The World is Changing in Profound and Radical Ways. Where do you sit in the technology curve?

*UPDATE – 2021 statistics and Industry 5.0 info added. Also, scroll for full video from my presentation: Thriving in the Cyber-Physical Revolution.

A rapid confluence of emerging technologies are poised to amplify and catalyze each other to change how we work, play, relate, and live. The emergence of Industry 5.0 will be powered by ubiquitous connectivity, advances in artificial intelligence (AI), and changing manufacturing paradigms like vaccine manufacturing rather than traditional growth techniques.  

We stand at an inflection point in the technology evolution, and we need to understand that it involves exponential change that will yield a world very different from the one we know. But it’s also a chance to explore the role and responsibility that we as technologists will have as we engage with and enable the coming tide of innovation. There are moral and ethical choices ahead of us and grappling with them will be a core challenge of the coming age. 

Tech companies are uniquely empowered by the accelerating technological forces changing our world. Right now, developers are writing the code that drives the systems that will shape our future. 

Understanding Exponential Technologies 

To grasp the technology revolution, consider the relatively recent exponential technology growth in photography. The graph in Figure 1 tracks the growth in the number of photos taken annually worldwide since 2000, coinciding with the emergence of digital cameras and camera-equipped cell phones. In 2000, about 86 billion photos were taken. Twelve years later, that number was 380 billion.  In 2021, the number continues to skyrocket to around 1.44 trillion

Figure 1 The Exponential Growth of Photography

Industry 5.0 is full of exponential growth!

The problem with charts like this, and the numbers underlying them, is that they illuminate exponential trends in hindsight, only after they’ve already happened. Forecasting exponential growth is difficult because we’re hard-wired to think linearly—we struggle to grasp the magnitude of exponential trends. 

To recognize exponential trends early—when growth still looks linear—you need to identify the key technology improvement that drives it. In the case of digital photography—and many other exponential technologies—that driver is digitization. 

Digitization is closely associated with exponential technology because it tends toward zero cost. The more digital photos you take, the closer the cost per photo approaches free. Even digital storage isn’t far from a zero-cost item. Numerous cloud providers offer storage that’s close to free (especially if the provider is licensed to advertise or mine the information posted). 

Another critical characteristic of exponential technologies is democratization—making the technology ubiquitous. In the case of photography, this occurred because of the parallel adoption of mobile phones—another exponential technology. (For more on this dynamic, consider exploring the work of Salim Ismail and Steven Kotler, who both identify characteristics to look for in determining exponential technologies.) 

Figure 2 offers a small sample of some of today’s exponential technologies. As with photography and mobile phones, what’s impressive is that each is likely exponential on its own, but together they amplify each other, making the doubling time for usage even shorter. 

Figure 2 Exponential Technology Areas 

Material Science Energy Storage Autonomous Transportation (cars/trucks/drones/etc.)
Internet of Things (IoT) Quantum Nanotechnology
Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Blockchain Bio-Technology/Medicine (mRNA vaccine manufacture)
Robotics Computers Virtual Reality
3D Printing Cloud Computing Neuroscience

The breadth of even the shortlist in Figure 2 is almost shocking. And when you consider the impacts of all these technology areas converging at once, it raises the question: Are we experiencing another industrial revolution? 

History of Industrial Revolutions  

Historically, industrial revolutions are characterized by changes in labor—the way we work. Electricity was the crucial invention required for both the second and third industrial revolutions—and without it, we wouldn’t have a fourth revolution either. But, what electricity enabled in the second and third industrial revolutions pales in comparison to what data, cloud computing, AI, ML, IoT, Big Data, nanotechnology, and quantum computing generated in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In Industry 5.0, people work alongside robots and smart machines, enhancing productivity and merging technical computing abilities with human resourcefulness and intelligence. Each new revolution has involved a radical change in labor. 

The industrial revolutions and exponential technology - Now we're in Industry 4.0 to Industry 5.0.

The proliferation of the Internet radically changed the speed of technological advancement starting in the 1990s. Still, the real gain is upon us as devices start collecting vast amounts of behavioral data and analyzing it with AI.

