Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Investment (What millennials want from their personal finances), Technology (Oil is the new data; An epidemic of AI misinformation), Business (GM crops like Golden Rice will save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children), and India (Nine women scientists who are doing phenomenal work; Why is India staring at a middle —income trap)

Published: Dec 7, 2019 09:49:49 AM IST
Updated: Dec 6, 2019 02:01:35 PM IST

g_124635_shutterstock_525153193_bg_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Investment (What millennials want from their personal finances), Technology (Oil is the new data; An epidemic of AI misinformation), Business (GM crops like Golden Rice will save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children), and India (Nine women scientists who are doing phenomenal work; Why is India staring at a middle –income trap).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended December 06, 2019.

1) Overconfidence: An Autobiography [Source: jasonzweig.com]
We all have been overconfident at least once in lives. That moment when you feel you know everything, later just to realise that you actually know nothing! In this blog, Jason Zweig, talks about how a professor made him realise that he knew nothing when it comes to writing. It all started during his college days when Mr. Zweig had to take Freshman Composition. He exploded in high dudgeon, “I’m not taking a class that teaches me how to write! I already know how to write! I’m a writer already!”

He thought that he knew everything about writing, but Prof. Cyril Knoblauch taught him a lesson that he won’t forget his life. And that lesson was…you’ve got to keep learning all your life. There’s always something new to learn, even if you are an expert in that field. To say that these episodes cured him of overconfidence would be an absurd lie. More than four decades later, he still regularly commits the same blunder of presuming he knows more than he actually does, more than the people around him, more than the people who came before him, more than the people who have spent decades studying a topic or working in a field. He underestimates the difficulty of problems and overestimates the ease of solutions.
Mr. Zweig says that “even knowing that I don’t know can’t cure me of acting as if I know. That intuitive Aha! is as irrepressible as my breathing or my heartbeat. Overconfidence is the feeling of knowing — even when part of me knows, or should know, that I don’t.” Looking back, he finds the arrogance of his younger self as funny as it is alien and bizarre. According to him, the only thing more ridiculous than a know-it-all is a know-it-all who doesn’t know how ridiculous he is.
2) What millennials want from their personal finances [Source: Financial Times]
Most of the advertisers and companies today target the millennials as they know that’s the group that will splurge on all sorts of products. If generations are shaped by their economic circumstances, then millennials have had a raw deal. Many of this cohort became adults during the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent global recession, and are suffering the consequences of when they were born. Companies are responding to a generation with shifting financial needs and priorities, and in some cases new interpretations of financial wellness which prioritise personal experience and values over traditional metrics such as investment or home-ownership.

Lorna Sabbia, head of retirement and personal wealth solutions at Bank of America, says the millennials are stressed about their finances. She says, “Even just the definition of what adulthood means to this population is now financial independence. It is no longer about buying a house or getting married, it is all about independence.” Among the challenges millennials pose to companies is their low opinion of business, according to surveys, as well as a fresh set of priorities. Deloitte’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey, which canvassed 13,000 people in 42 countries, found that seeing the world was the generation’s top priority. Of those surveyed, 57% aspired to travel, against 52% who wanted to earn a high salary and 49% who listed buying a home.

Customizing products are per the needs of millennials is a task. Michelle Pearce-Burke, co-founder of Wealthify, an investment company, has done something that she thought was missing. Aged 25, she was working for a wealth management firm and felt there was no service in the market which met her needs. “I think people feel blocked out of the market; they don’t understand it,” says Ms. Pearce-Burke. “We wanted to create a service accessible for everyone. It is amazing when you are speaking to customers how low the level of financial literacy is.” Several millennials who work in large multinational companies felt they were being offered genuinely useful financial help, but the changing nature of the workplace has also led some young people to rely on more informal practices.
3) Oil is the new data [Source: logicmag.io]
This piece throws light on how big tech companies talk about battling climate change, but at the root level they themselves are the reason for it. One such example is the partnership between Kazakhstan’s state-owned energy company and Chevron. The project was named Tengizchevroil, or TCO for short, and it was granted an exclusive forty-year right to the Tengiz oil field near Atyrau. Tengiz carries roughly 26 billion barrels of oil, making it one of the largest fields in the world. Chevron has poured money into the joint venture with the goal of using new technology to increase oil production at the site.

