Disruptive technologies and public policy

The Rudd/Gillard government predates the Australian release of the Apple iPhone, and the global introduction of the iPad and Amazon Kindle.

I’ve never been one for the cult of Jobs myself; if the iProducts hadn’t existed another company would have built something similar, soon enough. But they, and the Kindle, are products which signify a revolution in the way we consume information. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say they represent a marker of the final divorce of information from physical media. For good or ill, we now have the means of bringing the sum total of the world’s knowledge, and whatever computation is necessary to manipulate it to the desired form, to a convenient, portable package to anywhere in the world with a phone tower in range.

Less visibly, but with perhaps more direct implications in the short term for public policy were developments in the energy sector in the last few years. The radical decrease in the cost of solar panels is truly remarkable. They cost less than one-fifth as much as they did back in 2007. A much more mixed blessing, of course, is the huge expansion in unconventional gas production, the local version of which Mark mentioned earlier. These developments have turned energy policy upside down in ways that we are still struggling to deal with.

The next government will face a changed world, too, and at least some of the more important changes will be driven by the march of technology. But what might they be? Airborne civilian drones, perhaps? Autonomous ground vehicles? New medical technologies? Affordable ways to store electrical energy? MOOCs throwing the university sector into chaos, as the Tories have suddenly got terribly excited about?

So, I’d like to throw it open to the LP readership – what are some of the bigger technology-driven changes coming down the pipeline that governments might have to respond to over the next two parliamentary terms?


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26 responses to “Disruptive technologies and public policy”

  1. Chris

    Widespread use of Google Glass type technology – governments should start looking at the privacy implications now. Eg any right to not be filmed in public/private venues? Any right to know if someone is recording audio/video in public or private venues? What are companies allowed to do with the video data when it’s combined with facial recognition – eg allowed to automatically track and publish location information for people?

  2. flukus

    Google glass is the next big thing I see on the horizon. The world is about to thrown into an era of ubiquitous video recording and there is going to be a huge ammount of resistance to it.

  3. Katz

    Multiple drug resistant organisms threaten to unravel health care modalities. Medical outcomes comparable with those achieved before the advent of MDROs will be much more expensive to achieve.

    These organisms were created by human technological intervention.

    Given the share of national GDPs devoted to health care, these outcomes will have major economic and political consequences.

  4. Geoff Henderson

    I’m hardly an LP leader, but maybe you will allow my response to Chris @1; – Are you seeing yet more control over daily life? Government taking evermore responsibility for our lives? I hope for the opposite, a situation where we are expected to take more responsibility for ourselves.

    For my own part whilst I do have many concerns – social, political and world – I think the greater problem for policy makers lies well beyond our technological habits.
    I grew up waiting two years for a phone connect with a handset so heavy you could submit an ox. But I’m not bothered at all by the huge changes in media since then.

    I’m more concerned about the awesome shortage of resources required to sustain our forward population numbers. The agricultural task alone is daunting. Some will say that technology will prevail and we can feed the numbers, others will point to the effects of climate change and doubt that we can sustain sufficient crops. But the discussion about this is really a temporal one, because sooner or later, we will have too many people, and likely many wars over scarce resources.

    In that context I suggest, attempting a response to Robert Merkel’s article about technology directions over the next two parliaments, is that government seriously invest in long term policy strategies and associated technologies that will best serve us into the longer term.
    As an example I would engage the the technology of nuclear power (terms and conditions apply of course). See here for some insight into the newer generation iii technology. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Power-Reactors/Advanced-Nuclear-Power-Reactors/#.UWNHyzfLpvI
    Gen iv is being actively researched. Nuclear, however repugnant to some, still stands as the most viable solution to the problem of fossil fueled power and the carbon/climate issues.
    Given Australia’s restrictions on nuclear, it would take about twenty years for Australia to move past Lucas Heights, bringing it within range of the next two parliaments. But of course, even nuclear won’t address the population limit problem either, it might push the problem a little further away though.

  5. Francis

    Surely it’s driverless cars. They’re going to obsolete an entire employment sector (transport) and large swathes of public transport and infrastructure. It’s the one reason why Abbott’s refusal to fund urban rail may end up being quite prescient.

