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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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Win a Poster Heater with Gadget and Takealot.com

This winter Gadget and Takealot.com are giving away three Poster Heaters, which look like posters but become heaters when you plug them in.

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Three Gadget readers will each win a unit, valued at R550 each. To enter, follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter and tell us on the @GadgetZA account how many Watts the heater consumes.

What’s the big deal about these heaters? Many of us are struggling to keep the balance between soaring electricity costs and the need to keep warm this winter.

However, the recently launched Poster Heater by EasyHeat and distributed in South Africa by Takealot.com is not only one of the most cost effective electric heaters currently on the market, it is also easy to setup and use.

As the name indicates, it is a poster similar to one you would hang on a wall. But, plug it in and it turns into a 300 Watt heater. The Poster Heater isn’t designed to heat hallways or large rooms, but rather smaller ones like a bedroom or a baby’s nursery or a dressing room.

It uses radiant heating, which means that it heats up in a couple of minutes and the heat is directed at the objects or people around it, quickly taking the chill out of the air and providing a comfortable ambient temperature.

The other advantage of radiant heating is that it doesn’t dry out the air like infrared or gas heaters. Users also don’t have to worry about their children or pets getting too close to it because, even though it gets hot, it can be touched.

To enter the competition follow the steps below:

Competition entry details:

1. Follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter. (We will ONLY be accepting entires via Twitter, so please don’t enter through the comments section of this article.)

2. Tell us on Twitter, via @GadgetZA, mentioning @Takealot in your posting, how many Watts the Poster Heater consumes.

cleardot.gif3. The competition closes on 31 July 2018.

4. Winners will be notified via Twitter on 1 August and Takealot.com will be in touch to organise delivery.

5. The competition is only open to South African residents.

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Deezer to host Hotstix’s Mandela tribute playlist

Deezer is celebrating Nelson Mandela on the centenary of his birthday by hosting a tribute playlist created by music legend Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse.  

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Mabuse, a legendary figure in African music, first rose to prominence in the 1970s with his band Harari and later developed a name for himself as a solo artist. One of his best known songs was the global hit BurnOut in the 1980s.

The playlist takes the listener on a captivating musical journey through the life of Nelson Mandela.  It was compiled by Mabuse, who consulted with Mandela’s family and friends to ensure that the music would be relevant and accurate. The playlist also features commentary by Mabuse, which was recorded in his Soweto home.  

“I have tried to tell the story of the music that Madiba loved,” says Mabuse. “The Playlist excludes the time in prison obviously, as Madiba would not have had exposure to music in that time.  We have focused on the music we know he loved before and after that period. This recording was really an emotional journey for me, but an incredible opportunity to document these memories.”

The playlist features the music the young Mandela loved, such as The Manhattan Brothers, Solomon Linda, Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba.  It includes struggle songs from Chicco, Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela and Yvonne Chaka Chaka.  The playlist also includes Mandela by Zahara, one of the younger artists who caught Madiba’s ear.

Mabuse also offers stories of his own songs, such as Shikisha, a song greatly beloved by the former President.

“I was delighted to share my thoughts and hope the listeners enjoyed the musical journey,” says Mabuse. “Madiba did enjoy music immensely and we all have a purpose wherever we are in the world to celebrate culture and to learn from different cultures and music forms and styles.”

This playlist was inspired by the Nelson Mandela 100 campaign, calling on corporates and individuals to act as sources of inspiration and engage in conversation and action.

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