This week: fixing the web, the farmer wants a bot, and big gigs and solar in the rain in other news. 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.
Sandra: Today on The Future, This Week: fixing the web, the farmer wants a bot, and big gigs and solar in the rain in other news. 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: Well the World Wide Web turned 29 this year and its daddy is not happy. Our first story is from Engadget and is titled "The father of the world wide web is one disappointed dad". It reports on an open letter by Tim Berners-Lee, one of the inventors of the world wide web, who talks about the changes that the web has undergone in the past almost three decades starting out as a Utopian vision of a space in which everyone can have a say, a democratic space for sharing information and what has become of it given that much of the World Wide Web is now in the hands of just a few what is called in the article "colossal platforms".
Sandra: So his biggest criticism is really this fact that rather than having all those little blogs and little sites with different bits of information you have a few dominant companies that are really the gatekeepers of what ideas and what opinions and what is really shared on the Internet.
Kai: 80 percent of all online searches worldwide are done via Google. Facebook has more than 2.2 billion monthly active users, that's about 20 times what MySpace had at its peak and 60 percent of all digital advertising spend worldwide is cashed in by Facebook and Google and it's much higher that percentage in the West of course.
Sandra: Tim also highlights that these dominant platforms have also been able to lock in their positions pretty much by creating this huge barriers to entry but also by acquiring all their little startups, all the smaller companies and bigger companies that are starting to challenge their positions by buying up not only the companies themselves but also by being a very attractive space for programmers and for talent in the industry to work in.
Kai: Yeah or by becoming the infrastructure for many of the smaller businesses in for example the app economy and that was on display recently when an outage of Amazon Web Services took out large parts of the Internet as a whole leading to outages in many many different services.
Sandra: But also through something more sinister that is dubbed the weaponisation of the Internet where fake news, the ability to influence politics or public opinion, the ability to put forward conspiracy theories as truth, has really allowed various groups of actors to manipulate large parts of the public.
Kai: And so Tim Berners-Lee ends his open letter with a few suggestions of what can be done to make changes to the status quo and fighting what has become known as the fake news crisis. And that's the angle that we want to highlight today and incidentally there have been a whole number of articles that approach this problem of trying to fix this problem that we have discussed on the podcast previously from different angles.
Sandra: One of the solutions that Tim brings up is creating a new legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives rather than letting tech platforms try to self regulate or self solve these problems. Bringing in the new regulatory framework to address these issues. And we have indeed seen attempts to do this both in the European Union and in the US. In the EU for instance we've seen regulation being used to try to encourage media companies to sign up to voluntary codes of conduct that would encourage them to take down inappropriate content much more often. This is mainly aimed at illegal type of content so for instance videos that would support terrorist groups and so on. And we know that the European Commission is also looking at other types of content, things like hate speech or copyrighted material that would follow the same voluntary codes of conduct.
Kai: In fact in Germany it has been mandated by law that when a platform company such as Facebook is made aware of any such content they have an obligation to take it down within 24 hours and otherwise risk a severe penalty of up to 50 million euros.
Sandra: We've also seen efforts for instance in the UK where only last month the ministers have unveiled a tool that the government has developed which uses artificial intelligence to moderate online content and there are ongoing discussions of whether or not to actually force tech companies to use this tool.
Kai: Yeah and so Tim Berners-Lee goes on to say that given the size and dominance of these two big platforms Facebook and Google that we really have to talk about their business models and he says that there's two myths that are currently limiting our collective imagination and he calls them the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for these companies and the myth that it is too late to change the way these platforms operate. So he says we need to have an open discussion given that they have become essential infrastructure for a lot of the things that we do online that we have to have a collective discussion on how to change and shape these platforms to serve wider objectives than just monetising people's data for the sake of the shareholders of these companies.
Sandra: And this really highlights this idea that as long as these companies are restrained by this one way of maximising their profit, there really will be no good solutions that can arise either from them self-regulating or from us trying to constrain the types of activities that they can engage in.
