5 reflections on technology from 2018

5 reflections on technology from 2018 –

1. Tech has far outgrown tech. I recently came across the origin story of “ThirdLove.” Heidi Zak, a Marketing Manager at Google, was tired of wearing undergarments that didn’t fit. She was also tired of the sexed up images that came with brands like Victoria’s Secret. So, she started ThirdLove.com to build a more inclusive bra and underwear brand, has grown ThirdLove to 250+ employees, and raised $13.4M along the way. And, as ThirdLove is an e-commerce brand, ThirdLove is considered a “tech startup.”

I remember a discussion with Disqus co-founder Daniel Ha where he made the point that companies which were founded around the time electricity became mainstream called themselves “electric” companies (e.g. General Electric). Over time, however, every company began using electricity and, thus, electricity became a foundation layer.

When we refer to the “tech” industry, we refer to companies that are “internet first.” That is certainly the case with retail companies like ThirdLove and Warby Parker which were built with the internet in mind. It doesn’t mean they won’t have a physical footprint (Warby Parker does) – it just means they started with internet first assumptions. That means they focused first on selling direct to customers online with a low cost distribution model.

But, the new tech company is increasingly focused on the domain of “non tech” companies. As a result, Amazon may have an online retailer when it started. But, it now has a massive physical footprint. Scooter-as-a-service companies like Bird and Lime own scooters. OpenDoor owns homes and so on.

In the next decade, non-tech incumbents across industries will have to find a way to cross the chasm and build with “internet first” assumptions. Or, they’ll lose to an upstart who does.

2. Deep learning may have hit its limits – but its impact will be far reaching. The growing consensus among experts (e.g. Rodney BrooksGary Marcus) on deep learning is that we are fast approaching its limits. While that might be true, I think we are still ways from experiencing the impact of full deployment of deep learning in our everyday life. Putting aside the potential Orwellian applications of deep learning (see example of social credit in China), we are just beginning to see the effects of increased automation.

Amazon said the following in a statement about increased warehouse automation – “It’s a myth that automation replaces jobs and destroys net job growth. Automation increases productivity and in some cases increases consumer demand, which also creates more jobs. Automation makes the jobs in our fulfillment center more efficient and allows associates to redirect their focus to other tasks. Since the time we started introducing robotics at Amazon in 2012, we have added nearly 300,000 full-time jobs globally. Our teams work alongside more than 100,000 robots at over 26 fulfilment centers worldwide and we are excited to continue increasing the technology we use at our sites while growing our global workforce.”

Of course, it isn’t just Amazon. For starters, WalMart is testing cashier less Sam’s Club stores and will also be deploying robot janitors in its US stores. The story we’re told is similar to the one told by Amazon – don’t worry, automation only increases the size of the pie. While the story may actually be true for these companies, it is hard to escape the fact that these robots are reducing the overall number of jobs available for humans (see JD.com’s fully automated warehouses).

And, while we can all point to the many jobs we created since the industrial revolution, there is also the fact that there was a painful adjustment period.

Investing in continuous education and re-skilling the workforce should be on top of every political agenda. But…

3. …regulators are clearly skating to where the puck was 20 years ago. Sadly, we saw far too many examples of backwards looking politics and regulation this year. There were two examples of this just in the last week. The first involved a a poorly crafted piece of legislation in Australia that gives the government the right to break encryption for law enforcement reasons without any judicial oversight. And, the second was an exchange between Sundar Pichai and Congressman Smith where the latter claimed he believed individuals could manipulate Google Search results.

Regulators have been lining up to find ways to regulate digital advertising (see: GDPR) – sadly, however, they’ve been doing so in ways that only entrenches incumbents and their approaches to doing business. Ben Thompson had a great post called “Data factories” earlier this year sharing his notes on how we might approach regulating the internet. He explains that users care far less about their privacy than regulators believe. And, instead of enforcing onerous consent procedures, the better approach might be to mandate greater transparency on how user data is actually used. In Ben’s words –

Indeed, that is the crux of the matter: regulators need to trust users to take care of their own privacy, and enable them to do so — and, by extension, create the conditions for users to actually know what is going on with their data. And, if they decide they don’t care, so be it. The market will have spoken, an outcome that should be the regulator’s goal in the first place.

4. Climate change will be the toughest test we face as a species. If you haven’t seen the climate assessment prepared for the US Congress, this thread by Eric Holthaus is a must read. The one word description would be “grim.”

This is an area where we’re in urgent need of innovation. The challenge with combating climate change is that reducing emissions isn’t going to help. For starters, we need commercialized Carbon capture technology that will enable us to capture Carbon Dioxide that is already in the atmosphere.

For all these warnings, the response from most governments has been to do the equivalent of bury their head in the sand. That isn’t going to save them.. or us.

A few months back, The New York Times shared a touching essay by Roy Scranton where he shared the conflicts rife in bringing up a child in a world which seems doomed. He ends the essay by saying this –

Living ethically means understanding that our actions have consequences, taking responsibility for how those consequences ripple out across the web of life in which each of us is irrevocably enmeshed and working every day to ease what suffering we can. Living ethically means limiting our desires, respecting the deep interdependence of all things in nature and honoring the fact that our existence on this planet is a gift that comes from nowhere and may be taken back at any time.

I can’t protect my daughter from the future and I can’t even promise her a better life. All I can do is teach her: teach her how to care, how to be kind and how to live within the limits of nature’s grace. I can teach her to be tough but resilient, adaptable and prudent, because she’s going to have to struggle for what she needs. But I also need to teach her to fight for what’s right, because none of us is in this alone. I need to teach her that all things die, even her and me and her mother and the world we know, but that coming to terms with this difficult truth is the beginning of wisdom.

5. Optimism matters. When I started writing Notes by Ada in March last year, I thought I’d be sharing notes about the the current state of technology. I imagined picking headlines from the week’s news and tying them together. But, the writing process is one of discovery and I learnt that my interests actually lay in the next few decades instead of the next few months.

As a result, I spent a lot more time than I expected learning about climate change as I realized that it is the most pressing technology problem that exists. I also spent time reading about the impact of deep learning on jobs because a lack of jobs means human discontent. Human discontent leads to populist, short term politics. And, any progress toward combating climate change loses with populist, short term politics.

The challenge with all this reading is that it is hard to stay optimistic. You realize very quickly that we’re ways off where we need to be.

But, after a brief period of wallowing in pessimism, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of optimism. There was an interesting note on this from John Arnold in Tim Ferriss’ “Tribe of Mentors” – “Much of one’s attitude toward life depends on their level of optimism. An optimistic person will invest more in him- or herself, as the deferred reward is expected to be higher. “

There have been reasons to be optimistic. Electric vehicles are coming. They are going to spell the death of the internal combustion engine and remake industries. We are beginning to experiment with food production technology that will hopefully end animal farming. But, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Then, last month, a group of scientists from 60 countries came together to agree on a new definition for the kilogram. They agreed to migrate from a definition based on a hunk of Platinum Iridium to one based on the “Planck’s constant” – a value that will stay stable over time. Jon Pratt, one of the leading scientists, said something poignant – “It is an acknowledgment of an immutable truth — that nature has laws to which all of us are subject. And it’s one more step toward a lofty dream — that, in understanding nature’s laws, scientists can help build a better world.”

Witnessing this triumph of science, global cooperation and logical decision making brought a tear to my eye. 

We will need a lot more understanding of nature’s laws in the next decade, a lot more science, and a lot more cooperation in the coming decade.

As I look ahead into 2019, I hope to remain optimistic about our ability to do that.