In its 16th year, the twice-annual Kruse Way Economic Forum last week featured the topic of the disruption of innovative technology in a post-mobile world. The keynote speaker was Steve Brown, CEO of Possibility & Purpose, aka the Bald Futurist.
Brown told the Business Tribune the skills gap between education and technology is what worries him most about the U.S. economy's future. That, and how truck driving, the No. 1 job in 29 states, will become obsolete as freight moves toward self-driving. That includes delivery and taxi drivers, too.
"That is a big issue for us all, what are they going to do?" Brown said.
All major truck companies have research and product development for autonomous freight in the works.
"It's going to be great for reducing the cost of delivery. It's still going to have a driver, he's just chilling watching Netflix just in case something happens and he can take over when he moves into the city," Brown said. "Between cities the truck drives itself. This is moving toward the point where you don't need truck drivers anymore."
With tech eliminating jobs, it will also create some: former drivers will be able to put on smart glasses, which will show them how to perform duties that they don't have the skills or training to do.
Brown said technology will affect every single industry, so businesses should get on board.
Connecting physical and digital
Back in 2010, Steve Jobs declared we were entering the post-PC era, meaning the primary way people interact with digital information and services was no longer the PC, but the mobile phone.
"We're still using PCs, it's just the primary way we get digital services is one of these things we carry in pockets," Brown said. "What does the post-mobile era look like? The smartphone isn't going to go away. It has become the remote control for modern life and it will continue to be that for some time, (but) the primary way people interact with digital services may no longer be the smart phone."
Part of Brown's job as a futurist is to try to predict how people are going to interact with information, helping companies think through what the world could look like in five to 20 years — through the lens of technology, a disruptive force.
"I also think about how the money is going to flow differently, how is the technology going to be paid for, how it will change business models and how will they pay for things differently than they did in the past," Brown said. "The most important things are not just technology — the people: what do they want, what are they scared of, what are their aspirations in life. If you don't understand people and motivations, you won't be able to assess whether technology will solve problems or be interesting to them or not."
Brown used to work for Intel, where his boss was a cultural anthropologist. Brown looks at the future through the lens of technology, the ecosystem and people.
"A lot of the way we live our modern lives has all been enabled in the last 20 years and much in the last decade," Brown said.
For example the 1998 ASCI Red, a $55 million computer the size of a tennis court, has only 60 percent of the power of today's $299 Playstation 4.
"This is going to continue. If you think about the computing power you have in a PC today, think about what you might have in your glasses tomorrow," Brown said.
That's because transistor chips — the cells of technology — are getting smaller, faster and more capable exponentially. And the cost is going down exponentially.
"This means more transistors are going to be deployed in the next five years than in the entire human history," Brown said. "We're firmly in the third era (after PC programs and then web-based browsers) using mobile devices, using apps, it's primarily about touch. We're talking to applications and services running in the cloud."
Scaling digital value
Brown says the future of tech will be voice enabled, and will soon be dramatically better than today's voice assistants.
"The primary interface we're going to use, virtual reality, augmented reality, types of endpoints that are going to be in our lives and businesses, how people are going to interact with business in new ways — all of this is going to enable a whole new set of breakthroughs that is going to change the way the businesses operate and the way we live our lives," Brown said. "Autonomous machines, VR personal assistance, augmented workers, robotic AI (artificial intelligence), synthetic biology, being able to program biology itself. All sorts of exciting stuff is coming."
With an Intel background, Brown brought up the Internet of Things — connecting physical items to the internet, making equipment smart.
"It allows you to bring the smarts of the digital world and apply them to physical spaces and make our physical world more intelligent and responsive to human needs," Brown said. "It's going to transform every industry."
It comes in two categories, service portals (smart objects) and classic embedded control loops, like timed lawn sprinklers.
An example of a service portal is a smart teddy bear that could read books out loud to a child. If it could read a book written in English out loud in Mandarin, that could be a $5 a month service allowing a child access to learning a new language.
"You're now selling a reading service through the bear. It's a service portal,a portal through which you can sell services," Brown said. "When you make products smart and connected, you can sell services through them and people are on the hook to give you money every month."
As for control loops, the lawn sprinklers could detect moisture already in the soil or the weather forecast if it's going to rain in an hour, and make decisions based on that information.
"You can apply this to almost anything and everything. It's a way of making the world smarter," Brown said. "How can I change my product portfolio so it's less physical product, more digital value — because digital value can scale."
Today, robots can see, hear and understand the world, so it's safe for them to be around humans and they are in every sector.
"There's a massive wave of automation coming which will have profound implications for our economy, the employment landscape and our businesses," Brown said. "Every company is now a data company. It's mission-critical. The goal is to make every decision in your business using data."