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6 digital horsemen

While we probably think technology is evolving rapidly already, this pace is now set to accelerate even further. Six disruptive technologies are all coming into the mainstream at a very similar point in history. AI is already disrupting industries before it has really received much investment at all, which is now changing.  

 

As well as innovations in each of their domains, innovation is-already, and will-further, take places at the boundaries of these technologies too: new products, services and markets will emerge. Some will decline or die.

 

We will see the world change in ways we can't yet predict.

The pace of inventions in context

In his brilliant article on World in Data, "Technology over the long run", Max Roser lays out the compelling case to see the current age as one of unprecedented innovation. To do so, he makes note of the time spans between previous notable innovations, drawing attention to the pace at which they are closing.

"The first use of stone tools, 3.4 million years ago, marks the beginning of this history of technology.... 

It took 2.4 million years... for our ancestors to control fire and use it for cooking...  ]

(Over) the last 12,000 years... agriculture, writing, and the wheel were invented... several thousand years passed between each of these three inventions.

 

The history of communication: from writing, to paper, to the printing press, to the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, all the way to the Internet and smartphones came in the last few hundred years. (Therefore the spacing between each of these was in the order of decades).

In 1903, the Wright brothers took the first flight in human history (they were in the air for less than a minute), and just 66 years later, we landed on the moon. While we may think that the field of space exploration has stalled a little, there are 10 people working in space as of 19 April 2023, alongside an estimated 7,300 satellites.

And then the digital age arrived...

The computer arrived in 1945, the cellphone in 1973, and the tablet in 2002.

In 1995, 2% of the UK were using the internet. Today it is 95%. In 1995, there were 6.8 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people and today there are 116.

Daily internet users in the UK doubled from 23m (2008) to 46m (2020) (Statista). As of 2023, 72% of the UK can now access gigabit internet, which will reach 85% by 2025 (Ofcom).

A timeline of major inventions in context

23XX - Longterm-horizontal timeline-of-technology (in context) - World in Data.png

What's different now?

What is different now, in terms of driving innovation, are the four factors below, which are all likely to speed up the pace further:

Innovations are more digital than mechanical. Inherently, this means that there are lower barriers to entry, as they are less capitally intensive. Moreover the potential labour force that can be deployed on the innovation is global. So are the customers. This means that there are lower barriers to creating innovative products and there is less friction to achieving a faster and broader rate of adoption. 

Technologies are not "siloed" in one or a couple of industries as per inventions in the past, but rather able to be applied across most if not all industries and disrupt them. Consequently, their implementation in multiple industries at the same time could potentially seed further breakthroughs, from innovation within specific domains, which then get shared across the other industries.

There is more money in the world and more of it is concentrated amongst a relative few in the world and those few are frequently interested in investing-in and advancing digital technologies - the likes of Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Google), Elon Musk (Twitter),  Steve Ballmer (Microsoft) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon): (The wealth of those five is slightly higher than the GDP of the whole of Ireland according to this source). 

Supranational organisations (e.g. the WEF, UN et al) see the new technologies as solutions to existential or systemic global crises - from poverty to education-inequalities to climate change. Consequently, there are coordinating bodies with goals to aid the diffusion of innovation.

The fifth factor is a "wildcard": It won't serve so much to speed up innovation as make it less predictable. Some may say this is exciting, some may find it concerning.....

Several disruptive digital innovations are taking place concurrently, or at least are separated by shorter timescales. When the car, train motorcar or TV appeared, the innovations that followed tended to be incremental for many decades. However, what we have now is a situation akin to a much-condensed industrial revolution where the equivalents of the steam engine, spinning machinery (used in mills), canals, railways, factories and new steel-smelting processes et al are all appearing together.

The six 'digital horsemen'

These six technologies (or categories) are: 1) AI, 2) IOT, 3) Extended Reality, 4) Blockchain, 5) Cloud computing, and 6) Quantum technology.

They arrive at a time that other older technologies - while still incrementally evolving themselves - are established and serve as "enablers": e.g. optical fibre, wireless technologies, semiconductors and programming languages. While the six technologies above might be considered the seeds and saplings of the present digital revolution, these represent the fertile soil and warm climate in which it grows. 

Here's a brief picture of what each of these six can do and why they are considered disruptive:

Artificial Intelligence (AI) describes computer systems that work by mimicking human cognition: Its actually relatively rare that a technology makes it into the mainstream news, but the hype and conjecture around AI reached fever pitch in 2023 due to the launch of the ChatGBT application which allows people to engage in human-like dialogue with a computer. At the outset, the promise of AI lies in automating repetitive and manual tasks. However, the mid- and longer-term potential is that AI can replace human thinking and decision-making, leaving open the potential for countless scenarios in terms of future society and work. McKinsey published a report around 2018 suggesting 375m people worldwide would be displaced from jobs by AI by 2030.