  6. Chris

    I’m hardly an LP leader, but maybe you will allow my response to Chris @1; – Are you seeing yet more control over daily life? Government taking evermore responsibility for our lives? I hope for the opposite, a situation where we are expected to take more responsibility for ourselves.

    Hrm, so lets abolish criminal law regarding to theft and expect the general population to take more responsibility for protecting their property and retrieving it themselves if they get stolen?

    I don’t know what the laws around say widespread videoing and automated tracking of people should be – there are already some out there already – but I think we should have the conversation and the government could facilitate that.

    In terms of taking personal responsibility for privacy in practice what do you think people should be expected to do?

    At the moment minor mistakes such as failing to properly close your bedroom curtains is most likely very minor if someone happens to walk past and accidentally gets a glimpse of you naked whilst getting changed. If everything people see is by default recorded and automatically uploaded what would otherwise have very minor consequences could have major ones.

    My general concern is that with widespread use of video recording/tracking it will bring with it an environment where everyone feels like they are being followed by the papparazi. Its for example quite feasible that without privacy laws that prevent it, everyone’s last known location would be available on a website for anyone to query and that the information would be fairly accurate to up to date. I suspect thats not an environment that many people would want to live in.

  7. Roger Jones

    Rob – I think you do Jobs and Apple a disservice. What they have done very well is to look at the social application of technology and used design to promote this. Your post posits a separation between ‘hard’ and soft technology that I don’t think is desirable.

    We should be looking at social models of innovation, and Apple is a key driver of this in communication, and asking ourselves how can we blend the two more effectively.

    There’s a good article in a recent New Scientist (paywall) that talks about the legal aspects of cloud computing, that makes me very nervous, so you’re spot on in raising it.

  8. jess

    MOOCs are great, but they still miss one of the major points of a university education, which is often still about prestige & connections more than anything else. I don’t expect them to overturn the university model as it stands currently – at least I’m not holding my breath anyway.

    Beyond the consumer-side technology, I think the current and next big thing is big data. Big data in our industries from real time instrumentation, big data in our social lives from social media, big electricity use to power all the servers which we need to run our iObjects. If you’re at university it would be a good idea to do a degree in statistics and computer science. Data miners will be the next BHP.

    As Chris says, there are privacy implications to all of this but I think the time for conversations about privacy passed a long time ago – most (ok not all) people just don’t care enough to worry about it.

    Beyond that, I think quantum computing will be the next big game changer, although that’s a ways off yet I think.

  9. BilB

    Roger Jones,

    If you have not read this NYT article then I think that you should

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/health/for-scientists-an-exploding-world-of-pseudo-academia.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130408&_r=0

    and consider how this may be used to produce faux peer reviewing by a subculture of climate “experts”.

  10. paul burns

    MOOCs.
    So far I’ve found little on them I’d want to study except perhaps some ancient history/classical lit. If the courses they begin to offer became much more wide-ranging rather than (as it seems) confined to new technologies etc, it will be interesting to see the take-up rate.
    Yale University provides video lectures across a reasonable range of disciplines all available free on line, but without the coursework. I’ve only audited one of them to completion – early medieval history – which also provided a comprehensive reading list, and am slowly, presently, auditing their course on the American Revolution.
    Apart from their obvious educative purpose, I suspect these courses are intended as a taste of uni. You actually have to go to Yale and pay for the second year courses in your area of interest (Ithink; and, given the private nature of much of the US tertiary system, I suppose that’s fair enough.

  11. BilB

    As Francis @ 5 has said Autonomous vehicles (cars and trucks), but also electric aviation has moved forward in huge leaps in just the last few years. These technologies will mature fully within the next 6 years and there will be huge public demand for acceptance. The governement must keep up to pace.

    There is a huge issue currently with unregistered electric vehicles and power levels currently and the government is showing zero interest, understanding or leadership in this area. The whole experience is shutup and go away. Not good.

    Another area that is set to explode is in technology enabled medical self diagnosis and treatment. I picked this probability nearly 20 years ago in proposing a product dubbed the medical wand. This took on the form of the Star Trek device of the same purpose with a sensor loaded microprocessor hand piece coupled to pc based diagnostic software, and a internet enabled medical referal protocol. This is becoming ever more achievable with the smart phone driven processor improvements of the recent years. With health care costs sky rocketing and an aging population the Japanese are leaders in this field and they are making significant headway. Our government and medical organisation have got to take their heds out of their ****s and define safe levels for these technologies.

