The Hot Seat – Al Chalabi. Swen Lorenz interviews the Co-Author of Fast Forward

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9 mins. to read
The Hot Seat – Al Chalabi. Swen Lorenz interviews the Co-Author of Fast Forward

Al, how does one get the job of being a book author working alongside Jim Mellon? Where do I need to apply?

I’ve known Jim since the late 1990s when he used to live in Hong Kong. It was on one of his visits to the Territory back in 2003 when we were catching up and chatting about various things that we started talking about the global economy and how it had embarked on an unsustainable path. Jim then mentioned that he was thinking of writing a book and asked me if I would be interested in co-authoring it with him. Neither of us had written a book before but we were both up for a new challenge. By the end of 2005, our first book “Wake Up! Survive and Prosper in the Coming Economic Turmoil” was published by Wiley in the UK. We both enjoyed the experience and process of researching and learning about new things and have continued to co-author books on a number of topics since.

You are working from Hong Kong. Does being in Asia influence your perspective when writing a book about future trends in technology? Aren’t most of these trends shaped in the US?

That may be the case, but in today’s world of instant information dissemination, it is not difficult to access the latest publications, breakthroughs and trends in the private sector and at universities in the US. Being based in Hong Kong allows me to be more objective and less biased. Amazing things come out of other parts of the world, too, especially from Europe, Japan and, increasingly, China.

The book has been out for a few months now. What are some of the reactions you have been receiving from readers?

They love the way it looks and feels, which is great as we spent more time and effort with that this time round. Also, many readers have complimented us in how well the book reads and flows. Again, this is reassuring to hear, as we always set out to explain topics that are often complex in a way that is more digestible and less intimidating to readers who are not familiar with the subject matter.

Let’s speak about some of the key themes of the book. On a purely personal level, which one of the chapters of the book do you believe will affect your life and that of your family the most, and why?

It would be impossible to pick one; they all will, from the automation of cars to living a longer, healthier life. Within a decade all of the chapter themes will be mainstream and indispensable to our way of life, in the same way that smartphones have become today.

I was fascinated by the chapter on driverless cars. This is a trend that will affect all of us and can lead to massive shifts in entire industries, e.g. it will have massive reverberations on a number of insurance companies which in turn affects investors. What are the latest developments in terms of driverless cars?

Driverless cars continue to be extensively tested in the US and other countries, such as the UK, Germany and Japan. The Google driverless car project has been a great call to action for the traditional auto makers, many of whom have decided to get in on the act or risk becoming irrelevant in the future. California is the most prepared place to accept driverless cars and we’re likely to see them go on sale there by 2017 or so. You are correct about insurance companies; current policies and laws will have to be updated. Algorithms in driverless cars will also be open to law suits if it is deemed that poor judgement was made that resulted in a loss of life or injury. There probably needs to be a standardized set of decision-making algorithms for driverless cars, managed by a dedicated body. These algorithms can be reviewed periodically and upgraded when necessary. That will allow driverless cars to predict how other driverless cars will behave, thus reducing the likelihood of an accident. Undoubtedly, driverless cars will make our roads safer in the future as most accidents are caused by human error, and we will see less traffic-related fatalities as a result. Longer term, driverless cars will reduce the need of owning a car altogether as we will be able to call upon a car as and when we need one for specific journeys.

Let’s speak about Crypto currencies. I love how you make this subject easily comprehensible for readers of your book. The price of a Bitcoin is down by three quarters since its peak and the initial hype seems to be over. Is it time to buy?

True, the price of Bitcoin seems to have stabilized in the US$200-300 range, and it may be worth a small punt for the more adventurous investor. The concept of a crypto-currency is fantastic and it seriously challenges traditional currencies and banks alike. That said it is still too soon to determine whether Bitcoin will be the crypto-currency of choice in the future, as there are other crypto-currencies that could emerge as a favourite. The very fact that Bitcoin is not backed by anything makes many people very uneasy about holding it. Most people who buy things with Bitcoin will convert only what they need for the transaction, and those who receive Bitcoin tend to convert it to dollars so as not to have to worry about its wild daily volatility.