Kai: Yes and so it is here that we want to actually widen our gaze a little and look at what else has been reported this week because given that this fake news crisis, the weaponisation of the web is now being discussed in many different ways, there have been a few developments in this area. So first of all the EU has commissioned a report to inform its commissioners around what can be done to address these problems and in this report there are some interesting ideas being highlighted.
Sandra: So the report highlighted five core areas that would actually provide a response to what is happening and the first one really asks for an increase in transparency of online news and really strengthening of the privacy regulation around the type of data that can be used online to target certain groups of consumers or certain users on these platforms. The second area asked for developing a set of tools for empowering users and journalism to tackle this disinformation and engage differently with information technologies and we've actually seen a response from YouTube in this space.
Kai: Yes so Quartz this week reported that YouTube is now also enlisting Wikipedia to help fight conspiracy theories and fake news and we've discussed previously on the podcast that Facebook has also drawn on Wikipedia as a trustworthy source of information and knowledge to weed out fake news so interestingly both of the platforms are now enlisting the largest non for profit volunteer network to help solve its problems so that's an interesting fact in itself, and they are putting the burden on this community, but it also highlights that Wikipedia is finally graduating from you know what's often called by school teachers an untrustworthy source because anyone can edit anything (which is not true really) to the gold standard for knowledge and knowledge creation on the web. The other two areas highlighted were safeguarding the diversity and sustainability of the news media ecosystem and promoting continued research. So other than the fifth area of interest which was promoting media and information literacy to help users, really the other four areas go back to core aspects that were also highlighted in the letter that have to do with regulation and really with interfering with the business model that is the data that these companies collect that allow them to have an advertising business model.
Kai: To sum up so far there's two big areas: regulating the market, strengthening privacy and therefore drying up the access to all kinds of data that these platforms might have, ensuring diversity in the media market and strengthening other outlets besides those two, increasing transparency of the algorithms employed also through regulation and then enlisting the platforms themselves to help and try to weed out the worst parts of this fake news crisis and we've discussed previously that Facebook and also google for YouTube have hired thousands of people that deal with the symptoms of the algorithms promoting this type of conspiracy theories and fake news but also to then label content clearly and enlisting Wikipedia. So these are the two big areas but we want to also discuss and highlight a third one that is often overlooked. And that's all of us.
Sandra: The role WE ourselves play in how the fake news, the conspiracy theories, the inappropriate content gets share around the web.
Kai: And so I want to highlight an article in Tech Crunch also this week which reports on research done at M.I.T. and published in the journal Science which has found that it's actually us who are, you know no surprise, sharing fake news, false news as they call it not to buy into Trump's narrative and they say it's somehow in human nature to share things that are either surprising, that are outrageous and outside of the normal, so this is a serious study done by a team around Sinan Aral who is an information systems researcher and who has in the past employed quite innovative quantitative data analysis to track how information propagates via email and so he is an expert in this sort of study and they have controlled for all kinds of different effects - so is it bots sharing this information? No it's actually us and they were able to distinguish between true and false news because they only tracked tweets that were verified by independent fact checking organisations such as Snopes, Politifact, Factcheck.Org, Truth or Fiction, Hoax Slayer and About.com. So a rigorously done study which finds that false news is not only shared much more widely but also much faster, even though the people who share those false news usually have fewer followers, are newer on Twitter are not the most prolific users. So really interesting results there.
Sandra: And this goes back to the incentives that are built into the platforms where such news is shared. So whether it's Facebook or Twitter or other social media platforms the way people share is gamified. Every time I share something that gets more likes or more retweets I'm likely to share similar types of content in order to get more followers get more likes more retweet and this really becomes a binary matter: my content is either shared or not shared, either liked or not liked, retweeted or not retweeted. There is no nuance, no gray area, no this was somewhat good or somewhat bad.
