Last week at Tech4Africa in Johannesburg I gave a short talk. It was meant to be much longer but I got confused on how much time I had, so apologies to the T4A people. Anyways, the topic of the presentation was “The 5 Most Disruptive Innovations I’ve Seen” and it discusses industries and concepts which are rapidly changing in the wake of new technology.
// The Future
The first of these themes is ‘the future’ itself. To be exact, predictive technologies that are being used to improve decision making.
“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” – William Gibson
This is a favorite quote of mine. It sums up so much about the post-60’s world we live in. Why the 60’s? Because that was the last time, as far as I can tell (because I wasn’t alive then), that man’s wildest dreams were more sci-fi than reality. In 1960, even astronauts still dreamed of one day walking on the moon like it was a fantasy. By 1970 it was history. But I digress…
I want to update this quote to read…
“The future is here…and you can buy it!” – me.
What we’re talking about is predictive technologies. Algorithms that take massive amounts of historic data and analyze it for trends that can be projected outwards. This is not new science, it’s statistics, but it’s statistics when applied to prediction that is the exploding business.
How effective are predictive technologies? Well, if you want to see this type of technology in action, go to Google.com right now. Activate Google Instant and type one or two letters, Google will offer suggestions based upon previous searches by all the people using their search engine and what they type after those two letters. This increases Google’s ability to make an educated guess about what you will type next.
There’s real science behind all of this. It’s not magic. It only works so well, but it does work.
So the future is available for sale from a few companies. To mention a few…Recorded Futures, Palantir, PAX.
Recorded Futures is a good example. They offer their ‘future’ as a service. That’s right, The Future is for sale as a restful API! You can use this API to get your future hand delivered as JSON or XML for the low price of $150 a month! Power your app with the future!
All kidding aside, how is this relevant to Africa?
Well, I can tell you as someone who’s company does work for Governments, Defense contractors, NGOs large and small, these technologies are in use to try to enhance decision making. These predictive technologies are being used all over the continent. To predict conflict & uprisings, crime, the affects of climate change…it goes on and on. To decide where to spend budgets, enact military action, where to distribute medical resources.
The CDC has been in the business of predicting the future for decades. For them, spotting an outbreak before it spreads is essential. More and more businesses from marketers, to law enforcement, to medical facilities have grown to appreciate these methodologies.
Heritage Provider Network is offering a $3 million dollar prize to any team who can develop an algorithm that can accurately detect within a year, using only patient and public data, when a patient will need to return to a medical facility. It’s like the Netflix Prize for medicine.
This is all fascinating, but what happens when prediction goes wrong?
Right now, in Italy, six scientists (seismologists) and one elected official are on trial for not being able to sufficiently predict the future. You read that correctly.
Given their resources, their expertise, and sufficient historic data, the expectation is that something more could, or should, have been done to protect the public from a wrong. That’s the precedent being set here. It’s not good enough to be an expert, you also now have to be a genie.
If this sounds strangely like the premise of the Minority Report, then you would be correct. Again, this is William Gibson’s future that we’re living in.
The future of data is in everyday things. Networked Objects. Internet of Things. Nanotechnology. These are all names for this type of innovation.
It is important to note: information exists, and has always existed everywhere. Atoms, molecules, DNA…these are all types of information. What’s changing is our ability to imprint human generated data into the everyday objects around us, and to extract that information using technology.
Medic Mobile from Frontline:SMS aims to be able to allow patients to be photographed using mobile phones, using those photos for the basis of remote diagnosis. Right now this is a manual process, with actual doctors trying to make diagnoses, but one day this might be done by matching incoming photos with a database of pre-existing photos. When this becomes a mostly algorithmic process for diagnosing ailments, we’ve arrived at an incredible future.
So being able to extract meaning from every day objects using devices, that’s the future of data.
There’s groups here who are working on it. CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) has researchers in South Africa exploring the Internet of Things.
But this, too, comes at with huge price. The easier it is to do things for good with these technologies, the easier, and more tempting it becomes to do harm.
There will come a day at some point in the future (and it’s arguably already here) that genocide could come at the click of a button. A group of people who aren’t liked could be annihilated with the ease of tapping backspace. Parents will soon be able to go to a medical facility and request more or less of certain types of gene in their children. These are great advancements in technology that can equally become disturbing examples of innovating our way to atrocity.
