The Future, This Year: the most interesting, the weird and the wonderful, what’s in store for 2018, and a Christmas story. 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.
Some of the stories this year
The 2017 Juicero Award
The 2017 Robot of the Year
Our theme music was composed and played by Linsey Pollak.
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For more episodes of The Future, This Week see our playlists.
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. Okay let's roll.
The Future, This Year: the most interesting, the weird and the wonderful, what's in store for 2018, and a Christmas story.
Sandra Peter: I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai Riemer: I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra: So Kai, it's that time of the year. What happened in the future this year?
Kai: A lot.
Sandra: Indeed. We have covered over a hundred and twenty new stories this year in 42 episodes of the future this week.
Kai: And a shit load of other stories that we brought up along the way. So how did we end up doing this?
Megan Wedge: I ask myself that every week.
Kai: That was Megan our editor from the back of the room.
Sandra: So we've been having these conversations about what the news of the week means for the future of business and how do we understand what's happening behind the news.
Kai: Well we'd been sitting around coffee shops and discussing things and someone said well you should record this and you know...
Sandra: ...we did. For the next year.
Kai: So we thought it's time close to Christmas and since this is the last episode of the year to look back over some of the stories - what are the ones that we've discussed a lot, what are the most interesting, which do you think are the most important ones, which are weird and wonderful, which are a little scary, disappointing, surprising. We've had more than 20 robots that we discussed.
Sandra: And we need to have a robot of the year. We need to award the Juicero Award. And we need to figure out what's going to happen next year?
Kai: Yeah well we all know and we've discussed it previously, predictions are bullshit but we're gonna do it anyway right.
Sandra: So we had a number of stories that kept coming back time and time again this year.
Kai: Yeah obviously we talked a lot about AI, we talked about self-driving cars, we talked about the environment and batteries, a surprising number of times.
Sandra: Taxes came up quite a bit.
Kai: Cities - we talked about moving to the cities to battle climate change, the Hyperloop, is Uber and self-driving cars changing our cities, bike sharing.
Sandra: City experiments.
Kai: And the value of the kerb just recently.
Sandra: We also talked quite a surprising number of times about going into space.
Kai: Yeah we talked about growing food like on the Martian.
Sandra: The Australian Space Project.
Kai: And Elon Musk trying to flee the robots into space.
Sandra: Asgardia the space nation.
Kai: Yeah that was a weird one.
Sandra: We talked a whole lot about Elon Musk. We ended up with a segment "It's a Musk".
Kai: And AI there was a lot of AI and interestingly the AI story changed a lot across the year so there was a lot of news that we saw early on that sounded scary - AI is going to take over the world, you know that jobs will all be gone so it was a very negative story and it took a while ...
Sandra: It was ruining sports. Bundesliga.
Kai: But then during the year the narrative in the media changed, they were more balanced, more measured approaches to discussing AI and some of the early stats were questioned - will 40 percent of all jobs really disappear? And we had some really significant stories about the real problems of AI about bias, about the computer says no. The cases of the Irish engineer who couldn't pass the English language test. We talked about the big five companies deflecting responsibility, blaming the algorithm.
Sandra: We talked about privacy and artificial intelligence. We explored a number of times how would we think about regulating AI.
Kai: So overall this started out with a very techno positive slant, AI is taking over the world and there will be lots of fall out but over time we've learned that it's not quite that simple.
Sandra: And a lot of the real problems behind AI are actually quite complex and need unpacking and we had to do that a number of times. It's not something easily done and it's not something readily captured in a tweet.
Kai: It's the gift that kept on giving. So every week there were stories to choose from.
Sandra: So in today's special we're going to go over some of the most interesting, most important, weird, wonderful, out there, scary, surprising, disappointing.
Sandra: Let's start.
Kai: Let's start. What's your most interesting story of the year Sandra?
Sandra: Well I've struggled with this from garbage to digital humans.
Kai: There's so many.
