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Sunday, March 10, 2013

One Possible Future


Nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy. Weathermen with all their technology are still wrong a lot of the time. When the stock market moves up it's because people think the economy is doing well, when it goes down it's because people have it in their minds that the economy is suffering. You can usually find a bear-market shortly before an economic downturn, so it seems likely that investors have a fairly accurate grasp of the immediate and short-term future economic picture, but all the little dips and crests prove they're nowhere near 100%.

Science fiction writers—with their spaceships and their lightsabers, tractor-beams, and FTL stardrives—have similarly both hit and missed the mark. Right now I'm reading Flinx in Flux. It's a sci-fi novel by Alan Dean Foster written in 1988 that has alien planets, faster than light stardrives, and yet the most advanced computer that Foster could come up with is described as having a hard-drive with a "couple billion megabytes." Now back in '88 I bet that sounded like a lot. Today we call that a couple of petabytes and yes we've got lots of computers with that and a lot more besides...yet there is still not a single faster than light stardrive anywhere in sight.

Often sci-fi writers try to look way ahead and predict where we'll be. The main thing to remember is that they're not really trying to predict the future, they're trying to tell an entertaining story and the futuristic world in which that story is told is part of the fun. I mention all this because of the great difficulty sci-fi writers face today as the threatened technological singularity looms. How can anybody accurately predict a future wherein mankind is not the mover and shaker but instead the most important force affecting future events is a Frankenstein race of super-computers? Sure they did something like this in The Terminator, but that movie series ignored the fact that smarter-than-human-computers capable of self-evolution at ever-more incredible speeds would face absolutely zero threat from a race of mangy hominids fresh climbed down from the trees, especially since we're not only not capable of self-evolution, but we seem to actually be hard-wired against it. We've already got laws on the books actually forbidding experimentation on the human genome with more laws sure to come, and the reason for this is simple: we don't want to find ourselves in the position of Neanderthals watching the rise of Cro-Magnon Man, especially if it were we who'd foolishly created him in the first place. Yet with computers and now robots, that is precisely what we are doing.

The following is both a fictional story and a prediction. There're no faster than light spaceships, no aliens, and no light-sabers in this story, there are supercomputers, robots and lasers. This story takes place only a few short years in the future, and my intention is to include equal parts of both hope and fear, happiness and misery, wisdom and the kind of short-sighted stupidity mankind is so enamored of.

The American Roller Coaster Ride Begins

Jack Temple glanced over the headlines on his tablet. Today he was using the Google news-server and he was looking for anything—anything at all—resembling good news, but alas in vain. As usual there were wars and rumors of wars, the price of gasoline had hit another record high, and again yet another government stimulus plan promising that pie-in-the-sky return to prosperity and normalcy that was now merely a distant and fond memory for most Americans. The stock-market was so deranged and unpredictable that flipping a coin was often more useful than reading a prospectus. Nowadays most people didn't have careers they had gigs. Well, Jack thought. I guess PETA, Greenpeace, and all the rest of the moonbats and vegans sipping their own urine from a champagne flute are happy about the sad state of the world today. Not much pollution when all the factories are shut down and nobody can afford to put gas in their car even if they had a job to drive to. Not many fat people anymore either, not when getting around required burning calories that were not so easy to come by.

Here was something interesting: they'd finally succeeded in building a bug-free working prototype of a vehicle that ran not on gasoline or batteries but on a graphene super-capacitor power-plant. The car according to the article took only a few minutes to charge-up and could go up to three-hundred miles on a single charge. Now that, thought Jack was worth taking a second look at! He had a few million sitting on the sidelines, but his luck lately had been less than stellar. He needed a sure-thing, or at least a better than maybe-thing.

"Danny, hey buddy long time no chat. How've you been?" Jack texted to his long-time friend and investment counselor Danny Mashburn, in Seattle. In the quick text chat, Jack asked about the company with the new kind of electric car, but Danny seemed reticent to supply any of the necessary optimism that would entice Jack into investing. It was as though Danny had kind of become a little bit of a fatalist. "I don't know Jack. If you look at long-term trends there just aren't any good plays out there, not here in the states anyway. If I were you I'd look into buying Chinese. You remember the debacle called a Chevy Volt and that Tesla electric car a few years ago don't you? I had clients who lost millions on those. I'd say your best bet is to forget about all that science-fiction mumbo-jumbo and put your money somewhere nice and safe."

"I've got a feeling Danny Boy," texted Jack, "I want you to put 100K into it. You know the drill. Buy 100 share lots, and don't get greedy. I don't want the share price moving too much. This isn't a momentum play. Just ease into it nice and slow like a fat-lady climbing into a tub full of hot water. Give me a call tomorrow after market close and we'll see where we stand."

"Okay, will do, but just remember, don't come crying to me when this one goes belly-up like all the rest. I warned you off of this one."

"Relax Danny m'boy, this is going to be big big big!"

A Few Short Years Later

"Welcome! Welcome Mr. Temple! We're so pleased you could make it on the regrettably short notice you got. Did you have any luggage?"

"No, no, I'm in a terrible hurry. I've got a meeting with an old friend in Seattle tonight, so I'll be flying out right after the event today. It would be a real help if you could arrange transportation to the airport while I'm here. My assistant is out of town taking care of something for me and I've gotten out of the habit of thinking about all the involved logistics in getting where I have to be next."

"That won't be a problem Mr. Temple. We've already assigned one of our sedans for your use. Just give them your name at the desk."

As Jack walked into the five-star-hotel with its attendant gargantuan convention hall, he smiled briefly as he considered all that had happened in just a few short years. As his stock-broker had foreseen the initial investment in Power-Up Inc., had not done well at first. With every roller-coaster dip in stock price Jack had acquired more of these volatile shares. It wasn't long before he was selling everything. He sold off his other investments. He sold off his 401k his IRA his house, his vacation hacienda in Jamaica, and in spite of the ever-shriller objections by Danny his broker, every bit of it was plowed into Power-Up.

Finally it came to a head one day when Danny found out that Jack had sold-off his home. "Jack, look buddy I really don't know how to say this tactfully. I've always been your friend. You introduced me to my wife for God's sake. So I feel obligated to somehow try and stop you from committing suicide...because THAT'S WHAT YOU'RE DOING! This dog of a company is on the verge of going belly-up, just like I warned you and instead of taking your losses and learning your lessons you decided to go all-in. Look, if we start selling out now I think I could possibly get you back a couple hundred thousand. I know it's no fortune but it's a start. When the economy rebounds you could use it as a grubstake to rebuild your portfolio."

While Danny was earnestly giving Jack the best investment advice he knew how to give, Jack stoically and respectfully listened to every word. When Danny finally ran down, there was a moment or two of silence. Finally Jack responded. "Look, I know you think I'm crazy. I know you think I'm a fool and you're certainly not the only one. The day may come when I call you up crying and saying you were right; why didn't I listen. But that day is not today, Danny. I know you think this is another fly-by-night green-play destined for the same dust-heap where all the rest of the green-tech crap winds up. Maybe I am a fool, Danny, but this show's not over yet. I'm still waiting, and the fat lady, she hasn't started singing. I'll tell you what, though. In a couple of years, when this is all over one way or the other, one of us is going to buy the other dinner and a lot, I mean a whole lot of drinks. I'm betting it's a celebration dinner, and I bet it's going to be me who's buying."

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