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New Internationalist

The Disrupted

May 2016

Silicon Valley’s latest gamble on technological disruption could rake in huge returns. But there will be losers – in their millions. Jim Thomas on emerging technologies.

disruptor illustration [Related Image]
© Donough O’ Malley

It’s a long way from Silicon Valley, California, to the agricultural valleys of Africa, Latin America and Asia. Drive the wide boulevard of Sandhill Road, the ‘Wall Street’ of the US high-tech industry, and you are culturally and geographically thousands of miles from the lands and livelihoods that sustain most people. However, like Wall Street, what happens on Sandhill Road and in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley is becoming entangled with the futures of the poorest and most vulnerable. Here in the world’s richest valley, the watchword is ‘disruption’– that is exploiting the vast opportunities that lie in shaking up economies and social relationships. Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists are placing multibillion-dollar bets on cutting-edge technologies to play such disruption to their advantage. As they place their chips, the effects are already starting to bear down on the peasants and workers of the Global South.

Forty years ago those chips were the actual computer chips that Silicon Valley was named after and made its billions on. It is now axiomatic that those personal computers, and the internet giants that followed, have transformed the world in far-reaching ways. Today, however, a new set of technologies are animating the high-tech investor crowd: synthetic biology, machine learning, artificial intelligence, gene editing, self-driving cars, flexible manufacturing, drone agriculture, robotics, lab-grown meat. Glancing over this smörgåsbord of disparate sci-fi technologies it looks as if a bunch of over-earning Star Trek nerds are trying to live out their dreams (and indeed there may be some of that); yet these different technologies are coalescing into a coherent and real new industrial platform whose influence will be far-reaching.

Cresting the digital wave

The key to this wave of technological disruption is the idea of digital manufacturing. The past 30 years of high-tech innovation largely involved digitizing information. Text, sound, video, communication and even social interaction were comprehensively recast into digital form so that a handful of data companies profitably became the mega-brokers of several media. Today’s ‘disruptors’ hope that the next 20 years will see the ‘real economy’ of physical things similarly digitized, manipulated and made ripe for tech profits. The new tech crowd is moving from manipulating the bits of information to the atoms of stuff. As they do so the existing systems for manufacturing and distributing stuff (factory work, agriculture, trade) will face the same dislocations that newspapers, taxi drivers and telephone companies have experienced.

The outlines of a digital manufacturing economy are already visible. Today it is possible to scan a solid object such as a violin in one location and ‘reprint’ it on the other side of the world using a 3D printer, ready to play Vivaldi. A digital file of design instructions can be emailed to the robots of a flexible factory, such as that run by Tesla in California or Foxconn in China, so that the same machines that build high-speed racing cars one day can switch to building battery packs the next. If you hook the digital manufacturing model to local production ‘microfactories’ (the automated equivalent of your neighbourhood photocopying shop) and throw in local drone delivery then, some speculate, that digital production may also reduce need for global transportation of finished goods. If such a shift occurred it might strikingly change the character of international trade, if not rendering emptier the container ships trekking between our busiest ports and export processing zones, then at least further lowering wages in the sweatshops where workers are already being outpaced by robots.

Synthetically natural

As it is with digital manufacturing of goods, so it may go with food and other agricultural raw materials. Using genomics and synthetic biology, companies are identifying genetic codes that produce vanilla flavour in a vanilla pod or saffron flavour from a crocus, then sending those codes across the world by internet in order to re-edit the DNA inside an algae or yeast cell to match. Those engineered cells then ‘print out’ those same compounds (vanilla, saffron) in a vat – bio-engineered organisms becoming tiny living factories competing with the plants and soils of East Africa or the Middle East. And they get labelled as ‘natural flavourings’ to boot.

Marian Bassey
Ann Nduta tending her stevia plants. Marian Bassey

Meanwhile, using new artificial intelligence it is possible to instruct a computer to work out how to replace a common chemical or raw material with whatever is cheapest or most disruptive – to mimic egg whites with bean proteins, replace copper and steel with engineered nanomaterials or synthesize chemicals from cheaper resources. In the process, the flows of raw materials from mines and fields may shift unexpectedly.

Such shifts and shocks have profound implications for the Majority World. Vast swathes of farmers, dockers, drivers, miners, textile workers and others may find their labour, skills and knowledge devalued by the disruptive tech that investors are ushering in. A 2013 survey by Oxford University researchers predicted that 47 per cent of total US employment is at risk of replacement by computerization and automation – particularly in transport, logistics and office support. In the Global South those numbers of potentially disrupted occupations are likely to climb higher.

Seizing the market

Ten thousand miles away from California, in a field in Kericho County in Kenya, Ann Nduta Kanini cultivates stevia leaf. She is one of 3,000 farmers in her district growing this natural sweetening leaf for world markets. This cash crop brings in enough for this widow to support eight children and an aging mother. Stevia has been a wonder crop for farmers like Ann but the wonder may prove to be short-lived.

Ann is worried that if synthetic biology seizes the market she may not be able to sell her product. ‘They are using machines and I am using my hands,’ she sighs

Evolva, a Swiss-American synthetic biology firm, has partnered with grain giant Cargill to bring a Syn Bio version of stevia to market (dubbed ‘Eversweet’). Ann is worried that if Syn Bio seizes the market she may not be able to sell her product. ‘They are using machines and I am using my hands,’ she sighs.

The flavour and fragrance industry, which currently uses over 250 different botanical extracts sourced from 20 million small farmers, is already starting to switch over to synthetic biology production of its key aroma and flavour compounds.

Countries whose economies depend on agricultural commodities are raising concerns in international negotiations about Syn Bio as Madagascar’s vanilla farmers or Iran’s saffron farmers find they have little purchase on tech decisions that may upturn their livelihoods.

Of course there will also be good news stories. When an industrial revolution rolls out in the 21st century it is inevitably accompanied by well-meaning attempts to capture the new techniques for good. Brewing some botanical compounds such as sandalwood in a vat may reduce pressure on illegal logging of African and Indian sandalwood trees. Local digital manufacturing of goods rather than import from overseas markets may lower the carbon footprint of manufacturing (although the carbon footprint of ballooning data management needs to be weighed) and proposals to distribute medical supplies in war zones by 3D printing are certainly individually interesting.

Nonetheless the overriding consideration for powerful wide-based platform technologies is that they will operate as a platform and the platform will best serve those with the most capital to shape it. A few benign apps here and there may not be enough to forgive the overwhelming impact of the platform to deliver its original aims for its original backers – to disrupt and profit – no matter the cost to those who get disrupted along the way.

Jim Thomas is Programme Director with ETC Group, an international organization tracking the impacts of emerging technologies on marginalized peoples.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 492 This feature was published in the May 2016 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 492

New Internationalist Magazine issue 492
Issue 492

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