Where Middle-Earth Began

When mighty Beowulf took hold of Grendel with his bare hands, the demon proclaimed, “Nowhere on middle-earth, I realize, have I encountered a grip like his.” This passing reference being to the imagination of the middle ages as our world being in a middle-state between hell and heaven; between the time its savior was born, and the date He was to Come. An interesting allusion, no doubt, to the world that Tolkien would later create.

Traces of Middle-Earth and the mythology of The Lord of the Rings are scattered throughout Tolkien’s life. Like a forensic investigation, bits and pieces that evidence his genius have been found in obscure works from his earlier years. Such as when he wrote on the back of a paper the line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” (This of course, was how The Hobbit started). Or his creation of the children’s character Tom Bombadil in 1934, who would later play a minor role in The Fellowship of the Ring twenty years later.

In 1914, when storms of war ravaged Europe, a 22-year-old Tolkien wrote the following lines of a poem which seemingly come out of the blue, “The Last Voyage of Eärendel.” There’s no character except Eärendel, and we get no sense of who he is or where he came from (in the Silmarillion, he will become the father of kings). The image above is a scene from the Silmarillion, where Eärendel (or Eärendil) is flying in his ship to battle against Ancalagon the Black, the greatest dragon who ever lived, armed with the brilliant light of a Silmaril stone.

From this curiously isolated poem in the early years of Tokien’s life, there appear immensely important themes that The Silmarillion and The Lord of The Rings would later evoke: light vs darkness, fantastical landscapes, attention to aesthetic, references to ancient peoples, crafts and legends. At face value, it’s a beautiful poem that is open to interpretation. On a deeper level, it is a mirror from whence we see our soul, and puts the question of whether we will ever have the courage, like Eärendel, to fly against the darkness within, emerge victorious, and become eternally renowned for it.

Eärendel arose where the shadow flows
At Ocean’s silent brim;
Through the mouth of night as a ray of light
Where the shores are sheer and dim
He launched his bark like a silver spark
From the last and lonely sand;
Then on sunlit breath of the day’s fiery death
He sailed from Westerland.

He threaded his path o’er the aftermath
Of the splendour of the Sun,
And wandered far past many a star
In his gleaming galleon.
On the gathering tide of darkness ride
The argosies of the sky,
And spangle the night with their sails of light
As the streaming star goes by.

Unheeding he dips past these twinkling ships,
By his wayward spirit whirled
On an endless quest through the darkling West
O’er the margin of the world;
And he fares in haste o’er the jewelled waste
And the dusk from whence he came
With his heart afire with bright desire
And his face in silver flame.

The Ship of the Moon from the East comes soon
From the Haven of the Sun,
Whose white gates gleam in the coming beam
Of the mighty silver one.
Lo! with bellying clouds as his vessel’s shrouds
He weighs anchor down the dark,
And on shimmering oars leaves the blazing shores
In his argent-timbered bark.

Then Éarendel fled from that Shipman dread
Beyond the dark earth’s pale,
Back under the rim of the Ocean dim,
And behind the world set sail;
And he heard the mirth of the folk of earth
And the falling of their tears,
As the world dropped back in a cloudy wrack
On its journey down the years.

Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast
As an isléd lamp at sea,
And beyond the ken of mortal men
Set his lonely errantry,
Tracking the Sun in his galleon
Through the pathless firmament,
Till his light grew old in abysses cold
And his eager flame was spent.

— The Book of Lost Tales, Part II.

 

Poem is copied from The Warden’s Walk. Art courtesy of Manuel Castañon.

What have we forgotten?

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts completely

So goes the saying. When I think of “absolute power,” I think of kings of the medieval ages, or of infamous dictators who made explosive speeches in front of thousands. When I think of absolute power, my modern mind tries to grasp the concept of being stripped of my freedoms completely, and see it in the most physical (and terrifying) way possible, in the cruel punishment of physical bondage.

But evil is more slippery than that. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Like the best superhero movies, the villain is not always so obvious; he is a mix of both good and evil, a hybrid of our worst nightmares and greatest desires. But ultimately evil.

In his ground-breaking book, Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen points to the all-reaching tentacles of Leviathan, that great, all-seeing state figure with absolute power, to the Liberal State. What is the “liberal state”? It is the state that has the protection of the right of individuals as its highest ideal, and thereby justifies any and all means necessary to enforce this. This is all really good. We all have rights, we should be able to do whatever it is that we want to do, right?

