Archive for February, 2011

Watson, Google, Egypt’s revolution, Saudi Kings, the price of oil and the Singularity

Watson the IBM Computer not only wins, but beats two of the biggest former human champions handily on the TV game show Jeopardy.

Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google, plays the part of Egypt’s Technological Cromwell and helps spark a revolution.

Raymond Kurzweil, a leading Artificial Intelligence expert predicts a “Singularity”, the day when Artificial Intelligence surpasses human intelligence, as coming sooner rather than later.

All these events happened within days of each other – how are they related?

Just as the Twentieth Century was dominated by technological, social and political changes caused by the industrial revolution – we are seeing that the Twenty-First Century will be dominated by such changes caused by the information revolution.

We had begun to see signs of it before. When Barak Obama was able to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democrat Party race for the Presidential nomination, it was a victory for the online world against what was viewed as the establishment.  Now we have the role of Twitter and Facebook in the Middle East and elsewhere; partially spurred by revelations coming from Wikileaks.

The established political structures in the world are becoming as relevant as candle makers after Edison invented the light bulb and electrification of cities.

How is a King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who will be eighty-eight years old this August, to deal with this sort of a world? In fact, almost all of the large middle-eastern oil producers are in a similar predicament. They, and Russia, are right now “pinch points” in the world economy and therefore world politics. But even their economic clout could be threatened by the information revolutionaries.

Brilliant people all over the world are trying to figure out how to make a better battery. Combine a better battery with a breakthrough in nuclear fusion or some other energy producing technology and crude oil could become as irrelevant as the telegraph much faster than any of us imagine. The oil producers would become less relevant as well.

Don’t think it could happen? In the late Nineteenth Century the “industrialized world” (Europe and the America’s) were facing a vast oil shortage – whale oil that is-until fossil fuels were placed into use. Henry Ford demanded that his engineers produce a V8 engine for the automobile, despite engineers assurances that it could not be done.

We are already facing a time of greater change for more of the world’s population since World War II. It may greater change, and upheaval, than any of us can even imagine.

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Cairo, Iran, the 3 AM Phone Call, Dictators and the Egyptian Revolution

It was the Emergency phone that rang at three A.M. in the Cairo palace. With a sigh, the old man decided he should answer it. After all, he hadn’t been able to sleep anyway. He picked up the ornate receiver.

“Hosni? This is Reza.”

“Reza…?” the old man questioned.

“Pahlavi.”

“The Shah? But you’ve been …”

“Gone. Yes, over thirty years now.”

“Then how?”

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is you need to talk to someone who understands; someone who has been in your shoes.”

In the days of extraordinary events what was one more? “I’m listening.”

“Good. The main thing I’m calling to say is: don’t think about the next six months. Think about the next six years.”

“What do you mean?”

“First of all, the moment you leave the country, you will cease to matter. You will cease to shape events.”

“Didn’t you have a plan to leave, let things quiet down after a crack down and then come back?”

“Yes, I came to Egypt in fact.”

“I remember. Then we asked you to leave.”

“You and Sadat had to – Carter was so dead set on Camp David, so focused on peace that he missed the coming war.”

“The civil war in Iran?”

“Yes, that. But even worse, the Iran-Iraq war: eight years of hell. That idiot Saddam could not resist a weakened Iran. The mullah’s knew it was the only way to get the Military on their side; defending their country.”

“But Saddam had a prize to gain – the oil. What could anyone gain by attacking Egypt?”

“Weakness inspires attack. I don’t think Muammar would do anything so foolish. The Americans and Europeans and now the Chinese do not care so long as the oil keeps flowing. During Iran-Iraq they all stood on the sidelines, laughing like schoolyard instigators while the babies fought in the sandbox. Arab fought Persian, Muslim versus Muslim, while the world supplied both sides and smiled. Don’t let it come to that.”

“Who wants to fight Egypt?”

“No one wants to fight Egypt– unless they are attacked. Military men are trained to love their country and to fight for it. Just as Khomeini knew the soldiers and pilots would defend Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood knows Egyptians would defend Egypt – especially against Israel.”

“That would be madness.”

“Yes it would. Semite fighting Semite; unlike Saddam, the Israelis do have nuclear weapons.”

“Suleiman will talk reason into the revolutionaries.”

“Don’t trust intelligence officers. The CIA placed my father in power, and then the same for me. But when they saw me as weak, they were meeting with the other side. Intelligence officers blow with the breeze – look at Putin in Russia.”

“So what should I do?”

“I was allowed this call not to give you answers, but to make sure you ask the right questions. When all is said and done, no one will give you credit for things you did. We both, advanced the rights of women, built infrastructure, modernized our militaries, respected ancient history and kept the peace. Let’s face it though, we were bad at democracy and freedom. But to the victors go the spoils. Whoever wins the revolution will write the history of you on the hearts of your people.”

“I would hate for there to be a war once I’m gone. Egypt would suffer so much.”

“Then take the time you have left, to do what I did not do.”

“Which is what?”

“Make sure it is not the fanatics who win; because they will lead to war.”

“Much to think about.”

“I have to go now Hosni.”

“Reza? May I ask….where are you calling from?”

“That I am not allowed to say. But it is not where the mullahs would say I am. Salaam Hosni.”

“Salaam Reza.”

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