MWC: SoftBank, Apple and the singularity

Computers will be smarter than humans within 30-years

Apple, SoftBank, iOS, iPhone, IoT, digital transformation, Mobile World Congress

“Computers will be smarter than humans within 30-years,” said a black turtleneck-clad SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son at Mobile World Congress this morning. His company’s ARM acquisition and growing partnerships with others, including Apple, means SoftBank plans to be part of that smart everything future – and his long association with Apple speaks volumes.

Human life is cheap, robots are cheaper

This is what will happen:

When there’s a processor in everything and everything – from sidewalks to your home audio system – is connected, then it’s not just a question of computers being smarter than you are, it’s going to be your entire environment that becomes smart.

When you can purchase smart robots to do your job for around $30,000 (and falling), how many manufacturing jobs will be left? Or jobs in accountancy, legal, customer services, media, or anything else. Gartner believes smart robots will take up to a third of existing, mainly unskilled, jobs by 2025

The only limitation is the software inside these intelligent machines. Who will define the capabilities of these systems, and who will define the moral code that governs them. Will such a code maintain once machines become capable of programming themselves, as they will.

The fourth wave

Son thinks these three outcomes are imminent. “I totally believe this concept” [of the singularity], he said. “If superintelligence goes inside the moving device then the world, our lifestyle dramatically changes,” he added.

Reading between the lines, I think Son wants SoftBank to make the devices, ARM to power them, and he has strong relationships with Apple.

Apple is now rising so rapidly through the ranks of A.I. research you’d almost think it has been engaged in such research for decades (which it has – it began using machine learning in the early ‘90’s, with the Newton).

“We see AI making smart devices even smarter with improved user experiences,” said Ian Fogg, director of mobile and telecom analysis at IHS Markit today. “Existing AI agents like Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant will expand across the industry, complemented by embedded AI in all parts of mobile devices from cameras, to audio, to machine.”

“Smartphones will both be the interface for consumer AI and deliver the vast amount of data technology companies need to train AI systems,” Fogg said.

Great artists…

The SoftBank chief is on a mission to raise $100 billion for the SoftBank Vision Fund to invest in the sector. SoftBank also acquired iPhone chip supplier, ARM, in 2016. Apple put a billion dollars into SoftBank’s fund in January.

“We believe their new fund will speed the development of technologies which may be strategically important to Apple,” said Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet at that time. Other contributors to that fund include Foxconn, Qualcomm and Oracle’s Larry Ellison.

(It’s not all about pure A.I., one of the first investments TechCrunch claims the fund plans to make is in workplace co-sharing platform, WeWork, the latest in a long line of gig economy start-ups making waves in tech right now.)

Son is looking for new partners and hopes these connected systems can address some of the problems humanity is facing, such as climate change.

That’s the good stuff – the bad stuff is the need to fundamentally ask questions about how humans will live, once they become outmoded. “It’s a risk”, he said.

Et tu, Foxconn

There are just a few entities equipped to partner with SoftBank in this attempt. It looks like Apple partner, Foxconn, is one of them and is buying a majority stake in SoftBank Asia Capital. That’s a good use of some of the billions in operating profit Foxconn’s relationship with Apple has created.

I guess all the discussion about corporations giving each other money may be a little meaningless to most casual observers, but there are important matters being defined within this.

Driven by the iPhone and the smart devices that followed it, digital transformation is utterly changing the way we work, live, learn and do business. Disruptive as these changes have been so far, once intelligence sits inside everything the change will be far more profound.

This interlocked interconnectedness is already part of Apple’s connected platform picture – macOS, iOS, watchOS, tvOS and the vertically-focused operating systems that will follow in future reflect that company’s understanding of this.

You may see cut and paste between devices, but this also means a level of interlocking device-to-device communication that A.I. can exploit for fresh insights. From tracking disease to better public transport infrastructure and management to the proactive health advice recommendations inside Apple Watch, the deep learning inside machines will manifest itself in small ways, but have profound consequences.

 “We believe the singularity is inevitable and all businesses will be redefined as computers overtake humans in intelligence,” Son said at an earnings briefing in November as reported by Bloomberg

This, by the way, is what Son said of Steve Jobs a few years back: "Hundreds of years from now, Leonardo DaVinci and Steve Jobs will be held in the same high regard....He doesn’t see his products as just a product. It’s as if they are his artwork or something that embodies his very own life.”

That huge mutual respect between Son and Apple means both partners are now deeply involved in building this connected future. Good, or bad? That kind of depends on the programming.

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