Tomorrows revolution

Wednesday / Apr 04 2018

Newspaper : The News

Our leaders need to realise that we have approached the 4th industrial revolution and our democratic system of governance should be reformed accordingly, so that we can prepare the nation for the revolutionary and disruptive changes occurring around us.

This industrial revolution is marked by breakthroughs in a number of fields, including autonomous electric vehicles, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, Internet of Things, 3D-printing, genomics, regenerative medicine, new materials and humans with embedded electronics.

One rapidly growing field that will affect most of us within the next few years is that of electric vehicles. The conventional combustion engine-based vehicles are doomed and will mostly be replaced by electric vehicles within the next decade. Toyota has announced its plans to electrify all its vehicles by 2025. Similarly, Volvo has announced that all vehicles manufactured after 2019 will either be electric or hybrid. In fact, all major manufacturers are jumping onto the electric bandwagon.

This is accompanied by the establishment of supercharger stations in different countries to cater to the needs of electric vehicles. Thus, Volkswagen plans to install 2,800 charging stations in 17 cities in the US by June 2019. Shell is in the process of establishing ‘high-power charging stations’ across Europe which will be able to charge a vehicle in just eight minutes. It is expected that 127 new electric car models will be introduced by various manufacturers over the next five years, indicating towards the tremendous competition that is now underway in this field. It has been predicted that electric cars will become cheaper than petrol or diesel-based vehicles by 2022 – the time their sales are expected to skyrocket.

Along with the downfall of the combustion engine, we are now also seeing the impact of artificial intelligence on vehicles. Self-driving cars are being developed by all major manufacturers. This may eventually result in many major manufacturing companies going out of business as having robotic taxis that are available within minutes could be far easier and cost-effective; replacing the need to have a personal car. As personal vehicles will disappear, the traffic on the roads will drastically reduce. It has been predicted that there will be some 10 million self-autonomous vehicles by 2020, and that the number will subsequently grow exponentially. This is also likely to drastically reduce road accidents.

Moreover, it has been predicted that bots will be taking over almost every sphere of our business activities, thereby improving business efficiencies and improving customer experience. Powered by artificial intelligence (AI), bots are being used to give free legal advice, public transport directions and cooking tips. The trend will continue to grow, so much so that lawyers and doctors could be largely replaced by robotic systems. IBM has already launched such a system named ‘Watson’ that offers medical and legal advice at a fraction of the cost of what it would take to consult human doctors and lawyers.

The cloud has largely been used so far to lower computing costs and to improve business efficiencies. Cloud services are now evolving with a combination of AI, thereby creating an exciting new dimension. Microsoft has already introduced more than 20 ‘cognitive services’ including image analysis (computer vision) and language comprehension. Predictive analytics (data mining, forecast trends) are also being offered by other companies. Many of these services are available on smart phones. On the other hand, Google has announced that its speech recognition programme interface could turn a client’s audio file into a written transcript in 50 languages. These, and other such technologies, have many potential applications. For instance, facial recognition technology could lead to more effective security systems.

This same technology could also reveal to the staff in retail shops the identity or interests of potential customers, helping them plan sales. It has been predicted that in 2018, we will enter the Robotics 3.0 era with smarter robots capable of ubiquitous sensing and connectivity, cyber-physical fusion, autonomous capabilities (such as cognition, decision-making, learning and adaptation). These robots will also be more capable and have additional human-friendly multi-mode interactions. A related disruptive technology that is developing rapidly is that of quantum computing. Quantum computers will outperform super-computers and many companies are investing heavily in this field.

Blockchain (distributed ledger technology) will also be mainstreamed. This technology has so far underpinned bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. However, it will now find use in real estate, intellectual property protection as well as in organising Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Another revolution is under way involving voice and visual techniques in computers. Just as we witnessed the move from physical keys to touch screens, we are now seeing an expansion of voice activated devices and AI-powered smart assistants. It has been predicted by Gartner that companies which would redesign their websites to support voice and visual searching would be able to increase their digital commerce revenue by 30 percent. Similarly, investments in augmented reality are expected to double in 2018 as compared to 2017 – reaching about $18 billion as compared to $9 billion in 2017. The technology is finding applications beyond games, in fields such as product design, retail sales and employee training.

A new revolution in electronics may also be round the corner. Tomorrow our walls may glow gently with changing colours lighting up our room in stunning ways. Our windows could be used as video screens, and our clothes with electronic circuits based on a special material (molybdenite) printed on them, may also be used as smart-phones. All of this sounds like a scene from a sci-fi movie, but it may soon become a reality.

In this fast-changing world, it is critically important for us to prepare our children for this exciting world of tomorrow. Our government policies need to be tailored to implement the ‘triple helix’ model, involving a dynamic interplay between the three key partners. The first is carefully crafting futuristic government policies that would create an ecosystem where knowledge becomes the primary driving force for socio-economic development. The second is raising the quality of education; the kind of education that would make for innovative and problem-solving skill sets. The third is facilitating the private-sector so that research and development within industries can be promoted through government incentives, such as tax breaks for innovative high-tech industries, access to venture capital and availability of technology parks to facilitate new start-up companies.

However, the million-dollar question is whether our present rulers have the vision and knowledge to lead this country into the 4th industrial revolution. China, Korea, Singapore and a few others have succeeded because they did not rely on just elections but on a combination of careful selection prior to election, in order to ensure that only the best minds in the country get to sit in these countries’ respective parliaments. We must do the same.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).