Friday roundup: A week in tech

microphone

Have you heard the one about HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the millions of recorded voices? No? Well, it’s not a joke and here’s the story…

HMRC, the UK’s most taxing public body, has stored the happy tones of 5.1 million cheerful ‘customers’ as part of its Voice ID scheme – a password system that allows callers to identify themselves with their voice (obviously).

However, the mouthy scheme has spooked freedom-loving types, with Big Brother Watch claiming that the government department is instigating ‘biometric ID cards by the back door,’ which sounds like the title of a Brian Eno album.

Big Brother Watch’s director, and current leader of the best name of the year competition, Silkie Carlo, reckons that HMRC’s voice IDs ‘could allow ordinary citizens to be identified by government agencies across other areas of their private lives’.

She has implored the department to destroy the five million voices it’s already harvested ‘in this shady scheme’.

Responding, a HMRC spokesman mumbled that the system is ‘very popular with customers’.

Hmm, a function of HMRC that is ‘very popular with customers’ eh? Right.

***

Everybody’s favourite ‘fit and proper’ taxi-hailing firm has been granted a short-term licence to ply its trade in London. Well done, Uber.

Back in September last year, Transport for London (TfL) rejected the company’s application for a new licence to carry on operating in the capital, citing concerns around, among other things, background checks on drivers and the reporting of criminal acts.

Anyway, now things are looking better for the firm as Westminster Magistrates’ Court has awarded it a 15-month probationary licence, which is surely ample time to iron out any concerns the authorities may have?

But it wasn’t all good news in court: not only must Uber pay TfL’s £425,000 legal costs, Helen Chapman, TfL’s licensing, regulation and charging director told everybody that the firm’s behaviour around the reporting of crimes was ‘very disturbing’.

Responding to the ruling, and not really sure if it was a victory or not, London mayor Sadiq Khan, said: ‘After years of operating poorly in London, Uber has now accepted that TfL’s action in refusing to renew their licence was totally justified. Today our stance has been vindicated by the court.’

In case you’ve forgotten, Uber once took a year to report a hack that compromised the details of 57 million customers, choosing instead to pay the hackers’ ransom in secret. Thought I’d add that for a bit of fun. Happy Ubering!

***

A new digital squabble has opened up in the people vs machines arena, this time between doctors and chatbots.

According to software outfit Babylon, its NHS GP at Hand app is as good at identifying medical issues as real human GPs, which real human GPs have found a bitter pill to swallow.

In fact, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has gone as far to say that ‘no app or algorithm will be able to do what a GP does’. What, never?

Appearing to break ranks in the human world, NHS England’s chairman, Sir Malcolm Grant, seems to think Babylon’s virtual doctor system has legs. He said: ‘It is difficult to imagine the historical model of a general practitioner, which is after all the foundation stone of the NHS and medicine, not evolving. We are at a tipping point of how we provide care.’

Babylon says its software scored 81% in a RCGP medical-ailment-diagnosis exam that humans score an average of 72% in.

However, the RCGP has said that it didn’t provide the questions, so Babylon’s claims can’t be verified.

Interesting stuff, and along with self-driving vehicles, robots and all the other burgeoning AI the big question has become a little more pressing: What are humans for?

Have a lovely weekend!

Friday roundup: A week in tech

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