Memia newsletter 2020.04 AI boardrooms // Self-driving businesses // It's only money // Aww baby dolphin 🐬
And bouncing backpacks...who knew?
Hi there / Kia ora
Ben Reid here with another regular Memia roundup of what’s happening in strategy, tech and innovation in [my corner of] the world. Thank you to those who got in touch to give feedback on recent issues - gratefully received!
The most clicked link in the last issue (~7% of opens) was the Newsroom article on the Coronavirus “misinfodemic”. As always, if you enjoy these newsletters, please do forward to a friend or share using the button below.
A recent Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) campaign muses on what the Boardroom of 2030 will look like - (apparently) an “exciting” future for company directors with access to “24/7 real-time data”.
I’m not so sure. Most of the governance tasks currently carried out by directors - particularly around compliance and audit / financial and operational oversight - are prime candidates for substantial automation using software and AI. (Pretty much any cognitive task involving rules or pattern recognition will soon be better left to a machine…). Plus, “24/7 real-time data” implies no scheduled board meetings, for one thing - imagine how many hours of executive time could be saved not having to write those monthly board reports! 😂
Which surely leaves the important job of setting strategy for directors? Actually, again, I’m not so sure. Strategy, at least as currently practiced, is largely automatable too: Given enough data and a well-modeled Digital Twin of the business in question, the function of setting company strategy actually becomes “what outcomes are we optimising for?” The business itself works out how to get there. Furthermore, businesses which invest in accurate data and models of their operating environment will get virtuous feedback loops to inform even better, more granular optimisation decisions. (Witness: Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent…).
On this topic my friend and prolific LinkedIn poster Rob Warner asks instead:
…how could AI amplify and extend governance oversight and strategic thinking? What could be plausible for Board toolsets, skill sets and even mindsets to evolve and keep pace with emergent ‘triple bottom line’ risks - to people; profit; planet?
To my mind it's actually the same set of issues to consider as self-driving cars - instead of holding on to the steering wheel, we just set a destination and let the car navigate itself - and perhaps busy ourselves with thinking on more high-level concerns. But do today’s company directors see themselves one day sitting in the front seat of a self-driving business...?
It’s only money
It’s only money (1) Last month I covered developments in sovereign cryptocurrencies around the world. China, clearly the most advanced nation in the field, recently filed 84 new patents related to launching a digital currency.
While a central bank-operated universal ledger could deliver huge efficiencies and innovation in financial transactions, concerns about individual privacy for users of “programmable money” remain. The FT quotes the president of the Chamber of Digital Commerce:
“While some of the patents mentioned the guarantee of peer-to-peer privacy, there were no mechanisms to prevent the Chinese central bank from having full oversight of users’ transactions”
It’s only money (2) For all the effort and energy expended by the fintech sector, substantial financial innovation is still constrained by dated monetary policy rules and GAAP accounting standards - which often render money frustratingly non-functional for broader concerns and applications - for example, accounting for the environment.
The frameworks which underpin money that are currently used to measure value can be changed or extended. Some examples:
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an imprecise tool used to size national finances. I enjoyed Professor Marilyn Waring’s talk at last year’s TEDxChristchurch - GDP measures the wrong things. Here’s something better.
MIT Sloan professor Erik Brynjolfsson takes a breather from discussing AI and the productivity paradox and instead talks about his recent work to define a new measure GDP-B - which captures the value of free goods and services (eg Google, Wikipedia) in the digital economy.
Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta is leading an independent global review to assess the economic benefits of biodiversity and the economic costs of its loss. RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan interviewed him in depth about how to put a dollar value on biodiversity.
It’s only money (3) Last week Amazon founder and world’s richest man Jeff Bezos announced he was launching a US$10 billion fund to address climate change. (In 2018, Amazon emitted about 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, putting it in the top 200 emitters worldwide by some estimates - if ever triple bottom line accounting standards were called for… 🙈🙉🙊)
Local tech and innovation goings-on:
Photo: Precinct Properties
“It’s only money”(4) says CEO Dean Hall of NZ games developer RocketWerkz after signing a six-year lease for the top two floors of the new Commercial Bay PwC Tower on Tāmaki Makaurau|Auckland's waterfront - which will be Aotearoa’s tallest office building when it opens. [It’s only money (5): does Fletcher Building, who built the tower, hold a similar approach to money…?!] Rocketwerkz, originally hailing from Ōtepoti|Dunedin, are the publishers of immersive strategy games including Out of Ammo and Stationeers. "We went looking for the best location that would match our ambitions. We found it" said Hall. If you fancy a desk with a view, Rocketwerkz are hiring.
Yet another Kiwi Series B round and it’s still only February - this time Tāmaki Makaurau|Auckland demand intelligence firm PredictHQ announced a raise of $34M to fund further growth which is currently running at 125% YoY.
In a first for quantum physics, University of Otago researchers have “held” individual atoms in place and observed previously unseen complex atomic interactions, perhaps paving the way for building at atomic scale.
As trailed last month, Rocket Lab has been selected by NASA to launch the new Pathfinder Mission to the same lunar orbit as Gateway, an outpost that astronauts would visit before descending to the surface of the Moon.
A few weak signals from near and far future:
*Just sometimes* AI seems to live up to the hype: a team at MIT used a machine learning algorithm to identify a powerful new antibiotic compound which kills many of the world’s most problematic disease-causing bacteria in the lab, including some strains that are resistant to all known antibiotics.
HOWEVER, it’s usually worth being sceptical by default: for example, check out this Reddit fact checking thread on the recent story Alibaba designs new AI tool to diagnose coronavirus; it's 96% accurate. Quote:
If you have a completely broken model that never outputs the 'yup, coronavirus' class but the real-world disease prevalence is 1:1000, you'd see 99.9% accuracy on any representative sample.
Power from air (1): Inflatable tethered wind turbines
Power from air (2): Scientists create a new green technology which generates electricity ‘out of thin air’
And… bouncing backpacks … who knew?
Sharing reading and other content that I’ve been enjoying:
Peter Thiel, Marxist? Thought provoking essay Progress, Postmodernism and the Tech Backlash by Alex Danco.
Wisdom and experience. Kiwi software engineering guru Sam Jarman writes excellent articles about his craft (at least when he’s not performing improv). Check this out from his blog: Conducting Interviews.
Currently reading: William Gibson’s latest novel Agency, the sequel (in the loosest time-travelling-alternate-universes sense of the word) to 2014’s superb The Peripheral. In both novels, somehow a 2-way information link exists between two forked universes with a common past (“stubs”) - in Agency the fork happened back in 2016, the time of US Presidential election (Hillary won) and Brexit (Remain won) votes. It’s a mental challenge to keep track of the forked timezones and characters - but Gibson’s description of how Eunice, a self-aware AI enrols herself into the [parallel] world is uncannily believable: “radical augmentations of human intelligence, not code trying to behave like it”. Full of the usual crisp, droll Gibson phrases (eg “antigentrification murals”) on every page. Hard going in places but recommended.
Thanks for getting to the end - and as always 🙏 to everyone who sent links in to share.
More next time…
Regards / Ngā mihi