Having previously led some successful fintech PR campaigns for a number of clients, here at Babel we aim to keep abreast of news and trends in the sector. One of these we can’t help but notice is the surge of popularity around cryptocurrency.
Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, Ripple. These are the cryptocurrencies that are bandied around when the conversation turns towards the burgeoning sector. Indeed, the rise of Bitcoin a couple of years ago had led some to start predicting that we were on the brink of a ‘crypto revolution.’ At one point a single Bitcoin was valued at around $20,000! These claims turned out to be wide of the mark, and Bitcoin’s partial collapse in the last six months or so has stifled the optimism somewhat.
Despite the momentum, to many the technology remains shrouded in mystery, while its volatility and association with illicit activities, such as cryptojacking and the Dark Web, can create an ominous perception. However, ominous or not, it remains a prominent dimension within the booming fintech sector, and now offers very real and legitimate investment opportunities for normal people, not just for those ‘in-the-know.’
What is cryptocurrency?
Fundamentally, cryptocurrency is a digital currency designed to help users exchange value securely. Bitcoin, for example, describes itself as “cash for the internet.” However, there are some more complicated underlying technologies that support it, including cryptography and blockchain, which “facilitate secure and anonymous transactions.” With this in mind, and before we delve any deeper into the world of cryptocurrency, it’s probably worth taking a closer look at these.
Originally conceived during the Second World War to conceal and secure sensitive communication, cryptography is “the process of converting legible information into an almost uncrackable code to track purchases and transfers.”
Blockchain, on the other hand, acts as a kind of ledger in lieu of a centralised bank that would otherwise keep a record of activity. A common analogy for blockchain compares the technology to a highly encrypted and verified Google Document. Cryptocurrencies run on this ‘Document,’ which acts as a record or tamper-proof log of all transactions and sensitive activity, updated and held by currency holders.
In tandem, cryptography and blockchain allow users to make secure payments and store money in a virtual setting, without needing to use their name or go through a bank.
Why all the fuss around crypto?
There are some obvious financial benefits to investing in cryptocurrency – there are multi-millionaires and billionaires who made their fortunes through crypto – but the likes of Bitcoin have also been notoriously volatile, so a poorly-timed investment could be just as likely to lose you your fortune as make it. And if you’re not in the crypto game for investment purposes, but rather as an alternative to centralised banks, what benefits are there?
Amongst the main advantages of cryptocurrency is freedom of payment. Bitcoin can be sent and received anywhere in the world. Transactions aren’t impeded by bank holidays, borders or bureaucracy.
Another commonly stated benefit is security. Payments and transactions can be made without personal information, meaning that identity theft is protected against. Finally, blockchain ensures that money is backed up and encrypted.
Then, of course, there is the transparent nature of the cryptocurrency supply chain. Because Bitcoin, for example, is cryptographically secure, no individual or organisation can control or manipulate its protocol. This “allows the core of Bitcoin to be trusted for being completely neutral, transparent and predictable.”
Meanwhile, Ethereum (another cryptocurrency) enables users to create smart contracts which release a digital currency called ‘ether’, only when certain conditions are met. This contract is also included in the ledger to avoid any corruption and misuse of documentation.
The flip side, as we’ve touched on, is the volatile nature of crypto, which makes owning and exchanging in Bitcoin, for example, a high-risk investment. This unpredictability is mainly due to the fact that there is a limited amount of coins in circulation. Founder Satoshi Nakamoto (this is an alias that could refer to one or a group of people who created Bitcoin) made sure that only 21 million Bitcoins could ever be mined. However, as the popularity of Bitcoin rises and the demand for it increases, so does the instability of the currency. Nonetheless, this hasn’t prevented both industry and ‘have-a-go’ investors from jumping on the band wagon.
The crypto revolution, so far
Naturally, the financial services industry is capitalising on the growing popularity of cryptocurrencies. In July, Mastercard won a patent for cryptocurrencies, while IBM has launched a blockchain platform aimed at banks. Challenger bank Revolut has introduced a function for exchange of cryptocurrencies to its mobile app.
In the world of football, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Southampton and Leicester City are among the nation’s leading football clubs that have set up trials or forged partnerships involving cryptocurrencies, after expert predicted that bitcoin could replace sterling in the player transfer market.
For those who are able to successfully navigate the peaks and troughs of the market, there is no shortage of opportunity to flaunt their crypto wealth. De Louvois is an ‘elite’ marketplace where the crypto -rich can buy all manner of rare, expensive and some, quite frankly, pointless items. These include a 360-350 BC Greek Drachm for ฿0.07711 (nearly £400), a 17th Century Dutch painting attributed to Michiel Van Miereveld (anyone?) for ฿1.58860 (around £7,800), a Malibu beach house for ฿2,077.40000 (over £10 million) and a 2014 ‘Cryptocurrency Astronaut Easter Bunny’, price available only on request.
Clearly, there is still a fair amount of momentum behind the industry. However, Bitcoin has declined by 70% since its peak of $20,000, leading sceptics to herald the doom of cryptocurrency. However, although cryptocurrency has become prominent in the public domain over the last few years, its demise was actually first anticipated back in 2010 when it was valued at a mere $0.23. Today its value is closer to £5,000.
