drugs interact with various proteins in the human body to predict new drug-protein interactions. The data acquired is then able to uncover unseen drug interactions and suggest potential new treatments for various diseases. In a series of tests conducted by MIT’s computational biologist team, the network discovered never-before-seen interaction between the leukaemia medication and a strand of protein, which is thought to be involved in different types of cancer. The latest discoveries could pave the way for greater collaboration across pharmaceutical development, and hospitals administering accurate treatment.
On another note, AI could be bridging the humanistic divide after Magic Leap, an augmented-reality start up, introduced the ‘next evolution’ of the virtual assistant called Mica which comes with unprecedented life-like features. With the use of specially designed augmented reality glasses, users will be able to come into contact with a life like version of the assistant which could demonstrate features beyond just conversing, but also making eye contact and yawning. At this rate fake news will be the least of our worries!
This week also saw Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announce $1bn of investment in a new college of computing which will specialise in AI. The landmark investment signifies the importance of AI evolution, one that has not been matched by other nations such as the UK. According to the article, the new college will act as an interdisciplinary hub for data and computer science-related work, and be named after its largest donor Blackstone chairman, Stephen Schwarzman.
Robot ‘talks’ to MPs about future of AI in the classroom
For the first time ever a robot has appeared in front of a parliamentary select committee to provide evidence on the benefits of artificial intelligence in education. The robot known as ‘Pepper’ was brought in to highlight that the current educational system had to change drastically to accommodate the current pace of technological change.
UK’s first Institute for Ethical AI in Education (IEAIED) launches #FutureofEducation
At a reception hosted by Speaker of the House John Bercow MP, the Institute for Ethical AI in Education has been launched, aimed at discovering how ethics can be ‘designed in’ to every aspect of AI in education and supporting young people in the fast paced growth of technology. The institute will be steered by educationalist Anthony Seldon, AI in education scientist Professor Rose Luckin and social impact entrepreneur Priya Lakhani.
For those of you who may still happen to watch terrestrial TV, the BBC’s Room 101 has been a welcome staple of easy, early-evening entertainment since the mid-1990s.
The programme’s central premise is to encourage celebs to identify and consign to Room 101 the elements of life that really get their goat and make their blood boil.
The original concept of Room 101 is inspired by the torture room of George Orwell’s prescient novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which allegedly held the ‘worst thing in the world’.
As a communicator in the energy space, it got me thinking about the energy clichés, buzzwords and catch-phrases that I would send to an ignominious end.
Here are a couple for starters:
1) “Getting close to the consumer”
Every company, particularly retail energy businesses seem to talk about ‘getting close to the consumer’ as if understanding the needs of those they sell energy to is a fundamentally new revelation.
Isn’t it also mildly patronising to sidle up to consumers without addressing the fundamental issues that have caused plummeting levels of consumer trust in the energy industry in the first place – namely, the high cost of energy, poor levels of transparency, anaemic customer service and a Byzantine approach to billing with hundreds of different tariffs?
Moreover, as this classic British Gas ad from the 1990s with the Tom Jones’ loving Brian Glover clearly shows, ‘getting close to the consumer’ has been a prominent feature of energy companies’ communications pre-deregulation let alone in the noughties. Businesses have been trying to get closer to the consumer since the advent of mass consumerism.
2) “The Energy Transition”
We all know that the energy system is changing. To use a recent phrase buzzing around the industry, it’s decarbonising, decentralising, digitising and democratising. Not too much disagreement about that. But why then should the phrase ‘energy transition’ grate so much?
For starters, the term ‘energy transition’ seems to be owned by the oil and gas industry to present the global energy sector on the move to a decarbonised world of renewables – a world which most of us would whole-heartedly welcome as the threat of climate change becomes more self-evident each and every year.
It’s only fair to recognise that we continue to need oil and gas for travel and to heat our homes but is it justified to talk about an ‘energy transition’ when global oil demand is growing rather than declining?
In fact, the International Energy Agency has recently estimated that demand for oil will grow by 1.36 million barrels a day in 2019. Viewed through this lens, ‘energy transition’ appears disingenuous if not outright misleading, particularly in light of last week’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that warned that much more needed to be done to guard the planet from rapid rises in global temperature.
Just last week, Shell’s CEO Ben Van Beurden spelt out the parameters of the energy transition in unambiguous terms.
“They might even make people think we have gone soft on the future of oil and gas. If they did think that, they would be wrong…”
While such frankness is refreshing, it speaks to the conflict and even ‘double-speak’ at the heart of the contemporary energy industry. What exactly are we transitioning away from?
Though it might be unrealistic to expect more imaginative and less prosaic positioning from the energy industry there is an opportunity for communicators in the space and particularly those with influence at boardroom level to strive to move beyond the empty clichés of ‘transition’ and ‘getting close to the consumer’.
The alternative is that Room 101 no longer remains a dystopian metaphor but becomes reality for many energy companies as customers stop listening, give up on renewables, swap suppliers and continue to distrust a sector in which so many amazing, transformative things are happening.
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