The Geek Shall Inherit

AI has the potential to be the greatest ever invention for humanity.  And it should be for the benefit of all humanity equally, but instead we’re heading towards a particular group, the geeks, who will benefit most from AI. AI is fundamentally more likely to favour the values of its designers, and whether we train our AI on a data set gathered from humans, or with pure simulated data through a system like deep reinforcement learning bias will, to a greater or lesser extent, remain.

A disclaimer – Humans are already riddled with bias.  Be it confirmation, selective or inclusive bias, we constantly create unfair systems and draw inaccurate conclusions which can have a devastating effect on society.  I think AI can be a great step in the right direction, even if it’s not perfect.  AI can analyse dramatically more data than a human and by doing so generate a more rounded point of view.  More rounded however is not completely rounded, and this problem is significant given any AI which can carry out a task orders of magnitude faster than a human.

To retain our present day levels of inequality while building a significantly faster AI we must dramatically reduce the number of unethical decisions it produces.  For example, if we automate a process with a system which produces only 10% as many unethical decisions as a human per transaction, but we make it 1000x faster, we end up with 100x more injustice in the world.  To retain todays levels that same system would need to make only 0.1% as many unethical decisions per transaction.

For the sake of rhyme, I’ve titled this blog the geek shall inherit.  I am myself using a stereotype, but I want to identify the people that are building AI today.  Though I firmly support the idea that anyone can and should be involved in building these systems that’s not a reflection of our world today.  Our society and culture has told certain people, women for instance, from a young age that boys work on computers and girls do not.  This is wrong, damaging and needs remedying.  That’s a problem to tackle in a different blog!  Simply accepting in this instance that the people building AI tend to be a certain type of person – Geeks.  And if we are to stereotype a geek, we’re thinking about someone who is highly knowledgeable in an area, but also socially inept, and probably a man.

With more manual forms of AI creation the problem is at its greatest.  Though we may be using a dataset gathered from a more diverse group of people, there’s still going to be selection bias in that data, as well as bias directly from the developers if they are tasked with the annotation of that data.  Whether intentionally or not , humans are always going to favour things more alike themselves and code nepotism into a system, meaning the system is going to favour geeky men like themselves more so than any other group.

In 2014 the venture capital fund ‘Deep Knowledge Ventures’ developed an algorithm called ‘VITAL’ to join their board and vote on investments for the firm.  VITAL shared a bias with it’s creators, nepotism, showing a preference to invest in businesses which valued algorithms in their own decision making (Homo Deus, Harari, 2015).  Perhaps VITAL developed this bias independently, but the chances area it’s developers unconsciously planted the seed of nepotism, and even the preference towards algorithms due to their own belief in them.

A step beyond this is deep reinforcement learning.  This is the method employed by Google’s Deep Mind in the Alpha Zero project.  The significant leap between Alpha Go and Alpha Go Zero is that Alpha Go used data recorded from humans playing Go, whereas Alpha Go Zero learned simply by playing against itself in a simulated world.  By doing this, the system can make plays which seem alien to human players, as it’s not constrained by human knowledge of the games.  The exception here is ‘move 37’ against Lee Sedol, which Alpha Go Lee used,  prior to the application of Deep Reinforcement Learning.  This move was seen as a stroke of creative brilliance that no human would ever have played, even though this system was trained on human data.

Humans also use proxies to determine success in these games.  An example of this is Alpha Go playing chess.  Where humans use a points system on pieces as a proxy to understand their performance in a game, Alpha Go doesn’t care about its score.  It’ll sacrifice valuable pieces for cheap ones when other moves which appear more beneficial are available, because it doesn’t care about its score, only about winning.  And win it does, if only by a narrow margin.