You can. But there’s a catch.

If people were to do whatever it is that they wanted, we can assume that a portion of these citizenry will not be complying with the law. The executive branch therefore, has to entrench itself in society in order to root out those that are not complying with the law. Lets put this in a tangible example.

Suppose John is a very kindly man who likes to wear a really really tall hat. He wears it everywhere, while at work, while going out and even at home. He really likes his hat. Everywhere he goes, doors are tall enough that allow him to enter without tipping his hat. Now suppose John goes one sunny day into a coffeeshop and -gasp!- his hat gets tipped! John is furious with the coffeeshop owner. He feels extremely embarrassed and goes to court with the case that the coffeeshop owner should have taller doors to allow him to enter without tipping his hat off.  The judges agrees with John’s request, and orders all doors in the state to be tall enough to allow John to enter without it tipping his hat. John is now very happy, but the store owner had to pay a steep price to accommodate the height of John’s hat, which never again graced that coffeeshop.

Now this might seem like a silly example, and it is, except that similar circumstances have indeed happened in the last few years like this -where the individual appeals to the large federal state in order protect his/her individual liberty. If you multiply this many times over, across a large population, the government will have to become extremely massive just so that it can enforce all the little rules and regulations and rights that its citizenry is asking for. As Professor Deneen writes:

“The result is the systemic rolling blackout in electoral politics, governance, and economics, the loss of confidence and even belief in legitimacy among the citizenry, that accumulate not as separable and discrete problems to be solved within the liberal frame but as interconnected crises of legitimacy and a portent of liberalism’s end times.”

In order to protect all the rampant “rights” of its citizens, the government ends up betraying them. This lends the government enormous, totalitarian power. The great insight of Professor Deneen was therefore in realizing that, “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded.” Whenever a philosophy goes against the natural inclinations of a society, the more suspicious we should be of it. A community seeks unity through friendships and the mingling of bloodlines. An absolutist state seeks the same through the dissemination of propaganda and “re-training classes”. A community will engage in warfare for political or economic reasons. An absolutist state will engage in it as a matter of ideological principle.

We must not be lured by ideology which promises everlasting peace and prosperity for all. We must not fall prey to those who say, “the government will take care of it!”, or, “the only way of achieving this is by socializing it!” (that is, through the imposition of high taxes and re-distribution at the state level). People who say such things are not being mindful of the millions of souls who paid the ultimate price because, they too, wanted to see a world of goodness but donned that responsibility to the state instead of their own selves.

To close, it might be well to finish with Tocqueville, who described the American people as a society who, “do more to honor their philosophy than to themselves.” Indeed, let’s think about how we can become better as individuals before trying to make everyone as a group, better.

 

Passionless Passion & Wild Tranquility

One rainy, autumn day, I came home and felt a greeting. There was no one in my apartment. It was all silent and still, except for the falling rain and rustling of the pines. And yet, I felt a greeting by that same silence. An invitation akin to a dialogue you’d have with someone else. This “other” being my own self.

Through interior reflection, I have recently discerned a growing desire to learn about the nature of silence, and the ways which my life should be more conducive towards it. As a technologist and constant learner, information is almost always flowing though my mind, forming ideas and thoughts, compelling me to action. As such, I grow restless, and in that restlessness, more thoughts and ideas prop up, repeating an endless cycle of noise.

In his Pensée, Blaise Pascal wrote that, “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” How often have you found yourself like this? How often do we find ourselves fiddling for our phones or seeking something to get distracted with? The way I see it, our society has devolved into a utilitarian economy, where people derive meaning from how much they produce, and accumulate. I am no exception. I too have dwelt in these false notions of functionalism and activism, in the sense that I only derive my self-worth from how much I create.

The fact of the matter is this this is not a Christian way to see the world. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that God is ipsum esse substantium, the very act of being itself. God just is. That’s why in Exodus He reveals to Moses His name as “I am who I am.” Being as we are, that is, being in silence, takes effort. There’s a struggle in our minds and hearts when we find that there’s nothing else to do, when we’re bored, when we feel that we’re lacking in attention.

