This week: virtual prisons, blinded by satellites, and robots in love. 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
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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: virtual prisons, blinded by satellites, and robots in love. 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 Today we were gonna talk about prisons...
Kai And satellites.
Sandra And space debris, but then figured out it's actually Valentine's Day, so...
Kai We thought we should find something else to start with and you know, something that we haven't done in a while.
Audio Robot of the Week
Sandra So, Robot of the Week is back because the fulfilling love story of this week seems to be the Amazon robots going on a Valentine's date.
Kai So there's this Amazon video, which is a promotional ad which shows an Amazon scout delivery robot presenting another Amazon warehouse robot with a little card: will you be my valentine?
Sandra And the two machines go on a date. They have spaghetti and meatballs, share popcorn and a movie, and they have a quiet moment overlooking water views in the sunset.
Kai And then Amazon comes in with the ultimate wisdom that, 'hey, robots cannot love, but people can'.
Sandra Yeah, we found this a little bit strange, given that they seem to be the Amazon robots that displace the people in the Amazon warehouses.
Kai Yeah. And the message apparently is that, 'hey, Amazon fulfilment warehouses are not that bad because look how many people have found love and marriage here'.
Sandra So the video ends up with a collage of happy couples who've found love at the Amazon fulfilment centres, we were wondering how many of them still work there?
Kai Well they have time now probably to look after their relationship because they were displaced by robots. But seriously, I find the ad so bad.
Sandra So if you do want to see a robot love story, we would suggest Pixar's Wall-E.
Kai Yeah. So this is no Wall-E. And while watching the Wall-E movie, will take more of your time, it will be much more satisfying than this one minute Amazon video.
Audio Eva. Walllll-Eeeee. Eva? Wall-E. Eva! Wall-E.
Kai Okay, Sandra. What happened in the future this week?
Sandra Our first story comes from Wired, and it's about the future of prisons. It's titled: "Forget Prisons, The Future of Punishment Will Be Virtual".
Kai So the article makes the point that incarcerating people is expensive. It is expensive, it is sometimes inhumane. It doesn't really work very well in providing people with the life skills that they need after prison.
Sandra And it's a colossal waste of money. In the article, they give the example that in the UK it costs about 80000 pounds per year to house a prisoner.
Kai That's about 150000 Australian, thereabouts.
Sandra This, of course, takes into account the capital that it takes to build the prisons and then house the prisoners in them. It's also a wasted opportunity, as you could consider using the funds elsewhere, either in policing, or supporting victims of the crimes.
Kai Yeah, so it makes the point that this could be used much more effectively, yeah, for rehabilitation. But also, of course, to look after the victims who, after all, dealing with the fallout from crimes should be the focus of all of this.
Sandra So the article goes on to say that the future of prisons will be, of course, technology. Technology will be used to create 'virtual prisons'.
Kai So the idea then not to congregate prisoners in the one place and lock them up, but to confine people in their own homes, for example, by way of ankle bracelets. The TV series White Collar comes to mind, where high-profile art forger Neal Caffrey is confined by an ankle bracelet and then enlisted to the services of the FBI. Seriously, if you haven't seen it, it's a really great show.
Sandra So not only ankle bracelets, but also things like VR headsets. So the article makes a case for the opportunity to use VR headsets, either to recreate things like solitary confinement or other conditions that you would experience in jail or to give people useful skills, like training them to become a car mechanic or a plumber, that would help them rehabilitate once they are out of prison or out of confinement.
Kai So I don't quite get that because the sensory deprivation, being in a cell, even if you have contact with inmates, like prisons are quite bleak environments, I always thought that was a by-product of this. If you artificially recreate this with VR headsets to put people in there for a few hours a day to have this solitude, I find that a little bit torturous or unnecessary.
Sandra There is a wonderful Black Mirror episode you might want to watch where people are given these contact lenses as a punishment and they're set free in society. They can do whatever they want except they can't see the faces of any other people.
Kai It is a bit like that. So in the week of the Oscars, you get a lot of movie and pop culture recommendations from us.
Sandra Speaking of stars, our next story will be about satellites. But back to prisons. We were reading this article and of course, this is indeed a very big issue in the US. In the US, 2.3 million people are in prison.
Kai Which amounts to point seven percent of the total population.
Sandra And in Australia, that number is just a bit over 43 thousand people so it is a significant issue to deal with. But as we read this story, we remembered...
Kai I know these numbers because we have done this before.
Sandra Turns out, almost two years ago, we came up against something that was almost exactly...
Kai The same proposed solution to this problem.
Sandra Yeah, and interestingly, the story was titled "Is America Ready to Rethink Incarceration?" And it was about using technology to rethink the future of prisons.
Kai So two years on, we still have the same technology push argument: because we have these technologies shouldn't we redo prisons?