So where is the bias in this system?  Though the system may be training in a simulated world, two areas for bias remain.  For one, the layers of the artificial neural network are decided upon by those same biased developers.  Second, it is simulating a game designed by humans – Where the game board and rules of Go were designed.  Both Go and Chess for instance offer a first move advantage to black.  Though I prefer to believe that the colours of pieces on a game board has everything to do with contrast and nothing to do with race, we may be subtly teaching a machine that one colour is guaranteed by rules an advantage over others in live.

The same issue however remains in more complex systems.  The Waymo driverless car is trained predominantly in a simulated world, where it learns free from human input, fatigue and mistakes.  It is however, still fed the look and feel of human designed and maintained roads, and the human written rules of the highway code.  We might shift here from ‘the geek shall inherit’ to ‘the lawyer shall inherit’.  Less catchy, but simply by making the system learn from a system or rules that was designed by a select group of people will introduce some bias, even if it’s simulating it’s training data within the constraints of those rules.

So, what should we do?

AI still has the potential to be incredibly beneficial for all humanity.  Terminator scenarios permitting, we should pursue the technology.  I would propose tackling this issue from two fronts.


This would be hugely beneficial to the technology industry as a whole, but it’s of paramount concern in the creation of thinking machines.  We want our AI to think in a way that suits everyone, and our best chance of success is to have fair and equal representation throughout its development.  We don’t know how much time remains before a hard take-off of an artificial general intelligence, and we may not have time to fix the current diversity problem, but we should do everything we can to fix it.


Because damage caused by biased humans, though potentially catastrophic will always be limited by our inherent slowness.  AI on the other hand can implement biased actions much faster than us humans and may simply accelerate an unfair system.  If we want more equality in the world a system must focus more heavily on equality as a metric than speed, and ensure at the very least that it reduces inequality by as much as the process speed is increased e.g.;

  1. If we make a process 10x faster, we must reduce the prevalence and impact of unequal actions by at least 90%.
  2. If we create a system 1,000x faster, this reduction must be for a 99.9% reduction of inequality in its actions.

Doing this only retains our current baseline.  To make progress in this area we need go a step further with the reduction in inequality before increasing the speed.

Start with the basics

Tyler is one of Sopra Steria UK’s Volunteers of the Year. As Volunteer of the Year 2017, he travelled to India to visit our international award-winning Community programmes run by our India CSR team. Read his previous write up on his volunteer work here

Yesterday took me to the new Government Girls Inter College, Hoshiyarpur in Noida, India. The school opened this academic year and has 1,270 girls on its register, all from underprivileged backgrounds. Next year the school will grow to a size of at least 2,000 and is expected to be a lot higher than this. Yesterday held great significance for the Girls’ School and I had the honour of being able to commemorate this day with them.

For the last eight months, Computer Science has been taught by theory. More than one-thousand girls have been learning IT skills from paper. Paper! Thankfully, yesterday we were able to celebrate the opening of a new computer lab with thirty new computers donated from Sopra Steria. The occasion was expectedly joyous. There were celebrations, speeches and all-too-necessary ribbon cutting ceremony. A fantastic moment that meant something to every member of the school, teacher or student.

As twenty 13-year-old children filed into the room and unwrapped the last remaining plastic from the screens and keyboards of the newly installed computers. The excitement of the girls ready to use these new machines was palpable. Great, right? The next few moments were like a sucker-punch to something I really ought to have expected. It started with a moment’s hesitation from a young girl finding the power button. Then a look of confusion from another trying to left-click a mouse. Perhaps the most basic of tasks for a child that age. The only thing was – this was the first time that any girl in that room had touched a computer, ever. And for some reason, it was as if someone had told me the sky had fallen down. Obvious when you think about it, but near unthinkable for any child in the UK today.

After a quick breath, I went and sat with two girls, Yashika and Pooja. They had opened Microsoft Word and it was great to see their teamwork as they hunted for the letters on the keyboard, as our very own Gayathri Mohan took them through their ABCs. Within a few minutes, Pooja had moved her second hand onto the keyboard as she began to type sentences. Computers are a absolute necessity in the modern working world and in some government schools here the may be only one or two computers for several thousand children. Some do not have computer access of any kind. For such a reasonable investment, the lives of thousands of children, their families and future families can be changed completely.

