Categories
History Science Society Technology

Venus, Nero, Ice, Distribution, Vikings

The idea of detecting life through an otherwise inexplicable anomaly in a planet’s spectrum dates back to the 1960s, when it was given voice by James Lovelock, a British chemist and inventor. It came into its own when astronomers started discovering planets around other stars, or exoplanets. Most of these planets are in inhospitably unearthlike orbits, but some sit within what astronomers call the “habitable zone”—the zone in which, under various conditions, the surface might support liquid water. Astrobiologists like Sara Seager of MIT started putting real effort into working out what anomalous gases might be visible once they got telescopes good enough to analyse the spectra of such planets’ atmospheres.

A few years ago some of the scientists who work with Dr Seager and in her team started to get interested in phosphine. Though it is not clear how microbes make it, or something which decomposes into it, its association with life is pretty clear (among other things, penguin guano seems rich in the stuff). There seem to be no appreciable mechanisms for making it abiotically either in the depths of the Earth or through the “photochemical” reactions driven by sunlight which create other short-lived gases in the atmosphere. And it has some nice distinct spectral lines which should be eventually observable in the infrared light from some sorts of exoplanet.

https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2020/09/14/scientists-find-possible-signs-of-life-in-the-clouds-of-venus

But what if Nero wasn’t such a monster? What if he didn’t invent the spectator sport of throwing Christians to the lions in the Colosseum? What if he wasn’t the tyrant who murdered upstanding Roman senators and debauched their wives? Indeed, what if the whole lurid rap sheet has been an elaborate set-up, with Nero as history’s patsy? After all, we have no eyewitness testimony from Nero’s reign. Any contemporaneous writings have been lost. The ancient Roman sources we do have date from considerably after Nero’s suicide in A.D. 68. The case against Nero, then, is largely hearsay, amplified and distorted over two millennia in history’s longest game of telephone. Besides, no one really wants to straighten out the record. Who wants another version of Nero? He’s the perfect evil tyrant just the way he is.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/new-nicer-nero-history-roman-emperor-180975776/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+smithsonianmag%2Fhistory-archaeology+%28History+%26+Archaeology+%7C+Smithsonian.com%29

The impact theory is in some senses comforting. We have big telescopes, we can see into space now, in theory, if we knew an impact event was coming, we could prevent it. If it takes an impact to cause a catastrophic melting and sea level rise event, then we’re mostly safe from it happening. If the melting was caused by an impact, then it means our current climate models which estimate around a meter of sea level rise by the year 2100, are largely accurate. 

But if these melting spikes were not caused by an impact, then it means something on earth which we currently do not understand triggered them. Something caused the ice sheets to suddenly and rapidly destabilize and release a large quantity of meltwater over a relatively brief period. If such an event were to occur today, the effects would be globally catastrophic. If an event caused a one-meter sea level rise over the course of a few years, it would render many of the world’s coastal cities uninhabitable. 

In 1803, the [Spanish] king, convinced of the benefits of the vaccine, ordered his personal physician Francis Xavier de Balmis, to deliver it to the Spanish dominions in North and South America. To maintain the vaccine in an available state during the voyage, the physician recruited 22 young boys who had never had cowpox or smallpox before, aged three to nine years, from the orphanages of Spain. During the trip across the Atlantic, de Balmis vaccinated the orphans in a living chain. Two children were vaccinated immediately before departure, and when cowpox pustules had appeared on their arms, material from these lesions was used to vaccinate two more children.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/09/the-distribution-of-vaccines-in-the-19th-century.html

If the Norse did reach Chichén Itzá, how did they get there? A possible Viking ship appears in a mural in a different building called Las Monjas, or ‘The Nunnery’. (The Spaniards assumed that any building with a large courtyard nearby had to be a nunnery, but the Maya had no nunneries.) Built before 950 CE, the Nunnery contains murals that might have been painted slightly later.

One Nunnery mural shows no captives but depicts a boat with clearly delineated planks, or strakes. The use of planks indicates that the Nunnery boat couldn’t have been a local craft because the Maya, like most of the peoples living in the Americas, made their canoes by burning and hollowing out tree trunks. Only one Amerindian people ever made boats with sewn planks, the Chumash, who lived in modern-day Santa Barbara, California. The sharply outlined strakes in this mural are better evidence of Norse presence at Chichén Itzá than the paintings of the blond-haired captives.

https://aeon.co/essays/did-indigenous-americans-and-vikings-trade-in-the-year-1000

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Impact of loneliness on human brains – a case study on quarantine and isolated living during COVID.

The attention economy – How to keep freedom of attention in the times of digital distraction

This is an Indonesian miner’s story of hard work, courage, and suffering all in the name of family.

PULSE – A new image upsampling algorithm

How to survive in conflict zone economies? Terrifying report on protection money model.

https://overcast.fm/+WaLFyIi9c

FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss advises how to be more assertive

https://overcast.fm/+SwsfejX4o

Categories
Geopolitics Science Technology

Jellyfish, Labs, Questions, Surveillance, Rice

In the hope of solving this, some naturalists proposed a new grouping. Dubbed ‘protozoa’ or ‘protoctista’, it would consist of all those ‘indeterminate’ or ‘incomplete’ subjects, that seemed to bear no relation to anything else. But no one could agree whether it should be a class, a phylum, or a kingdom – much less what it should contain. 

