Robert X. Cringely

Prediction #6 -- AI comes of age, this time asking the questions, too

Paul Saffo says that communication technologies historically take 30 years or more to find their true purpose. Just look at how the Internet today is different than it was back in 1988. I am beginning to think this idea applies also to new computing technologies like artificial intelligence (AI). We’re reading a lot lately about AI and I think 2018 is the year when AI becomes recognized for its much deeper purpose of asking questions, not just finding answers.

Some older readers may remember the AI bubble of the mid-1980s. Sand Hill Road venture capitalists invested (and lost) about $1 billion in AI startups that were generally touted as expert systems. An expert system attempted to computerize professional skills like reading mammograms or interpreting oil field seismic logs. Computers were cheaper than medical specialists or petroleum geologists, the startup founders reckoned, so replacing these professionals would not only save money, it would allow much broader application of their knowledge. Alas, it didn’t work for two reasons: 1) figuring-out how experts make decisions was way harder than the AI researchers expected, and; 2) even if you could fully explain the decision-making process it required a LOT more computing power than originally expected. Circa 1985 it probably was cheaper to hire a doctor than to run a program to replace one.

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2018 Prediction #5 -- The H-1B visa problem will NOT go away

I’m sorry this year’s predictions seem to this point to mainly have to do with policies rather than products, but I don’t get to make the future, just predict it, and in this case I’m predicting that immigration reform will have little actual effect on H-1B visa abuse.

For those of you who aren’t already asleep I’ll start with the Cliff Notes version of the H-1B issue, which I have written about ad nauseam as you can read here (notice there are three pages of columns, so dig deep). H-1B is a U.S. immigration program to allow 65,000 foreign workers into the USA each year for up to six years, which means that at any moment there are almost 400,000 of these folks working at the desk next to yours. Some people claim that H-1Bs take jobs better filled by U.S. citizens and some feel that H-1Bs are essential for the functioning of technology industries that would otherwise be devoid of needed talent. I am clearly on the side of the former folks who see H-1Bs as a scam intended to take jobs away from, well, me.

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Prediction #4 -- Bitcoin stays crazy until traders learn it is not a currency

2017 was a wild ride for cryptocurrencies and for Bitcoin in particular, rising in price at one point above $19,000 only to drop back to a bit over half of that number now. But which number is correct? If only the market can tell for sure -- and these numbers are coming straight from the market, remember -- what the heck does it all mean? It means Bitcoin isn’t a currency at all but traders are pretending that it is. 2018 will see investors finally figure this out.

Confusion abounds, so let’s cut through the crap with an analogy. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum and a ton of others operate almost exactly like a market that uses only U.S. one dollar bills and doesn’t allow exchanging those bills… ever. If you need five dollars, that will be five one dollar bill, please. If you need less than a dollar then you and your counter-party have to agree how much of a one dollar bill you each own. And they aren’t just any one dollar bills: they are specific bills, each with its own unique serial number that can be checked against a U.S. Treasury database to make sure the money is real -- that it is actually worth a dollar.

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Prediction #3 -- 2018 foreign profit repatriation is a $591.8 BILLION taxpayer ripoff

When I started this series of 2018 predictions I said the recently passed U.S. tax law was going to have a profound impact on upcoming events. Having had a chance to look closer at the issue I am even more convinced that this seismic financial event is, as I wrote above, a $591.8 billion taxpayer ripoff. This is not to say there aren’t some possible public benefits from the repatriation, but it’s fairly clear that the public loses more than it will ever gain.

In case you don’t follow these things, multinational U.S. companies have, since 2005, squirreled away about $2.5 TRILLION in profits overseas because U.S. tax law allowed those profits to go untaxed until they are returned to the USA. Understand that this $2.5 trillion is more than just the profit made on overseas business: many companies changed their ways of doing business to divert what would have been U.S. domestic profits, sending them overseas for parking to await a business-friendly U.S. Administration that would cut them a sweetheart deal to bring back all that moolah. The amount of U.S. corporate income tax that went unpaid during this 12 year period was 35 percent of $2.5 trillion or about $875 BILLION. That’s taxes of $73 billion annually for 12 years that went unpaid -- about five percent of the federal budget for those 12 years.

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Why do I do this to myself? Bob's first predictions for 2018

About 20 years ago, when I started publishing a list of annual technology predictions, it just made sense to look back to see how I had done the year before. Alas, I made that decision without looking to see that nobody else in my line of work actually does that. But I was stuck and have found since that by being deliberately vague and putting a fair amount of thought into this stuff I’ve been able to keep my long-term stats at about 70 percent correct. We’ll shortly see if that trend continues, but first I want to discuss how this year is so different from all those others.

Nothing seems the same, does it? Maybe it’s President Trump. Maybe it’s just time for a revolution in tech and the economy, but this year feels unlike any of those others. I don’t know if it will make my predictions more accurate or less, but I have to tell you that I believe the context matters this year more than any other. I’ll get to that in a moment but first let’s see how badly I did the last time. You can read both of last year’s prediction columns here and here.

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Net Neutrality will die, so let's take the profit out of killing it

The U.S. Federal Communication Commission, under the leadership of chairman Ajit Pai, will next week set in motion the end of Net Neutrality in the USA. This is an unfortunate situation that will cause lots of news stories to be written in the days ahead, but I’m pretty sure the fix is in and this change is going to happen.

No matter how many protesters march on their local Verizon store, no matter how many impassioned editorials are written, it’s going to happen. The real question is what can be done in response to take the profit out of killing it? I have a plan.

