Energy: The end is nigh for coal

What: Electricity generating capacity based on coal is nearing its peak. In the first half of 2018, for the first time ever, the total capacity of coal-fired power stations that were retired matched new generation. China and India, which between them have built 85% of the world’s new coal-fired power capacity since 2006, are rapidly abandoning coal. Their pre-construction plans have shrunk over the last 3 years from 515GW to 76GW in China and 218GW to 63GW in India [1].

Implications: Climate-change deniers and fantasists (actually one and the same) somehow believe that coal has a future and will create jobs. It is clearly dead and has no economic future.

[1] Carbon Brief


Healthcare: Patients go where their doctors tell them

What: A report from the US National Bureau of Economic Research shows that when a patient needs treatment they go where their doctor tells them and do not shop around based on price. The research looked at patients who needed lower limb MRI’s which the researchers describe as “a fairly undifferentiated service”. Within a hospital region, prices varied by up to 5-fold yet fewer than 1% of patients used a price transparency tool to choose a provider, despite significant out-of-pocket costs. On average they drove past 6 cheaper options between their home and the provider nominated by their physician [1].

Implications: Healthcare is begging for disruption and this is the sort of market that Amazon loves to take on (as they have already done with pharmacy [2]).

[1] National Bureau of Economic Research

[2] Tech Omens – Issue 19 – 6 July 2018


Telecoms: We have reached ‘peak phone calls’

What: The latest report from UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, says that for the first time the number of phone calls made on mobile phones declined in 2017. The report also has some interesting statistics on the change in our electronic devices over the decade from 2008 to 2018: only 28% of adults have a desktop computer compared to 69% in 2008, while smartphone use has gone up from 17% to 78%. Interestingly DVD players still hang around with 64% of adults still owning one (down from 83% in 2008). Then there are the devices that no one had in 2008: 13% of adults have a smart speaker, 20% a wearable, 42% a smart TV and 58% a tablet [1].

Implications: Unfortunately, the Ofcom report does not say whether the decline in phone calls is due to substitution by over-the-top services such as Whatsapp or whether we are just talking less.

[1] BBC


Healthcare: Chatbot ‘doctors’ for Asia

What: Babylon Health, a UK startup that produces telehealth chatbots, has signed a $100m licensing deal with health insurer Prudential Asia. Prudential plan to deploy the service in 12 Asian countries. Babylon’s chatbots enable patients to book telehealth appointments with GP’s but rather than just being a booking agent, it first screens the patients using a question and answer system to determine if they really need to see a doctor [1].

Implications: Babylon’s business model appears to incent them to discourage patients from unnecessarily seeing a doctor. It does not appear to have regulatory approval which raises ethical and legal questions about any false negatives (i.e. advising a patient they don’t need to see a doctor when they really do).

[1] Forbes


Data: Internet giants work on “Data Transfer Project”

What: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter are collaborating on a project – known as “The Data Transfer Project” – to enable users to seamlessly move their data (pictures, contacts, mail, calendars, etc) from one service to another. The project will be open source and will use existing API’s that allow users to download and upload their data to enable the transfer. The code they are building will reformat the data for the destination service chosen by the user and will encrypt the transfer [1].

Implications: There is an increasing realisation amongst anti-trust regulators that data is the basis for new monopolies, so this project may be about the “FANGs” (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) showing the regulator that users have choice. However, it seems incredibly unlikely that, for example, Google will transfer all the personalised data about a user’s searches to Bing. It is that type of history that enables their search engine to dominate (basically monopolize) a very lucrative market.

[1] The Verge


Automotive: Mazda believe the internal combustion engine still has a future

What: Mazda will release a new petrol engine in their cars in the 2nd half of 2019 which they believe will give continued life to internal combustion engines. The engine uses a technology which they call Spark Controlled Compression Ignition (SPCCI) which Mazda asserts gives the engines the efficiency of diesel engines but without the polluting soot and nitrogen oxide emissions. Depending on the conditions, the engine will compress the fuel-air mixture to achieve spontaneous combustion like a diesel engine or use a spark like a petrol engine. Mazda say that as well as the better fuel efficiency compared to a conventional petrol engine, the new engine will give 10% to 30% more torque [1].

Implications: While the new engine may release fewer pollutants than diesel, it still emits CO2 and has the same number of moving parts (about 10,000) as other internal combustion engines. Whether the extra torque and fuel efficiency are enough to make them attractive to car buyers in the 2020’s is open to question.

[1] IEEE Spectrum


Computing: The journey to all optical computers begins

What: As the demand for computing power grows (driven by machine learning), there is growing concern about the scalability of legacy computing architectures from a power consumption perspective. The race is on to find new computer architectures such as quantum, neuromorphic or all-optical that can be built at ‘brain-scale’ without requiring their own power station. A research group in Finland has succeeded in the first step of the journey to all-optical computers by creating all-optical logic gates out of an on-chip nanostructure which will operate at room temperature and can be manufactured cheaply using chemical vapour deposition (CVD) [1].

Implications: At this stage the researches have just constructed basic AND, OR, NAND, NOR gates so they still need to create the more complex logic structures (consisting of billions of gates) that constitute a computer. How long before we see realistic optical computers is still not clear.

[1] IEEE Spectrum

Professor Hugh Bradlow is President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. He is recognised as a global leader in telecommunications technology, including being named by Global Telecom’s Business in the top 100 most powerful executives in the global telecoms Industry two years in a row, and by Smart Company as one of the 12 most influential people in Australian ICT.


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