This left jellyfish in limbo. There were, of course, some who still believed that they were animals. In 1843, Richard Owen (1804-92) gave an exceptionally detailed description of their anatomy and argued forcefully for their inclusion in Animalia. But he struggled to explain why. He had to admit that, at certain stages in their life cycle, they actually looked more like protozoa – and when pushed, had to fall back on the ‘essentialist’ arguments of old. 

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/natural-histories/jellyfish-problem

No one is quite sure why the lab model failed. It’s obvious that a scenario where Xerox is paying scientists to do research that ultimately mostly benefits other firms, potentially even competitors that help to put it out of business, could never survive. Similarly, the tension between managing scientists with their own pure research goals in such a way that they produce something commercially viable, while still leaving them enough latitude to make important leaps, seems huge. But these problems were always there in the model. What is harder to identify is an exogenous shock or set of shocks that changed the situation that existed from the 1930s until somewhere between the 1960s and the 1980s.

One possibility is antitrust enforcement. From 1949 authorities pursued a case against AT&T’s Bell Labs, which ultimately resulted in the forced divestiture of their non-telecoms arms, separation from their vertically integrated manufacturing, and compulsory no-fee licensing of all 7,820 of its non-telecoms patents (1.3% of the total stock of patents in force in the USA at the time). There is evidence that this move rippled across the US economy, providing a foundation for many of the great innovations of the next fifty years. But this would be true of almost any mass patent invalidation: the monopoly restrictions of patents once they are granted are the cost we pay for the investment in innovation that came before.

People frequently ask us what high-impact research in different disciplines might look like. This might be because they’re already working in a field and want to shift their research in a more impactful direction. Or maybe they’re thinking of pursuing an academic research career and they aren’t sure which discipline is right for them.

Below you will find a list of disciplines and a handful of research questions and project ideas for each one.

They are meant to be illustrative, in order to help people who are working or considering working in these disciplines get a sense of what some attempts to approach them from a longtermist perspective might look like. They also represent projects that we think would be useful to pursue from a longtermist perspective.

In 2018, a columnist for The Guardian asked Google to give him all the data it had collected on him. The company turned over 5.5 gigabytes of information—the equivalent of three million Word documents. When I repeated this experiment in March 2020, Google informed me that I was being “tracked across fifty-one products” and that I should be patient while my data were being assembled. “This process can take a long time (possibly hours or days) to complete,” the company wrote. “You’ll receive an email when your export is done.”

Ten hours later, Google emailed to say that my “archive” was complete. When I unzipped the files, they contained 214.47 gigabytes of data, roughly equal to streaming 214 hours of movies on Netflix. As a book printed in 10-point Arial, it would be 13,893,796 pages long. The archive included all my contacts, photos, search history, purchases, call logs, and correspondence—pretty much everything I had done on the Internet from its origins to the present. Like everyone else, I had agreed to this surveillance by clicking “yes” to unread agreements that promised to “enhance your user experience.” Apart from Google, I am being tracked by a host of other companies. They scrape data from my financial transactions and then sell it back to me as my credit rating or pass it on to Bluffdale, Utah, as part of the NSA’s effort to comprehend information in its totality.

https://theamericanscholar.org/our-post-privacy-world/#.X0_KjS2w0Wo

The thing to note about rice is that it is both much more productive on a per-acre basis than wheat or barley, but also much more labor intensive; it also relies on different forms of capital to be productive. Whole-grain wheat and brown rice have similar calorie and nutritional value (brown rice is somewhat better in most categories) on a unit-weight basis (so, per pound or ton), but the yield difference is fairly large: rice is typically around (very roughly) 50% more productive per acre than wheat. Moreover, rice plants have a more favorable ratio of seeds-to-plants, meaning that the demand to put away seeds for the next harvest is easier – whereas crop-to-seed ratios on pre-modern wheat range from 3:1 to 10:1, rice can achieve figures as high as 100:1. As a result, not only is the gross yield higher (that is, more tons of seed per field) but a lower percentage of that seed has to be saved for the next planting.

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The history of universe using 13,799 dominoes.

This video from KQED’s science documentary series Deep Look offers carnivorous close-ups of the Cape sundew – a bog-dwelling plant species native to South Africa.

Everyday life in the Secretive North Korean capital

An introduction to some of the finest architects and fiercest warriors of the insect world 

Interesting story on the history of air conditioning.

https://overcast.fm/+M46cOt44k

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter discusses about the limits of translation.

https://overcast.fm/+L-tCyw

Categories
Economics Ethics Fintech Science Technology

Gold, Viruses, Tuna, Bitcoin, Law, Go

The unique thing about gold is that it doesn’t get used up. The main way we consume the yellow metal is by storing it, say in vaults or by wearing it as jewellery. Compared to how we use an industrial metal like copper, this sort of usage is very safe. Copper parts in machinery, for instance, are dissipated by abrasion and wear. But gold just sits there, untouched.

Nor does gold depreciate. Unlike most materials, it is almost indestructible. Copper corrodes, steel rusts, wood rots, and concrete crumbles. But a gold coin from 200BC is still perfectly lustrous.