Sandra Or because we have these technologies, couldn't we redo prisons?
Kai Yeah. And so last time we looked into this and we discovered that this is actually not a technology problem, but a business problem.
Sandra It turns out that actually prisons are a very big business. In Australia, for instance, about 20 percent of the people in prisons are in private prisons. And this is out of a recent business school report that we will link in the shownotes. But these prisons are operated by large companies.
Kai And in the US, the percentage is much higher, even.
Sandra But what's more than that, prisoners actually serve a very important economic function. That is to say, up to half of the prison population actually work, quite often in fairly simple or menial jobs that other people would be reluctant to work in. Things like abattoir type of work or certain types of call centre work, or even, in case they serve lesser sentences, working as cleanup crews for big organisations.
Kai So basically, not only do private operators benefit from running prisons and making direct income from the public purse, they also have access to a large labour force that they can pretty much rent out to sometimes large, well-known corporations.
Sandra Yeah, so companies like IBM or Motorola or Microsoft or AT&T have often set up centres within private or within state prisons to take advantage of the prison labour force. And let's just make it clear that there is very, very little money that prisoners earn whilst doing these jobs. If they're lucky, they might learn something like minimum wage. But usually it's less than a dollar an hour.
Kai And so we can then see that because prisons are lucrative business, there's a conflict of interest in actually changing the present system, not only to bring down incarceration rates, especially in the US significantly, because that impedes the business model of these private prison operators, but also to rethink the way in which we confine people. If we move towards a distributed virtual prison environment...
Sandra Where the cost would actually be borne by either the prisoners themselves or their family or friends or a larger society.
Kai Then the business model, as it stands at the moment and the kind of labour that people engage in, will no longer be possible. So while there is a welfare argument and there's a societal argument, the economic realities speak against those changes.
Sandra So I think this is a good example of many stories that we often hear where people use technology to make a cost argument. Whereas here in the Business School we always look at the economic incentives and the underlying business models to understand what would it take for those changes to actually come to pass.
Kai So interestingly, the story bubbles up every now and then, and every time it's a technology push argument, 'hey, we have the technology. Couldn't we do this? Wouldn't this be cheaper?'. And curiously, the argument around the economics of prisons is always absent.
Sandra And speaking of technologies that always play out in a larger context, often a social context, or also often a business economics off context. Let's talk about satellites and the night sky, because this was a big story over the last couple of months.
Kai So our second story comes from the Atlantic and it's titled: "The Night Sky Will Never Be the Same."
Sandra And we had a good reason for picking this particular story, as many, many outlets have covered this.
Kai Yeah, but this particular article tells a different story to what this story is generally talked about. It concerns Starlink, Elon Musk's SpaceX offshoot that promises to bring to the world a revolutionary new Internet that is satellite-based.
Sandra So lots of positive coverage about widespread availability of Internet enabled by satellites across the media.
Kai So Inc. for example, this week, titles "Elon Musk Says He's About to Deliver the Future of High-Speed Internet', and that Space X will spin off Starlink to have investors participate in that supposed revolutions. So what is it that they are doing?
Sandra They're putting hundreds of small satellites into space. Space-X has so far launched into orbit 242 satellites. It's hoping that by the end of this year it will have twelve hundreds satellites.
Kai And it has approvals for twelve thousand.
Sandra But the hope is that in the next 10 years they will have up to 42 thousand satellites up there.
Kai And they're not the only ones.
Sandra They're definitely not the only ones. Another startup OneWeb is scheduled to launch its own different small satellites into space. It's proposing to have about 650 of them, right now they already have about 34 that they've launched.
Kai And Jeff Bezos is also intending to put up more than 3000 satellites for a similar purpose.
Sandra Amazon already has approval from the FCC for their satellites. New startups like SpinLaunch don't even want to use rockets, they just want to hurl these satellites into space.
Kai That's actually pretty cool technology where they use a huge centrifuge to speed up the satellites and then they want to just hurl them up there so that they don't have to actually fly rockets and they have the issues of pollution and fuel and all of that kind of stuff.
Sandra Yeah, and so flinging them into space, we'll put the link in the shownotes. There's some wonderful little physics problems associated with how this actually works and what would it take and so on. Quite a nice article.
Kai And so while there's a lot of innovation and interesting tech going on here, this is not a story about the actual Internet that they're creating. We should say that it is intended to deliver about the same speed as terrestrial new 5G, so it's a significant improvement over today's technology and it will be in direct competition with the rollout of 5G. But that's not the point that we want to make here.
