Simon Montford, a London-born, Edinburgh-based entrepreneur co-founded the first web-based on-line auction platform (icollector.com) in 1995 as well as one of the first digital media agencies (CM Interactive) and at a recent University of Strathclyde Business Summit enthusiastically gave some additional edge to one of the event’s most enlightening and challenging sessions, one rather provocatively titled “AI - change or die”.
A self-proclaimed optimist, Montford admits that he is concerned with how AI will influence our lives and jobs rather than philosophising about the ethical outcomes.
“I’m more of the futurist - though the speed of innovation is so fast just now that a lot of those philosophical and sociological questions need at least be discussed,” he says.
For Montford, we’re already far down the AI path and the syllabus is relatively elementary. For example, the driverless car industry is expected to be worth £28 billion to the UK economy alone by 2035 while Ripple Tech, a Google-backed start-up now uses blockchain technology to settle financial transactions between some of the world's biggest banks.
Ripple Tech recently unveiled a cross-border payment platform between Singapore and India via Standard Chartered Bank’s Straight2Bank system which according to Standard Chartered will allow users to settle all fees up-front and pre-validate transactions and settle them without interpolating a human.
That cuts out a lot of the anthropomorphic presuppositions about AI. For most of our lifetimes it has had facile recognition factor: think carer, sex toy or evil robot and the Three Laws of Robotics as adduced by Isaac Asimov as early as 1942. From Montford, these visions will have to catch up with the economic future that leads into new terrain.
UTOPIA OR DYSTOPIA?
What is work?
It’s inevitable that the vast majority of people will not conceive of work in the same way as we do now. “This will result in a universal basic wage - even if it doesn’t fit with my political ideology”.
In western society and in Scotland, Montford says, this means outsourcing many tasks to the machine economy. “We will not have to worry about feeding and housing ourselves and the economy will go into overdrive, creating an NHS that is more than adequately funded, leaving the biggest challenge for us dealing with our excess time rather than working for a wage”.
How do we finance this?
Through, among other ways, an abundance of clean energy, which [will become] essentially free, says Montford. While he acknowledges that there are “a lot of conflicting statistics being thrown around” he says that “The UK has the ability to harness in excess of 50 per cent of Europe’s wave/wind energy which means that at some point we will be able to export that.
“The only technological restriction is the ability to store that energy and transport it and I’m confident we can achieve that and become the equivalent of states in the Middle East with their oil reserves. Citizens there don’t have to work for a living - they have a great living. One slight downside is that when they are issued a parking ticket they are wealthy enough just to pay it!”.
What’s the key to the new economy?
Blockchain technology, for which there are a multiplicity of examples, many involving crypto currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. Montford is totally convinced of a future based on this foundation. “With blockchain, we’ll see a huge and widespread dismantling of the current infrastructure, one in which the vast majority of data flowing through the internet is controlled and stored by around five companies.
“Soon you won’t need to store your information on a central server because [it will be] distributed in small components and stored on distributed networks [made up of] highly encrypted nodes.
“The average SME doesn’t have the ability or resources to erect a firewall that is big enough to protect its information form hackers without relying on these big central entities such as Microsoft, Apple and Amazon but by using distributed storage it can actually store data far more securely and more cheaply which has huge advantages over handing over data to a third party.
“The blockchain is revolutionising this. It’s capable of storing data on tiny little crypto-segments that avoid having these companies spy on everything and charging us for it. “This genuinely will change the world”.
Disrupt and dismantle
Data is indubitably a huge competitive advantage. And data, says Montford, is increasingly shared and monetised. “Look at the NHS and the time which could be better used by spending time with patients rather than for those repetitive tasks which robots are much better at doing”.
This, he says, relates not only to the public sector, which is frequently first in the firing line when it comes to criticism over the best use of resources but increasingly to professions that are relatively high paid. Which affects the Millennials, who were just recently at the avant-garde of legions of Internet-based industries.
"You can now forget coding as a vocation as machines will be able to code far better than you or me" he says. "Web 1.0 was completely static, a one-way flow of information. Web 2.0 is the social web, with the ability to interact with content but today there are more machines connected to the Internet then people so Web 3.0 is the one that will spawn the machine economy using increasingly sophisticated algorithms.”
He adds: “In terms of jobs, if you have a conversation with your children today and they are beginning to think about what they want to do, they should be focusing on tasks that machines currently have a hard time completing.”
The alternative future
So what will we be doing? According to Montford, little more than sitting by the swimming pool - and employing “soft” skills. “With the machine economy, we have the potential to generate significant wealth and the people who will thrive will be the ones who can do things that machines aren't good at.
“Those who do analytical tasks, such as bankers or web developers will be sidelined-replaced by AI whereas those who employ empathy and can lift the human spirit in some way - including entertainers - will be very valued as a result.”
It's a radical vision - and some still think an improbable one - but crypto currencies, Web 3.0 and the astonishing speed of technological innovation are already making Montford’s vision an increasingly plausible one.
This story first appeared in the December issue of Herald Scotland BusinessHQ.