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Will the digital future be a let-down?


While we have been promised flying cars, living buildings and holographic displays, we may have to be content with 140 characters, Siri and Alexa for some time to come, says futurologist Professor William Webb.

“While digital technology has changed our lives completely, for the better and worse, with always-on connectivity and the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Uber, the changes for individuals over the next 30 years may be relatively small compared to the last 30,” says Professor Webb.

Professor Webb says that while technologies such as ubiquitous connectivity and flexible touch-screen devices will continue to be key enablers, the new drivers for the digital future over the next two decades will be Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). But because most of these enablers are associated with business applications, he believes that the impact on consumers may be relatively small. The book predicts that consumers will see ever-better virtual assistant functionality from their devices as solutions such as Siri steadily improve using AI techniques but while new connected devices such as smart speakers and home IoT products will become more commonplace, the reality of home automation is still many years away.

But if enhanced productivity and automation leads to fewer jobs, Professor Webb is optimistic that technology will also help to expand leisure interests with exciting new apps, on-line communities, functionality and interaction with virtual reality and IoT devices.

While consumers may be disappointed in the mid-term digital future, businesses will see more widespread deployment of IoT, biometrics and robotics, mostly to save costs and reduce staff. The book describes how some sectors will make extensive use of IoT to improve productivity such as agriculture and manufacturing, while retail will decline further due to changing buying habits and other sectors such as construction and hospitality will be broadly unaffected.

Transport will not change materially other than we will be better connected while travelling, have more journey information and see a gradual growth in driverless vehicles. But vehicle maintenance, which is currently a huge employer, may decline as more electric vehicles are introduced and as car sharing gains traction.

“Society may become ever-more concerned about the changes wrought by a digital future and there may be some push-back,” suggests Professor Webb. “Contract law will have to change to embrace the zero-hours approach to employment; social media will be charged with cleaning up undesirable content and controlling fake news; autonomous cars and robotic companions for the elderly will raise difficult ethical questions; and privacy and security concerns will limit the scope of big data and AI and may slow the introduction of IoT.”

As for the winners and losers, Professor Webb predicts that today’s large digital companies such as Google and Amazon will continue to dominate well into the future, with new players such as Uber and Tesla emerging, but at a slowing rate. Some big players such as Facebook, might struggle as regulation bites and connectivity providers such as mobile operators will become utility-like and their manufacturers will struggle.

“In essence, the key gains of a foreseeable digital future will be in convenience, productivity and reliability where the world will be a similar place to today, but will work better,” says Professor Webb. “This may strike many as pessimistic when others talk of flying cars, cyborgs and AI replacing humans, but I would suggest it is a pragmatic, realistic view.”

Professor Webb’s latest book, ‘Our Digital Future’, is available to purchase from Amazon as a paperback or Kindle

About Professor William Webb
William has published 16 books, over 100 papers, and 18 patents. He is a Visiting Professor at Surrey University, Southampton University and Trinity College in Dublin, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the IEEE and the IET. He was the IET President for the 14/15 term. His biography is included in multiple “Who’s Who” publications around the world. William has a first-class honours degree in electronics, a PhD and an MBA and two honorary doctorates. His notable achievements include leading the design of the Weightless standard and forming the associated standards body where he continues as CEO, authoring the UK Spectrum Framework Review while at Ofcom, designing the GSM-R technology for the European railways and inventing variable level modulation – a technique used in almost all radio systems today.

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