Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Technology (Top 10 emerging technologies), Philosophy (There's a reason for need to study Philosophy), Genetics ("Designer" children will be a reality soon), Environment (Coal industry was aware of threat of climate change) and Sports (Why Gulf states are betting on sport).

Published: Nov 30, 2019 07:10:46 AM IST

Ten interesting things we read this weekImage: 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: Technology (Top 10 emerging technologies), Philosophy (There’s a reason for need to study Philosophy), Genetics (“Designer” children will be a reality soon), Environment (Coal industry was aware of threat of climate change) and Sports (Why Gulf states are betting on sport).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended November 29, 2019.

1) Top 10 emerging technologies of 2019 [Source: Scientific American]
Technologies have changed our lives. The way we eat, sleep, walk, talk, etc. Everything has changed. And in this piece, the author showcases 10 technologies that could do wonders for the human race. 1) Bioplastics could solve a major pollution problem: We are surrounded with plastics. In 2014 alone, industry generated 311 million metric tons, an amount expected to triple by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum. Yet less than 15 percent of it gets recycled. But, biodegradable plastics can ease these problems, contributing to the goal of a “circular” plastic economy in which plastics derive from and are converted back to biomass.

2) A special class of proteins offers promising targets for drugs for Cancer and Alzheimer’s: Scientists are using rigorous combinations of biophysics, computational power and a better understanding of the way that intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs) function to identify compounds that inhibit these proteins, and some have emerged as bona fide drug candidates. This discovery is important because during droplet formation and breakdown, IDPs interact with various binding partners and sometimes hold new shapes for a few moments as they do so. It may be easier to find drugs that find and bind to those shapes than it is to find compounds that can hit IDPs in their other guises.

3) Collaborative telepresence could render distance (relatively) meaningless: What if you could teleport? That’s something we’ve all seen in movies, but imagine a group of people in different parts of the world smoothly interacting as if they were physically together, down to being able to feel one another's touch. The components that will enable such “collaborative telepresence” could transform how we work and play together, rendering physical location irrelevant. Progress in several realms has made this prospect feasible. Augmented-reality (AR) and virtual-reality (VR) technologies are already becoming capable and affordable enough for widespread adoption. Besides these, there are other works in progress in the fields of engineering, robotics, medical, public health and energy.  

2) Why Study Philosophy? 'To Challenge Your Own Point of View' [Source: The Atlantic]
In this interview, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist, and author of Plato at the Googleplex, throws light on why philosophy is important and her take on science vs philosophy. She says, “One thing that’s changed tremendously is the presence of women and the change in focus because of that. There’s a lot of interest in literature and philosophy, and using literature as a philosophical examination. This makes me so happy! Because I was seen as a hard-core analytic philosopher, and when I first began to write novels people thought, Oh, and we thought she was serious! But that’s changed entirely. People take literature seriously, especially in moral philosophy, as thought experiments.”

Talking about teaching philosophy to students from a variety of backgrounds, she says that her teaching style is different and she likes to be interrupted by students. She also says, “A good philosophy professor needs to be very aware of the different personalities in her class. I’ve had students who’ve become so very uncomfortable. They needed a lot of handholding. Some came from very religious backgrounds, and just the questioning sent them into a free-fall. We made our way through. Some of them ended up being my strongest students. Two of them are very successful professional philosophers. But they required a lot of extra time because they felt it so deeply. You’re being asked to rethink all sorts of opinions.”

When asked what are the biggest philosophical issues currently, she says, “The growth in scientific knowledge presents new philosophical issues. The idea of the multiverse. Where are we in the universe? Physics is blowing our minds about this. The question of whether some of these scientific theories are really even scientific. Can we get predictions out of them? And with the growth in cognitive science and neuroscience. We’re going into the brain and getting these images of the brain. Are we discovering what we really are? Are we solving the problem of free will? Are we learning that there isn’t any free will? How much do the advances in neuroscience tell us about the deep philosophical issues? These are the questions that philosophers are now facing.”   

