This week: #VanLife during the pandemic, going cashless and no more facial recognition. 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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This transcript is the product of an artificial intelligence - human collaboration. Any mistakes are the human's fault. (Just saying. Accurately yours, AI)
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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: #vanlife during the pandemic, going cashless and no more facial recognition. 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 So Kai, what should we talk about today?
Kai Well, first of all, I think we should all congratulate you and the Sydney Business Insights team because this is podcast episode number 200 for the entire SBI series. I had the honour to be part of the majority of those, but not of all 200. Well done to the team, and commiserations Megan, for having to edit through all of this. No, seriously, I think this is a really great achievement.
Sandra Yes. Big congratulations to the entire team, and thank you Kai for being there for what has been a fantastic adventure over the past three years. And many thanks to our guests and collaborators, we've of course had In Conversations series with captains of industry and Nobel Prize winners, we've had series A Future of Power in collaboration with the Sydney Policy Lab and many, many guests on our podcasts. So thank you to everybody who's made this possible. But we still have to talk about something today.
Kai Yeah, well, for example, that this is also the last episode of season seven of The Future, This Week, we're going to take a little break. We're going to be back every week with Corona Business Insights still, but The Future, This Week will be back in a few weeks with season eight. And we still haven't figured out what to talk about. So let's have a look.
Sandra There was the temptation today to go back to some of our topics from the last 200 episodes.
Kai And we might end up doing this. But there have been a few things, so many of us will have watched SpaceX not only launching two astronauts to the ISS, but also another round of their Starlink satellites for space-based broadband. But the company has been in the news with a few other things. Elon Musk coming out, focussing the company on the next big thing, which is its big Starship rocket. Also reports that SpaceX is planning to use that same rocket in the future to actually shoot people to the other side of the globe in about 30 minutes. So some form of space-bound air travel. So that sounds pretty exciting.
Sandra I've had more terrestrial stories pop up that remind me of things we've covered over the last couple of years. Singapore's parliament is suggesting a move towards a four day work week. Yes, please.
Kai And they seem to do this in all seriousness, as a big package with proposals for free day care for working parents. So a whole rethinking of the world of work and an infrastructure around that.
Sandra We should definitely revisit this. And remember, when we used to do all these episodes around taxes and taxing robots. Well, we're back to digital tax laws now, taxing Internet companies. Thailand's joined the queue, they have a draught bill requiring foreign digital service providers to pay value added tax, and Indonesia has already passed a law requiring big Internet companies to pay value added tax on digital products and services from July, and the Philippines have introduced a bill.
Kai And there's also other tax news that are more COVID-related, which we might come back to on Corona Business Insights. So Greece, for example, is slashing taxes to do with tourism around flights, for example, because they're desperate to get this industry going, which pays for about 20 percent of all the wages in the country. So Greece is really keen to open up and attract visitors from Australia and other countries that have low spread of the virus. And taxes seems to be a topic popping up.
Sandra And of course, we've had renewable energies and batteries in so many of our podcasts, looking at the future of energy.
Kai Oh, yes. And there's been a couple of articles, one on a Chinese company inventing a new battery for cars such as Tesla's cars, which has about 10 times the mileage that previous batteries had and about double the lifespan.
Sandra But that's not the one you want to bring up today, is it?
Kai Oh, no. I want to bring up one which is literally the power of shit. There's news that in Nowra which is a town just south of Sydney at the south coast, is planning to build Australia's first biogas plant where they are...
Sandra Turning manure into electricity, pretty much.
Kai Basically the power of shit, yes. So we'll keep an eye on that. But we have a few other things that we want to come back to really, topics that we've done previously.
Sandra We've narrowed it down to three things we want to come back to, #vanlife, because that's been a thing that we've seen through the last couple of years looking at the #vanlife lifestyle, but also looking at the role of Instagram and Facebook in creating influencers and a whole business model around that.
Kai And that is hands down one of our favourite stories that we've done on the podcasts. So it so happens that this week #vanlife, and the impact of COVID-19, and around it the role of influencers have made the news. So we thought that's absolutely what we should be doing.
