This week: chickens of tomorrow, prison business, and the rise of the digital humans. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week:
Other stories we bring up:
Robot of the week:
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Intro: This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world. Okay let's start. Let's start.
Kai: Today on The Future, This Week: chickens of tomorrow, prison business, and the rise of the digital humans.
Sandra: I'm Sandra Peter, Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra: So Kai, what happened in the future this week?
Kai: Chickens, we talk about chickens. Our first story is from the National Geographic which I think we haven't discussed on the podcast before. It's titled "The surprising origin of chicken as a dietary staple". Now we do what we often do on The Future, This Week we look to the past to learn about the future and this is a really interesting article about how we came to have fried chicken.
Sandra: Indeed. This is in part a history lesson but in part it's about the chicken of tomorrow. And surprisingly before 1948, chicken wasn't really a mainstay roast at the dinner table. To understand the chicken of tomorrow we need to go back to first the 1920s and it turns out in the 1920s, all farms raised chickens - no matter what else they did they all raised chickens but a quick look at the aptly named American Poultry Journal of January 1921 reveals that there were hundreds and thousands of chicken varieties from around the world.
Kai: You just want to read out some of the names too.
Sandra: Yes the journal had about six pages of small type classified ads featuring chicken names with wonderful things such as Single-Comb Anconas, Silver and Wyandottes.
Kai: We have a Silver Laced Wyandottes at home. We also got an Australorp and a Plymouth Rock and they're beautiful chickens.
Sandra: But do you have Brown Leghorns, do you have Black Langshans, do you have Light Brahmas, do you have Sicilian Buttercups or Golden Campines? Do you have Silver-Gray Dorkings, or Silver-Spangled Hamburgs, Mottled Houdans or Mahogany Orloffs?
Kai: No, we don't but outing myself here as a bit of a chook person, I do actually know what some of them look like.
Sandra: And it turns out they look nothing like the chickens we have today. They're really small chickens, very fancy looking small chickens and turns out the point of chickens used to be just eggs. Birds were only slaughtered and eaten after they had outlived their lives as egg layers.
Kai: And while this way of keeping chickens is experiencing a bit of a comeback in Australian backyards, we want to talk about how chickens became an industry.
Sandra: So this is about the business of chickens and the future of chickens and food more generally. So let's see what happened back in the day around the Second World War. As we mentioned before there were hundreds and thousands of breeds of chicken and they were quite different. Each of them was adapted to whatever the conditions were where they left whether it was wet or dry or humid or arid around where they lived, and they were chosen mainly for eggs and it turns out using them for eggs was actually a really good strategy during the Great Depression and the Second World War as it could maximize the protein you could get out of a chicken...
Kai: ...without actually killing it.
Sandra: And the competition wasn't that intense because beef and pork were rationed during that period, so eggs seemed like a really good investment strategy.
Kai: But as we came out of the Second World War, in the US people started eating more meat and it turned out that the breeds of chicken that were common weren't actually producing good meat and they were also not producing a lot of meat.
Sandra: So one businessman actually saw the problem coming and the problem was that beef and pork had emerged from rationing so there was now a bigger competition in the protein space and eggs just really couldn't keep up nor could the meat that these birds were producing keep up. So it was Howard C. Pierce the poultry research director at the A&P Food Stores supermarket chain that back in 1944 at the biggest poultry meeting in Canada said that someone needed to develop a sumptuous chicken, a bird with a breast like a turkey's. By the next year this had started the most extraordinary undertaking and was called the Chicken of Tomorrow. It was organised by the US Department of Agriculture together with about 55 other national organisations, these were scientists and bureaucrats on loan from government agencies. They were chicken producers, they were land-grant colleges, hundreds of farmers, hundreds of volunteers from across the US that spent the next few years developing this chicken of tomorrow.
Kai: So, this contest came to a head in 1948 when 40 chicken breeders submitted seven hundred and twenty eggs each to a hatchery on Maryland's Eastern Shore where they were hatched and about 400 chickens were then submitted for judging.
Sandra: And what they were trying to find is, as the Saturday Evening Post put it, one bird chunky enough for the whole family, a chicken with breast meat so thick you could carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried in layers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more. And they actually did find this bird.
