This week: we’re back and what does #BreakUpBigTech have to do with your chicken? There’s also Abba-tars, Gartner all hype no cycle, Musk’s humanoid robots and laser weed zapping ones, COVID AI disappointment, the IPCC report and everything else we’ve missed.
Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Futures 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
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Kai This is exciting. We're back.
Sandra We're so excited to be back.
Kai And we're technically not back because we're stuck at home because Sydney is still in lockdown.
Sandra Yes, I'm looking at a tiny screen where I've got you and Megan, our sound editor, who's giving me the look, 'keep it going'.
Kai We've upgraded our home tech. And we're doing remote podcasting for a while, but it is still The Future, This Week. But in the meantime, and hence the longer break we've been working on some new exciting stuff.
Sandra On some new amazing stuff. The Unlearn Project, our new series about changing common sense, which is also now live. And if you haven't listened yet, the first episode is now out, we set out to unlearn old wisdoms and discover new ones. And our first episode is about computers.
Kai Because computers are important to the entire podcast series. The world around us is changing, and in large part this has to do with digital technology, computing is now everywhere, but it didn't used to be. So in this first episode, we go on a bit of a history nerd out and show how we've previously unlearned what a computer is and what it is for, and how we have to do it now all over again.
Sandra So we go from human computers to algorithms, and look at how we're no longer just using them, but how they govern our lives. And we talk to a human computer still working at NASA, a Nobel Prize winner, a historian, a trust expert, we really think you'll love this episode. And in upcoming episodes, we'll cover all manner of things that you thought you knew, but that are no longer true. Things like automation will make your work easier.
Kai Which it doesn't, it makes your work harder. And that's the point, AI is coming to a workplace near you to make your life harder.
Sandra Music is no longer just something to listen to, large companies can innovate, and data is not the new oil.
Sandra So subscribe to our new podcast, The Unlearn Project.
Kai Go to Spotify or...
Sandra Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can't miss it... It's got our faces on the banner. So that's what we've been up to. But we're here to start season 10 of The Future, This Week. So before we get to our main story, some of the stuff that's been happening while we've been out working on this exciting project and doing Corona Business Insights for quite a few weeks in lockdown,
Kai I can't believe we're doing three podcast series now. But they all have their place. And a lot has happened in the future while we were away. And so let's have a look what's going on.
Sandra I think we need to start with ABBA. ABBAtars!
Kai The ABBAtars are coming.
Sandra In case you've missed it. ABBA has come back after a 40 year break. They're out with a new album, but it gets better.
Kai And if you haven't heard it ABBA really sounds like ABBA, two new songs continuing with the great sound that the world has loved about ABBA.
Sandra And with the same look, they'll be doing virtual concerts featuring digital humans, digital avatars, ABBAtars, that will look like they used to look in 1979.
Kai But you have to travel to London next May, a big concert spectacle will launch and you get to enjoy ABBA, like they used to be. So a gigantic digital human virtual production that will air projections live on stage and it will look like ABBA of old are really on stage, whereas the actual performers might sit in the audience with you having a look. So how is that made possible?
Sandra Well they dressed them up in leotards with dots and other sorts of things and perform onstage for five weeks on end with 160 cameras capturing all of it.
Kai And they will be synthesised into a 90 minute performance that will be shown live on stage with projections.
Sandra For people who are not in lockdown.
Kai Absolutely. While they won't be on stage physically, the audience will be in the room physically. And shame this as a podcast because you should look up the link in the shownotes and see first of all how real the virtual performers look like, virtual ABBA, and what the actual people look like in their motion capture jumpsuits.
Sandra But digital humans is something we've spoken about at length on The Future, This Week in our previous nine seasons. So we'll also add a lot of links in the shownotes to previous episodes where we discuss how the various types of digital humans are made, what they're good for, and how they've started to change many industries way beyond just entertainment. But other things have happened while we were away, not just ABBA. Shame the Onlyfans saga has ended before we started season 10.
Kai Yeah, so we would have loved to give you the naked truth about Onlyfans, but that story has already concluded. So that would be the only reason we're not going to do this this week.
Sandra And it would have been about the naked power of financial institutions to regulate access to the Internet. But moving on, other things have happened. As always, Gartner has released its new Hype Cycle and because we started the season late we have missed out on Gartner's new all hype, no cycle.