One morning I went out to eat brunch with my sister and as soon as we sat down I scrolled through my Twitter. To my chagrin, my sister quickly took my phone with the same disdain as a parent would take a fragile object from an infant’s hand. Immediately I felt annoyed and felt compelled to ask for it back, but then I saw her put my phone alongside hers at the edge of the table and looked at me with inquisitive eyes. That’s when I got it. I was acting out an addiction to noise, failing to see that in the silence between us siblings there’s the calming notion that we currently are, and are sharing time together.

Let’s dive into the deep quiet of ourselves. Let us plunge into that dark desert, unexplored, endless by its very nature. We may find hidden within it our precious Creator, waiting lovingly for us to call. This cannot be accomplished through an emotional experience,  inspiring talk or riveting speech; but instead in a quiet place, with a searching attitude, away from the horizontal dimension of time and instead unto one that transcends vertically to the world beyond.

In the words of Fulton Sheen, “God will take anyone who is willing to love, not with an occasional gesture, but with a ‘passionless passion,’ a ‘wild tranquility.'” In other words, within the Silence of our hearts.

 

Bluegrass with a Heavenly Twist

When I first heard The Hillbilly Thomists, I recalled the words of GK Chesterton echoing in his smoky Beaconsville office, towering above me with his enormous gut of jolly while declaring, “it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most” (6). Indeed, it was St. Francis’ stark poverty in contrast to the opulence of the church that gave rise to a great order of mendicants, and it was St. Thomas’ heavenly metaphysics that has inspired generations of scientists from succumbing to materialism. Today, we have The Hillbilly Thomists’ first album as a powerful counter-cultural force to modernity, pitting the old world of banjos, bagpipes and drum sets into the new millennium, and the result is a joy to hear!

The album begins with “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” a glorious ode to living a life solely dependent on Christ. Right from the start, the song bursts with toe-tapping energy, solidly carrying the message of fellowship and peace into the bluegrass genre. Half-tuned violins fill the melodies with excited riffs, accompanied by that distinctive, vocal sound of Kentucky bluegrass. “Angel Band” slows down the tempo with its sparkling guitar accompaniment, while Gregorian chant-trained Dominicans add a touch of the divine to an otherwise earth-scented genre.

hbt-album-cover-front-e1512851990437

Doesn’t this make you wanna rock a banjo?

This ragtag group of preachers has made new recompositions of old songs, while creating new ones such as “I’m a Dog.” This original composition was written by the band’s lead vocalist, Br. Justin Bolger, formerly a professional singer and songwriter before entering the order of the Dominicans. The “dog” of course, being a reference to the popular symbol of the Dominicans as a dog with a torch in its mouth, spreading the good news of the Lord to all lands in faithful friendship with his Master. The lyrics (as they frequently do throughout the album) convey the paradoxical message that life is short and passing, yet it’s most well-lived by giving it away: “Making noise while I got time / Spreading fire while I got earth.” There’s no trace of melancholy or sadness in this sacrifice —it’s an exuberance that can only be described as child-like in sincerity.

My favorite song however, would be “What Wondrous Love Is This.” It asks the impossible question of why our Lord suffered such a terrible death for us, who are insignificant and imperfect: “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss / to bear the dreadful curse for my soul / for my soul.” But the song never gives an answer to this question. It’s reminiscing of God’s answer to Job: “Where were you when I founded the earth? / Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). The song goes through one last, short chorus (“Through eternity I’ll sing on”) then breaks away into an epic 3-minute banjo and violin accompaniment. Drums beat steady and strong, while strings ring in vibratio, as if they tremble at the existential question that has been posed. All in all, the album conveys the energy of a soul’s heroic journey through life, asking this same question but never being provided a direct answer, because it’s impossible…In the meantime, all we can do is “sing on” in praise of such “wondrous love.”

Works Cited
Chesterton, G. K. Saint Thomas Aquinas. Image Classics. 1974.

Should we be polite with our AI machines?

The short answer is no. You don’t have to say, “I’m sorry to bother you” to your iPhone before unlocking it, just like you wouldn’t have to excuse yourself to a dog before you go to the restroom, and even less if it were a sad cactus in your home office. The long answer however, reveals something incredibly unique about our human nature and civilization itself.