Nor does the yellow metal suffer from technological obsolescence. Gold keeps doing the same thing it has done for thousands of years.

And obviously we don’t eat the stuff.

https://jpkoning.blogspot.com/2020/08/the-case-for-banning-gold-mining.html

The fact that viruses have only a tenuous claim to being alive, though, hardly reduces their impact on things which are indubitably so. No other biological entities are as ubiquitous, and few as consequential. The number of copies of their genes to be found on Earth is beyond astronomical. There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and a couple of trillion galaxies in the observable universe. The virions in the surface waters of any smallish sea handily outnumber all the stars in all the skies that science could ever speak of.

Back on Earth, viruses kill more living things than any other type of predator. They shape the balance of species in ecosystems ranging from those of the open ocean to that of the human bowel. They spur evolution, driving natural selection and allowing the swapping of genes.

https://www.economist.com/essay/2020/08/20/viruses-have-big-impacts-on-ecology-and-evolution-as-well-as-human-health

And for what purpose? Bluefin is neither a staple nor a necessity. It’s a luxury. The person who dines on North Lake’s bluefin may want to connect to the people who caught it and the ocean it came from, but they are also buying a trophy, just as surely as Captain Jack did when he shelled out $3,000 for his charter experience. The word trophy comes from the Greek tropaion, a “monument of an enemy’s defeat.” It is, by definition, a spoil of war. North Lake’s relationship to bluefin tuna has always been adversarial. Fishermen are said to “fight” the fish, and they are celebrated as heroes when they win this unequal battle, armed with technologies that make the finding and killing ever more efficient, despite diminishing financial returns and the dwindling size of the catch. Commercial cod and lobster fishermen have also long seen themselves in competition with bluefin—hungry giants that feed on the same fish they needed to fatten up their catches.

This vision of wild creatures as targets of conquest or competition to be eliminated may have made some sense when human beings felt their everyday lives to be at the mercy of the natural world. But in the Anthropocene, the environment is often at our mercy, even when the ways we alter it ultimately harm our own species. Not only do humans en masse have the means and numbers to fish out entire species, we also have the power to change migration patterns by destroying habitat and warming ocean waters.

Bitcoin has already made significant ground on gold — going from whitepaper to over $200 billion in market capitalization in under a decade. Today, the market capitalization of above ground gold is conservatively $9 trillion. If we are right about using a gold framework to value bitcoin, and bitcoin continues on this path, then the bull case scenario for bitcoin is that it is undervalued by a multiple of 45. Said differently, the price of bitcoin could appreciate 45x from where it is today, which means we could see a price of $500,000 U.S. dollars per bitcoin.

All of this does not factor in the possibility of bitcoin displacing some portion of the $11.7 trillion dollars of fiat foreign exchange reserves held by governments. Foreshadowing this, at least one publicly-traded U.S. corporation has begun holding bitcoin as a treasury reserve asset. If central banks start to diversify their foreign fiat holdings even partially into bitcoin, say 10%, then 45x gets revised upward towards 55x or $600,000 USD per bitcoin, and so forth.

About the only existing law governing space is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. But the treaty focuses almost entirely on what nation-states can and cannot do (e.g., deploy nuclear bombs, seize celestial bodies). It’s virtually silent on what private companies or individuals can do—which suddenly seems like a glaring loophole given the rise of private space companies like SpaceX, which recently transported its first astronauts to the International Space Station. These private vessels are far murkier in a legal sense.

To be sure, a clause in the Outer Space Treaty does require nations to monitor their own citizens in space, which works fine when astronauts are few. But when hundreds or thousands of people reach orbit, that will become increasingly untenable. And so far, most crimes in remote places like T-3 have involved the citizens of one country alone (e.g., one Russian attacking another).

https://slate.com/technology/2020/07/arctic-t3-murder-space.html

In the case of Korea, there are about 380 professional players certified by the Korean Baduk Association, and about 50 top players can be considered tournament players. Last year, the top player in Korea earned about $1 million US dollars from tournaments alone, while the 10th player earned about $120,000 US dollars.

The development of superhuman Go AI has impacted the professional Go world in many different ways. Here, I want to highlight three areas, one that affects both types of players, one area for tournament players, and one for teaching players.

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Video on takeoff and flight sequences of insects spanning 8 different taxonomic orders captured at 3,200 fps! – usually ignored when we see in nature.

Sand art in a different dimension

https://www.wired.com/video/watch/obsessed-sand

Interesting conversation by Steven Levitt and Steven Pinker on language, cognition and various topics of interests.

https://overcast.fm/+gDgCp-J6k

Michael Sandel on why meritocracy sounds like a good idea in principle, but not a good idea to practice? – Need to practice the dignity of work.

https://overcast.fm/+RIhVGc

Categories
Environment Geopolitics Politics Science Technology

Pigs, Resilience, Distancing, Vaccines, Agents

Cascading shortfalls in production upended supply chains and left swaths of the country with little meat in the spring and summer. While East Germans queued in long lines for their roasts and sausages, they also complained bitterly that the regime continued to prioritize meat exports abroad, even as their own citizens grew more irate. The same industrial system that arose in the GDR continues to churn in every corner of the globe. It remains capable of producing unprecedented amounts of meat, but also pollution, sickness, and ecological disaster. In the era of climate change, environmental disruptions will only intensify, and as they do, the system of industrial meat will become more and more precarious. Before too long, it will break. It’s a lesson that East Germans learned a generation ago. And it’s one we should heed closely.

