This week in disruptive tech - Oct 31, 2015

A roundup of news and perspective on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: genomics, Internet of Things, wearables, renewable energy, and artificial intelligence.

N S Ramnath

[Image by PublicDomainPictures under Creative Commons]

Genomics

Genetic research is growing at an exponential rate. “Five years ago we didn’t know half of what we know now, ten years ago we knew practically nothing, so, predict where we will be in ten years,” says Dr. Emily Conley, a neuroscientist at 23andMe, a California-based personal genomics and biotechnology company.

There are interesting applications that are catching the public eye. There might be a growing demand for this in India. A start-up called Clear Labs uses DNA sequencing to analyze food—checking its content against a 10,000-item-strong molecular database. It can, for instance, say whether a sausage actually contains the type of meat that's advertised in the package. In the US, 14% of the time, it doesn't.

And some of the genomics labs could well be outsourced to… space. Not because it will be cheaper out there. But, because microgravity helps—it can accelerate progression of diseases, making the study efficient and it can produce high-quality proteins which might aid drug discovery. Recently, biotechnology firm Amgen studied osteoporosis, and pharmaceutical firm Novartis looked into muscle development and atrophy under microgravity. There will be more of it in the future.

But then, great growth comes with great security flaws. Researchers at Stanford University have identified potential security holes in the genomic data-sharing network, or beacons. The system helps researchers find a specific mutation of a gene from the database, and see if they can collaborate. That can be used by hackers too. They are fixing the problem.


Internet of Things

The principles are the same, but IoT is changing the context. Jim Heppelmann of US-based software maker PTC has a few pieces of advice for today’s businesses: try to use technology in each and every piece of your business; collect data; keep updating software on an ongoing basis; and collect data on how your customers use your products. It might sound as if it's all from the ’90s. But, in fact, the context has changed so much that it possibly would give any CXO sleepless nights. And that change in context comes from one big disruption—Internet of things.

In fact, whoever owns IoT will own the future of computing, says The Verge, using this fantastic a16z Podcast (with Benedict Evans and Steven Sinofsky) entitled What comes after the smartphone as a springboard. All the big names in the tech are preparing to grab their landshare. Apple with its Homekit; Google, with its Nest and Brilo, Microsoft with its Windows 10 IoT Core. Samsung, Intel, Qualcom, Tencent, Huawei—they are all into it.

The numbers are staggering. One way to look at the impact of a technology is to measure its financial impact—how much will customers pay. And yet another way is to look at the amount of data it would generate. According to Cisco, IoT would generate 507.5 zettabytes of traffic by 2019.


Wearables

The most popular wearables today are around fitness. Which is why users tend to complain more about battery life of wearables than about their accuracy. So what if it's not accurate? Research suggests that it can still motivate them to be more active. And there seems to be no stopping some of these. Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike... and the most identifiable brand in this category, Apple.

After fitness, it could be health. Mark de Clercq of Dialog Semiconductor writes, "As the number of biosensors increases and the accuracy and reliability of the data they collect improves, we will see a merging of consumer and medical domains. Fitness and lifestyle devices will move from a consumer gimmick to delivering medical-grade data."

Already, start-ups are working on it. At Neopenda, Sona Shah and her team are working on a wearable device that would monitor vital signs of newborns. Agewell Biometrics is working on an analytics engine that will predict a patient's fall risk—helpful for the aged. How are these two connected? Through, Relevant Health, an accelerator focused on health tech.

So, the typical profile of a wearable user will change in the future. A report by emarketer says that in the long term, older Americans will drive the growth, as more wearable health monitoring devices hit the market. According to CCS Insights, the wearable tech market is expected to more than double to $25 billion in four years.


Renewable energy and disruptive innovation

In Germany, the energy market is getting disrupted by renewables. Already 27% of its electricity comes from renewable sources. It's more aggressive than any of its peers in pushing renewables. An essay in National Geographic's latest climate change special asks if Germany can show the rest of the world how to do it. It has this revealing passage: "The German revolution has come from the grass roots: Individual citizens and energygenossenschaften—local citizens associations—have made half the investment in renewables. But conventional utilities, which didn’t see the revolution coming, are pressuring (Angela) Merkel’s government to slow things down," Robert Kunzig writes.

It seems to be playing out the way Clayton M Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation predicted it would: Powerful incumbents get swept away by new disruptive players like how traditional booksellers got disrupted by amazon.com.

But, a new research recently published in MIT Sloan Management Review questions the theory itself. The researchers went to all the cases cited by Christensen in his book, and asked if it stands up to the four core claims of the theory: that incumbents are on a path of sustaining innovation; that the pace of such innovation overshoots customer needs; that they have the capability to respond to disruptive innovation but don't; and they flounder as a result. They asked experts whether the cases followed this trajectory, and their response, to put it simply: not always. Not every incumbent practises sustaining innovation; they don't always overshoot customer needs; they don't always have the capacity to respond; and they don't get swept away by disruptive innovation—about one-third of incumbents were NOT displaced by new technology.

The lesson is simple: don't go by simple theories or analogies. What's needed is “careful, fundamental analysis of the nature of competition and the sources of competitive advantage”. In other words, don't be a hedgehog, be a fox.


Artificial Intelligence

How will the world end? Over 50 years ago, a poet named Robert Frost met an astronomer named Harlow Shapley. Frost asked Shapley what does science say about the end of the world? Shapley replied that it could either get too close to the Sun and end in fire, or move too far from the Sun and freeze away. Frost might have been inspired by that answer to write his famous poem Fire and Ice, where he connects fire to desire and ice to hatred.

Will we be the target or merely collateral damage? Of the tech writers who come close to poets are those who write about Artificial Intelligence. (Here’s a fantastic two part overview of the subject: part 1 & 2) And some of the issues they deal with are, to say the least, dismal. Take this question, for example. How will the human race end? Some of the best scientific, entrepreneurial and artistic minds will have you believe that the end might come because of artificial intelligence. George Dvorsky, in a piece that explores how future software will write itself, ends it with this sobering note: "And in fact, while many people fear a so-called ‘robot apocalypse’ aimed directly at extinguishing our civilization, I personally feel that the real danger to our ongoing existence lies in the potential for us to be collateral damage as advanced AGIs (artificial general intelligences) battle it out for supremacy; we may find ourselves in the line of fire."

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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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