Kai: So the long and short of it is that two birds emerged victorious. The runner-up submitted by the Saglio family, a purebred White Plymouth Rock, and the winner submitted by Charles Ventress from California a red-feathered hybrid crafted out of New Hampshire which was the most popular meat bird on the East Coast and a California strain of Cornish and this is significant because up to that point hybrid breeds were largely discredited in the industry and purebreds were usually superior in outdoor free living conditions but it turns out that from this moment on hybrid breeds were actually ruling the industry with the Saglio family soon after also abandoning their pure bred for another hybrid and those two families grew into the two largest companies producing chickens both on the back of hybrids that were cross bred and improved upon in the years after.
Sandra: And this is really significant because the winners of the Chicken of Tomorrow did a lot more than create new types of chickens. They have managed to wipe out pure breds from commercial use and these chickens have been used for hundreds of years in commercial use and they managed to recreate the chicken industry altogether.
Kai: Which raises the question what was Kentucky doing before fried chicken? And we actually looked it up. So Colonel Sanders started his Sanders Court and Cafe in the 1930s but it stayed a single restaurant that revolved around different food groups until the 1950s and it was only in 1952 that Colonel Sanders actually opened the first franchise restaurant so the growth of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) came on the back of chickens becoming an industry in the decade before that. Interesting fun fact on The Future, This Week.
Sandra: I was going to say they probably had Kentucky Fried Eggs before they had Kentucky Fried Chicken but there you go.
Kai: You know that they have almost 21,000 restaurants these days?
Sandra: And that's the point of the Chicken of Tomorrow. That is how they recreated the industry. The 21,000 restaurants all sell the same chicken and these chickens and the genetic cocktail behind them is owned by only two companies in the world. What these early producers of the Chicken of Tomorrow managed to do is to create really complex crosses so they made sure that the chickens that they produced could not be reproduced outside their companies. So if you are a farmer and had bought one of these new hybrid chickens and tried to mate them on your own property with other chickens the birds that you would get would not be true to the breed that you had bought...
Kai: ...which would not show the same kind of properties that you would want in the bird so they would over time degrade. So what farmers then had to do is go back to the company and buy the eggs to hatch the chickens.
Sandra: So, every time you wanted to start a new line of chickens you had to buying new chickens. Pretty much the same way you would buy hybrid soybeans or a hybrid corn and in a remarkably short span of time after the Second World War, chickens turned into intellectual property.
Kai: And the article puts it beautifully. The open source birds that had populated millions of farm yards and back gardens for thousands of years became an ingredient in proprietary intellectual property. And that's the point that we want to make.
Sandra: Chicken meat had turned into a trade secret. So even if you remove patent protection, even if you remove formal intellectual property rights, because of the complexity built into these chickens you just couldn't reproduce the chickens yourself. And the same thing is happening today. We started a conversation around lab grown meat on The Future, This Week - we talked about fake milk and a few other products and lab grown hamburger patties.
Kai: And this conversation is increasingly going mainstream and we first talked about this, we talked fake milk as in soy milk. Recently we hear milk protein that is being produced from genetically modified yeast. And while this was first reported in the tech media and we reported an article in Wired magazine, just this week an article in The Guardian is laying out the whole complexity of this emerging new agri tech industry which ranges from reproducing milk, reproducing various forms of meat, taking on the challenge of reproducing egg whites but essentially building methods to produce products that genetically replicate the real deal but doing it in the laboratory.
Sandra: And the 1948 Chicken of Tomorrow actually has really important lessons for what we're seeing happening in the industry today. Lab grown meat is also becoming an intellectual property question and we're seeing companies like Tyson Foods who is the world's second largest food processor and who incidentally also started around the Second World War with chickens which were not rationed like beef and pork was and they've started to invest in clean meat. At the end of January this year, Tyson Foods invested in Memphis Meats and Memphis Meats is one of the companies that produce this self-cultured meat and Tyson Foods has started to rebrand itself as a protein company rather than a meat company. But along the same arguments that there will be a couple of companies that will own the IP to the new lab grown meat in a similar way that they owned the IP for the chickens which gave them a competitive advantage for over 50 years.
Kai: So we've previously discussed that one of the motivations around creating fake meat or clean meat or lab meat depending on how you look at it is the environmental impact of feeding a growing world population with traditional methods because cattle herds turn out to be quite destructive to the environment and we can tell a story about this here in Australia but they also contribute to a significant extent to greenhouse gas production and climate change and so the promise is that by perfecting and improving on current lab methodologies we can actually produce laboratory meat, protein and other products at scale and therefore reducing the environmental impact and feeding a growing population.
But the question that emerges now is who is going to own that intellectual property and will the technology that will solve these problems be in the hands of just a few or even one or two large tech companies.