http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/kiosk/fleischman_thomas_6_august_2020.php

Individual organisms often respond to cues of environmental challenge by changing their behaviour or by influencing the traits of their offspring. For example, in my own work on birds, mothers in crowded populations put more testosterone in their eggs and produce aggressive offspring. Because they are good competitors, these offspring can leave overpopulated areas to find new habitat elsewhere. In contrast, mothers breeding in newly colonised habitat with a low density of breeders produce more mild-mannered offspring that are more likely to remain and acquire a territory nearby. By breeding next to their parents, these cooperative offspring are buffered from competition and from the costs of moving to a new area. But producing less aggressive offspring works only when there is lots of extra space for families to divide up. This example shows how mothers can influence offspring traits in a way that prepares their kids to deal with the environmental challenges they are most likely to face.

https://aeon.co/essays/catastrophe-drives-evolution-but-life-resides-in-the-pauses

Like other animals, humans have a long evolutionary history with infectious diseases. Many of our own forms of behavioral immunity, such as feelings of disgust in dirty or crowded environments, are likely the results of this history. But modern humans, unlike other animals, have many advantages when plagues come to our doors. For instance, we can now communicate disease threats globally in an instant. This ability allows us to institute social distancing before disease appears in our local community—a tactic that has saved many lives. We have advanced digital communication platforms, from e-mail to group video chats, that allow us to keep our physical distance while maintaining some social connections. Other animals lose social ties with actual distance. But perhaps the biggest human advantage is the ability to develop sophisticated nonbehavioral tools, such as vaccines, that prevent disease without the need for costly behavioral changes. Vaccination allows us to maintain rich, interactive social lives despite contagious diseases such as polio and measles that would otherwise ravage us.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/animals-use-social-distancing-to-avoid-disease1/

When you’re planning a large vaccine drive, predictability is vital. The immunization campaign that allowed India to eradicate polio in 2014, for example, worked methodically through the country’s populace of hundreds of millions of children, backed by a bank of knowledge about how the virus behaved, what the vaccine’s properties were, and where new cases could be found. Such factors dictate not only how much vaccine is manufactured but also the production of a host of ancillaries: chemical additives such as adjuvants; hypodermics, glass vials, rubber stoppers, and other parts of an injection kit; and storage equipment such as deep freezers. Without this gear, a vaccine is just a fine formula, a cure in search of its disease.

https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-covid-vaccine-manufacturing-essentials/

If a physical product that is widespread in American society could be manipulated by an adversary—imagine an army of home-service robots whose operating systems could be attacked by a foreign power, and turned to hold families hostage inside their houses—it would be immediately addressed as a top-priority national security threat. But social media has long had a free pass for a number of reasons that apply to the information technology industry as a whole. Today, it is protected in distinctive and persistent ways because of its “speech” functions and the constitutional protections that these functions carry.

https://www.lawfareblog.com/how-might-sleeper-agents-americans-interfere-election

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Merriam-Webster defines Baryons as any of a group of subatomic particles (such as nucleons) that are subject to the strong force and are composed of three quarks. Half of the ordinary baryonic matter has been tough to find but Fast Radio Bursts made it possible to detect the WHIM.

The most popular high-end coffee species – Arabica – is highly susceptible to Climate change. Video talks about how Columbian economy is impacted by the environmental crisis and could affect global coffee drinkers in the longer term.

Is the pursuit of GDP growth is the best priority for human society? Listen to an interesting conversation between Stephen Dubner and Kate Raworth.

https://overcast.fm/+WaLE5dato

Know more about monastic traditions of Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans.

https://overcast.fm/+QDAIECDAo

Categories
Environment Science Technology

Rocks, Cooker, Change, Bezos, Dinosaur

After a long break, I am starting to share some interesting articles that I come across over the week. I believe there are many people creating interesting articles that generates passion and curiosity among readers like me. I give full credit to all the authors who have written these articles.

It’s hard to imagine that we will ever succeed in building a computer system as brilliantly complex as the interrelation of fungal mycelium, far-reaching tree roots, and soil microorganisms in your average healthy forest, what scientists call the “wood wide web.” Smart devices, connected to one another through cloud-based servers vulnerable to cyberattack and plain old entropy, could never do this. And perhaps this is the real reason fully biological computers may remain always beyond our grasp. Even now, as we dream of embedding artificial intelligence into every material surface of our lives, we are at best poorly emulating processes already at play beneath our feet and in our gardens. We’re making a bad copy of the Earth — and, in mining the Earth to create it, we are destroying the original.

“With Japanese rice, what you’re looking for is for some of the starch to almost convert to sugar so that it tastes rather sweet,” explains Itoh. Other ideal elements include a sticky texture, separate grains, and a lot of moisture: all hard to obtain, says Itoh, “without any automated way to do it. And people are very, very picky about how their rice should be.”

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/rice-cooker-history/

I’m going to show how shocking the changes have been in science throughout just my lifetime, how even more shocking the changes have been since my grandparents were born, and by induction speculate on how much more shock there will be during my grandchildren’s lifetimes. All people who I have known.

