Book Review: Unscaled

Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future Book cover
Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future
“In a regulated industry companies are too often motivated to serve the regulators, not the customers, and the economics of a regulated company give the company little incentive to innovate” — Hemant Taneja, Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future

This book gets a 3/5, for it’s hyperbole unrestrained devotion to AI, both an admirable and not-so-much aspect.

Hemant Taneja is the General Manager of General Catalyst in Palo Alto California, and an investor in Stripe, Snapchat, (among others) as well as a board member in Khan Academy, TuneIn and more. It is great to get a glimpse into the mind of some of the tech sectors’ successful investors and supporters and I appreciate the books breakdown by verticals, that coverL Energy, Healthcare, Education, Finance, Media & Consumer Products.

While I agree with the general premise of the book, I personally find that the true power of artificial intelligence (or mere analytics and algorithmic learning) remains in data. We have yet to figure out to how harness, un-bais and standardize data at an efficient enough rate to get to AI – but that’s not our discussion.

The book explored the power of “AI” across sectors, the existing players and possibilities that could shape our future. However, I had a hard time going through one sector of the book: Healthcare.

The book argues that with enough genetic data we can personalize drugs to a persons condition allowing pharmaceuticals to surpass years of approvals and tests to ensure a generic drug can be made available to a mass market full. This will allow for even health insurance to be more tailored (albeit discriminately and controversially as the author highlights) to the genetic predispositions for disease.

But how realistic is it? A startup mentioned a few times in the chapter Crispr, a genome editing technology, is under scrutiny as EU rules that food modified with their technology needs to be labelled as such, similar to GMO produce, as the long term affect of the process are yet-to-be-realized. While advocates are excited, the potential of such a technology is alarming and the research on genetic modification in plants and labs alone has not been around long enough to measure it’s impact, let alone on humans. From an ethical point-of-view, and given the level of human-greed and denouncement of scientific research (e.g. the rise anti-vaxxers leading to resurgence in measles), oh and lets not forgot the new-age of racism, I’m not too confident we need to add more tools to the shack.

On medicine modified to an individual’s unique genetic composition, while I love the idea and I’m entranced by it’s potential: almost like 3D printing customized, no-waste, concussions. I don’t see research (there may be some in labs, but a quick search online didn’t show market-confident) that signals we could be close to even risk such a venture en masse. We do not yet know enough about the complexity of our genetic composition to assume that one strand may be independently linked or tackled to adjust for curing an illness without affecting other parts of the functioning organism. While Crispr, 23andme and other such technologies may have helped identify pre-dispositions for certain diseases, that doesn’t mean they can identify a “cure” or that “snipping” those genes is the right way forward. We don’t have enough research that matches the long term effect of drugs on the unique genetic composition of individuals to able to pin point the data needed to come up with is. Which makes me wonder, if medicine is eventually tailored to one, can medical research labs justify research for one? Is research in need of disruption. 

This topic is of course not new in the healthcare field, but I hope researchers are as confident as marketers are with results. Worth checking out: a magazine dedicated to the topic: Genome.

Another fear is health insurance, echoes by the author. Tailoring health insurance and premiums based on genetic dispositions can create a form of social discrimination & “untouchables” that could affect people’s livelihood based on genetic predisposition that may or may not actually surface in this individual’s life time. In emerging and advanced markets alike, skin and eye pigmentation, birthmarks and other physical traits already plague individuals livelihood, imagine adding the unseen layer of perceived “negative” genetic traits to the mix. I don’t know if humanity has the maturity to embrace the differences that make the human race beautiful at it’s current superficial state, let alone one that can be spun with so much “alternative-facts”

One part that got me thinking, is the author’s emphasis on historical health records and data ownership. Something I’d sign up for: an encrypted lifetime health record that can only be accessed with a biometric password or a physical encryption key, were only the patient owns their data and can “lease” or give access to their data to doctors and health care providers as needed (or to pharma and researchers). With all the data breaches affecting healthcare institutes (NHS in the UK, SingHealth in Singapore) protecting ones data with such measures may not be outstretched.

As we embark on this journey of lives daily impacted data-driven technology, ethical problems are rising. I keep remembering the video of Jane Elliot lashing out on AlJazeera a few years back: “The is no race but the human race”

Maybe the reason the healthcare section irked me, is that I felt that the author showed the same level of enthusiasm for the potential of AI across sectors, which, while applaudable, over-simplified the complexities of a biological human being in my humble opinion.

My favorite chapter: Media. 

With the “war” on news and media happening today across the globe, and the “accidental” discovery of social platforms for their innate power of impacting politics (though the western world didn’t seem to complain during the Arab Spring). It’s a critical time for innovators to reflect on the ethics of their work, global ramifications of their actions and responsibility such reach and power sets upon us as a race.

Recommended read: Yes
Did it irk me: Yes, but that made me think and research to learn more. Always a win. It also inspired the last short post “Is Lebanon Ready for a Smart Electricity Grid? 
Take away: Scale has come to an infliction point. Scale itself is being disrupted. 

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Racha

A passionate geek and believer in the power of entrepreneurship. I work to create inspiring dialogues for people to learn and flourish. I have spent the last 6 years traveling around MENA (and abroad) building and conducting conferences, competitions, challenges and conversations.