3) Modern genetics will improve health and usher in “designer” children [Source: The Economist]
He Jiankui, a researcher in China, last year had started a controversy. He stated that he had edited the genes of two human embryos in order to make them immune to HIV. Many scientists had come out against him. But, recently a gay male couple planned to have a child. This child would be conceived by in vitro fertilization (IVF). For the parents, in conjunction with a firm called Genomic Prediction, will pick the lucky embryo based on a genetically estimated risk of disease. This is not similar to Mr. Jiankui’s experiment, but it will be surely a break-through, if successful.

Genomic Prediction and a second firm, MyOme, claim to be able to build an accurate picture of an embryo’s genome. That is tricky because the sequencing has to be carried out using the tiny quantities of DNA in a few cells taken from that embryo. A sequence so obtained would normally be full of errors. The two companies say they can deal with this by comparing embryonic sequences with those of the biological parents. All of the DNA in the embryo has come from one or other parent, so blocks of embryonic DNA can be matched to well-established sequences from their parental progenitors and an accurate embryonic sequence established. That makes working out the embryo’s single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) pattern possible.

Before 2008, when the first SNP chips for cattle became available, the annual milk yield of dairy cows in America had been increasing at about 50kg per year. After six years of chip-based polygenic selection, the rate of increase had doubled to more than 100kg per years. This suggests the technic is powerful, in cattle at least. In the end, it is generally a good idea to remember that human beings have already been optimized by a powerful agent called natural selection.

4) How technology is changing the spice trade [Source:]
Doing business has changed dramatically with the advancement of technology. Previously, merchants had to travel the world to make trade, but now everything happens online or over the phone. One such example is Ethan Frisch’s spice company, Burlap & Barrel. In just three years, Burlap & Barrel has built a network of 150 spice farmers around the globe. Each of the company’s 30 spices are labeled with tasting notes and the exact location of the farm where the spice was grown. Blue Turmeric, from Nghe An, Vietnam, tastes of baked apple, toasted almond and smoke. New Harvest Turmeric, from Karnataka, India, evokes ginger, jasmine flower, and honey.

By leveraging technology such as smartphones to flatten its supply chain, the company pays its farmer suppliers five to ten times the going rate. “Intermediaries were critical for doing business even just 10 or 15 years ago,” says Ori Zohar, Frisch’s friend. “Most of the farmers we work with don’t speak English.” But increasing smartphone penetration has brought internet access to remote places that wired communications never reached. Google Translate, Skype, WhatsApp, and social media now allow an overseas company to find suppliers, dispatch trucks, and otherwise manage a multi-lingual, global business. For the first time in the spice trade’s long history, it’s possible to collapse a long supply chain to just one link: farmer to retailer.

This has helped many farmers in growing their business and profits. One of them is Raphael Flury of Pemba Island, Tanzania. He runs 1001 Organic, a cooperative of cinnamon, vanilla, clove, nutmeg, and pepper farms on Pemba, in the Zanzibar Archipelago off the coast of East Africa. “Every four to five months, a new spice start-up pops up who wants to do business with us directly,” says Flury, who converses with spice customers on WhatsApp. Larger spice companies are also knocking at his door.

5) China’s Internet is flowering [Source: New York Times]
Over the past two next decades, China went through a digital transformation as impressive as the construction boom that filled its urban skylines. E-commerce exploded. One app in particular would come to dominate Chan’s life: WeChat. Developed by Tencent, a social media giant, WeChat got its start as a chat app before evolving into a superapp. Today it has more than a billion monthly active users and — according to a 2018 report by WalktheChat, a WeChat marketing company — hosts roughly 34% of all Chinese data traffic. It is a social network, a payments system, a communication medium and, perhaps most ambitious, the infrastructure for various businesses. WeChat’s first foray into this marketplace came in 2012, with the introduction of “official accounts,” which resemble Facebook Pages. In early 2017, it introduced miniprograms.

The longstanding consensus about the Chinese internet is that it “decoupled” from the rest of the world 10 years ago, and that for every American tech company there is an equivalent in China. While this is largely true for applications used by consumers — the ride-sharing apps and search engines and social media sites — in reality, the two internets have yet to fully disengage from each other. Android, made by Google, and iOS, made by Apple, are still the two dominant mobile operating systems in China. Programming frameworks like React (made by Facebook) and languages like Java and Python have been adopted enthusiastically by Chinese developers. Until now, this kind of infrastructural innovation has flowed mostly from the West to China. The so-called WeChat model may be the first time things are going in reverse.

