This week: electrify everything, crows nipping butts, and ethical German cars. 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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Introduction: 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. OK let's roll.
Kai: Today on The Future, This Week: electrify everything, crows nipping butts and ethical German cars. I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights. 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: So our first story is from Vox and it's titled "The key to tackling climate change: electrify everything". The article makes the point that if we are serious about tackling climate change we shouldn't mess around with making fossil fuels more energy efficient, we should just go and electrify everything like move from combustion engine to electric cars, replace natural gas heating cooking and cooling in houses with heat pumps that run on electricity and then change the energy mix to bring the electricity grid down to near zero carbon emissions.
Sandra: This need to electrify things has been understood by climate and energy experts for quite a while but it's not really something that we have in public conversation. It's not really something that's filtered down and the agreement around it seems to be fairly new. For quite a while we used to think that electricity is actually a bad thing - we should have less of it not more of it. So why this change?
Kai: So the article mentions three reasons. The first one is we actually know now how to bring a grid down to near zero carbon emissions at least as far as energy generation goes. I mean sure the production of batteries and solar panel still uses materials such as lithium and silicon and we have to get better at producing these materials. But as far as the electricity generation goes we now understand how to create an energy mix that is reliable, that provides baseload with a combination of wind, solar, and storage such as in batteries or heat storage or other forms of storage like hydro which we've discussed on the podcast previously. So the article makes the point that we now know how to do this and by hooking everything up to the grid and bringing the grid down to near zero carbons we have the best chance of tackling climate change. But there's more reasons.
Sandra: The second reason the article gives is that in the developed world most consumers would get their power from an electricity grid. That means that if everybody is connected to the grid and that grid provides clean energy, this has some profound implications to the fact that you would not need to optimise for every single electrical device that's connected to that grid but rather you could clean up the energy in the grid. And as a consequence make every single device connected to that grid cleaner. So you wouldn't need to make for instance fridges more energy efficient because the energy is clean so they could consume as much as they wanted.
Kai: So you don't have to replace them which also comes at an environmental cost. And the third reason is that as we switch from gas heating to electrical heating, from traditional cars to electric cars and we hook more devices up to the grid the grid has to grow. And with that new incentives come into play for hooking up new renewable energy which will only drive the adoption of renewable energies and set us on to a positive growth curve.
Sandra: So the reason we think this is an interesting article is the fact that it allows us to rethink the assumptions we have around electricity. Just like a couple of weeks ago (and we'll put that in the show notes) we talked about rethinking assumptions around exponential growth or a growth that is driven by economic growth and consumerism where technology had to grow at a rate that is even faster than that to sustain the growth. This week we're rethinking our assumptions about electricity but could we go a step further and rethink whether we need electricity on the grid to begin with. Could we just have solar?
Kai: Yes so interestingly there was a couple more articles this week about solar energy both of which make the point that we can now generate solar energy everywhere. So the first article was actually in Wired magazine and it was around design. So it features a Dutch designer Marjan Van Aubel who designs tables, windows, everyday objects that feature large surfaces and she puts quite beautiful colourful solar panels into these surfaces and she has tables and windows generate and store electricity that you can use to charge your devices.
Sandra: So she basically thinks that the furniture and buildings that surround us shouldn't be inert surfaces but rather objects that can be both beautiful and a power source at the same time. So you could charge your iPhone 10 by just plugging it into your window.
Kai: And interestingly while this article mentions that we have to make progress in the materials that we use there was such an article as well in Futurism which reports on the latest developments in material sciences where scientists at Michigan State University have developed transparent solar panels that you can put into windows and you don't actually need any colouring as was mentioned in the other article, you could just have transparent windows that generate electricity. Sure, the efficiency is not at the same level as traditional solar panels but apparently it works. And so the argument that is made is that in the near future we can put solar generation on to just about every surface onto laptop lids, we could wear them, we could imbue the surfaces of cars to generate electricity as we cruise in traffic.
