At the start of August the 'Full Steam Ahead' series was broadcast on the BBC in the UK. The first episode explored how the Industrial Revolution in the UK, the steam engine and, particularly, the introduction of steam railways in the early 19th century had shaped Britain's social history both literally, as the routes helped to create our towns and cities and, more generally, through the evolution of working and cultural practices that previously didn't exist. In doing this, the development of the railway changed Britain, and subsequently many other parts of the world, in ways no one could have ever predicted at the start of the steam age.
This got me thinking about how many other technological innovations have resulted in similarly drastic change or complete social evolution which was not envisaged at the outset. To name just a few: my grandparents' generation saw the introduction of the telephone, my parents' the television, more recently computing and the internet and now, in a time of ever accelerating change, smart phones and all things social. In each case, society was not prepared, for the impact of each of these advances as their applications evolved in unforeseen directions following their introduction.
What is interesting is that the pattern with all of these technologies has been the same. No one predicted where each would take us or how they would come to impact different aspects of our lives. And even when they did, nobody believed them. Alexander Graham Bell, scientist and inventor of the telephone wrote in a letter to his father: "The day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water or gas -- and friends will converse with each other without leaving home." At the time this was viewed as unthinkable. But as we did then, society adapts and changes with each new innovation, adopting them into our everyday routines so that now we can't imagine life without them. Similarly, and beyond the consumer world, public services and successful businesses continue to reinvent themselves, evolving with these new technologies, thereby improving service delivery, adding value and leveraging competitive advantage.
Bringing this up to date, with the Internet of Things (IoT) and allied developments in Augmented Reality (AR), I believe we are on the cusp of the next technology driven revolutionary change. Whilst the IoT is currently thought of as a way to connect, monitor, optimise and automate everyday devices, it is not difficult to see how it will be developed to expand our experience of both physical and, along with AR, digital artifacts and influence the way we interact with the world around us and the products within it. With Samsung's SmartThings kit arguably leading the market and the speed of development within IoT alongside AR technologies, these changes could very soon become our reality.
If we are to learn from history, we can be sure that applications of these technologies will develop in ways we don't expect or envisage and will change our society, our businesses and the way we think. Already widely considered to be the next 'industrial revolution', we have been told about the potential of connecting physical products and systems to the digital world in order to improve our everyday lives but, can we really conceive all the possibilities this presents?
The very nature of AR is to enhance the physical world around us using computer-generated sensory inputs such as sound, video, graphics or even GPS data, to make our experience more efficient, more effective or more enjoyable: as sensationally demonstrated recently by Pokémon Go. Increasingly, it is likely that IoT will allow us to interconnect objects and devices around us and embed them into the new surroundings created by AR, making our physical environment more responsive and digitally interactive. Devices will be able to provide inputs and responses in a fraction of a second, providing consumers and end users with contextual and relevant real time, real world information. This interaction between IoT and AR is expected to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds in a meaningful and valuable way for the consumer, for businesses and for public services. However, where and how this will be most valuable is not yet clear.
This all sounds incredibly exciting, and there is certainly a lot of hype around these new technologies, but it's easy to get ahead ourselves and overlook the challenges and limitations that will no doubt arise. As with the adoption of technological innovations in the past, any advancement in this area will need to overcome our natural instinct to resist change, be suspicious of all things new and be wary of things that we don't readily understand. Security concerns are likely to be at the top of the list; advances always come with new threats and as more devices are added to the IoT then cybersecurity risks will only increase. However, the battle against cybercrime is not new and it is one which, on the whole, is containing and mitigating the threats. This pattern will doubtless continue in the future, but we should neither be complacent nor underestimate the increasing potential for disruption as our world becomes more interconnected.
Given the pervasive nature of these new technologies, ethical concerns are also likely to require consideration and careful debate. For example, IoT and AR interaction has the potential to dramatically impact upon the medical industry, patient health and the cost of healthcare. A quick search of the internet highlights many applications for these technologies that are either in use already or that soon will be. However, these are sensitive areas affecting peoples' lives and raising many ethical questions and dilemmas and, whilst such advances and their potentially beneficial effects, will be welcomed by many of us with open arms, understandably not everyone will feel the same way. These new technology applications have the power to divide people's opinions and, if used wrongly, however inadvertently, damage society.
As another example, I recently read a powerful newspaper article considering the potential ethical questions involved in designing driverless cars. The article posed a scenario, whereby such a car would need to make a choice between colliding with a group of pedestrians that had stepped in front of it on a busy street, or driving aversively off the road and into a brick wall, thereby injuring or killing the passengers in the car. Which choice would or should the car make? Actually, since the car itself wouldn't make the decision, perhaps the deeper ethical question here is how could or should its creators design and programme the car to deal with such a scenario.
Whilst highly challenging on many levels, questions such as this will be at the heart of how these technologies are developed and applied and will impact how well and quickly they are adopted by society. Knowing which questions to ask and being able to answer them responsibly and appropriately will be a good 'litmus test' for whether we really are ready for and understand the change.
We are at the start of a new and exciting technological era, quite possibly the next 'industrial revolution'. We cannot possibly predict exactly how our lives and our society will change over the next few years as a result of the development and application of IoT and AR technologies but history tells us that the change is likely to be revolutionary. Given that the pace of change is accelerating with each new technological innovation, I have no doubt that, despite the challenges and questions to be addressed along the way, these new technologies will advance our society, our businesses and our experience of the world around us more than anything I've seen in my lifetime - or my parents and grandparents saw in theirs.
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