Sandra: Or meat companies for that matter. So, what we've seen with Tyson Foods who's the world's second largest food processor we're also seeing for instance with the P.H.W group, also this January the third largest poultry producer in Europe announced that it was partnering with Super Meat that is an Israeli clean meat company similar to Memphis Meats. So, we're seeing many of these large food producers moving very early on into this space even before we have managed to prefect the technology that will allow us to do this at scale but with significant investments from the players in the meat industry there is a real chance for this to move forward a lot faster.
Kai: So while a lot of startup companies are active in this space, working on these technologies, it is significant who is investing in those companies and who emerge as potential buyers of these technologies once the startups prove that it can actually be done at scale and early hatching problems. See what I did here?
Sandra: I see what you did there.
Kai: Such as coming up with a more efficient and cost-effective solution for growing meat cultures and the like have been developed.
Kai: Oh enough with the yolks... we're coming to our second story.
Sandra: This one's a bit more serious and it's about prisons. Our second story comes from CityLab, so The Atlantic, and it's titled "Is America ready to rethink incarceration?". So the article raises the question of what is the future of prisoners and we thought this is a really good time to talk a little bit about the business of prisons.
The article picks up on a recent Newspoll in The US that sees the American population wanting to turn away from building prisons and towards more community development. This comes on the back of the fact that whilst incarceration rates in major cities have gone down, rural communities have experienced a very big growth in incarceration rates and gaol populations across the US.
Kai: This comes on the back of the fact that the US has for quite a while now had the largest per capita prison population of any country in the world. An estimated two point three million people in prison which amounts to point seven percent of the total population or north of 700 per 100,000 of the US population which is a big crisis. Also with the fact that minorities are by far over-represented in this group.
Sandra: So with this story we want to have a quick look at how we would rethink incarceration or how we would rethink prisons. Because in Australia as well we have about 41000 people in prisons. And so questions around how we can invest in improving the quality of life of people living in prisons or how we can better integrate them into communities is a very relevant question for us as well.
Kai: In Australia a recent study by Swinburne University's Law School called the Technological Incarceration Project makes interesting points about how we could build a so-called virtual prison where people are located at home, fitted with an ankle bracelet, not unlike we've seen on the popular TV series White Collar but with a twist - an artificially intelligent algorithm which would actually make predictions about the kind of activities that someone wearing this bracelet is up to, with potentially the ability to incapacitate the person if they are up to no good. While this sounds like a little bit of a dystopian fantasy, it points to the fact that people are looking at alternatives to the traditional ways in which we incarcerate people in prisons.
Sandra: So the question we want to ask is could technology actually be a solution to rethinking incarceration. There are as you mentioned a number of developments that have given us technology configurations that might enable this in a practical way. Whether that's machine learning, algorithms, or the ability to measure a whole host of biometric factors or whether it's voice recognition or facial analysis. In theory this seems like a system that would lower the costs of incarceration and actually be able to transfer a lot of these costs either to the offender themselves or their family or even the community where these people would now live. And whilst this idea of open prisons is not new, low security facilities without prison walls actually exist in places like Norway and they are seen as a model of how to best rehabilitate people and reintegrate them where they are serving out their sentence, the story isn't actually that simple. First, besides the fact that in Scandinavia there are particular cultural and economic conditions that enable this, these are very small countries, very egalitarian countries that are quite wealthy per capita and have very low rates of incarceration. So the question remains is there any economic incentive to reconsider the prison model?
Kai: Because it turns out that prisons are actually a big business. Now first of all we want to make the point that many prisons are actually private businesses. In fact Australia as a recent report by colleagues here at the Business School has shown...
Sandra: ...and we'll link to it in the shownotes...
Kai: ...has the largest per capita prison population in private prisons about 20 percent of all prisoners in Australia served their sentence with those private operators and there's three large companies, that's actually higher in relative terms to that of the US where of course the absolute numbers are much much larger but the long and short of it is that in those private prisons, as well as in the public sector, prisoners actually fulfill an important economic function.
Sandra: That is to say many of these prisoners, up to half the prison population, actually work and many of them actually work in fairly menial jobs or jobs that many people would be reluctant to do for instance abattoir kind of work, even call centre kind of work at times - that is not to say that all prison work is of this sort. In the US for instance some of this labourers are working as firefighters or cleanup crews, some of them work for companies like Victoria Secret or even bigger organisations.