Sandra: There's just so many of them. I think I'm going to land on China stories. We've done a couple of stories on the fact that there is no e-mail in China, just doesn't make sense in a country that has gone straight to mobile. We've recently talked about the Digital Silk Road. So all this stories coming together to say how the Internet is actually different in China.
Kai: Which also means that we often discuss the big five in the West and the big three in China as separate stories because there is a surprising lack of intersection between those digital worlds of China and the West.
Sandra: And since we're doing the future, this week, just this morning TechCrunch announced that Google is opening a China based research lab focusing on artificial intelligence. In a country where its products are banned, Google is going to open an artificial intelligence lab. So this is again highlighting this idea that what's happening there is actually quite important. And initiatives like the Digital Silk Road this idea of building digital infrastructure, trade agreements and so on for China's digital exports will come back I think again and again. But this was one of the most interesting stories for me.
Kai: Okay. I had a few. So first of all we discussed a lot about Instagram and there was a lot in there the way in which Instagram shapes the physical world in which what happens in your apps and online actually has an influence on our tastes. So we had this story on the 2nd of June how machine logic infiltrates human taste. So that was interesting but two stories stood out for me. Fake milk the story we had on the 10th of March which for me is incidentally and I'll just make it into a category the best story with the least listens. So this was as an early episode which a lot of people haven't caught up on but the fake milk story for me is one worth re-listening. So this was a story about who owns what milk is with lots of plant based so-called milk products like almond milk and...
Sandra:...rice milk, soy milk, coconut milk.
Kai: Yeah but are they milk? Right, so that's the argument. Milk is really something that comes from an animal, can plant based products be milk? Who gets to own what milk is? How do we shape the ontology of everyday life? How do we actually innovate in categories where we try to make a point of having something different that we bring into the category to benefit from the established notion of milk. So I think this is an industry.
Sandra: Who decides what milk is?
Kai: Absolutely so fake milk or not, this is interesting because it comes back time and time again when we innovate and we create new categories so I thought that was an interesting story.
Sandra: So our milk story was a bit weird. What was the weirdest story for you?
Kai: Oh there were a few. There was crows nipping butts. We had some interesting feedback on this one. Are we overthinking this? Yes, you are. But for me the weirdest two were definitely Asgardia the space nation.
Sandra: Yeah I had that one as well.
Kai: Yeah but also, and this came up twice across the year, bullying self-driving cars. On the 24th of March in one of our first episodes we had this artist who had a project capturing self-driving cars by painting weird symbols onto the street and then we had this discussion about self-driving cars being released into Manhattan and worries that people would bully self-driving cars into breaking. That's a story from the 27th of October. So what was your weirdest one?
Sandra: Asgardia was definitely on my shortlist. Asgardia was the space nation story. The idea of new institutions or new inventions that come up at the fringes often driven by this ideology of freedom of information sharing or working against the establishment and they are often initially dismissed as bullshit or irrelevant but quite often those things come up then in the form of quite serious innovation and we've seen that with Bitcoin.
Kai: And while we discussed Asgardia at the beginning of the year, there's an update because just a few days ago Asgardia, or the Russian billionaire Igor Ashurbeyli who is behind this initiative announced that they had successfully launched their first satellite. And so they are actually in possession of their own territory in space now.
Sandra: And all the implications of that back in our 16th of June episode but for me the weirdest and most wonderful story was another one we've done in June when in the south of France the French were training golden eagles to spot drones and perform mid-air take downs off rogue drones and a very very sad update to the eagle story. Police in the Netherlands who were ready to deploy a team of eagles to take down rogue drones said that they've now stopped using the birds because training them turns out to be more expensive and more complicated than anticipated.
Kai: No shit Sherlock.
Sandra: Yep that was in The Verge yesterday.
Kai: So these big eagles taking down drones is pretty scary right.
Sandra: Yeah I think we should pick our scariest story of the year.
