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A great merge beckons: the closing gap between technology and us

This week, PHD worldwide strategy and planning director Mark Holden spoke about impending conflation of tech and humanity. He argues that we are already well along this path but says things will become really interesting over the next two decades. What follows is a short excerpt from Merge, a book co-written by Holden and number of other contributors across the PHD network.

By Adam Cansino & Mark Holden | September 28, 2017 | features

Humans can perform tricks today that illusionists couldn’t have imagined 50 years ago. Armed only with a tiny device that fits into our pockets, we can access a lifetime’s worth of information in an instant; speak to anyone in the world whenever we choose; and share our experiences with friends thousands of miles away.

Schoolchildren can put on a virtual reality headset and journey to continents that previously took years for explorers to reach. Students can use a laptop to access billions of times more knowledge than the most prestigious university library could ever hold. Retirees can open a browser and be more informed on world affairs than the President of the United States was 20 years ago.

But the most astounding part of this technological trickery is the speed at which these new opportunities and experiences are emerging.

In the early 1950s, only a handful of computers existed. These machines were the size of a small room, weighed almost a ton and cost the equivalent of $4m (adjusted for inflation). Sales of the first mass-produced computer – the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC) – totalled 46 units.

A few decades later, when mobile phones became commercially available, they weighed over a kilogram and cost thousands of dollars. Anyone lucky enough to own one of these bricks had to charge it for 10 hours to have a half-hour conversation.

Only a few people in any given area could use the network at the same time – any more calls and it would collapse under the pressure.

Even in the early 1990s – less than 30 years ago – there were only 10 million people in the world with access to the internet. The web was a pet project at the CERN scientific research centre in Switzerland. There were no commercial search engines, browsers or apps and the concept of the smartphone was a distant dream in the heads of a few business visionaries.

Fast-forward to today and the progress is almost unbelievable. The humble computer’s performance has increased one-trillion-fold and it is now in billions of homes across the globe. The world’s cheapest computer, the Raspberry Pi Zero, weighs nine grams and costs $5. The smartphone in your pocket is more powerful than the computers NASA used to put Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Connectivity has increased from 10 million people to more than 3 billion. Mobile subscriptions outnumber the earth’s population. Our computers, phones, cars, watches and homes are linked up to the web. Climbers on the summit of Mount Everest can take advantage of a superfast 4G connection. Sailors in submarines can use high-speed internet to call home. Astronauts can log-on to the web aboard the International Space Station, as it orbits the earth hundreds of miles up in the sky.

Fasten Your Seatbelts

This mind-boggling pace of evolution has taken us from a world without screens to one dominated by devices in just over 50 years. But this rapid evolution shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s speeding up.

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering and one of the world’s most respected futurists, puts this down to The Law of Accelerating Returns. Technology, he claims, isn’t evolving in a linear manner (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), it’s instead advancing at an exponential rate (e.g. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16). This growth pattern has already been popularized by Moore’s Law, which correctly predicted that the number of transistors capable of fitting onto a chip would double every two years. But Kurzweil believes this isn’t only applicable to electrical circuits – it has a wider significance.

“It is not the case that we will experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century,” he wrote in an essay, “rather, we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress.” In other words, because of this exponential growth, advancements made in the next couple of decades will multiply so quickly that they will dwarf the developments of the entire 20th century – a period that brought us the motor car, the airplane, the television, antibiotics, the PC, the internet and nuclear power.

Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns isn’t, of course, a universal law of physics – and some scientists oppose his thinking. Yet if even a fraction of this progress does materialize, then it means we are on the cusp of the most dramatic expansion of technology in history.

Some of these developments can be predicted without much consideration. Over the next decade, another four billion people will come online, doubling the number of users on the web. Connectivity will also spread to more devices. It won’t only be our screens that link up to the web, it’ll be almost every object we own. In fact, market intelligence firm IDC predicts that 80 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2025, compared with 11 billion today.

Other potential areas of development are starting to emerge. Secretive companies like Magic Leap are working on mixed reality glasses that could turn the world into a digital canvas. Tech giants like Microsoft and Apple are creating virtual assistants that could soon become our digital PAs, automating our schedules and organizing our lives. Exciting startups like Helix are working on the next generation of personalized apps, based on our DNA.

But most of the innovation we’ll experience is still incredibly hard to predict. How will the maturation of the field of nanotechnology impact us? What will society look like when we figure out how to connect our brains to the cloud? And how will governments legislate against the next 30 years of technological improvements? Few of us could have predicted the growth of smartphones in the 1980s, and the same is true today when trying to predict what might be coming over the horizon.

