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Living on Mars or an Inferno?

I love the predictions of scientists, but they’re often wrong.  The internet has a litany of stupid predictions from IBM’s President saying that there’s a worldwide market for about five computers to The Atlantic predicting that, by the year 2000, we would no longer be engaged in wars.

The latest predictions are that, thanks to improvements in life sciences, people will live forever and we will have solved global poverty.  Laudable but mistaken.  In fact, we can see two diverse visions of the future right now.  One is Dan Brown’s Inferno whilst the other is Elon Musk’s multiplanetary society.  Which do you believe in?  And why is this important?  It’s important because we are living in an intriguing moment of time: the fourth and fifth revolution of humankind, as I call it in my presentations.

The fourth revolution is where everyone is connected globally through the network and, thanks to developments in mobile and internet technologies, that is happening.  The fifth is where we become cyborgs – half human, half machine – as predicted by Professor Yuval Noah Harari in his best-selling book Sapiens.

The new revolution combines a whole raft of ideas from artificial intelligence to life sciences to bio technologies to gene designs to reusable rockets to colonising other planets.  These things are all likely to happen.  We know that we can build designer babies today; we can replace broken body parts with better printed or robotic ones;  we can cure diseases we thought incurable; we have reusable spacecrafts being built; and we have seen planets close up that just a century ago, we didn’t even know existed.

When I was born, there were three billion people on this planet; today, there are seven billion; tomorrow …

Over a century ago, Bismarck came up with the idea of a pensionable age of 70 because most German males were dying at the age of 45; today, the average German dies at 80 years; tomorrow …

And if we can replace parts, cure the incurable and maintain life for over 100 years, how many people will there be on this planet?  Bear in mind that if seven billion people live twice as long as three billion, and have the ability to create children for as long as they live, then you can soon get the idea that we will need multiplanetary lifestyles to keep this planet running.

And bringing this back to banking, if we can live over a century on average, what does that do to the pensions system?  What does it mean for work?   And where will these billions of people work, if all the main jobs are being done by robots?  How will the benefits system work if so many are unemployed?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but purely pose them because Professor Harari has produced a new book exploring these areas, called Homo Deus.  I haven’t read it yet but The Guardian’s review gives a good overview so, here’s the gist of the new book.

We’ve lived through lots of fast paced change in the past, where people thought our inventiveness would eventually destroy us, but eventually humankind always finds a way to muddle through.  Nuclear wars, ozone depletion and worse, has usually found a way to find some optimism but, in the last five years, that optimism has begun to erode. There are several reasons for this loss of confidence. One is the sheer pace of technological change. Another is that new forces at loose in our society – particularly information technology and the life sciences – are more far-reaching in their implications than steam or electricity were. And, thirdly, see startling advances in these fields have forced us to recalibrate our expectations.

A classic example is the field of artificial intelligence (AI), defined as the quest to enable machines to do things that would require intelligence if performed by a human. For as long as most of us can remember, AI in that sense was always 20 years away from the date of prediction. Maybe it still is. But in the last few years we have seen that the combination of machine learning, powerful algorithms, vast processing power and so-called “Big Data” can enable machines to do very impressive things – real-time language translation, for example, or driving cars safely through complex urban environments – that seemed implausible even a decade ago.

There’s a sense that we are approaching another “end of history” moment and that, in a nutshell, is the central argument of Yuval Noah Harari’s  new book.

“In the early 21st century,” he writes in a striking passage, “the train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it, you need to understand 21st century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms.”

He continues: “These powers are far more potent than steam and the telegraph, and they will not be used mainly for the production of food, textiles, vehicles and weapons. The main products of the 21st century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be wider than the gap between Dickens’s Britain and the Madhi’s Sudan. Indeed, it will be bigger than the gap between Sapiens and Neanderthals. In the 21st century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.”

Harari sees three directions in the future:

  1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, and the economic system will stop attaching much value to them.
  2. The system will still find value in humans collectively but not in unique individuals.
  3. The system will, however, find value in some unique individuals, “but these will be a new race of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population”.

By “system”, he means the new kind of society that will evolve as bioscience and information technology progress at their current breakneck pace.


About Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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