If you are brave and agile enough to follow daily news from the various fields of modern technology, you are likely finding yourself obliged to admit that the idea of the technological singularity becomes less far fetched by the hour.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, cryptography have been moving along swimmingly while you weren’t looking and now they are in your toothbrush.
The singularity is coming, and while the average Amazon shopper is reasonably concerned about a robotic vacuum cleaner going rogue and maliciously chewing up their best shoes, the average tech investor is wondering how to be prepared for the unknown.
The big AI bang
The technological singularity, for the purposes of this discussion, is the hypothetical moment when the combined effects of artificial intelligence and machine learning will produce explosive technological development, leading to societal changes at a rate and on a scale unfathomable to the human mind.
Indeed, unfathomable even to the very imaginative, but unmistakably human minds of such extraordinary individuals of the species as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook.
Those who possess the intellectual or financial resources for guiding humanity’s socio-economic progress into the future are yet unable to look over the singularity horizon.
However, some facts are undeniable. The way we rely on traditional commodities and resources is constantly in flux, with some being relegated to the past and others coming to the forefront of new, sustainable planning. Values shift and consumption models change. Usage changes; the user stays – in fact, as global population grows, the user keeps on coming…
The matrix: users as commodity
The conduit through which most investments and returns are flowing today is neither the oil pipe nor the conveyor belt – it’s the retina display. In the aftermath of the Facebook scandals, a saying that seems to have been around for the entire history of advertisement has acquired a new poignance.
If you’re not paying for it, you are the product – Facebook, Instagram, Google. In fact, even if you are paying for it, there are higher-order proceedings in play, and you are still the data product even as you consume – Netflix, Amazon, Apple. In this battleground for eyeballs, pulses, lifestyles and wallets, the fight for the user is a zero-sum game for competing companies.
The pressure will only intensify as highly personalized interactive technologies come into full power. The internet of things, or as Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary Lo & Behold styles it, the Internet of Me, is the ultimate shrine to the user.
Connectivity and screens on household appliances and wearables mean untapped minutes, nay – hours, of user attention and consumption.
The bearer is the bond: users as security
Some of the most valuable US companies – and the ones that brought the most returns for their investors in the past decade – have no tangible assets or products. This phenomenon has been extracted into an absolute with some cryptocurrencies and ICOs, where there are no tangible or intangible products, only their expectation.
What gives such assets and products value is user demand and participation. If all Facebook users offloaded to a different platform tomorrow, the valuation would go with them. The fundamental things apply as time goes by – strength is in numbers.
In the opinion of many tech experts, wide adoption of new technologies is the main challenge – in fact, adoption takes longer and is more difficult than scaling. Now, companies and their investors can only depend on user numbers, user loyalty and user data to sustain their financial health through the uncertain future.
As fragile as those factors can be, they are the ones that make or break public companies’ fortunes in the modern economy.
No taxation without representation: users as community
Barring nuclear winter and cosmic apocalypse, people will continue to desire meaningful connections, to buy meaningless possessions and to watch adorable cats do silly things for hours. The singularity will certainly enable the best and the worst expressions of humanity, to the nth degree.
The transition to an intangible asset economy where users are a commodity is mostly complete, but a real achievement would be to win a fight for the user as a member of the global community.
While investing into users is clearly a solid strategy, there are different ways this can be manifested – from making money off the user, to making money with the user. Public ledger technology that brings transparency and immutability to data networks promises to give users back control over their own data.
As users get a sense of agency – not to mention compensation for their attention – companies enjoy a more substantive relationship with a more engaged audience.
Many Blockchain startups are treating the user as a collaborator, rather than a cash cow. Whether creating a dating app, a governance model as in cultu.re, a decentralized social network such as Minds, an entertainment portal as in Verasity or a social ledger that is U.Community – they are interested in attracting users through objective benefits and positive social impact, rather than addictive gimmicks.
Potentially, this is the approach that can create a living for the founders, a return for investors and a positive experience for the community – and that’s a fight for the user that everyone could feel good about, technical singularity or not.