Kai Yeah, shame this is a podcast again, because you should have a look at what this hype cycle looks like this year. Just as a reminder, so the Hype Cycle visualises the visibility and expectations around new and emerging technologies. And it's got this curve that cycles through five phases. It's got this steep upward incline the innovation trigger, it's got the peak of inflated expectations and then it goes straight down into the trough of disillusionment, climbs back up the slope of enlightenment and ends up on the plateau of productivity. So again, aptly named, if you are doing bullshit bingo on the other end, you might have a winner right now. But this Hype Cycle this year is indeed all hype, no cycle.
Sandra Yes, without further cycle, here's the new hype, it seems because we've got many things on the innovation trigger upward slope, we've got the few things on the peak of inflated expectations, nothing else, as you've mentioned, after that.
Kai No, completely blank the rest of the curve. That has not been the case in previous years, but it has gotten more sparse over the past decade. But it seems right now, everything is just hype, nothing is progressing to productivity.
Sandra And all the usual suspects things that have been on the Hype Cycle for quite a while and we're moving along or being stagnant: AR, VR, electric vehicles in various different stages.
Kai All disappeared.
Sandra All disappeared, NFTs have made an appearance at the very height of the Hype Cycle.
Kai And it's anyone's guess, but you might well predict that it will disappear again next year.
Sandra And digital humans are there on the innovation trigger. Glad to see ABBAtars on the Hype Cycle.
Kai Yeah, but with a 10 year time horizon, that is how long Gartner predicts for digital humans to become productive, that runs a bit counter to the fact that in May, ABBAtars will be live on stage. So what we're saying here in a long-winded explanation is that this Hype Cycle this year seems to make even less sense than in previous years, given that many new buzzwords make an appearance, but often never really last longer than this very year when they first appear.
Sandra So maybe more of a hype list this year. But for more in-depth looks at the Hype Cycle, again, we'll put all the links in the shownotes. Many of the analysis that we've done over the last few seasons still hold those general discussions about how this is made and how it can still be useful for businesses to think about what makes it onto the Cycle. We'll put all the links in the shownotes.
Kai So again, less of a prediction, this Hype Cycle and more of raising awareness for what are the new buzzwords what are the new topics for the year that people should look out for. And a lot has to do, again, with machine learning, with AI, with data, with new kinds of network computing, so no real surprises there.
Sandra And speaking of AI, hundreds of AI tools have been discussed and created and used during COVID. Another one of those interesting stories we've missed out on during the break ,this one from the MIT Tech Review, 'hundreds of AI tools have been built to catch COVID. And none of them helped'.
Kai So this is a meta study in which the authors analysed 415 tools and algorithms that were built to basically catch COVID, to diagnose COVID in MRI images taken of patient's lungs. And they found that there was all kinds of different problems with these algorithms. And none of them, they found, were actually truly fit for purpose, fit for use in a medical context. So that's a devastating result.
Sandra And it's a reminder of the challenges around AI with the data that is being used. And obviously, once you have poor data, whether that's around patients or around medical scans, or, you know, any kind of labelling and data collection that you're doing in the midst of a global pandemic, clearly is going to affect the quality of any tools built on top of it. And in this case...
Kai It's a fascinating case study of how certain aspects in the data can be picked up by the algorithm that for any human being have nothing to do with the actual diagnosis. For example, some patients were photographed lying down, the more sicker patients that is, and other patients are sitting up. And so the algorithms would pick up on the positioning of the patients rather than the actual COVID traces in the lung images.
Sandra Even font sizes, so you had hospitals that were in areas that had bigger outbreaks, and the algorithm learn to distinguish between the font that was used to label those images versus the font used to label images from areas with fewer infections. So all sorts of problems still, early times for some of these technologies and limited use during a crisis. And again, we'll put a link in the shownotes we've spoken during the first wave of the pandemic about limitations of some of these AI tools during a pandemic, not only in healthcare, but also we discussed Amazon and other algorithms.
Kai So again, a timely case study about how important the quality of the data is that goes into these deep learning algorithms and how any undetected mistakes can have large unintended consequences. What else did we miss?
Sandra We should really at some point to revive our Robot of the Week segment we had that during our first few seasons. Every week we had a Robot of the Week.
Kai Oh, you must be talking about the latest incarnation of the weed-killing robots. We've had different versions of this kind of robot before.
Sandra Yes, farming robots used to be one of our favourites. There's a new kid on the block, a farming robot from Carbon Robotics that can kill 100,000 weeds in an hour while keeping the farm organic by using lasers.
