Woman reading flexible newspaper

Comment: Flying cars and paperless offices - is this the future?

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Just because something is technically possible, doesn’t mean that it’s inevitably going to happen.

I’ve been forecasting the future for so long now that the future has arrived. My forecasts from 2000 were for 10 to 20 years hence, allowing me to gauge how well I did. Taking heed of those lessons, I have just published my latest forecast in ‘Our Digital Future’, which looks 10, 20 and 30 years out from now.

I’m quite proud of my forecasts from 2000. Remember back then that smartphones didn’t exist, the internet was a novelty and most people connected via dial-up modems at 30 kbits per second. Google was just emerging and Amazon only sold books. I predicted that we would book flights with our personal communicator, have a home-security system that can automatically lock doors, have a personalised news feed to our communicators, excellent speech recognition, we would check in at airports using the phone and pre-order coffee at the nearest Starbucks ready for collection on arrival. I even predicted that average data rates to the home would be 60Mbits per second. Where I overpredicted was in home automation - such as the system that can automatically lock doors, or robotic lawn mowers. Of course, both exist, but are very rare; most of us find that manual door locks work just fine and the cost of electronic ones isn’t worthwhile.

Many futurologists were not so accurate. There is a now famous quote from Peter Theil, the founder of PayPal, that we wanted flying cars and we got 140 characters. In many forecasts robots abound, computers have human-level intelligence and more prosaically we have paperless offices and homes. Most now would accept that widespread use of flying cars is unlikely but what about a paperless world?

What I have learnt about forecasting is that it is easy to assume that because something is technically possible that it will inevitably happen. Flying cars are an extreme example, but another would be flexible displays, which were widely shown in demonstration devices some ten years ago but have not made it into production. While possible, they are fragile, expensive, and bring very little benefit for most of us.

In fact, technical possibility is only the starting point. The next is economic viability - or more accurately whether it will bring sufficient benefit to us that we are prepared to pay for it. In some cases, such as industrial automation, this calculation is simple - how long will it take for the investments in robots to pay back in terms of reduced staff costs? In others, such as home automation, it is much more nebulous, and revolves more around whether we would rather spend our limited cash on electronic door locks or a better home entertainment system. Finally, as concepts such as ‘nudge’ economics have shown, we are not completely rational in all we do, and sometimes prefer 140 characters to the apparently much richer video communications now readily possible.

So what is my forecast for the next few decades? I believe that the key enablers of change will continue to be the internet, ubiquitous connectivity and flexible touchscreen devices. In addition, the Internet of Things (IoT) will enable much in the next decade, artificial intelligence (AI) will really come to the fore in the decade following and robotics might become commonplace the decade after that. Because we have already picked the low-hanging fruit from the existing enablers, it is these new enablers that will drive change in the digital world.

Most of these enablers are associated with business rather than the individual. Hence, the change noticed by the individual may be relatively small compared to the change of the last 30 years. Individuals will see an ever-better virtual assistant functionality from their devices as solutions such as Siri steadily improve using emerging AI techniques. In the home some new connected devices such as smart speakers and home IoT products will be installed but home automation will not be widely deployed. Leisure interests will expand, with each genre (eg cycling) gaining apps, online communities, additional functionality and – where appropriate – monitoring from IoT devices. This will allow us to spend more time on our favourite pastimes, as indeed we may need to if enhanced productivity and automation leads to fewer jobs.

In business, the office will see widespread deployment of IoT, biometrics and robotics, mostly as a way to save costs on administrative and maintenance staff. Some sectors will make extensive use of IoT to improve productivity, such as agriculture and manufacturing. Some will decline further due to changing habits, such as retail.

Transport will not change materially other than we will be better connected while travelling, have more journey information and see a gradual growth in driverless vehicles.

Society may become ever more concerned about the changes wrought by digital, and there may be some pushback. Contract law will adapt to, and will change, the new ‘zero-hours’ approach to employment. Social media will be charged with cleaning up undesirable content and controlling fake news. Autonomous cars, robots that provide companionship to the elderly and similar developments will raise difficult ethical questions. Privacy and security concerns will limit the scope of big data and AI in some areas, and may slow the introduction of IoT.

In essence, the key gains will be in convenience, productivity and reliability. The world will be a similar place to today, but will work better. This will strike many as pessimistic when others talk of flying cars, cyborgs and AI that is superior to humans. I would suggest it is pragmatic realism.

Finally, what of the paperless office? Just like the smart home, it has been forecast for decades. We are certainly using less paper – many now use e-readers, read the news on tablets or phones and do not even print out boarding passes. But most offices still have printers. Our relationship with paper is complex. As an example, my new book is published both electronically and as a print-on-demand paperback. I would not dream of sending friends and colleagues a complimentary copy electronically; instead I physically pass them paper. This is as much about ceremony as it is about utility. Sometimes paper is more appropriate, but those times are gradually fading. The future will not so much be paperless as it will be less paper.

Professor William Webb FREng CEng FIET is a director at Webb Search Consulting and CEO of the Weightless SIG, a standards body developing a new global M2M technology. He was IET President in 2014-2015 and is a member of the Institution’s Communications Policy Panel.

Our Digital Future’ is available from Amazon, with or without paper.

www.linkedin.com/pulse/our-digital-future-longer-post-william-webb/

BBC ‘Tech Tent’ article from 2001 looking at the predictions William Webb made for 2020.

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