Amazon has invested more than $270 billion in the U.S. over the last decade. Beyond our own workforce, Amazon’s investments have created nearly 700,000 indirect jobs in fields like construction, building services, and hospitality. Our hiring and investments have brought much-needed jobs and added hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity to areas like Fall River, Massachusetts, California’s Inland Empire, and Rust Belt states like Ohio. During the COVID-19 crisis, we hired an additional 175,000 employees, including many laid off from other jobs during the economic shutdown. We spent more than $4 billion in the second quarter alone to get essential products to customers and keep our employees safe during the COVID-19 crisis. And a dedicated team of Amazon employees from across the company has created a program to regularly test our workers for COVID-19. We look forward to sharing our learnings with other interested companies and government partners.

https://blog.aboutamazon.com/policy/statement-by-jeff-bezos-to-the-u-s-house-committee-on-the-judiciary

Your goal is the same as the impala’s: To buy time. You will have the endurance advantage. Recent studies like Dececchi’s suggest some dinosaur species may have possessed remarkable endurance for their size—but your springy hips, stretchy Achilles tendons, and efficient cooling systems make you one of the greatest endurance runners nature has ever created. The longer the race, the greater your chances.

https://www.wired.com/story/how-outrun-dinosaur/

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GPT-3: What’s Hype, What’s Real on the Latest in AI

https://overcast.fm/+BlzHmQM3s

How reading changes your brain

Categories
Economics Environment Technology

Are the new age business supply chains turning Ouroboros?

Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, after whom the Goddard Space Flight Center was named once wrote about long-duration interstellar journeys in his essay “The Last Migration”.  He speculated that human race will send out expeditions into the regions of thickly distributed stars, taking a condensed form of all the knowledge of the human race. Pondering on the concept, I was attending the class of Prof. Sergio Chayet at WashU, where he introduced us to the concept of Just-in-time production. In the class, I realized that the business supply chains of the modern era work in a linear fashion. We produce and consume in endless supply chains. The business mantra that runs our traditional economics is the extraction of maximum profit from existing resources.

To support the model of sustainable profitability, we rely on a linear approach. We take, we make and we dispose of. To achieve profit overtimes (we do not bother whether it is sustainable or not) we transformed our economy into a cowboy economy. Since the time we settled in civilisations, the cowboy economics created the rich and poor divide in the society. The cowboy economic principle is centred on taming and exploiting a seemingly endless resource frontier. This resulted in an exorbitant appetite for resources. According to International Resource Panel, a UN body that consists of scientists and policymakers, estimates that primary materials extracted from earth rose from 22 Bn tonnes in 1970 to 70 Bn tonnes in 2010 and by 2050 the planet will need 180 Bn tonnes of material a year if the trends continue.

Is this a sustainable use of resources? It is a good time for every corporate citizen to think before it gets too late and the changes become irreversible. If we could portray the human civilization on a spaceship earth travelling to a ‘destination’, can this economics survive till we reach our destination? Is this the time to rethink our business models? We cannot allow modern business to become Ouroboros – the serpent that eats itself.

Based on the simple concepts of waste reduction, reusing and redesigning product and process flows, there is a possibility that we could still reach our ‘destination’ in a sustainable manner.  We can preserve and enhance natural capital available for future generations.  This is the concept of Circular Economics. According to Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.

The concept is congruent to the living world. There is no waste. It is just the flow of material from one form to the other. Energy is provided by the sun, things grow, then die and nutrients return to the soil and the system circulates. It is a system that has evolved over 4 Bn years. But what about human technology that runs our businesses? In the modern era when the new technology comes up, we ditch the old one. Let it be our mobile phones, Televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and the list is endless. When the iPhone X is launched no one needs the old one and Apple stops the support of the older models. Each time we use and discard, we are eating into a finite supply of resources. As an output of this process, we produce toxic waste. Technology is evolving at a much faster pace. So is the waste that is generated as part of these business ecosystems. By 2030, 3 Bn more middle class consumers will have access to latest technology. This is fantastic, but at what cost? Can the current way of consumerism be transformed by circular economics? If yes, firms can recirculate their products without any waste in their production, distribution and consumption supply chains. If companies stop selling products and start selling services, we will see this change. For example, if Apple starts selling its smartphone as a service instead of a product, the firm will have a motivation to circulate its older models within the supply chain and reduce the push of newer versions to the market.  In such a scenario, the customers can enjoy the latest technology without creating a perceivable dent on resources.  Consumers will be more interested in services and performance of such offerings rather than the product. This change in the business mantra can motivate firms to consume resources in a sustainable way and we could reach our ‘destination’.

Categories
Economics Geopolitics Technology

Emergence of the New five data sisters

On August 28, 1928, in Achnacarry Castle of the Scottish Highlands, there was a private appointment among a Dutchman, an American and an Englishman. If anyone knew the potential of oil, which could turn the fortune of corporations and empires, it was them. The Dutchman was Henry Deterding of Shell, American was Walter Teagle of Standard Oil the current Exxon and the Englishman, Sir John Cadman from Anglo-Persian Oil Company, soon to become BP.