Sandra: And whilst we are not quite there yet as the articles make the point we're making really big strides over the last few years in getting there. But this also raises a more interesting question. So when you first hear about tables that are solar panels and windows and electrifying everything this also raises the question of how do everyday people think about this. So we want to look a little bit at this question of mindset. What else would have to shift because it's one thing to have the technology and have the knowledge and the insight that this could work. But implementing it and building incentives and policies and getting people to actually adopt and use these things is also a question of mineset.
Kai: Let's remember that in the pre-industrial age electricity or for that matter energy always had to be produced where it was used mechanically from water sources like streaming rivers or later than in terms of electricity that was locally produced and it was in fact the centralisation of electricity production for the sake of efficiency in burning fossil fuels and the invention of the grid that then gave us industrialisation and mass production at scale. And it also came with a change in mindset in that energy production was pretty much black boxed and made invisible so people don't have to think about electricity anymore. It's just there.
Sandra: Same thing that has happened to our money we used to give away gold and then we used to give away notes and now we have a plastic card or tap and go where we just use our phone where we don't actually see the effects of our transactions. So for instance if I charge my iPhone I have no idea really what it takes to produce the power that goes into my phone. If I spend a hundred bucks through tapping my phone I don't actually have to let go of physical money to see how much that is.
Kai: So for most people that means that they don't actually have any frame of reference in terms of what they use in electricity. There have been some attempts on actually making visible to people the electricity they use for example on your power bill. There's now comparisons between your consumption and a typical household of the same size in the same neighbourhood. So these are little nudges and we've talked about behavioural economics before but does that really work? So one of the effects really of having solar panels on your roof is that you get a much better overview of the energy that you produce but also the energy that you consume. And so with that awareness of your energy and actual engagement of people with their energy consumption comes then an incentive to actually reduce that consumption as you produce your solar. So maybe localising energy production could actually have an effect of re-engaging people with their energy consumption.
Sandra: And let's remember we talk mostly about materials today but there are also other advancements that could make this possible - things like blockchain that are coming in to allow for distributed electricity networks where neighbours can trade the energy that they produce let's say on their house or their neighbourhood tennis court.
Kai: Oh yeah and for me the bigger picture here is that all of these different ideas, should we electrify everything and put everything on the grid or should we localise energy production to the house and to every surface in our environment or should we hook up neighbourhoods to community grids. Just the fact that we discuss those ideas now that they are in the media and that designers and engineers are working on this to me is really good news because it means that for the first time in a long while we're really engaging at a broad scale with solutions to climate change.
Sandra: And this week alone we've shown all these articles that are on different facets of the same issue and are trying to solve the problem and question the assumptions and rethink solutions around this.
Kai: And as we're making progress on these I'm sure there's going to be more opportunities to do deeper dives into these various topics.
Sandra: But now to be a really fun story this week.
Sandra: Butt now.
Sandra: A story about butts. Cigarette butts. So this story is coming to us from Fast Company called "Here's a crazy plan to bribe crows to clean up cigarette butts". And it's pretty much what it says in the paper. The story comes from the Netherlands and in the Netherlands every year there are more than six billion cigarette butts that are tossed onto the street by smokers. So an Amsterdam based design agency called Crowded Cities begun to think what would be a good way to clean up these cigarette butts.
Kai: And the first idea they came up with is a Roomba like outdoor vacuum cleaner which they basically discarded pretty quickly because it wouldn't be able to reach into or all the kind of different places that we find cigarette butts in our environment. Let's face it, streets are not carpets so that wouldn't work and so they thought long and hard about other solutions.
Sandra: They thought about actually paying people to do this which sounded like a pretty expensive option. Then they came to pidgeons and they said well they're all these pigeons around could we actually trained pigeons to do this?
Kai: So they investigated training birds to do this and they stumbled upon crows. And turns out crows are really smart birds, much smarter than pigeons. No offence. So we did a little research on this and Sandra opened the can of worms, she dug deep and she went all the way down the rabbit hole of stories about crows. And so she's going to entertain us with some fun facts about crows.