Sandra Another one of at least my absolute favourite stories was when we covered owl thieves in cashless Sweden, and how a turn to a cashless economy was driving the great grey owl, phantom off the north, traffic to extremes. But this week we've seen a big conversation around Australia going cashless. So definitely we need to come back to that today.
Kai And there's been some news around facial recognition. Amazon and IBM being in the news. So we're going to have a closer look at that because, you know, we've done this on the podcast many times as well. So new angles on all-time favourites on The Future, This Week. That's what we're doing?
Sandra Let's do this. So Kai, what happened in the future this week?
Kai Our first story comes from The Washington Post and it's titled "Pre-covid the 'van life' was a free, easy and trendy lifestyle. Now its practitioners are pariahs". So the article revisits #vanlife, the story we've had on the podcast previously. #Vanlife essentially is the idea of people who often give up their office jobs, who sell their houses or rent out their houses, put everything into storage to live their nomadic lifestyle, travelling, sometimes working as digital knowledge workers, for example, from their laptop a few hours a day and otherwise enjoying these scenic perfect Instagramable locations, taking photos and sharing their journey with #vanlife on Instagram.
Sandra And #vanlife has been around for a very long time, really for pretty much the last century, its modern incarnation has been spurred on by Instagram. And it really covers a wide range of practises from people who have old stripped-down vehicles with nothing but the mattress, whilst others have high ceilings and furniture and bathrooms in their fancy vans. It's really a broad church.
Kai And it is one that has made its way into the digital realm, has garnered a big following on Instagram. There's about 6.8 million posts under this hashtag alone. And of course, the group of people who do this nomadic lifestyle is much bigger than that. In Australia, we have the phenomenon of grey nomads, people in retirement, not buying a van, often buying a caravan and roaming the country. But when we talk about #vanlife, quite often we mean that subset of people who share what they do on Instagram.
Sandra So the pandemic has challenged a number of things around this lifestyle. First, it's challenged where these people go. Obviously, sleeping under the stars is not always an option. So quite often these people would either sleep in public car parks or in caravan spots or on private land that was rented out to people who want to put up their tent.
Kai And #vanlifer's would also draw on other accessible infrastructure, such as using a national gym membership to use the shower facilities or go to local leisure centres, go to the swimming pool to have a shower, and otherwise draw on public toilets for the infrastructure that is not built into their vans.
Sandra So the question is now, with the onset of COVID-19 and the restrictions associated with that, what do these people do?
Kai Now first of all, travelling becomes much harder. In Australia, we've seen that state borders are closed at the present time. For example, people cannot move between New South Wales and Queensland. The eastern seaboard of Australia is a very popular destination for #vanlifers. So that has been severely disrupted. The same in the US, travel is now restricted in many parts, but also the places where they would stay are often times no longer accessible.
Sandra Nor are the gyms they used to go and shower at. And if you think lockdown is hard if you're in your own home, imagine being quarantined in a van for a couple of months.
Kai And so many #vanlifers have not only feared for their own safety in contracting the virus, given that they have to go to shopping centres much more frequently because the storage in a van is quite limited. They also become quite cognisant of the fact that they might themselves contribute to spreading the virus as they travel around, which has put them into a somewhat difficult position. And also, and that refers to the pariah in the title, at odds with local populations in the places that they visit.
Sandra So they've experienced harassment, they've experienced abuse because people perceived them as spreaders of the disease, given that they travel a lot and that there's never any certainty as to where they had been previously.
Kai And of course, this can lead to ironic effects #vanlifers often just want to go someplace, stay there, shelter, wait things out. But they're constantly being moved on by the local authorities and having to end up travelling around looking for the next safe spot to stay for a few nights, and thereby contributing to the spread even further, potentially.
Sandra Another consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, been the disruption to the livelihood of people who earn a living through portraying that lifestyle on social media platforms.
Kai And we should point out that not all #vanlifers live as influencers, there's those who take on local jobs in the communities that they visit, they had their livelihood disrupted because, you know, there's less jobs in hospitality and things like that. But really, the influencers portraying the lifestyle that everyone aspires to is what we want to focus on.
