The conversations hidden by coronavirus: space, tech and climate on The Future, This Week

This week: the conversations gone missing during COVID-19: space, tech and climate. 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

03:20 – China to land on Mars

07:09 – The ethics of Clearview AI face recognition

15:05 – How will we solve the climate crisis?

Other stories we bring up

NASA’ s April Fools’ Day

NASA’s “Asteroid or Potato?”

Puppy or Bagel? Chihuahua or Muffin?

Some Asteroids in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Were Actual Potatoes

Our previous discussion of vegetables in space on TFTW

Our previous discussion of satellites and internet connectivity from space on TFTW

Satellite venture OneWeb has filed for bankruptcy

Techlash killed by the coronavirus

Clearview AI has your profile

Australian police are using the Clearview AI facial recognition system

Pope Francis offers ‘Rome Call For AI Ethics’

The “Rome Call For AI Ethics”

Air industry eyes £300m savings through blockchain for cargo efficiency

Facebook sued discrimination based on race and disability

Sexism and politics

Coronavirus halts street protests, but climate activists have a plan


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This transcript is the product of an artificial intelligence - human collaboration. Any mistakes are the human's fault. (Just saying. Accurately yours, AI)

Disclaimer We'd like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.

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!

Kai Today on The Future, This Week: the conversations gone missing during COVID-19: space, tech and climate.

Sandra 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.

Sandra Normally around this time of the year, we have a full episode on the amazing pranks various companies and people pulled on April Fools.

Kai So for obvious reasons, April Fools was a rather muted affair this year, and if we had to do an entire episode, this would be very quick. But...

Sandra But we would be remiss not to mention NASA. NASA did actually do a pretty perfect April Fools this year with an interestingly shaped asteroid.

Kai Or was it? Because asteroid Arrokoth pictured on the NASA web page has an uncanny resemblance with a certain popular earth fruit that, you know, Irish and German people eat a lot.

Sandra On Wednesday NASA published a 'asteroid or potato?' image, where they actually found the potato that looked uncannily like the asteroid. So much like the popular bagel or chihuahua or muffin tests for AI, this was a 'potato versus asteroid'. Kind of like the asteroid field off Hoff in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Being a low-budget production, the asteroids were actually made of shoes and potatoes.

Kai And potatoes and space brings to mind another story we did quite a while back.

Sandra That was actually one of the first stories we ever did on this podcast. Around growing vegetables in space. And I think in particular, we had a Matt Damon clip.

Kai We had a Matt Damon clip who, in the movie The Martian, had to grow his own food. And one such food was potatoes that he grew by fertilizing the potatoes with his own shit.

Sandra But, on a more serious note, it occurred to us that much like we didn't have a April Fool's stories, we actually didn't have a lot of other stories in the last couple of weeks.

Kai COVID-19 seems to drown out many important conversations that we've had on the podcast before, and that should be ongoing. We have mentioned a lot of times on the podcast that we will be coming back to this story and many such stories. Indeed, we should be coming back. But all news channels understandably are concerned with the coronavirus crisis and so many important conversations become backgrounded.

Sandra So we thought we'd do a different episode today and try to look at a few of those stories that are getting lost now that we're all focussed on the impact of COVID-19.

Kai So, Sandra, what then is missing from The Future, This Week?

Sandra So let's try to stay with the space theme for a while, because whilst there have been a few very interesting stories, they can't really make the headlines under the current conditions. One such story was reported in IEEE, and concerned China's space ambitions. China aims to become the second country to land and operate a spacecraft on the surface of Mars.

Kai So, just remember that the US were the first to launch and land on Mars. In 1976, NASA landed a pair of the so-called 'Viking' landers on the surface of Mars.

Sandra It's just a couple of months before China is set to start this mission and the details are kept very quiet, but out of a variety of recent presentations and interviews, it seems that the plans are in place and that the Long March 5 rocket passed all its engine tests, and the rover underwent the final space tests.

Kai So the launch is planned apparently for late July, with the spacecraft to enter the orbit of Mars in late February 2021.

Sandra And this would mark a very big milestone in space exploration.

Kai Mind you, in 1976, when the US landed on Mars, the capabilities for taking probes and samples, for sending photographs, video or any data back to Earth were quite limited. So in the modern computing age, a Mars mission can achieve magnitudes more than was possible more than 40 years ago.

Sandra And this wasn't the only space news to come out this week. There was also the bankruptcy of OneWeb, the satellite venture that we previously mentioned on this podcast when we were discussing space junk.

Kai Remember, we discussed companies like SpaceX putting thousands of little satellites into lower space orbit to create what is effectively an exoskeleton of satellites in Earth's orbit to set up a new kind of Internet coverage. And OneWeb was one such company that has already put more than 70 such satellites up in orbit. Unfortunately, the corona crisis has now put the company into bankruptcy and it is reported that they are trying to sell their remaining business and the existing satellites to companies such as Amazon or Facebook, both of which are set to also create similar space bound Internet services.