Sandra Indeed. So whilst this is a wonderful story of innovation and in the case of the centrifuge, ingenuity and technological development. Also a story of access, being able to bring, whether it's high speed Internet or whether it's global positioning systems or whether it's defence or surveillance or anything to parts of the world that haven't been connected to the Internet so far. There is also another interesting side to this story, which has to do with the unintended side-effects of these small satellites. And the article makes the point that in the last few months since they launched, the Starlink satellites have been essentially photobombing ground-based telescopes.
Kai So the problem that the Atlantic article raises is that these satellites, even though they are really, really small, they are sitting in lower orbit quite close to the Earth, and they are intended to build almost like an exoskeleton or a mesh around the world to provide coverage to every part of the earth. They are also incredibly bright because they reflect the light. So they are actually visible to the naked eye or as Pat Seitzer, Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan, points out, these are brighter than probably 99 percent of existing objects in Earth's orbit right now. So he says that previously there were about 200 manmade objects around the earth that we could see. And Space X has now added another 240 with plans to go to over 40 thousands of these objects and will not only be visible to the unaided eye, but create real problems for science.
Sandra Turns out these satellites leave bright streaks on all images that people have been capturing with their telescopes. Imagine a image of the night sky with these white diagonal lines across it, cutting into the darkness, which are the satellites making their way through the night sky. If these things end up in the tens of thousands, ignoring them will be very difficult and managing to observe the night sky as we did before is quite a difficult problem. And it's not just the light, another story which we'll put in the show notes made the point of a similar problem in that OneWeb's satellites, 34 of them up now about 650 to come. They produce what amounts to radio chatter and again, astronomers have built instruments, large radio dishes to study things that give off very little visible light. But there are naturally occurring radio waves from distant planets or of galaxies or gas clouds. And again, such instruments are used to capture, for instance, black holes and they are encumbered by other objects in the sky producing certain radio frequencies.
Kai So there's a real problem now that astronomers raise concerns that their work in deep space exploration, and sometimes they use very sensitive instruments, would basically be made impossible if we indeed go ahead and shoot thousands and thousands of these bright spots into the night sky that, you know, optically and through radio waves will make it much harder to engage in the kind of basic science that helps us explore the cosmos, looks at black holes, and all of these kinds of phenomena.
Sandra So, again, a much more complicated question around how do you really manage the interests of science and scientists, those of commercial companies like Amazon or Space-X, and the interests of the general public or the citizens who might want access to the Internet. But all of them are trying to access what amounts to a very limited resource space that also, in this case, happens to belong to nobody.
Kai So Space X is aware of the problem. They have, for example, coated one of their satellites in a different paint to see if that will reduce the reflection. But while this is a nice attempt to try and mitigate the problem, they're not actually waiting. They're pressing ahead and shooting satellites into space every week, therefore aggravating the problem. So the company competing directly with 5G, and these competitors like OneWeb and Amazon, tries to get ahead in that kind of space race, and so doesn't actually have the time to do now that the problem is known, the kind of research that would maybe alleviate the problem of, you know, light reflection.
Sandra So really what you're saying is that such companies don't have the time to wait out and plan this carefully, but rather need to produce returns within shorter timeframes to satisfy shareholders.
Kai And this then raises a number of issues. So one is, is it actually a good idea to allow private companies to populate space with these satellites? Just for comparison, before Space X started this project, there were about 5000 satellites up in space. They now want to put another 42 thousand up there. So one company will outnumber the entire population of satellites in space within a matter of a couple of years. So is this actually a good idea or should the public be involved in this?
Sandra Whose public?
Kai Well, exactly. Is it a nation state, is it the international community? Not only in doing the kind of technology, but also in regulating the technology. And then off the back of this, who actually gets to regulate? Because the optical problems, for example. So while the FCC in the US is the regulator who is in charge of communication, and what the actual satellites do, their optical properties of reflection falls outside of that regulation. So no one is actually in charge of the kind of unintended consequence that this technology is creating.
Sandra So, if you look at history, there was actually a similar situation when we started to use radio at scale. And the United States has actually controlled the use of radio spectrum since the last century. And back in the day, it became clear, much like now, that a lot of noise could disrupt the signals or emergency messages from things like ships or vessels in distress. So the International Telecommunications Union was created to coordinate the global use of the radio spectrum. And this dates back to the 1860s. And by the time we had satellites, we kind of understood that certain things need to be regulated far beyond one nation. But as you've rightly pointed out, at this point, there is nothing that regulates or no guidance as to how we regulate things like how bright things in space are, nor how many they are, because we keep pointing to this number of over 40000. That's just one company intends to put up there. It's also a matter of clutter and of security and cyber security.
