This Week in Disruptive Tech - Oct 15, 2015

A roundup of news and perspective on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency, wearables and future of work.

N S Ramnath

[Photograph: Apple Smart Watch by fancycrave1 under Creative Commons]

Wearables: It’s still a 1.0 world
For wearable computing start-ups funding hasn't been as good as it was last year. At the current run rate, there will be a drop of 72% from last year, CB Insight says. But then, venture funding is never a good metric to evaluate a business or a sector. Wearables is definitely going mainstream—Apple launched its smartwatch in March, Fitbit’s public offering in June got on to a great start, and there is greater consumer acceptance.

True, there are issues with wearables. They fall way short on accuracy, battery life is pathetic, they doesn't integrate well with other devices, and are unaware of the context. Users are concerned about privacy and security. In short, wearables today are “not-yet-thereables”.

But, things are changing and they are changing so fast that we might not even recognize the wearables of tomorrow. Recently, Jawbone’s CEO spoke about the possibilities of ingestible sensors—stuff that can be taken in as a pill. Google is already working on one such.

Cryptocurrency: The importance of the backend
Bitcoin never goes out of news. For one, its value has been yo-yoing for years, and every rise and fall gets faithfully reported. Then there are more significant long-term developments in terms of new marketplaces, new competitors and regulations.

Neucoin, aimed at the gaming market, hit the market late last month. Russia's Qiwi, an online payments services provider, plans to launch its own digital currency. Gemini, a bitcoin exchange, founded by the Winklevoss brothers (Mark Zuckerberg's rivals in the movie Social Network), opened last Thursday. When they launched they felt the need to explain to television channels that it’s safe and legal, that reflected the broader concerns about the dark uses of bitcoin. (Islamic State is said to be getting big donations in bitcoins—for the same reason it’s used for illegal purposes.)

However, if you are looking for widespread adoption, you shouldn't be looking at the bitcoins themselves, but at the technology that runs it: Blockchain, “a shared, cryptographically secure ledger of transactions, [that] could save major financial institutions billions of dollars on the cost of settling trades and other financial transactions, while improving efficiency and reducing errors." 

Robotics: It has two faces
It's an irony of our age that more ink is spent on discussing the risks of a robot killing a human being accidentally, than the possibility of a robot killing human beings deliberately. Experts are worried that we are getting stuck in negotiations about banning lethal autonomous weapons or killer robots, even as the world gets closer to that danger.

Meanwhile, the benign robots are being put into better use. Japanese engineers have built a robot that will wash, dry, sort, fold and arrange your clothes. Singapore plans to appoint personal trainers for its senior citizens to help them with exercise routines at gyms—only they will be robots.

All these don't exactly square with a recent report that argues that increased investment in robotics in industries will lead to more jobs and not less. But then the white paper is from the Association for Advancing Automation.

Artificial Intelligence: It’s the speed that matters
Recently, an artificial intelligence (AI) system designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology took an IQ test—and it could match its wits with a four-year-old child. The system was tested for general intelligence in five categories—information, vocabulary, reasoning (word puzzles), similarities (pen and pencils are both__) and comprehension. It scored average in information, well in vocabulary and similarities and poorly in reasoning and comprehension. Now, breath easy. It has some way to go before it can catch up with humans. It might be a long way, but don't underestimate the speed.

Disruptive tech and the future of work
One of the less discussed aspects of technology is its impact on things that we take for granted. How will it change the way we work? Will the frameworks that we use today to think about economy and society continue to hold good? Scott Santens argues that technology might take our jobs away, but not our work. We will work. Only, we won't get paid for it. He sees people spending hours together on games such as World of Warcraft as an early evidence. It's more than a game. People use time, develop skills, and make efforts to acquire a digital sword.

If machines do all the production, will the benefits go only to those who own them? In a recent Ask Me Anything session with Stephen Hawking on Reddit, Hawking says it all depends on how we distribute wealth.  Remember the time when the standard response to inequality used to be, let’s focus on production? We might have to turn our attention on distribution too.

Admittedly, these are just two strands among the many issues that are at the core of disruptive tech. There are worries, and there is a lot of excitement about this as well. Pacific Standard has started a series that looks into some of these issues by asking business leaders, tech visionaries, and social scientists what they think about the future of work.

What we want it to be depends on what our values are—and that’s one area John C Havens, author of Heartificial Intelligence, Embracing Our Humanity to Maximise Machines gets into. He makes a case for the AI industry to speed up on setting ethical standards. And there’s one place he recommends all of us to turn to for the most important answers—within. His essay ends with this question: “ will machines know what we value if we don’t know ourselves?”

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Vibha Bhilawadikar on Oct 16, 2015 12:43 p.m. said

When I see in the future, I see old establishments whether it is schools, hospitals or governments, and/or family structures will give way to new social contracts which are more in the realm of “collaboration”. So ownerships will give way to usership or subscription, mind will become more important than matter, integrating digital and physical experiences will be more important than shared experiences because that is what will create authenticity for shared experiences. The era of information asymmetry will give way to declassification of many information points creating new social and cultural networks of people. In this era therefore, time, skill/competencies and method of doing an activity will get a premium.
This leads to the discussion on implementing and transacting business. A new way of transacting in the market will evolve, making currencies/money less efficient medium of exchange. “Value Creation In Every Interaction” will be the new mantra and this is envisaged due to the dynamic business, cultural and social structure around all of us which is also posing the inherent need to remain connected with each other.

About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Editor

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a member of the founding team & Lead - Newsroom Innovation at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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