    A simple example of how mobile microprocessors assist in medical diagnosis, many Canadian doctors now carry MP3 recorder/players in place of stethoscopes. The reasons: the recorded sound track can be replayed for confirmation; the sound track can be analyzed by software; the soundtrack can be sent for referred opinion; the sound track can be captured by the patient remotely; the soundtrack can be stored for insurance purposes. And that is just one minor example of what is underway right now.

  12. BilB

    I think that MOOC’s have huge potential but invarious forms yet to mature. When you combine APP’s, MOOC’s and extended smartphone functionality you have a large chunk of the modular training predicted in the Matrix. If you need a skill, just download it, practice it, and run with it.

    I am finding that anything I need to know about computer maintenance and use, for instance, is available in video form from the web. I know how to replace the baterry in my Tom Tom and my Samsung E7 slate for instance. I was able to diagnose a problem with a new washer dryer. While these are not strictly MOOC examples, the only difference is in the timing.

    I find myself being involved in software specific webinar training sessions. These are true MOOC’s and very powerful.

    It is vital that this nation fully installs the NBN a disruptive technology in itself. Waiting, waiting…

  13. Fran Barlow

    Geoff Henderson:

    Are you seeing yet more control over daily life? Government taking evermore responsibility for our lives? I hope for the opposite, a situation where we are expected to take more responsibility for ourselves.

    One hears this kind of commentary from sections of the ‘libertarian’ right, but it is always couched in terms vague enough for it to be all things to all people. People consider the constraints imposed by common life and wonder whether they couldn’t be lifted on them without relieving others (or the state more generally) of their burdens.

    Clearly, in any society, it’s desirable for people to have the personal space to make agreeable lifestyle choices, to take personal risks in trade for recreation and amusement and personal growth. It’s also important that the associated externalities don’t become unreasonably burdensome on others. If one is arguing for the right to choose, one needs to be confident that the ‘choice’ really is a well-informed one and one made freely, and doing that does in practice impinge upon a loosely defined ‘taking responsibility for our lives’.

    We want not merely to protect children from becoming victims of poor ostensible choices, but adults too. We have rules on cold calling and on investing in stocks. The financial services industry is coming under greater regulation precisely because of some untoward conduct by some in this business. We don’t let people accept responsibility for driving under the influence of alcohol or other stupefying substances or motor vehicles that are not roadworthy. We require builders to hold licences and be competent.

    Part of this reflects the realities associated with having large numbers of people sharing physical space and the resources within it, and the non-existence of other bonds that would have obtained in micro-communities. In extremis, if you really want to take responsibility, then you have to live as a hermit, because even small tribal bands in practice imposed significantly on individual conduct. The resources to support 7bn hermits simply don’t exist.

  14. Geoff Henderson

    Thanks Fran, but I think you take my intent too far. What I observe in government is a tendency to want to manage all things for all people. This erases the need for people to assume responsibility. A mentality that government will fix everything develops and becomes the norm. And the government (all governments) encourage this by their wide ranging promises to herd us into something better – by taking control, relieving us of even basic responsibilities. It is this trend that I would like to see moderated.

    Your comments about the needs for regulated builders, limits on blood alcohol get no argument from me. In fact, BAL is an example where responsibility rests with the drinker.

    And if you will forgive a tongue-in-cheek tilt, should we not regulate politicians who have the capacity to do great harm?

  15. Fran Barlow

    Geoff Henderson

    And if you will forgive a tongue-in-cheek tilt, should we not regulate politicians who have the capacity to do great harm?

    I believe the consensus is that ‘light touch’ regulation (“elections”) is all we need. I don’t share that view, obviously. 😉

    What I observe in government is a tendency to want to manage all things for all people. This erases the need for people to assume responsibility.

    Aren’t impressions funny? I see almost the opposite — a retreat by government from responsibility in favour of privatisation.

