This week: meet Mike, why electric cars are only getting greener, and are digital natives real? 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.
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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 things that change the world. OK let's roll.
Sandra: Today in The Future, This Week: meet Mike, why electric cars are only getting greener and our digital natives real? I'm Sandra Peter. I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer, Professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. OK. Sandra what happened in the future this week.
Sandra: Well you tell me you're just back from SIGGRAPH the annual conference on computer graphics, the biggest one in the world so how did that go?
Kai: Oh pretty well I literally just came back overnight. I was there with the Meet Mike project. Have a listen to this.
Audio: Hi I'm Mike well kind of virtual Mike really. This is our digital Human Project which is a collaboration of a whole lot of companies: Epic Games, 3Lateral, Cubic Motion, Tencent, the Wikihuman team, Sydney Uni, fxguide, a whole bunch of people coming together to produce well a virtual human, and not only a virtual human but one rendered in real time. Puppeteered or driven in real time rendered in real time and not only that but at 90 frames a second in the stereo in VR.
Sandra: So what's this all about and why is it important.
Kai: This research pushes the boundaries of what you can do in representing digital faces in a computer. Mike came to me about five years ago with this research idea for his PhD - the creation of an interactive photo realistic human face that you could drive as an avatar which would then be on a screen or in a 3-d virtual environment. Fully realistic, fully in real time something that has not been done before because it's technically really challenging to achieve for various reasons but the end game here is as Mike said the creation of digital human. So if you think about something like Siri or Alexa and you put a face on it that looks like a real human with a synthetic voice, you would create something that might be totally believable as a digital human. So we're entering territory that you know some might find creepy. Some might find exciting but that's certainly something that we will see within the next three to five years.
Sandra: So this clearly has some really strong commercial implications also some very strong ethical implications.
Kai: Oh absolutely. The project that we presented here had a lot of commercial entities involved. Companies that came together because it's a research project so the effort is monumental. So first of all Mike had his face scanned at USC, University of Southern California, ICT lab in Santa Monica. At the point Mike's was the most detailed scanned face in the history of humankind. He then had his eyeballs scanned at Disney research in Zurich. Put the two together you have an incredibly realistic looking, but digitally rendered face on a screen. Now the next step was to animate that to make that face move. And so we went to Epic Games and Cubic Motion, a company that is able to create a technology that will read off your face as you move your face those movements. And then animate the face on the screen accordingly. Put all of this together, you get the installation that we had at SIGGRAPH where not only Mike was sitting there with a helmet and a stereo infra-red camera and drive the puppet avatar on the screen, but where a guest would then with a lower res Avatar sit on the other side of a curtain also with a camera and a headset and then meet Mike in a virtual environment for an interview. So quite an elaborate set up that was then presented on big screens. We had four spectators also with cameras who would be invisible spectators in the VR environment. And all of this to showcase what the latest in technology can do to give people a glimpse of the future of what you can do with these virtual photo realistic face technologies.
Sandra: How would our lives change if we had the digital humans widely available?
Kai: So these are the questions that we are asking in this research project. What could you do with an avatar that allows you to be present in other places that look exactly like you, was totally believable, and that you could drive with your face. But also if you put AI behind it could recreate virtual tutors that people relate to in a much more natural and emotional way and therefore learn better. Or do we now push the boundaries where we have all of a sudden virtual humans and people might find that deceptive. So is it useful? Is it deceptive? We don't know until we build it and actually test on users and take it into different contexts.
Sandra: So you could change the skin colour of these people, you could change their gender, you could change the language...
Kai: Yes potentially but also you could give a presentation here in Sydney and have a holographic avatar of yourself in China where the same Avatar gives that presentation at the same time in Chinese and your face looks totally believable, while an algorithm translates what you say into Chinese. So there's various applications that you might envision. The question that is raised is will this work? And it's very hard to imagine until we actually go and build these things. And I think the important thing here is that this is a research project so it's quite exciting to be at the forefront of these technologies and have this built in an academic environment where we can raise those questions in an ethical way and test these questions and not have these technologies purely in the hand of commercial entities or corporations but actually be able to accompany the process and do the research while these technologies become widely available.
Sandra: And let's not forget also bring all these companies together that quite often our competitors and also make the knowledge openly accessible.