Many things we take for granted are new to girls like Yashika and Pooja. It’s a familiar feeling to feel passionate about tech and I hope to continue to be able to contribute to bringing these new opportunities to them. This trip has shown me the individual lives being changed from the Sopra Steria India CSR programmes. It’s hard to fathom that yearly 70,000 children are introduced to tech through these schools, provided with free lunches, access to drinking water and toilet facilities, among the many other initiatives. A big thank you to the team for guiding us round and allowing us to share in these moments.

Still making difficult decisions – the Spring Statement

In 2010 the coalition government started with the objective of eliminating the structural current deficit by 2014-15. It introduced a package of savings, a public sector pay freeze, welfare reforms and significant reductions to every department’s administration budget. There was still a desire to protect the most growth-enhancing capital spending.

The target originally set by George Osborne when he imposed austerity on public services was only achieved this year. Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the deficit reduction was still ‘quite an achievement given how poor economic growth has been’.

What are the lessons of the last eight years?

As the Chancellor gives his ‘no frills’ Spring Statement this week, and prepares more far reaching plans for tax and spending through his Budget in the Autumn, it is worth drawing some conclusions on how the government eliminated the deficit and what aspects of the austerity agenda should remain:

  • The government maintained a clear and measurable fiscal target (the Chancellor has made a ‘pledge of fiscal responsibility, to borrow no more than two per cent of national income by 2020-21) and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) should continue to assess publicly whether this is likely to be achieved.
  • The departmental spending review prioritised areas with benefits to a broad sweep of society – next year’s review should promote growth (like transport and education) and fairness and social mobility (providing routes out of poverty for the poorest, improving incentives for work and tackling ‘wicked problems’ such as the increasing public health hazards of air pollution).
  • Eliminating a sizeable deficit was not a normal budget exercise and a more open and inclusive approach is required – government should consult widely, beyond departments, asking public sector workers and the public to suggest ideas, convening expert advisory groups and holding regional events to listen to people’s views.

Of course, external conditions are now favourable and the reforms introduced in 2010 (including spending controls, back office shared services and commercial reforms) have been sustainable. But the United Kingdom cannot rely on external conditions to remain as favourable as they are now. Particularly as uncertainty lingers about the UK’s future relationship with the European Union and the economic costs of divergence with the EU become clear.

What needs to change? Meeting the UK’s future challenges

The squeeze on public services is showing up in higher waiting times in hospitals for emergency treatment, low satisfaction for GP services and a staggering decline in prison safety. The National Audit Office (NAO) warned that local councils are at financial breaking point. If they keep draining their reserves at the current rate, one in ten will have exhausted them in just three years’ time.

The improvement in the public finances gives the Chancellor some leeway to spend in his Spring Statement. But the expected £5bn to £10bn windfall is not going to transform the delivery of public services. It is not enough to solve the UK’s long-term fiscal challenges. For example, demographic change will demand either a significant increase in taxation or a radical change to the funding of health and pensions. There is an immediate need to put the funding of social care on a sustainable footing

Achieving better internal efficiency is a necessary but not sufficient part of public service reform. At the same time public services must come up with innovative, less resource-intensive and more effective ways of achieving the government’s aims. In the Spring Statement, the Chancellor should provide funding and direction:

  • To move away from the traditional tools of legislation, regulation and taxation – which can be expensive to design and implement – and develop and apply lessons from behavioural science (designing policy that reflects how people really behave).
  • To renew the transparency agenda, as a way of achieving ‘better for less’ – by consistently releasing data into the public domain, individuals are able to draw their own conclusions on the way public services operate, incentivising efficiency through accountability, and stimulating innovation through ‘information marketplaces’.
  • And, where appropriate, for public services being open to a range of providers competing to offer a better public service, with a greater emphasis on outcome-based contracts, and joint work with the private sector to access private capital and expertise to make fuller use of core public assets in an enterprising way.