Having secured the two foundational needs of any digital society — identity and payments — the WeChat ecosystem flourished throughout the mid-2010s. Businesses like Air China expanded their official accounts into de facto websites. Fashion bloggers and writers made money from whatever they posted on their official accounts through donation buttons, which were plugged into WeChat Pay. But, in many ways, it’s an inopportune time for an international expansion by a Chinese company. United States-China relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War. Technology has become tinged by nationalism. The shaky détente between Apple and WeChat — miniprograms cut out the Apple App Store and make WeChat the only app you need on your phone — is unlikely to hold forever, and as has happened to Huawei, strategic and political currents will probably end up forcing Tencent onto its own operating system.

6) How our home delivery habit reshaped the world [Source: The Guardian
The rise of the e-commerce industry can be gauged by the rapid expansion of John Lewis, a British department-store chain. It built three huge warehouses in a span of few years as their deliveries rose manifold. Also, in China, Meituan’s scooter drivers, in their banana-yellow helmets and jackets, delivered 30m food orders during a single weekend in July. There are numbers for distressing waste: the packaging of home-delivered products now accounts for 30% of the solid rubbish the US generates annually, and the cardboard alone costs 1bn trees. And there are numbers for frenzied growth: the $3.8tn (£2.95tn) in global online sales in 2017 will near $6tn by 2024.

Fast delivery is what’s driving the ecommerce sites. A video game may have spent weeks traversing half the world, from a factory in China to a shed on the outskirts of a British city. But its most dangerous hours lie in being rushed from a shed to a home – a last-mile trip it must survive in the cheapest way possible. An average package is dropped 17 times before it reaches its purchaser. In a full truck, a box at the bottom bears the burden of the stack above it. When the truck is half-empty, packages slide about, slamming into each other when the van brakes, as it does often in cities. The ecommerce portals and delivery platforms are trying new ways to deliver your products.

One Amazon idea is to allow couriers inside our houses to drop packages off when we aren’t in; another is to let them open the trunks of our parked cars to leave our parcels in there; a third is a personal gopher: a buggy in every home trundles out to a van, picks up our orders, and brings them in. We come home from work, and there our gifts are, as if magicked into being. The final triumph of home delivery will be when we forget that anything is being delivered at all.

7) Coal industry was aware of the threat of climate change [Source:]
In August, Chris Cherry, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, came across a 1966 copy of the industry publication Mining Congress Journal. Cherry flipped it open to a passage from James R. Garvey, who was the president of Bituminous Coal Research Inc., a now-defunct coal mining and processing research organization. After reading, he realised that we were aware of the climate change, more specifically the coal industry. He says, “Increases in average air temperatures, melting of polar ice caps, rising of sea levels. It’s all in there.”

Climate change is not Cherry’s area of study, but he was struck by how the tone of the articles differed from the way many fossil fuel companies talk about climate change today. Rather than engage in denial, the articles offered a fairly straightforward acknowledgment of the emerging science. After some research, Mr. Cherry realised that the coal industry was aware of the impending climate crisis more than half a century ago. A finding that could open mining companies to the type of litigation that the oil industry is now facing. There were people who paid scientists to prove that carbon dioxide was actually beneficial.

In 2015, journalists at InsideClimate News, the Los Angeles Times and Columbia University exposed internal Exxon Mobil documents showing that the company’s scientists had a deep understanding of climate change even as Exxon worked publicly to downplay that science. Evidence of what fossil fuel companies knew about climate change and when is critical to the legal strategy of those seeking damages for carbon dioxide emissions. If fossil fuel companies were aware of their products’ harmful effects on the planet, they could be held liable for damages. If the slogan “Coal Knew” ever does take off, it’s unclear who’ll be left to sue.
8) It all began in the mind: Homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago were graphically literate [Source:]
As they say, it all starts in the mind. If you want to achieve something, first you need to do it in the mind. And hence, imagination is a powerful tool. Aristotle described the imagination as a faculty in humans (and most other animals) that produces, stores and recalls the images we use in a variety of mental activities. Even our sleep is energised by the dreams of our involuntary imagination. Immanuel Kant saw the imagination as a synthesiser of senses and understanding. Although there are many differences between Aristotle’s and Kant’s philosophies, Kant agreed that the imagination is an unconscious synthesising faculty that pulls together sense perceptions and binds them into coherent representations with universal conceptual dimensions.