Kai: Yes the data of Mike's face will be available under the wikihuman project which is an open data project. So all of what we've done at SIGGRAPH will be available. We have done interviews with the spectators and people who joined the conversation in VR, research interviews, and we have done a survey. So we're doing research as we're progressing through these steps and we will have a lab here in Sydney where we get to do more research on how users relate to various kinds of photo realistic faces, digital humans and we will then take the research into the field as those technologies become commercially available.
Sandra: And links to all of this including Digital Mike will be available in our show notes.
Kai: Absolutely. There was so much cool shit going on at the VR village at which I spend most of my time while I was there for those three pretty intense days. And so I brought a bit more material so watch out for a special edition podcast.
Sandra: We'll sit down and go through all of that material in a special episode.
Kai: So Sandra what's our first news story of the week?
Sandra: It's been a really big week for electric cars. The first Tesla Model 3 are rolling off the production line. This is the $35,000 electric car. Even though Tesla is a big player, it's not the only player in the electric vehicle arena. So our first story of the week is why electric cars are always green and also getting greener. This is a story from Quartz and it tries to look at whether electric vehicles are indeed greener than cars using fossil fuel.
Kai: So the author Thalia Verkade from the Netherlands actually and there's data from the Netherlands in the article, did a pretty elaborate calculation and comparison of whether electric cars are actually greener than conventional cars. If we take into account that the materials that go into a lithium battery have to be mined and that the battery has to be built. And then over the lifetime of the car 135,000 miles is what she put under as the baseline. Whether the investment in creating those batteries actually pays off in terms of greenhouse gas that you save while you drive the car where a petrol car obviously uses petrol and the electric cars don't.
Sandra: So as you mentioned quite the thorough analysis and we think this is really important to discuss especially in the context of the big news around electric vehicles this week. So we've had news out of companies like Volvo saying that by 2019 in all of its models will be either solely powered by batteries or hybrids. And also we've had governments announcing that they will completely phase out diesel and petrol cars by 2014.
Kai: So there's a lot of policy that points into that direction. The UK for example says 2040 is the point in time where no petrol or diesel cars will be allowed anymore. Norway says 2025, France says 2040 as well. So there's going to be a lot of these announcements in the coming weeks months and years. And so the question then is, is this the right thing to do or are we going to see the same controversy as we had with ethanol in fuel where when you did the total environmental costs the equation would actually not be as good.
Sandra: So what we want to look at is how much is involved in manufacturing the car, in producing the fuel for the car, and in driving the car. So in manufacturing we are looking, as the article does, at everything from mining the raw materials, to maintenance of the car, to end of life disposal, and recycling of let's say the battery from the car, reducing the fuel whether that's gasoline or electricity from a variety of sources not just renewable electricity and then on road emissions from the various types of cars. And the article does a pretty good job at doing this.
Kai: So basically the article makes the points that making the actual car is largely the same for both models. But what really adds to the CO2 emissions is producing the battery as such. So that puts the electric car into negative big time at that point in the calculation.
Sandra: So the second thing they looked at was the total CO2 emissions to produce the fuel that powers the car. And here we had very interesting results - for a gasoline powered car we had about six metric tons and that was surpassed by the electric vehicle which would cost twenty three metric tons in CO2 emissions so a whole lot more. If you take into account the conventional electricity mix that a country like the Netherlands or any other European country would have at this point.
Kai: So the point that we're making is that you actually have to produce the electricity that the car will use over its lifetime. And then the question comes down to how do you produce that electricity? And at the moment a lot of countries still rely on relatively dirty technologies such as burning coal. So once you do that the actual electricity isn't all that green. But if you were to create the electricity from a 100 percent renewable energy such as solar hydro or wind you only would need two metric tons instead of 23 metric tons. So here we see the big difference which is it matters how you actually produce your electricity.
Sandra: What we can also add to that mix is the total CO2 emissions to actually drive the car. So this is not to produce the fuel but to actually drive it.
Kai: To burn it then.
Sandra: So for a gasoline powered car that would be thirty seven metric tons over the lifetime of the vehicle. But over the lifetime of the vehicle for an electric car it would actually be...
Kai: Zero because we've already produced the electricity. At that point the car doesn't emit anything. So once you have the electricity there's no more emissions coming from the car itself. And so when you put all those calculations together the electric car is ahead even on the current electricity mix, not by much.
Sandra: The point is that the electric car will only get greener. So these numbers will only get better for the electric car versus for the gasoline powered car, these numbers are pretty much here to stay.
Kai: So the electric car has an advantage already. And as we're moving to a more sustainable, to a greener electricity mix in our production worldwide the electric car will build on its advantage.