A final thought – accountability and public services

I appreciate that the third suggestion is not shared by everybody. Over the past five or six years problems have emerged in the UK public service market, particularly in the commissioning of complex services. This came to a head with the liquidation of Carillion.

The reality is that the public are more pragmatic than the politicians. For example, sixty-four per cent of people do not think it matters who runs hospitals or GP surgeries ’as long as everyone has access to care (Populus poll, January 2018).

But we still need to recognise that one of the most important differences between a private and public service is the different and often enhanced levels of accountability for the delivery of that service to a broader range of stakeholders. Private sector organisations that want to deliver public services have to be aware of, and work within those boundaries.

There is an urgent need for a more transparent and robust way of measuring the quality of services provided by the public and private sector. The Chancellor should ensure the rapid implementation of Sir Michael Barber’s report into improving value in public spending.

Gender, AI and automation: How will the next part of the digital revolution affect women?

Automation and AI are already changing the way we work, and there is no shortage of concern expressed in the media, businesses, governments, labour organisations and many others about the resulting displacement of millions of jobs over the next decade.

However, much of the focus has been at the macro level, and on the medium and long-term effects of automation and AI.  Meanwhile, the revolution is already well underway, and its impact on jobs is being felt now by a growing number of people.

The wave of automation and AI that is happening now is most readily seen in call centres, among customer services, and in administrative and back-office functions.  Much of what we used to do was by phone – talking directly to a person. We can now use not only companies’ websites in self-serve platforms, but interact with bots in chat windows and text messages. Cashiers and administrative assistants are being replaced by self-service check-outs and robot PA’s. The processing of payroll and benefits, and so much of finance and accounting has also been automated, eliminating the need for many people to do the work…

…eliminating the need for many women to do the work, in many cases.

A World Economic Forum report, Towards a Reskilling Revolution, estimated that 57% of the 1.4 million jobs that will be lost to automation belong to women. This displacement is not only a problem for these women and their families, but could also have wider negative ramifications for the economy.  We know that greater economic participation by women, not less, is what the economy needs: it could contribute $250b to the UK’s GDP .

Both the economic and ethical solution is in reskilling our workers. Businesses and economies benefit from a more highly skilled workforce. Society is enriched by diversity and inclusion.  Individuals moving to new jobs (those that exist now and those that we haven’t yet imagined) may even be more fulfilled in work that could be more interesting and challenging.  Moreover, the WEF report suggests that many of the new jobs will come with higher pay.

But there are two things we need to bear in mind as we do the work of moving to the jobs of tomorrow:

  1. Our uniquely human skills: Humans are still better at creative problem solving and complex interactions where sensitivity, compassion and good judgment play a role, and these skills are used all the time in the kinds of roles being displaced. In business processes, humans are still needed to identify problems before they spread too far (an automated process based on bad programming will spread a problem faster than a human-led process; speed is not always an advantage).  AI will get better at some of this, but the most successful operators in the digital world of the future will be the ones who put people at the centre of their digital strategies.  Valuing the (too-long undervalued) so-called soft skills that these workers are adept at, and making sure these are built in to the jobs of the future, will pay dividends down the road.
  2. Employment reimagined: To keep these women in the workforce, contributing to society and the economy, we must expand the number of roles that offer part-time and flexible working options. One reason there are so many women doing these jobs is because they are offered these options. And with women still taking on most of the domestic and caring responsibilities, the need for a range of working arrangements is not going away anytime soon.  The digital revolution is already opening discussion of different models of working, with everything from providing people with a Universal Basic Income, to the in-built flexibility of the Gig Economy, but simpler solutions on smaller scales can be embraced immediately.  For example, Sopra Steria offers a range of flexible working arrangements and is making full use of digital technology to support remote and home working options.