Kai: So for me the scariest one was the development over the year when we learned just how powerful the so-called Frightful Five are and the accidental damage that they do with their algorithms in promoting right wing propaganda, in creating echo chambers, getting so-called presidents elected. And there was a standout story for me on the first of September about Facebook and how Facebook secretly gathers information that we're not aware of to then recommend contacts to us with which we had recent contact in the physical world and it borders on the outright creepy to think where Facebook might be getting this information.
Sandra: To me I think the scariest story is one that's been coming back again and again, one time was back in September - September 8th podcast - this idea of a fake future. The idea of what artificial intelligence can actually do today. And in that episode we talked about fake reviews. And AI was writing totally believable product reviews with really staggering implications when they're indistinguishable from the real deal because humans rate them as believable but also as useful. And this comes along other stories like the fake Russian Facebook accounts, researchers from the University of Washington having recently released fake videos, this is President Obama appearing to very convincingly saying things that he has been made to say and we can realistically now create fake videos. Just last week there was another news that NVIDIA has again made steps towards the fake future where they've created AI capable of creating images of people out of thin air and they now one that can change the weather very convincingly, turn day into night, even change a leopard's spots. Fake future. That's my scary story.
Kai: And in The Verge, just two days ago, an article "AI tools will make it easy to create fake porn of just about anybody". There you have it.
Sandra: So which category does that go into?
Kai: Weird, wonderful, scary?
Sandra: Or disappointment of the year. I think we should definitely reflect back on 2017 because there have been quite a few disappointments this year.
Kai: So my biggest disappointment of the year would be wearables. So looking back at the year and how we started out this looked like a promising category - we were discussing Apple Watch and Fitbits and all of the excitement around wearables but this topic has all but disappeared. So Apple is supposedly selling a fair few of their Apple watches but the narrative around what wearables are and what they can become and that they are the new killer application that will carry the tech industry has completely not played out that way.
Sandra: They certainly haven't become a mainstream topic. For me one of the big disappointments of the year has to be Watson.
Kai: Oh yeah. Okay yeah I change my mind.
Sandra: We discussed this quite recently and it was Watson For Oncology who far from delivering the A.I. derived insights for cancer treatment that it was hyped to be, turned out to be no more than a mechanical turk. Whilst using artificial intelligence it relied really heavily on a small panel of experts from one New York Hospital and all the treatment recommendations failed to deliver on the hype that AI promised in the field of cancer treatment.
Kai: Yeah and while we discussed that AI still has a lot to offer in the medical field thinking of image recognition and the like it turns out that IBM has promised too much and that progress in this field is slower than expected.
Sandra: Very disappointed at also the risk that this sort of over promise and over hype will discredit the notion of machine learning in healthcare where we desperately actually need more investment and more people supporting this so that it can become the tool that it was promised to be. Let's talk about something slightly happier.
Kai: Yeah so Watson was a bit of a surprise as a story but there were other surprises so what's your surprise of the year?
Sandra: Well my surprise of the year would have to go back to your disappointment around wearables. Disappointing indeed wearables had one small niche surprise to deliver and that was last week the Kardia Band was the first Apple Watch accessory to be FDA approved in the US, you would replace your normal Apple Watch band and it would use sensors and the Kardia app to monitor heart rate and do EKGs on the fly. And one of the cardiologists at UCLA School of Medicine who's been involved this this is really a paradigm shift for cardiac care and there's this huge advance in health care. Today EKGs can only be done in offices and hospitals with complex equipment and usually only after you've had a stroke for instance but you could do it from your Apple Watch. So this is a small step in the direction that we would like to see wearables move. That was my surprise of the year. What was yours?
Kai: Okay. So I was really surprised by just how labour intensive this whole algorithmic business is. We've talked about click farms back on the 19th of May.
Sandra: Oh yeah, that was the story where people had these farms of iPhones and were clicking one at a time on different apps to try to move them in the top rated apps and so on.