Sandra #Vanlifers who earn the living out of their posts quite often used to portray, kind of, these picture perfect images either under the stars or at the foot of a beautiful mountain, or on a beautiful beach in exotic destinations, travelling around the world. This has become difficult in two respects. First, there is very little of that happening if you're unable to travel and get to these destinations in the first place. Second, the audience that you're broadcasting this to is now under lockdown, with public officials telling us not to travel, to shelter in place. So it becomes quite difficult both to tell that story and to receive sponsorship, or to receive company endorsements that would entice people to travel.
Kai And even worse, for some #vanlifers, they find that they're being harassed online as well, that they find abusive bullying comments in their Instagram streams where people are calling them out for, you know, travelling when there's a pandemic, you know, they should go home, they should not do this because they're only spreading the virus. Forgetting, in many instances that the van is the home for many of these people, they're not on vacation. They have chosen this as a lifestyle. So it becomes fairly hard to, you know, go home when the van is your home.
Sandra But we wanted to use this story as a springboard to talk a bit more broadly around influencers, because one of the things that COVID-19 has done was really bring to the fore some of the business models that influencers have built for themselves, and also their influence in the community and their role during the pandemic. So obviously, if you're a travel influencer or a travel blogger, it becomes quite hard to continue as before. But for many other influencers, the fact that they now have a lot more time on their hands has meant that the engagement with their audiences has increased quite a bit. Both influencers and their followers quite often have a lot more time on their hands. So the engagement has become more personal, more open, but it has also ventured into other parts of their lives.
Kai So obviously, those influencers that are also #vanlifers, they have their business model disrupted. And so have many other travel influencers, people who often are sponsored by tourism boards or local municipalities to come and portray local areas favourably to their supporters to shore up travel, have had to find other ways to stay connected to their followers. And, you know, some of this is coming back and there might be a way forward as countries like Greece, which we mentioned or others, are keen to open up, maybe influencers can lead the way of enticing people to go back and see that, yes travel is still possible and that, you know, the beaches are still beautiful. But we also wanted to talk about influencers a bit more broadly. And point out a number of stories that we found in the media, just this week, around the role and responsibilities that influencers have when it comes to spreading certain kinds of information.
Sandra So as the circumstances of many of these influencers have changed and many of them have found themselves under their significant financial pressures, they have, sometimes inadvertently, contributed to the spread of various conspiracy theories. And we don't want to give airtime to these conspiracy theories on our podcast, but there have been a significant number of these that have been propagated by certain influencers, alongside calls to encourage people to ignore lockdown restrictions.
Kai So with reports that more and more influencers have become radicalised, as the Huff Post said, or otherwise spreading misinformation, what we should keep in mind is that influencers are not necessarily more susceptible to this kind of information, but that they can act as super spreaders that, you know, when they become infected, so to speak, by this infodemic, they have a much larger followership than the average user and therefore can spread this misinformation much more widely. Which raises an additional problem for the platforms on which those influencers are active.
Sandra And in a way it's ironic that we often talk about the power of the algorithms in spreading misinformation and propagating outrageous stories. Here we have people who make a good living on these platforms, also contributing to misinformation and disinformation and who are very lucrative for the platforms themselves.
Kai So for Instagram or platforms like YouTube, also Facebook, these influences are very important because they drive advertising dollar. And so the platforms now have the additional problem, not only that the public demands that they rein in their algorithms that spread misinformation and advertising dollar on the platforms, but also that some of the super-users now would have to be reined in, which poses additional political problems for the platform providers.
Sandra Which, of course, links to the story that we covered last week around freedom of speech on these platforms, and around how difficult it is to police extreme content and to balance freedom of speech with commercial interests, and with access on the platform and we'll include the link in the shownotes.
Kai So wow, #vanlife, COVID-19, and free speech in the one story. Let's go to our next one.
