Unreal, Baby!

Virtual reality.  The term itself is an oxymoron.  How can something be virtual—that is, not physically existing—and at the same time real—that is, actually existing?

In the techno-world we inhabit, however, such a dichotomy is not only possible, it is pervasive.  Today, we can slip behind a high-tech, VR mask and subject ourselves to almost any experience we desire.

Examples might include free-falling from a bungee-platform without the cord, performing magic alongside Harry Potter, or doing open-heart surgery on a patient who is thousands of miles away.

None of these things is really happening, but you feel as if they are.

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Artificial intelligence—another contradiction of terms.  How can something that is artificial, not genuine, be mistaken for intelligence, an innate, genuine ability to discover and utilize knowledge and skills?

Yet today, we know of many tasks being performed by AI machines that were formerly the sole purview of human beings.

Smartphone banking, Siri or Alexa speaking to us from our computers, and the genius of Pandora in predicting our musical tastes are but three examples.

We know these robots and techno-bots are not really human, but they do many of the things only we could do, once upon a time.

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Augmented reality.  This is a somewhat more easily-understood concept, where the elements of a real-world environment are supplemented by computer-generated sensory input—sound, video, graphics, or GPS data—almost as an overlay to the reality being observed.

Anyone who has played Pokemon Go, or who has modified a facial selfie with the addition of a dog’s ears and nose, has experienced AR.

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Quantum computing—based on quantum theory, the nature and behaviour of matter at an atomic and sub-atomic level—is still in an embryonic stage, but it’s what enables these modern-day paradoxes.  Quantum computers, once fully developed, will function in multiple states, and perform tasks using all possible permutations, simultaneously.  Like the human brain can do.

The difference between that and the technology we know today dwarfs the span between the abacus of ancient times and today’s supercomputers by many-fold.

A revolution is upon us.

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So, what do we do, we mere mortals, as the transformation hurtles toward us?  Do we resist, as Luddites of old?  And if we tried, would it make any difference?  Would we be drowned by the waves of change?

Or, do we embrace the onslaught, strive to understand it, seek to control the extensive influence it will have on us?  Do we even know how we would do that?

Perhaps a third alternative—chill out and accept whatever change is approaching.  Will it be a saviour to humankind, taking us in spite of our shortcomings to a more perfect state of existence, a Valhalla?

Or might it be more akin to what W. B. Yeats, the great poet, called, a…rough beast, its hour come round at last, [slouching] towards Bethlehem to be born?

Much depends, I think, on our continuing, collective will to exert control over our environment, a hallmark of human beings since first we stood upright on two legs.  We have unfailingly stridden toward our future, determined to overcome (or, failing that, to adapt to) the challenges we have faced.  We have never shirked from that reality.

But in a VR world—where reality is virtual and nothing is authentic—how do we continue to do that?  Blind to the physical world around us, and to its authenticity, enslaved behind our masks to the make-believe worlds we will have chosen, we will be tossed like so much flotsam and jetsam on the seas of change.

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Will we collectively continue to assert our dominance over the world in which we live, or will we succumb to the comforts of AI entities we have created, with their false promises and reassurances?

Of all the pestilences that might afflict our world over the next decade—nuclear war, pandemic disease, mass starvation, lack of potable water, catastrophic climate change—the most likely, in my view, is the ascension of artificial intelligence in all its forms, and the threat they will pose to humankind.

Dictators of the past, to consolidate and expand their power over their citizens, adhered to an ancient Roman maxim, postulated by Juventus:  panem et circenses[Give them] bread and circuses.  Distract the rabble, entertain them, and they will leave you alone to work your will.

Is that we have today—VR, AI, AR, and their ilk—a techno-version of the circus?  Will quantum computing spell the end of our human autonomy as it quickly subverts our will to compete?

A decade ago, the question would have been unthinkable.  Now, not so much.

Unreal, baby!

