Can Silicon Valley gurus write our future?

NOBODY wore a tie and there were some T-shirts to look cool at the gala Singularity University Summit which took place the Inter-Continental Ballroom last week.

Lauded for their extraordinary work, gurus Peter Diamandis, David Roberts, Daniel Kraft, Ramez Naam and John Hagel were among Silicon Valley think tank’s speakers urging the Thai government and business to embrace microchip tech that is powering change superfast.

The stage resembled a giant pulpit from where tech’s high priests could fire up the congregation and convert unbelievers.

Make no mistake, Digital is the new religion, promising an Utopia where everything is plenty and cheap! There’s no hunger, poverty and diseases are eradicated so people live longer.

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Have we heard this before from prophets real and imaginary? This is different, they say, we bring you Wi Fi, video games, 4-G and Facebook.

To their credit, the advancement of renewable energy owes its success to the chip. Today a plane running solely on sunlight has almost circumnavigated the globe.

Singularity’s co-founder Dr Peter Diamandis telecasted his sermon from San Francisco to a hall packed with Thai business elite and top state ministers. His message: Tech Heaven is here so get on board.

Smartphones now pack more power than the most costly supercomputers in the Sixties, he stressed. There is almost nothing they cannot do.

Using the “exponential” process based on microchips doubles their loads every two years, and Singularity says it can alleviate shortages of everything from food to money.

By producing crazy amounts of goods and services using artificial intelligence and robotics, everything will become cheaper and everybody should be happy.

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Diamandis who penned the “abundance” approach, says with the ability to manipulate DNA in humans and other organisms and matter, it is now possible to prevent sickness and replicate meat from yeast.

They can cultivate crops in labs, so who needs farms?

Replace traditional farming? Not just the water buffaloes? Thailand, where 80 per cent of its citizens depend on agriculture should sit up and pay attention.

As Singulairty maps a future where tech can make millions of occupations irrelevant, Digital Utopia is proving it does not have room for everyone.

In addition, Diamandis says tech is now capable of producing diamonds that can flood the market with gems identical and almost as good as the real Mccoy. The price of diamond could plunge, making them very cheap.

Everyone should be happy except folks who paid a lot for the stuff. This would also be bad for people whose jobs are tied to this industry.

Here lies a disconnect between brilliant minds and the masses. The ability to use technology sensibly and meaningfully without creating more harm than good hasn’t been thought out too well.

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In cyber security, it may be too late, says Singulairty director Jeffrey Rogers. The software written for protecting data a decade ago did not fully consider the threats of rogue hackers and ransomeware criminals.

Companies must now pay huge bills yearly for updates to erect firewalls against intruders who have broken the old codes.

Singularity’s focus is now on controlling the future. To ensure a good future you have to create it yourself, Diamandis offers. Logical but is someone wanting to play God?

Many of Singularity’s members are aware of the pitfalls and have identified the dangers of exponential applications. By solving old problems they may be creating new ones.

After all one should ask, who are the people at Singularity?  What expertise do they have?

For the most part they are excellent tech engineers. But software writers, while outstanding with machines, are not historians, bankers, architects or policemen.

The late Steve Jobs came close as an all-rounder but even he was far from perfect.

It becomes clear many members of the tech world are not at all skilled in the humanities nor understand the various fields that comprise social orders.

Speaker, Nathaniel Calhoun of Global Grand Challenges reminds the audience of its flaws. Because of disruption brought by tech, there’s much pain and suffering.

When thousands of people are laid off, swelling the ranks of the unemployed, can you call that success? Where is the happiness in that?

No doubt, some businesses have thrived from cost cutting and improved efficiency with higher output. But there ought to be limits to attrition of the workforce.

Is disruption worth it? Are we creating dangerous situations by destabilizing society? Can the road to ruin be paved with good intentions?

Rogers considers the need to censor data on the Internet. Fake news and heated postings have made cyber world an ugly place.

Some want to delete offensive posts. But the problem is can anybody do this job fairly? Who decides what is offensive or permissible?

Who can you trust with the task without making a mockery of free speech?

Will cyber censors be more tolerant or less?

That has always been the crux of censorship when politics is so divisive and subjective. This is why journalists have to be apolitical when doing their jobs, something few other occupations would demand of their workers.

Then there is the question why is industry is blind to the trappings of tech.

By lowering the life of companies from 50 years in 1960 to 12 years today and just 7 in the future is not really that cool if you think about it carefully.

The truth is 99 per cent of start-ups in Silicon Valley fail. Only 1 percent survive to be Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter.

And once they succeed they can remain relevant for a long time. Microsoft and Apple came in the 1980s, followed by Yahoo and Google. Even Facebook, though seemingly new, has been around since 2004.

Since then there hasn’t been a sensation save Alibaba.

Are things slowing down? Online shopping lingers at 5 per cent and it could shrink.  So controlling the future is not as easy as once thought.

As Rogers himself says: “You will have more questions than answers at the end of the summit.”

Many companies will probably be asking why should they give away their trade secrets to total strangers and trust software engineers with their future?

The system is imperfect because people are imperfect. Utopias come and go, but one thing for sure is we seldom make the same mistake twice.

Newspapers were dumb to give away their content freely to the Internet. Silly management bought into the idea that anybody can be a reporter. As such, they self-destruct voluntarily to make room for social media.

By halting marketing budgets, newspapers shrank but blamed their demise on the Internet when they themselves pulled the plug.

Fast forward today and we find Thai banks signing their death warrants as well by closing branches and laying off capable staff. They should think again. Most Thais don’t trust and don’t like electronic banking.

Fact is not everybody can be a banker. Nor can anyone issue bonds or create money as a tech speaker suggests. You still need adults in the room.


Top: Tech guru Jeffrey Rogers opens the 2-day Singularity University (SU) summit

First in-text: Nathaniel Calhoun warns disruption brings misery to people who lost their jobs to tech’s purge.

Second in-text: Dr Peter Diamandis speaks in a telecast from San Francusco

Third in-text: Thai business elite sponsoring the first SU event in Southeast Asia. From left: Sara Lamsam, president/CEO of Muang Thai Life Assurance; Suphachai Chearavanont, CEO of CP;  Arthid Nanthawithaya, president and CEO of SCB; Dr Kobsak Pootrakool, Minister Attached to the Prime Minister’s Office; US Ambassador Glyn T. Davies; Subhasakdi Krishnamra, country managing partner of Deloitte Thailand; Chanond Ruangkritya, president and CEO of Ananda Development and Dr John Leslie Millar of Exponential Social Enterprise.

By Cimi Suchontan