Sandra: I went down an Internet, YouTube video rabbit hole of crow videos doing some amazing things. It started out with crow vending machines and crow's building complex tools that not even monkeys can build. And quite frankly some humans could probably not build those. Crows carrying objects and solving puzzles and holding grudges and playing ping pong and speaking a variety of languages. And I learned that Australia is actually responsible for giving the world all the intelligent crows and ravens that are out there.
Kai: Not Russell Crowe.
Sandra: Yeah except for Russell Crowe, he's from New Zealand. The whole family originated from one common ancestor in Australia and it's thought that actually the fact that our continent was getting drier and drier is what made them become so smart as they were trying to adapt. And then as we drifted towards Asia they dispersed and went to all continents in the world.
Kai: OK now back to the story. Well it turns out that it is very hard to train people not to litter cigarette butts and boy people have tried so you know we have tried putting little so-called ballot bins in where people can drop their cigarette butts to vote for their favourite soccer players, trash cans that light up and play music, marketing campaigns, fines, even jail time. None of it seems to work. Which is not surprising to me because smoking is very habitual and it's in the nature of this addiction that you don't want to actually think about your smoking, you're doing your smoking, you just flick the cigarette butt and it's very hard to actually get rid of that habit. And so people have looked for other solutions to get rid of these cigarette butts. Because it turns out they're not really all that good for the environment.
Sandra: A lot of the cigarette butts contain plastics that are hard to decompose. They contain things like arsenic in them. They're actually quite toxic. And let's remember we said about six billion cigarette filters in the Netherlands. By some estimates there is about 4.5 trillion butts every year around the world and there's all these chemicals and plastic that there's often inside it that ends up polluting water and so on.
Kai: So enter the mighty crow. The way this is going to work is with a little apparatus which actually resembles the famous so-called Skinner box. This goes back to B.F. Skinner a psychologist who is famous for training animals with little devices, lab rats and pigeons. And it is here that we want to give a little shout out to our colleague Dirk Hovorka whose father actually trained with B.F. Skinner, he was a psychologist and Dirk incidentally is also a bird photographer. This is a fun fact for our listeners with no apparent further use so let me go on. So this device is aptly named a crowbar and it works by rewarding crows for dropping the cigarette butt in a hole and then rewarding them with food basically to train them into the habit of collecting and inserting those cigarette butts into this device and the device has some intelligence built in which will verify that it is indeed a cigarette butt and not something else that the crow drops in.
Sandra: And also fun fact about crows: they can actually teach each other skills so you wouldn't even need to train all the crows you'd just need to train a few of them and they should be able to teach the other crows how to do the same thing, collect the cigarette butts and get the reward.
Kai: So this whole story links back to a few other stories that we've done on The Future, This Week because the idea of this reinforcement training goes back to behavioural economics in humans. But it also resonates with the way in which we now teach artificial intelligence.
Sandra: And remember this is not the first time we spoke about animals being trained to deal with some of our problems. We previously spoke about French Eagles taking down drones that were committing industrial espionage. The bigger question is: is it ethical to do this? This could be a story about ethics.
Kai: The article mentions a couple of aspects, so John Marzluff a professor of Forest Sciences at the University of Washington is quoted who makes the point that rather than training crows in keeping them from what they should be doing going about their business and crow life. And crows are actually quite social animals who have intricate social practices that they engage in. So rather than to train them to fix our problems we should really pay people to clean up our own mess so the point being is it ethical to employ animals to clean up our shit?
Sandra: But to be fair we do use animals anyway for a wide variety of things. We use horses, cats, dogs.
Kai: Including as a source of meat. So that raises bigger questions which we're in no position to answer here. But we want to make two points. One is related to behavioural economics again. The moment we actually find a different solution to fixing this problem, don't we actually signal that it's okay to litter because someone will always clean up after us. Isn't that sending the wrong signal?
Sandra: Is the picking up the cigarette butts the problem we want to fix?