Kai So just to put some numbers towards this second problem that might potentially arise, it happens more and more frequently in recent times that defunct satellites pass each other in space quite closely and people are quite concerned about this. One such encounter happened just a couple of weeks ago where two large satellites nearly smashed into each other. And what people are concerned about here is known as the Kessler Effect. So in 1978, then NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler pointed out a problem that might arise when defunct satellites or other space debris collide in space, break up, create more clutter and space debris, which could lead to a cascading effect, not only creating more debris in the process, but also taking out valuable infrastructure that we today rely on, communication, satellite, global positioning system and the like. So there is now a real fear that the more satellites, the more objects we put into space, there could be a cascading effect which might not only damage valuable infrastructure, but in the process create that much debris that not only space exploration by way of optical telescopes, but actually launching rockets or manned missions into space could theoretically become impossible. And while we discuss this off the back of having 5000 objects up there, 2000 of which are defunct, if we add tens of thousands more, obviously this problem will aggravate.
Sandra In the end, it's another angle to what amounts to the same problem. How do you manage competing interests, some of them which are very short term business interests, you know, being the first to bring high speed Internet to large amounts of population? How do you breach public interest access to the Internet? Or scientists who quite often in the case of examining black holes or trying to find life in space, have work that spans tens and sometimes a hundred years to achieve results.
Kai So interestingly, looking into this a bit more, I found an article that reports that there's a group of Italian astronomers who are preparing a case for the International Court of Justice, which is the entity that is called into action whenever there is a dispute at an international level between member states of the United Nations. And so they want to argue that the night sky in its natural state is a shared human right, like the right to breathe unpolluted air, drink clean drinking water and sleep in a quiet environment during the night, arguing that it is part of nature and that what Starlink is trying to do is nothing else than environmental pollution. In this case, a kind of light pollution. So they're trying to go to the International Court of Justice in the absence of any other clear solution.
Sandra Which then in turn raises the question are there any other ways to do this than having regulation or coming up with some sort of international body that regulates this? And I would argue that one other way to think about it would be something that we touched upon last year. Last year was the 150th anniversary of the opening of the transcontinental railroad in the US, which was arguably one of the biggest transport revolutions, because railroads at that point did actually change everything from transport, to the invention of standardised time zone, to the ability to carry fresh produce and medical things across the US. This was really a national project that tried to conquer a new space, but it was also a concerted effort in many, many ways. It was one time that public and private partnerships came together to deliver on something that was so fundamental, because let's remember in our story as well, while SpaceX and Amazon have to deliver quarterly results, NASA is thinking very long term, has publicly-funded money and has very different timescales and goals to achieve. So having some sort of public/private partnership in which engineering but also federal and capital grants and money are involved to try to align some of these objectives might be one way to go.
Kai So interestingly, much like back then when the US was a loose collection of states federated, they had to figure out how to actually standardise and regulate this. Again, we're pushing technology into a new frontier and we have to figure out what to do about it. But the problem here is not just that we need regulation like, I mean, we talk about Facebook or Google or big tech. Here we actually need to invent a regulator. This is a frontier, much like, you know, and Antarctica or deep sea exploration where this is no lands problem. There is no one entity that has jurisdiction over it. All the while, we're not actually doing a public/private partnership waiting, doing this together. Private companies are already doing it while the unintended consequences of technology come up. And we do not have a regulator. So scientists are now faced with the problem that they really have no one to go to who might be in charge to actually adjudicating those conflicting interests. Right, and let's remember that regulation is not a thing that stops innovation, it's actually a process by which conflicting values, conflicting interests are being considered, and then a solution being found. We don't even have the regulator in this instance.
Sandra But this goes to the heart of what we do, trying to understand the hidden, the beneath the surface consequences of some of the innovations in this case, or the hidden business models in our previous story, and to try to give a voice to concerns or groups that are impacted by these technologies that are not so visible in the public eye.
Kai I mean, everyone can agree that greater, better online access in Internet is a great idea. So on the surface, this looks like an amazing achievement. All these microsatellites up in space delivering this great Internet.
Sandra But then there are also people like Vivienne Baldassare, who is a postdoc fellow with a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics, who is studying centres of galaxies to better understand the formation and the growth of massive black holes. How cool is that?
Kai And she needs very light-sensitive instruments for this. And her work would be made impossible if Starlink were to go ahead and put it that many of these satellites up into orbit. So what's at stake here is not only better Internet access for us in our everyday, you know, we can do better video streaming and Instagram, but the capacity of the human race to actually do the kind of science that we want to do.
Sandra And speaking of Vivienne Baldassare, we do want to raise attention to one really big day this week.
Kai And it is not Valentine's Day.
Sandra It's much more important than that. It's International Women and Girls in Science Day. That was February 11th. And so help us celebrate women and the girls who are asking the big questions about the world we live in.
Kai Okay. Before we end, here's a paper title for a study that someone could do before we put more of this shit up there, 'Gazing at the stars, but blinded by technology: the unintended consequences of rapid innovation'.
Sandra And now that's really all we have time for this week.
Kai 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.