With fuel-hungry ships, planes, and tanks on one side and the fast developing automobile industry on another side, when the oil became “the blood of every battle and economy”, it was these corporations that the oil men founded later known as the seven sisters, became the cartel that waged the merciless contest of money. There were times prior to the 1973 oil crisis when these Seven Sisters controlled around 85 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves.

Now let us consider the same perspective for the data. Since the time of counting, we have used information for making decisions. But it was never before this information used to be so concentrated in the hands of a five new emerging sisters. ‘Google’, ‘Facebook’, ‘Amazon’, ‘Apple’ and ‘Microsoft’. If we consider Google, there are over 100 million active users. It also has youtube with 1 billion unique monthly visitors. Facebook boasts around 2 billion monthly active users (Let alone the Instagram and the marketplace). Apple too has over 1 billion devices that are actively used around the world. Over half of the product searches happen on Amazon that has over half a billion active users. As far as the oldie Microsoft is concerned, 1.2 billion users use their product globally across over 100 countries. With Internet of things (IoT) developing, the world we survive is turning to a mine that churns out the new precious commodity data.

So what is the data that these companies are collecting from their users? They gather the information such as ad clicks, device details, email addresses, facial details, IP and location details, phone numbers, personal profile, search queries and the time information.They do it through cookies, device tracking and third party codes that we may not be much aware. We may not be even so much concerned about this information. But it makes a lot of logical sense for these companies to understand and predict the user behaviors. We will understand their power when PWC estimates the addressable market size of data to be at $1.3 trillion by 2019.

The question that whether the data is the new oil is not new. The data explosion has been predicted since 2006. There are 3 characteristics that are common for any resource that become such a powerful economic driver.

First is it’s omnipresence. If you consider the oil, it is not just a driver of our car. It is vital to the production of many everyday essentials. Oil’s refined products are used to manufacture almost all chemical products, such as plastics, fertilizers, detergents, paints and even medicines, plus a whole host of other products that you might not expect. Overall only 60-70% of the oil is consumed in the transportation sector that includes land, air, and water. Balance is consumed in chemicals and pharmaceuticals industry.

If the same parlance is taken, the mobile and smart devices that we use ever day has become the opportunities for interactions that produce customer data. The 2017 global edition of the GSMA’s ‘Mobile Economy’ report reveals that there is a 5 billion mobile subscriber base out of the global population of 7.5 billion. This is massive !!

Second is its economics. Through its extensive supply chain, the oil and gas industry employs hundreds of thousands of people and make a major contribution to the global economy in terms of global trade and technologies. Over 5-6 million people work directly in this industry globally and several million more indirectly. According to market research by IBISWorld, a leading business intelligence firm, the total revenues for the oil and gas drilling sector came to $5 trillion in 2014. 2015 estimates for global gross domestic product range between $77 trillion and $127 trillion. The oil and gas drilling sector make up between 6% and 8% of the global economy.

If we take the statistics, according to Forrester Research, Global tech industry is over $3 trillion and approximately it is over 3% with an average growth rate of over 5%.

The third is the potential for high correlation to the global economy. If we look at the correlation between the oil prices and the global economy, it is fairly complicated. The prices of the oil determine the fiscal and monetary policy of the governments.The fluctuations of its price could severely impact the corporate and sovereign ratings thus driving the investments in and out of a country. This is a direct impact on the common man whose daily life is impacted in all ways by the fluctuations of this commodity.

Similarly, if we take the impact of data, it is the dark horse that drives the consumer behavior. The targeted advertisements and customized product launches for specific user requirements are the ways to go.

But can we expect the nationalization drive that happened in the oil-rich nations will not happen again? The way in which governments responded to the 7 sisters, by nationalizing the oil resources, we possibly could see the nationalization of data. Since the new 5 sisters are extracting this resources free of cost and profiting from it, it may not be long enough to see this transformation. But I never expected that the history would repeat so perfectly.

Categories
Fintech Technology

Finance – A theory of transition to a new world

Working in the finance sector, possibly the only sector that I had worked since graduation, I have encountered a systematic shift in the perception of the jobs. I believe that we are in an era of transition of the financial industry for good or bad. When I joined my initial assignment 15 years back, I was working on trade solutions. We used to have over 20 people who were designing customized reports and running them at a specific time for various businesses across various continents. The requirements were flowing to refine the solutions so frequently that a significant amount of resources were deployed to tackle the future plans. Within a few years such a futuristic team underwent a significant headcount reduction and now I believe that technology itself does not exist. This is when the quote of Bill Gates becomes prominent. ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.’

When I joined my initial assignment 15 years back, I was working on trade solutions. We used to have over 20 people who were designing customized reports and running them at a specific time for various businesses across various continents. The requirements were flowing to refine the solutions so frequently that a significant amount of resources were deployed to tackle the future plans. Within a few years such a futuristic team underwent a significant headcount reduction and now I believe that technology itself does not exist. This is when the quote of Bill Gates becomes prominent. ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.’

This is when the quote of Bill Gates becomes prominent. ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.’

I had been fortunate to work a good portion of my life in understanding the investment perspectives of money. So let us understand money from that context. Being an industrial engineer, I always have been enthusiastic about the time-motion study. It is a business efficiency technique combining the works of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. This integrated approach to work system improvement is known as methods engineering and it is applied today to industrial as well as service organizations, including banks. Let us see how the transition could happen through a basic time-motion study of how an investment professional would approach an investment.

