This week in disruptive tech—December 16, 2015

A roundup of news and perspective on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, gene-editing, and alternative energy.

N S Ramnath

[Photograph by TAFE SA TONSLEY under Creative Commons]

Why the benevolence of artificial intelligence (AI) designers matters

Business leaders might love to quote Adam Smith, who said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” But there is also a recognition that self-interest alone won’t keep the world going. That’s why we have Warren Buffett donating billions of dollars to the Gates Foundation. That’s why Bill Gates is focussing his attention on issues like primary healthcare. And that’s also why Mark Zuckerberg started Chan Zuckerberg initiative. And closer home, we have billionaires like Azim Premji devoting a huge effort towards philanthropy.

Now, AI is growing at an exponential pace and 2015 was probably a breakthrough year for the technology. Bloomberg points out that the error rates in image recognition have fallen dramatically, the number of Google projects that use AI have risen several fold (it’s about 2,500 now), and AI systems are getting better and better at playing games. But most of these advances are happening within businesses, and businesses are mostly driven by profits. It might help a Google or Facebook accurately identify a hundred varieties of cats, but is this the best application of AI?

Last week saw two new initiatives. OpenAI, a non profit research company, will seek “to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.” It is well funded with $1 billion from a clutch of respected entrepreneurs and investors such as Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel and Sam Altman.

If OpenAI aims to provide a counter-balance to the self-interest of for-profit companies, a group of robotics experts want to “promote the responsible design, development, implementation, and policy of robots embedded in our society”. To this end, they have set up the Foundation of Responsible Robotics. “Robots are only as responsible as the humans who build and use them. We must ensure that the future practice of robotics is for the benefit of mankind rather than for short term gains,” Dr Aimee van Wynsberghe, of University of Twente's Department of Philosophy and a co-founder of the Foundation of Responsible Robotics told International Business Times.

Underlying both initiatives is a strong grasp of history. Technology can be a force for good, and it often needs some nudge here and a push there to make it truly so.

Why there is no pressing need to know who the real Satoshi Nakamoto is

American novelist Don DeLillo once mused about the relationship between the writer and the society in Mao II. “When a writer doesn’t show his face, he becomes a local symptom of God’s famous reluctance to appear… People may be intrigued by this figure but they also resent him and mock him and want to dirty him up and watch his face distort in shock and fear when the concealed photographer leaps out of the trees,” he wrote. He could well have been talking about Satoshi Nakamoto, the unknown brain behind Bitcoin and the obsession among the journalists to find out who he is. They haven’t succeeded yet.

Last year, when Newsweek said it has uncovered the face behind Bitcoin, readers took it with a pinch of salt, not least because the person’s name improbably was Satoshi Nakamoto. Not surprisingly, the subject of the story wrote back, saying he “did not create, invent or otherwise work on Bitcoin. I unconditionally deny the Newsweek report.”

More recently Wired ran piece with this title: Bitcoin’s creator Satoshi Nakamoto is probably this unknown Australian genius. Turns out that it was probably a hoax.

The big point about Bitcoin is that, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t matter who the real Satoshi Nakamoto is. Bitcoin runs on an open source technology, and has been tweaked over the last few years, to the extent that by some estimates, very little of what Nakamoto wrote is left in the source code. Perhaps about 20%.

What does matter though is the fast-paced acceptance of the technology behind the bitcoins, the blockchain. The most recent big backer of the tech is Goldman Sachs. It applied for a patent for SETLcoin, a system that promises to speed up trading in stocks and bonds using the same distributed open ledger system behind the cryptocurrency.

Goldman Sachs isn’t the only bank to look at the technology. Neither is banking the only sector to be excited about it. The scope is huge. Honduras for example is looking at using a blockchain-based land registry. Goldman Sachs understands this. As it said in a recent report: "While the Bitcoin hype cycle has gone quiet, Silicon Valley and Wall Street are betting that the underlying technology behind it, the Blockchain, can change... well everything."

Why we have to be careful about gene editing

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla says, Crispr, a gene editing technology, is more scary or as scary as artificial intelligence. “Many technologies have both good and bad aspects that they can be used for. Nuclear is the most visible example of this with nuclear bombs and nuclear power. Machine Learning is similar but probably more manageable. So I think Elon's [Elon Musk’s] concern is a valid concern and one we should pay attention to, but probably more manageable than he might intimate. I can think of more scary technologies that we're using today—CRISPR being one in biology—which has equally scary potential,” Khosla wrote in Quora, responding to a question on Elon Musk’s concerns about the risks of artificial intelligence.

Crispr or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is not as widely discussed as artificial intelligence. It’s a technique that allows scientists to alter genes with unprecedented accuracy and speed—taking a cue from how bacteria behave. Nature called it “the biggest game changer to hit biology since PCR” (or polymerase chain reaction, a technology used to make multiple copies of DNA sequence at scale and at low cost). Crispr is attracting entrepreneurs and investors. No disruptive technology comes without its risks, and crispr is no exception.

Here Paul Knoepfler, an expert, takes us on a journey into its immense potential and philosophical risks:  

Why alternative energy will grow and grow

One infographic that shows why the future for alternative energy is brighter than you think:

Emissions cut and technology improvement form a positive feedback loop. The infographic is by MIT professor Jessika Trancik and her team. They looked at how solar and wind energy evolved in the last few decades, and what they found was lower costs and growing demand forming a virtuous cycle. A good part of that happened without much coordination among various governments so far. With cooperation, they have the potential to grow multifold. Solar and wind capacity could grow by factors of up to 5 and 3 by 2030 they say. Costs could come down by up to 50% for solar PV and up to 25% for wind.

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Editor

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a member of the founding team & Lead - Newsroom Innovation 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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