Wednesday, May 3, 2017

disruptive technologies

In this post we take a brief look at various disruptive technologies today. This is meant to be a brief brain-dump as much for me as it is for you. Helps me remember all the things happening that are pushing the limits of what can be from what already is. Wasn't it William Gibson (author of the famed Neuromancer) who said "The future is already here, just unequally distributed"? So here we go, looking into the future as it stands today.

  1. Drone Technology - sounds cool when Amazon talks about using drones for faster deliveries. And yes, we read about the use of drones in warfare. Drones are also used for working in hostile environments, remote photography, etc. As with all technology, this can be used for bad as well as good. As these get stealthier, are fitted with night-vision cameras etc, and can fly with "whisper-speed", things start getting scary. And then of course at the limits of miniaturization, coupled with some artificial intelligence, Crichton ideas from books like "Prey" seem quite plausible. Already people are talking about how a multitude of miniaturized drones can take down big targets working together kamikaze style.
  2. 3D Printing - the first wave of 3D printing came and went without too much "in your face" impact. But wait, it is quietly making a resurgence. Companies like Nike are printing soles of some of their shoes because this process is cost-effective, gives the right kind of texture, and quick compared to alternatives. Earlier some feedback I've heard from users was that this technology lacks finesse in terms of finer details so it cannot be used as effectively in some use cases. However, that seems to be changing with remarkable hardware improvements being made.
  3. Self Driving Cars - I sometimes wonder if people will even remember fifty years from now that there was a time when human beings used to drive their cars to different places. This is a massive disruptor of the entire transportation ecosystem. 
  4. FinTech/BlockChain/Smart Contracts - this has huge potential to disrupt the financial services sector - things like smart contracts and roboadvisors should keep investment banks awake at night - if they aren't already. Central clearing houses will be replaced by a more democratized model of distributed databases. Fraud will likely be more easily exposed. Eric Raymond (author of the famous paper "The Cathedral and the Bazaar"), says "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". This holds also for patterns hidden in data, when data (even anonymized) is made public. If the needle swings further in that direction, HFT might come under attack as well. And the impact of smart contracts to disrupt instruments like CDS etc? This could lead to a sea change in how business gets done!
  5. IoT - so we slowly ramped up the devices that could generate data, added more sensors to systems we deploy, and now we have the technology to collect large amounts of data and the algorithms to process it in near real time. What next? Communicating devices or "things"? Things controllable remotely from the Internet? The rise of hacking as a more powerful threat? Cyber-warfare?
  6. Machine Learning+Big Data+AI - with applications in everything from Internet Search to self driving vehicles (see above), machine learning and artificial intelligence threatens to pervade and disrupt every sphere of our daily lives. This need not necessarily be a bad thing - if things get better, faster, more robust, and offer a more personalized, more interactive experience factoring in user tastes (so as to not appear too creepy), what's not to like? Now we are able to collect more data from more "things" (IoT?) and then able to do more "smart" things with it.
Impacts: There are several but the one we focus on here relates to the "beveridge curve" from economics which maps the relationship between unemployment and the job vacancy rate. Why is this curve important? Because it will indicate over time that as unemployment rises, the number of available vacancies also rise. Entire fields of study, entire professions will become obsolete as some of these technologies proliferate. Unless people who are displaced by the machines learn new skills quickly, they will find themselves among the perennially unemployed. This makes a strong case for two things - children growing up today should pick up two or three different skills/professions through which they can make a living. Jobs are getting more specialized as well as getting obsoleted at a faster rate. Second, one needs to keep learning on the leading edge of technology, because this tide will keep moving ever forward, and slipping off means falling by the wayside never to catch up again. Makes for a scary situation for some, or for a very exciting landscape - depending on your point of view. The most prized skill going forward would be the ability to learn quickly so you remain relevant no matter what happens.

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