Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Plus Ca Change

The Black Watch of 1974
When I started writing this weblog, ten years ago, not that many people in Thanet, compared with the present, had the Internet and Amazon sold books and little else. Today, super-high-speed broadband has just become available in Westgate; that's if you are prepared to pay £30 a month extra for the experience with BT.

Ten years on and it seems that everyone is shopping online and mostly at Amazon or eBay, iPads and tablet PCs are the gift of choice this year - how did we live without them -  and we are just emerging from the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s.

So what will the world look like in another ten years? You can be sure there's something making a big impact that none of us have thought about yet but in general terms the future, at least where the advances in technology are involved has become relatively predictable

With the good news from Government, we are hearing about jobs and growth; all those things we need to raise the standard of living and be competitive in a changing world. However, in China, workers wages are also rising and FoxConn Technology, which employs over over one million Chinese, assembling most of those high-tech goodies that will sit under your own Christmas tree, is on an ambitious programme to replace one million of its 1.2 million workers with robots over the coming decade. Labour costs, even in China, are now eating into the profits which once made its cheap labour so attractive. Google, a major disruptive force in the world, also wants to put together the definitive standard platform for a personal robotics revolution and is investing millions.

The Pebble Watch of 2013
As one example, a robotic hamburger kitchen already exists that can produce 360 gourmet hamburgers in one hour. McDonalds has enough profit to fund the development of automated machines that could provide a one year return on investment. Each McDonalds might need more one machine. Each machine takes up 24 square feet and replaces the people who cook and the the kitchen too.

You see, the technology to automate humans out of many jobs is now advancing so fast, that in the space of ten years, the world or work will start to look very different and for many, without professional skills, finding work may become much harder than ever.

All this is because as humans we are not good at recognising exponential rather than linear growth. We try and look at the future as a straight-line evolution of the past and today, with around eight technologies colliding, like genomics and robotics, we can't see clearly what's in front of us; the evidence appearing of the biggest changes since the start of the industrial revolution.

Let me take an example from a lecture I gave for KPMG's bigger clients last month.

Imagine that you are sitting in the top row seats of the FA Cup final at Wembley and the stadium has been made watertight. Far below, you see the captain of one of the teams and standing next to him is the referee, holding an eye dropper. He squeezes a single drop of water into the players palm and then one minute later two drops,  a minute after that four drops and then eight as the infinite eye-dropper carries on dripping water into the player's outstretched hand.

Sony's Smart Wig - It's No Joke
When does the pitch become covered with water?

Some soccer loving mathematician has worked out that this happens in 43 minutes and you remark: "So what?"

But when does the stadium become filled with water and everybody has to learn to sink or swim? The answer to that is 49 minutes and is an example of exponential growth. Suddenly something that at first looks linear, suddenly leaps up dramatically and everything changes very quickly

From a technology perspective, we are now at roughly at the equivalent of 43 minutes since Moore's Law of 1965 which has processor power doubling every 18 months. The pitch is filled with water and subsequent changes to the landscape of work, the economy and with it, society, are going to start happening very quickly indeed over the coming five years, as all of a sudden, ground-breaking technologies swiftly move from the drawing board into the workplace and the living room.

In another ten years, with luck, I will still be writing this blog, if such things exist and drawing my pension in Bitcoins too; if it still exists - my pension that is -  but I promise you a bumpy ride, as all of a sudden, everyone realises that in the most part, distracted by gadgetry, we have been sleep-walking into a future that may look very different to the comfortable assumptions we hold today.