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Amazon is becoming the new Microsoft

My last column was about the recent tipping point signifying that cloud computing is guaranteed to replace personal computing over the next three years. This column is about the slugfest to determine what company’s public cloud is most likely to prevail. I reckon it is Amazon’s and I’ll go further to claim that Amazon will shortly be the new Microsoft.

What I mean by The New Microsoft is that Amazon is starting to act a lot like the old Microsoft of the 1990s. You remember -- the Bad Microsoft.

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We've reached the cloud computing tipping point

Cloud

Between technology waves there is always a tipping point. It’s not that moment when the new tech becomes dominant but the moment when that dominance becomes clearly inevitable. For cloud computing I think the tipping point arrived a month ago. That future is now.

This is a big deal. My count of technical waves in computing may not agree with yours but I see (1) batch computing giving way to (2) timesharing which gave way to (3) personal computers which gained (4) graphical user interfaces, then became (5) networked Internet computers and (6) mobile computers embodied in smartphones and tablets, and now we have (7) the cloud. This seventh generation of computing will, within 3-5 years, absorb the vast majority of the approximately $1 trillion we spend in the USA each year on IT.

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I have no boils

This is probably the last picture ever taken of our house in Santa Rosa, California. The time was 11:30PM Sunday and a neighbor had just pounded on our door. Fifty mph winds had been blowing all day but nobody expected fire. Yet the glow you see is from burning houses behind and beside ours. They, too, are gone.

We left with what clothes we could grab. I forgot my computer. I’m still blind and awaiting surgery so Mary Alyce drove one car and we left the other to burn.

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The Google Lunar X-Prize wasn’t extended, it was ENDED

Google recently extended its Google Lunar X-Prize deadline to March 31, 2018, apparently giving the five remaining teams a little longer to vie for the $20 million top prize. But there’s a mystery here that suggests two vying reasons for the change -- one sincere and the other cynical. The final answer may turn out to be a combination of both.

The Google Lunar X-Prize was announced in 2007, giving teams five years to put their landers on the Moon and drive around, sending back live HD video of the action. Though 30 teams eventually signed-up, none of them made it to the Moon by 2012. Or 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, or so far in 2017.

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A nanotechnology overnight sensation 30 years in the making!

One of my favorite mad scientists sent me a link recently to a very important IEEE paper from Stanford. Scientists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) have managed to observe in real time the growth of nanocrystalline superlattices and report that they can grow impressively in only a few seconds rather than the days or weeks they were formerly thought to take. What this means for you and me is future manufacturing on an atomic scale with whole new types of materials we can’t even imagine today.

What’s strange about this is not that these developments are happening but that they took so long to be discovered because my mad scientist has been telling me for over a decade that it was coming.

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Will Trump avoid military action against North Korean ICBMs?

We’re just a blind man and an 11 year-old boy, but Fallon and I have been learning a lot about North Korean ballistic missiles and the news is sobering for a world already in crisis. Not only does North Korea have missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, that has been a well known fact in intelligence circles (not just at our house) since early 2016. The North Koreans probably have a 10-20 kiloton nuclear device of deliverable size and even if they don’t it’s easy to send a dirty bomb instead. Our capability for monitoring such activity from space isn’t as good as we’d like or even as good as we already claim. Oh, and we have a reckless President who likes to make threats and might see war as a useful distraction at this point in his Presidency.

Uh-oh.

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The robots are coming!

Elon Musk thinks he can increase the speed of his Tesla production line in Fremont, California by 20X. I find this an astonishing concept, but Musk not only owns a car company, he also owns the company that makes the robots used in his car factory. So who am I to say he’s wrong? And if he’s right, well then the implications for everything from manufacturing to the economy to geopolitics to ICBM targeting to your retirement and mine are profound. We may be in trouble or maybe we’re not, but either way it’s going to be an interesting ride.

My friend Jerry Kew from the UK brought this article to my attention in which Elon Musk says he expects to increase the speed of his Tesla production line from the current five centimeters per second to one meter per second. Here’s Jerry’s back-of-the-envelope calculation of what this means:

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Trump's 2016 Big Data political arms race

Events happen so quickly in the wacky whirlwind world of Donald Trump that it’s hard to react in anything close to real time, but there was an interesting story in the Guardian last weekend that I think deserves some technical context.

The Great British Brexit Robbery: How our Democracy was Hijacked is a breathless but well sourced story about how a U.S. billionaire harnessed Big Data to split up the European Union and steal a U.S. Presidential election. It’s an interesting read, but the point I want to make here is that the tale was entirely predictable and if one side hadn’t done it, the other would have. Next time they’ll all do it.

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The cloud computing tidal wave

The title above is a play on the famous Bill Gates memo, The Internet Tidal Wave, written in May, 1995. Gates, on one of his reading weeks, realized that the Internet was the future of IT and Microsoft, through Gates’s own miscalculation, was then barely part of that future. So he wrote the memo, turned the company around, built Internet Explorer, and changed the course of business history.

That’s how people tend to read the memo, as a snapshot of technical brilliance and ambition. But the inspiration for the Gates memo was another document, The Final Days of Autodesk, written in 1991 by Autodesk CEO John Walker. Walker’s memo was not about how the future could be saved, but about how seemingly invincible market advantages could be quickly lost. If Autodesk, the Computer Aided Design pioneer, was ever going to die, this was how Walker figured it would happen. And Gates believed him. Now it’s about to happen again.  Amazon Web Services -- the first and still largest public computing cloud -- is 11 years old, which is old enough for there not only to be some clear cloud computing winners (AWS, Microsoft Azure and a bunch of startups) but some obvious losers, too. This rising tide is not raising all ships. That’s why it’s time for the Cloud Computing Tidal Wave.

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