Watson to save Africa or is small still beautiful?

February 28th, 2014

Have you heard about IBMs super computer Watson? It was made to compete on the US TV game show ‘Jeopardy’ which it won! It has 200 million pages of content, can answer questions in natural languages and is said to be artificially intelligent.

It’s now being deployed in Africa to solve the pressing problems of agriculture, health and education.  Such are the transformative powers of Watson the IBM project has been called Lucy after humankind’s first ancestor.

On March 3rd 2014 The Tyranny of the Experts written by the economist Professor William Easterly is published.  He argues in it that there is an obsession with fixing the symptoms of poverty without addressing the systemic causes. Moreover that freedom and assuring people’s rights and thus choice are key to building sustainable development.

Maybe unfairly (and I have only read the preview of Easterly’s book available on Amazon) I would characterise there two approaches as ‘science will find a way though’ versus ‘democracy is the answer’.  There are lots that I love and think true in what Easterly says but ultimately my concern is that we are seeking a one size fits all model.

We have to start with people and they are complicated – individually and even more so when we come together as societies. Data can help but ultimately you/we have to listen. Democracy is the best system we have, but asserting people’s rights is not enough.  Rights without options or access can lead to massive frustration.

22626So in terms of approaches to development – and although I’m seeped in Practical Action I must caveat with these are personal views

  • We have to change our course – consumerism leading to our current 3 planet living, testing the finite nature of our planet is leading to ecological disaster. The impacts of climate change are being felt first and hardest by poor people living on marginalised land. Taking action on climate change has proven a struggle in a democracy where significant changes are needed now but the full impact won’t be felt for decades.
  • Development should be at a human scale, we should start with people their choices and needs, looking at measures of wellbeing not just economic growth. People should have a voice and be listened to in development that impacts them.
  • We have to share and set up rules that promote sharing not greed and gargantuan acquisition – a world where the richest 85 people have the same wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion is a world where something is very wrong.
  • Technology has a huge role to play – but technology needs to know its place as a servant not the prescriber of solutions. Big isn’t always better.
  • Above all warm words need to be matched by action. The world needs to prioritise sustainable development but also to fund it. That means taking tough choices when it comes to government spending – huge bonuses for bankers or bailing out people?

Reading the article in The Guardian about IBM’s Watson I was reminded of a passage in Small is Beautiful written in 1973

‘In the urgent attempt to obtain reliable knowledge about his essentially indeterminate future, the modern man of action may surround himself with ever growing armies of forecasters, by ever growing mountains of factual data to be digested by ever more wonderful mechanical contrivances. I fear the result is little more than a huge game of make-believe and an ever more marvellous vindication of Parkinson’s Law. …Stop, look and listen is a better motto than ‘look it up in the forecasts’ ‘

40 years on there is still huge wisdom – encouragements to pause and think – to be taken from Small is Beautiful.

But to go back to Watson – I love the Benedict Cumberbatch  version of Sherlock Holmes – so what could be better than a Sherlock quote on Climate change (I may be stretching its meaning)

‘I think you know me well enough Watson to know that I am by no means a nervous man. At the same time it is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognise danger when it is close upon you’

The Final Problem


2 responses to “Watson to save Africa or is small still beautiful?”

  1. Brian Mallalieu Says:

    Hi again Margaret, you know I am a PA(ITDG) supporter of some time & an advocate of SiB when possible. (Indeed, it’s good to read today of the new NHS boss’s ideas on applying SiB!).

    I do agree strongly that any advocacy & attempt to apply computerised decision-taking to community development (anywhere) is in my view naively foolish! Of course, you must start with PEOPLE, especially remembering as far as I am concerned that they are made in the creator’s image. (Incidentally, you got the first ancestor’s name wrong — it was Adam!) I also agree that (though one origin fits all) one size certainly doesn’t. Along with the now tried, tested and proven ITDG approach, I would strongly commend the proposals argued in the latest edition of “When Helping Hurts” by Corbert & Fikkert.

    Democracy is often argued to be the best (as you have, usually by so-called 1st world politicians et al) but the recent election has once again shown that the electorate think rather differently! I argue that common services policy for energy, water, transport, health, and even community development etc. are better placed in the hands of stakeholder specialists (yes, including a parliamentary rep.) like bank interest rates — thus distanced from very expensive ‘party politics’.

    Furthermore, as I recall I have argued before with you, the creator’s command/guide given in Gen. 2:15 has been ignored (including by Christians!) at our very evident peril. Included in the 2nd of the two key words (Abad & Shamar) is the requirement to ‘Observe, Preserve, Watch over, & Take care of’. How insane to proudly think we knew/know better!

    With best regards,

  2. Margaret Says:

    Hi Brian

    I also heard the NHS new boss on Small is Beautiful – warmed my heart!


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