The founding father of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky once said that his ultimate goal was not so much to build a computer he could be proud of as to build one that would be proud of him. MIT Sloan Professor Andrew Lo mentioned this anecdote in a recent piece about financial advisers in TheWall Street Journal. In essence, he poses the question: Can a robot do the job?
Lo says that while tech-savvy millennials would be just as happy interacting with an app as with a human adviser, robo advisers can’t take into account the emotion of investors. “When the stock market roils, investors freak out,” Lo explains. “They need comfort and encouragement.” During the recent stock-market rout, he notes that Vanguard Group was so besieged with calls from jittery investors it had to pull staff from across the company to handle the call volume. “Investing is an emotional process,” Lo says, and “robo advisers don’t do emotion.” At least not right now.
Integrating human feeling into the digital advising process is probably the greatest challenge of financial technology. Lo likens the present state of digital financial advising to a rotary phone in an iPhone world. He points out that investing is much more complex and nuanced than tasks like driving, “which is why driverless cars are already more successful than even the best robo advisers.”
Rubber bumpers, airbags, shatterproof windshields—such were the hallmarks of vehicular safety before the advent of the driverless vehicle. For the passenger in a driverless car, however, it’s the software, first and foremost, that must be crash-proof. In a recent editorial in Xconomy, Lou Shipley, a lecturer at the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan, cautions that in the production of autonomous vehicles, the management of software supply chains must be as reliable as the rigorously tested supply chains for mechanical parts.
“Beyond being efficient, software providers for driverless cars will surely face requirements to certify that the code they deliver is free of security vulnerabilities that, if exploited, could enable a hacker to seize control of the vehicle,” Shipley says. “A faulty spark plug is one thing. Suddenly having your steering, acceleration, and braking hijacked is quite another.” He points out that many software fixes will take place remotely, the way that an Apple technician in Cupertino can now patch an iPhone in Sri Lanka—via cyberspace.
Bottom line, Shipley says, the success of autonomous vehicles will depend on whether drivers feel comfortable giving up the wheel. “Motorists’ willingness to hand over that control to software will depend largely on carmakers’ ability to gain their trust.” He notes that consumers have already shown some comfort with automated transportation. “Airline passengers today don’t seem to worry about automatic pilots guiding airplanes through the sky and even landing them when visibility is poor.”
Every fall, technology, business, and culture converge at MIT for the EmTech Conference, organized by MIT Technology Review. The 16th annual EmTech, which takes place October 18-20, 2016, at the MIT Media Lab, will offer participants a look at what’s just over the horizon in the digital world. Those present will also get the opportunity to meet and network with the entrepreneurs who are poised to bring those innovations to the world stage, including MIT Technology Review’s “35 Innovators Under 35”—the guiding lights of the digital frontier.
EmTech 2016 will examine the year’s most significant news on emerging technologies in sessions such as:
The Robots Among Us
Breakthroughs in robotics are giving machines the skills they need to work side by side with humans. Find out how humans and machines can learn from one another.
The Future of Energy
Climate change, driven in part by the demand for energy, is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Find out how emerging technologies can help create and store sustainable power.
AI’s Next Leap Forward
Artificial intelligence has had an impact on every industry. Find out how collaboration— with one another and with intelligent systems—can advance work, life, and commerce.
Is Hong Kong the next new enterprise frontier? In June, MIT unveiled its Hong Kong Innovation Node, a collaborative space designed to connect the Institute community with partners and resources in what has become a key global business hub and a gateway to Asia. The “node,” which will be run by the MIT Innovation Initiative, convenes MIT students, faculty, and researchers to work on entrepreneurial and research projects with Hong Kong-based students, faculty, MIT alumni, entrepreneurs, and business leaders.
The goal of the new environment is to help students learn how to move ideas more rapidly from lab to market. It also will increase opportunities for MIT students to conduct research in collaboration with Hong Kong universities. An innovative makerspace and startup programs for student entrepreneurs will add to the dynamism of the environment.
“By bringing MIT to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to MIT,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif, “the Innovation Node will deepen MIT’s activities in Hong Kong and, through Hong Kong, in the entire Pearl River Delta region. In creating this node in Hong Kong, MIT is committing to advancing our engagement with the region in a mutually beneficial way.”
It’s called Happie, and even before reaching its one-year anniversary, the pioneering job search startup has earned a right to the name. Happie leverages digital matchmaking innovations to connect job hunters with employers more speedily and productively than conventional online systems. Founder and CEO Jennifer Fremont-Smith, SF ’10, calls it “speed-dating for job hunters,” and her inventive model has caught on quickly. Already, more than 300 employers are working with the site, and the number of Happie job seekers has climbed into the thousands.
Fremont-Smith’s premise was this: prospective employers and employees today feel very much at home in the digital environment. “It’s where they bank, communicate with friends and family, and access their entertainment,” Fremont-Smith notes. “They’re also used to posting selfies and videos, so creating an arena where job hunters and providers can meet and chat via video falls well within the contemporary comfort zone. And in the potentially stressful job search realm, those familiar tools make for a welcoming experience.”
Burnout. That was the only word for it. In the early years of the 21st century, marketing professionals were beginning to find that customers had grown immune to traditional promotions. Direct mailings, television advertisements, cold calls—they were all reaching unresponsive audiences suffering from marketing burnout.
For MIT Sloan Fellows classmates and HubSpot cofounders Brian Halligan, SF ’05, and Dharmesh Shah, SF ’06, the marketing crisis inspired an aha moment. Their vision for inbound marketing was born. Instead of begging, pestering, and cajoling customers to listen to your pitch, the duo thought, what if the content you offered was so compelling that people were clambering to get at it? If this sounds obvious today, it’s owing in part to HubSpot’s success. Since the company’s launch in 2006, it has developed a customer base of more than 19,000 in 90+ countries worldwide.
