Get Ready for the Next Digital Revolution as the Rest of the World Goes Online
Excerpted from The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. Copyright © 2013 by Eric Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Being able to do more in the virtual world will make the mechanics of our physical world more efficient. As digital connectivity reaches the far corners of the globe, new users will employ it to improve a wide range of inefficient markets, systems and behaviors, in both the most and least advanced societies.
Impact on emerging markets. The resulting gains in efficiency and productivity will be profound, particularly in developing countries where technological isolation and bad policies have stymied growth and progress for years, and people will do more with less. The accessibility of affordable smart devices, including phones and tablets, will be transformative in these countries. Consider the impact of basic mobile phones for a group of Congolese fisherwomen today. Whereas they used to bring their daily catch to the market and watch it slowly spoil as the day progressed, now they keep it on the line, in the river, and wait for calls from customers. Once an order is placed, a fish is brought out of the water and prepared for the buyer. There is no need for an expensive refrigerator, no need for someone to guard it at night, no danger of spoiled fish losing their value (or poisoning customers), and there is no unnecessary overfishing. The size of these women’s market can even expand as other fishermen in surrounding areas coordinate with them over their own phones. As a substitute for a formal market economy (which would take years to develop), that’s not a bad workaround for these women or the community at large.
The mobile revolution. Mobile phones are transforming how people in the developing world access and use information, and adoption rates are soaring. There are already more than 650 million mobile-phone users in Africa, and close to 3 billion across Asia. The majority of these people are using basic feature phones -- voice calls and text messages only -- because the cost of data service in their countries is often prohibitively expensive, so that even those who can buy web-enabled phones or smartphones cannot use them affordably. This will change, and when it does, the smartphone revolution will profoundly benefit these populations.
Hundreds of millions of people today are living the lives of their grandparents, in countries where life expectancy is less than 60 years, or even 50 in some places, and there is no guarantee that their political and macroeconomic circumstances will improve dramatically anytime soon. What is new in their lives and their futures is connectivity. Critically, they have the chance to bypass earlier technologies, like dial-up modems, and go directly to high-speed wireless connections, which means the transformations that connectivity brings will occur even more quickly than they did in the developed world. The introduction of mobile phones is far more transformative than most people in modern countries realize.
As people come online, they will quite suddenly have access to almost all the world’s information in one place in their own language. This will even be true for an illiterate Maasai cattle herder in the Serengeti, whose native tongue, Maa, is not written -- he’ll be able to verbally inquire about the day’s market prices and crowdsource the whereabouts of any nearby predators, receiving a spoken answer from his device in reply. Mobile phones will allow formerly isolated people to connect with others very far away and very different from themselves. On the economic front, they’ll find ways to use the new tools at their disposal to enlarge their businesses, make them more efficient and maximize their profits, as the fisherwomen did much more locally with their basic phones.
What connectivity also brings, beyond mobile phones, is the ability to collect and use data. Data itself is a tool, and in places where unreliable statistics about health, education, economics and the population’s needs have stalled growth and development, the chance to gather data effectively is a gamechanger. Everyone in society benefits from digital data, as governments can better measure the success of their programs, and media and other nongovernmental organizations can use data to support their work and check facts. For example, Amazon is able to take its data on merchants and, using algorithms, develop customized bank loans to offer them -- in some cases when traditional banks have completely shut their doors. Larger markets and better metrics can help create healthier and more productive economies.
Advances in printing. And the developing world will not be left out of the advances in gadgetry and other high-tech machinery. Even if the prices for sophisticated smartphones and robots to perform household tasks like vacuuming remain high, illicit markets like China’s expansive “shanzhai” network for knockoff consumer electronics will produce and distribute imitations that bridge the gap. And technologies that emerged in first-world contexts will find renewed purpose in developing countries. In “additive manufacturing,” or 3-D printing, machines can actually “print” physical objects by taking three-dimensional data about an object and tracing the contours of its shape, ultrathin layer by ultrathin layer, with liquid plastic or other material, until the whole object materializes. Such printers have produced a huge range of objects, including customized mobile phones, machine parts and a full-sized replica motorcycle. These machines will definitely have an impact on the developing world. Communal 3-D printers in poor countries would allow people to make whatever tool or item they require from open-source templates -- digital information that is freely available in its edited source -- rather than waiting on laborious or iffy delivery routes for higher-priced premade goods.
Changes in affluent markets. In wealthier countries 3-D printing will be the perfect partner for advanced manufacturing. New materials and products will all be built uniquely to a specification from the Internet and on demand by a machine run by a sophisticated, trained operator. This will not replace the acres of high-volume, lowest-cost manufacturing present in many industries, but it will bring an unprecedented variety to the products used in the developed world.
