As Google’s director of engineering, a futurologist called Ray Kurzweil, noted in 2001: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.” Looking back on the last 20 years, his arguments are starting to stack up.
No-one on Earth had an iPhone until 2007. Today – just thirteen years later – most people could not contemplate life without their smartphone of choice. They are an everyday essential that make us more productive, keep us in touch – and drive a new type of economy.
The next two decades are likely to see humanity assimilating even more new technologies and inventions into our everyday lives. That’s because, as Mr Kurzweil and many others continue to point out, the rate of technological change is increasing exponentially.
Rivalry equals progress
One major driver of this accelerating rate of change is competition. The trade war between America and China is really a conflict about technology. Donald Trump’s administration claims – probably quite rightly – that Chinese high-tech companies have only managed to grow and succeed because of the “systematic theft” of US inventions and ideas.
These alleged violations of US intellectual property have resulted in the rapid development of Chinese technology companies, with Huawei at the centre of the storm because of the importance of 5G to the economy of tomorrow.
Chinese conglomerate Huawei jumped ahead of Silicon Valley in the development of the equipment that will drive the 5G network – the next-generation mobile phone system that is currently being rolled out worldwide. This is a massive problem for Washington because the controllers of dominant technologies have immense power. So, at the heart of the conflict between Beijing and Washington is a battle to control the infrastructure of tomorrow.
Such clashes of cultures and civilisations often lead to significant technological breakthroughs. Many of these would not have been possible without the sense of urgency that such friction creates. Without a battle for ideological supremacy between Moscow and Washington in the mid-20th century, the technological race that propelled Neil Armstrong to the Moon probably wouldn’t have happened.
The 1960s space race was all about demonstrating the superiority of the machines created by capitalism in the West and those devised by communism in the East. There are clearly many parallels we can draw with today.
The opportunity from 5G really is enormous
5G is much more than just enabling faster download speeds for smartphones. It will be a driver of many new breakthroughs that will change the way we live – just like the first iPhone did in 2007.
It will act as the infrastructure for self-driving cars and power the ‘Internet of Things’ – the interconnection of microchips embedded in everyday objects that will allow them to send and receive data. 5G will allow an autonomous vehicle to guide itself around complex and dangerous city streets – and some even think we’ll eventually see self-flying planes. Factories and supply chains can be connected and operated by artificial intelligence (AI), increasing efficiency and productivity. The list goes on and on.
But perhaps one of the biggest opportunities from 5G lies in its ‘low latency’ – the time lag between a device pinging the network and it is receiving a response back. This will enable improved 3D imagery, holograms, virtual reality and augmented reality. Its real-time response could one day mean a surgeon may not need to be in the same room as a patient to perform a delicate, life-saving operation.
The dark side of progress
The concept of smart cities has many futurologists excited – but this is one area where some caution may be required. A smart city is an urban area that uses technology to increase its operational efficiency, share information with the public and improve both the quality of government services and the welfare of its residents. The whole concept relies on the Internet of Things. Data is collected and delivered to the cloud and used to manage the city.
China’s Tencent is currently developing a smart city prototype in Shenzhen. The planned ‘Net City’ will be the size of midtown Manhattan and will have fewer streets for cars. Net City will adopt technologies such as AI and autonomous vehicles – all sited amongst mangroves and other natural features to help mitigate climate change and flooding risk.
However, to achieve this, it will need to collect a significant amount of data on residents’ movements to feed the database that controls the functioning and running of the city. The smart city is not a place where residents will be able to maintain much of their privacy.
Sidewalk Labs, a unit of Google-owner Alphabet, abandoned its plan to build a similar prototype in Toronto, Canada because of this issue. Its critics argued that the city was literally built to collect data about its residents and visitors – tracking every move they made. A lack of trust in big technology companies and perceptions of a ‘surveillance state’ led to a significant resistance to the project.
Nevertheless, at least some aspects of the smart city are likely to be adopted across the world as the benefits of such systems are revealed. However, it also highlights what could be one of the most significant points of resistance to technological change – the collection of personal data.
Data is the new gold
In the technology world, data is the currency on which ideas – and fortunes – are built. So, it really, really matters who legally owns this information. As a commodity, it will be more valuable than gold or oil. This means that digital sovereignty is going to become more of an issue in coming years, as more data about individuals is collected by corporations and the state – information that can be analysed and scrutinised.
Digital sovereignty is the idea that parties must have ownership – or sovereignty – over their own electronically-held information. It refers to both individuals and countries. The aim is not only to protect data from hacking or criminal misuse, but the ubiquitous power of the big US technology companies is seen as a threat to personal privacy.
Does innovation peak here?
Technology does not and will not stop at robots nor 5G. Returning to my original point, the current pace of technological development shows no signs of ceasing – it is, in fact, accelerating. The technological landscape will continue to evolve at break-neck speed. Systems and new ideas will be developed that will see virtually everything work faster and more seamlessly than we can dare to imagine. It will revolutionise modern medicine, travel, learnings – impacting every part of our lives. If you think that technology has developed rapidly over the last ten years or so, and it couldn’t change the world much more, then you better strap yourself in. I promise – you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Garry is part of The Professionals Network by Charles Stanley; designed to connect and educate the next generation of investors. Read more articles from our network contributors and find out how you can be part of the network.
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