Kai Lasers. So we've had the weed puncher. We had the precision sprayer, but we're now going all space wars on the clovers, mass-killing 100 1000s of them with precision laser beams.
Sandra So a good use of AI because you've got 12 high res cameras pointed at the ground and using machine learning to identify the plants. And when it detects a weed it flashes a light, killing it. I do think I prefer the punching one. But this is definitely a contender for Robot of the Week.
Kai Star Wars is coming to a field near you.
Sandra And speaking of reviving old segments we used to have one a few seasons ago that was It's a Musk.
Kai Ohh, ohh, It's a Musk.
Sandra Surely Elon Musk saying that Tesla is working on humanoid robots must make the It's a Musk!
Kai Well I heard someone say, 'so Elon Musk is creating some friends for himself'.
Sandra Yes, he is working on a prototype supposedly coming and the quote is "sometime next year".
Kai Raises the question, why a humanoid robot? Answer: because we can.
Sandra No, probably to assist with the autopilot driver on the Teslas.
Kai So if you pay a little extra, your Tesla comes with an autopilot and a robot?
Sandra Yeah, well, according to Musk, it's intended to be friendly. It will be designed at a mechanical level so, "you can run away from it, and most likely overpower it" as well.
Kai Should it develop the kind of intelligence and intentions to, you know, turn against you. That's very reassuring to know,
Sandra Given that it's designed to handle tasks that are unsafe, repetitive or boring. We started creating a list but we encourage you to think of your own. So that would be me trying to surf.
Kai But among all the fun we're having with the ABBAtars, and Elon Musk and his new friends, there were some serious stories as well.
Sandra And probably none more so than the latest IPCC report. So The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report that made again the case that major climate changes are inevitable and irreversible. It's been the panel's starkest warning yet that temperatures are likely to rise by more than 1.5 degrees, bringing widespread extreme weather. We've done quite a few articles on Sydney Business Insights by many of our colleagues, people like Professor Chris Wright, will be adding all the links in the shownotes. But obviously serious discussions to be had about how only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gases in this decade can prevent such climate breakdown.
Kai And that comes at the same time as an article reports that about 1/3 of the US population has been subjected to extreme weather events in the past year alone. So an unprecedented exposure to the effects of climate change is already happening.
Sandra And of course, bushfires we've had in Australia, floods we've had in Germany, fires in Greece, we've had weekly reminders on the news about just how climate is changing in really unprecedented ways,
Kai Which has now started discussions in Australia for example, around which houses in which areas will in the future still receive mortgages or indeed insurance as the exposure to rising sea levels and shore erosion, for example, increasingly impacts populated areas along the east coast of Australia.
Sandra So all up, lots of news while we've been away. But we do want to talk in a bit more detail about one story.
Kai Our favourite story.
Sandra It had to be this one, "Break Up Big Chicken".
Kai "Break Up Big Chicken" in the New York Times, so we couldn't go past this one.
Sandra We couldn't go past this one for two reasons. You all know our interest in break up big tech. And you also know one of our favourite ever episodes was the Chicken of Tomorrow. And this is a story that brings them together. We'll discuss what does big tech have to do with your chicken?
Intro From The University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights, an initiative that explores the future of business. And you're listening to The Future, This Week where Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer sit down every week to rethink and unlearn trends in technology and business. They discuss the news of the week, question the obvious, and explore the weird and the wonderful.
Sandra So what does big tech have to do with your chicken?
Kai Well, you're not talking about my chickens, right, in the backyard. You're talking about chicken...
Sandra All our chicken.
Kai In general.
Sandra Fried chicken..
Kai All our chickens.
Sandra All chicken.
Kai All chickens, yes.
Sandra So this story in the New York Times brings together big tech and big chicken because they share the same problem, market power concentration, monopoly duopoly, very few players in what is a very big market. So bear with us, we'll go from big tech to big chicken. And it all starts with the fact that we're in the middle of a rather radical shift in the conversation in our understanding of antitrust, of monopolies and of market concentration. And this is one of those twice-a-century kind of changes in conversation.
Kai And what we're really doing right now collectively, and especially regulators in the US, is not inventing a new understanding of antitrust and monopolies, but rather going back to the source of an understanding of competition monopolies and antitrust that was already prevalent in the early 1900s.