Kai: Yeah and so you could argue that in many respects when people are engaged in their Facebook or Twitter newsfeeds we all tend to behave a little bit like bots. Since the platforms are gamified and we have an incentive to share what we think other people will then retweet and reshare people are much more likely to share the kind of things that are more surprising, that are a bit outrageous and therefore they propagate false news much more easily than things that are true and therefore unsurprising or a bit boring.
Sandra: So one way to overcome this would be to be a bit more mindful about the way in which we consume our media. Quite often on social platforms we are fed a constant stream of other people's likes, other people's shares, being a bit more mindful about the way we access our news media and actually actively seeking out new sources that we wish to engage with outlets that we know are reputable.
Kai: So rather than consuming a news feed which as the name suggests is being put together by someone else and then fed to us, what we need to do is be more mindful about where do we get our news from going to the sources that actually create those news rather than consume what has already been pre-commentated or pre-digested by other people and where we actually don't know where things are coming from.
Sandra: And this also allows us to get outside the bubbles that get created in the social media platforms and we've spoke about this previously on The Future, This Week. One of the byproducts of social media platforms has also been the fact that it's done a significant amount of harm to the way we collectively approach news feeds by creating these little bubbles where we only read the same things that our friends read that reinforce our own opinions. So being more mindful about how we consume our media allows us to also go to divergent news sources or news outlets that allow us a more diverse view of what's happening.
Kai: And that is also the topic of yet another article this week which we want to highlight - in the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo who we've featured on the podcast previously who has gone to some more radical measures: "For two months I got my news from print newspapers. Here's what I learnt" is the title of this piece. And so he says that he has shut off his social media, his news feeds, he still listens to podcasts as you should.
Sandra: Especially The Future, This Week now on Spotify.
Kai: Absolutely. And some long form articles that he got online but other than that he got his news from the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Obviously he's self-aware and says okay you know you have a New York Times writer tell you you should read more New York Times. But the point that he's making and the experiences that he's reporting on are actually quite interesting.
Sandra: So the first thing he's noticed is actually spending a lot less time rather than the constant beeping of the phone with one more tweet and one more news alert he was actually spending a lot less time reading the news but he was also engaging more deeply with the facts and with longer form stories that provided a lot more information, a lot more of the actual news story rather than knee jerk reactions that people have online, quite often the stories that get shared online gets shared with opinion over fact and emphasise a certain point of view. So what he notes is that he spent quite a bit of time engaging deeply with fewer news issues maybe but being better informed by the end of the process.
Kai: He also noticed that there's value in not receiving your news too quickly and he highlights this with the Parkland Florida shooting where online people were bombarded with early commentary and opinionated pieces, conspiracy theories, and just fake news while it took the truth as the MIT report highlighted a little longer to come through and hit people's news feeds. So he says to get all of this a day later meant that yes he didn't get it in real time but what he got was actually curated by experts and gave a much more balanced view than was available in the early minutes online. So the idea here is not that we're encouraging everyone to basically subscribe to print newspapers and stop getting their news online, the idea is simply to be slightly more mindful about the sources and curate a bit more and try to go out and actively seek out news sources not just be fed.
Kai: But Farhad Manjoo is much more blunt in his assessment and advice so he's got three pieces of advice: get news not just opinionated commentary and seek out your news in the sources you trust, don't get it too quickly, and the third one importantly don't get your news from social media such as Facebook and Google. So he calls it the most important rule of all because the built in incentives on Twitter and Facebook as in the monetisation of their news feeds means that they always reward speed over depth. Hot takes over facts and season propaganda over well-meaning analysis of the news in his words.
Kai: His advice really echoes what Michael Pollan wrote more than 10 years ago trying to look at the diet that we all have and he basically summarised his book much to the unhappiness of his editor probably but he summarised his book in three short sentences: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Similar way we have: Get news. Not too quickly. Avoid social.