Today, a swarm of mobile and IoT devices pump data into relatively private cloud stores. We are no longer constrained by how much humans could explicitly direct computers to do. Cloud computing engines autonomously analyze this data, compute knowledge about it, then independently act on said knowledge. 

Another Industrial Revolution

The end of the fourth industrial revolution and the introduction of the Industry 5.0 label are characterized by concerns about AI and autonomous robots (I include autonomous transportation) and how these technologies will transform today’s workforce (remember, changes in labor indicate industrial revolutions). Research by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that 51 percent of current work activities could be automated by existing technology right now. It also finds that computers can perform about one-third of the tasks in 60 percent of existing jobs. These estimates are premonitions of dire unemployment.

Of course, similar unemployment predictions occurred with the previous industrial revolutions; all proved inaccurate with time. While work was radically affected in all cases, especially when the technology was democratized, the technology that triggered each industrial revolution generally enabled people to move on to better jobs overall. In short, labor improved. Is the Industry 5.0 technology any different? Several important factors should at least give one pause that perhaps the current revolution is significantly different than in the past.

Exponential Profit

Consider the profits of companies that have maintained accurate foresight as they deliver exponential technologies. For a company like Amazon, the number of employees doesn’t correlate to an increase in revenue, which may increase exponentially while employment only grows linearly. Likewise, companies in exponential markets can see net income per employee (NIPE) increase exponentially. Consider, for example, the NIPE of the top four tech companies in 2018, as reported by CSIMarket, shown in Figure 3. By contrast, the average NIPE in 1990 for the leading three automobile manufacturers was less than $60,000 when adjusted for inflation.

Figure 3 Net Income Per Employee for Top Tech Firms in 2020

No. of Employees Net Income per Employee
Facebook 44,942 $411,308
Apple 137,000 $403,328
Alphabet (Google) 118,899 $288,842
Microsoft 144,000 $272,500

Contract Labor 

On top of these exponential profits, companies favor independent contractors over full-time employees. Regardless, the breadth of disruption across major industries such as print media, music, television, transportation, hotels, banking, and agriculture is breathtaking. 

Digital Interactions 

Another key factor we are still very much amid is the quarantined work life. It seems unlikely that in-person work interactions and travel for such interactions will ever return to the same levels. Even before the pandemic, there was already a radical shift from interpersonal communication to digital communication. Now, we can accomplish everything from the comfort of our couches by texting, teleconferences, food delivery services, online shopping, or streaming video services. Digital communication and instant satisfaction are taking priority over interpersonal experiences (albeit a similar concern was raised with the proliferation of television). 

Exponential Technologies 

We already introduced the concept of exponential technologies, but let’s consider their various effects. We now see transformative change for entire systems and industries, such as transportation, travel, and purchasing. What’s more, these paradigm shifts are changing us, both as individuals and as communities and nations. 

  • The quantity, concurrency, and fusion of exponential technologies potentially amplify each other. Example: Energy storage amplifies drone technology. 
  • The exponentially increasing adoption of cyber-physical devices connected to the Internet. Example: home automation devices. 
  • The core value of data mined from technology – be it via devices, online services, or other technologies. Example: The McKinsey report estimates revenue from data mined and monetized from connected cars could reach $450 billion in 2030. 
  • The exponential velocity of change. Example: The incredibly rapid acceptance and ubiquitous adoption of smartphones, and soon after, cloud services. 

This combination of significant differences should, at a minimum, give one pause to consider whether the current industrial revolution is perhaps more problematic to society. 

Are We in Industry 5.0? 

To be honest, I’m cautious about the Industry 5.0 label.  While we are obviously in the midst of significant labor changes, it’s not yet clear whether the fourth industrial revolution is over and that Industry 5.0 has started. If it is the case, then at a minimum, we should note that such an accelerated timeline would indicate that even the industrial revolutions themselves are starting to occur exponentially. However, the alternative perspective is that the recent trends are all part of the same revolution – an extended digital revolution. 

I think that distinction is, perhaps, a question best left to historians. We have not had enough time to look back and determine where we’ve landed. Regardless, today’s technology revolution does present some important differences from past cycles.  

