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What SF – and Elon Musk – teaches about the future

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When Elon Musk yet again dazzled the world last week, we saw a science fiction fantasy come true. And there will be many more, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

There are two ways of reading or experiencing science fiction. One is to imagine it as a promise of the future, and relish each arriving piece of evidence that this future is upon us. Another is to fear it as a threat that the future will not be like the past.

Elon Musk has a knack for combining the two. He is legendary for almost single-handedly reinventing four – and counting – industries. He made his first small fortune at 24, when a software business called Zip2, which he started with his brother, was sold to Compaq for US$341-million. By then he owned only 7% of the business, which brought him $22-million. He put half of that money into starting the company that would become PayPal. Aside from reinventing online payments, he earned US$165 million from the $1.5-billion sale of the company to eBay.

That’s when he really got going. In short order, he formed SpaceX, bought out the ailing Tesla, co-founded SolarCity, and unveiled the Hyperloop. Clearly, however, reinventing space travel, electric cars, sustainable energy and mass transport, is not enough.

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In the last three years, he started an artificial intelligence (AI) non-profit organisation,  a neurotechnology  company to integrate the human brain with AI, and a business called The Boring Company, intended to dig tunnels, but which has so far sold only hats and flame-throwers.

The latter provides clues to Musk’s quirky sense of humour. The world was exposed to it last week when he launched SpaceX’s most ambitious rocket yet: the Falcon Heavy, a massive machine that competes with the Saturn V that took the Apollo spaceships to the moon.

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Being a test flight, it carried no commercial cargo, but is already legendary for what it did carry: Musk’s own used Tesla Roadster electric car. Aside from being one of the most audacious marketing gimmicks in history, it also came with a dummy astronaut, named “Starman”, after the David Bowie song of the same name. On the car stereo, the Bowie song “Space Oddity” will also play itself out for eternity – or until a head-on collision with spacefaring rock.

Most telling of all, a sticker on the dashboard read: “Don’t Panic”. That happens to be a key ingredient of one of the most loved science fiction series of all time, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The words are emblazoned on the cover of a travel guide used by characters in the series.

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This is wonderfully quirky, but not too surprising. Adams grew up on a diet of classic science fiction. Key among these was the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The central character predicts 30 000 years of human decline, and comes up with a plan of sending scientific colonies to the stars.

Musk told Rolling Stone magazine: “Asimov certainly was influential because he was seriously paralleling Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but he applied that to a sort of modern galactic empire. The lesson I drew from that is you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one.”

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At the same time, however, Asimov’s writings on robots and their responsibilities – along with many dystopian visions in science fiction – also seemed to have a negative impact on Musk’s vision of artificial intelligence. He has gone so far as to declare: “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilisation.”

There, in one person, we see the two extremes of the SF vision of the future: human ingenuity will both save and destroy humanity.

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However, one can view SF in a different way: as a roadmap to the future. In this context, anyone reading the SF of the past few decades, going back as fas as the 1930s, would rarely be surprised by the latest breakthroughs in technology.

The advent of computers has been presaged in numerous works by giants of SF like Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The very latest initiative by Musk, the brain-machine interface, is at the heart of the seminal 1980s William Gibson novel Neuromancer, which coined the term cyberspace, and gave rise to the cyberpunk genre of science fiction.

The rash of science fiction TV series emerging on Netflix, from The Expanse to Altered Carbon, are only barely ahead of the touchscreen, holographic, AI and virtual reality technology that is emerging into the mainstream now. In the next decade, we can expect technology that mimics telepathy, and then the upload of our memories into the cloud. All of which science fiction has promised for many years.

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Not only are serious SF fans not surprised by what is emerging from laboratories, and what will be available on shop shelves – if those even still exist a decade from now – but they are expecting it. Some, like Elon Musk, don’t have the patience to wait for it, and are working hard at creating that future today.