Kai: Oh and we want to add to that hashtag: stop sharing shit.
Sandra: So this has been a long discussion to get us to #stopsharingshit as one of the solutions to the problems that we have as the World Wide Web turns 29. But before we finish this story I just want to point one thing the letter that Tim Berners-Lee wrote actually had two big areas that he wanted to highlight and one of them as we discussed was the one that most media outlets picked up, the one that was discussed in every major newspaper which was...
Kai: The fake news story. Basically.
Sandra: Do we want to be connected to the web that we have today? But the first aspect he wanted to point out which really didn't get much coverage was how do we get the other half of the world connected. So he emphasised quite strongly the need to close the digital gap. The fact that large groups of the world's population actually aren't connected to this Internet with all its faults and all its problems and that closing the divide between people who do have access to the internet and those who do not have is extremely important.
Kai: So he highlights that the UN in 2016 declared Internet access a basic human right, on par with clean water, electricity, shelter and food but that half of the world population are still deprived of this basic human right. And that in some African countries mobile data is actually more expensive than it is in the West to the extent that one gigabyte of mobile broadband can be up to 20 percent of an average monthly income.
Sandra: So let's not forget as the World Wide Web turns 29 that there are many and especially if there are female and poor and live in a low income country who do not have access to services to the ability to participate in debate to be better informed and who probably, unless we seriously invest in this, will not be connected until at least 2042.
Kai: So while Tim Berners-Lee points us to solving the human right for Internet access and being connected to the rest of the world, our second story highlights another of those human rights which is access to food and preparing the world for resource security and innovation and agriculture that aims to solve the problem of feeding a growing population on our planet.
Sandra: So our second story for today comes from Forbes and it's titled "The incredible ways John Deere is using artificial intelligence to transform farming". And whilst the article is not really describing incredible ways John Deere is transforming farming, it is allowing us to talk a little bit about the transformations that are going on in farming and agriculture. The article highlights really a company that was recently acquired by John Deere, a company called Blue River Technology that is using advanced machine learning algorithms to enable a certain type of farming robots to make decisions in the field.
Sandra: Yes literally. On a plant by plant basis rather than on a field by field basis. So what's happening here is that using machine learning and visual data, the robot delivers pesticides in a, and I quote, accurate measured blast of chemicals to each plant that needs it rather than applying it to a whole field.
Kai: And so where this is heralded as an innovation to save on dangerous and costly pesticides, Sandra and I want to highlight that we're also very fond of the weed punching robot that we've previously discussed on the podcast.
Sandra: So arguably why do you need pesticides at all?
Kai: And so this is where the Forbes article also ventures into many other areas of agricultural innovation that we see happening at the moment and where another couple of articles this week are proving that technology in agriculture is really a big topic for this year, where automation, self-driving robots are happening now not just as a vision much like in autonomous vehicles more broadly.
Sandra: So we want to talk about this because innovation in agriculture is something that we sorely need and that resource security is one of the megatrends we have at The University of Sydney Business School. We know that we need a 35 percent increase in global food production by 2050 if we are to feed the population that we have given a diminishing high yield land that we can enlist for agriculture and given the population growth that we are expecting. We need to be able to use agricultural technology to improve crop yields. So there are a number of trends that we're seeing at the moment.
Kai: We've discussed previously the idea of precision farming and the robot that punches or sprays pesticides on weeds is one such example where decisions about applying either seeds or fertiliser or pesticides are now made at a much more granular level than was previously possible and that draws on a combination of technologies such as satellite data, drones for mapping out the landscape, computer vision technology with cameras, machine learning. So all of these technologies coming together to create what is called precision farming but that we're seeing a trend now that goes to what is called predictive farming or predictive agriculture where all of this data and learning over time after precision agriculture has been in the field for a few years now that we are actually using this data to predict yield for example that we are predicting more accurately how much seeds we need, how much pesticides we need and that we're actually much better able to foresee problems and therefore react to how crops are developing for example.
