I’d like to address this article to our youth. Let’s think about the next two decades. Over the past few months I've brought up the topic during talks at universities throughout Mexico. Many of you will develop your careers in this period and it’s worth taking a few moments to think about what may happen.
There are inevitable trends on the horizon and if we consider them, we’ll be better prepared for what is coming. Many of you will have a bright future, but that depends to a large extent on the decisions you make today. I’m referring to important questions such as: “what am I going to study?”, “where will I work?, and “in what city should I live?”.
I often talk about the importance of finding your "Element," but it’s also important to consider what the future will be like. With this in mind, I recommend the reading of "The Inevitable," by Kevin Kelly, which discusses 12 technological forces that will shape the future.
It’s important to decide how we’re going to take advantage of these trends, because otherwise we could be destroyed by them. The world has changed tremendously in the past three decades and the forces that drive this process will only intensify.
The 12 trends that Kelly mentions are: becoming, cognifying, flowing, screening, accessing, sharing, filtering, remixing, interacting, tracking, questioning, and beginning. I will comment on five of these trends. In any event, I recommend getting your hands on the book.
Everything requires energy and order to maintain itself. Physicists call this entropy. Today this applies more than ever. Indeed, everything around us quickly becomes obsolete.
The system that controls our cell phones, and other artifacts, is continuously being updated. The applications contained in these devices do so daily. But if you update your cell phone, you will probably have to do the same on your computer where you backup your information and that, in turn, triggers another series of updates.
So, everything around us is constantly being "updated," and in the process, becomes something different. Previously, to update our computers we had to go to the store and purchase a little kit that contained the software update ̶ in an old storage technology known as floppy disks. Today this is automatic, constant, and… inevitable.
We live in a world in which software is beginning to govern everything and this software changes daily, so that no product is completely finished, everything is in "beta version." We will have to get used to living in an increasingly unfinished world. For many, this is uncomfortable, but this phenomenon is not going to change, the question is, how will we update ourselves?
There is no trend more relevant than the one based on artificial intelligence (AI). This is especially the case given that it is increasingly cheaper, more powerful, and ubiquitous. There is nothing with greater consequences than a "dumb" device that acquires intelligence and is able to autonomously respond to its environment.
The consequences of this trend will be much more profound than industrialization itself. I recently spoke with Kevin Kelly and he said that within 20 years, we will look back and say, “imagine having lived in the year 2017 which was when artificial intelligence began to take off?". We live in extraordinary times.
According to Kelly, the promise of AI had been unfulfilled for more than six decades, but three recent developments have been consolidated: (1) parallel computer systems and applications through "the cloud," (2) Big Data, that is, large amounts of data contained in increasingly efficient information systems, and (3) better algorithms that make processes much more efficient.
Take, for example, DeepMind, a system for playing video games of the 1980s, such as pinball. DeepMind was not taught to play these video games but to learn to play them by itself. Another current example is Watson, which more than a supercomputer; it is a complex system of machines connected around the world that develop artificial intelligence.
Today Watson is applied in different fields, including medicine. Watson has become an expert in the diagnosis of lung cancer and its knowledge will soon spread to very diverse branches of the medical sciences. It will soon be able to diagnose almost any disease better than the average experienced doctor.
Given this scenario, what does the future hold for doctors and many other occupations? It’s estimated that 40% of the professions may disappear in the next three decades, and other trades are at greater risk. Does this imply that our economic future is in danger? Not necessarily. Although 40% of the current professions will disappear, many others will emerge, in the same way that after the Industrial Revolution thousands of previously unthinkable occupations arose. What will the professions of the future be? We don’t know. However, young people should be very attentive, and indeed proactive, to the opportunities that arise.
In reviewing a page of classified ads, we see that today we have professions that only ten years ago did not exist, such as experts in e-commerce, digital marketing advisors, specialists in Big Data, digital designers, designers of virtual environments, and a long etcetera.
