Review: The Fourth Transformation

The Fourth Transformation:
How Augmented Reality & Artificial Intelligence Will Change Everything

by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel.

[note: I reviewed a pre-publication copy of this book. The Kindle edition is available for pre-order on Amazon (US) and also on Amazon UK. It will be published on Dec. 7.]

Here’s a well-informed roadmap to the next few years of our digital lives. If you make (or invest in) products, apps, films, videos, or games… if you are a marketer or retailer… if you are a teacher or a healer… this may be your professional life in the next decade.

“The best way to predict the future,” according to Alan Kay, “is to invent it.”
Want to know the second best way? Find the people who are inventing the future, wherever in the world they’re working, and ask them to show you what they’re up to. That’s the method used by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel.

Which leads me to the third best way to predict the future: read Scoble and Israel’s new book (their third together), The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality & Artificial Intelligence Will Change Everything. It will jangle your brain. It will whet your appetite for a feast of invention. And, in the process, it may also very well alarm you. If you are inclined to build, create, or invest in new kinds of experiences, it will open a whole universe of possibilities for you. If you are willing and able to work in that universe, you may even find yourself following Alan Kay’s best way to predict the future: you may find yourself inventing it.

The future that Scoble and Israel are predicting (or, more properly, reporting) represents the most radical advance of digital technology since the development of the computer. It’s a future, they argue, that will transform not just our devices, but us and our world. Their sub-title promises it will change everything. Everything. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. The stories they tell are both breathtaking and mind-blowing. Scoble and Israel give us an insider’s glimpse into us what’s cooking in labs at startups (some them very well-funded and close to shipping), universities, and the top tier of established global corporations — in technology and entertainment. It’s an exhaustive, expansive survey, told with breathless enthusiasm (and ample warnings), covering a range of advances that are slated to arrive over the next decade. The authors are surprisingly specific about who is working on what — and when it is likely to come to market.

The core is a cluster of technologies already coming to market in their early, primitive and/or over-priced versions: VR, AR, and MR. (respectively, Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality). If you’re not yet fluent in the terminology, The Fourth Transformation includes an extensive and helpful glossary.

The key to the fourth transformation is an emerging suite of technologies that will dissolve the boundary between what we see on our screens and the world around us. Rather than seeing them confined to the frame of a computer screen or a mobile device, we will be able to generate a convincing illusion that our digital creations have jumped into what we used to call the real world. Imagine your favorite special-effects laden movie. Now imagine that you are living inside it. That’s the fourth transformation. Is that a glorious advance or a nightmare? Your mileage may vary.

The world had its first glimpse of the appeal of AR (Augmented Reality) during last summer’s Pokémon Go mania. But that was just an appetizer for what’s coming. If you’re only casually aware of what’s out there, your current image of a VR enthusiast may be of a twenty-something gamer with an oversized headset strapped to their face, tethered to a powerful computer, stumbling and flailing blindly around a room, bumping into walls and furniture as they fight dragons, zombies, and aliens that only they can see.

If that’s the way you imagine it, prepare for a revelation. Fast-forward a few years and a few cranks of Moore’s law and we can expect today’s heavy and awkward headsets to shrink to the size of ordinary, fashionable eyeglasses that people will will be happy to wear all the time. We’ll be commanding the technology with tiny eye movements as sensors measure and map our environment so that we can summon at will a seamless mix virtual and actual reality. Generations of us who are now chronically bent forward peering down at our handhelds will find relief from the spinal misalignment known as “text neck” as we relearn how to walk upright, heads held high with high-resolution virtual screens positioned in our field of vision directly in front of us. Think the Star Trek holodeck. Think Tony Stark’s virtual screens hanging in mid-air. Think IMAX 3D with surround sound. And think all of that being mobile and available to you wherever are, whenever you choose to summon it.

But that’s years off. For the near-term, Scoble has been advising his social media readers that anyone who has pigeon-holed Apple’s Tim Cook as a plodding, bean-counting caretaker will be be blown away with the AR and MR capabilities built into next year’s iPhone.