Kai: In fact we've formed a research article published by the 'Center for Research on Globalization' in Canada which likened the prison industry to a new form of slavery which points to a sinister aspect of this. The fact that prisoners who work for often big businesses and the article outlines companies such as IBM, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T what they call the cream of US corporate society, so many companies set up camp often in s ide private and state prisons to make use of the prison labour workforce. But the point they make is that these people earn very little money. If they are lucky they earn up to the minimum wage but many earn far less, up to as little as 90 cents per hour.
Sandra: And this is probably even worse in case the prison population that is used is actually in countries with different regulation than those where these multinationals are based. So for instance companies like H&M and C&A have been accused of using Chinese prison labour where none of the conditions under which these inmates work can be really audited.
Kai: But this also happens right here in Australia and it happens in the US and it is part of the labour market. A very little known fact, shocking nonetheless, the fact that many of those people are paid very little money but at the same time they have very little choice as to whether they want or do not want to work for this kind of money.
Sandra: Nonetheless prisons currently are actually a business. Couple of articles referred for instance to the Northern Territory being a 20 million prison workforce business, they made over two million dollars in profit a couple of years ago, which begs the question if we are to rethink prisons shouldn't we rethink what prisons are for?
Kai: So the moment prisons are big business and the prison population can be used as cheap labour, what incentive is there to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals and rethink the way in which we do prisons, the way in which we keep prisoners and potentially dissolve the prison population into the community.
Sandra: So without understanding the future of prisons as a future of business we won't be able to really understand what role can technology play in how we reinvent them or what role can our communities play in this.
Kai: So without a change to the economics of prisons, change in the sector more broadly will be impossible, as The Centre for Research on Globalization points out, prisons are big business and there are many especially stockholders that benefit from prison work which in turn creates a system that as they say feeds on itself and provides every incentive to lock up more not less people and for longer times. So without changes to this kind of business model any application of new technology to change the conditions more broadly will be futile.
Sandra: Let's have a look at our last story and our last story features Lil Miquela. Our last story comes from Wired magazine and it looks at CGI influencers like Lil Miquela.
Kai: Yeah she's not real.
Sandra: She's about to flood your Instagram feed. This story's about hyper realistic digital humans something that we've talked about previously on The Future, This Week but this time it's a lil bit different.
Kai: Lil Miquela has been a fascinating phenomenon ever since she launched her Instagram account in April of 2016. She seemed to be the ultimate IT girl, partying at famous clubs or attending gallery openings, showing off designer clothing or posting in selfies at various hip places. And ever since she's launched her account, the questions have been asked about whether she is real or not. The debate came to her head last month when it was revealed that she is actually a C.G.I. creation.
Kai: So what we see here at play is once again the increasingly blurred line between what is real and what is fake on the Internet and we've previously talked about fake videos and recent technologies that can create fully believable computer generated faces, the way in which it allows people to puppeteer celebrities, videos generated from publicly available materials so you could have you know Donald Trump or Barack Obama say something that they never said and we've seen demos of doing this. So this is yet another area of application where we see CGI generated persons or digital humans at play, technically in this case in a rather low resolution, it's also not video it's mostly photos but it points to the fact that we're increasingly confronted with having to make decisions about whether the person that we're interacting with or that we are reading about that we have material about online is real or not.
Sandra: And we'll include the links in the show notes - Lil Miquela is not the only such CGI generated personality on Instagram. There's a couple of other ones, actual models like Shudu that are completely computer generated but look completely real and believable so that border is really hard to distinguish. But it allows us to ask a number of questions around the place of these things in our society both in the business models of companies that might use them to promote their products or services or might use them as spokespersons but also in the way we as individuals interact with them online or in our social media feeds or indeed use them in our personal lives to achieve certain goals that we might have.
Kai: And these are the type of questions that we are researching here at the business school as part of the Digital Disruption Research Group, we've recently founded what we call the Motuslab spearheaded by Mike Seymour who is doing research on digital humans and the whole point of this research is that it enables us to not only build digital avatars but asks some really pertinent questions about the future of living with these digital humans, these avatars and agents in our lives - whether it be in the context of product influencing such as on Instagram, whether it be our personal assistant such as Siri or Alexa which might increasingly be represented with artificially generated but completely believable human faces or the generation of fake videos online.
Sandra: One such question actually comes from the article and the article asks, "Why should followers trust the opinion of someone who actually doesn't exist?". If we have a person who is an influencer on Instagram and says oh I really love to wear these T-shirts, they're softer than all my other T-shirts.
Kai: But what if it's an artificially generated character about whom we don't even know who is behind it that says you know you should buy these shoes or you should buy that T-shirt when it is pretty clear that this character could never wear a T-shirt.