Sandra: So all of this sounds really really good. But you know there is a chance Tesla won't make it. I mean they're behind production. There's not that many Tesla cars, it could still fail as a company it's really not making a lot of money at the moment. What will have to happen for electric vehicles to succeed really?
Kai: Yes. Tesla has yet to prove that they can manufacture at scale. The release of the Model 3 has certainly created a lot of buzz and Tesla claims that they are now taking 1800 Model 3 orders daily and that the orders for the two other models S and X are also up. That is in stark contrast of what they can actually deliver at the moment. But let's not forget that the electric vehicle market does not just depend on Tesla because many other manufacturers are also releasing their electric vehicles. We've just mentioned the move by Volvo to announce that by 2019 all of their vehicles will have an electric component and in due course all of their vehicles will be fully electric. So this is now becoming a thing and there's an article in Wired which actually makes the point that even if Tesla were to fail they have already put the industry on the landscape and have created an almost unstoppable trajectory for EV's (electric vehicles) to become successful.
Sandra: So what Tesla managed to do is to make electric vehicles sexy. To drive the conversation mainstream for people who are absolutely in love with technology and love with things that are cutting edge.
Kai: Yes so there was an article actually that ask people who had a Model 3 on pre order what they liked about the model and it's pretty clear that it appeals to people who are technology savvy, were early adopters. So the car is really a gadget like the iPhone or other of those technologies. So it's really sexy, there's a simulator now online where you can play around with the dashboard which is a bit like an ipad it's all screens no knobs no buttons. Not sure that I find that a good idea because there's something to be said about having buttons that you can actually use while you're focussed on the road. But you know this is now what Tesla does. And I think that's important right. This is not a car for everyone.
Sandra: But a car for everyone will have to come. Right. If this is to become mainstream companies like Volvo will need to not just make the small sexy sports cars but rather the family cars.
Kai: The boring car that actually drives the most kilometres on a Saturday afternoon taking the kids to sports. All of those kilometres that people drive as they go about their daily business so I think it's important that we have something that captures the imagination of people in the first instance.
Sandra: But it's good to see companies like Volvo coming from behind and taking that up and taking it to the next step.
Kai: And there have been voices in the media that actually suggest that Elon Musk who is a visionary, whose ideas are grand, who dreams about new technology, should actually step back from running Tesla and get someone with experience in the automotive industry to run the company because the next steps in Tesla's trajectory will be pretty boring. It will be about execution, supply chain, manufacturing, economies of scale.
Sandra: Efficiency. Let's not forget the margins are very very small in the car manufacturing industry.
Kai: So while Tesla might be able to sustain a higher margin just like Apple in the mobile phone industry because their gadgets are sexy, Tesla will not be able to carry the entire world on their shoulders. They will lead the way but others will have to pick up the mass market. And so the next steps from here are really about execution and economies of scale.
Sandra: Which gives us time to have one more story today. And that is...
Kai: And that story is from The Guardian called "Millennial bug - why the digital native is a myth". So what's that about Sandra?
Sandra: So the story in the Guardian and quite a few other stories as well are reporting on the fact that digital natives seems to be a myth.
Kai: So this comes on the back of an editorial in Nature that reports on a review paper published in The Journal "Teaching and Teacher Education" which makes the point that what we think digital natives are isn't quite correct.
Sandra: Digital natives is really an idea that was born out of an essay a guy called Marc Prensky wrote in 2001 and this was a very influential essay that really claimed that there was this new generation, basically people born after 1984 who were digital natives. That means that they were born and had grown up in this digital age and that they were so skilled at dealing with this technology and processing multiple streams of information and using all the social media and everything else that was around then that made them somehow different, distinct, with different habits and different capacities to what he called digital immigrants. So people like you and I Kai born back in the day before 1984 who have been forced to adapt this strange and unfamiliar technologies and had to adapt to multitasking which really does not come naturally. At least to one of us.
Kai: Thanks Sandra.
Sandra: So this new review paper published in June in Teaching and Teacher Education really tries to say that this younger generation does not learn differently from us does not require this specialised multi stream technology rich different way and that there is no evidence to suggest that this is helping them in any way. Quite the contrary it might be hindering them.
Kai: It also makes the point that multitasking as such is a myth regardless of gender. Right, Sandra?