I was mindlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed as the social media overlord has instructed me to do, when I came across Chaim Gartenberg’s article on The Verge that debated whether we should say “thank you” or “please” to our AI gadgets.

My first instinct was to think this ridiculous; but then I started remembering all those times I would say “thank you” to travel website chatbots, Siri, Cortana and God knows how many more AI devices out there.

Like Chaim, I’m only polite as a habit. But then it got me wondering: as AI improves should we start being actually polite with our machines? There’s already a religion dedicated to it (founded by ex-Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski), does that mean we’ll all have to pay our respects to these super-smart machines in a not-so-distant-future?

Just so we’re all on the same page, Politeness comes from the latin word politus, meaning refined, elegant. Right from this definition, we can sense something different about politeness in people vs machines. You can certainly program a chatbot to be polite (I do). But that’s all the AI does: it acts on the parameters from which it has been programmed. I myself have to make an effort to be polite —I can forget, be lazy or simply not want to. A sufficiently advanced AI could observe how people behave with one another and emulate that behavior. Thus it would be learning to be polite from “experience.” With the addition of reinforced learning, it could know with whom to be polite and how to polite to be, depending on the person with whom it’s interacting with.

But could the AI actually learn politeness? Can it come to the conclusion that it should behave with reverence towards a person?

I don’t think so.

Being polite with someone else marks the person by distinguishing him/her with status. More than status however, it sets the person apart from the unconscious savagery of humanity and instead lifts the person into the realm of civilization. Voltaire erred in believing that, left to his original, uncivilized state, man would flourish and evil would dissipate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leave a man to his “natural state” and he will rape, steal and kill his way into survival. The very fact that humanity developed civilization was to escape from this inner savagery. By being polite, we do the opposite: we give reverence to the other person, show a civilized fear, acknowledge their dignity. To have an artificial intelligence come to the understanding that a person has God-given rights, with an infinite value that cannot be grasped, is impossible.

Program your AI’s however you’d like; interact with the machines however you deem; but don’t expect that the machine will behave just like you, because it is not you. It’s a machine.

The Divergence: a response to Sam Altman’s The Merge

I usually let the monster that is the internet alone and distant. It’s a dangerous place to speak your mind because you never know if someone (or something) will bite back. However, after reading through Y Combinator founder Sam Altman’s blog post on the emerging singularity, I couldn’t help but notice the unusually dark statements for a silicon Valley technocrat to make. No words on “bringing the world closer together”, or “making the world a better place.” Instead, the future of technology apparently has a more deathly tone.

There’s sense in some of the points he makes. Genetic engineering of human embryos is already happening and the practice may very well continue into the 21st century. Whether it will continue into the 22nd is still a toss-up, for who knows what sort of monstrosity will be engineered then that can still be called “human”. Machine interfaces will become increasingly invasive within our bodies —even if modern medicine has sough to do the opposite. I can also fully attest to the addictive qualities that the internet has and how it messes with our brains to a large degree. It’s effects have been thoroughly proven in science labs and family dinners.

Mr. Altman describes how talking about the singularity is a topic you wouldn’t want to bring up on a dinner party. “It feels uncomfortable and real enough.” I agree on this too. I would find it extremely uncomfortable to tell my fellow partygoers how in just a few years they will be overtaken by a disembodied artificial intelligence that will wipe out humanity and establish itself as the dominant species. Not a great way to set the mood.

However, I still think it falls short from the world’s greatest one-liner: that God made himself a man, was crucified for humanity’s sins and rose from the dead. I’ve yet to find a more astounding claim than this.

There are varying opinions as to what the singularity is but I’ll stick to what outspoken investor and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has defined as “the accelerating pace of smarter and smarter machines [that] will soon outrun all human capabilities”. In his article, Sam states how “It is a failure of human imagination and human arrogance to assume that we will never build things smarter than ourselves.” Indeed, machines have already started their “worldwide domination”: “Our phones control us…search engines decide what we think.” It’s for this reason I believe he titled his article The Merge, since not only is the singularity real and forthcoming, it’s already here and taking over!

