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Oxford Analytica: Dispatches From Global Horizons 2018

Fintech, the Future of Work and Why We Shouldn’t Worry About The Terminator…Yet.

Set against the backdrop of the dreaming spires of one of the world’s most famous university cities, Oxford Analytica is as stimulating for the eye as it is the mind.

As a newbie to the event and knowing not quite what to expect, I felt compelled into the heart of enlightenment as I left the train station and walked the short, picturesque distance to Christ Church College, my illustrious (and very much temporary) new home. Over the course of the next 72-hours I was treated to an almost seamless blend of ancient academic grandeur and razor-sharp contemporary insight.

(Statue of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, Bodleian Library, Oxford)

The first thing you notice about the itinerary for Oxford Analytica is the sheer scope of the topics being discussed across the college’s many lecture halls, chapels, nooks and crannies. In the space of one afternoon I found myself with a head full of musings on the trials facing the cybersecurity sector, the complexities of Middle Eastern politics and the implications that AI has for the human soul.

The diversity of speakers and participants that the organisation is able to draw upon is impressive to say the least. With that in mind, it’s worth noting that not only did I have the good fortune of attending this year’s Oxan Global Horizons’ seminars and panels but was also invited to take part in one myself. And an eye-opening experience it proved to be…

The format of the panel I was invited to join was almost unnervingly loose. Entitled, What next for the fintech revolution?, the discussion was hosted by David Friedman – a pioneer and serial entrepreneur in the wealth data and intelligence arena – who cut an assured figure as he brought a wealth of knowledge to bear on an almost impossibly broad discipline. By way of an introduction, Friedman drew broad strokes across the subject before reigning it in for the finer details and allowing the focus to shift to the panel, which comprised of Charlie Cai (Professor of Finance, University of Liverpool), Tim Baker, (Global Head of Innovation, Thomson Reuters) and your humble narrator (Digital Editor, Fintech Times).

What followed was a spirited meeting of minds which frequently included interjections from an audience of unerringly well-informed delegates. On the subject of fintech innovations worth keeping an eye on, Charlie Cai spoke up for the Alibaba subsidiary Ant Finance which he considers to be an under-covered and  potentially under-valued player. Tim Baker added an East vs West flavour to proceedings by highlighting Alibaba’s American rival Microsoft’s increasingly purposeful strides into the fintech space.

In my capacity as a crypto-nerd extraordinaire, I extolled the virtues of the Ethereum blockchain whose mission to “decentralise everything”, I feel (despite its recently plummeting monetary value) will hang over the fintech sector for many years to come.  How convincingly I made this argument is not for me to say but in such an environment all discourse is welcomed even if it’s disagreed with. To cap off my debut, Dr David R. Young, Founder & President of Oxford Analytica made an appearance and had his say on the subjects being discussed as OxAn not only expects an opinion, it positively demands one!

Having carried myself gingerly through the panel, expressing myriad views and impromptu theories which in no way represent those of The Fintech Times, I was rather relieved to find myself observing proceedings again from a safe distance. Following a frankly opulent three-course dinner in Christ Church’s Great Hall, I settled, satiated, into a chair in the Sir Michael Dummett Lecture Hall for a discussion of the implications of artificial intelligence, and rare joy it turned out to be.

The debate was unavoidably framed by the occupations of its two panelists; one a clergyman (the Bishop of Oxford no less, Steven Croft) and the other a scientist (Dr Louise Dennis of the Centre for Autonomous Simulation Laboratory at Liverpool University). What could have easily descended into a sort of faith vs reason bar-brawl farce was entirely elevated by the balance and logic displayed by two speakers who had much more in common than their paper differences would suggest.

(Left: Rev. Steven Croft, Right: Dr Louise Dennis)

The main thread of the evening’s discussion centred around the potential effects that AI could have on how humans perceive themselves, specifically with regards to work. One of the major side-effects of the development of artificial intelligence could be to make a human presence in the workplace largely redundant. Dr Dennis argued that whilst the technology holds serious power, it’s nowhere near advanced enough to replace humans in the workplace entirely. She also stated with great, if slightly weary, clarity that we have nothing to fear from sentient killbots like the Terminator… for at least a generation or two.

However,  Dr Dennis did expect job losses in areas where a large amount of the work is repetitive and predictable, using law as an example. She stated that whilst she doesn’t predict the advent of automated barristers just yet, we can expect the overall number of legal professionals to shrink as the responsibility for portions of their administrative workload is assigned to artificially intelligent colleagues. The conclusion Dr Dennis drew was as admirably honest as it was vaguely dystopian;

“History suggests that it might all be okay in the long-run, but history also suggests that it could be very, very bad in the short-term”

Perhaps refreshingly, Dr Dennis was also happy to admit that the march of innovation, especially in this field, may need to be slowed by the international cooperation of world’s governments in order to prevent it from having too disturbing an influence on the general population’s day-to-day existence.

The Most Reverend Steven Croft was content to play Devil’s Advocate (as content as a Bishop can be under such circumstances, I presume) by extolling the possible virtues of AI as a labour saver. He argued that the concepts of, “human beings as workers and human beings as consumers” came to be only very recently and that any technology that allows us time for reflection, religious or otherwise, should be welcomed. At one point, he quipped that whilst Descartes observed in his Cogito, “I think therefore I am” our modern lifestyles lend themselves better to the proposition, “Tesco Ergo Sum.”

A debate between a theologian and an AI-engineer seemed the perfect way to end my visit to Christ Church and Oxford Analytica. This a place where the worlds of science, philosophy, big business and crypto-anarchy happily collide, so if you get an invite for next year, be ready to express what you think. It’s pretty much a prerequisite for attendance.

Written by Matthew Dove (Digital Editor for The Fintech Times)

 

 

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