Women are not the only people affected by the current wave of automation and AI technology.  Many of the jobs discussed here are also undertaken by people in developing countries, and those where wages are lower, such as India and Poland.  The jobs that economies in those countries have relied on, at least in part,may not be around much longer in their current form.

Furthermore, automation and AI will impact a much wider range of people in the longer term.  For example, men will be disproportionately impacted by the introduction of driverless cars and lorries, because most taxi and lorry drivers are men.

Today, on International Women’s Day 2018, though, I encourage all of us in technology to tune in to the immediate and short-term impacts and respond with innovative actions, perhaps drawing inspiration from previous technological disruptions.   Let’s use the encouraging increased urgency – as seen through movements such as #Time’sUp and #MeToo – to address gender inequality while also working on technology-driven changes to employment.  Let us speed up our efforts to offer more jobs with unconventional working arrangements, and to prepare our workers for the jobs of tomorrow.  Tomorrow is not that far off, after all.

Jen Rodvold is Head of Sustainability & Social Value Solutions.  She founded the Sopra Steria UK Women’s Network in 2017 and is its Chair.  She has been a member of the techUK Women in Tech Council and the APPG for Women & Enterprise.  She recently led the development of the techUK paper on the importance of Returners Programmes to business, which can be found here.  Jen is interested in how business and technology can be used as forces for good.

Why Apprenticeships?

by Sara Keegan, Early Careers Recruiter

I started working on apprenticeships for Sopra Steria following the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in 2017. Sopra Steria had been recruiting apprentices since 2012 so the introduction of this levy only enabled us to grow and continue to offer apprenticeships to anyone at any level, from those at the start of their career to those who wish to change the direction of their career and learn new skills.

My role as an Early Careers Recruiter covers everything from showcasing what opportunities we have available, to keeping in touch with our apprentices throughout their careers. I can honestly say I love my job.  I am passionate about developing the apprenticeship scheme and the opportunities it offers. At a recent forum delivered by our training provider, the question raised to all of us was “Why Apprenticeships?” For me that’s an easy one to answer.

University is drilled into students and parents as being the only option to succeed in a career, but you could do a degree on an apprenticeship, gain commercial experience within the professional world AND be debt free!! Apprenticeships ensure that we are opening up the potential career paths into the tech industry.

Regardless of the levy being introduced, development among young talent is something that Sopra Steria are heavily driving. We are invested in developing talent, from new recruits to reskilling existing staff.  Apprenticeships play an important role within the company and will provide skilled workers for the future. For many, if you are thinking about a career change and learning a new skill it can be daunting to start again. Instead having on-the-job learning, mentoring and a buddy system, you will get to study with our award winning Apprentice training partners to gain Industry recognised qualifications.

It has opened my eyes to the wonderful world of apprenticeships and I want to help spread the word and remove preconceived notions of apprenticeships. This is the new wave of apprentices, working in an innovative industry. Being agile is a skill echoed in our workplace and one that all our apprentices find is second nature. As they learn they apply it directly to their roles, seeing first-hand what works and adapting their tact if not.

We will have a number of exciting positions throughout 2018, so keep updated on our apprenticeship page.  If you’re keen to learn and are passionate about technology, find out more by dropping us an email to

A look back at my apprenticeship

by Peter Apostoli, Digital & Strategy Operations Administrator

I started my apprenticeship at Sopra Steria on March 2016 and looking back on my time, it has been amazing to see where my career path has developed and how I have become more involved in a role I enjoy and am now skilled at.

I began as a business apprentice in the UK Exec office and it was an intense first three months. This included getting used to a new environment, the many systems in place and there always being new things to learn. As I continued my apprenticeship assignments I settled into the role more which helped me to come out of my shell. I began to network and build relationships with my colleagues which ensured that I became better known around the organisation. The skills I was learning was not just in business or project management, more a holistic approach of how to improve my communication and ability to work in a team which are just as important.