In keeping with other evolved aspects of the human mind, the imagination has a history. We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance. In order to understand it, we need to dig into the sedimentary layers of the mind. The imagination is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning.

The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate our internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in our mind that carry an intense emotional charge. Between the modular circuitry and mysterious flights of fantasy lies the humble realm of evolutionary degrees. Before you have a modern eye, you need a simpler optical predecessor, and before that you need responsive light-sensitive tissue.

9) Why the Gulf states are betting on sport [Source: Financial Times]
The Andy Ruiz vs Anthony Joshua bout on December 7, dubbed the “Clash on the Dunes”, comes as Saudi Arabia is desperate to repair its tarnished image a year on from the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh has spent about $50m to secure the rights to host the fight as sport becomes the latest platform through which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks to deploy the kingdom’s financial muscle to project the country on to the global stage, reshape perceptions about the desert state and shake-up the nation’s conservative society — all part of his Vision 2030 programme of economic reform. In doing so, Riyadh is following in the footsteps of neighbouring Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which have invested billions of dollars to make their mark on the international sports arena.

“The sky is the limit for us because it is the mandate within the 2030 Vision to host the best competitions, to promote Saudi in terms of tourism and to use sports, culture and entertainment as a tool,” says Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, chairman of the kingdom’s General Sports Authority. Days after Joshua and Ruiz exchange blows in a 20,000-capacity open-air stadium, with front-row seats selling for $13,000, Diriyah will host a $3m tennis tournament that promises to feature “eight of the finest men’s players on the planet”. In January, Saudi Arabia will stage the Paris-Dakar rally, an annual motor racing event, for the first time. “The idea is to host all kinds of sports . . . to have the kingdom as the hub of sports within the region,” says Prince Abdulaziz.

Saudi Arabia is only just getting started. Asked if Riyadh could bid for an Olympics or World Cup in the future, Prince Abdulaziz replies: “Why not? There will always be a perception of Saudi, no matter what you do, that these guys are just sitting on a bundle of cash and they’re just spending it left right and centre,” Prince Abdulaziz says. “But we know what’s best for us and we know what we want, and that’s what we’re going to go out and do.”

10) Forever 21 underestimated young women [Source: The Atlantic]
Before everything going online, fast fashion brands like Forever 21, Zara and H&M succeeded because they gave young people the thrill of personal choice, more so than any other business model in the world. But now, Forever 21 is in trouble for exactly the same reason as the stores it out-muscled: It’s being beaten at its own game. Unlike Millennials, who were compelled by the abundance of Forever 21 and saw its wares as an opportunity to better adhere to existing trends, Generation Z consumers—kids currently in grade school and college—just see a bunch of cheap stuff that everyone already knows about.

The familiar is a hard sell to today’s young shoppers, according to Thomai Serdari, a fashion-branding strategist and marketing professor at New York University. “A big difference with Generation Z is that they’re not all trying to look the same,” she says. As young people have rapidly become more digitally adept and more constantly connected, online-only fast-fashion retailers like FashionNova and ASOS and smaller specialty brands like Brandy Melville have chipped away at Forever 21’s consumer base with more sophisticated branding, better use of social media, and a better understanding of design trends.

A desire for individuality isn’t the only thing driving young people away from mall retailers, according to Serdari. “We have a new generation that is more sophisticated in the sense that they are more interested in what they’re consuming,” she says. Gen Z isn’t brand-loyal, according to Serdari, and why should they be? Forever 21 might have taken choice and affordability to its logical extreme within the confines of a shopping mall, but no one clothing company can compete with the internet itself—and the resourcefulness of the people born into using it.