Can We Look Beyond the Phones, Please?

By Praseed Thapparambil, CIO, NABP

Praseed Thapparambil, CIO, NABP

It is upgrade season for smart phones as new versions start piling in and along with them the various critiques and reviews. Today’s innovations invariably land on smart phones due to its ubiquity. Innovations have been instrumental in the progression of human beings’ way of life.

In the 1800s, Frederic Tudor developed a method of harvesting ice and shipping it to faraway lands to help food preservation. His workers designed a method of dividing a frozen pond (in Massachusetts, incidentally) into a chessboard pattern and cut ice blocks in two-foot squares. They would then transport the ice blocks to the south–thus pioneering food preservation technology for years to come—an example of an innovative idea coupled with entrepreneurship to solve inefficiencies. In 1928, a couple of cousins in Michigan designed a chair that could tilt back as a daybed. The La- Z-Boy was born. Convenience has been a big driver of innovation. Commercial motivation is a yet another driver. For instance, every Social media platform touts a better interface to attract more users and advertisers to improve its potential market cap. The feature-sets are similar, the motivations are commercial. Creating and delivering value with efficiency will generate profits after cost, almost always through innovation.

"Blockchains have the potential to bring transparency to a whole new level"

Our digital society is dominated by Smart phones. Consumers through personalized interaction are creating unique value by themselves on the smart phone. But, some of the frivolous features–the ability to read emails and texts on the beveled edges of a phone, ability to conduct meetings while surfing or swimming are bordering on the ridiculous. Enough has been said of the mountains of cloud storage clogged up with pictures uploaded from the smart phone and we have even started employing machine learning algorithms to classify these pictures, because we can. Consumer-centric innovations don’t necessarily need to be centered around the smart phone. We, as a society have embraced the smart phone into our social culture and it has already made inroads into social engagement patterns, service delivery and privacy. I believe we need more public discourse on some of the new frontiers of innovation.

Artificial Intelligence is one of them. The advent of artificial intelligence, often touted as an existential threat to mankind, is really a call for more oversight. Commercial companies can willingly build their Frankensteins with no real controls and measures. The digital divide has become so large that the public awareness is minimal. Fuzzy logic has been in our washing machines for decades. But, today’s omnipresent phones, web and unified communication mechanisms have literally built the Orwellian big brother many times over. Artificial Intelligence is used in driverless cars, speech, and facial recognition, lip-reading, payment frauds, cancer detection, and language translation to name a few. These are projects designed to solve clearly defined problem areas. But, the growth trajectory of AI solutions is ascending towards areas where human judgment and safety have been pervasive–for instance, criminal justice and legally binding decision-making. It is time we take notice of this movement–as this is where it begins to grey the lines between human and software.

Blockchains have the potential to bring transparency to a whole new level. It is essentially a distributed ledger of transactions for digital and physical products and services. The privacy of the information is arguably susceptible to interpretation. Blockchains can do away with verification and a slew of third-parties in a transaction. Blockchains may provide inroads into protecting intellectual property better than other contemporary methods. A simple real estate transaction today involves a variety of middlemen to the likes of brokers, government property databases, title companies, escrow companies, inspectors, appraisers, and notary officers. Blockchains have the potential to reduce verification of these data points from days to seconds. These activities on blockchains can transform real estate transactions much like how the relevance of hand-written letters through post office declined with the advent of email. This kind of transformation requires the collective knowledge of an industry coming together to simplify to create more value. However, if the existence of an industry is challenged, one will not be seeing positive changes swiftly.

We are still at the early stages of fathoming the impacts of these technologies. We need more public conversation on these topics as some of these innovations have large impacts in the economy and the daily lives of people. Commercial organizations and governments may not be enough to support these technologies by framing the legal and ethical parameters to grow them under. This can be attributed to the short-term goals of a government in power and the quarterly fiscal accountabilities of an organization. But, discussions we do need. We need to be fully vested in the impacts of these technologies. So, when we talk about driverless cars, hyperloop travel, block chain-based asset protection, and secure voting we should fully understand what it means and its implications to our society. For example, driverless cars lead to a possibility of not needing to own cars, driver’s licenses can go away, homes may start to look different without garages, the auto insurance industry in the current shape won’t be needed, traffic lights may morph into something else, taxi drivers won’t be needed, etc. It may be time for us to switch our attention from our phones and fidget spinners to the societal impacts of these new technologies.