At our yearly event, the Master Investor show on April 25th in London, we will have a Tesla S on display. In your book, you mention that in your view, the shares of Tesla are over-valued. The company is worth a staggering $25bn. Last year’s sales were $3.1bn. Given the hype surrounding technology shares, would now be a good time to look for shares you can short?

At current levels, Tesla’s shares are down some 30% from their highs of last year. Its shares are now trading at “only” 8 times 2014 revenues, despite announcing a loss of $294 million for last year. The Tesla S is a beautiful car and I notice they have become very popular in Hong Kong over the past year, where electric cars are exempt from the 100% duty levied there on most new car purchases. Although I am reasonably bearish on Tesla (there are an increasing number of alternative electric cars from the traditional auto makers), I acknowledge that Tesla has a “wow” factor that can allow it to trade at elevated levels for beyond what my patience can bear. I do think it is a good time to have some NASDAQ shorts as a hedge, with companies such as Amazon and LinkedIn being more vulnerable to a market correction.

One of the chapters of the book is about new media, and how the rise of entirely new channels has changed the fortunes of existing companies. How have all these changes affected your own media consumption? I imagine that you spend most of your time reading?

Indeed I spend several hours of my work day reading articles from various newspapers, magazines, journals and analyst reports. I have been doing this for the past decade, so not much has changed for me on that front. However over the past few years, I have pretty much stopped reading from printed magazines and newspapers altogether and only occasionally do I read a printed book. Electronic media is far more accessible, portable and constantly updating itself.

Any favourite blogs or apps you would like to recommend to our readers?

I’m not a follower of any specific blogs as I tend to read material from all over the place, but I do love to watch the TED Talks when I get the chance. I have learned some fascinating things over the years from TED. In terms of apps, I’m a fan of Duolingo, which is a great way to learn a new language. For an occasional challenge, I like to play an app called QuizUp, which matches you against people across the world to answer quiz questions on a wide range of topics.

Speaking of blogs, I believe our readers will regularly hear from you on the blog of Master Investor. Fast Forward is filled with massive amounts of information about a wide variety of subjects. If you had to pick one chapter to write an update about right now, which one would it be? Even in the space of just a few months since finishing the book, there must have been many exciting developments?

All the chapters are about technology, which means that they continue to develop at a frenetic pace. It wouldn’t be possible to isolate one chapter as having made more advances than the others since the book was published.

Besides private investors, who do you think should read your book?

I think Fast Forward would be an enjoyable read for anyone who is curious about the future. The book would also be interesting for teachers and academics, even those who are not involved in the technology sector. I also believe that it would be an invaluable read for students, as it can spark an area of interest that they may wish to pursue as a career, or even to study at a post-graduate level.

Last but not least, and forgive my being nosy, is the next book already in the making?

Currently, Jim and I are still enjoying promoting Fast Forward. We may bounce a few ideas off each other this summer when we catch up. We are always open to suggestions!

Terrorism, spiralling debt, Ebola, over-population, transport strikes, failing hospitals, cost of living crisis, inflation, deflation….

Given all the doom and gloom pumped out by the mainstream press every day, it’s not surprising that we often forget just how well off humans really are in the 21st Century. Despite all the apparent misery, we should not forget how much more healthy, wealthy and prosperous we really are compared with our relatives of just a few generations ago.

To give some examples, global life expectancies have increased by over 40 years since 1809; an estimated one billion people have been taken out of poverty in the developing world in the past 20 years; and per capita GDP on a global scale has almost doubled since the turn of the century. But given the rate of technological progress we may soon be looked back upon as paupers by our grandchildren.

In Fast Forward Jim Mellon and Al Chalabi argue that a new era of change is upon us, with advanced technologies accelerating productivity and making most of the global population even better off than before. And for investors there will be plenty of opportunities to profit along the way.

Fast Forward is published by Fruitful Publications can be bought in hardback and kindle format from http://www.fastforwardbook.com/

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