As I learnt more, I continued to take on added responsibility from my line manager. I thrived on the increased workload as it was good to know I could be entrusted and keep adding to the scope of my work. During my time I organised various trips for our CEO, managed diaries, liaised with external customers, attended various away days, assisted marketing & comms, monitored news that would impact our business and distilled this information for my team. I finished my apprenticeship with a level four in business and administration.

In October 2017, I was offered a role within IMSL as a junior cloud engineer. This was a role I did not suit but only through the opportunity did I gain that insight. While continuing in this role I found there was a new position available as a Digital and Strategy Operations administrator. Someone willing to take on a variety of different roles including diary administration, reporting, presenting and generally support in various areas of digital and strategy. From my previous experience as an apprentice I had the skills available to apply and was successful through the application and interview process. Since being in this role since February it is one that I am passionate about. Not only can I apply the skills learnt in my apprenticeship, but I am able to keep developing my knowledge around an amazing team.

I would recommend an apprenticeship to those who want the ability to gain qualifications and valuable business knowledge but who don’t want to go to university. For anyone looking to start their career path, though it’s easy to look back and see how you grew into a certain role it initially begins just by applying.

Find out more by clicking here or by emailing

Access and the Employee Experience

by Claudia Quinton, Head of Workplace Transformation

This week has seen the ‘Beast from the East‘ shut down much of the transport network causing confusion and delay (Thanks Thomas!). But I’m safe in the knowledge that I can just hunker down at home and continue to work as usual, accessing work remotely. This has been possible because Sopra Steria’s analytics platform predicted the level of additional bandwidth and resilience needed in our VPN network when more people than usual are working from home.

So, what has this got to do with employee experience? The 2017 Management Today survey in partnership with Sopra Steria found greater flexibility in working and career development were most likely to enhance employee experience. Thus, there is a clear correlation between a good employee experience and a company being able to both predict a sudden increase in remote users and take preventative action against the network slowing.

Investing in data and analytics

I use this example of the power of analytics in a new opinion paper discussing the business case for enhancing the employee experience. In it I point to the value of having a data and analytics team able to use artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics to allow the business to prepare for peaks and troughs of employee activities.

I make the case for using digital capabilities to support forward planning and enable intervention before challenges become issues, such as spotting patterns of absence and identifying those who need extra support.

By being able to correlate different types of data – hours worked, the weather, absence rates, etc. – it is possible to gather a picture of the things that have the most impact on rates of employee absence or reduced productivity.

I am excited at this potential for using data and analytics to help create a differentiating employee experience. Indeed, our own analytics platform already sits alongside our virtual HR Assistant, speech activated applications and robotics know-how to form a set of industry-leading capabilities focused on improving the employee experience.

Making the Business Case

Deciding what technology and process transformation to invest in to enhance the employee experience must go beyond being purely an HR decision.

To make the business case, HR should work with IT who understand the new technologies in areas such as data science and analytics.

In my paper, I point out that it is important to recognise what it will take to get the most out of your structured and unstructured data to support your future workforce management – and this requires specialist knowledge.

And if the business case suggests now is not the time to rip and replace legacy IT and move to a new cloud-based platform, HR must collaborate with finance. Why? Because while the business might not be ready, there still needs to be a discussion about the investment required in the workforce to ensure processes fit employees’ current needs and continue to support them into the future.

For example, it is possible to place digital front-end tools, such as real-time employee analytics, on top of legacy IT using Sopra Steria’s DiAL (Digital Abstraction Layer).

So, come snow, ice, or even a summer heatwave melting railway tracks, it is possible to give employees the flexibility to work from home by predicting future outcomes – without it costing the earth.

For more on this, read my opinion paper ‘A transformation business case that writes itself – download here.