Economics Ethics Fintech Science Technology

Gold, Viruses, Tuna, Bitcoin, Law, Go

The unique thing about gold is that it doesn’t get used up. The main way we consume the yellow metal is by storing it, say in vaults or by wearing it as jewellery. Compared to how we use an industrial metal like copper, this sort of usage is very safe. Copper parts in machinery, for instance, are dissipated by abrasion and wear. But gold just sits there, untouched.

Nor does gold depreciate. Unlike most materials, it is almost indestructible. Copper corrodes, steel rusts, wood rots, and concrete crumbles. But a gold coin from 200BC is still perfectly lustrous.

Nor does the yellow metal suffer from technological obsolescence. Gold keeps doing the same thing it has done for thousands of years.

And obviously we don’t eat the stuff.

The fact that viruses have only a tenuous claim to being alive, though, hardly reduces their impact on things which are indubitably so. No other biological entities are as ubiquitous, and few as consequential. The number of copies of their genes to be found on Earth is beyond astronomical. There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and a couple of trillion galaxies in the observable universe. The virions in the surface waters of any smallish sea handily outnumber all the stars in all the skies that science could ever speak of.

Back on Earth, viruses kill more living things than any other type of predator. They shape the balance of species in ecosystems ranging from those of the open ocean to that of the human bowel. They spur evolution, driving natural selection and allowing the swapping of genes.

And for what purpose? Bluefin is neither a staple nor a necessity. It’s a luxury. The person who dines on North Lake’s bluefin may want to connect to the people who caught it and the ocean it came from, but they are also buying a trophy, just as surely as Captain Jack did when he shelled out $3,000 for his charter experience. The word trophy comes from the Greek tropaion, a “monument of an enemy’s defeat.” It is, by definition, a spoil of war. North Lake’s relationship to bluefin tuna has always been adversarial. Fishermen are said to “fight” the fish, and they are celebrated as heroes when they win this unequal battle, armed with technologies that make the finding and killing ever more efficient, despite diminishing financial returns and the dwindling size of the catch. Commercial cod and lobster fishermen have also long seen themselves in competition with bluefin—hungry giants that feed on the same fish they needed to fatten up their catches.

This vision of wild creatures as targets of conquest or competition to be eliminated may have made some sense when human beings felt their everyday lives to be at the mercy of the natural world. But in the Anthropocene, the environment is often at our mercy, even when the ways we alter it ultimately harm our own species. Not only do humans en masse have the means and numbers to fish out entire species, we also have the power to change migration patterns by destroying habitat and warming ocean waters.

Bitcoin has already made significant ground on gold — going from whitepaper to over $200 billion in market capitalization in under a decade. Today, the market capitalization of above ground gold is conservatively $9 trillion. If we are right about using a gold framework to value bitcoin, and bitcoin continues on this path, then the bull case scenario for bitcoin is that it is undervalued by a multiple of 45. Said differently, the price of bitcoin could appreciate 45x from where it is today, which means we could see a price of $500,000 U.S. dollars per bitcoin.

All of this does not factor in the possibility of bitcoin displacing some portion of the $11.7 trillion dollars of fiat foreign exchange reserves held by governments. Foreshadowing this, at least one publicly-traded U.S. corporation has begun holding bitcoin as a treasury reserve asset. If central banks start to diversify their foreign fiat holdings even partially into bitcoin, say 10%, then 45x gets revised upward towards 55x or $600,000 USD per bitcoin, and so forth.

About the only existing law governing space is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. But the treaty focuses almost entirely on what nation-states can and cannot do (e.g., deploy nuclear bombs, seize celestial bodies). It’s virtually silent on what private companies or individuals can do—which suddenly seems like a glaring loophole given the rise of private space companies like SpaceX, which recently transported its first astronauts to the International Space Station. These private vessels are far murkier in a legal sense.

To be sure, a clause in the Outer Space Treaty does require nations to monitor their own citizens in space, which works fine when astronauts are few. But when hundreds or thousands of people reach orbit, that will become increasingly untenable. And so far, most crimes in remote places like T-3 have involved the citizens of one country alone (e.g., one Russian attacking another).

In the case of Korea, there are about 380 professional players certified by the Korean Baduk Association, and about 50 top players can be considered tournament players. Last year, the top player in Korea earned about $1 million US dollars from tournaments alone, while the 10th player earned about $120,000 US dollars.

The development of superhuman Go AI has impacted the professional Go world in many different ways. Here, I want to highlight three areas, one that affects both types of players, one area for tournament players, and one for teaching players.

View and Listen

Video on takeoff and flight sequences of insects spanning 8 different taxonomic orders captured at 3,200 fps! – usually ignored when we see in nature.

Sand art in a different dimension

Interesting conversation by Steven Levitt and Steven Pinker on language, cognition and various topics of interests.

Michael Sandel on why meritocracy sounds like a good idea in principle, but not a good idea to practice? – Need to practice the dignity of work.

