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[Column] Michiel Frackers: Harari: For the first time, no one knows what the world will look like in 20 years

[Column] Michiel Frackers: Harari: For the first time, no one knows what the world will look like in 20 years

Yuval Noah Harari was a guest on Stephen Colbert’s late night talkshow, leading to an unexpectedly relevant conversation for that time of the day on network television.

Harari: “I’m a historian. But I understand history not as the study of the past. Rather it is the study of change, of how things change, which makes it relevant to the present and future.”

Colbert: “Is it real that we are going through some sort of accelerating change?”

Harari: “Every generation thinks like that. But this time it’s real. It is the first time in history that no one has any idea what the world will look like in twenty years. The one thing to know about AI, the most important thing to know about AI, it is the first technology in history that can make decisions by itself and create new ideas by itself. People compare it to the printing press and to the atom bomb. But no, it is completely different.”

Technology that makes its own decisions

Perhaps my fascination with the work of Harari, best known as the author of Sapiens, stems from the fact that I am a historian myself (history of communications), but have found that study to be most useful in assessing technological innovations. Harari confirms the idea that many of us have, that current technology involves a completely different, more pervasive and comprehensive innovation than anything the world has seen to date.

With his conclusion that AI is an entirely new technology, precisely because perhaps as early as the next generation AI will be able to make decisions on its own, Harari identifies the core challenge and does so in the very week that Amy Webb presented the new edition of the leading Tech Trends Report themed “Supercycle”. The report is available here and this is the video of Webb’s presentation at SXSW.

“We believe we have entered a technology supercycle. This wave of innovation is so potent and pervasive that it promises to reshape the very fabric of our existence, from the intricacies of global supply chains to the minutiae of daily habits, from the corridors of power in global politics to the unspoken norms that govern our social interactions.”

— Amy Webb, CEO Future Today Institute

Webb, like Harari, believes that technology will affect all of our lives more strongly than ever.

This is the face an AI founder makes when you ask where the training data is from.

OpenAI CTO said ‘dunno’

If Harari and Webb are right, it is all the more shocking what Mira Murati, the acclaimed Chief Technology Officer of OpenAI, maker of ChatGPT and others, blurted out during an interview with the Wall Street Journal. The question was simply whether OpenAI used footage from YouTube in training Sora, OpenAI’s new text-to-video service.

Now, OpenAI is under pressure on this issue, because the New York Times has launched a lawsuit against the alleged illegal use of its information in training ChatGPT. So getting this question wrong could possibly provoke a new lawsuit from the owner of YouTube, which is Google, OpenAI’s major competitor.

Murati obviously should have expected this question and could have given a much better answer than the twisted face she made now, combined with regurgitating some lame lines that can be summed up as “don’t call me, I’ll call you.” It’s of a sad level for this company, at a time not long after OpenAI already experienced a true royal drama surrounding CEO Sam Altman.

These people are developing technology that can make its own decisions and are undoubtedly technically and intellectually of an extraordinary level, but as human beings they lack the life experience and proper judgment to realize the impact their technology can have on society.

Your car works for your insurance company?

It is downright miraculous that Zuckerberg can still sleep after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is a consequence of peddling our privacy for financial gain. It is now not just the big tech companies that are guilty of this revenue model, even car manufacturers have joined the guild of privacy-devouring crooks.

It has come to light that LexisNexis, which builds profiles of consumers for insurers, has sold profiles of buyers of General Motors cars including tracking of every trip taken, including when they drove too fast, braked too hard or accelerated too fast. GM just sold this information to LexisNexis. The result: higher insurance premiums. As if you needed another reason never to buy a car from this manufacturer of unimaginative, identity-less vehicles.

Google Gemini does not do elections

Partly because of stock price pressures, tech companies are forced to release moderately tested applications as quickly as possible. Think of Google with Gemini, which wanted to be so politically correct that it even depicted Nazis of Asian descent. Sweetly intended to be inclusive, but totally pointless.

This fiasco caused such a stir that Google announced Tuesday that Gemini is not providing any information about all the elections taking place this year around the world. Indeed, even to the innocent question “What countries are holding elections this year?” Gemini now replies, “I am still learning how to answer this question.” I beg your parrrrdon?

Google Gemini does know all about Super Mario

If Gemini would simply use Google’s search engine, it would lead right to a Time article that begins with the sentence, ‘2024 is not just any election year. It may be the election year.’ According to ChatGPT, elections will take place this year in the US, Taiwan, Russia, the European Union, India and South Africa; a total of 49% of the world’s population will be able to go to the polls this year.

So for providing meaningful information about the future of the planet, Google Gemini is not the place to be. Fortunately, I do get a delightfully politically correct answer to my, I'll admit it, leading question:‘Did Princess Peach really need to be rescued by a white man? Wasn’t Super Mario just being a male chauvinist?’

Reading the answer, I get the feeling that Google Gemini has been fed a totally absurd worldview by well-intentioned people. The correct answer should have been, “Super Mario is a computer game. It’s not real. Go worry about something else, you idiot.

Speaking of princesses, there is one who claims that, like us mere mortals, she sometimes edits photos herself. At least, so says the X account on behalf of Princess Catherine and Prince William. The whole fiasco not only draws attention to the issues surrounding the authenticity of photos, but also demonstrates the need for digital authentication when sending digital messages. It would be helpful if it were conclusively established that the princess herself sent the message that was signed with the letter C.

