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New technologies present some incredible opportunities, but could also bring threats. Tanya Ott and Bill Briggs discuss the ethical issues and potential social impacts around the technologies of tomorrow.
You know, there’s the ethics and morality of how we need to handle it. Then there’s the legal, the regulatory compliance dimensions of what can and can’t be done today, given laws that were created when this technology wasn’t even imaginable.
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TANYA OTT: Technology is moving fast. Exponentially fast. And that can be good—or bad—depending on how you’re prepared.
I’m Tanya Ott, and this is the Press Room—Deloitte University Press’s podcast on issues and ideas that matter to your business. And today, we’re going to dive into some pretty complicated territory. But no worries; we’ll break it down for you. And by “we,” I mean me—who’s going to ask a whole bunch of basic, and maybe not-so-basic, questions—and Bill Briggs, chief technology officer of Deloitte Consulting. Bill and his team are getting ready to publish their eighth annual Tech Trends report, which explores the biggest tech trends coming in the next 18 to 24 months.
BILL BRIGGS: We think that 18- to 24-month horizon is the right lens to have, because it’s this fiscal cycle and the next planning cycle. The things that we think are going to actually have a mass adoption and real business impact.
TANYA OTT: Things like dark analytics.
BILL BRIGGS: A lot of data that lives within a company, they’re still not tapping into it. It’s sitting idle. It’s sitting dark. Things that [companies] haven’t brought together to have a global view of probability, or product performance, or customer, or supplier. There’s a good chance to shine a light and do more with it.
TANYA OTT: The second trend they ID is a move toward looking at non-traditional data sources and the ability to pull deep insight out of things like image, video, and audio files.
BILL BRIGGS: There’s an advancement in sensors and analytics techniques. Computer vision [will] be able to [get] really interesting insight [not just] out of [understanding] traffic patterns in a retailer, but also actually [by] inferring mood by posture and facial expression. That could feed into customer demographics.
TANYA OTT: Bill says that would help retailers identify and capitalize on potential sales and marketing opportunities.
The third big trend to watch over the next two years is the deep web. That’s the part of the internet where things are not indexed by standard search engines. You cannot find them unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. The deep web includes some common things like web mail and online banking. It also includes academic networks and a lot of private networks, including some unsavory ones.
BILL BRIGGS: The Dark Web, which is the back alley [of] the deep web—that sometimes gets some news coverage.
TANYA OTT: Yeah. The Dark Web generally gets news coverage that’s not terribly positive. But, I mean, basically what this is all pointing to is the idea that there is so much data, and so much information, and so much power in that data and information that isn’t being tapped. Some of it’s right underneath our noses, and some of it we might have to go a little hunting for, but it’s there.
BILL BRIGGS: Yeah. A great example [is] a retailer that’s using image analytics—video analytics off of Instagram feeds [from] influencers to actually influence their merchandising decisions, their fashion decisions—what lines they’re going to invest in and roll out, [and] understanding patterns and using it to drive [their decisions].
In oil and gas, they’ve been doing it for a long time. They use acoustic sensors and fiber optics down in the well to know exactly what’s happening hundreds, thousands of miles deep into the earth. Is it oil? Is it gas? Is it sediment? Those techniques can be applied to other industries. It’s really fascinating.
TANYA OTT: Another tech trend they’re watching is what they call IT unbounded. If every company is a technology company, how can your company get the most of the IT division?
BILL BRIGGS: How do we think about people, how [do] we organize our people in IT [and] the skills that they have? How do they practice their craft? It’s really transforming the IT function like we’ve transformed the supply chain and manufacturing and sales over the years.
TANYA OTT: And that last point that you make is actually a really important one: When we talk tech, we’re not just talking technology, we’re talking people. How are you properly outfitted? How are they trained? How are they structured? All of those things that go into being able to leverage the technology in the most efficient way.
BILL BRIGGS: Part of it is, what is our commitment to our employee base to help them continue to be relevant in a very changing world?
TANYA OTT: And so that’s the 18- to 24-month horizon that you talk about. But it doesn’t stop there. You’ve got what you call your exponential watch list. These are technologies that are going to be hitting somewhere between two and five years from now, but promise to grow exponentially fast—maybe even faster than we’ve seen things grow in the past. I want to, first of all, get your thoughts on why it’s important to be looking that far out.
BILL BRIGGS: It’s as much about the timeline as it is about the topics that you might not necessarily think [are] applicable to industries. So as we look at exponentials, they [are] actually blending into science and not just information technology. Like synthetic biology and the idea that we’re able to treat our genome, our own DNA as code, and potentially we’re starting to successfully hack it.