One thing’s for sure, though: every successful technological breakthrough of the past has helped to unshackle us from a specific constraint – whether it’s the physical constraint of only being in one place at a time or the emotional constraint of not being able to communicate with loved ones. And, looking to the future, it is highly likely that humans will continue to use technology as a liberating force – as something that can help free them from all sorts of day-to-day constraints. This idea, combined with financial considerations (i.e. will this tech make any money?) can be used as a framework to help predict which technologies will take hold and which ones won’t fly.

Closing the Gap

Another aspect of the future that we can confidently predict is our relationship with technology. Many of us today are heavily reliant on our devices. We spend more time staring at screens than we do outside, with friends or eating. Our smartphones rarely leave our sides. And as we move into the 2020s, our desire to be perpetually online will continue to grow. We’ll find ourselves in a world in which we are as dependent on connectivity as we are on the oxygen we breathe.

How we access the web may change. Phones may turn into smart glasses. Glasses may turn into contact lenses. Contact lenses may turn into biological implants. But whatever form this tech takes, the goal will be the same: to keep us connected each second of the day.

As we spend an increasing amount of time in the virtual world, machines will become even more embedded in our lives. Technology sometimes already feels like it has its own mind – its own consciousness – but over the next two decades, this will become more pronounced. Machines will become as intelligent as us and, as this gap continues to close, we’ll reach a point where we become indistinguishable from one another. Technology and humanity will – both symbolically and literally – fuse together.

We call this The Merge.

This journey has already begun and takes the form of five, clearly definable stages. In this book, we’ll explore these phases, and assess how each one is moving us one step further along the path to convergence. In Stage I, we look at the early parts of the journey. We assess how specific innovations led to the commercialization of personal computers, and how the dawn of the internet enabled us to surface information in a revolutionary way. We also investigate how this has spawned a new era of marketing that laid the foundations for one of the most significant shifts the industry has ever experienced.

In Stage II, we highlight the three key inventions that led to the spread of the modern-day web. These giant leaps forward enabled us to organize the information we had surfaced, making it globally accessible and universally valuable. These inventions also helped create a portable device that brought us closer to our technology than ever before: the smartphone.

Stage III – the period in which we currently find ourselves – plays a pivotal role in The Merge. On the one hand, this era represents a maturation of the modern-day web. Search engines are smarter than ever, mobile penetration is widespread and connectivity is fast and reliable in many parts of the world. But then add dramatic developments in machine learning to this equation and a new phase entirely emerges. One where we’re not just organizing information, we’re also extracting new meaning from it – via operating systems, semantic search and cognitive assistants.

It isn’t until the early 2020s that these exciting new ideas begin to have a major impact. In Stage IV, with the maturation of deep learning AI, technology starts to understand us, our context, our routines and it even starts to run our lives for us. Our assistants are by our sides constantly, helping us tackle all kinds of general tasks, not just specific things. They can anticipate our needs and desires, which in turn impacts how brands go about attracting our attention.

By Stage V, the final phase of The Merge, we have grown so dependent on technologies that the boundaries between the two have completely blurred. Artificial General Intelligence changes the way that we engage with day-to-day reality, sentient technology overlays our virtual existence onto the real world, and biological breakthroughs give us unprecedented control over our bodies and minds. Nanobots travel through our bloodstream, neural lace uploads thoughts to the cloud and brain-to-brain communication takes off. The human experience is elevated.

As these play out, our relationship with technology will change irreversibly. People will stop regarding machines as a separate entity – an “us” versus “them” mentality popularized by Hollywood and science fiction. Instead, the conversation will slowly shift. Technology will be regarded as an additional lobe of our brain – an essential and constant element in our lives on earth. The idea of “logging on” or “accessing the internet” will disappear – replaced by a constant connection in a world where the web flows like electricity.

“In the grand scheme of things, we do have many risks and challenges, but there is nothing else that matters more to the human race than this merger,” says Bryan Johnson, a Silicon Valley CEO. “This is going to define how we evolve.”

Be Prepared

This new world also threatens to overhaul modern marketing as we know it. Many decisions will start to become automated, brands will find themselves trying to influence an algorithm rather than a human, and breakthroughs in both hardware and software will generate new expectation levels in convenience and customer experience.

Merge is by no means an exhaustive list of the technologies that will shape our future. Instead, it focuses on specific advances that are likely to impact how people interact with brands. The book establishes the urgent implications for our industry and offers guidance on how to confront these challenges head-on. It also shines a light on how marketers can assert influence by taking advantage of the transformational technologies of our time. Most importantly, it explains what needs to be done today to prepare for tomorrow – a world in which humans and technology become inextricably linked.

Let The Merge begin.

This is an excerpt from Merge, a new book written by various PHD contributors and featuring exclusive interviews from Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Dave Coplin (Microsoft) and Greg Corrado (Google). Copies can be purchased online.   

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