The Economist has an interesting write-up on predicting innovation. They see things heating up specifically in manufacturing and user interfaces.
Across the board, innovations fuelled by cheap processing power are taking off. Computers are beginning to understand natural language. People are controlling video games through body movement aloneâ€”a technology that may soon find application in much of the business world. Three-dimensional printing is capable of churning out an increasingly complex array of objects, and may soon move on to human tissues and other organic material.
This analysis seems to support my guesses on why Kurzweil would join Google. Removing antiquated and disabling interfaces like the keyboard will enable more people to use more technology. Comparing the productivity of humans required to learn the qwerty keyboard with the potential of those who can use free voice and touch is a no brainer (pun not intended).
As I thought about the Economist’s analysis I started to wonder about an important element that I didn’t see them mention. They focus in a usual way at present IT trends in relation to historic trends. They offer electrification as an example.
…the idea that technology-led growth must either continue unabated or steadily decline, rather than ebbing and flowing, is at odds with history. Chad Syverson of the University of Chicago points out that productivity growth during the age of electrification was lumpy. Growth was slow during a period of important electrical innovations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; then it surged. The information-age trajectory looks pretty similar…
With that in mind, the Economist then takes their analysis down the well-worn path of productivity worries in relation to obsolescence and redundancy.
…the main risk to advanced economies may not be that the pace of innovation is too slow, but that institutions have become too rigid to accommodate truly revolutionary changes.
Fair enough, technology has a disruptive force when innovation replaces labor. That brings risk and resistance. I’ve experienced this many times. The voice-recognition project I worked on in 1997 for a hospital was overtly said by the administration to be a way to put their transcriptionists out of work. No surprises there.
But once we move beyond a focus on the balance of labor risk what other risks lurk ahead? I mean it is fascinating to look at how the lightbulb put American whalers (e.g. oil for lamps) out of business. It is even more interesting, however, to think about how inexpensive light transformed our abilities. We can see further and go faster with power.
Back to consideration of today’s tech innovation boom, the part to me missing in the Economist analysis is the sunshine effect of electrification. Electrification was really about innovative ways to create and use power. It shone a light, if you will, into dark areas and remote corners of opportunity. A coming boom in tech innovation led by user interfaces and manufacturing, if we pivot the Economist theory, could in fact be a boom in innovative ways to reach, create and use data. Yet the Economist analysis doesn’t mention data at all!
Here is a simple example of what I mean by a pivot:
Industrialized countries are like the urban areas of electrification that saw power first and saw productivity boom at a large scale. Power eventually reached a wider area on smaller scale and created a boom in productivity and markets. Non-industrialized countries are thus like the rural areas that increasingly were able to create and use power.
More people in more areas making more data and using that data is what may really be the fuel for a boom ahead. The innovation is not only in the interfaces, although that’s a crucial piece of enablement, but what so many more people will produce with those interfaces. Big data is a common phrase to capture what seems to be ahead but we could just as well call it a sunshine-like effect of datafication.
Now if I ask “are your headlights on” hopefully you might think about risk in terms of billions of people shining a bright light into darkness because they now have access to powerful data. Reduction of corruption using better data tools is the kind of innovation that really should excite economists.
Of course this puts immense pressure on the security industry. Access to vast amounts of data becomes “a one-click matter,” as a GoodData developer suggested. How safe will a clicker need to be? And this new level of visibility, like brighter lights we flip on with a switch, can shift our definition of “exposure” and privacy. Recently a “near-global view of the universe of public keys” was used to easily uncover weak random number generators. Should we plan for more risk or less as we push away darkness?
Thus, to extend the Economist analysis that suggests innovation will bring better interfaces and better manufacturing tools, the real boom may come from datafication — the process of making it easier than ever to create, access and use data.