There’s a certain sense of the ridiculous that people who are satisfied with yesteryear’s smartphone have when they hear about the singularity. The tick of the singularity seems to affect those that are closer to event horizon of Silicon Valley, itself a singularity of enlightened thinking mixed with hubris that not even Hawking could have foreseen. There seems something fantastical in the technocrat’s statements, something so alien and insane that either the person who predicts these things is either completely right or just utterly wrong. The sheer audacity of their statements should make us either tremble at the potential fallout, or wonder at this person’s sanity. I think the singularity is a very serious issue to address, because the concepts which it rests on are practical and present in our daily lives.

Artificial intelligence is I daresay, a beautiful tool that we can use to our advantage. It decides what Youtube video you can watch next, and makes sure spammers don’t submit fake reviews in your restaurant’s profile. It’s apparently also used in business and scientific research. Yet Sam, Paul and others are worried about AI becoming too smart for our well-being. In both definitions, “smarter” hinges as the indicator for how superior or inferior a machine can be when compared to us.

According to them, “smartness” is the defining characteristic that separates my Macbook’s chess-playing AI from our future robot overlords. But creating such distinction is meaningless —firstly from an ambiguity of what “smart” means, and secondly by comparing a material object with a material-spiritual composite.

Its common to call someone smart when he/she does well at school, gets high scores in an exam, or can recall a book word by word. These are essentially computational tasks. They require an input, a processing stage, and produce an output. This stage of intelligence can increase by one’s ability to abstract patterns and universals from particulars. A child learns that pointy things can hurt, or that red signs can signify danger. We’ve created AI that can do these things too (albeit to a lesser degree).

But a machine can never understand the higher sphere of intelligence which we inhabit. Say what you want about Google’s DeepDream or the plethora of structures in contemporary architecture created by algorithms. I doubt any computer could produce a painting as mysterious as a Mona Lisa, or a building that elevates one’s soul as the Cathedral of Notre Dame. There’s that innate feature of humanity —a willingness to waste resources, waste away time, even waste away himself— to create something that’s utterly useless, but essential for one’s spiritual survival. And therein a pivotal difference in Mr. Altman’s view of human intelligence vs computational intelligence —that it all boils down to a deductive and logical reasoning caused by chemical reactions in our synapses. After all, as Paul Allen says, ”an adult brain is a finite thing, so its basic workings can ultimately be known through sustained human effort.”

But can we be so sure that our intellectual capacity for the infinite be housed in such a finite thing as our brain?

Many people forget that the scientific method is a philosophy. It’s a way of looking at the world by material causes and effects. It’s a wonderfully effective method of thinking about the world, but it’s not the only one, and certainly not the exclusive one. If any Marvel fans are reading this, they might recall a scene where The Ancient One tells Dr. Strange: “All your life you’ve looked at things through a keyhole.” Observe how every time a person insists there is nothing (or no one) outside our material universe spiral into a spiritual fervor many religious people would envy to have. Famed Google and Facebook AI engineer Anthony Levandowski has even founded his own AI-based religion titled, “The Way.” A blatant plagiarizing of course, of a motto that has been in use for two thousand years. My point is that a superior intellect residing in a machine created by man is illogical. Since such a “higher intelligence” is immaterial (and therefore not subject to time since it cannot change by its very nature), it cannot be handled and thus manipulated. You cannot empty the whole ocean into a bucket.

The ultimate fear of the singularity is machines becoming self-aware, and destroying its creators in the process. Can machines kill? Of course. People have been killed by falling into machinery or had their hands cut off by a chainsaw. Can machines kill intentionally? Now there’s the rub, because to have intention requires a deliberate act of the will, and having free will requires the entity to have understanding of itself and the possibility of either acting or not acting. Proponents of the singularity deem this to be possible, as Paul Allen has stated; since the human intellect is nothing but matter and therefore a biological organ whose capabilities can be replicated.

I am of the sort that believes the world is larger and weirder than any of us could dream of. I have good reasons to believe, and have had enough life experience, to acknowledge that there is more to this universe than matter, and that our humanity cannot be reduced to a heart pumping blood into our brain sending electrical signals in the process. That’s no basis for “certain, inalienable rights,” no justification for the inestimable value we place on a stranger when compared to a dog. Indeed, No one puts a lump of coal behind a vault; we recognize the special quality of humanity because, like a diamond, it shines with beauty and goodness. That is the sort of future I decide to believe in and one I am happy to live for. And future robot overlords? More like future robot servants.

