What I Discovered at Discovery 2016 – Business with a Social Agenda

It’s that time of the year. Time to find out who has new ideas about turning which emerging technology into business at the annual OCE Discovery showcase.  With 3,000 other people, I spent a couple days networking, listening to keynote speakers from companies like Tesla, engaging with clever entrepreneurs, and hobnobbing with all the other folks who make innovation happen in Ontario.

I go to Discovery to learn: about what my colleagues are doing, new trends in business and technology, and new words1. There are always surprises.

Automobiles, obviously not new business but full of new technology, were big this year. In addition to a keynote speaker from Tesla, a panel with representatives from GM, Ford, Hyundai and IBM talked cars. First surprise – artificial intelligence is a driving force in the auto industry. I’ve been so focused on the philosophical aspects of how AI will impact humanity I forgot it would be soon be deployed in an everyday task. To drive cars.

A bigger surprise – the extent of the discussion on ethical issues related to electrical vehicles and autonomous driving vehicles. I can’t remember another instance at a business-focused conference where there was such thorough forethought (i.e. the opposite of afterthought) and time spent on considering the consequences to society and the environment related to a popular consumer product.

For the electric vehicles, the driving force behind the innovation is to cut carbon emissions and reduce global warming. But discussion didn’t stop there. Concern was expressed about the impact of the lithium in the batteries. This was countered by the responsible practices used in lithium mining, and the that the batteries are (almost) infinitely renewable, unlike fossil fuels that are burned and exhausted into the atmosphere. Of course, the source of energy for electric cars is electricity, the batteries are only the conduit, so the overall environmental foot print depends on the source of the electricity.

For autonomous or self-driving cars, there are many positives, including decreasing human suffering by eliminating human error as a cause of car accidents, and increased efficiency in route selection, leading to lower emissions (decreased driving times and less idling) and costs to maintain the roads. Cars that can drive themselves will be more convenient for human passengers, dropping them off at their destination and going to park themselves, saving fuel and decreasing human frustration.

Considerable concern lingers about the types of decisions the AI in an autonomous vehicle might make. In an emergency situation, it may be necessary to make a choice of who to protect from harm. If a collision between a pedestrian can only be averted by the car steering into a pole, which would be done? Does it matter how many people are in the car, how old each is, what their occupation, education or criminal record is? This is a truly scary thing to contemplate. But, encouragingly, auto- and AI-makers have thought about it.

Continuing on the theme of cars, Zipcar  is a company with a model for decreasing the impact to the environment of our transportation systems. Zipcar allows people to share cars owned by the company, in a very user friendly way. This should decrease the overall number of cars on the planet and therefore the energy and waste associated with manufacturing and recycling the vehicles. Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar, gave a keynote address where she elaborated on her idea2 that a solution to global warming lies in applying Zipcar principles to many other aspects of life: by using unused capacity we can decrease the world’s overall consumption of stuff. Her ideas are rooted in social change, but refreshingly embrace big business.

I found additional social innovation on the Discovery show floor, there were aisles dedicated to initiatives with accessibility-providing-technology, such as accessto.ca that lists restaurants, bars and cafes, describing how accessible their physical space is. There was also an area highlighting social enterprises.

Was the OCE Discovery program socially focused this year? I’m not sure I want to delve into motives. I’ll just enjoy the well-rounded perspective I discovered at Discovery on how tech business is developing.

1I learned the word fintech this year. This means new technological approaches to finance. Stuff like bitcoin.

2This is the subject of a book she is currently promoting, http://www.peersincorporated.com .

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