Even with climate change and global warming, these oil companies are using cutting-edge technology to produce even more. At over 30 billion barrels of crude oil a year, production has never been higher. The collaboration between Big Tech and Big Oil might seem counterintuitive. But in reality, Big Tech and Big Oil are closely linked, and only getting closer. The foundation of their partnership is the cloud. Cloud computing, like many of today’s online subscription services, is a way for companies to rent servers, as opposed to purchasing them. The market is dominated by Amazon’s cloud computing wing, Amazon Web Services (AWS), which now makes up more than half of all of Amazon’s operating income. AWS has grown fast: in 2014, its revenue was $4.6 billion; in 2019, it is set to surpass $36 billion.

Big Tech isn’t responsible for Kazakhstan’s reliance on oil. Nor can we blame it for the climate catastrophe that we’re facing. But it is certainly exacerbating both. While Kazahkstan’s economy may benefit in the short run, intensifying the climate disaster will ultimately hurt the country too. Research shows that the region will suffer from increased aridity and more frequent heat waves, which could decrease crop yields and challenge food security. In the name of development aren’t we instead increasing our carbon footprint?

4) Management research is clear as mud [Source: The Economist]
This piece talks about not reading too much into any study. And that’s what Dennis Tourish, a scholar of organisations at the University of Sussex, says in his new book, “Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research”. He gives examples of how people are deceived with not-so-reliable research. The modern era is also full of dodgy theories based on limited evidence.

A few years ago journalists noticed a bizarre tendency for British politicians to stand with their legs far apart like living croquet hoops. The fashion for the pose seems to have been driven by a paper from 2010 which suggested that any leader who adopted this strange stance would feel more confident and appear more powerful. Then a second team of researchers conducted a follow-up study with a sample size five times that of the original. It found no such effect.

At least these studies had two merits: they were easy to understand and it was possible to check their results. Too much modern management research, the author argues, is a mess of inconsequential jargon, tailor-made to appear in leading journals. A bias exists to publish studies that show headline-grabbing results. Cherry picking—selective use of statistics in search of a striking conclusion—is commonplace. Results that show an effect does not exist, as scientifically useful as positive findings, are stashed away in a drawer.
5) Omidyar survey shows why Aadhaar’s critics are mostly wrong – And Elitist [Source: swarajyamag.com]
Has the implementation of Aadhaar been successful in India? Some say yes, some say no. But, a recent survey by Dalberg on the state of Aadhaar, which was funded by Omidyar Network India, leads to two conclusions. 1) All the scare-mongering by the elite has not deterred the poor and the common people from appreciating its benefits. The survey, which covered 167,000 respondents across India, clearly establishes the fact that Aadhaar has enhanced inclusion substantially. 2) Despite its ubiquity, the Aadhaar system still has issues to be addressed, issues relating to the remaining exclusions, some related to geographical factors, others to the difficulties in rectifying changes and errors on mobile numbers and addresses, and yet others related to the system not authenticating some beneficiaries for multiple reasons. Following are the key insights from the survey with author’s comments.
1) The hardest part of Aadhaar is updating records: The survey says 33% of the people who tried to update their information on Aadhaar found difficulty in doing so. As per the author of this piece, this is due to the gradual winding down of the Aadhaar registration infrastructure after the critical targets for environment were achieved. 2) Aadhaar has been the greatest inclusion device invented in India: As per the survey, nearly half (49%) of the people used Aadhaar to access one or more services for the first time; for 8%, Aadhaar was their first ever official identity. The author feels that Aadhaar has brought a huge revolution in inclusion, by improving access to ordinary people.
3) Exclusion rates are small, but must be addressed quickly: 0.8% were denied benefits due to Aadhar-related issues, and 1% of MGNREGA card-holders did not get work due to Aadhaar glitches. The author feels that exclusions cannot be ignored as too small to matter, for even 1% in India means 1.3 million people. 4) Does privacy matter? The survey notes that even though 72% of residents appreciate the benefits of Aadhaar, half of them worry about linking it to multiple services. The author says that the message here is clear: Thanks for inclusion, but please fix the bugs, and give stronger assurance by bringing in a law to guarantee that the data is safe.

