Detecon
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2019/01/17

#mankind2030 — Global Trends and Digitalization

“How much does this thing cost?” “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.” “No money? You mean you don’t get paid?” “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves — and the rest of humanity.”

Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard paints a hopeful vision of our future development while traveling through time into the 21st century in “First Contact” — a technologically highly advanced society that provides all people with a life in prosperity and health and that protects and sustains the environment. But regrettably, Star Trek leaves us almost completely in the dark about how we are to arrive at this point. Nor does it describe the role of technology, digital or otherwise. Hard to understand from today’s viewpoint because we are in the middle of a phase of all-encompassing digitalization that goes hand in hand with changes for the individual, society, politics, and the economy. Current highlights of the topic make it only too clear that there is more to this process than just the next level of efficiency for companies and industry. And digitalization will, and must, play a role in our mastery of the global challenges now confronting us.


Global trends

For several centuries now, the “Western world” has held a dominant economic position. But the Earth has continued to turn, and now the spotlight is falling on countries such as China and India. Making clever use of their initial position as the workbench of the West, they have long since developed into economic heavyweights that are now using the fruits of their success to “turn the tables,” so to speak. Along with the impressive rates of growth and the steadily rising number of Global 500 companies, it is the triad of economic policy, investments, and creation of their own innovation centers that clearly demonstrates their increasingly strong claim to innovation leadership.

 

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A clearly visible indication of economic growth in the countries of Southeast Asia is the increase in urban populations. But urbanization is by no means a phenomenon confined to Southeast Asia; it is a distinctly global trend, although its magnitude varies greatly from one region to the next. Owing to the differences in the initial situation of the affected cities, the challenges are many and varied. In general, however, it can be said that burdens on urban infrastructures such as transport are rising and that, at the same time, there are serious health issues for urban populations caused by environmental pollution. Conversely, it is increasingly problematic for rural areas to maintain or build and expand the structures they require; one example is the ongoing discussion about the provision of broadband availability.

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Growth and urbanization, at least in the countries of Southeast Asia, go hand in hand with growth of the so-called middle class. This produces a chain of consequences because an improved economic position leads to the desire for better living conditions and increases our ecological footprint (which is already too great today as it is) from the increased consumption of resources and rising CO2 emissions. Cities are responsible for 75% of worldwide energy consumption and for 50% to 60% of greenhouse gases.[1] 

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And last, but not least, we must deal with the problem of continuing growth in populations and their aging. Even though this is a global trend, there are regional differences. So far, the USA has been able to buck this trend with a comparatively liberal immigration policy while China, driven as well by its family policy, is facing the issue of a rising shortage in the workforce. In contrast, Africa has a youth problem. The share of the population below the age of 14 in the top 750 cities will be about 90% by the year 2030.[2]. This will inevitably lead to strong migration movements in the direction of Europe.

To be sure, these are trends, i.e., projections of future events based on past developments. As Niels Bohr once said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Predictions become even more difficult because the individual trends cannot be considered in isolation; to paraphrase Alexander von Humboldt: “Everything depends on everything else.”

Even if the specifics of the future are subject to uncertainties, we can nevertheless define the major issues. These are a few of them:

  • What consequences will the growth in Southeast Asia’s economic strength have?
  • For Europe, for Germany and its midsize businesses?
  • What form will the genuinely emissions-neutral mobility of the future take?
  • How can cities secure quality of life while at the same time satisfying divergent demands?
  • How can we succeed in developing sustainable use of our planet’s resources?
  • How will we deal with the consequences of demographic transformation?
  • What role will technology play?


Technological developments

In the past, inventions and innovations in the physical and digital worlds were separate from one another. Cyber-physical systems such as robots eliminate this separation — systems are becoming smart. In parallel developments, biotechnology is constantly coming up with new areas of application and also entering the physical-digital world, as can be seen in the case of tissue engineering — the artificial growth of body tissue. A robot with an artificial skin from a 3-D printer is not so much a science fiction pipe dream as one might think.

But the interaction and merging of these three worlds — often not visible to us — is not all that is new; there is also the related and increasing acceleration of technological development. As a rule, an invention or innovation today affects a broad range of technological developments. For instance, there would not be any smartphones without the advances in the miniaturization of electronics and the development of modern materials such as those used in touch screens.

If we consider the internet today, we can say that we are more or less docked onto it. We use devices such as smartphones to obtain information, do our shopping, and much more. But, at the moment, we are active only in the digital world while the physical world has remained separate — up to now.

When we cross the street today, we look at the traffic light, and when it turns green, we walk across the street. But when all participants in traffic, including pedestrians, are interconnected in the future, a look at the display on our augmented reality glasses will be enough to tell us whether we can safely cross the street — traffic lights will be superfluous. If we want to enter secure areas today, we must manually obtain access by the use of coded cards, the entry of codes, or by using a retina scanner. But if the sensor under our skin automatically authenticates and authorizes our access to the security system, we will simply go through without stopping.

