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  • Mike and Helen

Mince Pies and Postmasters

In our local supermarket before Christmas, Helen and another shopper were searching for gluten free mince pies. Finally an assistant told them, ‘You’re not the only ones searching. We’ve had a lot of requests but the stock is just not there. But,’ she added conspiratorially, ‘you should see the shelves and shelves of regular mince pies in the stockroom. They’ll be reducing them after Christmas, you see!’

Sure enough, this week, we found a virtual wall of mince pie boxes. 15p for a box of six!‘Someone’ had badly miscalculated supply and demand. A friend of our daughter works in a charity which receives and circulates supermarket surplus. They receive obscene amounts of fresh food sometimes surplus even to the needs of the people they are helping.

Public demand is probably fairly fickle and retail must often be a fairly hit and miss business but it seems fairly clear that those oft-mentioned but little understood algorithms -a method a computer uses to solve a problem- have a lot to do with it.  In the case of supermarkets it must a problem which is, by definition, insoluble – trying to match supply and demand as precisely as possible. Clearly in the case of our supermarket’s mince pies, it was wildly inaccurate.

Increasingly not just our food but every aspect of our lives is being managed by mechanical devices and algorithms which turn us into units – more often than not, economic units, units valued only for our ability to produce, buy or trade. And the people who can manipulate the complex world of algorithms and artificial intelligence of all kinds are the masters and mistresses of significant parts of our lives.

How much control do we still have? We  - the little people  – the vast majority of the population who are increasingly dependent on and influenced by an electronic language we haven’t the skills to understand or access?

The BBC drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, screened early in the New Year narrated what has been described as the largest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. It told the story of over 500 ‘little people’ hardworking postmasters, wrongfully accused at least of mismanagement and at worst of fraud and criminal activity.

The reasons for the postmasters’ failure to get justice for their cause are complex. But central to the case was human refusal to recognise (the charitable view) and then to admit (the more likely view) the costly failures within computerised systems. The Post Office refused to acknowledge that there were dangerous glitches with Horizon, their computerized system. Fujitsu, the makers of the system declared likewise. Computer ‘truth’ was valued above human ‘truth’. Artificial intelligence was trusted and valued above human intelligence. Human lives and the mental health of individuals were lost as a result. Livelihoods and families damaged or destroyed.

Justice for the postmasters is still a long way off. Compensation can probably never be fully made. The story and the process of learning its lessons is a long way from over. But those who care about freedom and human values must pay attention to this loud warning about the need for legal accountability and safeguarding in the electronic world. It is chillingly obvious that our freedom is at risk unless we build more accountability into our society, into those who operate our computer systems and our legal systems. It is a warning against allowing our lives to be governed by ghosts in machines. It is a salutary lesson as we move into the age of AI.

Thank you, Mr Bates!

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