  16. Roger Jones

    BilB @9,

    I’m such a ratbag I don’t even get invited to be on the faux journal editorial boards *sobs*

  17. BilB

    The comment is, Roger, that you might see a trend of claimed “peer reviewed” in the climate change publication field when they are in fact purchased publication with ficticious “review”.

    The article can be seen as published recognition that the system has a problem which threatens to reduce all academic publication to the level of junk status in the interests of greed. Along the way Climate Change research, and climate action, may become a casualty. Beware.

  18. Roger Jones

    BilB,

    it’s more likely they will be poor articles within a mainstream context. The science press in denial have their own organs. This is just a way to make easy money from scientists who want an easy route to publishing. There are a few online sources who list the rubbish open source publishers and all researchers should use them as a resource.

  19. Chris

    There’s a good article in a recent New Scientist (paywall) that talks about the legal aspects of cloud computing, that makes me very nervous, so you’re spot on in raising it.

    I can’t get past the paywall, but I’d agree there are lots of legal and privacy issues around public clouds. Private clouds are different though.

    As Chris says, there are privacy implications to all of this but I think the time for conversations about privacy passed a long time ago – most (ok not all) people just don’t care enough to worry about it.

    As the saying goes, most people would quite happily give a sample of the DNA in exchange for a free hamburger 🙂 But where it will becomae apparent to the public and result in a call for overnment to do something is when ordinary people start getting caught out by privacy breaches – kind of like happens with facebook related issues now. It’d be better to address the issues now rather than later so we don’t have knee-jerk reactions which lead to bad laws.

    So another disruptive technology I think will have a large impact in the not too distant future (it is already having some effect) is 3D printing (combined with 3D scanners as well). The quality of consumer priced 3D printers is now really very good. I think you still need to be fairly tech savvy currently, but that will change as reliability/usability issues get resolved. There are huge legal implications around 3D printing – it’ll be next to impossible to enforce copyright when people are infringing in their own home by doing things like printing their own replacement parts for things they own or printing their own phone covers based on designs that someone else has made.

  20. Moz (is brief on his phone)

    I wonder about the crossover from script kiddies and hackers today to 3d printing and mail order DNA. There are already some basic printable chemical reactors, suitable for low energy reactions, but push those along and seed them with online DNA, I think we might see basic bio hacking within 20 years. Less ‘scary errorists’ and more ‘kids with laptops’ I suspect.

    Also, drones and high capability rc ‘toys’ becoming ubiquitous over the next 5 years. Not just Google glass everywhere but flying cameras. Bad news for cops AND robbers 🙂 combined with ever more computation per dollar and watt

  21. Nick

    Graphene, graphene, graphene, graphene, graphene 🙂

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphene

    That hex (beehive) pattern can be found in >500 million year old fossils…I’m not sure if people realise why hexagons are so structurally efficient, but they’re the largest amount of sides you can have in a shape (ie. most like a circle) without wasting any space when you interlock them.

    And carbon happens to be the element with the perfect chemical makeup to form hex patterns…

    Fabrication has a ways to go yet – at only 1 atom thick, it’s stronger than steel (while being flexible and bio-degradable) – but being crystalline I imagine any impurities would make it quickly lose that quality. Still, 20/30 years ago we could only theorise about 2D materials – and it’s only because of how far we’ve come with silicone in that time, that we’re able to begin to construct them now…

    It’s widely predicted to be more important to the 21C than steel was to the 19C, and plastic was to the 20C – and, refreshingly, there’s a distinct lack of the vapourwares about it. Everyone seems to be taking it rather seriously, not getting too ahead of themselves, and kinda happy to just wait and see what happens…

    The EU just gave graphene a one billion euro research grant. How poetic if it turns out carbon was the answer to our carbon problems…

    3D printing is fun, but too expensive for mine…it’s just not that practical to have large quantities of plastic on hand to muck around with. I honestly don’t see the mass market potential. Who wants to pay $30 to machine a part that can be made for 15c in a factory using non-additive processes – and more importantly, who wants to keep creating stuff out of petrochemicals well into the 21st century? Is plastic ever going to become cheaper than it is now?

