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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Without looking too hard, we can all find evidence Barack Obama has begun to take his proverbial ‘foot off the gas’ as his tenure - as the 44th President of the United States -comes to an end. His tweet to the Chicago Cubs, congratulating them on their first World Series Baseball championship since 1908 and asking ‘Want to come to the White House before I leave?’ is a case in point. Last time the Cubs had enjoyed the same success, Thomas Edison was alive and sliced bread had not yet been invented, prompting Obama to declare (at a Hilary Clinton rally); the championship is ‘for Cubs fans, the greatest thing since sliced bread’. Despite his many skills as an orator, perhaps a post-presidential career as a stand up comedian is not on the cards.

Further evidence he may be relaxing into the home straight is his presence as a guest-editor of the US magazine Wired’s November issue. In this, he has listed his favourite science fiction films and TV shows, which include; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Star Wars: A New Hope; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Star Trek (original TV series, 1966-69) and Blade Runner.

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This insight, into Obama’s favourite films, has proven both timely and topical for us. During recent deliberations over the topic for this month’s VFTD, we reflected on some of the key themes portrayed in Blade Runner, as subjects for resonating with today’s global politics and markets. We appreciate Blade Runner is not everyone’s favourite film and its lack of commercial success, when it was first released in 1982, would indicate many of our readers may be unfamiliar with the plot. To address this, the words below are the opening credits as the film begins;

Early in the 21st Century, the TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the Nexus phase - a being virtually identical to a human - known as a Replicant. The NEXUS-6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labour, in the hazardous exploration and colonisation of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS-6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on Earth - under penalty of death. Special police squads - BLADE RUNNER UNITS - had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicants. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.”

The film is based on the book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’; a novel by American writer Philip K. Dick. First published in 1968, the book is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, where Earth's life has been greatly damaged by nuclear global war. Blade Runner is actually set in Los Angeles in the year 2019 (only just around the corner) and whilst it can be inferred, there is little reference or detail regarding a nuclear war. Instead – and what was the genesis for this VFTD – the film provides a view into a dystopian world, shaped by the impact of technology, globalisation, social division, immigration, environmental damage and corporate power. Human-like robots have been developed; a poor, impoverished underclass is forced to live in squalor, amid decaying streets and housing, whilst the rich live atop high buildings in luxury, able to breathe clean, fresh air and not subjected to the acid rain that permanently falls on the streets below. The rich are also able to leave Earth altogether and live on Off-world colonies, enjoying the wealth created for the few, as mega corporations and their owners benefit from globalisation.

And why this subject now?

As we publish this edition, the result of the US Presidential Election is imminent. For all of us who have watched the election debate unfold from afar, it is evident US society, like many others around the world, has become divided. Despite the wealth of the country, there is a real, or perceived, lack of any rise in living standards and a growing belief that those who are suffering the most from income inequality or stagnation have been let down by “elites”. This is a central theme in Blade Runner, where a large section of society is depicted as living in ruin, in the shadow of the almighty Tyrell Corporation.

Increasingly and in many countries, we are witnessing anger directed towards official institutions; mainstream political parties, elected governments, central banks, international organisations - like the World Bank and the European Union - and towards private institutions such as banks and big corporations. Perhaps more worryingly, this anger is also being focused against ideas; globalisation and free trade, immigration and tolerance, even capitalism itself. The pressure, from an electorate that is completely disenfranchised, is to do something different.

Globalisation is another theme addressed in Blade Runner. Released at a time when Americans feared Japan was about to usurp the US, as the world’s biggest economy, much of the advertising, on electronic billboards in Los Angeles 2019, features Japanese women promoting their products or brands. Today, we know – and a central argument in Trump’s campaign – the weakness in real wage growth can be attributed to trade flows from lower cost areas into international production chains and Western markets. The shift of industry to Asia and broader emerging markets has contributed to the loss of jobs in Western economies, particularly would be manufacturing workers; a key demographic for Trump.

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One final, very thought-provoking, storyline in Blade Runner is the advancement of technology and its impact on humanity. Many workers today are being displaced with robotics and increased computerisation. It has been estimated 80% of job losses in the US have been due to technology, not trade.** In theory, technological advancements should increase productivity and bring benefits to society via cheaper goods and services. Additionally, workers should be redeployed to other productive activities. Currently, this does not seem to be happening in the US. Those out of work are finding it increasingly difficult to find jobs, as often their skills sets are obsolete; resulting in long periods of un/under employment or situations where participation in the economy has simply stopped.

One can argue the ultimate representation of mankind’s technological advancement – both in Blade Runner and the present-day – is the creation of robots. Commentators today forecast an era where artificial intelligence (AI) results in machines replacing humans in an ever wider range of tasks. The data below estimates the probability of specific roles being replaced by a robot. Fortunately – perhaps - investment managers were not included! More seriously, we do believe this has the potential to profoundly impact the global economy and is already making its influence felt in the wealth management industry. AI is very much a focus of our research today and we will be presenting on this subject later this month (November 25th), at our semi-annual investment seminar here in Jersey.

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Source: “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?” by C. Frey and M. Osborne (2013). Oxford University

To conclude

Oscar Wilde, in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, stated "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life". Today, for many Americans, their existence has numerous parallels with the dystopia of Blade Runner. The societal, environmental and economic issues presented in the film are uncannily relevant for the US electorate, as they go to the polls. The indifference with which Ridley Scott’s film was initially received has been replaced, through time, with an almost universal acceptance it is one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Its renewed relevance further highlighted by the film’s inclusion, in the Library of Congress’ list of 25 films, deemed to be culturally, historically or aesthetically significant to the US. Very few of us knew, upon its original release, that Blade Runner would prove to be an unerringly accurate crystal ball into the future; a future which is now, more or less, our present. Whoever becomes the 45th President of the United States may be well advised to make a diary note for October 2017, when the sequel film; Blade Runner 2049, is due to hit our cinema screens. Could it potentially influence White House policy? – only time will tell.

** Source: Schroders Economic and Strategy Viewpoint, November 2016

Julia Warrander and Russell Waite

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