This week in disruptive tech—March 7, 2017

A roundup of news and perspective on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: Facebook’s algorithm to spot suicidal tendencies, Elon Musk’s moon mission and blockchains

N S Ramnath

[By Guillaume Preat under Creative Commons]

Facebook and the nudge

Last week, Facebook started testing an algorithm to spot users with suicidal tendencies. The social network will read their posts and comments, and look for patterns that might suggest thoughts on suicide. If it finds any, it will alert a team, which will then take action that will hopefully prevent the tragedy. Facebook is testing it in a small way in the US. But, suicide is a global issue. Over a million people die every year by killing themselves. One can expect Facebook to roll it out widely. It will rightfully be seen as how technology can help in solving problems. But, the underlying idea—using data and artificial intelligence (AI) to identify and predict a specific human behaviour, and using tools to modify that behaviour—has wider applications. Private companies can use that for sales. Government can use that to prevent crimes, or simply to nudge us into actions that it believes is for the greater good.

Is that a good thing at all? In a fantastic essay in Scientific American, nine researchers and experts, including Gerd Gigerenzer (whom we profiled recently) sound a warning bell against the pernicious effect of AI on some of the values we hold dear—democracy and freedom. Big data, AI, cybernetics and behavioural economics are shaping our society—for better or worse, they write. “If such widespread technologies are not compatible with our society’s core values, sooner or later they will cause extensive damage. They could lead to an automated society with totalitarian features. In the worst case, a centralised artificial intelligence would control what we know, what we think and how we act. We are at the historic moment, where we have to decide on the right path—a path that allows us all to benefit from the digital revolution.”

The term ‘digital revolution’ is popular in India, thanks in part to the implementation of Aadhaar, the digital identity programme, and the digital push by the government, especially after demonetisation. Both have kicked up passionate debate on security, privacy and data usage. In that context, a set of 10 principles laid out by the authors will come handy in guiding the course of discussions and coming up with pragmatic policies that help us reap its benefits while avoiding its negative impact.

Watch: Why big data is a core democracy issue.

Elon Musk and the art of impatience

In his fascinating book on Elon Musk, journalist Ashlee Vance wrote, “One of the earliest SpaceX presentations suggested that the company would complete its first engine in May 2003, a second engine in June, the body of the rocket in July, and have everything assembled in August. A launchpad would “then be prepared by September, and the first launch would take place in November 2003, or about fifteen months after the company started. A trip to Mars was naturally slated for somewhere near the end of the decade. This was Musk the logical, naïve optimist tabulating how long it should take people physically to perform all of this work. It’s the baseline he expects of himself and one that his employees, with their human foibles, are in a never-ending struggle to match."

SpaceX’s first demo launch took place on March 24, 2006.

It’s the same optimism that must have made SpaceX announce last week that it would be sending two private citizens on a trip around the moon next year. Consider this. SpaceX hasn’t done a manned mission yet. The rocket, Falcon Heavy, is not ready, and will probably have its first launch some time later this year. Crew Dragon, the spacecraft on which the two will travel, is not ready either, and will make its first trip—without crew—to International Space Station later this year. The astronauts—we don’t know who they are, but they have already made deposits to SpaceX—need intensive training. Space is tough. And Musk wants this to happen next year.

It might not happen next year, but that would take nothing away from the project, or Musk’s bigger ambition. Musk’s larger goal is not about conducting space tours to the moon but to make human beings a multi-planetary species. The preparations for this tour will take him closer to colonising Mars. Musk’s other projects and big ideas—electric vehicles, solar power, storage, and Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation technology—are different pieces of the puzzle. Each one of them can disrupt industries on Earth too.

Watch: Making humans interplanetary species.

The value of blockchains

Bitcoin was in news recently after the cost of a single bitcoin ran past the cost of an ounce of gold. It’s anybody’s guess where its price will go in future. It’s an asset with a volatile price, and the changes in its price are of interest mostly to speculators. However, there is one news from the world of blockchain that promises to have far-reaching consequences. Some 30 companies including JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, and Intel, came together last week to build a new kind of computer system based on Ethereum, a virtual currency system.

Ethereum was introduced in 2013 not just as an alternative to bitcoin, but as a more agile and robust alternative. Besides enabling Ether, a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, Ethereum also lets users design smart, self-enforcing contracts.

Already, large companies have shown huge interest in Ethereum. Even back in 2015, Microsoft offered Ethereum Blockchain as a Service on its Azure platform for its clients. JPMorgan has been running its own private Ethereum called Quorum to move money between its different branches. Accenture recently brought out a report saying large companies can cut nearly a third of its infrastructure costs by adopting blockchain technologies. The new alliance, by building a standard version of Ethereum, will make it even more attractive to businesses.

But there’s something even more attractive about blockchain in general—it doesn’t depend on a central authority. The nine experts who wrote about democracy in the age of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data will find some value there.

Watch: Blockchain Revolution

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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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