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By Leo Johnson, Partner, PwC
Most people have a vision of what the future looks like. Maybe it’s a world of driverless cars, Elon Musk’s tunneling hyperloop, or medical technologies that boost our lifespan to 150 years or more.
But what if there was an alternative future that lies outside the bounds of what you believe in today? One that takes us by surprise. I’d like to give you a glimpse at four different possible futures that I presented at Oracle OpenWorld London 2019. Some of these futures may look like bleak prospects. But there’s at least one that is radically better.
The future that awaits us, I believe, will be determined by the interplay of two meta-variables: the level of innovation, and the level of centralization.
We grew up in the city of Henry Ford, with the economic model of fossil fuel-driven mass production that lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The first question we need to ask is: Are we moving to a new economic model based on exponential technology, with superior returns driven by data, and the algorithm?
Mark Hurd’s answer to that question is a resounding yes. The Oracle CEO predicts that by 2025 artificial intelligence will power 85% of customer interactions; and that by 2020 more than half of business data will be managed autonomously using machine learning algorithms. (Listen to more of Mark’s predictions from his keynote at this year’s Oracle OpenWorld London.)
But the second question is, who wins? Who will own this arsenal of technologies? Are we moving to a deployment of technology that is centralized or decentralized? Will it be concentrated in the hands of a few companies or countries, or will it be distributed to empower the many?
How you answer these two questions will lead to four very different futures. Let’s take a look.
When I was in Singapore recently, I had the unnerving pleasure of riding in a driverless car. Returning to the Ministry of Transport, I learned something interesting: These autonomous cars were just the first phase of a long-range urban plan. The next phase was economy-wide automation, and to counter the job losses created by autonomous machines, Singapore also plans to introduce a universal basic income for all citizens and to close the city walls to halt migration from climate stricken neighbours.
It is a straight line in other words from the technological into the economic, the social, and the political. That is one glimpse into a possible deployment of tech. But what might follow from that highly innovative-but-centralized scenario? What you see is a possible move into another scenario.
But the real issue is not these direct impacts, but the second order effects of reduced demand on the economy. If, as Frey and Osborne projected, 47% of US and UK white collar jobs are lost to automation by 2035, then what will happen to mainstream businesses whose lifeblood depends on consumer demand? The bottom line: When we try to introduce technology at the expense of human intelligence and jobs, there is a risk we start to damage the central pillars of the economy. Tax revenue plummets, just as costs rise with surging unemployment. You end up with an economic system that’s not working for the many. And this can lead to a third, darker scenario.
Tough economic times tend to fuel populist political movements on both the left and right. But there’s a problem: both sides have “doom loops” baked into them. On the populist left, if your model is to spend your way out of austerity, then the bond market will punish you. On the right, if your answer is to protect your way out of austerity, you face a death waltz – a toxic tango between job loss and protectionism, where more job losses leads to more political pressure for protectionism, which slows down economic activity even more, leading to more job losses…you get the picture.
But there is the potential for something radically different. We know technology is not the answer. It is the amplifier of our intent. And the question is: What do we want to do?
We are at a moment in history where it’s not black swans we’re facing, but black elephants in the room, representing the world’s mounting economic, social and environmental challenges. What if we could deploy this arsenal of new technology to create a model of growth by solving those problems of the many? And this is where I think a fourth scenario is not just possible, but credible, and even the dominant scenario for the future.
What would it look like? Take one example: the 1.4 billion people in the world who don’t have any power. Then take a very simple tech play: a solar light connected to the Internet of Things. You can lease it to the poorest of the poor for pennies a day – way less than their spending on kerosene or firewood, and it gets rid of all the health impacts. Add to that the potential of micro-banking, micro-insurance with weather-based payouts for floods and droughts, and kick-start hand pumps that triple groundwater production. What you have is a vision of the deployment of tech that is taking incomes up by increasing productivity by a factor of 10.
With cloud, open data, APIs, and low-cost micro manufacturing, we are moving away from high-capex, centralized models of mass production to a “local hero” model where the barriers to innovation are starting to drop. The opportunity, if we deploy with the intent not to replace human intelligence but to augment it, is to unlock a new wave of cognitive surplus, and a potential new age of empowerment.
As the great political philosopher Marilyn Monroe once said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so that better things can fall into place.” Armed with the right intent, we are at the mother of all Marilyn moments.