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Revolution

A friend told me a while back about a financial planning seminar he’d attended, where the wealth management advisers waxed enthusiastically about growth and value stocks, citing several examples of corporations and enterprises that met their criteria for each category.

Not satisfied with their explanations, he asked them where a company such as Amazon, with its vast, online distribution network, would fit in their scheme of things.  Or Google.  Or Facebook.  Would such companies be considered growth or value stocks?

The answer surprised him.  Neither.  And the reason?  None of those ventures had any tangible ‘product’.  To the financial advisers, they were too impalpable to be categorized.  Their core business exists in the ether, as it were.  It’s just technology.

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My friend considered this ludicrous.  When one looks ahead to the next decade, one must be impressed by the role technology will play in what some have described as a fourth industrial revolution—the first occurring when machines were developed to supplant manual labour in the early nineteenth-century; the second when mass manufacturing methods appeared later in that century and into the next; and the third when digital technology began to overtake mechanical and analog processes in the late twentieth-century.

And what will this fourth revolution look like?  How will it affect, not people of my generation so much, but our children and grandchildren?  I recently read a summary of issues discussed at a conference sponsored by Singularity University, a consortium of information-technology innovators and providers, and it gave me pause.  If these leading-edge thinkers are to be believed, the revolution will encompass a period of exponential growth unmatched in previous history.

Consider the following, gleaned from the aforementioned online summary.  Computer software and operating systems will discombobulate traditional business models, as we are already seeing with such companies as Uber, which owns no cars, and Airbnb, which owns no properties.

Computers will become ever more powerful, as demonstrated by the IBM Watson, which is able to offer basic legal advice within seconds, to a greater degree of accuracy than its human counterparts, and which can diagnose cancer more accurately than doctors.  What need will there be for generalist lawyers or doctors in a few more years, as computers become arguably more intelligent than humans?

Smartphones will be available and affordable to almost three-quarters of the world’s population within the next five years.  That means everyone will have access to the same information, to the same teaching, to the same outcomes in learning, and in the language of their choice.  Education will become not only affordable, but entertaining.

A medical device will soon be beta-tested to work with smartphones; it will analyse more than four-dozen bio-markers deduced from retina scans, blood samples, and breath tests, and identify diseases threatening our health.  Within a few years, the technology will become inexpensive enough that almost everyone alive will have access to effective, low-cost medicine.

Efficient, green-energy solutions will develop much more quickly than has heretofore been the case.  Solar energy, for example, will drive traditional fossil-fuel providers out of business as it becomes less and less costly.  With the cheap electricity it generates, desalination efforts will expand, providing the world with an increase in the amount of potable water available for its ever-increasing population.

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Electric and self-driving cars are already here.  When they become more prevalent and affordable—and they will—entire industries will be disrupted.  Who will need a car when a ride can be summoned as needed via smartphone?  No maintenance costs.  No insurance costs.  No parking costs.  In fact, no need for the vast tracts of urban land that are given over to parking lots.  Perhaps most importantly, a dramatic reduction in the number of people who die every year in automobile accidents.

What will happen to the Fords, the General Motors, the Volkswagens of the automobile industry when the Teslas, Apples, and Googles begin to market vehicular computers for the masses?  And what of the large insurance companies?  With fewer accidents, not to mention the medical advances cited earlier, their medical and car insurance lines will wither and die.

For young people about to enter the workforce, what does all this mean?  It is anticipated that up to 80% of the jobs we count on now will become obsolete in the next twenty years.  Will there be enough new jobs to replace them?  And if so, what sort of jobs will they be?  With the increase in longevity we witnessed during the twentieth-century expected to grow more rapidly, there is an obvious need to develop vocational and avocational pursuits for the escalating population.

So, for my friend and me, and for anyone who is thinking about financial planning for the future, where is the growth, and where is the value, if not in the technology-driven industries driving the revolution?

If you doubt these trends, please call me and make an offer on the once-valuable Kodak and Fujifilm stocks I still have in my portfolio!