The "Internet of things" (IOT) describes an interconnected network of devices that use sensors, embedded software and communications technologies to "talk" to each other; sharing data and carrying out tasks or actions based on the information they receive. In the shorter term, the disruptive aspects of IOT come by way of the idea that data can be collected, processed and acted-upon in real time, to  increase speed, give access to more insight into how systems or processes are performing, and automate processes. Mid- to longer-term, IOT can work synergistically with robots, who can carry human manual work as instructed by information received via IOT networks.

Extended reality (XR) are technologies that allow people to experience imaginary worlds, or worlds that are a blend of real and imagination. Virtual reality (VR) removes the person from the real world altogether and places them in the digital world. Augmented reality (AR) overlays images over the real world to create experiences of blended realities. Mixed reality (MR) offers a spectrum of the two. The disruptive elements come from the extent to which the user is able to immerse in the artificial 3D world beyond merely a flat visual representation as per a TV screen. It also gives rise to the ability to offer countless new customer experiences as well as change how, for instance, training, performances, interviews or meetings are carried out and experienced by participants.

Blockchain is a system involving a distributed digital set of transaction records held in nodes across a computer network. By using computer algorithms, a new transaction sees a new block of information added to past records in a way that is secure and can't be tampered with. This creates a way to share information and keep records securely without the need for any central entity (like a bank), so can reduce transaction costs and maintain higher levels of privacy. It creates scenarios that concern regulators though, such as the inability to detect money laundering or fraud using crypto-currencies, which use blockchain, or there being so-called "smart contracts" that get agreed by parties and initiated when some criteria is met, but might not be legally enforceable.  It also facilitates new forms of transaction and business model between businesses.

Cloud computing refers to the delivery of IT over the internet, rather than from hardware 'on site'. Businesses can access "raw" infrastructure services, like servers, or an eco-system of software services. Over 9 in 10 UK businesses are already using the Cloud in some way, so it is well established. (Tech UK). However, it retains the power to disrupt through the emergence of the four technologies above, while it is also expected to evolve further, such as through so called edge computing where servers are placed at the edge of networks to increase speed. Arguably the main disruptive characteristics are that it allows accessibility of advanced software services to anyone in the world, the ability for businesses to scale without disruption, and cost-efficiency.  In 2010, there were only about 1,500 global software companies offering services over the cloud (Montclare), but this had grown to an estimated 15,000 by 2021 (Synergy Research Group).

Quantum computing process information using quantum mechanical processes rather than electronic bits. The potential to slash computing speed is immense - In 2019 Google' "Sycamore" computer was heralded as taking 200s to complete a task that for which a traditional computer would have needed thousands of years. The technology presently resides in the R&D labs of a small number of companies, but proponents are hopeful of it emerging over the next 1-2 decades, in which case it would revolutionise learning and processing in a way we can barely imagine today.

Convergence = further innovation

So, each of these six technology areas are at different stages right now, but are all are set to continue to innovate and evolve, even Cloud computing (and the myriad of services that are provided over the Cloud), which is the most mature. These technologies have roadmaps and there are reasonably well charted pathways for them into the near future at least.

However, the spaces that are rife for more unpredictable innovations might emerge at the boundaries of these technologies: Smart phones arrived as a synergy between mobile phones and computer processing technology as well camera technology and software. Electric cars operate as a result of battery technology, working with advanced computing technologies and sensors. Drones use computational technology, lightweight materials and imaging technologies.

So, what might result from synergies between (say) XR and Blockchain, or XR and IOT?

We already see some examples:

  • Smart Home Systems such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod, use a combination of AI and IoT so that devices around the home can be voice-activated.

  • Virtual reality training session applications are being created as a result of combining XR with AI across industries from healthcare (e.g. Osso VR) to manufacturing and logistics (e.g. EON Reality) and the military (e.g. Bohemmia).

  • Fillament is a company that offers blockchain-enabled IOT hardware devices, to secure data networks, and is used in energy, logistics and agriculture.

However, particularly due to AI, we are likely only seeing the onset of this first wave of such innovations. Where they take us as one branches from another is, presently, far from clear.

Furthermore, there are technologies that are not digital at the core that are nonetheless also on curves of profound change: What would it look like to see the synergies grow between these technologies and the results of advances in neuroscience, human genetics and space exploration, for instance?

Conclusion

Its a rare time in history: the pace of innovation had been speeding up anyway, but we now see a series of disruptive digital technologies emerging at the same time. The nature of digital technologies also lends itself to be improved, adapted and augmented more quickly than mechanical or chemical technologies, creating the foundations for a wave of new products, services and derivative technologies emerging in rapid succession.

Moreover, the synergies between such technologies proves to be the most fruitful territory of all. Already products and services are being created that combine two or more such technologies, notably the smart home. However, with the inherent capability of AI to learn, we now have a set of technologies that not only possess the potential to be improved by engineers, but have the potential to improve and innovate themselves.

And who knows where there might lead.

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