Boris Johnson Speech Transcript: Brexit, Chickens and AI – September 24, 2019
Boris Johnson delivered a bizarre speech on to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2019 in the aftermath of losing a key Brexit vote. He spoke to the crowd about ‘terrifying limbless chickens,’ artificial intelligence, and of course Brexit. Read the full text of the UK Prime Minister’s speech right here.
Speaker 1: 00:05 I invite him to address the General Assembly.
Boris Johnson: 00:09 Thank you, Mr. President, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, faithful late night audience. It’s customary for the British Prime Minister to come to this United Nations and pledge to advance our values and defend our rules, the rules of a peaceful world, and protecting freedom of navigation in the Gulf to persevering in the vital task of achieving a two-state solution in the conflict in the Middle East. And of course I’m proud to do all these things, but no one can ignore a gathering force that is reshaping the future of every member of this assembly. There has been nothing like it in history. When I think of the great scientific revolutions of the past, print, the steam engine, aviation, the Atomic Age, I think of new tools that we acquired, but over which we, the human race, had the advantage which we controlled, and that is not necessarily the case in the digital age.
Boris Johnson: 01:15 You may keep your secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor, even your personal trainer, but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google, and if that is true today, in future there may be nowhere to hide. Smart cities will [inaudible 00:01:37] with sensors all joined together by the Internet of Things. [inaudible 00:01:42] communing invisibly with lampposts so there is always a parking space for your electric car, so that no bin goes unemptied, no street unswept, and the urban environment is as antiseptic as a Zurich pharmacy.
Boris Johnson: 01:57 But this technology can also be used to keep every citizen under round-the-clock surveillance. A future Alexa will pretend to take orders, but this Alexa will be watching you, clacking her tongue and stamping her foot. In future, voice connected connectivity will be in every room and almost every object. Your mattress will monitor your nightmares, your fridge will beat for more cheese, your front door will sweep wide the moment you approach like some silent butler, your smart meter will go hustling of its own accord for the cheapest electricity, and every one of them minutely transcribing your every habit in tiny electronic shorthand stored not in their chips or in their innards, nowhere you can find it, but in some great cloud of data that glowers evermore oppressively over the human race.
Boris Johnson: 02:59 A giant dark Thundercloud waiting to burst and we have no control over how or when the precipitation will take place, and every day that we tap on our phones or work on our iPads as I see some of you are doing now, we not only leave our indelible spoor in the aether, but we are ourselves becoming a resource click by click, tap by tap. Just as the Carboniferous period created the indescribable wealth leaf by decaying leaf of hydrocarbons, data is the crude oil of the modern economy, and we’re now in an environment where we don’t know who should own these new old fields. We don’t know who should have the rights or the title to these gushes of cash, and we don’t know who decides how to use that data and can these algorithms be trusted with our lives and hopes should the machines and only the machines decide whether or not we are eligible for a mortgage or insurance or what surgery or medicines we should receive.
Boris Johnson: 04:09 Are we doomed to a cold and heartless future in which computer says yes or computer says no with the grim finality of an emperor in the arena. How do you plead with an algorithm? How do you get it to see extenuating circumstances and how do we know that the machines have not been insidiously programmed to fool us or even to cheat us? We’re already using all kinds of messaging services that offer instant communication at minimal costs, and these same programs, platforms can also be designed for real-time censorship of every conversation with offending words automatically deleted.
Boris Johnson: 04:51 Indeed in some countries, this happens today. Digital authoritarianism is not alas the stuff of dystopian fantasy but of an emerging reality, and the reason I’m giving this speech today with this slightly gloomy [inaudible 00:05:10] is that the UK is one of the world’s tech leaders and I believe governments have been simply caught unawares by the unintended consequences of the Internet, a scientific breakthrough far more reaching in its everyday psychological impact than any other invention since Gutenberg, and when you consider how long it took for books to come into widespread circulation, the arrival of the Internet is far bigger than print. It’s bigger than the atomic age, but it’s like nuclear power in that it’s capable of both good and harm, and of course it’s not alone.
Boris Johnson: 05:46 As new technologies seem to race towards us from the far horizon, we strain our eyes as they come to make out whether they are for good or bad, friends or foes. AI. What will it mean? Helpful robots washing and caring for an aging population or pink-eyed Terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race? What will synthetic biology stand for? Restoring our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues like some fantastic hangover cure or would it bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables? Will nanotechnology help us to beat disease or will it leave tiny robots to replicate in the crevices of our souls?
Boris Johnson: 06:32 It is a trope as old as literature, that any scientific advance is punished by the gods. When Prometheus brought fire to mankind in a tube of fennel as you may remember with his brother Epimetheus, Zeus punished him by chaining him to a Tartarian crag while his liver was pecked out. I talked about a hangover cure. His liver was pecked out by an eagle, and every time his liver regrew, the eagle came back and pecked it again, and this went on forever. A bit like the experience of Brexit in the UK if some of our Parliamentarians had their way. In fact, it was a standard poetic practice to curse the protos heuretes, the person responsible for any scientific or technical breakthrough. If only they had never invented the ship, then Jason would never have sailed to Colchis and all sorts of disasters would never have happened.