The first step for anyone is to get stock of your finances and spending pattern. With the intrusion of privacy through smartphones and data crunching and machine learning capabilities, the firms that we depend on for our everyday needs can predict our requirements to a reasonable extent. If our needs are translated into their sales, this information can be treated as a sales input for a company. In other words, it could serve as a leading indicator for one’s investment. This could create a vicious cycle by which users of a specific product could be made to buy the stocks of those products that they consume. These stocks would be recommended by very same companies that took the data from the same set users. Is it going to be fun? Can we say that this data tech is going to the next investment advisors?

As on today, we have many applications on our fingertips that could tell us the amount that we had spent, are spending and will be spending. If these data companies can build a predictable certainty on this consumption pattern, will there be a concept of a market? Will there be market buy and sell on risk and uncertainty? The result could be that one may not trade, he could just put money for a reasonably predictable future. Will that be an end of speculation in markets, which our modern day banks have invented?

The second step is usually to understand the products that would make sense for the user. As I mentioned today we have applications that can fairly predict the outcomes of investments through game theory and scenario analysis. With the enormous information that is being generated by us on a daily basis, the suitability of the products and judging our risk tolerance will become much easier. The feeder information for this judgment would be our own data provided through various means to the data aggregators of the internet such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft.

For your information, 95% of global data was created in the last 3 years. It is expected that by 2020 the digital universe – the data we create and copy annually – will reach 44 zettabytes or 44 trillion gigabytes. This is the data that would drive the future of money.  Anyway, this data would be input for the setting one’s goals and determining your risk tolerance. So tomorrow your decision to buy a car or a decision for a holiday could be taken by these technology companies. The days are not far, that even the style of investment and the returns that one can expect from a specific type of investment can be determined with a fairly good accuracy. Once this information is available to the public through, let us say ‘open source investment codes’, who would want to pay for the current products, that our banks and financial institutions sell as exotic products.

It would be something like our Android phones, which almost monopolized the mobile industry. We are currently on the Nokia Symbian environment as far as financial industry is concerned. Once we have a platform that would enable the users to transact, select, deploy, track, review and rebalance money on a universal level, that would be the death knell for the current financial industry as we see it today.

This is a pivot moment for the financial institutions. It could be the block chain, peer to peer services, internet of things, wearables or/and augmented reality, but I am sure that the future of money in the next 15 years will not the same that we see today. It will be a great concoction of these new age thoughts. Such innovations could either be with the current financial institutions or against such institutions. If they are on the other side it would be the end of such institutions as we see today.

Categories
Economics Environment Technology

Technologies in the new era of agriculture

I had been on a casual chat with my brother in law, who is running agri-business in Africa. I was surprised with the efficiency with which the agricultural economy was running and how the farmers are even using drone technology to do aerial surveillance of their farms. Curious on these advancements, I decided to do some research on the new developments in the field of agriculture.
The agriculture as a sector has a mammoth problem in hand – to feed the 9.6 billion people (as per FAO prediction) who are going to inhabit the planet by 2050. If this number is achieved by our efforts, then the food production must increase at least by 70% from the current levels. This has to be achieved despite the limited availability of cultivable lands, increasing need for fresh water and change in weather patterns that would come with the impact of climate change.
There are a few technologies that I found interesting and could change the way the food comes to our table. Have you ever imagined what is the average time for a newly harvested apple to reach to your table? One week, one month, three months..sorry! On an average, it takes around eleven months to reach your table. By that time you can be pretty sure that it is just a sugar ball rather than a fruit rich in antioxidants. So what if we could do a teleportation of such food items from one corner of the world to another corner. It is not a new Starwars movie in making.
Through the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT Media Lab, we have made personal food computers possible. This could possibly make you and me the farmers of the future. This is a tabletop-sized, controlled environment provides agriculture technology platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber. By manipulating climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, potential hydrogen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature we will be able to yield various phenotypic expressions in the plants, means we would be able to create a “climate recipe” suiting our taste. Through this project, this information can be shared across the globe on an open architecture platform to develop customised fresh vegetable and fruit recipe.Soo tomorrow we could have an apple made suiting the crispiness and sweetness customised for our taste buds. It could potentially allow farmers to induce other abnormal conditions such as drought and saline environment producing desirable traits in specific crops that wouldn’t typically occur in nature.
Another silent breakthrough happening is the creeping of Internet of Things (IoT) to the agriculture. We have started to use remote sensing technologies to make agri-farms more intelligent – means to make smart farms or feedback farms. So how do such farms work? These farms use remote sensing technologies that would observe, measure and respond to inter and intra-field variability in crops using the data gathered from farm and crop yields, atmosphere and soil-mapping, food and fertiliser consumption and weather data and apply feedback to the support systems. Such information collection is done not just in farming, but also in livestock and fishing. There are companies such as Anemon from Switzerland and eCow and Connected Cow from UK that tracks the health of livestock and recommend live solutions to the owners.Similar technologies are coming in the fish farming too. Eruvaka from India has developed a system that would control pH, dissolved oxygen, physical composition of water thus helping the water quality to be maintained effortlessly in aquaculture.
The main concerns that could come in implementing such cutting edge techniques are the ownership of data and the issues in communicating the technicalities to the farmers. In 2000, there were 525 million farms on record, out of which not a single farm was connected to the Internet of Things. IBM expects that by the year 2025 with the same base of 525 million farms, there will be 600 million sensors in use at these farms and by 2050, there will be two billion sensors used in 525 million farms – representing a major shift towards technological advancements.
Another development that would be of my interest is the one that has been developed during the interplanetary exploration endeavours of NASA in the late 60s. Since the travel time to Mars could take a year or even longer and the space on board and the resources were limited, NASA had figure out how to produce food with minimal inputs. It involved single-celled microorganisms that used hydrogen from water and the carbon from the carbon dioxide exhaled by the astronauts and converted into a nutritious, carbon-rich crop and eventually to a meal. The types of microbes that they used were called hydrogenotrophs – nature’s supercharged carbon recyclers. These organisms created a virtuous carbon cycle that would sustain life onboard a spacecraft, thus creating a closed-loop carbon cycle.
How beautiful would it be if we can convert the increased carbon levels in our atmosphere to edible food and solve the problem of hunger? To cope up with the incoming demand of the food, I believe the modern agriculture simply cannot sustainably scale to meet that demand. We could use the existing land resources to get better outputs through the new methods of the web and dig out the techniques that could have been used for our interplanetary expeditions.
The future of food is not about fighting over what can be done and what cannot be done. The future of food is about networking the billions of farmers and the consumers and empowering them with a platform to ask and answer the question, “What if?”
Categories
Economics Technology