Improved living conditions and better medical care have significantly increased our life expectancy in recent decades, but have not improved the quality of our lives at an advanced age to the same degree. In a manner of speaking, health is a matter of isolated points — for instance, when we do something for our physical fitness. But when sensors implanted in our body or in our clothing constantly measure vital parameters, we can expand health into something permanent — “You’ve sat enough, do a couple of stretch exercises”, “Take the stairs, not the elevator.” This list of applications can be expanded by the addition of innumerable examples that come from the industrial world as well. Technologies such as the intelligent monitoring of machines and supply chains are only two examples that have already reached industrial maturity today.

The technologies required for the realization of the aforementioned scenarios are basically already with us, even though their level of maturity still varies today. Sensors are becoming less and less expensive and smaller and smaller, making it possible to do away with the separation between the physical and digital worlds — everything is becoming interconnected, forming the internet of things. Interaction with the internet of things will become more direct and tangible through voice commands and augmented and virtual reality, for instance, and at the same time more individual and personal through artificial intelligence. The computer power required for this will be made available by mobile devices that constantly decline in size while simultaneously increasing in power and through integration of computing resources into the mobile network. Computer power and storage will become ubiquitous and practically unlimited.

Artificial intelligence is already being used in numerous applications today. Usually, it is invisible to us as it works in the background, but occasionally it becomes visible such as in facial recognition in the photo app. Artificial intelligence will appear in many different areas and lead to fundamental changes, even for individuals. Essentially, all activities that people perform in steps lasting no more than one-tenth of a second will be taken over by artificial intelligence.

The breadth of the related automation is significant, to put it mildly! That is also true for the affected workers. We will have no choice but to examine closely our understanding of work that has come down to us from the Industrial Age. Realized in the right way, however, we will be offered new and positive opportunities. But we will have to learn how to exploit them.


Digital technologies have a downside

All of the examples described above require data for their realization. While the data tracking the movements of a container in logistics applications can be classified as less than critical, personal data are subject to special requirements with respect to security and the safeguarding of our personal sphere. Certainly, no one can have any interest in discovering his or her medical data for all to see on the internet. In dealing with data, however, we should include social interests along with individual and business interests in the equation. This is where lawmakers must lay the necessary groundwork, because the real risk is not that machines will become more intelligent than human beings, but comes from the reign of algorithms, ultimately of mathematics, statistics, and economy.

Another problem that is often overlooked is the consumption of resources and related CO2 emissions. Let us look at two examples:

·         If the internet were a country, it would be the third-largest consumer of energy in the world.

·         In 2015, 42 million tons of electronic junk were scrapped, and this figure is expected to rise to 52 million tons in 2020.

Of course, digital technologies also lead to savings, but they are often canceled out by rebound effects. Shopping on the web saves us the trouble of going to a shop and is less expensive. Unfortunately, we have the tendency to spend the money we have saved on additional purchases — and the overall balance turns negative again. For the same reason, drivers of electric cars tend to drive more because their vehicles are supposedly free of emissions.

In extreme cases, digital technologies limit themselves as is illustrated by the case of Blockchain. The range of possible applications is broad: crypto-currencies, micropayments, secure exchange of data in Internet of Things scenarios, and much more. Blockchain requires an extremely high level of computing power, and its widespread use would exceed our energy capacities. Work is being done on energy-efficient algorithms, of course, but their use — according to what is known today — would reduce the security of blockchain.

Technology progress gives rise to many different questions to which answers should ideally be found in advance. Let us take the example of artificial intelligence:

  • How do we assess decisive algorithms that function independently?
  • Must there be no-go areas? For example: weapons technology.
  • How do we counter the shift in the direction of highly qualified activities?
  • How do we deal with the tensions between personal rights and data?

We will achieve genuine improvements solely if we consider the overall balance of the use of technology from an end-to-end perspective. And this also includes taking a look at non-technological alternatives. Vancouver wanted to improve the level of safety for cyclists through more defensive behavior of car drivers. The typical options were familiar, but the astounding fact was that simple construction measures were sufficient.


Mastering global trends through digital technologies

Just as this article can do no more than touch on the global challenges and technological developments without going far beyond its intended scope, the role of digital technologies can only be sketched briefly by looking at selected examples.

The shift in economic strength in the direction of Southeast Asia is a consequence of the globalized economy as well as other factors. Dealing with this trend means utilizing and broadening strengths as well as recognizing and exploiting opportunities at an early stage, while at the same time not losing sight of the aspect of sustainability. Here are some examples.

