Belmont Club

The Second Wave

When my mother’s computer refused to boot last week, she called me right away.  “You have to do something,” she said.  “My computer’s dead. How can I Skype? Pay my bills?  Send emails?”  It had been, she said, 48 hours.  How much longer could it go on?  We went down to the store and picked up a Microsoft Surface tablet and I spent four hours customizing and walking her through it with the result that she now calls me by Skype on my phone.

No one is too old any more to have a technological problem. An old gentleman pushing a big shopping cart at the supermarket had a senior moment when it came time to enter his pin into the card reading device. “I’ve forgotten my password,” he said.  “Why don’t you serve this gentleman,” he said pointing to me and stepping aside, “while I recollect it.”

He went off a few steps and started at the ceiling.  As I was leaving, I glimpsed him returning with a wide smile to the cashier.  Evidently he had remembered what it was.  By such threads does ordinary life hang in the balance. All the banks admonish their customers never to keep their PINs in their wallets for security reasons.  But in peaceful Australia the main threat is forgetting your PIN just when you need the money. I thought: maybe a wife can write a husband’s pin down in her wallet and vice versa, so when they forget they can call each other, but if even the wallet is lost the pin kept in the wallet refers to the wrong card. Do you even remember how many PINs you have?  Maybe you should emulate me and store them in an offline device protected by a password.  Now can I remember that password?  Let see now …

But it’s the cashiers who are an endangered species.  Not long ago there was  one self-service checkout to 11 manned lanes.  Now it’s edging toward parity.  Soon the cashier will go the way of the slide rule and the teller. Remember the teller?  The last few tellers at the bank are there to accept checks.  Remember checks?

The last vestiges of physical money are fading away in the Western world.  By contrast ISIS, still hand delivers messages (the better to evade the NSA) and issues metal coinage.  “In its bid to win recognition as a sovereign political entity, Islamic State (IS) has announced its intention of minting its own coins, to be used independently of the international financial system in territory under its control.”

The projected currency is to consist entirely of coins. According to the radical Salafist doctrine of IS, paper currency is responsible for inflation, depression, and other economic crises. The doctrine also rejects bond trading, usury, and money changing. The coins—made of gold, silver, and copper—are seen as having intrinsic value, providing confidence that they will not lose value if there is a drop in exchange rates.

ISIS has acted just in time. A little longer and it would have been too late. Two roads diverged in the historical wood, and sorry we could not travel both and be one traveler, we took the digital one.  The paper trail is fading into history behind us. I realized that my mother actually couldn’t go back to the pre-digital age even if she wanted to.  The world of paper checks, passbooks, withdrawal slips and paper telephone books is over. The door is shut in her face. Each year the telephone company leaves a new set of phone books on the neighborhood doorstep.  Nobody even brings them indoors any more. One day they won’t deliver the phonebooks and we won’t even notice.

The Army announced the construction of its first drone-only airport. “The military has made it clear that UAVs are the future of aerial reconnaissance—as well as in a growing number of cases, aerial combat—and that they’ll eventually be operating in the same airspace as conventionally piloted aircraft. Two of these unmanned platforms have already become so ubiquitous—the Grey Eagle and Shadow UAS—that the US Army CoE has contracted SGS systems to build a 150 acre airport at Fort Bliss, Texas, just for them.”

Being human is getting to feel like second class citizenship.  Most of us will just get in the way of robots doing the real work.

The dictatorships of the world have a fire sale on humans right now, like they were getting rid of excess stock.  ISIS is trying to sell James Foley’s headless body for $1 million probably to pay for their dinar coins.  And North Korea has become the human experimentation capital of the world.  They have got to find a use for those useless mouths.  So “a former officer in North Korea’s special forces says disabled people in the country are used for chemical weapons experiments.”

“The regime wants to do this ‘legally’ so they offer to buy disabled children from their parents and they say they will take care of them. If that doesn’t work, they threaten them. They use them for chemical weapons experiments, not only children, they also use disabled adults.”

Another defector, Ji Seong-ho, told the paper that “people with disabilities are considered a stain on North Korea’s image and a humiliation to the ruling regime”.

But whether humanity is regarded as useless in the Western sense of “having no utility” or according to the North Korean definition of not measuring up to the perfect standard of manhood set by Kim Jong-Un, it’s an interesting time to be a human being.  We caught the car, now what do we do with it? The future is here, the only problem is whether we have any place in it.

This week the Navy announced the deployment of its first shipboard laser weapon. “The U.S. Navy has declared an experimental laser weapon on its Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) in the Persian Gulf an operational asset and U.S. Central Command has given permission for the commander of the ship to defend itself with the weapon, the head of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) told reporters on Wednesday.”  It’s pretty impressive, but it’s obviously still a toy. Wait till the next one comes along powered by some mongo nuclear reactor.

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The Russians for one are becoming increasingly worried about American AI, which is being added on to weapons platforms like the Long Range Anti-ship Missile. “The built in AI makes several missiles capable of independently strategizing an offense against its enemy. The missile can also send threat signals and coordinates to other war ships and aircrafts within the battlefield. It can traverse waters at high-subsonic speeds, independently correcting its path along the way.” A generation of weapons that can think  will make the current Russian arsenal like the paper check and the printed phone book.

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It was said that the microprocessor doomed the USSR. The second technological revolution — smarter software — is only now coming into the offing just as we are adjusting to the effects of the first. Self-driving cars, delivery by drone, robotic home care workers, burger flippers … what  will it do to Russia, to China? What will it do to Detroit?

Missiles like the Long Range Anti-ship Missile obviously mean that Russians need something like the US Navy Laser Cannon to shoot down the US Navy super-AI cruise missile. Now that the new wave is in view there’s just one question: where do we fit in?


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