TANYA OTT: Bill points to a technology that’s commonly referred to a CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. It’s a mouthful! But essentially what we’re talking about is that there are short, repeated DNA sequences in the genomes of bacteria and other microorganisms. They’re really, really tiny and may seem harmless. But these CRISPR sequences are actually very important. They’re a crucial component of the immune systems of those microorganisms. They can protect against viruses and other invaders. Here’s the point where I could insert a lot of information about the science of it; how the viruses invade, how the CRISPR sequences fight it off. But essentially, what researchers are doing in the lab is looking for ways to clip these CRISPR sequences and either take parts out, or insert other sequences to correct mutant genes and maybe treat genetic diseases. One study in adult mice showed that CRISPR technology might be used to cure a rare liver disorder. Another study used the technology to make white blood cells resistant to HIV infection.1
Bill Briggs says this isn’t just an issue of technology and health. There are broader social, civic, and economics implications.
BILL BRIGGS: It starts taking our most personal thing—the definition of who we are as individuals—it starts becoming something that’s another digital asset, [with] everything that entails, including my disposition to [medical] conditions and history. All that is very sensitive, and how does that play into ownership? Where can it appropriately be used or not? How it can be shared? What does it mean to an I.T. organization? What does it mean to a business or a government agency? And, if anything, it’s to not be caught unawares because of that broader ripple effect across the system.
TANYA OTT: Let me ask you about the larger implications of this. Let’s rewind a number of years when we first started talking about digital medical records and other things like that. And there was some public outcry from folks who said, “I’m not necessarily really comfortable with all the information about me being available to whoever has access to that information.” And so, as you’re looking at complete genomic profiles, that is an idea that makes some consumers really nervous.
BILL BRIGGS: For sure, and it should. You know, there’s the ethics and morality of how we need to handle [this information]. Then there’s the legal, the regulatory compliance dimensions of what can and can’t be done today, given laws that were created when this technology wasn’t even imaginable. Part of this is to go into all of the conversations about exponential technologies, and even some of the more conventional technology trends we talk about, and have that discussion, be a part of the initial ideation dialogue. It’s not just that we can; it’s should we? Not just could we, but should we?
You know, years ago, we would say cyber—which is our shorthand for security and privacy—is something that needs to be embedded as a discipline across everything that we think about: our products and offerings and services, and our investments and what we do with technology. And now it’s a broader risk discussion that’s not just security and privacy and regulatory and compliance, but it’s ethics and morality and this kind of social responsibility piece of it. And, you know, the advice is: transparency and opt in, and making sure that, especially for anything that’s customer or patient or personal information, the only path forward is with full permission. Even then, the backlash might be greater than the potential gain with it.
TANYA OTT: When you’re talking about transparency, you’re talking about being very clear with people—who might be patients or customers or consumers or whatever—the information that’s being collected about them. And then “opt in” is the concept of, they have to choose to participate rather than automatically being in that participant pool and having to opt themselves out.
BILL BRIGGS: You’re exactly right. And then there’s active work between governments across the globe and industry to help evolve regulatory laws, because we’re pushing against the boundaries.
TANYA OTT: So how exactly do you square those two things? How do you square the idea that many of the regulations and the laws that were passed to govern this kind of stuff happened before we were able to do this kind of stuff?
BILL BRIGGS: What we’re finding is that the countries that are putting innovation and technology to the forefront are engaging in a way we haven’t seen before. They’re trying to recognize the places where they’re going to force innovation to go across borders because they’re not finding a willing partner to have those discussions. Even being aware—and this is where you get to the risk in security, privacy, regulation, and compliance—how do you make it so you’re not always tripping up on the imaginable risk behind something you’re thinking about? [How do you] bring to light what all the individual country requirements are and the security, regulatory, compliance issues within each industry, within each country? You can’t leave that to chance. You’ve got to have an informed position of what’s possible at a given time. How potentially amiable are the authorities, [the] ruling bodies that evolve over time? And how long will it take for concepts to be executed on, and how much confidence do you have [that] potentially those laws could evolve by the time you’re ready to take a concept [to] the market?
But [considering] all of that is a discipline that’s part of your upfront ideation and your upfront investment planning, and portfolio planning in advance is the key. Because if you wait until the end, you’re going to be caught with a lot of things you’ve invested in that you can’t deploy because you haven’t considered those [factors]. If you put it only at the beginning and you always have a negative conservative lens on it, it’s going to stifle most innovation. It will be the thing that puts “no” in innovation. Right in the center of the word.
TANYA OTT: We talked about Genome X and that, being one of the exponentials, is on your watch list. Another one is energy storage.
BILL BRIGGS: Yep. Energy storage, nanotechnology, and quantum computing are the others.
TANYA OTT: I do want to ask just a couple of really basic questions for folks who aren’t familiar. When you’re talking about energy storage being on the exponentials watch list, what are we talking about? What industries is it showing up in? How’s it showing up?