Sandra The next one's even better because it has to do with a cashless society. Our second story comes from the ABC and it concerns what Australia can learn from Sweden's move to a cashless society. And we read this story which talks about how Australia has been flirting with the idea of a cashless society after the coronavirus. And it reminds us that Sweden has undergone a remarkable and very rapid move away from cash over the last decade, with many stores having signs that they do not accept cash anymore, with physical currency really being relegated to the fringes and with the need for the Swedish government to actually mandate the existence of ATMs, and the fact that some bank retail offices have to have cash so that people in rural areas and other disadvantaged communities, the elderly or the disabled, would still have access to cash services and can participate in the economy.
Kai And in Australia, the move to cashless payments has also been underway with the introduction of new technologies such as contactless payments, with things like Apple Pay, for example, the Reserve Bank has published numbers which show that just 10 years ago, more than 50 percent of all payments were done in cash. And just last year, it had fallen to below 25 per cent. So a big reduction in just a decade, and that is pre-COVID-19. Obviously, during the pandemic, many retailers have stopped accepting cash for fear of spreading the virus, you know, when handing over physical cash. So contactless payment done behind a plastic screen is a much safer way of payment. So we can expect that the 2020 numbers will be again much lower than last year's numbers.
Sandra And the estimates by some global research firms are that Australia could become Asia-Pacific’s first cashless society, in the next couple of years. The Commonwealth Bank thinks it's probably more like the next five to six years, but certainly in a very short time span, we could follow Sweden and become a cashless society.
Kai But when we found and read this article, we thought we have done this before. Surely we talked about Sweden?
Sandra We did. Just a bit over two years ago we were looking at the prospect of Australia becoming a cashless society by looking at how that has turned out for Sweden. And interestingly, the episode had to do with owl thieves, and some of the unintended consequences of going cashless. If criminals cannot steal cash off premises anymore, they were turning to...
Kai Nocturnal animal theft.
Sandra Endangered species such as the great grey owl, known as the 'phantom of the north' were being trafficked. They're worth about one hundred and twenty thousand dollars each on the Dark Web.
Kai And that's, of course, an example of an unintended consequence of moving cashless too fast. In this instance, it disrupts criminals or more broadly, the grey economy, which often relies on cash. And while the Reserve Bank and governments might not care that much about disrupting this part of the economy, we mustn't forget that there's still a significant numbers of Australians, for example, that do not have a bank account with a linked debit card, about 500000. There's still unbanked and remote rural communities, indigenous communities, parts of the country where it is not easy to just do all your payments cashless.
Sandra But the trend has really followed what we were saying back then. We were examining the fact that at that point, still 47 percent of all transactions were done in cash, but that there was a big push, including the Australian government being keen to weed out the black economy, which is fuelled by cash transactions and which was a large part of GDP. And indeed, we've seen just now the cash transactions drop to 25 percent of transactions, just a year later.
Kai So what are the consequences then of going fully cashless?
Sandra You can't pay with cash on the bus.
Kai We've got the Opal card. Other than that.
Sandra Foreign tourists can't pay cash, and they like to use cash.
Kai And that's a bigger problem because for many people who arrive in Australia, it might be easier to just draw cash from an ATM, or bring cash from home, because they might not be equipped with a payment method that interacts easily and cheaply with the Australian cashless payment systems. So if you have a fixed dollar amount per transaction for each cashless transaction, you're not paying for each coffee with your MasterCard, for example, if you come from a different country. So what has to be brought in place is an easy way for the millions of tourists that visit Australia every year to interact with the emerging cashless payment infrastructure.
Sandra And the bigger theme here is as we're rapidly moving towards a cashless society, who are the people who are getting left behind? Because inevitably these moves, as much as they benefit the broader society, they might leave out groups of people like tourists, or like the unbanked that you mentioned before. And so it's useful to look at places like Sweden to see what they have done to ensure that certain disadvantaged communities, the elderly and the disabled, are managed through this transition. And indeed, in Sweden, the government has actually been forced to step in and put in new regulations that require banks to provide certain levels of cash services.
