I used to work for the former president of Dow Jones & Co. and cannot tell you the number of times he would say, “The company’s most valuable assets go down the elevator shafts at the end of every day.”
The newspaper business was one of several industries that were considered members of the so-called Knowledge Economy — lines of business that were all about human brain power rather not physical assets. People were the assets that mattered, and physical possessions were only as consequential as the people who use those assets.
Of course, another member of the Knowledge Economy was, and is, the software business, which has been so successful at advancing the power and capabilities of computing science that software programs and algorithms and the digital hardware they run are marginalizing or even replacing people at an alarming rate.
As daunting as that has been for the human race, the type of Future Shock that author and futurist Alvin Toffler wrote about in 1970 is moving quickly to the fore, according to Yuval Harari, author of Homo Deus. Harari writes and speaks of human optimization that includes fusing the carbon-based biology of humans with the silicon-based digital devices such as smart phones and computers, “to the degree that they cannot be separated, not even physically.”
Already, the powershift (another Alvin Toffler book title) is under way, moving decision-making and authority from humans to machines. A couple of examples include the robo technology that is threatening the livelihoods of wealth advisers and the autonomous vehicles that could wipe out millions of professional driving jobs. As digital neural networks assume increasing operational authority over weapons systems, power grids, and even medical diagnosis and surgical procedures, humans are destined to reach the point where they are incapable of understanding what is happening around them.
“There is just too much data, too much change,” Harari told Fareed Zakaria during a recent episode of the CNN program Global Public Square. “We don’t even know the most basic things about how the world would look like in 30 years.”
What will the job market look like in 30 years? We have no idea, Harari reasons. Educators don’t know what relevant job skills will be by the year 2040, leaving them in a conundrum about what student curriculums should entail. How long before any skill they teach will be obsolete?
Here is another dose of future shock for you from Harari: “It’s very likely that we are one of the last generations of homo sapiens, and that within a century or two, we will be replaced by something profoundly different.”
There is even a name for this emerging field: Neuroreality, which refers to a reality driven by technologies connected directly to the human brain, or brain/computer interface. A brain can be connected to a machine either invasively through an implant, or non-invasively through external electrodes that detect and direct brainwaves.
The android-esque future between humans and digital devices has already begun at Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based vending machine company, which has begun offering microchip implants in its employees. More specifically, the implants are radio-frequency identification chips that its people use to open restricted doors, access computers, use copy machines, make purchases in the break room, etc., all with a wave of a chip-implanted hand.
A pretty low-level, low-tech initiative, to be sure, though perhaps a test of how accepting people might be about accepting digital integration into their physical apparatus.
There has long been talk about artificial intelligence and robotics storming the job market and society in general. MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson says it is finally starting to happen in a meaningful way based on the confluence of several forces. Computing power has been tremendously amplified by continuous advancements, including the invention of specialized semiconductors called GPUs and TPUs are 10-times to 100-times faster than ordinary chips. The upshot: A computer system can be trained to effectively carry out complex tasks in just a few days, rather than the decades it used to take.
During a recent Harvard Business Review podcast, Brynjolfsson concentrated on the improved image recognition among computers, a capability that offers many applications. The improvements in image recognition have been enormous. As recently as seven years ago, machines had an image recognition error rate of about 30 percent. Today, that error rate is less than 5 percent, about the same as a human being.
So perhaps a company’s most valuable assets will still go down the elevator shafts at the end of every day, though a good deal of silicon and software code will be along for the ride.
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Real Assets Adviser.