Sandra And let's just remind our listeners that OneWeb had raised more than 3.4 billion dollars from the Softbank Group, and from Airbus, and other such investors, and was well on its way to building this satellite network.

Kai And we can only hope that someone will actually take control of OneWeb's legacy, because, as we mentioned, having unattended satellites in space that could spin out of control has the potential to create havoc and a lot of space junk in the process.

Sandra And we'll include the episode where we discuss at length what these companies are doing in space around building cheap Internet connectivity and satellite networks in our shownotes.

Kai So there's quite a few such stories that are currently flying under the radar, so to speak, that we would normally pick up on The Future, This Week if it wasn't for the COVID-19 crisis. So, we thought we'll give you a few more of those. And if we stay with the technology sector, they've been quite a number of other stories on topics that we've done previously, that are going unnoticed even though they shouldn't.

Sandra One of them we actually mentioned last week on the podcast and that was around techlash, and the fact that the pandemic seems to have drowned out the complaints that were being raised quite loudly around the tech giants, things around surveillance, capitalism, around taxes, around abuse of power in the marketplace. All of them still very much of concern, but now backgrounded because of what's happening with COVID-19.

Kai And in Australia, the consumer watchdog, ACCC has actually been quite active, being given new powers to investigate Facebook and Google. It was instructed by the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, to launch a new inquiry into the monopolistic behaviour, misinformation and advertising revenue on these platforms, both Facebook and Google. Again, something that would normally be a big topic that would make headlines that is barely noticed in the current environment.

Sandra Also, one of the really big stories around tech and AI, just before corona hit, was around Clearview AI, the controversial face recognition app that is currently being sued in the US. Let's remind people, Clearview built a app that was scraping billions and billions of publicly available images of individuals. And it was doing this, of course, without their knowledge and without their consent, and using them to build a database that they would then make available to companies and law enforcement agencies that were then using them to search that database to match them against any available photo or video footage. So think about the company like Best Buy, using it to identify customers or in indeed law enforcement agencies, even in Australia, to find out the identity of certain individuals.

Kai And under normal circumstances, this would really be a big topic in the tech and business world that we would be talking about. And so just a few days ago, also, Thomas Smith published a piece in Medium OneZero, where he reports on how shocked he was when he obtained from Clearview AI his own profile with his pictures and information that the company has on himself. Now, first of all, he also makes the point that just a couple of years ago, he wouldn't even have been able to obtain this data about himself. It is only after the European Union passed the GDP ah legislation. And in his case, his home state, California, passed the California Consumer Privacy Act, that he was actually able to obtain his profile. And it still took a couple of months, and several requests, to then obtain what the company had about him.

Sandra So given that even the Australian police are using Clearview's facial recognition here where we are, what kind of information would they get access to?

Kai So basically, because it works on the basis of photographs and pictures, anywhere where someone's picture might have ever appeared online, the company will pull off the web. And so for the author, he had his picture in talks that he had given, meetups he had attended, but also his own Facebook or any Facebook profile where someone might have tagged him in a picture. Indeed, his photo was just appearing in someone else's photograph. And so the company then presents those pictures and the sources, the links and the information that goes with this. Which means you can fairly well construct a good image of someone's life, at least as far as it is represented online, to know the kind of activities that someone is in to the jobs that someone does, the private activities through the Facebook profile. And the company also builds a relationship profile. So if you appear in pictures with other people in their faces, the company will construct those networks. So in his case, it was a fairly good overview of his activities and his life. And so not only did he feel his privacy invaded, he makes a few interesting points in the article about what happens when such information is wrong. What happens when such information is used by people for nefarious purposes, for example, to blackmail people? Mind you, the customer list 2200 customers does not just include government agencies and law enforcement, but also various private companies.

Sandra So there are many angles to this debate around the Clearview AI, and understanding that technology is one thing, accountability around the tools that are used by, whether it's private companies or law enforcement agencies, is another. And the ethical arguments around facial recognition as a broader topic still stand as we've discussed them a number of times on the podcast. And speaking of ethics of AI, another thing that's gone under the radar in the past couple of weeks has been Rome calling for AI ethics. So indeed, Pope Francis delivered, as per the Vatican papers, the Rome call for AI ethics which stated, and I quote, "Now more than ever, we must guarantee an outlook in which AI is developed with a focus not on technology, but rather for the good of humanity and the environment, of our common and shared home and its human inhabitants".

Kai A call that in the media has been termed a request for 'AI wokefullness".

Sandra Indeed. So it's nothing more than a polite request to sign a pledge to consider implications of AI. But indeed, IBM and Microsoft both signed it. But it goes back to the very loud conversations we were having in Australia and overseas around the ethics of AI before the impact of the coronavirus.