Sandra: This is also changing the dynamics of industries like finance and insurance in agriculture. Not only are we better able to predict how we can improve the crop yields that we have but similar technologies have developed for instance the University of Illinois recently has put forward the very low cost agricultural robot that can collect data and scout out fields not only for farmers but also for seed companies and financiers or bankers. What this robot does is it measures the traits of individual plants using a variety of sensors including cameras and image recognition algorithms and it transmits that data in real time to people who can then assess how well a crop is doing, what the yield will be, what needs to be done. So this has the potential to really transform how we think about finance and insurance.
Kai: And so an article in Tech Crunch this week reports on many of these developments in agricultural practices and highlights that we're seeing this in the marketplace as well where a lot of the large agricultural businesses have taken much more interest in recent times in tech startups and there's more venture capital flowing into the area and large businesses are starting to buy up and merge and acquire the knowledge so that this has really become a hotbed for innovation and Silicon Valley puts much more emphasis on agriculture and food production not just the kind of lab meat that we discussed last week but also innovation in traditional agriculture. And a second arm of this is not just how data changes agriculture practice but that we're actually developing awesome new machines and this is where we have.
Audio: Robot of the week.
Sandra: The Dot Power Platform. The dot isn't just a tractor who can drive without a human so it's the first autonomous vehicle literally in the field. It's truly a jack of all trades.
Kai: And here I want to read out a piece of agricultural poetry from the Wired article. It's the transformer of ag-bots, capable of performing hundred plus jobs, from hay baler and seeder to rock picker and manure spreader, via an arsenal of tool modules. And though the hulking machine can carry 40000 pounds, it navigates fields with balletic precision.
Sandra: I want one.
Kai: I reckon they're pretty pricey. It doesn't say but it'll probably set you back more than a few thousand dollars.
Sandra: I'm a big fan of tractors and this sounds like the ultimate tractor.
Kai: But what we want to highlight is that automation in agriculture is really happening right now and it has an impact on how we do agriculture and on the labour market as well.
Sandra: On the one hand it promises to help out with the labour shortages that we are seeing especially in seasonal picking of various fruits and vegetables. A good example from the article is the harvest crew, a strawberry picking robot where one robot promises to pick twenty five acres of strawberries in three days that is replacing a crew of 30 people to do that.
Kai: And so for the Australian experience that means that going forward there might be much less jobs that are performed by seasonal workers such as backpackers travelling the country but that it solves a real problem for the farmers because those jobs are usually not easy to fill. So in many areas of especially fruit farming there is always the uncertainty do I have enough workers to actually get my harvest done or will I be faced with fruit rotting on the trees.
Sandra: And while it's tempting to stay with robots especially such as those from Abundant Robotics which suck ripe fruit straight from the branches of trees with vacuums and maybe starting to highlight that is actually Google behind the company that makes this we are going to move on to Future Bytes.
Kai: Our short stories. So Sandra apart from those big stories, what else did you learn this week?
Sandra: So my first quick story is around the gig economy. It's a story from Tech Republic that really looks what were the highest paying jobs in the gig economy. Quite often with talk about the sharing economy, the gig economy and we talk about freelancers in terms of Airtaker or Uber and of course it's a good week to talk about that - Ikea just got into the sharing economy with low cost access to labour that will assemble your furniture.
Kai: We also had the whole discussion around the MIT story that reported low wages in ride-sharing Lyft and Uber and we briefly talked about that last week.
Sandra: So this was a good opportunity to have a look at whether the highest paying jobs in the gig economy and the article lists the ten jobs that will get you the highest salary and it did that by examining skills where client billings grew as well as the hourly rates grew for hundreds of freelancers and they looked at popular websites such as Upwork or Freelancer or PeoplePerHour or Helpstaffs and Guru.
Kai: So really what we're talking about is highly skilled freelancers.
