Articles & stories Forget the Tech Wreck, Think About Star Trek
A storm over the use of Facebook data for nefarious political purposes led to a fall in several major tech stocks in the US on Monday, something already being described as the second “tech wreck” (following the early 2000s dotcom crash). Meanwhile, sad news emerged from Arizona of the first death of a pedestrian in an accident involving a self-driving car.
Does this mean we’d be happier going back to carrier pigeons and Fred Flintstone’s foot-powered car? Let’s not be too hasty. As the theme of the 2018 Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference (AIC) emphasizes, humans have been living with technological disruption for decades; the only difference now is the pace of change. Adjustment problems are to be expected.
Here Come The Robots
The backlash against tech goes deeper than worries about the proliferation of fake news. At its root are concerns about what place humans have in society. One of these concerns is the impact of automation on jobs, something that Raghuram Rajan, Professor of Finance at Booth School of Business and former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, raised in his Keynote Conversation on Tuesday at the AIC.
It’s not a new problem: "We tend to worry about technological change every so many years – we’ve been having that fear since the Luddites and before,” Rajan explained. “But society figures out new jobs we can do; it’s a matter of time and adjustment." He cited the example of concerns over what bank tellers would do when ATMs were being rolled out in the early 1990s. But by 2007 there were 30% more people employed in banking than 1990 – just in different jobs.
That said, Rajan admitted that the “adjustment problem” facing today’s workers laid off from sunset industries is severe “and we don't know how to solve it...Can the 50 year old steel worker move to writing code?" If not, the result is often likely to be political disruption of the type that has been roiling Western markets in recent years.
One of the biggest risks for investors is seeing only what’s happening on a linear basis.
The Investment Case
Genuine concerns around data security, privacy and the social impact of tech software and hardware shouldn’t be discounted. But both in terms of investment and societal impact there are cases to be made in favour of disruptive technology.
In terms of investment, it’s a fact that some of the potentially most disruptive technologies are far from overexposed. Angus Muirhead, Senior Portfolio Manager for Robotics at Credit Suisse, points out that “levels of penetration of robotics are still very low: we don't yet have fully autonomous vehicles on the road, most people don't have a robot vacuum cleaner, and so much of the manufacturing sector is only now starting to experiment with robotics.” (You can read more of Angus' take on robotics here.) Other research points out that AI too is still very much in its infancy in most industries.
Other technologies that have already reached critical mass—think ecommerce and social media—are now so big that they have become a defensive play owing to almost monopolistic margins and barriers to entry. Andrew Garthwaite, Head of Global Equity Strategy at Credit Suisse, pointed out that the two biggest internet players globally, for example, control 84% of the online digital ad market; Microsoft still dominates the PC OS market; Amazon dominates online retail; and Chinese big names dominate that market’s B2B and e-payments systems.
And yet despite this scale, technology change is still accelerating exponentially. Greater connectivity with the rise of smartphones and 4G networks; the rise in computing power; advances in 3D printing and battery storage and the sheer explosion in data are all contributing to exceptional speed of change. A number of sectors are poised to take off in light of these developments, including e-sports and games, the monetization models of which are evolving rapidly. In fact, one of the biggest risks for investors is seeing only what’s happening on a linear basis.
To Boldly Go…
While the investment case is not a hard one to make, given recent headlines the social benefits that technology disruption brings is a tougher sell. Yet speaker after speaker at the AIC demonstrated that disruption in technology is mostly a force for good. This could be thought of as the “Star Trek view” of science fiction: a future where humanity unites in common good for the harmonious exploration of space. (It’s not so far-fetched: Elon Musk sent a car into orbit with the express idea that “there need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity”.)
Take robots: “We sometimes forget that robotics are not just about improving productivity, but are in many cases a critical solution to labour shortage and to perform dangerous or dull and repetitive tasks,” Muirhead notes. Other speakers—including Imran Khan from Snapchat, speaking on the opening day of the AIC—noted the incentive of working in a company that has the power to impact hundreds of millions of people.
This was brought home in particular by Belva Devara, the 27-year-old founder of Ruangguru, an Indonesian tech startup that matches students and teachers, in which the Credit Suisse Asia Impact Investment Fund has taken a stake. Speaking at a panel on Tuesday entitled “How can we unlock the power of capital for positive change?”, Devara pointed out that without tech solutions, Indonesian students would be stuck with substandard education for generations.
"If we rely on business as usual it will take students in Jakarta 128 years to catch up with OECD education standards: we need to leapfrog, and tech is the answer." Ruangguru already has 7m users and is adding 1.5m per month.
So even if you’re irate about your tech portfolio at the moment, take some time to contemplate a future where science makes Star Trek a reality. Who knows, it may make work obsolete. As Rajan said, "The era when no one has a job is some distance away. When it comes we'll figure out how to enjoy our time."