The future of food, social media platforms and facial recognition

April 27, 2019: A roundup of news and perspectives on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: Sri Lanka’s social media ban, Beyond Meat IPO, facial recognition, employee activism, robot rights and more

N S Ramnath

News

Sri Lanka, social media and violence

Sri Lanka ordered shut down of social media after a deadly terror attack. Following a series of bombings at churches and hotels that killed over 300 people, Sri Lankan government banned social media platforms, blacking out Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and Viber. It kicked off intense debate on whether it was the right thing to do.

Some argued it was necessary to prevent violence and save lives. The fake news and misinformation problem of social media platforms is well known. Companies such as Facebook and Google don’t have the capacity to identity or remove misinformation—especially not in times of emergency. At such times, they are prone to be misused to spread panic and hatred and instigate violence. The government decided to turn the tap off.

Ivan Segal, executive director of Global voices, tweeted: “A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat.”

Others argued it will be ineffective, and set wrong precedents. Buzzfeed reported it didn’t stop misinformation from spreading. Many faced difficulty telling their friends and family they were safe. Governments tend to use misinformation as a reason to clamp down on communication tools, and political events in Sri Lanka recently—replacing with Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister for example—have raised questions about the government’s commitment to civil rights.

As Mary Anne Mohanraj puts it in a Knowledge@Wharton podcast, “It’s a real concern that the government will react by putting in a host of supposedly anti-terror mechanisms that end up curtailing freedoms and slowing down a unification conversation.”

Irrespective of where one stands, it’s clear that social media platforms will come under greater scrutiny by the social sector, and regulations by government: Platform businesses in general owe their impressive growth to their relative freedom from government regulations, and users ignoring the laws of unintended consequences. Now, governments—Australia, UK, Canada—are waking up. In the future, platform businesses will have to spend more time thinking about these two issues.

Beyond Meat and the future of food

Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat company, is going public next week. It hopes to sell  8.75 million shares priced between $19 and $21, at a valuation of $1.2 billion. It earned a revenue of $88 million last year, losing $33 million.

There is a growing demand for food that contains no meat, but tastes like meat. Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods appeal not just to vegetarians, but also to non vegetarians looking for alternatives to meat. Earlier this month Burger King launched plant-based whoppers, claiming that nobody can tell the difference.

Concerns about ethical treatment of animals in factory farms, and the environment in general is driving the demand. Yet, the movement is still in its infancy, says Jacy Reese, co-founder of the Sentience Institute. “The initial commercial launch, the initial regulatory discussion, all these events over the next decade are very, very important. They will set the stage and decide whether there is enough momentum to carry on all the way to the end of animal farming,” he told Vox. Livestock is also a major contributor of greenhouse gases.

India, where the social, religious, economic and political dimensions of food are stronger, is getting into lab-grown meat. With an investment of Rs 4.5 crore from the Central government, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), and the National Research Centre on Meat (NRCM)—both Hyderabad based—will work on developing methods to grow animal cells in lab at scale.

The trouble with facial recognition

Facial recognition software is getting more mainstream. A taxi service in Japan uses facial recognition software on a tablet to determine the passenger’s gender and serve relevant ads. JetBlue uses the technology to check in its passengers, which recently freaked out a customer. Amazon uses it on the selfies that its delivery drivers take to double check it’s them and to prevent fraud. Casinos across the world use it to keep banned gamblers away.

However, concerns about the technology are also growing. San Francisco is considering serious restrictions on facial recognition. Luke Stark, a Microsoft researcher, in a magazine published by the Association of Computing Machinery  argues that “facial recognition’s racializing effects are so potentially toxic to our lives as social beings that its widespread use doesn’t outweigh the risks.”

Perspectives

Employee activism in tech

There is a growing, public confrontation on many issues between tech employees and management. Google employees staged a massive walkout last October to protest how the company handled sexual harassment charges, (and its organisers recently said the company was retaliating against them for that). Over 3,500 Amazon employees signed a letter urging the company to create a comprehensive climate change plan. Microsoft employees similarly petitioned the company to stop working on Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

This is different from traditional labour unions or whistle-blowing. Labour unionism was primarily a collective bargaining tool to get a better deal for themselves. Whistleblowing is mostly about companies breaking laws.

This is mostly about ethics and broader social issues. As a society, we are still struggling to understand the costs and benefits of technologies such as mobile, social media, big data—which have been around for some time. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, gene editing, robotics raise even bigger questions.

Being human

Two viral images triggered deep reflection on what it meant to be human. In one, a chimpanzee is seen checking Instagram, apparently showing preference for photographs that had monkeys. In another, a few gorillas were seen standing upright to pose for selfies.

Robots will increasingly become more like humans, raising questions on rights and responsibilities. Ian McEwan, author a new novel Machines Like Me, explores the question on what it means to be human—and the implications of machines becoming more like us. “If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest,” he told The Guardian in an interview.

Tidbits

Genetic engineering

  • It’s now possible to predict, even as a child, if you are likely to grow obese by studying your genes. Losing weight has more to do with your genes than your will power.
  • We will be eating gene-edited food in five years, predicts co-inventor of CRISPR.

Robotics

  • In Paris, a firefighting robot called Colossus helped the fire brigade fight the Notre Dame blaze
  • Cornell scientists have taken the “first step of building lifelike robots by artificial metabolism”—robots that can eat, evolve and die.

Artificial Intelligence

  • Vue.ai, an AI startup in the fashion retail space, with offices in Chennai, raised $17 million from Falcon Edge Capital, etc.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab has proposed an interdisciplinary field of study to figure out how AI evolves, and what it means for humans. It’s called ‘Machine Behaviour’.

Blockchain

  • Malaysia is building a Blockchain City—where the entire infrastructure will be based on blockchain technology—with help from the Chinese government

Alternative Energy

  • Global warming has increased inequality, bringing the per capita wealth in the world's poorest countries down by about 17% to 30% between 1961 and 2010, according to a new study.

Platforms

  • Aswath Damodaran on Uber, Lyft, Pinterest and Zoom IPOs: “All four are richly priced ... I’m a little scared of Uber at $100 billion. I think both Lyft and Uber are struggling with a way to convert revenue growth into profits. So you are paying $100 billion for a company that still doesn’t have a viable business model. That’s scary.”

Interfaces

  • Scientists from the University of California, San Francisco  have found a way to translate your thoughts to speech using brain implants.
  • Elon Musk tweeted that an update on Neuralink is “coming soon”. Neuralink’s objective is to connect human brains with artificial intelligence, allowing them to work with AI, instead of competing with it.

[Facial Recognition Art Mural, Hollywood CA #bornmodern. Image by YO! What Happened To Peace?, under Creative Commons]

Was this article useful? Sign up and we'll send you articles like this every week. Here's a sample

Comments

Login to comment

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.

Also by me

You might also like