Kai: Or is this just tinkering with the symptoms? But I also want to make the point that there is a bigger picture in this story. So on the one hand it shows how creative problem-solving can come up with unexpected solutions. And there's lots of these stories in the field of design thinking and Gaia Grant made that point on a previous SBI podcast where a team in Canada wanted to solve the problem of icy power lines and they played around with employing bears and honey pots that they would place on top of the power poles and how would he get the honey up on the power poles you would use helicopters. And by the way it was the helicopters that were the solution because you could just blow off the ice and the snow off the power lines.
Sandra: So even if these solutions don't play out, even if we don't end up employing the crows, we might think of innovative new out of the box ideas to solve these problems.
Kai: So while the ethical questions of employing animals for our own business remain largely unresolved, this very fact also points to the way in which we tend to think about the environment and we just want to highlight that we have this tendency to see the environment as a set of resources to be employed. Nature as a pool of natural resources but even the animal kingdom as things to be subjected to our own human practices and we're actually looking forward to seeing if the animal kingdom is biting back and whether crows are intelligent enough to start gaming the system and cheating the machines by dropping other things in to get their food.
Sandra: Things of the same shape and weight that would trick it, say the researchers could fight back with little cameras that would recognise the objects that are being dropped in or with face recognition technology to figure out if the crow Bob is the one up to mischief and teaching the other crows how to cheat the system.
Kai: Or are we overthinking this problem? Now the discussion of ethics brings us to our last story.
Sandra: And our last story comes from Lexology. So Lexology is like The Conversation for the law profession. It's a platform that publishes in excess of over 450 articles every day from eight hundred leading law firms to update each other about legal issues.
Sandra: This article talks about Germany being the first country to develop ethical rules for autonomous vehicles.
Kai: So these guidelines were developed by the Bundesminister fur Verkehr und digitale Infrastruktur.
Kai: You mean the transport ministry?
Kai: Yes. And their ethics commission headed by a former Supreme Court Judge and now professor at the University of Bonn who have developed 20 guidelines that are supposed to govern the use of self driving cars on German roads.
Sandra: So the ethical rules developed by the Commission have no legal binding effect but they are guidelines for car companies to start thinking about and allow them a framework to develop autonomous vehicles. The report actually states that there are a number of fundamental questions to consider when we think in this space. First is, how much dependence on technology and on artificial intelligence and machine learning are we willing to accept in order to achieve more safety or more mobility or more convenience with these cars? The second question that they say we must consider is what precautions do we need to take to ensure transparency and data autonomy. And the third one asks what guidelines do we require as a society to make sure that we preserve the freedom, the physical and intellectual integrity, and the social respect that are at the heart of legal regimes currently as we know them.
Kai: So let's take a look at some of those rules. So essentially they are basic principles such as the safety of people is paramount.
Sandra: This is at the core of the ethical rules.
Kai: Yes. The individual freedom of people in society must not be limited by going to automated transport. The technology should be employed to reduce the number of accidents. So these are really basic principles.
Sandra: And the article highlights some good examples, for instance that technology must prevent accidents wherever it's practical and where it is impossible to do so the computer must decide to do the least amount of harm. For instance accept damage to animals even crows and property over risking human life and where it's unavoidable for a human to be harmed the computer cannot discriminate based on any personality features gender age physical or mental constitution and all human life should be considered equal. We are not allowed to simply apply some quantifiable numerical value to the people that are involved in such an accident.
Kai: So the guidelines highlight equity and that we shouldn't bias when we employ those rules. But to me the most significant rule is rule number 8 which is also the longest by the sheer number of words and it deals with the dilemmas that we've discussed previously such as the trolley problem. So the decision between one life over another whether the driver should be killed.
Sandra: And five school children's spared.
Kai: Exactly. So the guidelines make the point that those situations cannot be governed by a clear set of rules or a clear set of norms but have to be resolved in a situational way and I think this is significant because here's a group of intelligent people with knowledge of the problem who have sat down and they have said quite clearly that there is a certain number of problems which we cannot ex ante and shrine into a set of rules but we have to deal with them in a different way.