Sandra: As an example, Lil Miquela actually has over 1 million followers on Instagram and she has endorsed companies like Balenciaga or Prada, worn their products.
Kai: Worn quote unquote their products.
Sandra: Portrayed their products in images on Instagram. It is a possibility that in the near future a lot of companies will actually use CGI created characters to promote their brands or to promote their products and services. And there are a number of companies exploring such possibilities. But this could go even further, you could actually create a duplicate of a real person that could then be puppeteered or portrayed in various ways by a separate entity or a separate organization.
Kai: So the article points to digital doppelgangers of celebrities who could actually work for the celebrities so you could hire for a fee. The digital representation of someone and have them at your corporate party, that digital agent might be able to interact with you. The visuals, the audio are all completely believable, of course, the intelligence might be questionable that sits behind this but beyond the abilities of these agents we want to ask questions for example of ownership. So if a celebrity or a supermodel is with a particular agency that agency creates a digital representation of them. What if they leave and go to a different agency. Who owns the digital representation? Can the agency still employ the digital super model when the real person has already moved on?
Sandra: And you could ask those same sorts of questions even in the organisation that we work in. For instance, there are a number of videos of both you and I teaching various classes around the universities. The University actually can use those videos to teach other students even if we are no longer employed here.
Kai: But what if the University created a digital avatar of us that would appear on student screens or which could be projected with holographic technology into a classroom. Would my digital Professor doppelganger still teach at the University of Sydney if hypothetically I was to move to a different place?
Sandra: Or if we were to move on what would happen to these digital avatars after we've died? Could you leave one as an inheritance for someone else to use? Could you donate it to the University after you are gone?
Kai: Do I have a right for the avatar to die as well? But it goes even further than that. Let's say I have gotten used to my digital assistant, Siri for example. I am very fond of what Siri looks like and how Siri behaves but Apple has decided that Siri has to change the looks of Siri are changing and the way she behaves. Do I have a right to retain my Siri that I have gotten used to? Will there be different versions of Siri? If I go to Sandra's house and Siri is there will she recognized me? Or is this Sandra's Siri? So, there's a whole bunch of questions that come up.
Sandra: Do you have the right to mistreat your Siri or to be abusive towards your Siri, for instance verbally?
Kai: How does that reflect on us? And do these digital characters have certain rights?
Sandra: And then do we have the right to misrepresent ourselves? Whilst companies like Autodesk or Daimler or the National Westminster Bank are actually looking into using these digital avatars as assistants for the products and services that they have. We could also use them as assistants in our own lives. So, for instance could I have a better version of myself teaching those classes or could you have a digital version of yourself that reads your children bedtime stories so that you can actually work on your next paper?
Kai: Of course, we might be uneasy with the fact that a digital version of myself reads out bedtime story, but might that not be better than no one reading bedtime stories?
Sandra: And indeed these are really complex ethical questions that Mike Seymour explores with his Digital Mike and that we will be talking about on stage at Vivid on the 16th of June. Tickets are selling fast, I think there's a few still left available so get in there quickly. It's a free event and the chance to see these digital avatars in person and to really get into the complexities around what answers we might find to some of these questions.
Kai: So if you are in Sydney come along, join the event. The bigger picture here is that we are arguing that only by building such technologies and being early to this game can we as universities explore some of these questions before these technologies become available in industry.
Sandra: And with the chance of actually not living with the many unintended consequences that we are seeing arise.
Kai: Or as our colleague Alan Dennis has recently put it, a lot of research amounts to nothing more than autopsies after the fact and so what we're trying to do is do pre-emptive research.
Sandra: And now to something a little bit different. We haven't done this in a really long time. But we felt this week we really have to go there.
Kai: This one is from The Next Web titled "OMG someone made a robot that legits transforms into a car". And where would they come from?
Sandra: Off course from Japan.
Kai: And if you haven't seen it really, we put in the show notes. Have a look at the video. This is some really cool shit.
Kai: Well at this point we have to say this goes on for a little while.
Sandra: Not much is happening it's going up really really slowly.
Kai: But if you follow it it actually transforms into a pretty legit robot looking thing, it takes a while I think to have improve the performance from turning from car to robot. No one is going to wait for that long if you are in a situation where you need a device like that, but it's a start.
Sandra: The question is for what?
Kai: Exactly and I guess that's all we have time for today.
Sandra: That's all we have time for today. Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week. Made possible by the Sydney Business Insights team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online, on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.