BILL BRIGGS: It’s really around battery tech. One of the limitations we have with digital devices is around how much power they can they can store. We’re getting better at adding more density in different approaches to it, and [that brings up] the potential of wireless charging and things that would do that. That’s one of the bigger size constraints that get driven on device profiles. There are built-in performance constraints about what could be deployed, especially when talking about things out in the field, out in the line, out in the battlefield. That’s typically one of the bigger limiting factors.
TANYA OTT: So we want to make batteries smaller but more powerful because, for instance, on a battlefield they might be needed to last for quite a long time on small exploratory drones or something like that.
BILL BRIGGS: Yeah. And one of our trends is mixed reality. How do you have augmented/virtual reality complemented with the Internet of Things so that all of your assets have intelligence, can communicate with you, and have ways to trigger new insight or new actions you can take in the real world? All that requires some way to power the devices that are giving you that displayed interaction [as] the devices are actually communicating and potentially actuating with you. So it’s universal. Across technology it’s something that a lot of investment is going into and [drives] a lot of [the] advances that we’ll see.
TANYA OTT: One of the other exponentials is nanotechnologies. What’s going on on that front?
BILL BRIGGS: It has been theoretical, [but] we have seen advances in R&D [which are] starting to productize some pieces of nanotech. Nanotech is very, very small—at the size of an atom—manufacturing. For life sciences, [it’s] the ability to, at the molecular level, [deliver medicine]. Over time, potentially we could actually have individual atoms be treated with medicine or being encapsulated and destroyed if they’re cancer cells, or whatever it might be. This one is more about moving investment. Just recognize [that] once [these technologies are] solved for, you have pretty massive implications to all kinds of industries in the world.
Quantum computing is similar [in] that we’re moving to the point [where] what was a completely theoretical construct [is] getting closer to being productized. It gives us millions of times the potential processing capability than a traditional computer does.
TANYA OTT: These technologies present some incredible opportunities. But there are also some threats that present themselves. There are ethical issues, there are social concerns. What looms biggest for you on that front?
BILL BRIGGS: To treat them as a collective, it’s “curse the darkness” and “light a candle.” So on the “curse the darkness” side [for] the advances here, each one of them has to be looked at as, what [is] the potential risk that they represent? What’s the broader implication as we make advancements in the field? And how do we include ethics, morality, and a broader social, political, economic risk around marching forward around these individual topics?
There’s a social impact piece that says we need to be thoughtful at the beginning getting around what the implications are, how we can mitigate some of the risks and downsides, and make sure that we’re [comfortable]. I think I said it before: Just because we can, should we go down that path and push forward on developing these technologies? How [do] we harness them the right way? So that’s how we think about the priorities we have, the investments we make, and all the mitigations you to put around them. It’s that expansion of the definition of risk beyond just security and privacy and regulatory compliance and “Do things violate laws, will I go to jail,” to “I won’t do something that’s causing significant downside and impact to a community, to a nation, to an individual.”
The other side of it is the upside. This is the “light the candle,” not the “curse the darkness” piece. Can we apply these social technologies to actually drive real transformational impact on social concerns around the globe? Last year in a trend in this chapter we wrote about how Qualcomm created an X-Prize that is [to develop] a medical device that can be used in remote regions across Asia and Africa. If you breathe into it, it can [diagnose] 14 conditions and do, basically, primary care diagnostics and some treatment protocol on site. That could truly change the world, change health and wellness and the well-being of billions of people. And they opened it up as an X-Prize that teams were competing on, and they’re close to having it awarded. And, by the way, there’s a nice commercial lineup to their goals. If this actually becomes a viable product and is manufactured en masse, then [there’s] a good chance that pieces of Qualcomm’s product stack might be part of that eventual solution. So it’s not like it’s completely divorced from commercial gains, but it’s a broader social implication, and that wouldn’t have been possible without advances in telecom and embedded sensors and analytics and, and, and, and. So it’s the how do we potentially evolve any organization’s civic mission to include how we harness these technologies?
TANYA OTT: The founder of the X-Prize, Peter Diamandis, has a saying: “If you want to make a billion dollars, help a billion people.” Bill Briggs is a fan of that saying. He predicts that a lot of the winners we’ll see in the next few decades are the ones whose technologies and businesses provide significant social impact. To learn more about the technologies that Briggs and his research partners think have the most promise, go to dupress.com to read their Tech Trends report.
While you’re there, check out the Press Room show archive and subscribe to the podcasts so you don’t miss our upcoming conversations on how to make your transition to a C-suite position go as smoothly as possible and a deep dive we’re planning on the Internet of Things—what it is, how it works, and some surprising implications. You don’t want to miss it, so subscribe on our website or your favorite podcast app. I’m Tanya Ott for the Press Room. Thanks for listening and have a great day!
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