Science fiction is increasingly science fact and exponential technological changes are rapidly altering our culture, business and society.
Much of it is extremely promising – indeed, it has the potential to solve our biggest challenges, such as energy, water, diseases and global warming. But we are also facing myriad unintended consequences, such as the likelihood of widespread technological unemployment, a near-total loss of privacy and a dramatic dependency on technology.
The most powerful companies are no longer oil and gas enterprises or banks – they are the big data, big Internet companies and platforms, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu and Tencent. These players are propelled to supremely dominant positions by what I call the megashifts: a dozen or so drivers that are unfolding exponentially and in combination – amplifying each other and reaching unprecedented magnitudes.
Any organization looking to understand exponential thinking and to achieve future-readiness must have a clear picture of what these shifts mean, and what opportunities or threats may arise from them.
Megashifts are much more than paradigm shifts, which usually affect only one sphere of human activity. They arrive suddenly to transform the basis and framework of entire industries and societies. Megashifts don’t replace the status quo with a new normal, they unleash dynamic forces that reshape life as we know it. Megashifts radically reconfigure the age-old relationship between our past, present and future.
Here are some megashifts I expect in the next few years:
Digitization: Everything that can will become digital. Information and media were the first, now it’s banking and financial services, transportation and mobility, health and government, and, soon, energy. Digitization always creates abundance (witness the near-zero cost of a song on Spotify versus iTunes or CDs), which means much lower costs for consumers. Yet it also means a mad scramble for new business models because distribution or access is no longer an issue.
Mobilization: Computing is no longer at the desk – everything is becoming mobile and, soon, wearable or hearable. Computing is becoming like air: invisible, omnipresent and utterly indispensable.
Screenification is very much related to the previous two megashifts: everything that used to be physical (or printed) is now available on screens. This also means that things are becoming increasingly medialized; what used to be between people (such as conversations in foreign languages) can soon be done via a screen using free translation apps such as SayHi, Google Translate, or soon, Waverly Labs’ Pilot prototype. A true #hellven challenge – is this heaven or hell?
Disintermediation: Many middlemen are suffering because technology increasingly makes it feasible to go direct, or indeed via new middlemen such as social media platforms or telecoms and mobile operators (such as Africa’s m-pesa, which is competing directly with banks). Examples include record labels (musicians now launch their careers via YouTube), publishers and advertising (brands can increasingly tell their stories via digital and social media, i.e. without mass-media TV or print), and consumer banking where millennials increasingly use mobile platforms and apps to make payments and organize their finances.
Datafication: Much of what used to happen face to face, i.e. things that were not recorded or mediated, is now being turned into data, e.g. electronic medical records versus talking to the doctor, the connected hiking boot that tells the store it needs new shoelaces, or the grocery delivery service that tracks all its products.
Intelligization or cognification (as Wired magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly terms it): Everything that used to be dumb is now becoming connected and intelligent, such as gas pipelines, farms, cars, shipping containers, traffic lights, etc. This connectivity allows for intelligence to be derived from the aggregate output of hundreds of millions of sensors and devices – once artificial intelligence learns from this flood of data, we will have a vastly different way of reading, seeing and directing the world.
Automation: The result of smart machines will be widespread technological unemployment. Everything that can be automated will be — including science and engineering. I believe this is actually a huge opportunity rather than a threat, but we are ill-prepared for it.
Virtualization: We no longer rely only on physical things in some room or location, but on an instance in the cloud, e.g. software-defined networking instead of local routers, virtual friends such as Hello Barbie, etc.
Augmentation: Humans can increasingly use technology to augment themselves, i.e. to be omniscient, omnipotent, superhuman. Examples include my smart watch, SmartGoggles, augmented and virtual reality, intelligent digital assistants and (sooner or later) brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) and implants.
Anticipation: Software can now anticipate and predict our behaviour, thus changing the way maps, email and online collaboration work.
Robotization: Even many white-collar jobs will soon be done by robots. Robots are leaving their industrial cages and entering our daily lives and homes.
Dehumanization: Taking humans out of the equation by cutting a complex human task to its bare bones and giving it to machines.
Yet the most important megashift might soon be Rehumanization: Finally, are we just about to realize that our customers don’t buy technology, they buy relationships? Maybe this is the driving force behind the recent partnership on artificial intelligence to benefit people and society, initiated by Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Google.
Technology is not what we seek, it’s how we seek – and we should embrace technology but not become it.
Rohit Talwar is the CEO of Fast Future Research, a global research and consulting company that specializes in identifying future growth industries and helps governments and global companies to explore and respond to the sectors, ideas, trends and forces shaping the next five to 20 years.