Diplomacy is being disrupted as well.
Even the crudest of technologies is being used to reshape the way government works, both positively and negatively.
Ushahidi is an example of a positive disruption. In essence, it’s a way to collect information from the public, and put it on a map. But, as I’ve frequently said, the innovation isn’t the technology. The innovation of Ushahidi lies in the fact that anyone, no matter how amateurish or well-trained, has access to the same tools as professionals. More importantly, those tools can then be used to deliver services more effectively than the people who are traditionally expected to.
That’s the disruption, service delivery that bypasses Government organizations and Non-Government Organizations, and to be frank, makes them look silly by being faster, more efficient, and scalable.
This type of disruption puts pressure on governments to engage the public, less they appear to be ineffective. This represents a good exchange. Positive disruption.
Besides, when governments have too much authority, they tend to ignore public demands. When the public have too much authority, it leads to anarchy, or they self-organize into communities which later require governing.
The current trend is in what I call equalizing disruption, tech or methods that undermine the power of government authority. The Ushahidis of the world, the WikiLeaks, the Anonymous groups. In different ways, each of these has out-maneuvered the power or ability of government to exert power.
This doesn’t always play out reluctantly.
Last year the U.S. Department of State began sponsoring an innovation contest where they rewarded African innovators for solving local problems. They have no interest in owning IP, recruiting these individuals, or engaging them in any other way. They simply wanted to experiment with new ways of reaching out to countries and people.
This competition, Apps4Africa, is one example of a new type of diplomacy.
In Uganda, Benge Solomon King is teaching basic and advanced robotics to youth across the country – in urban centers and in remote villages. What’s fascinating about Solomon is that he’s entirely self-taught, learning from tutorials and instruction from the internet.
This isn’t rural California where there are a number of places even the poorest will have available to learn (libraries, public schools, experienced adults). This is someone who learned basic electronics, programing, circuitry, and engineering in what is essentially a vacuum.
In Malawi, William Kamkwamba built an electricity producing windmill by reverse engineering its construction from a photograph.
In Nigeria, Muhammed Abdullahi builds working helicopters from scrap metal, with no prior knowledge of aviation or access to resources.
What do all these three stories have in common? They may well be example of genius on display, randomly spread across the world. But, I actually think what’s occurring is evidence of how education is broken, and three individuals who circumvented this broken system. Some of the aforementioned individuals have gone on to study engineering formally, but lacking formal education didn’t prevent them from learning in the first place.
It’s clear that the organizations we’ve put in place to deliver a service (education) are ineffective, perhaps even failed. Replicating this Western model of education in Africa hasn’t scaled beyond urban capitals and is highly ineffective where it has. These individuals may represent what the alternative looks like.
Khan Academy, Kiip, Teach for America…all of these programs have arisen to patch holes in a broken system in the United States, some completely flipping the old education model on its head. Thus, self-instruction, open courseware, and remote video instruction are the technologies that seem to be winning the future of education.
Finally, we can look at the present, and we can look at the past, and with no special prediction technology, conclude that the future will be grossly unequal.
We have to be cautious that we aren’t building a future where the aforementioned technologies and others aren’t only available only to the highest classes of society.
In “A Cultural Thought Experiment”, a post from blogger Charlie Stross, he argues that if and when interplanetary space travel and colonization become a possibility, it will only be a possibility for the wealthiest among us. In other words, the future will be awesome if you’re in the right class. Much like the 14th Century being fantastic if you were royalty in Europe.
The people who discovered new lands hundreds of years ago, the explorers that shaped the modern world, were also either rich or had rich financiers. The future will be as defined by disparity as the present is, and the past was.
Charlie Stross is not being paranoid in the least. If you have a spare $350,000 to $1 million lying around you can go to space tomorrow.
It goes without saying that if there is a race to get tourists to space, it will likely echo the rate at which countries were able to get to space in the first place. If that’s true, then African countries would be among the last to go – they ever went at all.
So as I conclude, I want us all to think about the future. Let’s make our own predictions so that we can correct for mistakes yet to be made. Let’s strive to make it trend towards the positive. For all of these innovations and disruptions have great implications…as well as implications for great evil. This is our future in the making and it’s we who will decide how, and if, it’s evenly distributed.