Sharing and peer-to-peer networks on the one hand and individualization on the other are two conspicuous trends. Sharing and peer-to-peer networks — practical only through the use of digital platforms — are a proven method of reducing the consumption of resources by enabling a number of people to use one asset. The number of goods produced declines, and these goods have a higher degree of utilization. But consumers also increasingly favor products that are more individual and personal. One example of such products is clothing. The desire here is for clothing that has been tailored to a person’s specific body measurements while corresponding to his or her taste preferences. At the same time, the quality of industrial mass products is taken for granted and more or less direct availability is expected.

Demands of this type can be met solely by innovative combinations of state-of-the-art production technologies, including 3-D printing, modern materials (including, in the future, biological materials), and end-to-end automated and digitalized process and production chains. Even if individualized products can only supplement industrial mass production, they will, because of the necessity of local production in part, lead to a shift in value generation. So individualized products will drive the partial return of production to Western countries while at the same time encouraging innovation. Automation and digitalization create the technological basis to realize this economically while giving due consideration to sustainability. There is no doubt that today we are consuming more resources than are actually available — we are practicing predatory exploitation instead of sustainability. Perhaps smart products, which can be tracked from their creation to their purchase to the recycling center, will be a part of the solution. Good-by, garbage dump!

Economic strength and sustainability can be coupled in a positive way, but at the same time, they are not unaffected by demographic transformation and urbanization. On the one hand, the aging of society is reducing the working part of the population; on the other hand, urbanization is tied to quality of life and health to an advanced age.

The costs of health care systems, driven by the aging of society and other factors, consume a steadily rising share of gross domestic product. Besides the cost issues, we are facing the challenge of reconciling quality of life and life expectancy and finding solutions to the shortage of medical personnel. Digital technologies help by applying various levers.

Every human being is different from a biological perspective, yet pharmaceuticals today still follow the principle of “one size fits all.” The consequence is that the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals varies from one person to the next. This is precisely the point where personalized medicine comes in, seeking to make available pharmaceuticals adapted to the biology of the individual. The basis for this (among other factors) is the analysis of large quantities of data. Other areas of application include the support of diagnostic work using artificial intelligence, intelligent patient monitoring, and the relief of care personnel from the burden of administrative activities.

But the use of digital processes must not lead to the automation of medical care for its own sake. Instead, it should be oriented to effectiveness and quality: effectiveness in the sense of our health, quality in the sense of humane medical care. We are social creatures — conversations with patients as one human being to another must not be replaced by technology, and care also means being able to devote time to people.

Our personal health is affected by innumerable diverse factors from our genes to our diet to our living environment. Noise and emissions pollution from traffic is known to be anything but good for our health while a walk in the nearby city park certainly is. The bottom line is that cities today are facing the challenge, which is truly a substantial one, of improving the quality of life of their growing populations. The changes relating to mastering these challenges will significantly change the appearance of today’s cities. Digital technologies will contribute their share because future cities will be smart cities. Waste management and mobility can be mentioned here merely as two representatives of the huge spectrum.

Are digital technologies a part of the answer to global challenges? Yes, but we must use them intelligently; they must not be allowed to create more problems than they solve. What shape will concrete approaches and solutions take? The answer to this question must be the subject of later articles.

 

[1] Source: UN Habitat https://unhabitat.org/urban-themes/energy/

[2] Source: Future Trends and Market Opportunities in the World’s Largest 750 Cities,
Oxford Economics, 2014

Europe needs its own path

But innovation must not and cannot be thought of in local terms. On the contrary, it requires European approaches that take into consideration diversity and individual strengths. This demands new models and radical changes rather than incremental adjustments. Nor should they be limited to straightforward copying — neither China nor Silicon Valley is a suitable role model. Instead, we must ask the question of how, for instance, the German model of midsize businesses can be used and developed further in a European context. And how we can become or remain leaders in areas such as “next generation mobility” or environmental technology without tossing European accomplishments out the window? Who would have thought that Airbus would today operate at a peer level with Boeing?


Quo vadis, #mankind?

Even though there is still a long road to the vision of the 24th century, we must exploit our opportunities today in the 21st century and enter the right settings for our future course. The global challenges cannot be ignored, but the right path is regrettably not clearly evident because our world is not just globalized; the problem fields are interconnected in a highly complicated matrix.

The complexity and impact of the questions and their answers demand the collaboration of governments, society, business, and science. In our efforts to make the world more sustainable and productive, we must, of course, also take advantages of the opportunities offered by technology. We need as well a code of ethics, however, that goes beyond its utilization as a tool to increase efficiency and ensures that our world is humane as well. This requires an understanding of technological developments and the consequences of these developments so that at the end of the journey we can say — to quote Jean-Luc Picard — “I envy you taking these first steps into a new frontier.”

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