Where do we go from here?

Globally, people and governments are wrestling with how to deal with and potentially regulate the latest generation of technology, which is also a source of geopolitical tension. See how China is reacting to the news that ASML is considering moving out of the Netherlands.

The possible ban on TikTok, or a forced sale of the U.S. branch of TikTok by owner ByteDance, will not happen as quickly as last week’s news coverage might suggest. By the way, it is interesting what happened in India when TikTok was banned there in 2020: TikTok’s 200 million Indian users mostly moved on to Instagram and YouTube.

India announced this week that a proposed law requiring approval for the launch of AI models will be repealed. Critics say the law would slow innovation and could worsen India’s competitiveness; the economic argument almost always wins.

Meanwhile, the European Union is beating its chest that the law for AI regulation has been approved, but it will be years before it takes effect. It is unclear how the law will protect consumers and businesses from abuse. Shelley McKinley, the chief legal officer of GitHub, part of Microsoft, compared the U.S. and European approaches as follows:

“I would say the EU AI Act is a ‘fundamental rights base,’ as you would expect in Europe,” McKinley said. “And the U.S. side is very cybersecurity, deep-fakes — that kind of lens. But in many ways, they come together to focus on what are risky scenarios — and I think taking a risk-based approach is something that we are in favour of — it’s the right way to think about it.””

Aviation as an example

Lawmakers often tend to create a new regulator in response to an incident, think of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after 9/11. The EU is now doing the same with the new European AI Office, for which qualified personnel is being recruited.

It shows a far too narrow view of digital reality. As the aforementioned Tech Trends Report correctly shows, it’s not just about AI: the “tech super cycle” is created by an almost simultaneous breakthrough of various technologies, such as, in addition to AI, bioengineering, web 3, metaverse and robotics, to name just a few.

Therefore, it would be better to set up a digital technology regulator similar to the European Medicines Agency EMA or the U.S. aviation authority FAA. Not that things are flawless at the FAA right now, far from it, but the FAA has spent decades ensuring that aviation is the safest form of transportation.

It is precisely having oversight relaxed, coupled with the greed of Boeing management, that has created dire situations such as Boeing personnel saying they never wanted to fly on the 787 themselves. This is exactly the situation that should be avoided in digital technology, where already many former personnel of tech giants are coming forward about abuses and mismanagement with major social consequences.

Spotlight 9: Bad week for AI, but what will next week bring?

It was a week of corrections for AI stocks, but what happens when Monday Nvidia announces its newest line up of AI chips...

It was a week of hefty corrections after an extremely enthusiastic start to the year in tech stocks and in crypto. Bitcoin lost 5% and Ethereum lost as much as 10%. My completely made-up AI Spotlight 9, or nine stocks that I think will benefit from developments in AI, also received a hefty beating.

On crypto, I like to quote Yuval Noah Harari again, this time on the Daily Show:

“Money is the greatest story ever told. It is the only story everybody believes. When you look at it, it has no value in itself. The value comes only from the stories we tell about it, as every cryptocurrency-guru or Bitcoin-enthusiast knows. It is all about the story. There is nothing else. It is just the story.”

Media critic Jeff Jarvis believes nothing of the doom-and-gloom talk about rapidly advancing technology and even scolded people like investor Peter Thiel and entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Sam Altman.

It was striking to encounter Jarvis in one of my favorite sports podcasts. Jarvis apparently does not realize that just his appearance on this sports show to talk about AI underscores the impact of technology on everyday life. He is not invited to talk about the role of parchment, troubadours or the pony express.

Million, billion, trillion

Where startups once started in someone’s garage, AI in particular is the playing field of billionaires. The normally media shy top investor Vinod Khosla (Sun, Juniper, Square, Instacart, Stripe etc) publicly opened fire on Elon Musk after he filed a lawsuit against OpenAI, not entirely coincidentally a Khosla investment.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman appears to still be in talks for his $7 trillion chip project with Abu Dhabi’s new $100 billion sovereign wealth fund MGX, which is trying to become a frontrunner in AI with a giant leap. Apparently, Altman has also been talking with Temasek, the leading sovereign wealth fund of Singapore. These talks involve tens of billions, not millions.

From the perspective of Harari, let’s look at Nvidia’s story. It is offering developers a preview of its new AI chip this week. How long can Nvidia and CEO Jensen Huang wear the crown as the dominant supplier of AI chips in the technology world? Tomorrow, Huang will walk onto the stage at a hockey arena in Silicon Valley to unveil his latest products. His presentation will have a big impact on my AI Spotlight 9 stock prices in the coming weeks and maybe even months.

The shelf life of a giant

Payment processor Stripe, also a Khosla investment, reported in its annual reader’s letter that the average length of time a company is included in the S&P 500 index has shrunk sharply in recent decades: it was 61 years in 1958 and it is now 18 years. Companies that cannot compete in the digital world are struggling. With the huge sums currently being invested in technology, that trend will only accelerate.

In conclusion

In that context, it is particularly fun and interesting to see that in Cleveland, good old mushrooms are eating up entire houses and cleaning up pollution, even PFAS. Perhaps not an example of Amy Webb’s bioengineering, rather bio-remediation, but certainly a hopeful example of how smart people are able to solve complex problems in concert with nature.

Michiel Frackers is the Chairman of Bluenote and Chairman of Blue City Solutions

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