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New Technologies: Disruption and Adaptation

Over the next few decades, technology will provide unprecedented levels of service and leisure, but not without a significant cost.

The massive impact of technology on society is not a new phenomenon, according to Brett King, commentator, author of “Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane” and globally respected speaker on the future of business.

Technology has been shaping society since at least the Industrial Revolution and it continues today: witness the long lines of people awaiting the release of the latest iPhone.

Although many people hunger for the next new thing, technology has not always been warmly greeted. In the early 1800s, the Luddites destroyed steam-powered weaving looms in English textile factories because the machines were taking their jobs. Fast-forward to the 2010s to see the modern version: the attacks on Uber drivers by French taxi drivers who consider the app-driven service a threat to their business. But such protests are of little avail. Historically, there is no evidence of displaced workers being able to stop the advance of technology. As King points out, “Nostalgia doesn’t create jobs.”

Here are some upcoming technologies King sees as most disruptive and his thoughts on how to adapt that he discussed during a recent presentation to the YPO Technology Network.

Artificial intelligence and robotics

The current stage of development of artificial intelligence (AI) is task-driven machine learning. King estimates that in 15 to 20 years, we will have reached artificial general intelligence (AGI), which enables the device or robot to mimic a human.

Previous technology has altered the agriculture and manufacturing sectors. AI, however, will increasingly affect white-collar jobs, such as accountants, financial managers and attorneys. This is territory a machine previously could not enter because it did not have cognition; AI will change that.

For the doubters, King cites two existing examples. IBM’s Watson system already is being used for medical diagnoses. In fact, Watson outperforms human cancer specialists in diagnosing cancer by a ratio of two-to-one. With regard to human identification (facial recognition, fingerprints) done in airports or at country borders, machines have been proven to be 20 times better than humans at performing this task. Why? Machines can synthesize data faster and better than humans. Nor do they forget.

Embedded experiences

This is already well on its way, with embedded LED displays and voice-responsive devices (such as Echo and Alexa) integrated into homes, offices and cars, or worn. These devices are generally just smart assistants now, but in the future, they will learn our people’s preferences and will be given increasing authority over parts of our lives, because of the convenience they offer.

Businesses that do not recognize this is how people want to engage in commerce (by voice, by app) will fall behind.

Health technology

People will wear sensors that assess their risk of conditions such as heart attack, so treatment can be initiated well before the chest pains begin.

Leveraging the infrastructure

In King’s view, when these advances are combined, it becomes clear that the way businesses can differentiate themselves in the future is to use these technologies as an infrastructure. Just as the great sailing ships and railroads were the basis on which new economies were built in the past, smart infrastructure is the basis for the new economy now. Solar smart grids are an example. By 2025, the cost of solar power will be a fraction of the cost of coal. Businesses that have not embraced this new technology cannot compete with those that have.

Impact on employment

If machines will increasingly handle the jobs humans perform now, how can we train our children for future employment? King recommends focusing on the employment areas that will be created to support the new infrastructure, such as intelligent design or renewables. For example, retooling the world for smart grids will require millions of well-trained employees. He also notes there will still be a need for humans to work in creative areas that are not conducive to AI, such as art, music and writing.

One of humankind’s upcoming challenges will be determining how we need to change when we are not required to work. There is a strong psychological component of work; humans value the feeling of making a contribution. “It’s a problem we don’t know how to solve yet,” says King. “We will have to find value in ourselves, in our own self-worth.”