I don’t care about the sort of things that will bring in chump change over the next two or three years. I think I’m better than others at sniffing out things that will bear fruit in 10 or 20 years while they’re still at the seed stage, and I’m more willing to take the risks that entails — Masayoshi Son
What deserves our full attention is not the success of a few companies that have harnessed the powers of hybrid analog/digital computing, but what is happening as these powers escape into the wild and consume the rest of the world-George Dyson
When Alice peered through the looking glass, she was able to see a completely strange world. Today, we need to go beyond the looking glass and see what the strange new world of business represents. The world of business is changing so rapidly that the strangeness of today is a harbinger of an even stranger world tomorrow. This article emphasizes an important shift in our mindset - instead of just looking just at the ideas (such as Bitcoin, AI etc) on their own, we need to go deeper and ask : are these ideas a harbinger of things to come or a symptom of a deep rooted change in society? The answers we find will have significant impact on our business models and will radically change our lives in the future.
Approach #1: The Idea Behind The Idea
This happened to me exactly two months ago. I was on a video conference with a few of my close colleagues and friends. The topic we were discussing was ‘What Is Innovation? — a topic that gets discussed everyday in the world of business now. A lady on the conference asked all of us to give an example of an idea that changed the world. There were the usual litany of examples ie the iPhone, voice based assistants, Augmented Reality etc. I held my answer for a while because I was afraid of being laughed off. Ultimately, my conviction forced my confidence and my voice out of my throat and I mumbled ‘Bitcoin’. Of course, I heard muffled laughter across the conference line. The lady who had asked the question in the first place asked me : did Bitcoin add any value to our lives? I understood where she was coming from. I replied “not in terms of things many people think”. I continued : “Bitcoin, to me, is not a store of value, a monetary instrument or just a speculative device. It represents an idea that the financial services industry could be disrupted and it is a proof of concept of a real life blockchain application that made the word “Blockchain” enter the lexicon of housewives when they discuss the term at their kitty parties”. Thus, it’s not the immediate idea but what we can derive from the idea. Think about innovation — why are we talking about that word incessantly today. It’s because it is a derivative of the current democratization of business. Anyone from a gamer (case in point the ace Fortnite player Ninja who took home $10 million in 2018 just playing video games) to a 24 year old billionaire who built a hotel chain in India can start his or her own gig.
In today’s world of business, it’s not just the idea itself but what it represents. Websites such as Upwork or freelancer.com signal the dawn of a gig economy. Facial and voice recognition herald the AI revolution. Together, both these developments represent what the job market of the future will look like — a world full of self made entrepreneurs chasing work and often choosing to make money when they want to because most of the 9 to 5 repetitive jobs would have been automated. Demand for Graphic Processing Units or specialized semiconductors is a derivative of the rise of cryptographic currencies.
Therefore, one way to understand our world is look at it from a bottom up perspective i.e. to look at the changes on the ground but then to look higher and higher to envision what those changes on the ground mean.
Approach #2: Let The Mega Trends Be With You
If you start from the bottom up i.e. by looking at individual developments in the technology field such as AI or Quantum computing, you might feel confused. So, if you are trying to understand the world of business or the world in general, one of the books I highly recommend you read is Megatrends 2000 by John Naisbitt. You might feel the book is a bit dated but the concept is everlasting. Mega Trends can be a good way to begin to understand the world we live in. It is a top down view of the world.
Let me give you a couple of examples:
- The countries with the largest prevalence of robotics are the ones with the most aging population (e.g. Japan, Germany, USA etc.except China which had a one child policy and could soon face a demographic issue). Faced with an aging population and challenges in improving productivity, the only way for these economies to grow is along the technology frontier. In other words, investment of commercial dollars will undoubtedly accelerate the proliferation of these technologies. There is no turning back.
- Technology development is primarily funded by defence and commercial interests. The next race between two superpowers i.e. the USA and China is along the technology frontier. The cover page of the recent MIT Technology Review is an important reminder of this quest for technological superiority. The good news is that talent in technology space will be in great demand.
- Significant flow of public (government) and private (commercial) dollars into technologies such as AI, Blockchain, Quantum Computing, Genetic Editing will mean these technologies will become all pervasive and by their very nature will become democratized. This will give rise to ethical and legal issues. These technologies will also raise the spectre of increasing inequality.
- The blurring of nation states (de-nationalization) in a digital, platform laden world will mean increased nationalization on the ground. This is because blue collar jobs got automated first without adequate replacement plans in place. The pace of technological change is so rapid that even before we start solving the problems of factory workers, white collar jobs will be next on the list for automation. Therefore, service providers that can re-educate people in time or platforms that facilitate the gig economy will proliferate.
- To avoid being part of the schism in society, we need to re-educate ourselves to earn a living in a new world defined by entrepreneurship. After all, AI promises to ‘free’ us up to follow higher order of business i.e. self-actualization.
Approach #3: What Can We Do
You might say a lot of us, including me, fall under the ‘common man’ bracket. The truth is we do. As I write this, I have to think hard about the direction I need to head towards. As you embark on a journey to an incredibly fast updating Bayesian world, there are a few small learnings I can share with you based on my limited understanding:
- My #1 advice to everyone is to read voraciously-read until your eyes bleed. This is because reading is the only habit that will provide you with a futuristic vision. Legions of entrepreneurs including Elon Musk, Patrick Collison (of stripe.com fame) read a book or many books every day. If they can read a book while running multimillion dollar business, everything you say in defense of not reading becomes an excuse. How about one less episode of your favorite show?
- There was a time when I thought coding was the way to go until I realized very soon software will code itself. The world is busy building algorithms that can learn from their own code and develop exponentially. While there is still time left for coding to be completely automated, the writing is on the wall. I don’t know how helpful this tip except to say: think about other creative interests that only you as an individual are uniquely suited to carry out. An example that comes to mind is to become a designer of experiences in the physical world because the world will increasingly spend money on experiences. If you are one of those people who can take others on a tour of unforgettable worlds including deep sea diving, the world may indeed be your oyster.
- Setting up a business has never been easy. If you are a freelancer, you can register on freelancer.com or Upwork and start earning money from the comfort of your own home. Making educational videos on Youtube even unboxing videos can help. Recently, one of my friends decided to create a Youtube channel that provides a review of luxury products. Surely, there must be a hobby that you can monetize using platforms such as Youtube, instagram.
- There is a decentralization and democratization of documenting the way the world works e.g. through blogs, vlogs and personal journals. On top of these decentralized, personal journals sit centralized content aggregators that push relevant articles from individual bloggers to millions across the world. In other words, your strength may be your own ‘unique’ take on the world which can be aggregated and shared with millions of users around the world. Think about it as : living your own life but learning about life choices from others. The common man, in this case, becomes the expert.
- Lastly, become a life-long learner. There are multitudes of free educational content on anything you need to transition to the new job economy. Also, understand that we live in a world where exponential technologies are affecting all of us irrespective of our identity i.e. race, ethnicity or any other man made division. Therefore, it is time to develop an identity one with the universe. In other words, we need to rise together and work together to find lasting solutions that work for all.
Once again, I am just a common man struggling to find happiness. So, I do not claim to be an expert on any topic but I am incredibly curious. My curiosity has led me to understand the world a little bit better and I am sharing my rather microscopic view of this wondrous world with you in the hope that it may help you be more successful and happy. With that, I hope you find beauty and happiness in a chaotic world for it is a world we created and one we will bequeath.