Avalanche of advancement
Disruption coming to an industry near you
There are no sanctuaries — disruption is coming, and it may cause 40% of companies listed on the S&P 500 to disappear
Technology is expected to disrupt everything in future, from mining, manufacturing, medicine and agriculture to auditing.
The technology to disrupt today’s tech kings — the likes of Uber and Airbnb — already exists (it is called ethereum). The same is true for almost every industry, old and new.
Already, neuroprosthetics, a field of biomedical engineering and neuroscience, has enabled people affected by paralysis to move their arms using the power of thought, with the assistance of prosthetics.
In agriculture, the Robovator, a vision-based hoeing machine, can distinguish between crops and weeds and plough fields on that basis. And scientists are working on the development of 3D-printed organs, which could be delivered to remote areas by drones and implanted using robotics and artificial intelligence.
Though some people worry about the effect of technology on humanity, others predict it will bring positive disruption in many fields
At the Singularity University SA summit, held in Johannesburg last week, Divya Chander, a physician and neuroscientist at Stanford University, said: "Combine smartphones with artificial intelligence and you have medical experts around the world.
"I’m convinced that physicians are going to be completely disrupted and the only thing we’ll be good for will be delivering empathetic care. Our knowledge and skills will be worthless in the face of machines and artificial intelligence."
The two-day seminar, the first to be presented by Singularity University in SA, brought together international experts in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, medical technology, genomics, blockchain, education, neuroscience and more.
Tickets cost R15,000 each, and the 1,300 delegates were enthralled by successive demonstrations of the sheer disruptive power of exponentially advancing technologies.
The theme of the event was "Future-proof Africa". It drove home the ways Africa could leapfrog legacy technologies and become a global economic leader. "Africa has the potential to be the rising giant, a greenfield operation where entrepreneurs come to demonstrate new technologies," said Singularity University co-founder, Peter Diamandis, by video on the opening day.
A Silicon Valley-based think tank, Singularity University’s mission is to "educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges".
Its name is derived from a book written by co-founder Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, which describes the "singularity" as "an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today — the dawning of a new civilisation that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity".
Kurzweil imagines a world in which man and machine coalesce. In 2011, Time magazine declared 2045 "the year man becomes immortal". Now scientists say by 2029 the average human lifespan will increase by a year every year due to advances in medical technology.
"Today’s technology affords individuals and small teams the ability to accomplish what was once possible only for the largest corporations and governments," says Diamandis.
This means that any industry can be disrupted, and that disruption can come from anywhere.
The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company, says disruptive innovation expert David Roberts, has decreased from 67 years to 15 years. "In the next 10 years, 40% of the S&P 500 companies will disappear," he says.
Areas and industries that are ripe for disruption include those involving "complex experiences, broken trust, redundant intermediaries and limited access" he says.
"Understanding disruption is not optional, it’s critical. There are no sanctuaries."
While some doomsayers, including Tesla founder Elon Musk, believe artificial intelligence and robotics mean large-scale job losses, social instability and even post-apocalyptic anarchy, Roberts has a more optimistic view.
He argues that disruption and automation create more than they destroy.
In countries such as the US and Germany, which have high levels of automation, unemployment is at record lows.
Technology, says Roberts, will enable people to do jobs that would never before have been within their grasp. He gives the example of a Russian Uber driver he met in Denmark, who had been in that country for all of seven days and an Uber driver for five of those. Without technology, such as Google Maps, the ability to create his own employment would not have been possible. "The likelihood that we end up with intellect [in machines] that are exactly like human brains is small," says Roberts.
What this does mean, however, is that a radically different approach to education is required, says Sizwe Nxasana, former CEO of FirstRand and founder of Future Nation Schools.
"According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children in primary school today will be doing jobs that do not exist [yet]."
Education needs to be less content-heavy and focus more on building cognitive skills, such as problem solving and the ability to deal with uncertainty, complexity and information assimilation.
"Coding should be taught from pre-school level, just like language," Nxasana says.