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  1. Technology
August 21, 2014

5 sectors that tech will disrupt

Societal and commercial shake ups from the Internet, big data and social media will continue.

By Jimmy Nicholls

Technology companies pride themselves on their ability to "disrupt" industries. The buzzword is one that every geek in Silicon Valley aspires to – and not without reason, given the amount of money to be made.

You wouldn’t be reading this online had the news industry not been turned on its head by the internet, and plenty of other industries are being similarly shaken up. That in mind CBR has decided to take a look at which trades could be due an overhaul in the next few years.

1) Insurance

Insurance has always been about the sharing of risk: everyone pays a bit of money so that when the worst happens somebody can be paid a lot. Yet the rise of big data could see the burden shifting further towards riskier customers.

Car premiums are now based on broad assertions about drivers, such as risks associated with being male, young, or inexperienced. Now collecting huge data on individual drivers – including where they drive, how often, and their average speed -creates the potential for cheaper premiums for better drivers.

"Telematic" devices for monitoring drivers won’t only make insurers more money, but could be used to improve drivers’ behaviour on the road. For instance Snapshot, a device from British insurers Progressive, beeps when drivers break too hard. And with the incentive for lower premiums, it’s likely many will respond to the advice.

2) Education

Despite rising fees university applications are at a record high in the UK and demand looks unlikely to abate for the moment.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are seen by many as an answer to education costs. Offered for free by organisations belonging to Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Open University, the upstarts are hoping to make money through qualifications or advertising, as well as licensing their products to brick-and-mortar universities.

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Some see the changes as more widespread than MOOCs though. "Massive open online courses aren’t disrupting higher education – the internet is," said Simon Nelson, chief executive of FutureLearn, a MOOC provider owned by the Open University. "It’s opened up access to higher education to people who otherwise might not have the opportunity to learn from some of the best universities in the world."

3) Policing

Edward Snowden alerted the world to the possibility of mass data snooping from spooks, but the discussion has been less pronounced regarding mundane applications of the technology, such as in the fight against crime.

Earlier this year researchers at the University of Virginia revealed how tweets can predict crime. While most criminals don’t record their activities online, seemingly innocuous location tagged tweets can indirectly show police where crime is likely to happen. For instance if people are tweeting about being drunk somewhere, chances are crime will spike there too.

The use of facial recognition technology to apprehend known shoplifters has also been mooted for more than a decade, though booksellers Borders had to cancel plans for a scheme in 2001 after criticism from civil rights groups. Even so, big data’s application in policing is likely to change Bobbies’ jobs before too long.

4) Government

A strong argument against direct democracy, a system by which the electorate directly vote on policy, was that it was too expensive and unwieldy to work. But while some will still debate the legitimacy of crowdsourced democracy – with all its obvious potential for voter fraud – there is no doubt it is technically possible now.

"Crowdsourcing offers exciting possibilities for democracy," Finnish MP Oras Tynkkynen wrote in a Stanford University paper in 2012. "Citizens can take part in brainstorming, discussing, developing, and even implementing decisions that used to be the domain of political and expert elites."

As politicians seek to tackle voter alienation it’s likely they will turn to tech. E-petitions have already created a more direct line between the executive and the electorate, while crowdsourcing has been employed successfully in reforming the Icelandic constitution in 2010 and creating a budget in Chicago, US during the following year.

5) Manufacturing

The opportunities posited for 3D printing have been some of the most exciting in the history of human endeavour. Advocates believe that people will be able to manufacture anything from everyday necessities like clothes to obscure spare parts for old machinery – and, more worryingly, guns.

Pete Basiliere, research vice president at research firm Gartner, said: "3D prototyping enables organisations to reduce or mitigate the risks associated with the design, form and functionality of products in research and development programmes. It may also be used to support new manufacturing processes, and can reduce new product development schedules."

He’s not so convinced that it will take hold in the consumer market though. "There’s nothing really compelling from a consumer perspective," he told CBR in May. "If you need a replacement part for your kitchen cabinet or latch on your dishwasher or oven, you can go to the hardware store or go online and buy that. You don’t necessarily have to build it."

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