Sandra So antitrust legislation has been around as you've said, late 1800s, beginning of the 1900s, with government realising that a number of companies are having a rather unhealthy level of power in the economy, and that can translate into distortions in the way trade happens. and higher prices for consumers can be one such effect.
Kai So the story of antitrust regulation really starts during the 2nd Industrial Revolution. And it has to do with railroads.
Sandra And it really came as a response to the fact that at that time, there were hundreds and hundreds of different shortline railroads, which were increasingly being bought out by a very small number of companies, and being consolidated into bigger and bigger systems controlled by very few companies. And remember, second industrial revolution is about new types of manufacturing and large scale corporations and new modes of transport. So these new networks of transport and of communication are essential for a healthy economy. Yet, it's this small number of large organisation that are controlling them People start arguing that in order for the economy to remain healthy and to be successful, there need to be opportunities for individuals to build their own businesses, to access these networks at prices that still make sense for their business. So at this point, the US decides that they do not want to allow any organisation to have the type of political and economic power that England used to have over the US. So the antitrust act comes in to make sure that these companies do not have the power to distort free trade.
Kai And so at the time, antitrust legislation is reasonably broad, and it affords a number of protections for the economy to ensure healthy competition. And it takes care of the entrepreneurial spirit. It allows for an environment in which new businesses can come in and flourish. But over time, after the Second World War, with consumer culture, the understanding of antitrust narrowed, with a strong focus now on the consumer and consumer welfare, to the extent that it became almost exclusively focused on price. So whenever a concentration happened that impacted on consumer welfare through higher prices, regulators would intervene. But if that wasn't the case, then they would be more hands off. So the consumer prices would be the main governing factor of antitrust regulation.
Sandra And for pretty much the past 40 years, this idea of consumer welfare translated into, you know, cheap prices for consumers really dominates the antitrust conversation. So what happened with big tech and with people like Lina Khan, and we've discussed Lina Khan before. Lina Khan, who is now the new chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission in the US, but started out as a researcher with an article she wrote back in 2017, in the Yale Law Review. Where she was arguing that now with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, we must rethink what we understand by anti-competitive behaviour and we must rethink antitrust legislation. And we'll add an link in the shownotes, back in the day, a rather lengthy and in-depth academic article that really reset that agenda and that we covered when it came out on The Future, This Week, and we've been keeping an eye on ever since.
Kai So Lina Khan, in this now seminal research piece, argued that we have to go back to the original understanding of antitrust because the power of big tech does not show in lack of consumer welfare. Many of the services are free, free search with Google, free social networking with Facebook. Amazon famously keeps prices low for consumers, but their power actually shows in other parts of the economy.
Sandra So what Lina shows is that companies like Google and Facebook, Amazon, Apple have very different types of businesses to what we're used to, railway companies, oil companies, energy companies, that raise these very different types of questions with regard to antitrust, and manifesting in other ways, like the damage that they instil on the supplier side rather than on the consumer side.
Kai So that is Amazon competing with their suppliers in the Amazon Marketplace, with their own products being accused of using their access to data to copycat or privilege their own products in search results on the platform. Or Apple was accused of stifling access to its App Store or taking an undo cut from suppliers for listing their products in the App Store.
Sandra So undue power that translates in effects on workers, on suppliers, on competitors, on consumer choice or even democracy or political system as a whole. Hence, we need a different understanding of antitrust and very different antitrust solutions as well.
Kai And that brings us back to chicken, big chicken.
Sandra Big chicken, because most chicken that Americans eat, for instance, is processed by a handful of big companies. And for the last few decades, these companies have not only been able to control the price of chicken, but also have been able to do things like keep wages low...
Kai Get away with substandard work conditions. And so it's this shift in thinking about antitrust away from a narrow focus on price to a broader appreciation of other stakeholder issues that has now brought to the attention of the antitrust regulators, these chicken companies. And one of the leading issues here is indeed the worker conditions, and a renewed campaign to do something about that, because workers in this industry do not have choice of other employers because of the concentration.
Sandra And indeed, COVID-19 has also showcased a lot of the conditions and the wages of people who work in meat processing plants, not just in the US. But it's a number of these industries, right? It's not just big chicken. It's a number of these older and really not very sexy industries that this conversation has shed a light on, because, and the article in The New York Times points out that, similar concentrations happen in industries we would never even think about, like, for instance, coffin producers or airlines or cell phone providers, eyewear manufacturers, and so on.