Fintech Technology

Finance – A theory of transition to a new world

Working in the finance sector, possibly the only sector that I had worked since graduation, I have encountered a systematic shift in the perception of the jobs. I believe that we are in an era of transition of the financial industry for good or bad. When I joined my initial assignment 15 years back, I was working on trade solutions. We used to have over 20 people who were designing customized reports and running them at a specific time for various businesses across various continents. The requirements were flowing to refine the solutions so frequently that a significant amount of resources were deployed to tackle the future plans. Within a few years such a futuristic team underwent a significant headcount reduction and now I believe that technology itself does not exist. This is when the quote of Bill Gates becomes prominent. ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.’

When I joined my initial assignment 15 years back, I was working on trade solutions. We used to have over 20 people who were designing customized reports and running them at a specific time for various businesses across various continents. The requirements were flowing to refine the solutions so frequently that a significant amount of resources were deployed to tackle the future plans. Within a few years such a futuristic team underwent a significant headcount reduction and now I believe that technology itself does not exist. This is when the quote of Bill Gates becomes prominent. ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.’

This is when the quote of Bill Gates becomes prominent. ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.’

I had been fortunate to work a good portion of my life in understanding the investment perspectives of money. So let us understand money from that context. Being an industrial engineer, I always have been enthusiastic about the time-motion study. It is a business efficiency technique combining the works of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. This integrated approach to work system improvement is known as methods engineering and it is applied today to industrial as well as service organizations, including banks. Let us see how the transition could happen through a basic time-motion study of how an investment professional would approach an investment.

The first step for anyone is to get stock of your finances and spending pattern. With the intrusion of privacy through smartphones and data crunching and machine learning capabilities, the firms that we depend on for our everyday needs can predict our requirements to a reasonable extent. If our needs are translated into their sales, this information can be treated as a sales input for a company. In other words, it could serve as a leading indicator for one’s investment. This could create a vicious cycle by which users of a specific product could be made to buy the stocks of those products that they consume. These stocks would be recommended by very same companies that took the data from the same set users. Is it going to be fun? Can we say that this data tech is going to the next investment advisors?

As on today, we have many applications on our fingertips that could tell us the amount that we had spent, are spending and will be spending. If these data companies can build a predictable certainty on this consumption pattern, will there be a concept of a market? Will there be market buy and sell on risk and uncertainty? The result could be that one may not trade, he could just put money for a reasonably predictable future. Will that be an end of speculation in markets, which our modern day banks have invented?

The second step is usually to understand the products that would make sense for the user. As I mentioned today we have applications that can fairly predict the outcomes of investments through game theory and scenario analysis. With the enormous information that is being generated by us on a daily basis, the suitability of the products and judging our risk tolerance will become much easier. The feeder information for this judgment would be our own data provided through various means to the data aggregators of the internet such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft.

For your information, 95% of global data was created in the last 3 years. It is expected that by 2020 the digital universe – the data we create and copy annually – will reach 44 zettabytes or 44 trillion gigabytes. This is the data that would drive the future of money.  Anyway, this data would be input for the setting one’s goals and determining your risk tolerance. So tomorrow your decision to buy a car or a decision for a holiday could be taken by these technology companies. The days are not far, that even the style of investment and the returns that one can expect from a specific type of investment can be determined with a fairly good accuracy. Once this information is available to the public through, let us say ‘open source investment codes’, who would want to pay for the current products, that our banks and financial institutions sell as exotic products.

It would be something like our Android phones, which almost monopolized the mobile industry. We are currently on the Nokia Symbian environment as far as financial industry is concerned. Once we have a platform that would enable the users to transact, select, deploy, track, review and rebalance money on a universal level, that would be the death knell for the current financial industry as we see it today.

This is a pivot moment for the financial institutions. It could be the block chain, peer to peer services, internet of things, wearables or/and augmented reality, but I am sure that the future of money in the next 15 years will not the same that we see today. It will be a great concoction of these new age thoughts. Such innovations could either be with the current financial institutions or against such institutions. If they are on the other side it would be the end of such institutions as we see today.

