Greatest Feats: Timandra Harkness

March 5, 2020

Timandra Harkness is a freelance writer and presenter, and author of Big Data: does size matter?

What is the greatest physical feat you’ve witnessed by an individual and why?

I’m in awe of Claire Lomas. Paralysed from the chest down in a horseriding accident, she has since taken up motorcycling, skiing, and is learning to fly a microlight. She has walked the London Marathon route in a robotic suit. Her determination is an inspiration.

What about by a group or team?

My heroes are the campaigners of Oakland Privacy, in California. After a long campaign, they convinced their local authority that if technology collects data on citizens, it must be accountable to those citizens. Some of those campaigners now sit on the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, set up to draft laws controlling how the City of Oakland can use any new surveillance technology. The local police and authorities have to report to the Commission on what data has been collected, how it’s been used, and whether they have followed the agreed rules. The citizens of Oakland have proved we don’t have to accept the loss of our privacy, and that we can – and should – demand a say in how technology is used by public bodies. We could do with more of that in the UK, where facial recognition and other mass surveillance is introduced without public discussion.

Which demonstration of intelligence has most impressed you?

Whoever invented central heating. You’re right, I am nesh as you like. But every autumn I say a little inward thank you to everybody who got us through the Industrial Revolution to a world where my whole house is warm when I get home. It still tickles me that Alan Turing predicted in 1950 that, by the year 2000, we’d have machines that could think, but he also talked about sending that robot ‘child’ out to fill the coal scuttle. He could imagine a machine that learns like a human child, but he couldn’t imagine a world with central heating.

What do you consider to be the greatest feat in business and why?

I was trying to think of a particularly canny or wise investment in something that turned out to be very necessary to modern life. But the truth is, we never do know what will turn out to be the next big thing, and which will turn out to be a great idea in the wrong place and time. So can I just say – everybody who takes a punt on something, knowing that it may not work out? We need businesses to be willing to take risks, otherwise innovation grinds to a halt.

Which act of generosity has inspired you the most and why?

Of all the people I know who pour energy and money into good causes, I’m going to single out the team who run Debating Matters. To call it a national debating competition doesn’t do it justice. It gets Sixth Formers to tackle real-world issues like compulsory vaccinations, climate change and reparations for colonialism, gets a panel of adult judges to challenge them, and sets a standard for debate that some politicians could learn from. Apart from a tiny, underpaid team, everyone involved gives their time for nothing. When we’re old and these young people are running the world, we’ll be glad that they’ve learned to see all sides of an argument and make their case rationally and thoughtfully. Last year’s North East Championship was won by Hartlepool Sixth Form College with a debate on populism and democracy.

Timandra Harkness

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