At AISS, 2016, there were several workshops being staged in parallel; before the inaugural of the DSCI Summit (14 – 15th Dec, Gurgaon) and the one I attended proved to be the most interesting. It addressed the blurring lines between humanity and technology in a stimulating way, and at times even caressed the realms of what may have been sci-fi a few years back, but not so in December 2016.
In Pursuit of Energy
The evolution of human beings has not happened in isolation. Human values have evolved as well to keep pace. The story of evolution is actually a pursuit of energy, a relentless search for a higher form. This is evident from the early days of foraging to farming and the age of fossil fuels more recently. Perhaps at present we reside in the Age of Cyborgs. We are all cyborgs, not in the robotic sense as Issac Asimov would have us believe, but by the mental and physical shifts that we have undergone from the time we were mere foragers. In turn, the expansion of technology is almost Mary Poppins-like. Computing capabilities have been added exponentially but without any discernible increase in size. In fact, the size of devices continue to shrink, even as they get infinitely more powerful.
Our Second Self
This leads us to an interesting idea – our online self. Self? Is it our second one? We invest a significant amount of effort in maintaining our physical self, but are we doing enough to “maintain” our online self? It is believed that the future generations will have to live through two adolescent periods. The first will be the physical one, but it will be the second which will have a very high degree of permanency. It will reside digitally somewhere which can be easily retrieved, but not so easily deleted.
Technology is adopted not because it is simply there, but because people use it. In this age, time and physical space have compressed but the world hasn’t stopped working. Devices have helped the human race stay in constant connect. If viewed differently, then it should not be seen as machines taking over our lives, but helping us connect better and co-create at all times. Yet again an extension of the idea that we are cyborgs. This leads us to the next idea.
Information – the Harbinger of Trillion Dollar Opportunities
Energy is directly proportional to connectivity. The humongous data that is generated in the 21st century will help us evolve to the next level, and will prove to be the raw material of the information age. Interesting trivia: 90% of data that presides over the world today (measured in zettabytes, 10 to the power 21) has been created in the last 2 years. Presently, there are 16 billion connected devices in the world and by 2020 this figure is likely to touch 40 billion. The Pacific ocean of information is actually harvesting actionable businesses which translate into trillion dollar opportunities. The Healthcare sector being a case in point.
Digital Atma (Soul)
The speaker from Customer XPS made an interesting remark. Or rather quite a few of them. Plural. Cyborg Age, is way beyond physical form. The soul (he calls it Atma) of a customer lies with the banking sector. A detailed look into the customer’s bank statement coupled with digital audit trail would reveal just about everything about her life. Moreover, this information (call it digital memory if you will) does not reside in one place and can also be accessed from any part of the world. Intentionally or not, we are sharing a lot of data amongst ourselves all the time.
There are retail stores which come equipped with devices that track every movement, once you enter. If you have been visiting the store often and take about 20 minutes to decide, then be sure, an attendant will come forward to assist you in the 21st minute. A robust analytics based solution is working at the background which enable such prompts to heighten customer experience by leaps and bounds. It can be intrusive as well, seeing it from the other side.
If we lose this data – hypothetically speaking – will it then be far-fetched to assume that a part of our soul will be lost as well? The digital imprints that we leave behind – what if the ‘Googles’ and the ‘Facebooks’ of the world decide to remove all traces from their servers one day? Humans today may not be connected to each other in the physical form as they did in the past but the networks of connectivity help us remain digitally connected, should we choose to. He even likened the concept of soul re-birth (as believed in many religions including Hinduism) to data migration (in reference to digital Atma) – moving data from one entity to another.
Right to be forgotten
Going back to the store example. The data gathered about women shoppers over 40, with a certain buying behaviour, threw up an interesting (scary?) result. A particular type is prone to cancer, the data revealed. Now, the ethical question looms large. Should the store alert the consumer about this find at all? “Atma” in a world guided by Big Data has the habit of getting ahead of us. In the digital world, our likes / dislikes / preferences / political opinions / behaviour / feelings etc. are all getting captured and stored somewhere. Worryingly perhaps, this data is being used somewhere without our active consent. Without our intervention. In future will there be a policy in place by which, individuals have the right to purge this data?
Every age requires certain skills which then become irrelevant in the forthcoming ages (perhaps). For instance, in the 16th century, cartographic skills came at a premium. Spain and Portugal excelled in it and went on to rule the world. Subsequently, the power was handed over to the French and British. This is the age of digital skills and at a higher level – machine learning.
This brings us to the final question, at best a dilemma for now – should machines be allowed to learn whatever they choose to or should there be human intervention at this juncture? Arguably, our future will be determined by how we choose to answer.