6) An Epidemic of AI Misinformation [Source: The Gradient
Many a times the media overhypes a product or innovation. And AI is no different. Part of this of course, is because the public loves stories of revolution, and yawns at reports of minor incremental advance. But researchers are often complicit, because they too thrive on publicity which can materially impact their funding and even their salaries. For the most part, both media and significant fraction of researchers are satisfied with a status quo in which there is a steady stream of results that are first over-hyped, then quietly forgotten.

Unfortunately, the problem of overhyped AI extends beyond the media itself. In fact, for decades, since AI’s inception many of the leading figures in AI have fanned the flames of hype. This goes back to early founders who believed that we might now call artificial general intelligence (AGI) was no more than a couple decades away. Mercifully, not everyone in the field overrepresents their work; in the last year or so there have been balanced talks by Pieter Abbeel and Yoshua Bengio, both noting what deep learning (and deep reinforcement learning) do well, and yet at the same time articulating the challenges ahead, and bluntly acknowledging how far we need to go.

Misinformation about AI is common. Although overreporting is not ubiquitous, even prominent media outlets often misrepresent results; corporate interests frequently contribute to the problem. Individual researchers, even some of the most eminent ones, sometimes do as well, while many more sit quietly by, without publicly clarifying, when their results are misinterpreted. Lastly, the author of this piece gives six recommendations through which people can assess each new result that they achieve.

7) GM crops like Golden Rice will save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children [Source: Quillette]
Soon we would have a solution to the huge human health problem. And that’s Golden Rice. Golden Rice was the brainchild of two scientists, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, aimed at helping the 250 million children—predominantly in Asia—who subsist mainly on rice and suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Telling the parents of these children to grow vegetables (most don’t have land), or distributing vitamin capsules—the preferred alternative of some environmental activists—has not proved remotely practical. It was developed as a humanitarian, non-profit project in an attempt to prevent somewhere between 200,000 and 700,000 people, many of them children, dying prematurely every year in poor countries because of vitamin A deficiency.

Yet the rice has been ferociously opposed by opponents of GM foods and, partly as a result, has been tied up in red tape for 20 years, preventing it from being grown. One study in 2008 calculated that in India alone 1.38 million person-years of healthy life had been lost for every year the crop has been delayed. Given the scale of human suffering Golden Rice could address, there may be no better example of a purely philanthropic project in the whole of human history. Yet some misguided environmental activists still oppose Golden Rice to this day. Prominent among these is Greenpeace, the environmental lobby group which now has annual revenues of nearly $300m and a highly-paid chief executive overseeing a sophisticated fund-raising operation.

More than 13,000 supportive citizens, including Jeff Bezos, have now appealed to the governments of the world, the United Nations and Greenpeace to stop vilifying genetically-modified crops in general and Golden Rice in particular. Yet the United Nations remains in thrall to the opponents. Shockingly, UNICEF’s hefty recent report State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, food and nutrition does not even mention Golden Rice. The World Health Organization continues to ignore the product. In effect, a GMO superfood has been developed that could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children every year, it’s been proved to be both safe and effective, and yet the world’s leading global health organization has decided to turn a blind eye.
8) Nine women scientists who are doing phenomenal work [Source: The Economic Times]
This piece throws light on nine women you have broken all barriers and stereotypes, while standing out in a field dominated by men. Few of them are: 1) Sunita Sarawagi, 50 Chair Professor, Computer Science & Engineering, IIT-Bombay: In 1999, after her PhD in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a stint at Carnegie Mellon, she returned to India with her husband and joined IIT-Bombay. Sarawagi is one of the foremost figures in the fields of data mining and machine learning in India, and is the recipient of this year’s $100,000 Infosys Prize in engineering and computer science.

2) Gagandeep Kang, 57 Executive Director, Translational Health Science & Technology Institute: As a clinician researcher in public health, Kang has already done pioneering work towards making this possible, helping develop the first indigenous vaccines against rotavirus, the leading cause of diarrhoea in children under five years. In India, over 1 lakh children under five die every year due to diarrhoeal diseases. 3) Devapriya Chattopadhyay, 39 Associate Professor, Dept of Earth Sciences, IISER: She delves very deep into the past — about 20 million years ago, to be specific — to find the possible pathways of the biodiversity crisis that we are facing now. An associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune, Chattopadhyay works in paleoecology, or ecology of the past, by studying fossil records from the Miocene epoch, during which the Arabian Sea got disconnected from the Mediterranean Sea.

