The computer model behind the lockdown ‘has to be checkable’

The NHSx contact tracing app will be “useless” without mass testing and an “army” of public health officials manually tracking down people who may have been infected, one of Britain’s foremost computer scientists said Tuesday. 

Dame Wendy Hall, who was this week named chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute, a research body focusing on data and artificial intelligence, said “the app on its own isn’t effective, there’s [expert] consensus on that”.

Plans to introduce a tracing app in the UK have been pushed back to June, with the government now suggesting that tracing may happen “separately to the app” using volunteers. This weekend it emerged that recruitment of those volunteers had been delayed after some applicants were told the process was on hold, though the government insists it will meet its target of hiring 18,000 tracers by the end of the month.

Dame Wendy, who in the 1980s was part of a team that developed a forerunner of the web known as Microcosm, and has since specialised in the effects of the web on societies, also called for more computer scientists to be involved at the top level of government in future. 

“As it comes out of Covid fighting… the government needs to take more notice of computer scientists in terms of having them involved in big decision making committees,” she said. 

Contact tracing app on the Isle of Wight

Her remarks come as the government faces criticism for placing enormous faith prior to lockdown in the disease modelling developed by Prof Neil Ferguson at Imperial College. Two senior  executives from the software firm WanDisco have described the code behind that model as “fundamentally unreliable”, and a “tangled, buggy mess”. 

“It screams the question as to why our Government did not get a second opinion before swallowing Imperial’s prescription,” they wrote. “Ultimately, this is a computer science problem and where are the computer scientists in the room? Our leaders did not have the grounding in computer science to challenge the ideas.”

Developers also claim the code had been unreadable, with some parts looking “like they were machine translated from Fortran”, an old coding language,

“People understand in a crisis that sometimes you just have to get on and see,” Dame Wendy noted. “But it [the model] has to be checkable.”  

A spokesperson for the Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team said: “The UK Government has never relied on a single disease model to inform decision-making. As has been repeatedly stated, decision-making around lockdown was based on a consensus view of the scientific evidence, including several modelling studies by different academic groups.”

“We are working with a number of legitimate academic groups and technology companies to develop, test and further document the simulation code referred to. However, we reject the partisan reviews of a few clearly ideologically motivated  commentators.”

On a separate issue, campaigners have raised concerns about both state sponsored tracing apps and a mooted rival jointly being researched by big tech firms Apple and Google. But Dame Wendy said the two did not compare and that, at least in the UK, she found it “really amazing that people will trust the tech firms more than they will their own government.” 

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “We’ll have much more chance of scrutinising NHSx code than we will of scrutinising the code in the Apple Operating  System. We should hold the government to account on this, but some people seem perfectly happy to trust Google and Apple – and they know more about us than any government ever.

“They know everything about us. They will be able to put our contact tracing data together with everything else [they know about us]. I think that’s much more worrying to be honest.”

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Google and Apple have insisted that users will be able to opt in and out of their app, and that no device data would be shared with them.

Dame Wendy, who in 2017 co-wrote a report for the government on the development of the AI industry in Britain with Jerome Pesenti, now the head of AI at Facebook, also said that that current pandemic would represent a breakthrough moment for the deployment of AI systems in healthcare and beyond. 

“It’s like all wars,” she said. “Amazing things come out, breakthroughs in science and technology. We will get some of that with AI. Health was always going to be the frontier where AI was going to make the first impact: reducing costs, making systems more efficient, doing things more accurately than human beings, from scanning images to helping us find new drugs.”