Boris Johnson: 07:54 It is a deep human instinct to be wary of any kind of technical progress. In 1829 they thought that the human frame would not withstand the speed’s attained by Stephenson’s rocket, and there today people who are still actually anti-science, a whole movement called the anti-vaxxers who refused to acknowledge the evidence that vaccinations have eradicated smallpox and who by their prejudices are actually endangering the very children they want to protect.
Boris Johnson: 08:29 And I totally reject this anti-scientific pessimism. I am profoundly optimistic about the ability of new technology to serve as a liberator and to remake the world wondrously and benignly. Indeed, in countless respects technology is already doing just that. Nanotechnology, I mentioned earlier, revolutionizing medicine by designing robots a fraction of the size of a red blood cell capable of swimming through our bodies, dispensing medicine and attacking malignant cells like some Star Wars armada. Neural interface technology is producing a new generation of cochlear implants, allowing the gift of hearing to people who wouldn’t otherwise not be able to hear the voices of their own children. A London technology company has worked out how to help the blind to navigate more freely with nothing more than an app on their smart phones.
Boris Johnson: 09:28 New technologies produced in Britain helping the deaf to hear and the blind to see, and we used to think that printing was something that you did to run off of a boarding card. Now a British company has used 3D printing to make an engine capable of blasting a rocket in space. In African countries, millions of people without bank accounts can now transfer money using a simple app. They can buy solar energy and leap in one transaction from no electricity to green power. And new advances are making renewable energy ever cheaper, aiding our common struggle against climate change. Our understanding of the natural world is being transformed by genome sequencing, the discovery of the very essence of life itself, the secret genetic code that animates the spirit of every living being and allows medical breakthroughs the like of which we have never known. Treatments tailored to the precise genetic makeup of the individuals.
Boris Johnson: 10:26 So far we have discovered the secrets of less than 0.3% of complex life on the planet. Think what will we achieve, what we will achieve when? And it is a matter of when we understand one or two percent, let alone five or ten percent. But how, how we designed the emerging technologies behind these breakthroughs and what values inform their design will shape the future of humanity.
Boris Johnson: 10:59 And that is my point to you tonight. My friends, Excellencies, at stake is whether we bequeath an Orwellian world designed for censorship and repression and control or a world of emancipation, debate, and learning. Where technology threatens famine and disease, but not our freedoms. Seven decades ago, this general assembly adopted the universal declaration of human rights with no dissenting voices, uniting humanity for the first and perhaps the only time behind one set of principles. And our declaration, our joint declaration upholds freedom of opinion and expression, the privacy of home and correspondence, and the right to seek and impart information and ideas. Unless we ensure that new technology reflects this spirit. I fear that our declaration will mean nothing and no longer hold. So the mission of the United Kingdom and all who share our values must be to ensure that emerging technologies are designed from the outset for freedom, openness, and pluralism with the right safeguards in place to protect our peoples.
Boris Johnson: 12:21 Month by month, vital decisions are being taken in academic committees, company boardrooms, and industry standards groups. They are writing the rule books of the future, making ethical judgments, choosing what will or will not be rendered possible. Together we need to ensure that new advances reflect our values by design. There is excellent work being done in the EU, the Commonwealth, and of course the UN, which has a vital role in ensuring that no country is excluded from the wonderful benefits of this technology and the industrial revolution it is bringing about, but we must be still more ambitious.
Boris Johnson: 13:08 We need to find the right balance between freedom and control, between innovation and regulation, between private enterprise and government oversight. We must insist that the ethical judgments inherent in the design of new technology are transparent to all, and we must make our voices heard more loudly in the standards bodies that write the rules. Above all, we need to agree a common set of global principles to shape the norms and standards that will guide the development of emerging technologies.
Boris Johnson: 13:45 So, and here’s the good news, I invite you next year to a summit in London. Wonderful city where it, by the way, it is not raining 94% of the time and where at one stage when I was mayor of London or shortly before we discovered that we had more Michelin-starred restaurants even than Paris. The French somehow rapidly recovered by a process that I wasn’t quite sure was entirely fair, but we still have by far in the UK by far the biggest tech sector. By far the biggest tech sector, Fintech, biotech, ed tech, medtech, nanotech, green tech, every kind of tech in London. The biggest tech sector anywhere in Europe, perhaps half a million people working in tech alone. And I hope that you will come there and we will seek to assemble the broadest possible coalition to take forward this vital task, building on all that the UK contribute to this mission as a global leader in ethical and responsible technology.
Boris Johnson: 15:05 If we master this challenge, and I have no doubt that we can, then we will not only safeguard our ideals, we will surmount the limits that once constrained humanity, and conquer the perils that once ended so many lives. Together we will vanquish killer diseases, eliminate famine, protect the environment, and transform our cities. Success will depend now as ever on freedom, openness, and pluralism, the formula that not only emancipates the human spirit, but releases the boundless ingenuity and inventiveness of mankind and which above all the United Kingdom will strive to preserve and advance.
Boris Johnson: 15:50 Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your kind attention.
Boris Johnson: 15:58 Exeunt the Prime Minister of United Kingdom, of Great Britain, and Northern Ireland, and I request protocol to escort His Excellency.