4) Muthayya Vanitha & Ritu Karidhal Senior Scientists at ISRO: Vanitha and her colleague, mission director Ritu Karidhal, shot to fame earlier this year as the two women helming one of India’s most ambitious space missions — Chandrayaan-2. Its payload included a rover which was to land near the moon’s south pole, and an orbiter and a lander. Despite a hard-landing by the rover, the two scientists caught the imagination of the nation. Despite the general paucity of senior women scientists in India, both women had mentioned that they had personally not faced any hurdle because of their gender. Yet in its 50-year history, the country’ space agency has not had a woman as its head. Maybe that will change in coming days.

9) Why is India staring at a middle –income trap [Source: Livemint]
South Korea, Taiwan, Chile and Israel were poor in 1945 but are now prosperous democracies. In all those countries, growth came as a result of improvements in state capability. Based on the Indian experience, we can conjecture a mechanism through which higher GDP growth caused reduced state capacity. The growth model of 1991–2011 has not carried forward into the following years. Private “under implementation" investment projects rose from Rs10 trillion in 2006 to Rs50 trillion in 2011. After that, there has been a decline in nominal terms to Rs40 trillion in mid-2019. The share of non-workers in the working-age population stands at 60.43% in April–June 2019. These statistics illustrate the difficulties that have arisen in the post-2011 period.

The most important question in Indian economics and policymaking today is that of diagnosing and addressing the sources of underperformance that have arisen from 2011 onward. There is a need for a conceptual framework in understanding what happened, and then, in changing it. When India was a small economy, the GDP was small, and the gains from violating rules were also relatively small. The tenfold growth in the size of the economy created new opportunities to obtain wealth. The gains from violating rules went up sharply. Large resources were brought to bear upon subverting state institutions. Economic thinkers of the previous decades tended to focus on economics more narrowly, on issues such as the green revolution or heavy industry or trade liberalization. Now, we need to more explicitly locate ourselves in the intersection of politics and the economy. To make sustained economic growth possible, we require the republic.

But India can and must change. There are many elements through which the scope of state intervention can be reduced. Can some of the work of regulation be pushed down to private firms? Consider the problem of regulating taxis. One possibility lies in setting up a bureaucratic machinery that engages with each taxi driver. Another pathway lies in contracting out this regulation to private taxi companies. Aggregation business models, such as Airbnb, have an incentive to utilize customer feedback and supervisory staff to improve the quality of their customer experience. In general, this is an easier path for the construction of state capacity as the number of transactions is reduced. If India needs to improve, it needs to think out of the box.

10) The new masters of the universe [Source: Foreign Affairs]
We live in a world increasingly populated with networked devices that capture our communications, movements, behavior, and relationships, even our emotions and states of mind. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita at the Harvard Business School, argues that capitalism is once again extending the sphere of the market, this time by claiming “human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.”

Zuboff’s book is a brilliant, arresting analysis of the digital economy and a plea for a social awakening about the enormity of the changes that technology is imposing on political and social life. Most Americans see the threats posed by technology companies as matters of privacy. But Zuboff shows that surveillance capitalism involves more than the accumulation of personal data on an unprecedented scale. According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism originated with the brilliant discoveries and brazen claims of one American firm. “Google,” she writes, “is to surveillance capitalism what the Ford Motor Company and General Motors were to mass-production-based managerial capitalism.”

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a powerful and passionate book, the product of a deep immersion in both technology and business that is also informed by an understanding of history and a commitment to human freedom. Zuboff seems, however, unable to resist the most dire, over-the-top formulations of her argument. She writes, for example, that the industry has gone “from automating information flows about you to automating you.” An instrumentarian system of behavior modification, she says, is not just a possibility but an inevitability, driven by surveillance capitalism’s own internal logic: “Just as industrial capitalism was driven to the continuous intensification of the means of production, so surveillance capitalists are…now locked in a cycle of continuous intensification of the means of behavioral modification.”

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