Economist Technology Frontiers 2013 – back to the present!

~ Large companies need to act now to prepare for tomorrow’s changes or face becoming ‘dinosaurs’ against more nimble entrepreneurial competitors ~

~ Speakers predict changes including the end of the free internet, increasing the role of humans in data driven decision-making and connected objects ~

Technology Frontiers - March 7 2013: The need for companies to change now for tomorrow’s world including integrating machine-led with human decision-making was one of the key topics discussed at The Economist’s Technology Frontiers 2013 summit, sponsored by Ricoh, on 5th and 6th March. Speakers including Werner Vogels, Chief Technology Officer at argued that if businesses do not change and adapt they risked becoming ‘dinosaurs’. The event brought together over 250 industry minds and inspiring thinkers to foresee how innovation and technology will transform our work, our lives and more importantly, the world as we know it.

Led by The Economist’s Digital Editor, Tom Standage, who opened the summit talking to a 3D holographic image of himself, created by Musion, the event focused on health, retail, manufacturing, finance and education sector developments. Industry leaders from around the world discussed the challenges they faced and their approaches to technology advancements by looking at their long-term implications.

The event predicted a changing world. Key topics included:

  • Jaron Lanier, Computer Scientist and Author outlined why information on the web needs to be monetised if we are to avoid market shrinkage and unemployment. Unlike free information supported by companies like Google, he argued consumers should be paid for their data, because each person has a unique view, skill, knowledge and history, which has a value.
  • Speakers including Niall Murphy, Founder of Evrything and Matt Webb, Chief Executive Officer, BERG London both advocated the Internet of Things. They outlined how we are entering an era where physical objects will communicate with us. Examples included Vitality’s GlowCaps, intelligent pill caps designed to help patients take medication regularly by sending reminder calls, weekly email reports and monthly updates to your doctor.  
  • Werner Vogels, Chief Technology Officer, said change happened quickly and all start-ups must experiment, measure and the then iterate with consumers or pivot away. He said “any time not focused on the customer was wasting time.”
  • The notion of nirvana – a world of data rather than human decision-making, was discussed by Denis McCauley, Director, Global Technology, The Economist Intelligence Unit in the ‘scenario’ sessions. A panel including David Spiegelhalter, Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University and Ari Gesher, engineering ambassador, Palantir Techologies warned about the need for a balance of human with machine led data-driven decision-making, especially in cases like Seismology where a decision could be the difference between life and death.
  • Naveen Jain, Chief Executive Officer, Inome and Founder, Moon Express said that ‘humans will soon become the CEO of their own health’ by using technology to help self-diagnose. He added that businesses could solve the world’s problems and still make money. He said “it was easy to create a $10 billion company by solving $10 billion problems. He added we are on the cusp of big developments including “a cure for cancer in the next five years.” 
  • Carlota Perez, Scholar, London School of Economics argued that we need to redesign our economy with new guiding principles focused on creating healthy individuals, environmental sustainability and full globalised development - otherwise known as green growth. Taxation, she said, should not focus on areas we want like jobs and income but on things we need to reduce like carbon, energy and materials.
  • Will Self, Novelist and Journalist talked about the impact of technology on human interaction. He controversially argued we are in an interregnum period between cultural hegemonies with old broadcast and film mediums being replaced by a new dominant media yet to emerge. He discussed the idea that social media provides us with a simulacrum of community rather than community itself and talked about the unintended consequences of technology like people not walking in the future. He concluded that Stephen Gough, the naked rambler, was ‘the real thing’ for humans rather people sitting at computer terminals which made us closer to resembling machines.

It’s clear that businesses need to strike the right balance between human and machine-led decision-making as new technologies such as autonomous vehicles continue to evolve” says Tom Standage. “As technologies become more deeply embedded in our lives, they present increasingly complex social, personal and ethical challenges for individuals, companies and society as a whole.”

Supporting the summit was founding sponsor Ricoh Europe who published a report with the Economist Intelligence Unit which suggested that technology is fostering rather than hindering human creativity in the workplace.  David Mills, Chief Operating Officer, Ricoh Europe says “When speaking to business leaders at Technology Frontiers 2013, it is clear that they are reliant on technology, but also see the need for human intelligence and imagination in the workplace, especially if technology is to support competitiveness, responsiveness and agility. They also agreed that while it’s important to study the future, we must not forget about the present. The reality is that technology in isolation - without a process to use it - brings little value. The business leaders at the event agreed that more needs to be done today to ensure that technology is more connected in the business and that it is enriching and not competing with human creativity.”

As 2013 continues, Technology Frontiers is already looking ahead and is set to continue the debate on technology, innovation and human intuition in London in 2014.

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