Lamy: the possibilities of digital simulation struck “a visceral chord.”
Artificial intelligence could guide decisions from the political to the personal, if people would seize the opportunities on offer. The Mint talks to Dahlia Lamy, who says the war and terror in which she grew up might never have happened, had digital decision-making been available.
Dahlia Lamy and her partner, Justin Lyon, want to simulate digitally the entire world. They have developed artificial intelligence that could guide all manner of decision-making, including the huge and fundamental choices required of governments, banks, hospitals and the military along with choices over, basically, everything else.
“We want to simulate the world. That is our objective as a company, right. We think that we should create simulations about everything and anything and that it is a possibility,” she says. Her resolute declaration refers to a venture founded by Lyon in which she too is passionately committed.
But right now she and Lyon are narrowing their focus.
While the strategy is global, the first tactical move for the venture – branded Simudyne – is a focus on the banks. They are, Lamy says, very receptive to a proposition that might reduce their exposure to the risk of catastrophic misjudgement of the economic impact of their actions. Again.
“When we talk to them they understand – we don’t have to sell it to them. It goes down to: ‘How are you going to be better than what I’m currently using? What differentiates you?’”
And might the financial sector’s enthusiasm for a digital seer to guide its decisions be related by any chance to a recent global economic crash that it failed to identify? “Absolutely, absolutely,” says Lamy. She adds: “Economic cliffs and crashes, definitely, that makes sense to a banker or a regulator.”
Lamy’s reasons for a move onto the finance sector include also commercial pragmatism on her part: she estimates the market for simulation technology in banking is worth some US$900m. Lamy says a regulatory emphasis on stress testing in the financial sector, has added to the urgency of the banks’ need for improved modelling and created a sales opportunity.
She emphasises that she and Lyon have experience in other strategic-scale industries but a focus was vital and the financial sector held the most promise. “We worked with Exxon Mobil. We worked with other companies in the oil and gas industries and in healthcare. Insurance is also a big sector but we need to focus rather than be scattered all over the place. And quite frankly, there is a market for us within the financial community.
“The technology is solid and tested. We refined it by working with Exxon Mobil, by working with the Bank of England, by working with Humana, by working with the US Department of Defence, right. So, that is something that we can, hand on heart, go to the client and say, ‘This is going to work.’ All we have to do – our struggle – is to win over hearts and minds.”
She is eager to make it clear that the technology is designed only to guide decisions, not to make them. “At the end, it is up to the human individual or group of people to pull the trigger to make the decision. But at least what we can provide is a smart decision-making tool.”
Lamy met Lyon when he was already involved in the simulation field. But her feelings and lasting influences have fuelled the decisions behind her involvement in the world of simulation-guided decision-making. Those decisions were steered in part by growing up amid three wars in the Middle East.
Baghdad-born Lamy was five years old when the Iran-Iraq War started. The Iraq invasion of Kuwait, expulsion from Kuwait and the 2003 war in Iraq followed before the rise of ISL. Did those experiences – which included ordeals for her and her immediate family – contribute to her attraction to Lyon’s work?
“Well, first of all, he’s an attractive man! But I was also very attracted to what he was doing. And I thought that all the wars that I and my generation had been through were all needless and avoidable and they were just down to human error,” says Lamy.
“So when Justin was talking about how all decisions should be simulated, that really struck a very visceral chord with me because I had been through situations where very bad decision making was happening.”
That “bad decision making” brought her face-to-face with indoctrination, war and oppression. She is vehement in conveying the lasting impact of those bad decisions on her and people she knew and loved. “You can never go back. You cannot erase, you cannot delete and start over again in real life.” And recounting Lyon’s elegant single-line summary of his work: “We create an artificial environment where you can fail safely,” she shows a palpable, deep-felt resonance with his words. “That is something I wish my life and my uncle’s life and my mother’s cousin’s life and my father and everybody that I know, if we had a magic toolkit that is readily available, life as we know it would not have been as bad as it is,” she says.
The full extent of the “bad” Lamy talks is off the scale of experiences for most people in the UK. For example, she tells The Mint: “My brother, by the way, was killed by terrorists.”