Sandra: Yes. So the article says three things. First that digital natives do not exist. Second that learners really cannot multitask - the task switching negatively impacts them just the same as it negatively impacts you (and you). And really that educational design that assumes that these myths do exist hinder rather than help people and this is very important because this idea of digital natives is jargon that has been used by companies, advertisers not only to sell to people under 30 but really to rethink how they shape their working environments, how they shape their training programs and really how we do education.
Kai: So from my own experience teaching undergraduate students I must say I agree. I have always found the idea that just by way of using technologies you would know so much more about them. Rather strange. Now I think what we can safely say is that for the so-called digital natives for people growing up today the Internet is not a thing right. We remember when the internet was new and that was all the rage and we grew up into the Internet as it became available. People today they do not go online. They just live their lives. Online is just there. It's not a thing, it's not a separate category, it's just part of the social fabric of how one goes about their daily lives and how you connect with people, how you consume media, how you get your entertainment, your music and everything else.
Sandra: Assuming that there is such a thing as digital natives it can actually be quite dangerous because the assumption that you're making, besides the fact that these people can multitask and can use freely technology, is also an assumption about how they view these technologies and how they understand them.
Kai: Yes. And so what I want to say is that for the most part they don't at all because those technologies are not front of mind. They're just there. So the analogy that I use is that just because you're proficient at driving a car doesn't necessarily mean that you know much about either the internal workings of the combustion engine or how you manage a fleet of cars in a business environment. So the point that I'm making is just the fact that you're proficient at using something doesn't mean that you know much about it. And any assumption otherwise is dangerous. So what I find rather is that students are often quite shocked when you point out the implications for example of the kind of data that is used, the traces you leave while you use digital technologies. The privacy implications, what goes into creating those services, managing those services. The economic implications of the data that people leave behind. So in other words the technologies have become so second nature that they have withdrawn from consciousness and there's really no need to reflect on the technologies where they're coming from, how they're being produced and who they benefit. That those things have to actually be raised and problematised for this generation.
Sandra: So businesses quite often assume that just because someone has the technical competence to do these things like driving a car just because they can use Facebook or they are proficient at doing Google searches that also and then implies that they have some critical competencies about what goes on in that space or that they even have the cultural competencies that would enable them to use them let's say in a large organisation or in the bank or in a commercial setting.
Kai: So I would say yes the digital natives might exist as a category but the way it has been described in the past to me does not make much sense. I think we need to distinguish living in the digital world and knowing about how that world actually works. And the distinction that I find useful is the one that philosopher Martin Heidegger makes between readiness to hand and presence at hand. For the most part things that we encounter in our daily lives they're just withdrawn from attention, they just work. We're so familiar with them that we have no need to actually make them an object of reflection. Presence at hand rather is when you know the word shows up for us as something to be thought about, to be analysed, as a problem to problematise. And the point that I want to make is precisely because the digital world is so normal and familiar to digital natives, it must be the job of educators to create situations of breakdown and to instill a process of critical reflection about the social economic implications of living in this digital world.
Sandra: So just to be clear there is no such thing as a digital native who is information skilled simply because he has grown up in a world that has never been not digital.
Kai: No. But there is such a thing as a generation for whom living in the digital world is normal but that does not necessarily mean that they have much explicit knowledge about it.
Sandra: And finally....
Audio: Robot of the Week
Sandra: Our robot of the week is Cartman the winner of the RoboCup.
Kai: Australia won the Amazon robotics challenge with a robot held together with cable ties.
Sandra: And we love cable ties.
Kai: We love cable ties. I do everything around the house with cable ties. Cable ties are really the new duct tape.
Sandra: So three days ago in Japan, QUT's Centre for Robotic Vision took out first prize and beat 16 teams from around the world, despite being the cheapest robot built and despite being the one that's held together by cables and put together in a day out of a suitcase.
Kai: So what is significant about this is that this robot is really a robot that can grab items from boxes by way of grip and suction and it builds on the centre's advancements in robotic vision and machine learning for identifying objects and then being able to grab and place those objects in boxes. Doesn't sound like a very exciting task but is still one that eludes robotics, as we've said previously that one of the biggest challenges in Amazon warehouses is that robots are not very good at gripping, grabbing, and placing certain objects so this is a step in that direction.
Sandra: And something that Amazon is still struggling to do especially in unstructured environment and something that is brilliant to see that Australia is really at the forefront of research, of development. So congrats to our colleagues at QUT, well done, and only fitting that we would mention it on robot of the week and that is all we have time for today. Thanks for listening.
Kai: 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. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, Sticher or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online, on Twitter, and on Flipboard. If you have any news you want us to discuss please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.