Economics Fintech

In search of efficiency – financial exclusion and technological unemployment

Every day we hear about the firms that try to make the world a better place. The new age technology firms want to erase the sources of inconvenience and delay that irritate their consumers. Every time I take the ride-hailing services of Uber to avoid the waiting time for taxis, the Book my show to avoid the queues in the cinema halls, and pay through PayTM to avoid the inconvenience of cash, I always hear about operational efficiency. Such applications claim to bring convenience for the users and run campaigns on their ethos of innovations.
But are they sincerely doing what they are supposed to solve? Do the end users need such innovations? Do these product innovations eliminate too much of hassle? In short, are they aiding society rather than harm?
Let us take a recent economic hype created by the politicians and central bankers – the demonetization. When I went through the pain of demonetization, I realised that it is not just Indians who are suffering through the pain of cashless economy. This time when my quarterly debit card statement came, I scrolled through it. To my surprise hardly there was any cash debit from my account. Enormous emphasis is placed on improving online infrastructure and online activity, particularly in the Banking and Finance sector. When we are moving so aggressively to the presence-less, paper-less and cash-less economy, we tend to forget a few fundamentals.
Many of us are happy to tap cards or phones to get to a taxi, buy a coffee or pay for groceries. But it raises the prospect of a time when we no longer carry any cash at all.
This results in no spare change for the busker on the streets, the person sleeping rough in need of a hot drink, and the donation box. This might be the rise of a cashless nation that would be mean with street vendors, small merchants and the poorest inhabitants who cannot afford the instruments of so-called convenience. It may so happen then we may further divide the mainstream society based on such media of convenience – The traditional and the modern. The societies that are in dearth need for the financial inclusion may put pressure on the same traditional who are to be banked and signed up to the financial system through financial inclusion. Many of such poorest traditional are likely to remain outside of that system creating a bigger danger of financial exclusion.
In a keynote delivered at Mobile World Congress by Ajay Banga, Mastercard’s CEO spoke about the growing global risk of creating islands, where the unbanked traditionals transact only with each other. According to Fung Global Retail & Technology, even in Sweden and Netherlands that could become the world’s first completely cashless society, significant enthusiasm gap has emerged between the traditionals and the moderns.
Now let us look at the second aspect of automation and convenience. To give a perspective, a report put out in February 2016 by Citibank, in partnership with the University of Oxford, predicted that 47 percent of US jobs and 35 per cent of UK jobs are at risk of automation. In China, it’s a whopping 77 per cent, while across the OECD it’s an average of 57 percent. And three of the world’s ten largest employers, Foxconn, Walmart, and the US Department of Defence, are now replacing their workers with robots.
Predictions that automation will make humans redundant have been made before. During the Industrial Revolution textile workers, protested that machines and steam engines would destroy their livelihoods. The difference between the previous waves of automation and the current one is that workers had the option of moving from routine jobs in one industry to routine jobs in another in the earlier. But now the same data techniques that allow companies to improve their marketing and customer-service operations also give them the raw material to train machine-learning systems to perform the jobs of more and more people.
Are these developments leading to the concept of Universal Basic Income proposed by Thomas Paine, the 18th-century radical? Is this the price tag that we have given for the new era of the unemployed? Need to wait and see how the technologists, governments and central bankers would tame this problem.
Fintech Technology

What is so common between a community of ants and a bitcoin ?

Over the weekend, I visited one of my friend’s home. I knew that the guy had some weird hobbies, but I never expected to see a living ant colony – a formicarium in his bedroom. A little curious I started to read on how ants colonise a locality and how we can measure the brain power of these little creatures?

An ant has only 250,000 brain cells. They use these connections so efficiently that they build complex nests and create rudimentary agriculture and public health systems. As far as humans are concerned at the age of 5, a human baby has over 1000 trillion neural connections. Over time, it refines itself and transforms the number of neural connections to just over 100 trillion just one tenth of the original quantum. The transformation of these neural connections is the basis of human intelligence.

What does that result in? Intelligence helps us to develop a social network. Have we exploited the power of our social networks yet? I would say we haven’t. Do we trust someone whom we meet on the internet or a social network? I would say considering a few exceptions (that often results in marriages), we do not. But the evolution of super-intelligence and the distributive ledger technologies will change the finance industry works in a few years.

When Satoshi Nakamura in 2008, introduced the concept of the blockchain technology and the corresponding distributive network, it was the personification of Sigmund Freud’s comment about the origin of civilisation – “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilisation.” Here is the era of Super-intelligent block chains – Intelligence built by the intelligent to make decisions. This technology is currently a baby, born with unlimited possibilities to transform the way the business is done. The refinement of this intelligence will be a unicorn in the financial technology space.

I am not a programmer and I do not know how to code. I am a banker who used to run advisory portfolios for clients. I came across the term of blockchain technology, distributive ledger and bitcoin around 4 years back.  These technologies are synonymous to open source payment platforms unlike the closely guarded platforms of the banks and payment institutions. If one look at the evolution of the Blockchain technology – bitcoin, it is evolving just like the internet. There were initial comments about the internet that it is of no good other than to distribute porn. But the transformation that the internet brought to our lives is incomparable to any previous technologies.

So how does this work? I will give you an analogy for the block chain. Assume that you have a cake to be distributed among friends. In the old school, you give it to a friend and he may take a fair chunk of cake to get it distributed evenly. In the blockchain concept, you hire butlers. The butlers do not charge a chunk cake and since they are wearing the butler’s gloves, if they eat, you can see that on their gloves. The butler is rewarded if s/he distributes the cake in a fair manner and it is just a small piece of cake, unlike what your friend would take. Such butlers are called miners, a very funny word though in the block chain terminology.

When VISA processes around 18 billion dollar transactions a day, bitcoin, in its infancy, is processes around half a billion dollar transactions daily. But VISA charges around 3% for such transactions. Global remittances move around 800 billion dollars through the payment network and such establishments charge around 10% commission. The revolution of blockchain would trim such fat to less than 1%. Goldman Sachs has estimated the savings that blockchain technologies would bring – It is around a whopping 200 billion dollars.

So what are we expecting out of block chains?