Runaway Train


We have seen tremendous technological change in the past 30 years. With every year new possibilities emerge, new opportunities. The buzz words fly by faster than we can take hold of: AI, Quantum Computing, Machine Learning, the Metaverse, Robotics etc.. Things that seemed impossible yesterday now are within the realm of reality. So much of today was what was once only a twinkle in the eye of the latest science fiction movie or novel. Now the idea or creating human forms with Artificial Intelligence is within grasp. Our ability to do gene editing with tools like CRIPR and accelerate the development of cures for diseases like cancer are within reach. The Quantum realm is in play and companies race ahead looking for answers to algorithms that usually take decades to solve into minutes . The Metaverse is about creating human connections without having to physically connect. And yet with all these new breakthroughs come huge responsibilities. Can we control what we create? Are we disconnecting from what it means to be human? Some view the question as ridiculous, some view it as real. And yet the question must be asked – is humanity safe?

Throughout history change has caused human angst. A belief that new technology will displace jobs, displace a way of life. As we moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy the view was there would be great job displacement. As we learned many new jobs were created as people moved from the fields to industrial warehouses. In the process they were creating huge cities and the associated economies that came with it . Even as we moved from the industrial age to the information age jobs were being created but the skill sets required to fill those jobs had evolved. We required a more educated white collar work force Technology has evolved so very fast it is not surprising that human development has not kept pace, which is why the tech industry cannot fill the jobs they have, which makes the market extremely competitive for hiring talent.

We also viewed this change to job security and job displacement as immediate, but it is more like a slow drip. Today in America we have a homeless crisis. Go to any city New York, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles etc..You will see tents and litter strewn everywhere and anywhere. Like a plague slowly crossing the cities. We blame government, we blame people and in the intense crossfire of these arguments offer no solutions. Technology has played its role as well as good paying jobs were increasingly automated, reducing opportunity for many as we transitioned from a manufacturing economy to a service a economy. Those that had stopped their education at high school could not compete in the new knowledge economy. Jobs that came with good pay and benefits in the manufacturing world do not exist for the most part in the service economy. With the advent and advancement of robotics there will be disruption in the service economy and more displacement. To be clear tech played a part but we cannot lay everything at its feet, there is a lot more to this problem, but that would be another blog.

The difference this time around is human replication. We have grown accustomed to tech taking away manual labor. Discussion today around returning the manufacturing base from abroad to the US is usually met with skepticism, as most people realize those jobs have been replaced with robotics and the idea of shops floors filled with hundreds of happy line workers is pure fantasy and not within the realm of reality. Capitalism is not here for happiness it is here for profits (do not argue with me on this, argue with Milton Friedman). Thus the move to offshore and automate was met with great Wall Street enthusiasm, profits now, consequences not my problem. If Wall Street could profit on human suffering they would do it. They live a shallow existence.

The tech sector is hyper competitive. A continuous race against time and the competition. We like to say we have a moral compass, but when push comes to shove we lack perspective and ideals fall by the wayside. From a historical standpoint we only need to look back to the cold war and the development of the atom bomb. After the United States detonated two bombs in Japan we ended WWII and set the globe on the path to potential nuclear holocaust. The Soviet Union following the second world war immediately set put on a path to catch the United States, there could be no world where there was only one nuclear power. The lead scientist was nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. who ultimately in 1949 succeeded in detonating a atom bomb. But as time went by he saw what he had created and became a leading member of the nuclear disarmament movement and would be placed under house arrest in the Soviet Union. The race for global supremacy was underway, frankly we are lucky to still be alive. That race continues but more and more it has moved to the private sector. Luckily the private sector is not building atom bombs, but in the explosive times we live in it often feels like we are sitting on one.

As I said tech is a hyper competitive space where the fear of being left behind drives everyone in the industry. It fuels the day. If you make a mistake or are caught napping the results are disastrous. IBM was the king of tech until in a meeting with Microsoft discussing the licensing of MS-DOS for IBM PC’s, Bill Gates said, “We get to keep the software licensing rights?”. IBM said “ok” and the rest was history. Since that time the carnage the industry has left behind is legendary. The Lotus 123, WordPerfect, IBM OS/2, Real Networks, MySpace, a half dozed search vendors who never envisioned an economic model until Google destroyed them all, Microsoft Zune too little too late, the launch of the iPhone destroyed mobile phone providers overnight etc..The list is long and the cost to those who did not see is in the trillions. The industry cannot stop, it cannot pause, only delivering empty promises to “realize your potential”, for many that is a life of hopelessness. Because at the end of the day tech speaks to the highly educated, not the masses.

The race for the future is non-stop, governments can try and slow down, but given the snails pace they move at, by the time they decide the industry has moved on. We measure success by growth (simple view is growth = $$$). We are constantly pushing the envelope to find that new greenfield opportunity. Technology has expanded its footprint into all walks if life, into all industries, everyone looking to use for some level of advantage. Some things will provide great benefits to humanity like health care from cancer search to gene editing tools like CRISPR (though there will be moral consequences). Let’s just hope we do not put a huge cost to these breakthroughs .

Tech visionaries always see a glorious future. They are the Willy Wonka’s of our times, living a life of fantasy. They really are the last people we should trust. Many live life styles in the clouds not seeing what people in the gutter must suffer through. When you live life on the mountain top its easy to see the vast beauty of the world, but these are broad strokes that hide the gritty details and the cruel reality of what is on the ground. As we move ahead in this ever quickening environment more people will be displaced, as we move to AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), maybe even replaced. Once momentum reaches a certain velocity it becomes impossible to turn on the break, to slow down the train. It will seek more advancement, more profit, and more returns. The advancements we will see in the next 25yrs will be breathtaking, though the consequences of those changes may be damning.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann May 2, 2022

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