January 12, 2016
New research puts us on the cusp of brain-to-brain communication. Could the next step spell the end of individual minds? ... we’ve moved beyond merely thinking orders at machinery. Now we’re using that machinery to wire living brains together. Last year, a team of European neuroscientists headed by Carles Grau of the University of Barcelona reported a kind of – let’s call it mail-order telepathy – in which the recorded brainwaves of someone thinking a salutation in India were emailed, decoded and implanted into the brains of recipients in Spain and France (where they were perceived as flashes of light). ... What are the implications of a technology that seems to be converging on the sharing of consciousness? ... It would be a lot easier to answer that question if anyone knew what consciousness is. There’s no shortage of theories. ... Their models – right or wrong – describe computation, not awareness. There’s no great mystery to intelligence; it’s easy to see how natural selection would promote flexible problem-solving, the triage of sensory input, the high-grading of relevant data (aka attention). ... If physics is right – if everything ultimately comes down to matter, energy and numbers – then any sufficiently accurate copy of a thing will manifest the characteristics of that thing. Sapience should therefore emerge from any physical structure that replicates the relevant properties of the brain.
For centuries, the monks of the Shaolin Temple mostly prayed and practiced martial arts, while living off the land and the donations of worshippers. Under Yongxin, their activities expanded to include food and medicine sales, construction, entertainment, and consulting. In 2006 the temple teamed with a Shenzhen media company to produce Kungfu Star, an American Idol-style TV competition. Shaolin announced last year that it would begin developing mobile apps, including instructional kung fu software. The Shaolin Village project in Australia was only the next logical step in the abbot’s expansionist theo-corporate empire. “If China can import Disney resorts,” he said in March, “why can’t other countries import the Shaolin Monastery?” ... One evening I was sitting in a nearby guesthouse, reading a copy of Yongxin’s memoir, when an old man with a long white beard shuffled over. His son accompanied him and said his father had studied at the temple long ago. The old man stepped to the center of the room and performed an elegant kung fu routine, striking and kicking invisible enemies. Here it was, I thought: living heritage, unsullied by crass commercialism. When the man finished, I applauded and went to shake his hand. “Now give me some money,” he said.
It took years for the Internet to reach its first 100 computers. Today, 100 new ones join each second. And running deep within the silicon souls of most of these machines is the work of a technical wizard of remarkable power, a man described as a genius and a bully, a spiritual leader and a benevolent dictator. ... Linus Torvalds — who in person could be mistaken for just another paunchy, middle-aged suburban dad who happens to have a curiously large collection of stuffed penguin dolls — looms over the future of computing much as Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs loom over its past and present. For Linux, the operating system that Torvalds created and named after himself, has come to dominate the exploding online world, making it more popular overall than rivals from Microsoft and Apple. ... But while Linux is fast, flexible and free, a growing chorus of critics warn that it has security weaknesses that could be fixed but haven’t been. Worse, as Internet security has surged as a subject of international concern, Torvalds has engaged in an occasionally profane standoff with experts on the subject. ... Linux has thrived in part because of Torvalds’s relentless focus on performance and reliability, both of which could suffer if more security features were added. Linux works on almost any chip in the world and is famously stable as it manages the demands of many programs at once, allowing computers to hum along for years at a time without rebooting. ... Yet even among Linux’s many fans there is growing unease about vulnerabilities in the operating system’s most basic, foundational elements — housed in something called “the kernel,” which Torvalds has personally managed since its creation in 1991.
Is it any wonder investors are questioning why they allocate to emerging markets in the first place? Even going beyond the woes of emerging, we are starting to hear some investors asking whether holding non-U.S. stocks is at all necessary. As market historians we can say that the timing of such sentiments tends to be bad – no one seems to ever decide to give up on an asset class after it has just had good performance, and the last burst of “why bother with non-U.S. stocks” occurred just before the top for the S&P 500 in 2000. But just complaining that investors got it wrong last time they voiced these sentiments does not qualify as thoughtful analysis. ... while emerging markets “deserved” some of their bad luck over the last several years and the outperformance of the U.S. has made some sense, we do not believe that emerging is a value trap, nor do we believe that the U.S. has proved itself particularly extraordinary. ... In total, we can surmise that emerging currencies are a “risk asset” of sorts and that they have delivered a return above U.S. cash over time and should probably continue to do so given the capital needs and vulnerabilities of emerging economies. ... even if the U.S. has somehow managed to unlock the secret to permanently high profits and the economy remains solid, it seems unlikely that the secret will remain an entirely U.S. phenomenon. If we imagine a world in which U.S. profitability is able to remain well above historical levels, we would expect non-U.S. companies to begin to copy their American counterparts, similar to the way profitability converged from the 1970s to the early 2000s. ... we have seen an impressive expansion of American profitability that has not been mirrored in the rest of the world, and U.S. stocks have duly outperformed. This has, not surprisingly, led investors to try to convince themselves of the inherent superiority of U.S. stocks to justify continuing to hold them. We cannot completely reject the possibility that those arguments are correct, but the evidence seems pretty thin.
Hard realities in these three fields are inconvenient for vested interests and because the day of reckoning can always be seen as “later,” politicians can always find a way to postpone necessary actions, as can we all: “Because markets are efficient, these high prices must be reflecting the remarkable potential of the internet”; “the U.S. housing market largely reflects a strong U.S. economy”; “the climate has always changed”; “how could mere mortals change something as immense as the weather”; “we have nearly infinite resources, it is only a question of price”; “the infinite capacity of the human brain will always solve our problems.” ... Having realized the seriousness of this bias over the last few decades, I have noticed how hard it is to effectively pass on a warning for the same reason: No one wants to hear this bad news. So a while ago I came up with a list of propositions that are widely accepted by an educated business audience. They are widely accepted but totally wrong. It is my attempt to bring home how extreme is our preference for good news over accurate news. When you have run through this list you may be a little more aware of how dangerous our wishful thinking can be in investing and in the much more important fields of resource (especially food) limitations and the potentially life-threatening risks of climate damage. Wishful thinking and denial of unpleasant facts are simply not survival characteristics.