Kai And that's exactly the point. It is up to the government, it is up to the states to provide the most basic payment infrastructure to its people. That might mean not being able to abandon cash fully, to leave some cash in place. However, if some cash is still in circulation, the entire cash payments system has to be upheld, including, you know, reissuing secure banknotes on a regular basis, including circulating cash, cleaning, replacing, which is very, very costly. So at some point in the adoption of cashless payments, there will be increasing pressure on the system to change away from cash entirely, because it will become fairly expensive to maintain cash just for the exceptional cases. And so the government will have to find a way to make sure that banks, for example, are being forced to roll out cashless payment infrastructure into all parts of the country. It could tie in with the postal system, for example, in areas where the postman might be the only person who comes by. Maybe they have facilities to do cashless payments when online connections are not available. So some form of legislation, some form of information, education and rollout of infrastructure will fall to the government to ensure that it's not left to the market to sort out this problem, because it might not be profitable to provide cashless digital payments services to all parts of society.
Sandra And we've seen different approaches and different combinations of pushes to move people away from cash, balanced out with the need to still provide cash to certain parts of the population. And we've seen, for instance, in India, a very aggressive move to step away from traditional cash transaction where the government has actively worked to withdraw high denomination banknotes from circulation, and where in a period of about a year, India's prime minister managed and created dozens of cashless towns where they've have discouraged their use of any banknotes or any coin transactions. And they've actually had a government ministry dedicated to moving India away from cash, and embracing digital transactions. And let's remind people how difficult this is to do in a country that's got 300 million people living below the poverty line. And let's remember that whilst much of the conversation over the last week has revolved around the Swedish model, there are different routes to cashless societies that we've seen. And China has been a particularly successful case in point where payments do not go through credit cards, but through private platforms such as WeChat and Alibaba, and they rely on using QR codes, and where cashless payments are extremely widespread through the society, including for those disadvantaged groups. Markets and street musicians rely on QR codes. And there are a couple of ways to do this. Either a customer that scans the sellers QR code, which is visible or printed at checkout points, or on vending machines, or on displays that street performers might have, and money sent directly to the seller, or through customer QR codes where you show your QR code on your smartphone. The seller scans it and takes the money from your account. And the share of people in China using these mobile payments, it's much, much higher than in places like the US or even Australia.
Kai But again, while this is a genius and potentially more inclusive way of rolling out cashless payments into a society. On the one hand, Australia is locked in to a largely card-based system, so this won't change overnight. But at the same time, from my own experience as a tourist coming to a place like China, it is also not as easy to get into a system like that to link a Western credit card, for example, to an Alipay account and then participate in those payments. There's the language hurdle, there's the hurdle that your local bank might block your credit card if you didn't flag with them that you're going to this country, or indeed that the Chinese provider might not readily accept all the Western card. So in terms of tourism, there are still issues that need to be ironed out.
Sandra Well, I've got some good news for you, which is that as of the end of last year, both WeChat and Alipay now support foreign credit cards and foreign debit cards. And you're right, it used to be that previously you needed the Chinese bank account to use these platforms. But both platforms now support Visa and MasterCard and all other major credit cards.
Kai Well, that sounds good. So as soon as the pandemic allows, we might check it out. But let's go to our final story, which is a really good news story.
Sandra So the last story is a good news story about facial recognition. And we've never had a good news facial recognition story before on the podcast. So here's one from the MIT Tech Review, where IBM says it is no longer working on face recognition because it is used for racial profiling. So IBM has said that they will stop developing or selling facial recognition software due to concerns that it can be used to promote racial profiling and racism. And this has been quite a big announcement from the CEO of IBM saying that they oppose technology used for mass surveillance and violations of basic human rights and freedoms.
Kai So CEO Arvind Krishna made the position clear in a letter to Congress, came out very publicly with this, of course, during the ongoing protests around Black Lives Matter. This is a powerful message and one of the big players in this industry coming out and importantly just a day later, this is today as we record this, Amazon has also come out not with a ban, but at this point with a one year moratorium on the use of recognition, which is their facial recognition platform by the police. So the company will no longer allow police forces to use their facial recognition platform, at least for the next year, as they are looking into improving this technology or indeed making it unavailable permanently. Again, because it can be and has been used for racial profiling.
