Monday, January 5, 2015

IT’S EASY TO PREDICT THE FUTURE, WATCH THE INTERNET

It is that time of the year again when we try to peer into the future to make out what is coming and to plan for it. An exercise in futility. But fun nevertheless, especially when at the end of the year you realise how off the mark you were.

But a useful trend to monitor in attempting to understand coming events has to be the development of the internet.

I am no internet expert, my use of it being restricted to how it helps in my everyday life – my work and my leisure.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I am old enough to have seen it develop from the early days when its symbol was the noisy, screeching sound of a table top modem, to the much higher speed of satellite connectivity, to the current optic fibre cable enabled internet. All in the space 20 years.

But the internet first came into my consciousness much earlier.

My father returned from Canada with tales of a computer system, which could make computers distances apart communicate with each other. Exchanging volumes of information in hours even minutes (well the alternative was the postal service!).

This was 1984.

We still had a black-and-white TV. Video decks were a novelty. Computer games were run off cassette tapes. And mobile phones were restricted to sci-fi cartoons.

The story goes that the internet was developed by the US millitary as a secure means of communicating internally. Academia found some use for it and it really gained traction in the wider community with the creation 25 years ago of the Wide World Web --- what we know as WWW, a system for cataloguing information, making the internet easier to navigate.

At this time there were a few hundred computers connected to the internet, but barely a decade later 16 million people were online. Today almost three billion or half of the world population are on line.

"The internet long hit its tipping point. It is now riding on the rapid uptake of mobile phones in the underdeveloped world. At the rate at which internet connectivity is increasing it will not be stretching the imagination to say that with a decade we will all be connected as the cost of mobile technology and connectivity plummets...

The power of networks is that, the sum of the whole is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. In a functioning network one plus one is not two, it is eleven.

That has been the story of the internet. The more people that log on annually, improves efficiency, reduces the cost of doing business and is unlocking value in places that were previously written off as god forsaken wastelands.

And just when we think it has reached the outer limits of its innovation than another leap of faith is made.

A few years ago a thing called the cloud was the rage.

Essentially, that as long as you have connectivity you can shift all your data off site. So for instance instead of managing servers in your office with all the attendant costs you outsource that function and only need internet connectivity to the site where your data is stored. It is actually more involving than that.

But a spinoff from this what is being called the internet of things (IOT). That increasingly machines are talking to each other. That from my desk at the office or from my phone in the car I will be able to turn on my security lights, regulate the temperature in my fridge or open the door to an expected guest.

That is at a very basic level.

Google already has a driverless car. In advanced stages of development are devices so small that they can be injected into your body to zap cancerous cells or roam around monitoring the state of your health and beam back the results to your computer, phone or watch. Maybe even diagnose your condition if you are sick.

How do we adapt to this brave new world?

The challenge is that we are operating with incomplete information. Our best guestimates of how the world will change from year-to-year or decade-to-decade is guaranteed to be wildly off the mark.
We were the first class to use calculators in O-level. Previous generations thought this would hurt mathematics. Now it’s normal for primary school kids to use calculators. Maybe that’s why As are going out fashion at every level of education.

We have to embrace these changes. You think you are already with the program? Believe me you can embrace it even more. If you won’t you will be found obsolete faster than you can reach for a dictionary to see what that means.

Look around our offices, the number functions whose importance has been reduced or removed altogether.

Where are the typing pools? The typesetters?  The proof readers? The bookkeepers?

"It is clear that manual labour is being taken over by the machines and the internet is at the center of this creeping revolution...

Just like I could not wrap my little mind around the concept of the internet 30 years ago, it is that much harder to try and conceive how the internet will have changed the world in the next three decades.

So in 2015 I will be joining my sons as they watch sci-fi cartoons, I hope you do so too.

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