Digital future comes with job loss, social benefit gain trade-offs

Register now

Businesses are rushing to adopt artificial intelligence and embrace the Internet of Things, but the impact of new technologies will slow for consumers over the next few years. That is the opinion of futurologist professor William Webb in his latest book, “Our Digital Future.”

Webb notes that while we have been “promised flying cars, living buildings and holographic displays, we may have to be content with 140 characters, Siri and Alexa for some time to come,” he suggests.

“While digital technology has changed our lives completely, for the better and worse, with always-on connectivity and the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Uber, the changes for individuals over the next 30 years may be relatively small compared to the last 30,” Webb says.

The adoption of technologies such as ubiquitous connectivity and flexible touch-screen devices will increase, but Webb says the real drivers for the digital future over the next two decades will be artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. Still, because most of these enablers are associated with business applications, Webb believes that the impact on consumers may be relatively small.

The book predicts that consumers will see “ever-better virtual assistant functionality from their devices as solutions such as Siri steadily improve using AI techniques, but while new connected devices such as smart speakers and home IoT products will become more commonplace, the reality of home automation is still many years away.”

Webb sees a trade-off between lost jobs on the business side, but gains on the social side with new features and services.

“While consumers may be disappointed in the mid-term digital future, businesses will see more widespread deployment of IoT, biometrics and robotics, mostly to save costs and reduce staff,” Webb says.

The book describes how some industries will make extensive use of IoT to improve productivity such as agriculture and manufacturing, while retail will decline further due to changing buying habits and other sectors such as construction and hospitality will be broadly unaffected.

“Society may become ever-more concerned about the changes wrought by a digital future and there may be some push-back,” Webb suggests. “Contract law will have to change to embrace the zero-hours approach to employment; social media will be charged with cleaning up undesirable content and controlling fake news; autonomous cars and robotic companions for the elderly will raise difficult ethical questions; and privacy and security concerns will limit the scope of big data and AI and may slow the introduction of IoT.”

Webb predicts that today’s large digital companies such as Google and Amazon will continue to dominate well into the future, with new players such as Uber and Tesla emerging, but at a slowing rate. Some big players such as Facebook, might struggle as regulation bites and connectivity providers such as mobile operators will become utility-like and their manufacturers will struggle, he says.

“In essence, the key gains of a foreseeable digital future will be in convenience, productivity and reliability where the world will be a similar place to today, but will work better,” Webb says. “This may strike many as pessimistic when others talk of flying cars, cyborgs and AI replacing humans, but I would suggest it is a pragmatic, realistic view.”

("Our Digital Future: Smart analysis of smart technology" is available in paperback for $26 and can be purchased from Amazon)

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.