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‘THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE’

Chief Editor Jan Yong had a conversation with Vivek Wadhwa, futurist, author and emerging technologies expert, who is the keynote speaker at the Urban Land Institute APAC Summit in Singapore from June 6 – 8.

APR: “Until I am convinced that there is enough security, I am not going to be buying an I.o.T. home device.” – That was your last line in your book “The driver in the driverless car”. In an earlier interview, you mentioned that The Internet of Things (I.o.T.) is a fancy name for the increasing array of sensors embedded in our commonly used appliances and electronic devices, our vehicles, our homes, our offices, and our public places. Can you give some examples of such commonly used appliances? Which are the ones that you already own (perhaps inadvertently) and which are the ones that you would avoid at all costs?

Vivek: I have a Samsung TV at home, for example. It has a microphone and camera and asked me for permission to watch and listen to me. Not only did I decline that but also covered up the camera. The last thing I need is for Samsung to be spying on me and watching me when I watch a TV program. My wife also bought a Withings bathroom scale for me to replace an older one that had a simple display. This scale wanted to connect to my WiFi network and tell me my weight on my iPhone. I said ‘no thank you’ and had my wife return the scale to the store. The last thing I need is for the world to know how much I am eating and how fat I am getting! I love technology and like to own the latest gadgets, but I don’t want hardware manufacturers and hackers spying on me and my family. This is why I am not a fan of the consumer Internet of Things—the devices are not secure and the manufacturers don’t have enough incentive to make them secure. It is easier for them to apologize after they have been hacked than to invest in consumer security.

APR: In the South Korean movie, “Robot Buddha”, AI has helped a robot become so adept at interpreting the Buddhist philosophy that it becomes even wiser than its human adherents/ monks, thus elevating it to the status of ‘god’. Do you think AI can reach this level at some point?

Vivek: This is one of the things I am excited about—and fearful about at the same time. We can surely use the help of Artificial Intelligence to make better decisions and gain access to knowledge. These technologies are great when they serve us and are our servants. But what happens when they advance to the point that they are smarter than us and become our intellectual masters?

The good news is that AI won’t reach this point for at least 15-20 years and we can hopefully find ways of staying as the masters by then!

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APR: Along the same line, will AI help robots to make better judgments at war than the human general? Hypothetically, if a robot inputted with advanced knowledge of warfare were to decide today whether to drop the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how do you think it would decide?

Vivek: This is one of the problems I highlighted in my book. The decision to kill a human being shouldn’t be made by machines—it should be made by human beings with a conscience and soul. Compassion and caring must be part of the decision-making process. I know of no machine that has these characteristics—yet.

APR: Shouldn’t AI be inputted not to kill human beings at any cost – in other words, to avoid killings/wars at all cost – in order that they could compute other peaceful means of conflict resolution that humans on their own through self-interest aren’t able to do?

Vivek: Yes, this is the ideal situation. But what happens when a country’s enemy has automated killing machines? These ideals will quickly be abandoned. Look at the North/South Korea border as an example, it already has killing machines there.

APR: In the case of self-driving cars, where a situation can only have two outcomes – 1. Let one human die, or 2. Let 10, then it could be inputted to let fewer number of humans perish. Therefore, conscience and soul are characteristics that are not needed to be possessed by AI in order to make decisions related to human life – their decisions can even be better because they are free from self-interest or prejudices.

Vivek: But how is the car programmed—to save the driver or the person the car is about to hit? If you had a choice in which car to buy, and they had different decision-making programmes, which would you choose? I’ll bet that most people would care about themselves more than anyone else. This is the dilemma in programming AI—we have to teach it what decisions to make.

APR: Back to real estate, how do you think AI will change the industry? At the heart of the problem now with many real estate markets is the affordability issue – can AI be used to solve this?