Kai: Yes so just the lengths to which people go to employ people sometimes robots to game the systems by which to earn advertising dollars for example but also conversely the number of people and we're talking in the thousands here that are employed by Google and Facebook to weed out just the tip of the iceberg of the most crude results that algorithms surface around placing inappropriate ads next to videos.
Sandra: Yeah indeed we discussed Facebook employing I think it was eight and a half thousand people to help with this effort and the sheer numbers that seem to actually not be making a huge difference.
Kai: That was completely surprising to me just how many people are employed to weed out the most obvious mistakes that these are algorithms are making. I was not prepared for this.
Sandra: Yes well we were not prepared for a few things that we've discussed this year.
Kai: One of those was Juicero.
Sandra: Yeah this has led to a whole new category that we've discussed - the Juicero Award.
Kai: The Juicero Award for the most unapologetic use of technology to solve a trivial user problem resulting in hilarious outcomes.
Sandra: But this year because it's the inaugural Juicero Award it would have to go to Juicero.
Kai: The lavishly designed seven hundred dollar juicer that was capable of squeezing juice from pre-bagged juice pulp.
Sandra: Let's not forget this is a Silicon Valley startup that got a hundred and twenty million dollars from investors. And turns out users could squeeze the packets with their hands and turn the content into juice slightly faster than the machine could.
Kai: And has become an exemplar for the kind of absurd hyped innovation that isn't.
Sandra: Where we give huge sums of money to solve problems we don't actually have.
Kai: Well which brings us to our next award.
Audio: Robot of the week.
Sandra: And there have been many robots to choose from.
Kai: We've had agricultural robots, we had the Apple harvesting robot, we had Intellos, the weed guard, we had Tertill the weed whacker.
Sandra: We had the bosch one which actually made it to the very top of my shortlist the one that would punch wheat to death in the tenth of a second, it physically would punch them back into the ground.
Kai: We had robots that patrol public places - like Leo and Kate that help visitors at the airport. The Dubai Robocop and the poor Knightscope guard that drowned itself in a shopping mall pond.
Sandra: We had robots dueling, we had sumo robots, we had Eagle Prime the battle of the biggest baddest robots in the world.
Kai: We had robots dancing in synchronicity. And we had little toys Qoobo the tail wagging cat robot, the stormtrooper, the Kuri companion, and Flobi the human touch hand robot. But the robot of the year fairly and squarely goes to the first ever robot we discussed.
Sandra: The one that incidentally set off this whole category which is still the best robot we've come across.
Kai: Which was in our 1st of April episode.
Sandra: A robot that was burning Donald Trump's tweets as they happen. It would print out a Trump tweet on a piece of paper it would then burn it, also video record it and tweeted back to @realdonaldtrump. I burnt your tweet.
Kai: A worthy winner in our category.
Sandra: So it's been a big year. Even with 120 stories there's still some we actually missed. We almost missed Bitcoin.
Kai: Yeah that's the one that almost slipped through.
Sandra: We had a go at it last week.
Kai: We still haven't quite caught up with Blockchain but that's a big one that will come back next year. But there's one other topic which we think we haven't discussed and we haven't given due credit to and that's one that is emerging that it's not on everyone's radar but will have a big impact.
Sandra: It has to do with biology and genetics and technologies that allow genetic material to be modified, added, removed, altered. So things like CRISPR. We haven't talked about those. So for the first time this year scientists have actually managed to make precise changes in DNA.
Kai: CRISPR stands for, for what it's worth, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. So spelled CRISPR and it refers to a family of DNA sequences in bacteria. And this can be used for what's known as genome editing or genome engineering which is a way of DNA editing in living organisms with a lot of potential for curing of diseases.
Sandra: And in general genetic editing of not only humans but viruses, bacteria, animals, plants. So a whole field of biotechnology with huge ethical implications...
Kai: ...potentials for creating personalised medicine or editing out genetic defects in humans.