Scoble and Israel take a high-level view. Their book focuses not so much on technical details, as on the likely positive (and some worrying negative) impacts these new technologies will have on our lives. Such diverse fields as health, retail, transportation, manufacturing, education, gaming, and entertainment will explode into new possibilities. The authors acknowledge that the infrastructure behind these technologies will create the means for tracking of our movements, interests, and activities. That will surely tempt surveillance by governments, law enforcement, and corporate marketers. Is that what we want? If not, is there any way to stop it or limit it? Some of the possibilities described in this book strike me as downright obnoxious. If pop-up ads and auto-play videos annoy you when browsing the Web, imagine a world where pop-up holograms and auto-play sales pitches greet you in every store, restaurant, and hotel. If I happen to stare too long at a box on the supermarket shelf or a jacket on a department store mannikin, I’m not sure I’m ready to have it launch into a “buy me” pitch. The promise is that the data in my digital dossier will combine with advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence to filter out everything except the pitches and messages I will be glad to get, I’m dubious. I’m not convinced the world needs more advertising.

Back in the day before the web, when smart folks (Bill Gates and Paul Allen among them) imagined that the world of our future would be interactive television, analyst Josh Bernoff offered this example of what iTV would deliver: suppose you’re watching Friends, and admired Jennifer Aniston’s sweater. You’d be able to point, click, and buy it. As it turned out, Friends was canceled long before Interactive TV took off. (It never did.) But in the world of The Fourth Transformation, Scoble and Israel predict we’ll be able stare at any friend’s shoes, and the technology will recognize them, source them, and tell us if we can buy a pair just like them. (You can do a primitive version of this today with the camera in your smartphone and Google or Amazon apps, but in my experience, it’s hit and miss; more miss than hit.) By the way, the same Josh Bernoff who made “Jennifer Aniston’s Sweater” a catch-phrase among people working to deliver interactive TV happens to be the editor of The Fourth Transformation.

One of the fascinating perspectives of the book is that the authors know that not it’s not just the products and technologies that change through time. It’s also us, the customer base. Each generation ages out as new generations fill in behind, bringing a new context and experience to their embrace of digital technology. The authors see the fourth transformation focused largely on millennials but even more on the generation that comes after the millennials. Surprisingly, we haven’t settled on a consensus name for them. Candidates include the founders (MTV), the builders (Forbes) post-millennials (Pew), and iGen (multiple sources). Lacking an established term, Scoble and Israel propose their own candidate: Minecrafters (from the game). Will it stick? I doubt it. (Does that mean we should start calling Millennials the Pokémoners? The Marioids?) But within the covers of this book, Minecrafters, it is. Scoble and Israel believe that Millennials and Minecrafters, as our first two generations of digital natives, will be the strongest adopters and most adept builders of the next wave of technology.

Here’s how the authors derive their title. The starting point is the room-filling mainframes that first appeared in the 1940s. Back then — and through the fifties — if you wanted to use a computer, you submitted your job as a stack of punch cards to the priesthood who tended and ran the devices. Then you sat back and waited for them to schedule and run your job.
The first transformation was the advance from punch cards to real-time interaction where the user could type text commands and see results on a screen. Computers shrank from room-size to refrigerator-size and smaller.

The second transformation was the shift from text-based input to a window-and-menu graphical user interface (GUI). Remember-and-type gave way to point-and-click. We first saw the seeds of the second transformation in 1968 in what’s been called “the mother of all demos” by the legendary Doug Engelbart. But it took until the 80s and 90s to hit the market in the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows. Once again, the form factor of computers shrank — now they could sit on desktops or slip into briefcases.

The third transformation took place a decade ago with the introduction of the Apple iPhone. Gone were menu, mouse, and keyboard. Instead, we interacted with words and images directly onscreen by tapping and stroking them. The form-factor shrank again. Now, it was pocket-sized.

A quick detour. In parallel with the second and third transformations we saw critical developments that are responsible of giving our digital devices their most powerful capabilities: the buildout of our local and global network infrastructure (Wi-fi, Internet, and cellular) and the explosion of services and resources that run on those networks (Google, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, etc.). The devices we carry are in reality gateways to a global network of information, mapping, communication, shopping, gaming, creativity, and productivity. The real magic isn’t in the smartphone. It’s in the network.

And that brings us to the fourth transformation — also enabled by networked resources. The next phase will bring us form factors and that practically disappear while delivering an even richer infrastructure of data, machine learning, and interconnected knowledge and services, including the growing Internet of Things.

Despite their unabashed enthusiasm for the new technology, Scoble and Israel’s longest chapter is entitled, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong.” Ironically, it happens to be Chapter 11.

The notes are thorough and extensive and all of them link to source materials on the Web. (On publication, The Fourth Transformation will launch a website where all the notes are clickable.)

The advances covered in The Fourth Transformation will deliver enormous opportunities for companies and creators who embrace them and participate. As always, with innovation, what actually takes off is up to the market. Scoble and Israel can show us what’s coming. It’s up to us to decide how much of it we want.