    Early Stephenson had his post-scarcity tongue in his cheek a bit with that one I reckon. Of course, if you were printing with organics instead of plastics that might be different! But that’s a long way off you’d think…in the 60s or the 80s maybe…the new craze sweeping the world…

  22. Chris

    3D printing is fun, but too expensive for mine…it’s just not that practical to have large quantities of plastic on hand to muck around with. I honestly don’t see the mass market potential. Who wants to pay $30 to machine a part that can be made for 15c in a factory using non-additive processes

    The 2nd widget may cost 15c to make in China but the first one will cost at least several hundred dollars in tooling. I think people will end up having 3D printers in the home for the similar reasons as to why they have photo printers at home even though its much cheaper to get it done online and posted out to you. At least initially there will perhaps be more of a bias to neighbourhood 3D printing services. Barring patent/copyright issues it will significantly change the spare parts business (at consumer level its only really primarily printing in plastic at the moment, but there are already affordable online services printing in other materials such metals/ceramics. With ABS plastics you can also recycle them (eg eventually feed them back into the printer after a bit processing).

    Re: drones I think we’ll see legislation around them in the next 5 years – both privacy advocates and businesses want to see something done. And there’s safety issues once there is widespread use of them.

    1. Geoff Henderson

      There’s a story that says IBM rejected the concept of a personal computer ever becoming a consumer item. Turns out they were wrong, so I’m cautious about zilching new ideas, even if they look a little unlikely.

      Nanotechnology might become a disruptive technology, but also have it’s clear benefits. For a little insight see:
      http://news.discovery.com/tech/biotechnology/glass-plastic-mix-mends-bones-130402.htm

      As I understand it though, nano particles of some materials behave differently to the predicable behaviour of their parent material. That suggests that any nano particle should have its properties thoroughly researched before being unleashed upon the world.

      Nano tech is with us already – has been for years in the form of those SPF sunscreen products. There’s lots of info available from a Google search, and maybe an LP person has some info they could offer up.

  23. BilB

    Chris @ 23

    I think that you just delivered the 3D commercial window with this comment

    “it will significantly change the spare parts business ”

    The thing that you have to keep in mind is …who will develop the shapes to print with 3D machines if there is no commercial return.

    The vehicle plastics spare parts business is very much a contender there.

    With nano particles there is one extremely significant fact that you must keep in mind. Sub micron particles can slide straight into living cells and interfer with the inner workings of the cells. The smaller the particles, the greater the risk. This is part of the problem with blue asbestos.

    So if there is a risk of your nano particles becoming airbourne then you have an extreme problem. This can come about when your nano particle device catches fire or explodes. A couple of examples. a) The intense heat from the fire of a carbon fibre constructed aircraft causes the fibres to breakdown into submicron segments which can be a health risk for investigators. b) the depleted uranium tank busting shells used in the Kosovo war released submicron dust on impact and this dust in conjunction with its latent radioactivity caused very significant, although contested by the US military, negative health outcomes.

    You have to be care full how you use these particles, and there has got to be a lot more research to determine where the risks are.

    Having said that, the prospect of the carbon nanotube fibre composite materials which promise either 10 times the strength of regular carbon fibre, or one tenth the weight, or any combination of the two factors, is extremely exciting in so many ways.

    In our future resource depleted world reource consumption is less of a problem if we can build the things that we need with solar energy, carbon, silcon, and calcium, with a minimum of metal content. That is, of course, if we don’t blow off our entire fossil carbon stockpile into the atmosphere simply for its stored energy.

  24. Chris

    The thing that you have to keep in mind is …who will develop the shapes to print with 3D machines if there is no commercial return.

    Well they said the same thing about open source and free software, but it still happens. For example, large chunks of the software that run android phones is available for free.

    Its still very early days and immature, but for 3D object designs search for thingiverse – fundamentally people will continue to create for the same reasons that people paint or write or play in bands even though they have no hope of ever having a commercial return. One company has setup an app-store like equivalent – people can download designs for a fee or just order the object through a 3rd party printing company – still remains to see whether that can work or not but it might.

    When it comes to business return, there will be strong incentive to re-use designs, and for designers to co-operate and freely base designs upon each others. Objects, like software in most cases aren’t the end point, its what you want to do with them. So businesses are going to want to invest time and resources developing them (and it has the potential to make the process cheaper because of increased re-use)