Sandra: A very big story that I'm sure we'll come back to in 2018.
Kai: Speaking of 2018, Sandra what do you think are the main stories that will come back next year. You know, how about some prediction.
Sandra: Well, topics with most potential for 2018 - I think distributed ledger technologies will come back.
Kai: Blockchain in other words.
Sandra: This is being discussed in relation to a range of industries and it has the potential to transform how we do a lot of things so I'm sure this will come back in 2018.
Kai: It might coincide with the end of Bitcoin but it doesn't mean that the underlying technology will not make an impact in other fields. For me what is likely to be a topic next year and going forward is trust in algorithms. We see a lot of discussion of AI in surveillance, control, privacy. China is rolling out face recognition with two billion faces in a database that will allow recognition of faces in public places in a matter of seconds. The tech companies know so much about each of their users and a lot of this is painting a concerning or a scary future so I think we're likely to see some form of backlash where people will question the trust that they place in those algorithms in those systems.
Sandra: Something else that I think we'll look a lot in 2018 will be on the boring side of things. We've talked about boring innovation before on The Future, This Week. We've looked at it in the context of companies that are just doing the right thing, companies like eBay that are fairly boring. We've talked about it in terms of 3D-printing, for instance moving from the sexy SpaceX and GE aviation to the bulk of manufacturing industries and so on. So I think 2018 might be a year where we want to turn a bit towards the more boring things, back to batteries or infrastructure or things that are not hype, they're not sexy but there are actually real changes that these technologies will bring about in the way we live our lives.
Kai: So other topics that we might see more of is quantum computing.
Sandra: We might not be there yet with that one.
Kai: So another category that will have its make or break moment in 2018 is augmented reality and virtual reality. Companies investing a lot in this space and it remains to be seen whether they can actually come up with something truly useful.
Sandra: But Kai which topic do you want to be big in 2018?
Kai: I really would like to see innovation in sustainability and environmental technology, energy to make its breakthrough. I want to see a narrative whereby renewables are now taken to be the normal form of energy and coal and others have to justify their existence. I want this paradigm shift to happen.
Sandra: I want AI to actually deliver on its promise. I want things like Watson for Oncology to actually change the way we do healthcare. I want artificial intelligence to deliver on the huge promise that it has to make our lives better rather than a lot of the gimmicky applications that we've seen so far or them being employed to fuel business models that are actually not the best thing.
Kai: Which will require for AI to actually find its space and for us to continue the discussion of where AI can actually make an impact and where it might be slightly out of its depth.
Sandra: So because we're close to Christmas I think we should end on an AI application, it has after all been the thing that has kept coming back this year.
Kai: This is story time on The Future, This Week.
Sandra: So on The Future, This Week: the last Harry Potter book.
Kai: The new, the last, the final Harry Potter book. This is an article in CNET titled "Harry Potter chapter written by bots is magically terrible". So this is reporting on an innovation by Botnix Studios who've created what they call a predictive keyboard. So this is an app that can be trained with text from certain fields, certain areas. So you feed this machine learning apparatus with a body of text, in this instance with the seven Harry Potter books and then when you're write with this keyboard the AI will make suggestions for what should come next so it will suggest text fragments that are in the style of writing that you're writing. And so I'm citing Botnix CEO and co-founder James Brew here: "Our web keyboard app analyses text files and offers the most common word sequences as suggestions to the human users to help them write in the style of the source material. A bunch of writers in the Botnet community got together in an online chat room and pitched lines they wrote using the keyboard, our editorial team cobbled these fragments together into the full Harry Potter chapter." From which Sandra and I will now read.
Sandra: So this is "Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash."
Kai: That's the title the AI came up with. Chapter 13: The Handsome One. **Please see this link for a full transcript of the chapter they read: botnik.org/content/harry-potter.html
Sandra: Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. That's all we had time for this year.
Kai: See you next year. 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 every week right here with us our Sunday 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.
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