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Welcome to the Second Machine Age - But What Does It Mean for Business?

27/02/2014 12:09 GMT | Updated 28/04/2014 10:59 BST

According to a new book written by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfssen entitled 'The Second Machine Age', we have witnessed two major technological shifts in our history. The first began towards the end of the 19th century, where machines replaced and multiplied the physical work of humans and animals.

In 2014, we are directly in the middle of the second major shift, which is seeing machines and technology replace and multiply human intelligence. The main reason for this, according to McAfee and Brynjolfssen, is the exponential rise in computing power. Only last week, I read in the news of James Dyson's £5 million investment into creating 'domestic robots' that use simultaneous localisation and mapping to create a 3D map of a space with a single camera.

Soon it seems, machines will be combining artificial intelligence with operational efficiency to carry out tasks without any human guidance at all.

All of this got me thinking: what will these vast developments in technology mean for business?

I read an interesting article last week by Martin Wolf at the Financial Times who provided a pretty compelling argument as to why we should be wary of advanced technology from an economic standpoint. In the article, he provides the following reasons:

  • Technology will continue to bring about a plethora of cheap or free services (Skype or Wikipedia); and the scale of do-it-yourself entertainment (Facebook);

  • The difference between the price of technology and the value to consumers is often huge - i.e. - the "consumer surplus" in digital products and services. For instance, before June 2007, the iPhone was beyond even the richest man in the world but the fall from an infinite to a definite price is not reflected in price indices. Similarly, the difference between the cost of developing Google's search algorithm and its value now is vast;

  • The 'information age' has coincided with - and must, to some extent have caused - adverse economic trends: stagnation of median real incomes; rising inequality of labour income; and growing long term unemployment;

Whilst I agree with the points that Martin makes, from a communications perspective at least, the role of technology will present massive opportunities.

Intuitive technology that understands the environment in which it operates is an extremely exciting prospect for communicators. Imagine a system that understands the complex stakeholder environment that it is involved with and is able to direct relevant content to different audiences intuitively.

Equally, from a reputational management perspective, we can't be that far away from software that not only shows trends on delicate issues with stakeholders, but also advises organisations on the best route to take in response to an issue.

But it's is not just external communications that will benefit. Already, there is new technology out there similar to Microsoft Lync that keeps everyone working together effectively, no matter where they are or what device they are working on via voice, IM, audio, video, and web conferencing.

Looking ahead, I expect language barriers to disappear as well, which will be particularly beneficial to CEO's of large multinationals in communicating to all employees across the globe. Soon, devices will be widely available that can translate into multiple languages in real time and allow people from different countries and cultures to communicate instantaneously.

Looking into the more distant future, we may be able to communicate by sending our thoughts through a network directly into someone else's brain. We're decades away from such technology, but scientists are working on creating brain-computer interfaces that allow people to transmit thoughts directly to a computer.

With vast change there are usually winners and losers. The successful organisations will be the ones that are able to continuously adapt to the latest technology on offer and user it to enhance their value proposition. One thing is for sure - for communicators to continue adding value to multinational organisations, expertise in an array of different forms of technology will become more and more important and the perils of falling behind could become more severe.