Book Club: What We’re Reading and Why

2018-12-21T13:21:48+01:00December 21st, 2018|Book Club|

Brief Answers to the Big Questions – by Stephen Hawking

When reading Stephen Hawking’s final book, which was published posthumously, I was pleased to discover that not only does it give a comprehensive insight into some of the key questions he devoted his life to understanding, but it is also thoroughly entertaining and a truly spell binding read.

Despite the rather high expectations raised by the title, what fascinated me more than the “answers”, were in fact the questions posed by Hawking. He attempts to cover some colossal themes from God’s existence, to global warming and the survival of humanity.

Throughout, Hawking manages to convey his unsaturable passion for science whilst warning loud and clear that our planet is on the verge of collapse: polluted, overpopulated, and exhausted. Whilst he elaborates on how humanity has consistently destroyed its own natural habitat, interestingly he appears more concerned about the risk of a nuclear disaster by human error, terrorist action or machine failure. He concludes that “the best time to stop the autonomous weapons arms race is now”.

On this subject, he provides brilliant clarity on artificial intelligence, touching on both its benefits and its dangers. Hawking warns of the potential damage should humanity fail to tread carefully. However, he believes that successfully creating true AI “would be the biggest event in human history”.

I particularly like how he demystifies advanced robotics by focusing on the facts. Often references to AI are misused and emotionalised, especially in conjunction with topics such as machine learning or block chain.

The book repeatedly returns to the underlying theme of recognising the longer term consequences of our actions today. Hawking reiterates that the use of our knowledge is crucial in limiting negative impact. He argues that “our future is a race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we use it”.

There are some learnings for investors here: The question of the longer term implications of todays actions is very important when making investment decisions; some products and services may initially look attractive, but future risks need to be factored in. Excessive growth could meet strong regulatory headwinds or end up in existential trouble or have adverse effects on consumers. Take, for example, online gaming and the many unintended effects this has on society in general, and particularly children.

Hawking also makes some brief, yet incredibly relevant comments on contemporary politics. While he refers to the election of Mr. Trump a few times in a humorous way, he comments on Brexit and Trump as “witnessing a global revolt against experts, which includes scientists”. He elaborates beautifully on the importance of teaching and learning, “behind every exceptional person there is an exceptional teacher”. This is a great reminder of the vital importance of our educational institutions. Interestingly, it is a subject that we encounter frequently at Mobius Capital Partners. As Asian universities slowly conquer the list of the top schools in the world, a domain previously occupied by the US and the UK, the implications are far reaching for local businesses and the wider societies they serve.

Hawking’s death coincided with Einstein’s birthday and his famous predecessor features often in his last book. “Where did his ingenious ideas come from?” asks Hawking. He concludes “a blend of qualities, perhaps: intuition, originality, brilliance. Einstein had the ability to look beyond the surface to reveal the underlying structure”.

I believe any good investor should aspire to these character traits. Originality is especially crucial when looking for unique investment opportunities, i.e. the importance of developing one’s own convictions and ideas independently from what others have suggested before.

Significantly, Brief Answers to the Big Questions leaves the reader with a positive assessment of technology and how its undeniable power can be harnessed by humanity. Technology helped Hawking communicate,  as well as lengthening his life by 30 years longer than doctors originally predicted. As a result, he is of the firm belief that there is much more to come, when facilitating human development.

He ends the book with this very encouraging and optimistic note. Motivating readers to look up at the stars and not down at their feet, to be curious and to be persistent.

Certainly this must have been his motto in life, and we all can learn so much from this great visionary.