The lessons of history

August 30, 2019: A roundup of news and perspectives on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: Aadhaar-based eKYC, facial recognition, intuition and rationality, US-China tech war, and platform responsibility

N S Ramnath


Note: This Week in Disruptive Tech brings to you five interesting stories that highlight a new development or offer an interesting perspective on technology and society. Plus, a curated set of links to understand how technology is shaping the future, here in India and across the world. If you want to get it delivered to your inbox every week, subscribe here

Echoes from the early days of internet

Aadhaar-based eKYC—a way to share your demographic information electronically using India’s digital identity and authentication platform with a service provider such as a bank or telecom company—is in the news again. In a press conference last week, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that non-banking financial companies (NBFCs) are now allowed to use eKYC to onboard customers. Last year, the Supreme Court had banned the use of Aadhaar by the private sector, even though the implications were ambiguous

Students of history of technology will not be surprised by the twists and turns in the rollout of Aadhaar. In an insightful conversation with Kathryn Haun, Marc Andreessen discussed some of the lessons from the history of internet for crypto currencies today. Some of them apply to other technologies too. Here are three points that appear right at the beginning of the conversation.

  • Until 1993, it was illegal to use the internet for commercial transactions. 
  • Then a set of ‘enlightened regulators’ made two things happen simultaneously. One, legalise commercial activities. Two, hand over the internet backbone to telecom companies of that time. 
  • This kick-started the economy. You can trace a direct line from legalising the internet and making it available for commercial use, to the economic boom of 1994 - 2000. 

Looking at the magical technologies all around us, we tend to think that humans have never travelled this path before. But, it will do us good to remind ourselves that history in fact repeats itself.   

Dig Deeper


The feel of facial recognition 

Superflux, one of the most interesting design studios in the world,  designs and creates scenarios of possible futures. It allows people to experience what it means to be in the future—see, touch, breath, and literally live in it. In a popular TED Talk, its co-founder Anab Jain explained it thus. 

“What we're learning through such experiments and our practice and the people we engage with is that creating concrete experiences can bridge the disconnect between today and tomorrow. By putting ourselves into different possible futures, by becoming open and willing to embrace the uncertainty and discomfort that such an act can bring, we have the opportunity to imagine new possibilities. We can find optimistic futures; we can find paths forward; we can move beyond hope into action.”

Here is one scenario of a very near future that I would like to offer. Imagine this. You are walking into a large hall full of strangers. They are wearing smart glasses that can identify you using facial recognition. They also pull out information about you from various sources. While you have no emotional connect with any of them, they know something about you, and knowledge is always accompanied by emotions. As you look around the room, what do you think you will feel at that time? 

Now take it a step further, and remember that facial recognition technology isn’t perfect. It can misidentify you—as Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama or Harvey Weinstein. How do you feel now? 

My bet is it will not be too different from what we experience when we think about facial recognition technology right now. 

Dig Deeper

  • TSA launches facial recognition pilot at Las Vegas airport | Nextgov
  • Facial recognition… coming to a supermarket near you | Guardian
  • Facial recognition is suddenly everywhere. Should you worry? | Wired
  • Halt the use of facial recognition technology until it is regulated, By Kate Crawford | Nature 
  • Sweden's first GDPR fine goes to a high school piloting facial recognition attendance | Gizmodo


Bill Gates’s worst fear

“I don't want my brain to stop working,” says Bill Gates in a new Netflix documentary that will hit your screen on September 20. 

A description of how he thinks makes him sound like a computer. “Bill is a multiprocessor. He'll be reading something else but then processing at the same time. It's chaos! He thrives on complexity. He makes a framework in his mind and then he starts slotting in the information. If something doesn't line up, he gets really frustrated. It's scary. But when Bill stills himself, he can pull ideas together that other people can't see.”

Here is a question to ponder. If Gates’s strength really comes from his ability to process information and think about it rationally, will more data and better computers give a randomly chosen businessman the same edge that he will get from having Gates by his side? 

I am sure the three-part documentary says a lot more about ‘Inside Bill’s Brain’, than what can be compressed in a three minute trailer. But, this is a good time as any to think about the role of intuition and rationality in human lives. 

Laura Kutsch, writing in Scientific American, concludes her survey thus: “One thing is clear: intuition and rationality are not necessarily opposites. Rather it is advantageous to master both intuition and analytic skills. Let us not follow our inner voice blindly, but let us not underestimate it either.”

Dig Deeper 


The problem with Dr Peng

Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group is China’s fourth-biggest telecom operator, and one of the investors in Pacific Light Cable Network, the 8,000-mile undersea cable connecting the US and Hong Kong. The project is also backed by Google and Facebook. The Wall Street Journal reports that Pacific Light might turn out to be the first undersea cable to be denied a license by the US on the grounds of national security. 

It says something about how closely technology and geopolitics are intertwined these days. But, even more importantly, it underlines the growing fear of China’s capabilities in technology. It might be instructive to remember that the US had the same fear about Japan years ago. Michael Crichton’s novel Rising Sun (later a movie, starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes) is an example of what Bill Emmott described as ‘Japanophobia’ that was prevalent at that time. Those fears subsided only when Japan entered into a decade of economic stagnation

Dig Deeper

  • US-China tech Cold War: Who is winning? | Bloomberg
  • How US-China tech war is rippling through the global supply chain | SCMP
  • How China became a technology superpower | Seeking Alpha
  • Can China become a scientific superpower? | The Economist


Who owns your TikTok video?

Old stories often provide interesting insights into modern questions. In an Aesop's fable, two friends are walking by the road when one of them spots a purse containing gold and silver. He exclaims, "Look what I got there!” His friend says, "Don't say you got it. Say, we got it." The first man responds, "Well, it's not you who found the purse, it's I. So, I am going to keep it." Fine says the friend, and they continue their walk. 

Soon, there is a commotion behind. It’s the owner of the purse. He comes running with a group of men, shouting, "Someone has stolen my purse with gold and silver. Thief! Thief!" Now, the man, in a quivering voice, says, "If they find the purse on us, we are lost." His friend calmly says, "Stick to your original story. Don't say we are lost. Say, you are lost."

The Economic Times reports that TikTok forced Sharechat to take down some TikTok videos from its platform, essentially claiming ownership. The question is what will they do if the government holds the platform responsible for the harm its content might cause? It’s an intermediary, TikTok said in a statement to ET. “However, TikTok may enter into mutual contractual agreements with some creators, wherein it may enjoy certain exclusivity rights over the content of their creators.”

Dig Deeper

  • Amazon can be held liable for defective third-party products on its platform, court rules | The Verge
  • World Intermediary Liability Map project | Stanford
  • Platform responsibility for harmful speech in India, By Divij Joshi | Digital Policy

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Writer

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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