Vivek: The change will happen at many levels. The first is for investors in real estate. Today, the way real estate developers decide on making investments is by looking at demographic and economic data. They look at social trends and migration trends. They analyse data. With artificial intelligence, it becomes possible to analyse billions times more data—to look at factors that may seem unrelated like global weather patterns, stock and commodity prices, graduation rates from schools— and many other factors. Humans can’t possibly analyse and assimilate the massive amounts of data that artificial intelligence can. Humans also don’t share much information with one another. Computers and databases enable this and artificial intelligence tools get smarter and smarter with data.

On the issue of affordability and changing the lives of people, there are many other advances beyond artificial intelligence. There are advances in robotics, self-driving cars, medicine, energy, education, etc. I cover these in great detail in my book and you have to see the big picture to understand how everything will change and it will be possible to uplift all of humanity.

APR: What are your views on the Hyperloop? Will it make location and borders irrelevant and hence change the idea of countries’ borders and what makes a hotly sought-after property location?

Vivek: Hyperloop is a very promising technology. But it is one of many and I would let the developers of this technology prove it in places such as Dubai before investing in it. I think that self-driving cars will have a greater impact and are more certain to succeed.

APR: Both Elon Musk and even Russia and China are in a race to get to Mars. With AI, will this speed up our arrival and possible colonisation of Mars (as envisioned by Elon?). Stephen Hawking has also warned that we must move to another planet within 100 years to avoid the coming destruction of Earth. What are your views on this?

Vivek: A lot is happening in the race to space but the spaceflights for humans are still at least 20-30 years away. I would let the billionaires have their fun and prove the technologies before getting excited. There are many other things happening that will change—and hopefully save—the planet.

APR: How can the vast array of new technologies help in climate change?

Vivek: The greatest impact will come from the advances in solar energy and storage technologies. Within 5 years, these will cost half of what they do today. It will be cheaper in most places on Earth to have solar panels than to use fossil fuels. Within 10 years, electric cars that drive themselves will cost less than half of what our internal combustion cars do. We will have the ability to replace the fossil fuel consuming technologies with clean-energy consuming ones. We will be able to do this on a global scale in about a decade. That may be what saves the planet.

APR: What are actions we can do now to create more living spaces / housing for an increasing population amid a scarcity of land?

Vivek: If you follow the advances in vertical farming, you see that technologies such as LED lighting and sensors are advancing rapidly. With the falling costs of solar energy, in about 5-10 years, we will be able to produce food in vertical farms for a cost comparable to or less than traditional farming. This will free up tremendous amounts of land and provide more than enough food for the masses. Technology will soon change everything.

APR: So far, in the field of property technology and fintech, the US, UK and Australia are leading the way while Asians are known more for their copycat versions. Do you think there is a chance this will change in the foreseeable future – especially with more Asian governments encouraging start-ups in these areas?

Vivek: There is nothing wrong with copying innovations. Look at Apple—practically every product they have is copied from others. Facebook is now copying Chinese social media companies. The first thing that Asian entrepreneurs should do is to copy and then they can evolve their technologies and solve the problems of their countries—and the world.

APR: What is your view on bitcoin – do you think this is another speculative investment that’s going to bust eventually or will this be the new cryptocurrency that more countries will adopt? Russia apparently has approved its use. At the same time, the recent Wanna Cry virus is using bitcoin as ransom money – so, is bitcoin really the answer to a new world currency?

Vivek: I am not a fan of Bitcoin for the reason that it isn’t regulated and controlled and it requires massive amounts of energy for “mining”. Look at China’s WeChat and India’s Unified Payments Interface for the future of digital currencies. Bitcoin is the past and these are the future.

APR: The sharing economy is enabled by technology especially apps. Will we reach a point where we don’t own much but share most of our possessions e.g. homes, cars, offices, bikes, etc.

Vivek: In San Francisco, we already do share many of these things. Yes, this is the future.

APR: What is your idea of utopia?

Vivek: What I dream of—and believe we can achieve—is a world in which we have all of our physical wants and needs met—unlimited food, perfect health, comfortable housing, unlimited and inexpensive clean energy, and education for all. In this new world, we value people on their contributions to society rather than how much money they have— on how much they do for others rather than how much they have earned. We all come together to uplift humanity itself.


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