Code's Own Country


By Monish Chhabra ǀ 2nd March 2017

In January, John Little – a popular department store in Singapore – shut its doors for good. It had been operating for nearly 200 years. In March, Amazon is expected to start its operations in Singapore. These are epic changes that would shape the next century or two.

E-commerce started with the first-ever online transaction between two university students. The product in that deal was – marijuana. Today, the entire physical retail is smoked.

Canada recently declared ‘high-speed internet’ as a basic service essential for quality of life, which every citizen should have. The government announced a large investment to wire up the rural areas.

However, ‘wiring’ need not be the essential part for this service. Many companies are building constellations of satellites that would provide internet services to masses by 2020. With no need for cables, the remotest locations would be connected to the net.

The world of technology has been most influenced, to the point of becoming nearly synonymous, with its one particular branch – information technology.

For no other field of technology has advanced faster than the software and hardware of computing.

The first microprocessor made by Intel in 1971 had 2,000 transistors on one chip, and the latest one - 7 billion transistors on one chip! That is growth by the multiple of 3 million times in 45 years.

The biggest impact of information technology is on the ‘information’ part of it; now accessible in every corner of the world.

People who had never operated a personal computer before, are now using various apps on their smartphones. Businesses that never built a website earlier, are now using ‘big data’ to analyse the information they collect.

Mobile has become the key platform for individuals, bypassing personal computers. In 5 years time, almost every adult in this world will have a smartphone. The global shipment of smartwatches has already trumped the total number of Swiss watches shipped.

Cloud has become the key resource for enterprises, overtaking internal software & hardware. The combination - cloud computing with mobile access - satisfies our digital needs anywhere, on the go.

A basic computing system, placed on a single chip, would soon cost less than a dollar. That makes it possible for almost everything around us – TV, fridge, washing machine, ovens, clothes, cars, roadways, buildings, power lines, rivers and even medical implants in our body – to have sensors and processors embedded in them.

All these can be connected to the internet, and to each other.

The amount of information collected from these sources is enormous. Of the total amount of data created by the entire human history, half was generated in just the last 2 years.

That enormous pace of data creation today is expected to accelerate further. Most of this data is unstructured and unusable. Therein lies the potential for analytics.

Anything we use – a website online or a device in real life – is now ‘intelligent’. It observes us, learns our behaviour and knows us. Artificial intelligence is making everything capable of cognition.

In 2012, Google first displayed how computers can recognize images. The program was not told what a cat was, nor was it given any image labelled as a cat. Yet, the network of computers learnt by itself what a cat was, and recognized it in YouTube videos.

This application of neural networks required 16,000 CPU chips. Later, that could be done with just 100 GPU chips. Hardware is advancing just as fast as the software. Together they are injecting algorithms into art, agriculture, advertising, energy, retail, media, medicine, engineering, manufacturing, transportation, finance and, even into a class full of children.

Cameras capture digital images of the students. Algorithms assess their physical expressions and body language. The teacher is informed in real time; who or what may need more attention.

Businesses are shrinking their ‘human footprint’ with the use of algorithms. The trading floor at Goldman Sachs, which used to have 600 employees, now has 2 traders and 200 software engineers.

Even the seemingly stable profession of law is being upended by legal-tech. It is estimated that 3 out of every 100 lawyers would be replaced annually, by automation and algorithms. In New Jersey, an algorithm is hearing and ruling on bail cases, instead of a judge.

‘Voice’ capabilities are so advanced that we no longer type or press buttons, but talk to our devices. Body parts can be printed by 3D computers. Medicine would soon be personalized for each individual, no longer served as a standard mix in a bottle or tablet.

Augmented and virtual are merging with the physical reality. Gaming has become an extremely immersive experience. The use of virtual reality headsets during surgeries is shown to drastically cut the level of pain, anxiety and the use of sedatives.

Denmark recently announced that it is creating a new diplomatic position – a ‘digital ambassador’ – to deal not with a particular country, but with the giant technology companies. That is a striking acknowledgement by a sovereign state that ‘tech’ is no longer just an industry; it is an entire geography by itself.

The digital space is the vast new expanse of our world’s territory. This is the birth of a new continent. More real today than Zealandia.

Mind, Body & Soul

Marcus Raichle, a neurologist, showed that when given nothing else to do, the human brain defaults to think about the person it is embedded in. He calls it the ‘default mode network’.

This default mode of the brain is extremely self-referential. At every chance it gets, the brain starts to process emotions, replay the past or ponder the future; all centred on the ‘self’.

Being stuck in this mode, our mind may create an alternate reality of its own. Instead of sensing the present as it is, we may believe what we ‘think’ it is.

The Last Word

The ‘self’ created by the human mind, is already a form of artificial intelligence. The machines won’t be the first.

However, man’s own being is realized through what is in front of him, rather than what is in his head.

This write-up is for informational purpose only. It may contain inputs from other sources, but represents only the author’s views and opinions. It is not an offer or solicitation for any service or product. It should not be relied upon, used or construed as recommendation or advice. This report has been prepared in good faith. No representation is made as to the accuracy of the information it contains, nor any commitment to update it.