As for life’s small daily tasks, information systems will streamline many of them for people living in those countries, such as integrated clothing machines (washing, drying, folding, pressing and sorting) that keep an inventory of clean clothes and algorithmically suggest outfits based on the user’s daily schedule. Haircuts will finally be automated and machine-precise. And cellphones, tablets and laptops will have wireless recharging capabilities, rendering the need to fiddle with charging cables an obsolete nuisance. Centralizing the many moving parts of one’s life into an easy-to-use, almost intuitive system of information management and decision making will give our interactions with technology an effortless feel. As long as safeguards are in place to protect privacy and prevent data loss, these systems will free us of many small burdens -- including errands, to-do lists and assorted “monitoring” tasks -- that today add stress and chip away at our mental focus throughout the day. Our own neurological limits, which lead us to forgetfulness and oversights, will be supplemented by information systems designed to support our needs. Two such examples are memory prosthetics -- calendar reminders and to-do lists -- and social prosthetics, which instantly connect you with your friend who has relevant expertise in whatever task you are facing.
By relying on these integrated systems, which will encompass both the professional and the personal sides of our lives, we’ll be able to use our time more effectively each day -- whether that means having the time to have a “deep think,” spending more time preparing for an important presentation or guaranteeing that a parent can attend his or her child’s soccer game without distraction. Suggestion engines that offer alternative terms to help a user find what she is looking for will be a particularly useful aid in efficiency by consistently stimulating our thinking processes, ultimately enhancing our creativity, not pre-empting it. Of course, the world will be filled with gadgets, holograms that allow a virtual version of you to be somewhere else, and endless amounts of content, so there will be plenty of ways to procrastinate, too -- but the point is that when you choose to be productive, you can do so with greater capacity.
Computers getting smarter. Other advances in the pipeline in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence and voice recognition will introduce efficiency into our lives by providing more seamless forms of engagement with the technology in our daily routines. Fully automated human-like robots with superb AI abilities will probably be out of most people’s price range for some time, but the average American consumer will find it affordable to own a handful of different multipurpose robots fairly soon. The technology in iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner, the progenitor of this field of consumer “home” robots (first introduced in 2002), will only become more sophisticated and multipurpose in time. Future varieties of home robots should be able to handle other household duties, electrical work and even plumbing issues with relative ease.
We also can’t discount the impact that superior voice-recognition software will have on our daily lives. Beyond searching for information online and issuing commands to your robots (both of which are possible today), better voice recognition will mean instant transcription of anything you produce: emails, notes, speeches, term papers. Most people speak much faster than they type, so this technology will surely save many of us time in our daily affairs -- not to mention helping us avoid cases of carpal tunnel syndrome. A shift toward voice initiated writing may well change our world of written material. Will we learn to speak in paragraphs, or will our writing begin to mirror speech patterns?
Machines that read gestures, even thoughts. Everyday use of gesture-recognition technology is also closer than we think. Microsoft’s Kinect, a hands-free sensor device for the Xbox 360 video-game console that captures and integrates a player’s motion, set a world record in 2011 as the fastest-selling consumer electronics device in history, with more than 8 million devices sold in the first 60 days on the market. Gestural interfaces will soon move beyond gaming and entertainment into more functional areas; the futuristic information screens displayed so prominently in the film Minority Report -- in which Tom Cruise used gesture technology and holographic images to solve crimes on a computer -- are just the beginning. In fact, we’ve already moved beyond that -- the really interesting work today is building “social robots” that can recognize human gestures and respond to them in kind, such as a toy dog that sits when a child makes a command gesture.
And, looking further down the line, we might not need to move physically to manipulate those robots. There have been a series of exciting breakthroughs in thought-controlled motion technology -- directing motion by thinking alone -- in the past few years. In 2012, a team at a robotics laboratory in Japan demonstrated successfully that a person lying in an fMRI machine (which takes continuous scans of the brain to measure changes in blood flow) could control a robot hundreds of miles away just by imagining moving different parts of his body. The subject could see from the robot’s perspective, thanks to a camera on its head, and when he thought about moving his arm or his legs, the robot would move correspondingly almost instantaneously. The possibilities of thought-controlled motion, not only for “surrogates” like separate robots but also for prosthetic limbs, are particularly exciting in what they portend for mobility-challenged or “locked in” individuals -- spinal-cord-injury patients, amputees and others who cannot communicate or move in their current physical state.