According to Kelly, in the near future, AI will be like electricity was at the beginning of the 20th century, that is, a new omnipresent force that changes everything. Precisely, as was the case a century ago, many businesspeople will make great fortunes taking X product to transform it through AI, in the same way electricity was applied to all kinds of manual tools and changed the way we work and live.
The Internet is the largest reproductive machine ever known to humankind. This machine copies every action, every note, every letter, every pixel and every thought that passes through it. According to Kelly, "the digital economy flows on this river of copies." In fact, our global communication network makes it possible for every piece of information that takes the form of a bit to be instantaneously reproduced.
Today, everything can be transformed into bits: ideas, music, photography, painting, architectural plans, the design of a machine, contracts, and even money.
The richness of humanity is gradually being transformed from objects comprised of atoms to virtual objects comprised of bits that flow freely and that know no borders. In such a world, any restriction on trade is ridiculous. But, apparently, it is impossible for a populist to understand these trends.
In the same way in which atoms are transformed into bits, material goods gradually become services. A car is no longer necessary, now we have Uber or Lyft. A hotel room becomes an application called Airbnb, always available in the palm of your hand. Today our wealth tends to flow through cities, regions, and across borders, and this trend also is inevitable.
The invention of Gutenberg's printing press changed everything. Thanks to this innovation, journalism, science, bookstores, and the rule of law all emerged.
Language expanded. Of the 50,000 words existing in the English language before Gutenberg’s invention, today the number reaches one million. The Bible, the Koran, the Bill of Rights, and constitutions are documents that changed our way of thinking and living. According to Kelly, we have become a "book-based civilization."
For better or for worse, today we are exchanging books for screens. Indeed, it is estimated that there are already more than five billion screens in the world ̶ and more than three billion will be manufactured each year. Today we find screens on the phones that we keep in our pockets, on the clocks that we use, on the computers in our offices, on the streets, public transportation, banks, museums and even in bathrooms. In fact, many restaurants already offer you a tablet to view an interactive menu.
Today we are being transformed from "people of books" into "people of screens," who no longer seek an immutable truth based on words but are willing to believe a truth that flows through pixels.
But, if our culture is based on the authority conferred by books, what will happen to the pillars of our civilization …. literature, rational thought, science, and the rule of law? The texts on which our civilization is based will also have to evolve and be viewed via a Kindle.
Thousands of books fit on a Kindle. The books will adapt to their new medium, the screen. This will give them fluidity, malleability, and sources. The books will be underlined, annotated, summarized, and cross-referenced. In this world, a book will never be finished. And this takes us back to the first trend. All the books will be connected in some way and this will lead us to the concept of the "universal book," the text that contains all the texts.
A TechCrunch reporter recently commented: Uber does not own vehicles, Facebook does not create content, Amazon has (almost) no inventory, and Airbnb does not own real estate. Today, it is not necessary to own in order to use. Netflix allows us to watch movies without having them and through a Kindle we can rent books. With Carrot I am able to use a vehicle for a few hours and return it to a convenient place. Today it is not necessary to own anything since everything can be rented, available almost instantaneously and for as long as we want.
In more ways than one, access is much more convenient than possessing, because when I access something I do not need to maintain, repair, store, or clean what I use. Accessing is so superior to possessing that it greatly expands the frontiers of the economy.
Access is related to another concept: the dematerialization of the world. The trend in the past three decades has been to do better things with less materials. Often we’re dealing with virtual things that use zero materials. This trend is accelerating to the extent that the economy migrates from manufacturing to services—so that manufacturing jobs may never return. While products invite ownership, the services eliminate it. Even software today is sold as a service ("Software as a Service," SaS). If in the past I bought a copy of Photoshop, today I subscribe to this system and receive all its updates automatically; the same will apply for all software products.
Everything will be for rent and therefore, everything will become a service, including cars, bicycles, furniture, sports equipment, luxury watches, and even handbags and works of art.
These are just five of the trends that inevitably are transforming our way of life in the 21st century. Technology transforms everything and technological change will accelerate. We must be prepared to adapt and take advantage of the change, otherwise, we will be swept away. Let's think about this; our future depends on it.