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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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Huawei Mate 20 unveils ‘higher intelligence’

The new Mate 20 series, launching in South Africa today, includes a 7.2″ handset, and promises improved AI.

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Huawei Consumer Business Group today launches the Huawei Mate 20 Series in South Africa.

The phones are powered by Huawei’s densest and highest performing system on chip (SoC) to date, the Kirin 980. Manufactured with the 7nm process, incorporating the Cortex-A76-based CPU and Mali-G76 GPU, the SoC offers improved performance and, according to Huawei, “an unprecedented smooth user experience”.

The new 40W Huawei SuperCharge, 15W Huawei Wireless Quick Charge, and large batteries work in tandem to provide users with improved battery life. A Matrix Camera System includes a  Leica Ultra Wide Angle Lens that lets users see both wider and closer, with a new macro distance capability. The camera system adopts a Four-Point Design that gives the device a distinct visual identity.

The Mate 20 Series is available in 6.53-inch, 6.39-inch and 7.2-inch sizes, across four devices: Huawei Mate 20, Mate 20 Pro, Mate 20 X and Porsche Design Huawei Mate 20 RS. They ship with the customisable Android P-based EMUI 9 operating system.

“Smartphones are an important entrance to the digital world,” said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei Consumer BG, at the global launch in London last week. “The Huawei Mate 20 Series is designed to be the best ‘mate’ of consumers, accompanying and empowering them to enjoy a richer, more fulfilled life with their higher intelligence, unparalleled battery lives and powerful camera performance.”

The SoC fits 6.9 billion transistors within a die the size of a fingernail. Compared to Kirin 970, the latest chipset is equipped with a CPU that is claimed to be 75 percent more powerful, a GPU that is 46 percent more powerful and an NPU (neural processing unit) that is 226 percent more powerful. The efficiency of the components has also been elevated: the CPU is claimed to be 58 percent more efficient, the GPU 178 percent more efficient, and the NPU 182 percent more efficient. The Kirin 980 is the world’s first commercial SoC to use the Cortex-A76-based cores.

Huawei has designed a three-tier architecture that consists of two ultra-large cores, two large cores and four small cores. This allows the CPU to allocate the optimal amount of resources to heavy, medium and light tasks for greater efficiency, improving the performance of the SoC while enhancing battery life. The Kirin 980 is also the industry’s first SoC to be equipped with Dual-NPU, giving it higher On-Device AI processing capability to support AI applications.

Read more about the Mate 20 Pro’s connectivity, battery and camera on the next page. 

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How Quantum computing will change … everything?

Research labs, government agencies (NASA) and tech giants like Microsoft, IBM and Google are all focused on developing quantum theories first put forward in the 1970s. What’s more, a growing start-up quantum computing ecosystem is attracting hundreds of millions of investor dollars. Given this scenario, Forrester believes it is time for IT leaders to pay attention.

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“We expect CIOs in life sciences, energy, defence, and manufacturing to see a deluge of hype from vendors and the media in the coming months,” says Forrester’s Brian Hopkins, VP, principal analyst serving CIOs and lead author of a report: A First Look at Quantum Computing. “Financial services, supply-chain, and healthcare firms will feel some of this as well. We see a market emerging, media interest on the rise, and client interest trickling in. It’s time for CIOs to take notice.”

The Forrester report gives some practical applications for quantum computing which helps contextualise its potential: 

  • Security could massively benefit from quantum computing. Factoring very large integers could break RSA-encrypted data, but could also be used to protect systems against malicious attempts. 
  • Supply chain managers could use quantum computing to gather and act on price information using minute-by-minute fluctuations in supply and demand 
  • Robotics engineers could determine the best parameters to use in deep-learning models that recognise and react to objects in computer vision
  • Quantum computing could be used to discover revolutionary new molecules making use of the petabytes of data that studies are now producing. This would significantly benefit many organisations in the material and life sciences verticals – particularly those trying to create more cost-effective electric car batteries which still depend on expensive and rare materials. 

Continue reading to find out how Quantum computing differs.

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