Lamy elaborates: “After 2003, then we had fundamentalism. Before we didn’t have that – we had state-sponsored terrorism. But then we had Al-Qaeda and following that you have ISL.”
Her brother was born in America when her father took the whole family there while he studied for a doctorate. The family returned to Iraq when her brother was a small child. When the fundamentalists held sway, her brother was, Lamy explains, targeted for the simple fact that he was an American citizen even though he had never returned to the US since leaving.
Her family had returned to Iraq during its eight-year conflict with Iran. She tells how during that war, one of her uncles was imprisoned in Iran where he remained for some 15 years. “He came back in his mid-40s. So it was very, very dire and very difficult.”
These were clearly terrible, terrible experiences. And alongside them there were bombs landing in her street.
“One time we had a very narrow escape, I think I was 11 years old, when a missile landed in our neighbourhood. We were just having an ice cream with my uncle and cousins and it was very, very close. I don’t want to misquote or anything like that, but it was close to the extent that I almost went deaf.” The sound of bombing was normal she says. So normal that she and her friends would make jokes about it. “We used to say sometimes: ‘OK, the fighting is going to be very intense tomorrow – they’ll probably call off school so won’t have to do our exam, hooray!”
In 2006 while in her thirties, Lamy began studying for a masters in mass communications on a Fullbright scholarship at Boston University in the US. It’s tempting to imagine that that career route was influenced by her experiences of the damage that can fall from warped information, marred understanding and biased analysis.
Information of questionable value was a feature of Lamy’s days during her country’s war with Iran. “This is important I think and I always tell people about this,” says Lamy. “When I was growing up we had one state TV channel. And on a daily basis, before the 6:00pm cartoons – old Tom & Jerry or Russian cartoons that were dubbed in Arabic – before those we had what was called Images From the Battlefield.
“And they were, basically, gruesome pictures of dead Iranian soldiers. And when I’m telling you gruesome I mean people that are beheaded. Flies all over different body parts that were blown off. And we were exposed to that from a very young age –about eight.”
Meanwhile Saddam was inflicting his own brand of terror on the Iraqi people as part of its indoctrination in the supremacy of his version of the Ba’ath party. That, like the string of conflicts in which Iraq became embroiled, has left an indelible mark on millions of lives. Lamy illustrates this with a story of how a joke cost her cousin and his friend dearly. “He did not tell the joke. Somebody in a group told the joke about Saddam Hussein’s first wife. My cousin was present and he laughed at the joke. He spent seven years in prison; the person who told the joke was executed.”
She recalls also how, from age six she and her contemporaries were obliged to chant Ba’athist slogans of “one Arab homeland, one Arab nation – unity, freedom and socialism.” Despite the climate of fear and oppression her father declined membership of the Ba’ath party and, in his own home, he would rail against Saddam and in doing so, cause her mother great anxiety.
“My father never was a Ba’athist, which is why he didn’t get along in professional life as he should have because he is highly educated. But he refused to be a Ba’ath official – ideologically he did not believe in any of that stuff that they were pedalling. So at home my father would curse the TV when Saddam Hussein came on, sometimes he’d cover it with a blanket and he’d become very funny and then put a shoe on top of it and we’d giggle.
“But my mother was furious with him. She’d say: ‘Do not do that in front of the kids – if they go and tell somebody or they just mention it as a joke to one of their friends, we could get executed. You’re not just endangering your life but the lives of your children. How dare you do that.’ But we grew up with the sense that this was not right.”
Lamy’s parents were from the generation that enjoyed what they, and many of their contemporaries, referred to as the country’s “golden age” before Saddam. “They always talk about the golden age, which we never witnessed, where people were happy and travelling abroad and visiting Lebanon or London and enjoying themselves and partying and going to nightclubs and things like that. And even when I went abroad, I never wore such a short skirt as my mother did in her youthful days in Baghdad in the 1970s.”
The change, from major to minor, in the accompaniment to the thirty-odd years that separated the end of the golden age to the radical insurgency, was conducted by questionable major decisions at political and cultural levels. Information and communication featured in those decisions and were prominent notes in the “visceral chord” struck with Lamy when Justin introduced her to his work.