Universal Basic Income – all pay and no work

How do you feel when you get paid freely for doing no work? In my previous post, we had discussed the possibility of Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposed by Thomas Paine – the price tag that we have given for the new era of the unemployed because of the emergence of automation and technology. It may surprise you to know that a partial UBI already existed in Alaska since 1982 and that a version of basic income was experimentally tested in the United States in the 1970s.

So let us understand the dynamics of universal basic income. A study, released by Oxfam, showed that just 57 billionaires in India have the same wealth as that of the bottom 70 percent population of the country. To give a global perspective, just 8 billionaires have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50 percent of the world population. This statistics gives the extent of global income inequality. Now wonder we have just 32 million of 3210 million population of the world owns over 40 percent of the world wealth.

Anyway, what is the need of this universal income? It is predicted that automation will create nearly 15 million new jobs by 2025, but at the same time, wipe out nearly 25 million. The 10 million who is going to lose the jobs in the process would be the people who would find it difficult to upgrade their skills or those who are too old to switch the jobs. But how would they survive? Will the world of technology be morally responsible for supporting them?

Even some of the biggest technology tycoons including Elon Musk who are talking about changing the world for the better seem deeply concerned on what the very same technology could do to jobs in the long haul making universal basic income “necessary.” It is not just the individuals who are concerned about this. The entire political spectrum is concerned about this huge income disparity. The idea of unconditional or universal basic income is like social security for all. The cause of this thought is not just from the rising income inequality arising from technology dominance. It has the origins from the decades of stagnant wages, the transformation of lifelong careers into sub-hourly tasks, and world-changing events like Brexit and the vision of Trump. All of these concerns are pointing to the need to start a permanent income guarantee for everyone that could take care of the basic needs of an individual.

How will this make sense in the new economy? If we look at the operational aspect of this concept, it is a negative tax. An interesting process in which those earning below a certain point are given an additional income, and those earning above a certain point are taxed on additional income. To cut it short, even Ambani would receive the same amount as a person below the poverty line. Only difference it that Ambani will pay far more than that amount in new taxes for the government to pay for it.

But what about people then choosing not to work? Isn’t that a huge burden too? It is an interesting topic to debate. Let us look at implementing this in a developed market like the US where the data is handy. According to Gallup in the US, 70% of workers are not engaged in what they resulting in a productivity loss of around $500 billion per year. With UBI coming in, this disengaged workforce will say “no thanks” to the labour market enabling an opportunity for the rest of the people who want to do the jobs they want. The result is a transformed labour market of more engaged, more employed, better paid and more productive workers. Fewer people are excluded, and there’s perhaps more scope for all workers to become self-employed entrepreneurs. In addition, there are proven positive effects on social cohesion and physical and mental health.

Based on the evidence we already have and continue to build with the trial run of such a scheme in Mongolia, Finland and India, I firmly believe unconditional basic income as a new equal starting point for all. For resource-rich countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, it will be an efficient method of utilisation and transfer of resource incomes. For populated countries like India and China, it will help the reduce the leakage of subsidies provided by public welfare distribution.Lastly, in developed economies, it will compensate for the advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other technologies that have questioned the future of work.

In addition, there are proven positive effects on social cohesion and physical and mental health. Based on these evidence we already have and with the trial run of such a scheme in Mongolia, Finland and India, I firmly believe unconditional basic income as a new equal starting point for all. For resource-rich countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, it will be an efficient method of utilisation and transfer of resource incomes. For populated countries like India and China, it will help to reduce the leakage of subsidies provided by public welfare systems. Lastly, in developed economies, it will compensate for the advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other technologies that have questioned the future of work.

If things work out as planned by the governments, we might have a better place to live with more equitable distribution of wealth.