Picture this: You’re running late for important meetings in an unfamiliar city. Sensing your location and distance to go, your personal digital assistant automatically rearranges your schedule, including changes to your dinner that evening that complies with your client’s schedule. An autonomous vehicle automatically shows up at your hotel and greets you by name as you get in and takes you where you need to be. When you get there hot coffee is ready and waiting for you since your digital assistant knows when you can use a caffeine fix.
The human/machine symbiosis described above sounds like science fiction. Years ago, the writer Robert Silverberg defined science fiction as literature extrapolating the impact of future technology on human society. Today, as transformative technologies emerge, mature, collide, and evolve, it begins to look as if Silverberg’s description was apt indeed. Many SF writers now appear almost as prophets. We’re entering an era of human and machine symbiosis where the future may actually turn out to look a lot like science fiction predicted.
By symbiosis, we’re describing the way technology and humanity will interact in ever-closer ways — each dependent on the other to meet our needs and wants in entirely new ways.
But how future-proofed are we as we approach symbiosis? Are we going to become true cyber beings in the physical world? How will our perceptions of the physical world change as we adopt technologies that overlay digital artifacts via augmented and virtual reality? Will technology bind us together? How will the entire paradigm of trust evolve when “what’s real” has physical and digital components? Let’s explore these complex questions.
Technical innovation drives change and accelerates inflection points
As we move into the 21st century, a number of key technologies are ushering humanity not just to new ways of connecting and new business opportunities, but in a much larger sense, a new way of life. Among many, we have:
• Bitcoin and blockchain. The hype to one side, with blockchain-implemented digital currency we’re seeing a true paradigm shift roll out before our very eyes: one that is super-fast, super-secure, super-reliable, but also extremely energy-intensive. (According to the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance (CCAF), in 2021 Bitcoin will consume as much energy per year as Sweden or Malaysia).
And blockchain, of course, is far more than a platform via which digital money changes hands. It is a means by which transactions of many kinds can be quantified, registered, tracked, and verified via a distributed ledger— a form of tech that can actually inspire trust, and drive trust-backed strategies into fruition.
Thanks to the way blockchain rigorously enforces transparency and security, it can facilitate and bolster virtually any industry, or form of human interaction based on trust, while reducing risks and costs of many types. Oh, and that massive energy consumption that’s weighing on your mind? Innovators are working on that right now to reduce energy consumption dramatically (possibly by as much as 99%) using new approaches.
As we see in the case of nonfungible tokens (NFTs), blockchain can even be leveraged to create entirely new classes of value (such as the ownership of abstract digital art), while also securing and governing the many operations related to that value over time.
Applications for blockchain keep expanding, such as securing communications for robot teams (MIT News Office)
• Artificial intelligence (AI). Following the AI winter of the nineties when progress hit a wall, AI is emerging as another transformative technology - the full scope and depth of which is only beginning to be understood - let alone implemented.
In consequence, some of the top minds in the field counsel caution, advocating for safeguards as we swiftly evolve AI to become not just faster and more comprehensive in solving problems, but more powerful in terms of the range of problems it is applied to solve.
The question is how far should humanity go in exploring, integrating, and empowering AI, and how much risk could/should we take on as a result.
Professor Stuart Russell, a founder of the Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, calls for international treaties to regulate the development of AI technology. As he told The Guardian: “The AI community has not yet adjusted to the fact that we are now starting to have a really big impact in the real world… we have to grow up very quickly to catch up.”
This is why every major AI developer now regards the ethics of AI to be a subject worth considering in depth and codifying, in much the same way that best development practices and DevOps implementations already are in frameworks such as ITIL.
• Virtual reality (VR) & augmented reality (AR). The historical division between the digital and organic worlds — so tidy, so clear — is getting blurry fast. This is evident in Facebook’s rebranding effort as it rolls out its Meta Platforms messaging and nomenclature. Facebook owning the Oculus virtual reality headset is no coincidence, and it’s difficult to imagine how far such an organization might go in pursuing its evident goal of integrating virtual reality into its immersive core services.
Other well-known consumer tech brands are following suit; Apple is expected to introduce a virtual reality headset as early as 2022. We need only look at the adoption curve of the iPhone to get a sense of the potential growth trajectory for this offering, and the extent of consumer change we might see in consequence.
Will the metaverse be the new internet? How many will there be?