If you want to know what’s coming next, pick up a classic SF novel in an online library today.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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New iPhone pricing for SA

The iStore has announced that the latest iPhones, the Xs and Xs Max, can now be pre-ordered at www.myistore.co.za , and will be available in stores starting 28 September 2018.

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iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max feature 5.8-inch and 6.5-inch Super Retina displays that offer remarkable brightness and true blacks while showing 60 percent greater dynamic range in HDR photos. iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max have an improved dual camera system that offers breakthrough photo and video features, A12 Bionic chip with next-generation Neural Engine, faster Face ID, wider stereo sound, longer battery life, splash and water resistance,

Pre-orders will be open for cash purchases and on iStore’s revised payment plan in partnership with FNB Credit Card, allowing customers to pay off their iPhone at a reduced interest rate. However, the contract period is 37 months rather than the usual 24 months.
*FNB Credit Card Payment Plan, price per month over 37 months, a 40% trade-in value after 24 months

How to pre-order – Pre-ordering online for either cash or the FNB payment plan gives customers the benefit of reserving their purchase without having to queue and the added convenience of having purchases delivered directly to their door. Pre-orders of iPhone Xs and Xs Max are completed online by visiting www.myistore.co.za.
FREE iCare Plus – Exclusive to iStore, all customers can get its 2-year extended warranty, which includes one Apple Certified screen repair, that normally sells for R1 999, for FREE. To qualify, customers should secure a voucher online now at www.myistore.co.za , and subsequently redeem it when they upgrade their contract or purchase any new iPhone at iStore (iPhone 8 and newer) between now and 31 December 2018. Offer is limited, secure your voucher now.

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Accenture opens Fjord design centre in Johannesburg

Accenture has launched its first design and innovation studio on African soil, Fjord Johannesburg.

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The company says the move significantly expands its design capabilities and demonstrates its commitment to unlocking Africa’s innovation potential through the creation of experiences that redefine industries in our constantly evolving digital era.

The new studio, opening in November, will be located at Accenture’s new 3875m² offices in Waterfall. It will be led by Marcel Rossouw, design director and studio lead for Fjord Johannesburg.

Said Rossouw, “Brands are constantly asking, ’how does one take a business need or problem, build that out into a definition of a service experience, and then bring it to market?’ It’s about re-engineering existing service experiences, identifying customer needs, prototyping rapidly, iterating often and proving or disproving assumptions. But it’s also about getting feedback from customers. The combination of these factors helps companies advance towards the ultimate service experience.”

Fjord is the design and innovation consultancy of Accenture Interactive. The Johannesburg location marks its 28th design studio globally, solidifying its position as the world’s leading design powerhouse.

Working in the same location as Accenture Interactive will allow Fjord to fuse its core design strategy DNA with the digital agency’s expertise in marketing, content and commerce to create and deliver the best customer experiences for the world’s leading brands. Accenture Interactive Africa‘s blend of intelligent design and creative use of technology has already been used by some of South Africa’s largest and most prominent brands, including Alexander Forbes, Discovery, MultiChoice and Nedbank. The digital agency has also earned industry accolades for its innovative and compelling business results, most notably two gold awards in the Service Design category at the 2017 and 2018 Loeries awards.

“Great design tells great stories,” says Wayne Hull, managing director of Accenture Digital and Accenture Interactive lead in Africa. “It unifies a brand, drives innovation and makes the brand or service distinctive and hyper-relevant in both the digital and physical worlds. This is critical to achieving results. Having Fjord Johannesburg as part of Accenture Interactive, and collaborating with all of Accenture Africa, will provide unique experiences and forward-thinking capabilities for our clients.”

“Businesses in South Africa are becoming more design-aware and are looking to take greater advantage of design skills to compete with the rest of the world,” said Thomas Müller, head of Europe, Africa and Latin America at Fjord. “We’re excited to open our first design studio on the continent and to be part of an emerging market that is ripe for design and innovation, and open for business. Developing markets like South Africa are challenging assumptions and norms about what digital services and products are meant to be, and we’ll strive to put design at the heart of the innovation being produced there.”

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