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How to Make Money Off the Singularity

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When the new Terminator flick hits the big screen this summer, movie goers will once again be confronted by a question that has confounded Joe and Jane Average ever since 1984, when we first saw Arnold Schwarzenegger as a wise-cracking cyborg assassin.

Now, we are not talking about why James Cameron bet his audience would accept hearing a robotic soldier from the future speaking with an Austrian accent. The big question popularized by the Terminator franchise is whether or not we mere mortals need to worry about a real-life version of Skynet leading a takeover of humanity.

It is OK to be skeptical. But if you are reading this on your iPad or iPhone, then keep in mind that the technical mind behind Apple was Steve Wozniak, not Steve Jobs. And Woz is a vocal believer in The Singularity, the techie term for when artificial intelligence overtakes human thinking and we all pay the price for creating the engine of our own demise. "Computers are going to take over from humans, no question," Wozniak recently told the Australian Financial Review, adding people will be lucky to end up treated like family pets instead of being stepped on like ants by indifferent technology.

If you are not an Apple fan, well, then please note that Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, just happens to be Google's head of artificial intelligence.

Simply put, as Stephen Hawking once remarked, "Success in creating artificial intelligence would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last."

The good news, at least according to Owen Shapiro, the Chicago-based author of Brand Shift: The Future of Brands and Marketing, is that all we really know about the future is that the so-called "Rise of the Machines" will create business opportunities for respected brands.

In "Profiting from the Rise of the Machines," a commentary published by the new Ivey Business Journal, Shapiro points out that "sophisticated forms of artificial intelligence along with Big Data and the Internet of Things have already created a communications network that operates much like a brain, with personal computers and mobile devices serving as synapses."

Shapiro argues this techno-neural network could conceivably evolve into something representative of another form of consciousness -- one that is better, faster and smarter than any human. "Progress," he adds, "always leads to disruption and anxiety. This time something additional will happen -- humans will lose their sense of uniqueness. Just as the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo dislodged Earth and people from the centre of creation, the continuing advances of technology make human accomplishments seem smaller and less significant."

As far as Shapiro is concerned, the psychological impact of this displacement cannot be overstated. And as people try to cope with a related loss of identity, income and social status, there will be a huge opportunity for older trusted brands that have stood the test of time to re-assert themselves as a source of guidance and comfort. "The social dislocation caused by an increasingly mechanized society will spur many people to re-examine their humanity and focus on self-actualization and transcendence," Shapiro says. "For these consumers, the old drivers of brands -- status/social acceptance/security -- will be far less powerful than their desire to find purpose and meaning in life."

In other words, at this point there is really no reason to fear the future, unless you are a brand manager stuck in the past.

About the author: Thomas Watson is an award-winning business journalist and editor of the new Ivey Business Journal published by the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ont.

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