A Fall Poem

Over and across the rooftops,

the fall leaves from proud trees stand,

glimmering like gold in the softening sun.

Feel the rustling air that brings a deathly cold,

the passing of time against all who feel so bold.

 

Beneath the dancing leaves,

of sweet red Maple, and quiet White Birch

When our love blossomed against cold frost

And a knot was tied for you, the prettiest of all,

In an old weathered chapel, in a lonely red fall.

 

In this mellow autumn sunset

The cloudless orange sky beholds,

Our winter’s store is filled, we borne no ill.

Guided well, a crimson victory’s never tasted so swell.

And now that we’ve consumed, it holds us under sweet spell.

 

How charmingly fragrant,

trees perfume themselves in fall.

The falling leaves, the dying trees, the cycle of life

—retold. The Wheel gives and takes without heed

And I, a lonely reed, will pray under misty breath my creed.

 

Under the damp, grey heavens,

Under a chill wind where all hope lessens,

The dimming gold turns grey, light is chocked,

But the memory of your coming beacons above reason,

A hope that spring will come, and thus, that love is for all season.

“Millennial” is a meaningless concept

“We can all agree that Millennials are the worst,” proclaims Philip Bump from The Atlantic. As a “millennial” myself, there are little things I find more irritating than to be labeled as one. Indeed a poll already shows that “Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label” -oh the irony! Legions of marketing consultants/gurus/evangelists/futurists herald the coming-of-age of this group as a golden opportunity, a last chance, for corporate conglomerates to get in the action. “Hurry or you’ll miss this once-in-a-lifetime chance to earn millions!” is at least a more honest proclamation for what we know is already a scam.

The absurdity of stereotyping a group that is now “the largest living demographic in the United States,” is akin to saying that 50% of the people in the world are women. Yes, we know that. They’re all around, can’t you see? The endless parade of clickbait headlines such as “U.S. and European Millennials differ on their views of fate, future”, “Millennials care about the environment” and “More than half of Millennials have shared a ‘selfie’” paints a more ambiguous image of this population than a Jackson Pollock.

It’s time to stop the selling of ideas on the basis of a conceptual demographic turned up by a Harvard lawyer back when The Bangle’s Walk Like An Egyptian was not considered politically incorrect.

My advice to companies who rely too much on expensive, 3rd party marketing research firms is simple: look around. There’s no need to make a 54-long slide on information you can get by simply walking to your next door neighbor and asking.

There’s a saying that people are not persuaded by reason, but by emotion. There’s some truth to that. I do believe you need reasoned evidence to support your claims, but simply laying out statistics about people and weaving together a story more fragile than a dandelion is simply not a way to sell a product or service. What happens if the wind blows?

And don’t even get me started on the “Z generation”. Though kids are admittedly playing too many video games.

Blockchain & Capitalism

“It’s not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. — Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Blockchain fulfills the most basic principle of capitalism, trust, to a degree that’s without equal to anything else we have today. Without trust, out entire economic system fails. If I can’t be assured that my payment will arrive to you untampered, I wouldn’t trade with you at all. This novel technology ensures the security of transactions by tying every single one together, such that braking, or hacking into a single block, will affect every other one in the chain —hence, a blockchain. In an era where hacks are putting a massive dent in the trust we have for institutions, blockchains democratize that trust and places it at the hands of every person interacting with it. It’s fitting paradox that, in the same way greed enables capitalism (by having people work for their own self-interest), blockchain enables it by relying on the fact that no one trusts one another. A sad state of affairs? Yes, but it’s a solution that works.

I won’t go into explaining the fundamentals of blockchain. There are numerous sources where you can find that out, such as here, here and here. Suffice to say, Mr. Nakamoto’s invention of Bitcoin did indeed change the world for the better, though not perhaps in delivering that much-awaited libertarian utopia. Bitcoin as a cryptocurrency is speculative at it’s best, “a fraud” at it’s worst (according to JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon). It’s fluctuating price is a rollercoaster that mirrors the same emotional moods as its investors: ecstasy, or perplexity. I don’t want to negate the validity of cryptocurrencies however. They do have it’s use and purpose, the same way you purchase tokens at a Chucky cheese to partake in the privileges of jumping into a ball pit, or eating a the pizza equivalent of a cholesterol bomb. Certain merchants would want the privacy to sell goods and services, away from the prying eyes of government. That’s all good! As long as they follow the laws of their state. My belief is that it’s underlying technology, blockchain will become the most important technology in the next decade —ahead of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars (unless Elon Musk lands on Mars in 2025 and starts a colony. A timeline which even he calls “aspirational.”)