Confronting Questions 

Whether we identify the current decade as two unique industrial revolutions or simply an inflection point in the digital revolution, there are significant questions to confront. As technologists, we’re in the unique position of implementing the software that will ultimately control the exponential technologies. 

Ethical Questions

There are obvious ethical questions about many of the innovations in the offing—genetic engineering is an easy example. While I’m surprised and concerned by how few organizations employ ethicists on their teams, the fact is any employee can fill that role simply by raising ethical questions. And there have been some employee protests in recent years that reflect this commitment. Consider Netflix’s recent docu-drama The Social Dilemma, where tech experts explore the dangerous impacts of their social media creations.  

The Issue of Governance

We can’t innovate without considering the issue of governance. How do we regulate exponential technologies that may be used for good or ill? You can use facial recognition to tag your personal photo collection just as easily as governments can use it to track and control populations. Similarly, drones can carry medicines to the sick following a hurricane, but they can be equally effective as weapons. Consider the Federal Trade Commission’s 2020 order to nine tech companies requiring them to explain how they collect and use data. While important to understand, this action may be years too late. 

Almost any technology can be used for good or evil, but the challenge of exponential technology is the potential for exponential consequences. Whether companies self-regulate or the law provides boundaries, either approach will struggle to keep pace with rapid change. Autonomous driving, social-media propaganda, and ethnic/gender bias in machine learning have already emerged as immediate challenges. 

Finally, we should consider our innovation motivation. Capitalism was a core driver of the industrial revolutions of the past, and it yielded profound progress, but it also produced troubling inequities. Now, as we step forward into a world reshaped by exponential technologies, we have the opportunity to improve humanity and to ensure the economic and social benefits of our advances are felt by all. 

Next Steps

When you consider the pace and breadth of technology advancement, it’s clear we live in a time like no other – not simply because of the pandemic, but because of the exponential technologies that will continue to skyrocket once we emerge from it. As software developers, we’re in a unique position to influence the future. Whether you’re engaged with exponential technologies in the physical sciences (medicine, energy storage, bioengineering) or the computer sciences (AI, cloud, Big Data, blockchain), you have opportunities to have an impact. 

And for those not yet leveraging these technologies, you should be urging your organizations to catch up. Organizations that fail to engage exponential technologies early in the curve alongside their competitors court the risk of being left exponentially behind. 

Industry 5.0 Tech is Transformative

Future tech advancements can and will transform your industry. At IntelliTect, innovative excellence is who we are. We constantly think outside the box to solve our customers’ problems and try to push the status quo beyond where customers are today and into the future. (Click here for a blog about how we harnessed cyber-physical systems in our new office space.) 

Now is the time to explore opportunities to digitize your product, whether we’re in Industry 5.0 or not. Research how to information-enable your offerings, so the data becomes a profit center. At the same time, evaluate the cloud, and at a minimum, move there for Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) implementations. “Get thee to the cloud” is certainly advice you’ve heard before, but it becomes imperative if you hope to capitalize on the exponential growth happening in cloud technologies. And nowhere is this growth more dramatic than in the field of AI and machine learning. 

Finally, don’t be afraid to think big. Look beyond leveraging existing technologies and budget time to ideate about your next pivot. Instead of Uber replacing taxi drivers, think of autonomous driving replacing drivers entirely. Consider forming an ideation team within your company that allocates time each week to complain about frustrations and concoct solutions. 

In summary, capture the potential of today’s exponential technology, focus on how you can leverage or even surpass it to make the world a better place, and then—do it. 

Want More? 

I believe the window for innovation is shrinking, and the opportunities to compete with the incumbents, more challenging. Nonetheless, at IntelliTect, we embrace the challenge and strive to keep our clients relevant. 

I’m passionate about maintaining technical foresight and applying it to IntelliTect’s business strategy. For more about this, watch my presentation: Thriving in the Cyber-Physical Revolution from the September 2019 Spokane .NET Users Group. 

Click here for the slides from my previous talk on this subject at Techorama in the Netherlands. 

Ready to get started with your own tech revolution? IntelliTect can help with that? Consider our DevOps services

The original version of this article was posted here in the November 2019 issue of MSDN Magazine.

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