Don’t think that digital tools can bring you closer to nature? Elif Buluç SF ’08, might be able to convince you otherwise. Buluç is CFO of Anadolu Etap, Turkey’s largest fruit producer and distributor. The company processed 162,000 tons of fruit last year purchased from 150,000 farmers in 3,000 villages across the country. It’s also the first Turkish agribusiness executing its operations within the framework of sustainable agriculture principles.
Buluç says that software innovations are making it possible for Anadolu Etap to disclose the specific origins of every piece of produce it brings to market. “The only way to better know the provenance of a piece of fruit is to pick it yourself,” she says. The company worked with a digital development firm to create a revolutionary new enterprise resource planning (ERP) software system that gives the company the ability to monitor every aspect of the growing and processing of fruit.That traceability means that the company—and its consumers—are able to learn where and how the fruit or fruit product was produced.
“Knowing the origins of what they’re eating is important to today’s consumers,” Buluç says. “They worry about safety—especially the safety of the fruit, juice, and baby food they feed their children. Every step of our growing process is digitally recorded, so we can vouch for the full life cycle of every single piece of fruit. That makes full disclosure possible and gives our customers a sense of comfort.”
Monitoring the life cycle of a piece of fruit
The ERP system integrates information from three business units: operating plantations for the growth of fruit (more than 100 varieties), producing processed fruit for the makers of fruit juice and baby food, and selling fresh fruit for consumption. The analysis it generates informs management about the production of every piece of fruit at every plot at every Anadolu Etap plantation as well as the costs and outcomes of production, how much labor was used to produce each crop, climate conditions, and other essential metrics. “We can compare and contrast the success of various methods of planting and processing and quickly course-correct when necessary,” Buluç says. “We learn something every day that allows us to maximize our harvests, boost our productivity, and design new plantations with those lessons in mind.”
Buluç says that she has new reasons to be excited every day about the advances Anadolu Etap is able to achieve because of the continual flow of digital knowledge. “When people think digital, they think it’s a substitute for the human factor. But our digital tools have everything to do with the human factor. They connect the entire Anadolu Etap family, from climate scientists and agronomists to workers in the fields and processing plants. Everyone is part of this network—including the consumer. It’s now possible for us to draw a direct line from the farmer to the consumer. When someone eats a pomegranate that we grow, they know exactly which little rural farm brought it to life.”
The equine analogy for the future of human labor was posited by Nobel laureate Wassily Leontief in 1983. He argued that horse labor appeared to be impervious to technological advances in the 19th century, only to be undercut dramatically by the success of the internal combustion engine. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee write, “once the right technology came along, most horses were doomed as labor. Is a similar tipping point possible for human labor?”
At the macro level, the future of human labor may represent the ultimate back-end challenge. Indeed, the authors argue that “as digital technologies race ahead, they have the potential to leave many workers behind.” If that is indeed the case, why are Brynjolfsson and McAfee cautiously optimistic? “Even if human labor becomes far less necessary overall, people, unlike horses, can choose to prevent themselves from becoming economically irrelevant.”
For starters, as a species we are stubbornly interpersonal, and our economic lives reflect our deeply social natures. Sporting events, theater, bars, and restaurants continually draw our dollars, generation in and generation out. “In these cases and many others, human interaction is central to the economic transaction, not incidental to it,” according to Brynjolfsson and McAfee.
Beset by dense fog and powerful currents, San Francisco Bay is one of the most treacherous waterways in the country. In 2007, a container ship plowed into the Bay Bridge in heavy fog. Five years later, an oil tanker followed suit. So when America’s Cup organizers approached the U.S. Coast Guard in 2012 about hosting the iconic cup races in San Francisco Bay, the prospect furrowed a few brows.
For Coast Guard Commander Jason Tama, SF ’11, however, it was an opportunity to demonstrate the potential of a promising new technology. A career military officer and recent Brookings Institution Fellow, he has a particular interest in fostering innovation within the military. Working closely with the America’s Cup team, Tama and his Coast Guard colleagues led an initiative to develop a solution to the traffic challenges posed by the race.
“The traffic in San Francisco Bay can get as congested as other California thoroughfares,” Tama points out, “with 130,000 vessels traversing it annually. Waterways are divided by lanes just like automotive highways, and fully delineating those lanes and calling attention to obstacles like the Bay Bridge is a fairly outsized task. Buoys are expensive to place and maintain and tend to drift, especially in deep water.”
Radar. The word conjures up images of colossal metal dishes pointed toward impending danger. Anupam Nayak, SF ’10, is out to replace that old black and white picture we now have imprinted on our brains with images of fuzzy slippers and warm blankets. She and Lucas van Ewijk, former head of the radar department at TNO, the leading Dutch research institute, and a small group of entrepreneurs have decided it’s time to free radar from its confined military identity. Radar is a powerful, versatile tool, they believe, and can be a crucial game changer in other realms. Healthcare, for example.
“We realized we could install a radar device the size of a business card in a patient’s room—either at home or in the hospital—to monitor respiration and other vital signs,” Nayak says. The idea of continuous patient monitoring blossomed into the startup Applied Radar Technology, which successfully navigated three years of regulatory trials before attracting the attention of the marketplace. She and van Ewijk decided to set up a new entity, VDisha, that can truly expand radar research and commercialization into the healthcare realm. In collaboration with government-funded radar research groups in the Netherlands, their aim is to expand VDisha into a multi-million dollar international initiative, bringing in partners from research groups around the world.