I’ve tried to unearth and explain what crypto is all about – and the financial benefits it can bring – but there’s still a lot more we don’t know, and the future of crypto as an investment opportunity is still pretty murky. But, in a year when investment in fintech exceeded a record $100 billion in investment, it would be surprising to see too many hedge their bets against crypto just yet.
“Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional”. These are the words of Martine Rothblatt, founder of biotech firm United Therapeutics. This opinion is echoed throughout Silicon Valley and high-tech hubs across the globe, with advances in technology leading some experts to believe that immortality is within our reach.
Josh Bocanegra, CEO of ‘human augmentation’ start-up Humai, predicts that his company will be able to resurrect the first human by 2045. Dr Ian Pearson, a renowned futurist who allegedly boasts an 85% accuracy rate, predicts that humans will achieve immortality using AI and genetic engineering by 2050. It’s a popular sentiment, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Google has put some of its top minds and financial clout behind projects aimed at extending human life.
Google-backed Calico Labs is on a mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. A quick search shows that Google is not alone in this pursuit. At this stage, it’s unclear if investment in immortality is a vain endeavour of the rich and the powerful, or whether there’s a genuine desire to benefit humanity and further science.
Previously, I’ve written about how technology is being deployed to safeguard the planet and protect the environment against future degradation. In a similar mould, I wanted to take a look at the technologies that humans are hoping will hold the key to eternal life.
The most commonly known and long-established ‘technique’ in the pursuit of immortality is cryonics, a process that involves freezing people in liquid nitrogen. It’s a crude method and there is no actual scientific evidence to support the concept. The idea stems from the hope that the subject might one day be safely ‘defrosted’ and revived when technology and medicine have advanced to the point that it is possible to do so.
Along with medical advances, extending human life has also been attempted by studying ageing as if it were a disease that could to be cured. Biomedical technology refers to ‘the application of engineering and technology principles to the domain of living or biological systems’. This school of thought implies that ageing is a code that can be cracked and hacked to ultimately extend life.
Developments in 3D bioprinting are showing signs of real potential. This is essentially the use of additive manufacturing technology to print organs which could replace those that no longer work. In theory, developments in 3D bioprinting could lead to an unlimited supply of organs and tissue that could significantly increase a human’s lifespan.
The problem with both cryonics and biomedical techniques is that the technology does not address the fundamental barrier of mortality. The maximum human lifespan is believed to be approximately 125 years. The human body is, like all living things, subject to degradation and eventually expiration. Cryonics can preserve human tissue and biomedical technology can extend the natural life of human organs, but not indefinitely. To truly exceed our mortal restrictions, the human species must transcend bodily limitations. This fact has led some experts to turn their attention to solutions based on artificial intelligence (AI) and consciousness.
AI has been creating a buzz in the world of tech and telecoms for the past few years now, and at Babel we’ve seen AI incorporated into the operations, processes and technologies of many of our clients. Its application to the pursuit of eternal life, however, is lesser known, and while highly innovative, is also ethically dubious.
Earlier this year, Sam Altman, a Silicon Valley tech billionaire, paid £7,000 to tech start-up Nectome on the promise that one day the entire contents of his brain will be uploaded to a computer so that it is preserved forever. Nectome aims to chemically freeze human brains in order to preserve the neurons and synapses, theoretically also preserving the memories stored there for centuries – maybe even a millennia – until its contents can be uploaded. The concept, pioneered by two MIT AI researchers, has already been awarded the Brain Preservation Foundation prize for preserving every synaptic structure in a rabbit brain.
How this technology could be applied remains unclear. The concept of using AI to extend life has been touched upon in recent popular culture. HBO’s Westworld depicts a world where advances in AI could lead to android bodies for humans to live in after their bodies fail and cease to function. In an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror, consciousness is uploaded into virtual reality (VR) worlds so that people can live on after death in the cloud.
Some experts predict an occurrence known as ‘the singularity’ or ‘technological singularity’. This is the moment when AI becomes ‘artificial superintelligence’, triggering a process whereby the machine becomes exponentially more intelligent more quickly. In theory, the machine can become infinitely more intelligent infinitely quickly, at which point human evolution would be forced to correlate with that of AI for fear of being left behind. AI author Ray Kurzweil claims that this will happen by 2045. Humans will become one with machines.
Whether through cryonics, biomedical technology, AI or singularity, mankind is striving to find a way to cheat death. And considering how rapidly we’re developing technology – and wielding it to our advantage – it would be little surprise if we did.
Green tech, eco-friendly, sustainability. These are concepts that most of us are familiar with, and were amongst those highlighted by the UN’s World Environment Day this week. The event was also a reminder that many of the environmental problems we face are of our own making, and a consequence of the technological and industrial advancement our species has long championed.
In my last blog, I looked at how technology can be life-affirming. Today, I’m going to look at how tech can be leveraged in a similarly positive fashion, with developers and big business striving to reverse the damage we’re doing to our world.