The processing of transactions worldwide is the engine that drives the economic growth. Adam Smith recalls the necessity of trust between parties to exchange goods: “In a free trade, an effectual combination cannot be established but by the unanimous consent of every single trader, and it cannot last longer than every single trader continues of the same mind” (Book IV, Chapter VIII). This trust is essential before any transaction takes place. The rise of globalism has connected traders from every corner of the world to exchange every single kind of good imaginable. It allows me to drink this coffee right now from Guatemala, while eating bread with flour imported from Colombia and raisins from California, all the while I type this in a MacBook manufactured in China. Milton Friedman famously stated how not a single person on earth knows how to make make a pencil (a retail pencil). Someone had to cut the trees, another had to operate the machinery that stripped the trunk, another had to paint it, another had to market it, another had to take it to the retail location, and finally someone had to place it on the Wal-Mart shelf. Every single one of these transactions has to be recorded to ensure that it’s compliant and someone is not cooking the books. It’s a laborious process that takes days to do and mountains of paperwork. Blockchain eliminates the paperwork and cuts the transaction time in milliseconds.

It’s a tough competition, but blockchain technology could become an even larger player in the next coming years than artificial intelligence. Many companies are struggling to implement AI. Some have successfully applied it to their business (like Google and Amazon), but many, many more have failed to find a meaningful return on investment. It’s also no surprise: current AI training requires very large amounts of data in the first place. A data scientist (or a team) must then parse through the data and ensure it’s “cleaned.” Finally, it’s fed to the AI system and we’ll all hope that it will return a meaningfully low cost function to operate in production. However, all of these steps require time, investment of resources and most importantly, investment of talent. It’s a luxury that many companies cannot undertake. Now I won’t say that Blockchain is a piece of cake to implement, you’d have to install the software, connect it to the payment systems and educate the workforce, but the returns can be immediately experienced: faster processing times, increased security and better transparency.

In economics, there are three ways to be the top player in a market: be first, be best or be the only one (a monopoly). The mavericks have jumped on the blockchain ship and the rest of the world is playing catch up. It’s up to companies now to decide whether to join in, or let the sharks (i.e greedy hackers demanding ransoms in Bitcoin) encircle the less protected ones. It’s a rainy day as I write this, and I’m comfortable going to bed tonight knowing what kind of world awaits for me tomorrow. Which one will you decide to have? One that runs on cryptocurrencies, or one that’s demanding you money through a cryptocurrency?

AI: Savior or Curse?

The first observation in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was on the division of labor. More specifically, how an economy, as it progresses, becomes increasingly compartmentalized into specialized divisions that produce a particular good or service. For example, a single shoe maker will not be as fast, or efficient as 10 shoemakers doing a particular part of the same shoe. Today’s division of labor is being supplied by advanced in artificial intelligence. The creation of a digital mind that can perform complex, human-like tasks is being implemented on a wide scale in enterprises. This has brought great gains in productivity, but also challenges in it’s usage.

Recently, a machine-learning program at JPMorgan just saved it 360,000 hours of interpreting mundane loan agreement. Google uses an AI program to save 15% on it’s energy expenditures at it’s data centers. These and many other examples are playing out in the world right now. Increasing productivity in organizations and thereby making them wealthier.

However there is also the ever-looming challenge of implementing the AI. Unlike a software program, the AI must be trained with huge amounts of data. If the data were corrupt, if the training algorithms were off, or the skills required by the AI don’t match the application for which it was designed, it could easily become a multimillion dollar mistake.

AI doesn’t solve everything, nor is it a technology to be dismissed. Like anything, it is a tool whereby we can use to our advantage, if we think about it carefully enough. If we see AI as a means, rather than an end in itself, business and organizations can bring about the new, 4th revolution that the internet for now has failed to deliver —apparently people feel more distracted than wise when watching compilations of cat videos or seeing the zillionth newborn baby on their Facebook feeds.