Sandra So there's a couple of things we want to point out. First, that this has been very positively received by tech workers, many of whom have campaigned, especially at these large companies, against their organisations involvement with such technologies. Second is that whilst for IBM, stopping the development of facial recognition technologies might not be a huge financial hit, for a company like Amazon it will certainly be more significant to stop playing in that space. So it remains to be seen if others will follow suit or not. But there are still two other big points that this move raises. First of all, especially in the case of Amazon, it is strange to observe that a strong moral stance was now taken in the wake of the protests and of the Black Lives Matter movement, even though there have been significant calls to do this for at least a couple of years now.
Kai We covered two years ago a paper by Joy Buolamwini, the activist who famously at MIT, had her black face rejected by a camera system to log in the MIT computer labs, and then off the back of this, did research and became an activist and the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League. So Joy Buolamwini called out companies specifically like IBM and Amazon, requesting changes in the way in which these technologies work.
Sandra This was a very widely cited study in 2018 that found that the error rates for facial recognition systems from the major tech companies for identifying darker-skinned individuals were dozens of percentage points higher than when identifying white or light-skinned individuals. And what Joy had consistently pointed out is that the issue lay with the datasets that were used to train these systems. Now, it is noteworthy that back in 2018 and we discussed this on the podcast, that Amazon tried quite significantly to undermine the findings of that study. The researchers had lengthily responded to those criticisms in the public media and in the research community. And they pointed out that companies like Amazon could not be allowed to continue to use this technology, especially with police or with government agencies. And this has since been followed up by dozens of AI researchers who have written an open letter saying that these systems are flawed and should not be allowed in the hands of law enforcement.
Kai Which brings us to our second point, which is that it's really only the change in public opinion that will affect lasting change in this space. And so there is a hope now that with companies like Amazon and IBM stepping away from these technologies, that there will be a change in thinking. Also amongst the users of these technologies, corporations, law enforcement, governments, to not use unproven technologies, technologies that are so problematic in terms of racial profiling and false positives and all the kind of problems that have been pointed out by Joy Buolamwini and her colleagues.
Sandra And reinforcing the fact that the research community can go as far as pointing this out and bringing it to the public's attention. But it really requires all of us to bring about lasting change. And speaking of lasting change, there is a question, what happens now going forward? So if we look at the future of facial recognition and its use with law enforcement and so on, whilst companies like Microsoft or Amazon are in the public eye with the use of their products by governments or law enforcement agencies, there is also widespread use of facial recognition systems that are developed by companies like Clearview AI, which have been scraping social media platforms for photos and building enormous databases of up to three billion people.
Kai And so I think the point that we're making is that while IBM, Microsoft, Amazon react to public opinion because they have brands that are susceptible to negative image and impressions, specialised companies like Clearview AI who bank their entire business on facial recognition, can only be reined in when the users demand less of this technology.
Sandra And government steps in...
Kai And outlaws certain users of those technologies in areas where they can be used for racial profiling and the like.
Sandra And this is where we really should end this episode. But we cannot do a 200th episode and not have this.
Audio ROBOT OF THE WEEK
Kai And since this robot was found by our sound editor Megan Wedge, I think we should let Megan explain what this is all about.
Megan So Harvard researchers have developed a cockroach microbot. It's called. HAMR-JR, it's 2.5 centimetres, 0.3 of a gram, lighter than a penny, and can run 14 body lengths per second. Pretty much the smallest, fastest, lightest and quite possibly the creepiest of microbots. Although they have some stiff competition from the RoboBees that Harvard are also developing. So basically running, crawling, flying, jumping robots, comin' atcha from every which way.
Kai So robot critters on The Future, This Week. Thank you, Megan.
Sandra And that's all we have time for this week. Thanks for hanging in there with us for 200 episodes. See you next season on The Future, This Week.
Kai Or next week on Corona Business Insights.
Sandra 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 got your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.