Sandra: And let's remember these rules do highlight that there are a number of rules that we can be quite definite about. But the really tricky, the really hairy problems around ethics in autonomous vehicles cannot be solved and the ethics commission at the German Ministry of Transport has gone about employing experts to try to think up these rules. It has failed to provide a definitive answer. We've seen other attempts to try to come up with these ethical rules and for instance MIT with their moral machine experiment have tried to crowdsource this problem. So the moral machine sets out the trolley problem - who should be hurt or who should be harmed in this situation and there are a wide variety of scenarios and they gave these ethical choices to people on the Internet to hundreds and thousands of people on the Internet to try to crowdsource the ethical ways in which to behave. And they haven't come up with a definitive answer either. You could even argue that is this even an ethical way to solve an ethical problem by crowdsourcing it just because the majority agrees that the old lady should die to save the children. So this is the ethical thing to do.
Kai: And so the experts make a wonderful point in that they say while these systems have to be programmed to reduce accidents and avoid harm to humans they can never replace the judgement of a skilled human driver. And it goes on to making the point that despite the fact that we can in hindsight make judgements about an accident that has happened we can never work from this and then try in what we learn from these incidents into a set of definite rules for governing future accidents. So it precisely leaves this grey area that we have to deal with in other ways. And if we look at how we deal with these problems today then we have an intricate system of moral support, social norms, a legal system and also the way in which we empathise with other humans in place to dealing with the fallout from situations that can never be fully decided before the fact.
Sandra: Before we finish the story we must however highlight the fact that the ethical rules actually allow the car industry to move forward in a significant way because they do state that the accountability for these systems should lie with the manufacturers and the people who operate these autonomous vehicles just like they would for any other products so the same types of product liability would apply here and that they should be held accountable both to develop and then to continually maintain and improve this system. So the liability should be with them rather than the owners or the operators of these autonomous vehicles.
Kai: And so while we're making progress the questions about dilemma situations still remain unresolved. And the report says they cannot be clearly standardised nor can they be programmed such that they are ethically unquestionable. And I think that just sums up the idea of ethics itself. If it was expressible in a set of rules it wouldn't be ethics as we know it.
Sandra: And now...(Robot of the Week audio).
Kai: So this one was inevitable. We've had a number of people sending in this story. This is about Sophia the robot that was recently granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia.
Sandra: Arab News headlined it "Sophia the robot that becomes the first humanoid Saudi citizen". And if this sounds like bullshit it's because it is.
Kai: The Verge called it for what it is - "Pretending to give a robot citizenship helps no one" and the article makes the point that this robot has no more rights in Saudi Arabia than women or guest workers. And that really helps no one.
Sandra: But is this really a humanoid robot or is this something similar to what you get in a theme park where you have some pre-programmed answers and you have a thing that has a quasi human face and can pretend...
Kai: David Hanson, its creator, actually created theme park robots for Disney in his previous life. So yes.
Sandra: So we're calling this a PR stunt.
Kai: It is a PR stunt in the context of a conference recently held in Saudi Arabia where the country presents itself as a tech hub to prepare for the post oil era. It was not the only PR stunt. There was an announcement about NEOM - Saudi Arabia's futuristic mega city full of technology, artificial intelligence...
Sandra: Where robots like Sophia can go and live. So before we go let's just hear a bit from Sophia.
Audio - Sophia: Good afternoon. My name is Sophia and I am the latest and greatest robot from Hanson Robotics. I think I'm special. I can use my expressive face to communicate with people. For example I can let you know if I feel angry about something or if something has upset me.
Kai: And really that's all we have time for today.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
Kai: Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week made awesome 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 was composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher 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.
Kai: She's going to entertain us with some fun facts about crows.
Sandra: Oh you set it up too much, now it's like pressure pressure. Did you know that a group of crows is called a murder?
Kai: I didn't. Did you know that I don't like the Adelaide Crows. I'm with the Magpies. I actually think we should train swooping magpies in Australia.
Sandra: To nip them straight out of the mouths of the people who are smoking. You wouldn't even have to get to the cigarettes butts and the throwing away. But you could only do it for a season because they only swoop for a couple of months a year.
Kai: Maybe we can solve the smoking problem that way.