It’s not going to be easy. Pollution, industrialisation, urbanisation and consumption are driving the degradation of our planet and changes to our climate – facts we cannot (sanely) deny. Technology plays a part too. The damage being caused by pollution, industrialisation, urbanisation and consumption has arguably only been made possible by technological advancement – and our desire for more, quicker, at a lower cost, on a global scale. But, perhaps the tide is beginning to turn: a growing, collective awareness and piling evidence are causing more of us to take responsibility, and to act. And it’s here too that tech can play its part.
According to research from Cambridge University, clean energy technologies are now developing so rapidly that the fossil fuel or ‘polluting assets’ industries will become worthless. Green tech, according to the researchers, is primed to burst the ‘carbon bubble.’
In China, where fossil fuel carbon emissions far outstrip those produced in other regions, focus has started to shift towards promoting green development and clean energy through wind and solar power. In 2017, the country installed 19.7GW of wind power capacity, more than double that of any other market. So, just as the nation led the way in high-output high-pollution manufacturing and production, it could soon assume a pioneering role in renewables technology.
Meanwhile, in the North Pacific Ocean, the Canadian Government, along with two of the world’s biggest aluminium producers, Alcoa and Rio Tinto, hailed a ‘breakthrough’ technology that will remove carbon dioxide from the smelting process. The technology will slash carbon emissions from aluminium production, one of the world’s most common materials, used to make cars, construction materials, industrial machinery, electrical products, drinks cans and foil packaging.
From confident claims to innovative experiments: closer to home in Scotland, Microsoft this week announced that it’s been working to develop self-sufficient underwater data centres, one of which had been sunk off the coast of Orkney Island. It is hoped that the model will create a “environmentally sustainable” solution to energy-intensive data storage. Powered by tidal turbines and wave energy converters, the data centre is as powerful as several thousand high-end consumer PCs, but uses minimal energy as it’s naturally cooled by the ocean.
Across the channel in the Netherlands, The Ocean Cleanup Group has developed technology that it estimates will remove half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. These ‘garbage patches’ have become a stark visual symbol of our excessive consumption, and, thanks to media coverage and efforts by NGOs a reminder that we can no longer take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach.
And its not difficult to do. Consumers can use that ubiquitous, always-on piece of tech – the smartphone – to learn about what’s happening on our planet. And then the harder part – make like the green innovators, and act on it!
As we waved goodbye to 2017, Netflix served up a riveting late-Christmas present in the form of the eagerly anticipated fourth season of Black Mirror. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, Black Mirror is a semi-futuristic depiction of a universe with distinctly similar features and environments to our own. In fact, one of the reasons the show is so interesting is that it is relatable. You can almost imagine some of the show’s plotlines panning out in real life. It also touches on a range of technologies that we are becoming increasingly familiar with.
In the past, the series has delved into issues such as cloud computing, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, dating apps and social media, to name but a few. And it does so in a way that doesn’t always make for easy viewing! Charlie Brooker’s stand-alone stories are ominous, brutal and uncompromising. This season’s episode around dating apps was a rare bright spot, but still raised some pretty uncomfortable questions about the way we meet, date and interact with each other. Needless to say, Black Mirror paints a rather sinister picture of mankind’s relationship with technology.
Techno-paranoia is a theme that runs through much of our popular culture. As far back as ‘Metropolis’ in the 1920s, and more recently in ‘Terminator’ and ‘The Matrix’, we’ve been predicting a dangerous relationship between man and machine. The basic notion is that technology will be developed to such a level that it eventually overpowers its creator, bringing about humanity’s demise.
In 2018, developments have gone further and farther than we could have ever foreseen! I recently saw a graphic which highlighted some contemporary technology that didn’t even exist a decade ago. The list is quite surprising! iPhones, 4G, Kindles, AirBnB, Oculus, Spotify, Bitcoin, Square, Instagram and Snapchat all feature. We live in an innovative time and it’s testament to how far we’ve come that such things, as well as emerging high tech such as AI, robotics, VR and augmented reality (AR), are so commonplace in our lives today. That being said, it’s also a stark reminder of how quickly technology is becoming ingrained in our society and culture. So, as Black Mirror often suggests, is our reliance and relationship with technology becoming unhealthy?
Maybe not! There are many recent examples that show how technology is not just beneficial to our development but, in many cases, actually quite life-affirming. According to Dr James Canton, a former Apple executive and chairman of the Institute for Global Futures, VR could one day be used to allow people to virtually summit Everest or ride a 50-foot wave, surely experiences that very few will have the opportunity to undertake in reality. In Australia, drones equipped with AI (known as ‘Little Rippers’) patrol the coastline, defending would-be shark attack victims from the predators lurking below.
The benefits of applying technology to healthcare are also becoming abundantly clear. AR headsets are currently in development to assist trainee surgeons with learning complicated surgical procedures, probably saving lives in the future. Mind-operated robotics allow amputees to pick up and move objects without need for assistance. These are only a handful of examples, but it certainly paints a rosier picture.
It remains to be seen whether our relationship with technology is really the uneasy, fragile and doomed relationship depicted by Black Mirror and more generally in popular culture, or whether it will become a blossoming, healthy marriage full of potential.
Only time will tell…