In something akin to poetic irony, after meeting Lyon in London, and having graduated from Boston, she joined Lyon during his work for the US Department of Defence in Iraq in 2009 – contributing to President George W Bush’s “Hearts and Minds” public relations bid in Iraq.
“America was trying to use soft power at the time after invading and their military operations. We were trying to dissuade people there from joining the insurgency. I wasn’t doing the PR work for the US but basically helping the locals find jobs and find sustainable means of supporting themselves.”
Lamy, with Lyon, deployed their modelling and simulation technology to unravel a complex array of options after earlier failures. “A lot of planning had to go in there. And before that, it was just: ‘OK what do the people need? They need cement. They need tomato paste. They need an oil related product. Let’s just do it for them.’ And a lot of money was wasted as a result of that from the American side and from the Iraqi side. Our mandate was try to help them make smart decisions in providing employment and business opportunities for local people.”
Lamy says, there was plenty of sound data: “Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath regime, surprisingly, were excellent in terms of data.” But it was all hand written. Key to deploying those data was being in close dialogue with the people involved – as Lamy describes it, “embedded.” Her being Iraqi was an important ingredient in this.
Nevertheless, the information was classified and not made available to Simudyne, so Lamy was unable to confirm whether the modelling provided was deployed or not. And this only highlights the purest imaginable irony, whereby the prospect that an ultra rational way of informing decision-making might be rejected or taken on by a given group, according to the whims and mores of the group.
Indeed Lamy says she has seen instances when people fail to make a right decision because they lack evidence but would rather rely on their gut than consider even a demonstrably accurate simulation. “Everybody’s swimming in data. This is not a problem. We have data but execution’s key. The question is: are you actually going to commit to giving us the data to build the simulation, and then actually to use it?
“People are driven by bias, by election cycles, by feeling their job is threatened… That is why, similar to our strategy in Iraq, we have to embed ourselves within that company or that bank.
“Even in the private sector, what we run up against, time and again, are the politics of it. When something requires large-scale change, they want to be able to do things in their own way. It’s very difficult to convince them. And that is one of our missions – to change the hearts and minds of the world, if you will. We’ve done that on a very small scale in Iraq. But our larger mission is global.”
Her ambition is that anyone trying to make a decision – be it one that will have a profit and loss impact or life and death consequences or just personal consequences – that person will naturally consider first trialling the decision in a synthetic environment. That way, anyone could “gain a bit of wisdom, and know the variables involved, before jumping in,” she says.
“You can bring the horse to water but you can’t force the horse to drink it. But we are hoping that people will grow more attuned to our technology by having more exposure to the messaging that we and our competitors – not just us – are creating.”
Artificial intelligence that can avert unintended, unwanted outcomes and increase the opportunities for the good stuff in a business plan or a public policy was a natural thing of interest to The Mint. Not least because it holds great promise for new economics as a possible means to inform a better understanding of the complexities we face and averting unintended downsides.
But while better decisions and sharper analysis might provide a company or a government the outcome it desires, that outcome will only be for the greater good if the greater good is what the company or the government seeks.
Lamy understandably wishes that the tool kit she and her partner are advocating had been available when she was younger to avert the tragedies that befell her family. But could it ever curb the rise of a Saddam or an ISL insurgency? Might better-analysed, artificial intelligence-driven decision making by Saddam’s predecessors, the Iraqi electorate, other Middle Eastern nations and the global political community have taken away the vulnerabilities that provide fertile ground for despotism?
And we have to ask: at a time when pluralist economists are looking to topple the dominance of the neoclassical school, could a tool that enables banks to hone their decisions pose a threat in that it reinforces their power? On the other hand, might it enable governments to develop better policies to work within the byzantine complexity of interactions that pluralist economics highlights?
Or both? And more?
An important message from the Simudyne venture it seems, is that, irrespective of the power of artificial intelligence or any other technology to iron out the creases in human planning and choices, the benefit that technology offers will only be realised if people like Lamy lead the way with it. Her outlook is fiercely affected by her experiences of some of the worst behaviour humans are capable of. Lamy is motivated never to see that again and all power to her elbow in that.