This week in disruptive tech - November 9, 2015

A roundup of news and perspective on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: artificial intelligence, 3D printing, the sharing economy, and drones.

N S Ramnath

[Image by Gerd Altmann under Creative Commons]

Artificial Intelligence: People Matters

In his early days, Steve Jobs liked to think of computers as “bicycles of the mind”. He came up with this metaphor when he was looking at the speed at which a man can move compared with other animals. On feet, he is pathetically slow. But put him on a bicycle and he is right at the top—and really fast. The amazing growth of personal computing—from desktop to mobile to the wearables era—has been driven in no small measure by computers aiding men to speed up, compared with others.

Now artificial intelligence (AI) has been around as a concept in the labs, right from the days of Alan Turing in 1940s. For businesses, it’s a more recent phenomenon, driven by the exponential growth in computing power and networks. But, as an application, it is just one small step in the long tradition of technology helping people to speed up a little, do things a little better. Send a letter faster, for example.

Google, which has long served ads that are uncomfortably relevant to the content in your mail, is rolling out its smart reply, which uses AI to actually write your mails for you.

Facebook, with its deep data on the social interactions of more than a billion people, is not far behind. Facebook’s chief technology officer has given an overview of what’s cooking in Facebook on the AI front in a blog. It’s building software that will understand natural language better, make more accurate predictions and devise better plans—ultimately making its personal assistant M more useful for its users.

And Toyota, despite all its recent problems, shows that the best approach to any problem in technology is to put human needs at its core: “Our belief is that you actually don’t have to give up the joy of driving, and in fact we can make the joy of driving much safer, and much more available to all kinds of people across a very wide spectrum. But we’re not also shutting off the idea that some of the time you actually want the car to take over from you and to either drive on a highway on its own or drive in a parking lot by itself, or maybe if you’re too tired to drive home, to take the lead for you.”

3D Printing: Scaling Problems

Not long ago, before computers invaded our offices and homes, it was fashionable to predict that there will be less demand for physical objects. If you wanted to read something, you would read it on a screen. If you wanted to show your wedding photographs, you wouldn’t dig out your album from the closet, but simply fire up your computer. And so on.

It’s no different from the fear among car manufacturers that people will stop owning cars in the age of Uber and autonomous vehicles. It might well turn out to be true, but not before the world sees another phase where the love for physical objects will grow. According to some estimates, the amount of paper that offices had to deal with went up disproportionately before it came down—because it was so easy to print stuff. And just when SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) is picking up, 3D printing might change it by making it easy to print.

The technology has some way to go before worries about the scale of its output set in. Right now, the concern is different. When researchers at the University of California exposed zebrafish embryo to a certain 3D printing material, they found the death rates to be alarming. A quote by William Grover, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the Bourns College of Engineering, points to both the potential and perils of the technology: “These 3D printers are like tiny factories in a box. We regulate factories. We would never bring one into our home. Yet, we are starting to bring these 3D printers into our homes like they are toasters.”

The Sharing Economy: Uber Liabilities

From operating in a single city, Uber expanded to 300 in a matter of just six years. Its impact in each one of them has been huge—as one can see from the protests by drivers, statements by regulators, and the intensity with which it is discussed during lunch time. Uber is so much of a phenomenon that the ‘uberisation’ of the world has become a phrase that needs no explanation. It has also led a large number of start-ups, based on the Uber model—the Uber of education (that connects freelance teachers to students who need guidance), the Uber of pet care (a platform that lets you find a good host for your pet when you go on a holiday) and so on.

But Uber has also come into so much fire over how it treats its competitors (maybe justifiably), its customers (never an easy segment to satisfy) and its employees (which can trigger emotional responses from several constituencies). Now, some start-ups aren’t so sure that piggybacking on Uber while pitching to investors is such a good idea. “Because the minute you tell potential investors that you’re ‘the Uber of X,’ they immediately start worrying about the negative connotations, like how are you classifying your employees,” a report in The Ledger says.

But there is a bigger question about the sharing economy too. Is it helping the economy at all?

According to one point of view, yes. It squeezes more out of resources, be it a hotel room, or a car or a human being. In other words, it raises productivity. And the best way to grow an economy is to raise productivity.

But there’s a counter argument that says it doesn’t. It merely distributes resources efficiently. When you share, you are not producing anything new, you are merely distributing what you already have. The fascinating debate is on between two Forbes contributors. Read it, and let us know what you think.

Drones: Special Deliveries

Freelancers tend to adopt technology faster. In the US, prison administrators are worried that drones are being used to deliver contraband into the prison—and they are not quite sure how to deal with it. Large companies though have regulations to worry about. Alphabet—which now handles all the moonshot initiatives of Google—is working on a drone project called Project Wing, that hopes to handle logistics using drones. Amazon, of course, has its Amazon Prime Air. Alibaba and Walmart are working on theirs too.

But automated deliveries need not always happen by air. Take a look at Starship Technologies—it has developed a self-driving robot that will navigate the roads to deliver groceries and parcels at your home. It can respond to signals from smartphones and also listen and talk.

Drones in general bring to mind a machine about 1 metre long, with the ability to deliver one or two packages. That might be the most common kinds of drones, and possibly the most visible. But, get ready for drones that are large, hover even above where jetliners fly and deliver internet.

The Guardian reports that Google and Facebook are fast expanding their plans to use large unmanned aircraft to deliver broadband. “Flying for weeks or months at a time, such drones could theoretically provide city-sized areas with high-speed internet access, particularly in remote or undeveloped parts of the world,” the report says.

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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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