Domain after domain is being impacted in a revolutionary manner by a whole host of new digital information technologies. I believe that a good starting point for thinking about these changes is to simplify the narrative down to just three elements: Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain Technologies, and Connected Devices. Easy as ABC!
What are these three?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a major field of computer science and computer engineering that has its goal the development of systems that can be viewed as intelligent in their ability to see, hear, understand, model, think, reason, plan, decide and act on the world. In particular, it emphasizes going beyond mere “human-programmed” behavior, going beyond well-defined procedural algorithms that accept only structured, well-defined inputs. One area of AI that has been particularly prominent in recent years is machine learning (ML), which aims to allow computers to improve their performance on tasks through analysis and processing of relevant training data. Applications of machine learning techniques such as deep learning for pattern recognition, classification and prediction tasks, and deep reinforcement learning for operation of robots and other complex control systems have been growing and advancing rapidly. The rapid growth of these AI and ML techniques can be attributed in large part to the significant growth in compute power and data available for training.
Blockchain technologies have been prominent since the introduction of the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, which first proposed the use of a cryptographically secured immutable distributed ledger. Bitcoin solved the problem of digital double spend by ensuring that all transactions are made public, making it difficult for someone to cheat by spending funds they have already spent in an earlier transaction. Other innovations of Bitcoin included the use of Proof of Work, which allows the system to be open to all participants while minimizing the likelihood of manipulation, as well as novel mechanisms to incentivize processing and verification of transactions. By increasing transparency and eliminating the need for a trusted third party, Blockchain and related distributed ledger technologies promise a new generation of decentralized applications going well beyond cryptocurrencies and decentralized finance, ranging from data sharing and provenance tracking in supply chains to credentials and self-sovereign identity systems to micropayments for digital goods.
Connected devices, also known as the Internet of Things (IoT), are another major area of accelerating technological innovation. They consist of deployments of capable sensors (which measure some physical aspect of the environment), actuators (which can translate digital commands to making some physical or mechanical change impacting the environment) and other electronic appliances that are connected via wireless and wired networks to edge and cloud-based computation and storage points. Data generated by connected sensors can be processed at the distributed computation points and used to provide useful insights to human decision-makers or to make automated control decisions using connected actuators. These IoT technologies are enabling a whole host of applications in many domains including smart homes, intelligent buildings, precision agriculture, connected and autonomous vehicles, smart cities, industrial robotics and advanced manufacturing.
Why just three?
There is one good reason to limit our perspective to just three classes of technologies. It is, quite simply, a matter of cognitive load. While it is possible to analyze technologies at a very fine granularity as shown in the famous Gartner hype cycle, I believe this approach is simply too complex, too much to take in and think mindfully about.
Others have attempted a coarse-grained summary of key technologies. A May 2018 report on Digital Transformation Initiative by the World Economic Forum identified the following seven technologies as being fundamental to the ongoing revolution: AI, Autonomous Vehicles, Big Data Analytics and Cloud, Custom Manufacturing and 3D printing, IoT and Connected Devices, Robots and Drones, and Social Media and Platforms. This report noted that it was not a comprehensive list and didn’t include other technologies such as Blockchain. I would also argue that the simpler ABC distillation allows within it some mapping of these areas — in particular, Autonomous Vehicles, Big Data Analytics and Cloud, Robots and Drones have a lot of overlap with both AI and Connected Devices.
Why these three?
First, as shown above, many other emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, drones, smart manufacturing have a lot in common with AI and IoT, and could be seen in themselves as domains where these fundamental technologies are having a big impact.
Second, these three areas make sense because we are always seeking to engineer systems that are smart (where AI can help), decentralized and trustworthy (where Blockchain can help) and networked, linking to new sources of data (where Connected devices and IoT come in).
Three long-term trends
I also argue that the ABC technologies are fundamental because that they directly and substantially contribute to three long term trends that have been associated with the growth of technologies over centuries:
- Greater automation (due to A): from the earliest use of machines to the industrial revolution to the ongoing discussions about autonomous vehicles, we see a continual tendency towards getting machines and automation to do what humans used to do by hand. This trend emerges because the technologies ultimately enable greater productivity. Economists such as Robert Solow have shown that this ultimately is a major contributor to economic growth (Solow received the Nobel Prize for this work in 1987). Artificial Intelligence, by its very definition, aims to push the boundaries precisely in this dimension — by focusing on matching if not exceeding human performance in areas as diverse as natural language understanding, image perception and real-world decision making.
- Greater linkages and disintermediation (due to B): From the earliest days, the rise of highways and railway linkages and shipping all contributed to people connecting with others for trade and work-related reasons over ever-larger geographical distances, making the world a smaller place. These trends have been accelerated dramatically in the past two decades with the rise of the Internet and more recently the rise of social media and other platforms. Blockchain technologies promise a powerful new capability for connecting more individuals and organizations over larger distances and lowering the frictions associated with their transactions. In particular, by directly addressing the problem of trust which is at the root of these frictions, Blockchain and distributed ledger technologies offer a powerful tool for disintermediation.
- Greater visibility and control (due to C): An argument can be made that many major scientific revolutions have arisen from the design of better viewing instruments. Just as the invention of the microscope opened our eyes to the world of cells, microbiology, the invention of the telescope spurred scientific advances in astronomy and physics. Networked sensors are spurring an increase in this dimension, allowing us to see what was previously unobservable. Greater visibility also drives better decision making and control. IoT technologies are also allowing us to control what was previously out of reach.
Towards meaningful conversations
I hope to have opportunities to explore further some of the concrete ways in which the ABC technologies are having an impact in different domains, and also, some of the problems and concerns that these technologies are introducing into our societies. These concerns include their impact on jobs, concerns about loss of privacy, increased cyber-security vulnerabilities, perpetuation of prejudiced stereotypes and biases, and much more.
The need of the hour is to educate people from all domains, going well beyond computer scientists and engineers, about the promise and potential of these technologies and also their associated societal challenges. This will allow us to have more meaningful discussions both at organizational levels in industry and at the political level in society about what we truly want the future to look like, and how to get there.