Kai And we want to remind people that the development of these technologies is, of course, ongoing. And if the conversation subsides and is not being had, then technologies will enter our collective lives in more or less unchecked ways.

Sandra And of course, there were many other news in the tech space that didn't get attention.

Kai So, for example, Blockchain. Bitcoin, of course, is discussed a lot as an investment vehicle in the corona crisis, and the price has deteriorated and that has made ample news. But of course, Blockchain is a broader topic with applications in many other industries. And so as a reminder, Computer Weekly just yesterday published an article that the air industry, who is taking such a battering from corona, is looking at a potential 300 million pounds savings by tracking cargo pallets and containers, using Blockchain to create a trusted delivery chain.

Sandra And, of course, other facets of the tech world as well. We're in the news. Facebook is being sued for discrimination based on race and disability, as well as for harassment. The sexism, both in the tech world and in the political world, came to the front again with the end of Elizabeth Warren's campaign. And all of these stories failed to capture our attention because of much bigger things at hand.

Kai And so there's now a real danger that as we focus quite rightly on the corona crisis and curbing the spread of the virus, and dealing with the economic fallout from COVID-19, that hard-won battles and ground that has been made on curbing inequality around gender, age and race, discussions around sexism in Silicon Valley, become sidelined, and that progress that has been made there will be very hard to defend when decisions have to be made about lay-offs or company restructures or the repositioning of business models.

Sandra Which also brings us to our last story. And speaking of hard-fought battles, the climate and the environment. Sadly, we saw this week Wired Magazine had an entire special issue dedicated to how will we all solve the climate crisis. And for both of us, it didn't even pop up in our newsfeed, we actually had to go looking for it.

Kai Mind you, such a special issue will not be planned and executed overnight, so they will have been working on this for weeks and months. And so the launch of the special issue coincides with the height of the COVID-19 crisis, and therefore does not gain the kind of traction, the kind of audiences, the kind of acknowledgement that such a deeply-researched series of articles would normally receive.

Sandra So the special issue would have come off the back of the renewed climate conversations that we were having, the whole movement around Greta Thunberg. It has articles on what each of us can do around climate change, around carbon taxes, the political aspects of the climate crisis, solar powers and solar panels, farming and refrigeration. So a wide variety of topics, all part of the climate conversation.

Kai And it is not just the journalists who can't make themselves heard at the moment. It is also the protesters themselves. Of course, a lot of the climate response protests have been visible, public protests, mass gatherings in public places, protests that require people to congregate. And of course, any such protests are no longer possible. So climate activists have tried quite hard and often unsuccessfully to move their protest online to create movements on Twitter.

Sandra And indeed, there was a New York Times article that we'll include in the shownotes, that was making the point that while hashtags and videos are good, using them to make the same kind of impact that live protests had would be much, much harder work. And there are ways in which people have been protesting on Twitter by sending out messages aimed directly at certain officials. They have tried to phone banking, in which people would phone officials en masse to try to get the response, but none of them at the scale and with the effect that visible public protests have had.

Kai Because as everyone can imagine, that the attention of many of the decision makers who would normally be concerned with climate change is, of course, elsewhere. And the last sign that the conversation around climate change and climate response is severely hampered is, of course, the news that came this week that COP26, the next UN-sponsored climate talks, the ones that led previously to the Paris Accord, have been postponed. They were scheduled to be held in November 2020 in Glasgow, yet the venue, the arena where those talks would have been held, had to be re-purposed to become a COVID-19 field hospital.

Sandra So, of course, in the light of such news questions we are all faced with is first of all, is how do we keep these conversations alive? And second, how do we bring them back into the spotlight without seeming careless, or without taking away from what is important conversation to have today, and that is the impact of COVID-19.

Kai At times where thousands of people around the world die on a daily basis from COVID-19, it is, of course, very hard to make the argument that we should be concerned with other matters, as important as they might be when they touch such things as climate change, discrimination, equality, poverty, or indeed the ongoing discussion around innovation and application of new technology.

Sandra Many of these conversations, of course, also interface with the COVID-19 coronavirus discussions. So we will be coming back to these conversations over the coming weeks on The Future, This Week.

Kai And it is up to all of us to seek those opportunities where COVID-19 touches upon these topics, to bring them into the conversation and to show how COVID-19 changes the world and the business landscape and that we must not forget about these matters in the process.

Sandra And of course, starting next week, we will have a special series on coronaviruses impact on the future of business.

Kai Which we call Corona Business Insights. They will be short, snappy pieces, one insight per episode that we will publish around the regular episodes of The Future, This Week.

Sandra But that's all we have time for today.

Kai Listen to us soon on Corona Business Insights as well. See you soon.

Sandra On The Future...

Kai [Next week.

Sandra This week?

Kai Yes, but next week.

Sandra On The Future, This Week. Next week. 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. Our theme music was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, 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 sbi@sydney.edu.au.

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