Society: New Zealand, you are welcome to them!
What: According to Bloomberg, 7 Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs have bought survival bunkers and buried them in hidden locations in New Zealand, so that if the world faces a doomsday scenario (nuclear warfare, bio-warfare, robot uprisings, etc) they and their families can survive. The concrete bunkers are made in Texas and then shipped to private locations in New Zealand where they are buried and hidden, all within 2 weeks and without the neighbours being aware of their existence. To find the entrance, you need to know the GPS coordinates .
Commentary: You have to pity the New Zealanders – imagine having to face end-of-days with this bunch of neurotic, self-centred and entitled individuals. You would have thought that the millions they have spent on bunkers would be better spent on avoiding the catastrophe in the first place.
Research: Junk-science grabs headlines
What: A German TV station setup an experiment to expose the poor science used by exponents of various diets to justify their fads. The experimental method was deliberately poorly designed and involved a very small number of subjects (15) and a high number of measurements (18). The results from the experiment showed that chocolate accelerated weight loss and they had no problem publishing their “research” in any of multiple fake scientific journals (as long as they paid to publish it). The result went viral and main stream media across the world reported the result as scientific fact without even doing a simple review of the experimental design which would have shown that the results were nonsense .
Commentary: The rise of “pay-to-publish” fake journals and scientifically illiterate media is leading to an explosion of ridiculous research results gaining credibility. In Australia, organisations such as the Australian Science Media Centre will debunk such rubbish but it seems the media is either incompetent, lazy or more interested in fake news because it attracts a vast wishful-thinking audience.
Blockchain: Despite the hype and investment, blockchain is not going anywhere fast
What: Over the past few years, blockchain technology has attracted huge investment: Venture Capitalists have invested over $1bn in blockchain startups, IBM has spent $200m on the technology and the financial industry has spent $1.7bn on experimentation. Yet, according to a report from McKinsey there are very few actual real problems being solved by blockchain today .
Commentary: Blockchain enthusiasts seem to have lost sight of 2 fundamental issues: (a) other than when you wish to ensure that there is no single intermediary in a transaction, there is always another – usually simpler – solution to the problem, and (b) there is no standardisation of blockchain technology, and without that there is no economy of scale.
Artificial Intelligence: A year of rapid progress
What: The Stanford University AI Index charts the annual progress of artificial intelligence in both research and industry applications. This year’s report shows stunning progress in training times. For example, the time to train an algorithm for the Imagenet object recognition challenge fell from roughly an hour in August 2017 to 4 minutes in November 2018. In addition, another 4 tasks have been added to the list of those where AI exceeds human capability, including Chinese to English translation and prostate cancer detection .
Commentary: While there has been rapid progress in AI algorithms in 2018, the report also recognises that there are many critical problems such as Natural Language Understanding and Common-Sense Reasoning where AI still has a long way to go.
 AI Index 2018
Insurance: Estimating lifespan from your face
What: A US startup, Lapetus Solutions, is aiming to transform the life insurance application process. It uses facial recognition together with biographical and life event data to estimate the person’s lifespan using machine learning. Instead of going to a doctor for a medical exam and waiting weeks for an assessment, the applicant takes a selfie and fills in a questionnaire which are together assessed by the algorithm to estimate their lifespan and calculate their premium. Lapetus claim that it takes 10 minutes for a customer to go through the application process and receive a premium quote .
Commentary: Lapetus are using the facial recognition system to estimate whether the applicant is a smoker, their BMI and whether their physiological age is more or less than their actual age. It is currently being trialled by some US life insurers, but it will take some time to determine whether this process is accurate or not. That is not stopping Lapetus who are also trying to see if they can determine early signs of dementia, diabetes and heart diseases from the applicant’s selfie .
Gambling: Can swarm technology change the face of betting?
What: A US startup called Unanimous AI has developed cloud software to mimic the swarming characteristics that occur in nature in creatures such as bees. Unlike a “Wisdom of the Crowd” solution (where each participant submits a single estimate of an outcome which is then averaged), in swarming technology all participants make the decision synchronously and dynamically in real-time. The Unanimous solution presents the user with a graphical user interface and a puck which the user moves by placing a virtual magnet relative to the alternative choices. As the process progresses users can adjust their own choice according to what the overall group is selecting. Unanimous tested their solution by predicting the results of 200 ice hockey games and compared their solution to a Vegas bookie model. Users who followed the Vegas model would have made a 41% loss whereas the swarm model generated a 170% financial gain .
Commentary: This behaviour is another example of biomimicry where by following a natural process we can create truly extraordinary solutions.
 Unanimous AI
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.