As the new year gets rolling, we in the tech sector always pull out our crystal balls and try to predict what trends will be worth watching and pursuing over the next 12 months.
For a few years, my answer was always “big data!” but I think big data has finally earned its place in business that it’s not so much a trend any more, and more of a necessity.
That said, I believe what we can do with big data, AI, deep learning, and robotics will color and shape not just the technology sector, but our entire lives over the next 12 months and beyond. Here are some of the trends I’m following and thinking about in the new year:
The Rise of Robots and AIs in the Workplace
Manufacturing is one of the first places we see robots and automation eliminating human jobs, but it’s hard to think of an industry that will be left untouched as robots and AI become more affordable and widespread.
It’s estimated that between 35 and 50 percent of jobs that exist today are at risk of being lost to automation. Repetitive, blue collar-type jobs might be the first casualties to robotic automation, but with sophisticated AI even professionals — including paralegals, diagnosticians, and customer service representatives — could be at risk.
As with most advances in technology, there are pros and cons to this rise in automation. On the one hand, companies will be able to automate repetitive jobs, reduce associated costs, and increase productivity. On the other hand, the elimination of low-skilled or low-education jobs will hurt some of the most vulnerable populations already struggling to find jobs that provide a living wage.
The jobs that will remain will require high levels of education and creativity, and there will be fewer of them to go around. We need to start thinking about what kinds of jobs the rest of the population will be doing when robots and AI take over the jobs of truck drivers, assembly workers, and call center operators.
Technology will continue to improve healthcare and extend lifespans
Improved medical technologies are already reaching the front lines of healthcare. Big data and deep learning algorithms can use databases of symptoms and treatments to help doctors choose the best treatment protocols; AI can spot signs of disease on tests and scans that human eyes might miss; and gene sequencing is becoming more affordable, making advances in genetically specific therapies possible.
Combining big data and AI with advances in robotics and gene-technology means that people could start to live lot longer — perhaps well past the century mark.
That sounds like a net positive at first, but more people living well past 100 years would have massive implications for the economy and society at large. The population would continue to grow at an even faster rate, putting more pressure on resources around the world. Retirement and pensions would have to be completely rethought, as would government safety-net programs. Long-term care would take on an entirely new meaning, requiring more facilities, more caregivers, more money to afford it all.
Privacy, or the Lack Thereof
Technologies are advancing much faster than the laws and best practices that surround them. This past December, for example, I wrote about an FTC complaint about toys that record what children say and may be subtly advertising to them. There are TVs that listen to you, virtual assistants that know your personal habits, refrigerators that know what and when you eat — and very few laws or even guidelines in place to regulate how that information is used.
More best practices need to be implemented to guide scrupulous companies in their collection and use of data, and perhaps more laws put in place to curtail the unscrupulous ones.
As technology advances, we run the risk of entering a world of digital feudalism, in which a few technology elites — whether they are individuals or corporations — control our lives and our fate by controlling our data and our world. So far, people can still choose to opt-out, but it’s already inconvenient and uncomfortable. (And how many of us actually read the pages and pages of terms of service we agree to every day?)
What happens when all transactions are handled digitally, when you can’t do something as simple as buy food, drive a car, or read a book without a digital signature? A funny Tweet recently showed a watercooler at Intel that wouldn’t dispense water until it finished a Windows update… While amusing and benign, imagine a water system that won’t let you access clean water until you agree to the terms of service — terms you may or may not actually agree with.
We may be headed toward a future in which it will be nearly impossible for the average person to “opt-out” and still live as a part of society.
And what happens when a single person, company, or elite group controls our access to all these things because they control our data?
Data as a Weapon
As I write this, new information is coming to light about Russia’s involvement in hacking the U.S. presidential election, as well as the revelation that more than a billion Yahoo accounts were compromised in 2013, including sensitive personal data. Just a few months ago, hackers were able to use unsecured Internet of Things devices to take down a large chunk of the Internet.
As more and more of our data is now stored digitally, we are left more and more vulnerable. Hackers, companies or even governments can use this data against us. The common argument here is that if you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide, but this isn’t true when someone could use your health history to deny you a job, your driving history to deny you insurance, or your friends and family members to prevent you from getting a job, credit, or even government documents. We’re already seeing concerning glimmers of this in places like China, where the government is assigning public “credit” scores to citizens based on things like their known associates and activity on social media.
As we share more of ourselves online through our data, security will have to try to continue to match and outpace the hackers that would use that data against us.
As leaders in our industries, we must face these wonderful leaps forward in technology — and the challenges they bring with them — head on. We can’t ignore that each step forward comes with its own problems and quandaries that will need to be addressed.
For my part, I believe the first step is to tackle our pervasive privacy problems, whether that is driven by government regulation or the technology sector regulating itself. Beyond that, we need to be engaging and encouraging big thinkers to help develop solutions to the more far-reaching problems like job loss and changing economics.
These trends don’t have to spell doom and disaster for anyone, but only if we are proactive in attacking the challenges they bring with them.
Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, strategic performance consultant, and analytics, KPI, and big data guru. In addition, he is a member of the Data Informed Board of Advisers. He helps companies to better manage, measure, report, and analyze performance. His leading-edge work with major companies, organizations, and governments across the globe makes him an acclaimed and award-winning keynote speaker, researcher, consultant, and teacher.
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