Thoughts On Realizing 2030: A Divided Vision of the Future

by Oliver Christie, Artificial Intelligence Strategist

Dell has released an important report, Realizing 2030: A Divided Vision of the Future. It highlights how business leaders are thinking about new tech. Questions were asked on how artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), cybersecurity and IoT (Internet of things) might be used in a commercial setting. The industries surveyed were wide in scope, covering everything from automotive to financial services, healthcare to manufacturing.

As the title of the report indicates, the results showed a deep division in attitudes are towards the future use of new technology. This disunion is striking and should be seen as a major cause for concern. The report should be required reading for anyone interested in the realities of fundamental change at the boardroom level.

The biggest questions posed by the findings of ‘Realizing 2030’ is why our business leaders have such a polarized view of the future and what can be done about this.

Dell Technologies worked with Institute for the Future (IFTF) to interview, 3,800 global business leaders on the impact they think technology will have on their company or organization. Fifteen questions were asked in three broad categories ‘Our Lives, Our Work, and Business.’ Participants agreed or disagreed with statements put to them, such as ‘Automated systems will free-up our time.’

The results showed a polarized leadership both in planning for and applying technologies. Across all questions there was a near 50-50 split between those agreeing and disagreeing on a way forward. More than anything the report could be seen as a moment of separation between those who embrace future technologies (including the inherent challenges) and those who do not believe fundamental change is coming anytime soon.

I will highlight some of the key findings from the report and their likely impact on the human-machine partnership, diagnose why the business community is so divided, and offer some steps on how leaders can undertake to better prepare for the future.

The timing of this report is fantastic! It puts solid numbers to the reality in today’s boardroom. Talking at the leadership level you never know the views, expectations or approaches will to be to things like ML (machine learning) or NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). There is no current baseline when it comes to technical or industrial knowledge. This is not surprising as we don’t even have something as straightforward as a universal definition of AI. Ask five data scientists for their definition and you get six answers. Without a shared understanding of what is being discussed, progress will always be a challenge.

Expectation vs Reality

The report highlights where we are at the moment (2018) and where business leaders expect to be in a very short period of time.

‘82% of business leaders expect their workforce and machines will work as integrated teams within five years.’

‘Only 27% believe they are leading the way, ingraining digital in everything they do.’

More than any other response these two answers give an insight into current views on technology in the corporate environment. On one hand there is the expectation (82%) that man and machine will be working together successfully by 2023. On the other hand, a clear minority of respondents (27%) thought they were doing a good job at the moment in terms of leadership. This miss match between expectation and reality should be seen as a major threat to progress. Leaders will need to make fundamental changes to their business, starting right now, to have any chance of achieving man/machine integration within 5 years. I am going to make the assumption that either business leaders have not been involved with the complexity of setting up a data enabled, fully integrated team, or that they are thinking too small and imagine that the off-the-shelf solution will be quick to implement and good enough. The reality is that the task of moving a company in a new direction will be a large undertaking. Becoming digital (or data first) will be the major challenge of the next decade. Legacy systems are always easier to change than legacy thinking in any field.

Beyond Pro or Anti-Technology

It would be very easy to categorize the split (in the report) as pro or anti-technology, yet I think this is taking a simplification to far. To take the example of the cyber attack question, ‘48% of survey respondents said that the more we depend upon technology, the more we’ll have to lose in the event of a cyber-attack; 52% aren’t concerned.’

Those who are unconcerned about cyber attacks (could be pro-technology) and realize that the approaches to defend against attack are getting ever more sophisticated in nature. While those who are fearful (could also be pro-technology) as they expect business to make more use of the cloud, IoT and big data. Each response is understandable and correct in its own way. Reading into each response this way assumes a basic level of technical sophistication where, for instance passwords are not stored on desktop in a folder named ‘passwords’. We can unfortunately still be our own worst enemy.

Educating The Workforce

The response to how we educate the future workforce is interesting. It shows a split in approaches to the future, between those who think there will be a new way of working and those who think it will be ‘business as normal.’

‘56% speculate that schools will need to teach how to learn rather than what to learn to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist.’

Those with an understanding of where AI is heading, especially in the realm of man/machine integration, realize that a new approach is needed. Currently (and I am speaking broadly) the interaction between man and machine in a corporate environment is one way. We ask a defined question and expect an accurate answer. In the future, the interplay between man and machine will be two-way. Knowing both how machines ‘think’ and what the better question to ask shall be fundamental. This new reality must be taught at school to successfully leverage next generation AI. For schools to successfully educate the workforce of future some traditional assumptions will need to be abandoned. More emphasis should be placed on creative thought, rational argument and a holistic worldview. These are the areas computers are not able to successfully understand or operate in.

Beyond Science Fiction

Some of the confusion (especially with AI and robotics) at the corporate level could be attributed to over a century of science fiction books and movies. They have shaped society’s reaction to change more than is currently acknowledged. This masculine fight or flight, dystopian view ignores current realities of our world. While Hollywood is there to entertain, it is not a useful basis for future planning for any organization. It is time for companies to have a grow up, fact-based conversation, free of movie references.

Information For Leaders

To prepare leaders for major change technology and consulting companies need to step up and talk about the realities of these new systems. They should take the time to explain things like Expert Systems, Deep Learning, and NLP. It should be done without jargon, using real-world case studies. It is the practical application of AI and all the other technologies that matter. No more talk of killer robots. It is time to leave behind over simplification, false advertising and hype.

Mission Focused

Business leaders should think about their company mission first and technologies second. It is only with a strong mission that everyone understands the direction going forward. Data and all the related technologies available can then be thoughtfully applied. Without purpose or direction transformation will always have a limited effect.

Dell has done a fantastic job of discovering where we are and what global business leaders really think about technology. The ‘Realizing 2030’ report should be seen as a major wake up call. The company of the future must use all available tools for competitive advantage. Smart data, better insights and hyper connection shall largely supersede price in importance. To reach this new reality, strong leadership is needed to create a vision of the future where everyone has an understanding how the technologies operate and directly impact them.

2030 is just around the corner. I predicted that the majority of companies who are not able to adapt to a data driven, AI centric approach will not exist by then. Those that can quickly adapt while at the same time moving beyond legacy thinking will dominate.

This post was sponsored by Dell, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell Technologies’ positions or strategies.