Kai Yeah, but it is here that the keen listener might interrupt and say, 'but isn't the meat industry about to be disrupted by, you know, meat alternatives, by all these new companies coming in that produce fake meat or lab meat we hear about Impossible and Beyond Meat. Wouldn't that do away with the issue? Because there is new competition from these companies.'
Sandra And that's the thinking that you hear most often that, you know, 'yes, yes, there might be these historical legacy effects. But surely new technologies and new ways of doing this and innovation and disruption in the industry will just break this open, and everybody will be better off.'
Kai To which we say, 'Behold! The Chicken of Tomorrow', because we have looked at the origin of how we ended up with this concentration in the chicken industry before.
Sandra And this is a fantastic story we tackled at length in one of our episodes, and we'll put the link in the shownotes. But in summary, the whole chicken industry has to do with coming out of the Second World War and with the fact that during the Second World War, meat in general was rationed. And at that point, the only two staple meat sources were pork and beef, and chickens were not really common. They weren't actually producing any meat, or they were not producing a lot of meat, they were kept around only for eggs. And at that point, in terms of business, eggs seemed like a really good investment strategy, because they were the alternative to the rationed meat. As the war ended, and the restrictions ended on beef and pork, one businessman saw a really big competition heading their way in the protein space, because if you could have beef or pork, you did not want the eggs. So, what could be done to get meat out of chickens? So, long story short, by 1945 a most extraordinary undertaking takes place called the Chicken of Tomorrow. This is...
Kai A competition.
Sandra The US Department of Agriculture together with about 55 other national organisations, scientists, bureaucrats, government agencies and chicken producers, land grant colleges, hundreds of farmers and volunteers compete to develop this fantastical new chicken that would provide a alternative protein source.
Kai The US ended up with two birds that would feed the nation.
Sandra Yes, 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".
Kai And the rest is a story of patents and licencing and rights to those birds, which, from the onset set the industry on a path of concentration to the extent that the US ended up with only a handful of large chicken manufacturers. And this is where the parallel to today becomes obvious.
Sandra Because the meat industry really became about intellectual property. So the open source birds before the Second World War became two birds where you had to every time go back to one of these companies if you wanted to grow chicken with meat that would be competitive in the market. So chicken meat was a trade secret. And the same thing is happening today with a handful of organisations creating the same kind of environment, patented products, trade secrets, intellectual property around alternatives to meat. Enter companies like Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat. And incidentally, the big chicken companies were one of the early investors in the alternative meat companies.
Kai And so developing these new technologies to create plant-based or lab-based meat products takes a lot of investment venture capital, but also a lot of technological know-how, and will result again in patents and licencing arrangements. And the question is now how can this industry be developed without ending up with just a handful or even just two companies, Impossible and Beyond, who might grow very quickly, very fast on the back of licencing agreements with large fast food chains, for example?
Sandra And if we're looking at chicken Impossible Foods's meatless chicken nuggets made their debut actually last week in the US. And that chicken substitute will be available in supermarkets by September. Beyond Meat launched its own chicken tenders sometime back in July. So we are seeing those moves now. But the answer to all of this is big tech.
Kai And big tech provides, first of all a cautionary tale for what happens when companies grow very, very large very quickly on the back of their access to and control of particular technologies. So while it is really difficult to now break up or regulate these tech behemoths, the thinking here is to prevent this from happening in other industries before these companies grow so big.
Sandra But also by allowing us a much more nuanced understanding of what market power is, beyond just cheap prices for the consumer. So thinking about suppliers, thinking about workers, thinking about other competitors, thinking about customer choice, all are now part of the conversation because break up big tech has allowed us to rethink how we would for instance, break up big chicken.
Kai And so the learning here is to develop new tech industries with antitrust in mind from the outset rather than having to regulate after the fact.
Sandra But that's all we have time for in this first episode. Don't forget to subscribe to The Unlearn Project wherever you get your podcasts. And we're...
Kai Glad to be back. Thanks for listening.
Sandra And we'll be back next week. Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week, an initiative of The University of Sydney Business School. Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights and Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation. Connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Flipboard, and subscribe, like or leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any weird and wonderful topics for us to discuss, send them to email@example.com.
Kai You just want to read out some of the names, do you?
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 Wya...
Kai Wyandottes. We have a Silver Laced Wyandottes at home. We've 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?