Sandra: Number one is an AI, artificial intelligence, or deep learning expert. This will average about a hundred and fifteen US dollars an hour. So if you're an expert in machine learning and you develop algorithms using Tensorflow or Python or Java or Matlab then you're likely to be in the top earning category. Not surprisingly the following are all tech jobs we've then got blockchain architect for 87 dollars an hour, robotics freelancers for seventy seven dollars an hour, followed by ethical hacking, cryptocurrency specialists, Amazon Web Services.
Kai: Are they paid in bitcoin?
Sandra: No they're paid sixty five dollars an hour.
Kai: Fiat currency, that's surprising.
Sandra: Amazon Web Services, lambda coders, virtual reality and augmented reality experts.
Kai: So these are all technology skills.
Sandra: Once we get to number ten and down to thirty one dollars an hour, we have Instagram marketing. This is no longer really a tech or a coding job, Instagram marketers just promote businesses or clients on Instagram including creating content and developing the voice of the brand then finding out what the relevant hashtags would be and engaging users to grow the following for the client or the service.
Kai: So looking at the list then it's not surprising and given the stories that we've been discussing where things are headed in the world that most of those jobs rely on tech and I.T. skills right?
Sandra: So Kai what was one of your short news stories for the week?
Kai: Yes so mine is from Science Alert and it reports on breakthrough research apparently that will allow to create so-called hybrid solar cells that you wouldn't believe it can actually harvest electricity from raindrops.
Sandra: So are my solar panels are going to catch rain?
Kai: No they're not going to catch rain but they're going to utilise the force that the rain drop exerts on the panel and transform this into electricity and apparently they use so-called tribal electric nano generators that can convert a mechanical energy into electricity. And so by applying a layer of these little tiny generators on top of solar panels researchers from Soochow University in China hope to create a kind of solar panel that works in any weather which is really great news for my home country Germany which counterintuitively has one of the highest roof solar penetration in the world, given that it rains a lot in this country that might be good news going forward and also solve a mighty problem with solar generation which is that you only get output when the sun is shining and you need other forms of electricity generation in the meantime. So while this is not ready for prime time yet it seems to be a really interesting development.
Sandra: This might also go some way towards helping us build the type of clean energy we need and we're nowhere near doing this fast enough. Interestingly there was a study done about 15 years ago by a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution who calculated how much clean energy capacity would the world need to create every day between the years 2000 and 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change. And last week he did another back of the envelope calculation to see how well we are faring and it looks like at the rate we're going now it's going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system. So this might help out. We cannot go without mentioning that Stephen Hawking has died, arguably the most famous physicist on earth has passed away at the age of 76. So not only has he made incredible contributions to the field of theoretical physics and helped us understand what happens in black holes, what happened when the universe was young, he was incredibly skilled at explaining very complex matters to the rest of the world. His book from the 80s 'A brief history of time' is the most read physics book in history but he has also popularised some of the most complicated concepts in science through TV shows like The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek. In addition to being really really a brilliant scientist he has also become a cultural icon and before he passed away, over the last few years he started being concerned not only with understanding nature and contributing to science but also understanding what this is doing to humanity. And a few years ago he thought humanity only had about a thousand years left. He revised that last year and warned that we probably only have 100 years left if we fail to address dangers associated with climate change and the ability to create powerful weapons.
Kai: And so Stephen Hawking made the prediction that by that time in a hundred years we will have to become an interplanetary species and colonise other planets if at the current rate of development humanity is to survive. Which brings me to my last point to highlight that Stephen Hawking himself was an incredible human being and an inspiration for what humans can do in the face of absolutely adversarial circumstances with grit and humour. Has he inspired not only a generation of scientists but people more generally.
Sandra: So Stephen Hawking: transcending space and time.
Kai: We leave you with this for the week. Thanks for listening.
Sandra: 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 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, Spotify, Stitcher, 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 email@example.com.
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