• High-speed, high-bandwidth wireless networks. True symbiosis requires the physical and digital worlds to be merged and available everywhere. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite Internet, coupled with the new 5G telecommunications standards do just that by enabling everyone to send and receive huge amounts of digital information just about anywhere. This “always available, always on” high-speed global communications infrastructure will accelerate the adoption and availability of innovations like blockchain, AI, and VR.
Remember that really great personal digital assistant making your day easier? That’s the world this confluence of technologies can take us to.
The Internet of Behaviors: digital disruption up close and personal
Spanning these innovations is the Internet of Behaviors (IoB) — the aggregated and deeply analyzed sum total of Internet user conduct.
By tracking user activity, and leveraging established principles of behavioral psychology to understand that activity, we’ll see ultra-tailored services to those who want them — often before the desire is even fully realized.
As psychology professor Göte Nyman conceives it, this would amount to the “targeting of any ongoing, intended, imagined or planned behavior on Earth” and would make it possible to “approach a person at the right time with appropriate services when such behavior occurs, without having to know that person at all.”
Stop and think about that for a moment. When the collection and handling of personal data are regulated in a positive way for citizens, and AI has evolved to be more inclusive and less unpredictable, the digital world can offer you positive and effective experiences at the right time in the right place, the realization of ambient and anticipatory computing.
Extended reality promises real-and-virtual combined environments and immersive human-machine interactions
Can cybersecurity keep pace with the brisk pace of technological change and foster new trust?
We, humans, have evolved to trust other humans. Can we trust machines and software in quite the same way? Will you let your digital assistant rule your schedule if you know it can be hacked to send your autonomous vehicle to some random location so you are robbed rather than at a critical meeting? Will you give up all your personal information to enable that digital assistant if regulations aren’t in place to limit the ability of purchasers of that data to influence you in negative ways?
New principles of ethics, transparency and accountability will be required, and they’ll need to be implemented in a consistent and secure manner not just in your country, but in countries you do business in, or vacation in, or anything else. To that end, it will be helpful for those operating the enmeshed data systems across the fabric of our social and private lives to factor in models like the 3V principle to grasp the task ahead.
Since data can be analyzed and acted on via the IoB described above, the next step is to extrapolate underlying insights and truths suitable for fostering trusted interactions of many kinds (even when those interactions are fully automated). We will soon know, far better than we do today, just when, how, and why humans trust transactions online, and when they don’t — all of which will inform the evolution of increasingly trustworthy digital services.
Security stands to benefit tremendously as well. Actually, it’s happening as cybersecurity is undergoing its own digital transformation — and that is only accelerating.
Radical changes lie ahead, including innovative technologies like the Virtual Dispersive Network (VDN), which uses military radio techniques to randomly split communications into multiple streams so that only the intended recipient can reassemble the message properly. There’ll be combinatorial innovations like blockchain cybersecurity, which can protect data from fraud and theft by tracking the complete history of transactions pertaining to that data in an unfalsifiable manner.
Will the development and deployment of these innovations add up to ubiquitous human trust in the digital ecosystem? Quite different from the widespread, healthy skepticism prevalent today? That remains to be seen. Many questions remain. On the other hand, a safe and secure digital assistant would really be nice to help navigate cyber-civilization.
What does all this mean to me? Today?
The zero trust framework for security has been much discussed and implemented, but how do we extend it to deliver sufficient trust for us to move together into one global civilization?
Will cloud-based supercomputing, network science, AI, LEO, and 5G provide combinatorial opportunities to harness zero trust, blockchain, and other means of transactions and take them to the next level? If so, will human beings believe that has happened, or will they remain skeptical?
Every organization will face such questions and many already are coming up with answers. Here are some guiding principles that can help you plan for what’s ahead:
- While you build your digital transformations, increase productivity, and reimagine your work, strive to infuse data, design thinking, and scenario planning into every business decision.
- AI (just like biological evolution) is a journey and not a point solution. Learn how it can help make better business decisions and improve processes. Figure out human-centered use cases, such as how to best layout an office space to support social distancing and hybrid work - or create a helpful (and safe) personal digital assistant.
- Most importantly, to prepare your organization for the physical/digital symbiotic world, keep the basics in check: always invest in building strong teams and strong cross-functional relationships, and work on solving the problems of the future, not the problems of today.
As multiverses of technology continue to collide and new nebulas of transformation spring up, the digital revolution will bring together the physical, virtual, and biological worlds. We have to future-proof ourselves as cyber beings to be bound together through an evolved paradigm of trust; the foundation being ultra-fast, ultra-secure, ultra-reliable.
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