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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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Rain, Telkom Mobile, lead in affordable data

A new report by the telecoms regulator in South Africa reveal the true consumer champions in mobile data costs

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The latest bi-annual tariff analysis report produced by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) reveals that Telkom Mobile data costs for bundles are two-thirds lower than those of Vodacom and MTN. On the other hand, Rain is half the price again of Telkom. 

The report focuses on the 163 tariff notifications lodged with ICASA during the period 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2018.

“It seeks to ensure that there is retail price transparency within the electronic communications sector, the purpose of which is to enable consumers to make an informed choice, in terms of tariff plan preferences and/or preferred service providers based on their different offerings,” said Icasa.

ICASA says it observed the competitiveness between licensees in terms of the number of promotions that were on offer in the market, with 31 promotions launched during the period. 

The report shows that MTN and Vodacom charge the same prices for a 1GB and a 3GB data bundle at R149 and R299 respectively.  On the other hand, Telkom Mobile charges (for similar-sized data bundles) R100 (1GB) and R201 (3GB). Cell C discontinued its 1GB bundle, which was replaced with a 1.5GB bundle offered at the same price as the replaced 1GB data bundle at R149. 

Rain’s “One Plan Package” prepaid mobile data offering of R50 for a 1GB bundle remains the most affordable when compared to the offers from other MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) and MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators).  

“This development should have a positive impact on customers’ pockets as they are paying less compared to similar data bundles and increases choice,” said Icasa.

The report also revealed that the cost of out-of-bundle data had halved at both MTN and Vodacom, from 99c per Megabyte a year ago to 49c per Megabyte in the first quarter of this year. This was still two thirds more expensive than Telkom Mobile, which has charged 29c per Megabyte throughout this period (see graph below).

Meanwhile, from having positioned itself as consumer champion in recent years, Cell C has fallen on hard times, image-wise: it is by far the most expensive mobile network for out-of-bundle data, at R1.10 per Megabyte. Its prices have not budged in the past year.

The report highlights the disparities between the haves and have-nots in the dramatically plummeting cost of data per Megabyte as one buys bigger and bigger bundles on a 30-day basis (see graph below).

For 20 Gigabyte bundles, all mobile operators are in effect charging 4c per Megabyte. Only at that level do costs come in at under Rain’s standard tariffs regardless of use.

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Qualcomm wins 5G as Apple and Intel cave in

A flurry of announcements from three major tech players ushered in a new mobile chip landscape, wrItes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week’s shock announcement by Intel that it was canning its 5G modem business leaves the American market wide open to Qualcomm, in the wake of the latter winning a bruising patent war with Apple.

Intel Corporation announced its intention to “exit the 5G smartphone modem business and complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices”.

Intel said it would also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business, sharpening its focus on a market expected to be dominated by Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.

Intel said it would continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G smartphone modem product line, but did not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020. In other words, it would no longer be supplying chips for iPhones and iPads in competition with Qualcomm.

“We are very excited about the opportunity in 5G and the ‘cloudification’ of the network, but in the smartphone modem business it has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan. “5G continues to be a strategic priority across Intel, and our team has developed a valuable portfolio of wireless products and intellectual property. We are assessing our options to realise the value we have created, including the opportunities in a wide variety of data-centric platforms and devices in a 5G world.”

The news came immediately after Qualcomm and Apple issued a joint announced of an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm, along with a six-year license agreement, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.

Apple had previously accused Qualcomm of abusing its dominant position in modem chips for smartphones and charging excessive license fees. It ordered its contract manufacturers, first, to stop paying Qualcomm for the chips, and then to stop using the chips altogether, turning instead to Intel.
With Apple paying up and Intel pulling out, Qualcomm is suddenly in the pound seats. It shares hit their highest levels in five years after the announcements.

Qualcomm said in a statement: “As we lead the world to 5G, we envision this next big change in cellular technology spurring a new era of intelligent, connected devices and enabling new opportunities in connected cars, remote delivery of health care services, and the IoT — including smart cities, smart homes, and wearables. Qualcomm Incorporated includes our licensing business, QTL, and the vast majority of our patent portfolio.”

Meanwhile, Strategy Analytics released a report on the same day that showed Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia will lead the market in core 5G infrastructure, namely Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment, by 2023 as the 5G market takes off. Huawei is expected to have the edge as a result of the vast scale of the early 5G market in China and its long term steady investment in R&D. According to a report entitled “Comparison and 2023 5G Global Market Potential for leading 5G RAN Vendors – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia”, two outliers, Samsung and ZTE, are expected to expand their global presence alongside emerging vendors as competition heats up.

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