Ravi Mhatre, Founding Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, contributed this article. It first appeared in Next Magazine, issue 4.
Recent decades saw tech milestones almost too numerous to count. Some can be singled out as the disruptors that collectively came together to form what we now recognize as modern IT.
It wasn’t long after the arrival of the PC that data networks linking them to each other and to other resources appeared and increased their value exponentially. That was due largely to the breakup of AT&T, which empowered businesses, for the first time, to run their own private data networks for competitive advantage. From there emerged the private intranet, then the public Internet, followed by a quick succession of life-changing tools layered on top, such as search engines, web browsers and online commerce. Then the biggest boon to commerce in history made its debut: mobile computing.
Momentous tech game changers in their own right, these developments together have paved the way for something even more significant. It's happening everywhere in IT today. And it’s without precedent.
Today’s Global Computing Platform
Enormous compute power, virtualization software, pervasive networks, massive data stores, and artificial intelligence (AI) have created a perfect storm not just for change, but for life-altering transformations that touch every walk of life. From medicine to transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment and beyond, we’re digitizing just about everything in sight. It’s happening now, simultaneously, across all industries.
Why now? A powerful global computing platform now serves as the lifeblood for how people connect to each other and engage in business. That platform has unparalleled capacity and reach. It has opened up an innovation aperture — a digital tipping point, unique to our time, that no organization has the luxury to ignore.
The story can be summarized this way: Moore’s law predicted that the processing power of computers would double every two years. That maxim has held fast, fueling faster cycles of innovation that, in turn, created massive volumes of data. All that data drove still greater demand for even more compute power. And so on. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
100-Fold Mass Enablement
Ubiquitous computing combined with the vast amounts of power now in the hands of individuals and today’s networks are providing a 100-fold enablement to every business. It doesn’t matter what industry or business we’re in; it’s incumbent on us to use these pervasive technologies or risk obsolescence in our uber-connected global economy. We’re basically facing down an “opportunity on steroids.” Now is the time to shoot for the moon, because almost anything really is possible now. And if you don’t do it, someone else will.
Putting a man on the moon nearly 50 years ago, by the way, consumed an amount of computer processing power that’s been reported as equal to two Nintendo game consoles. If two Nintendo systems can send a man to the moon, what might we accomplish with the 200-petaflop supercomputer called Summit, introduced by the Department of Energy in June 2018. Or many Summits linked together all over the world, operating as a distributed, highly intelligent system?
The answer? Just about anything we want.
Once we hit web-scale systems, we shift from trying to think of ways to make a single computer more powerful to how to make a whole system of computers working together more powerful. Machines functioning in clusters this way have radically changed the amount of power people have at their fingertips and, as a result, what they can achieve and how they live.
Beyond Digital Transformation
Like any buzzword, “digital transformation” will soon sound dated and overused. But it accurately describes what’s going on. The compute power in today’s ubiquitous, commodity smartphones dwarfs the power of entire supercomputers from the past. We now have enough network bandwidth, wired and wireless, to keep pace with the computers that connect to them. And the dynamic nature of software-defined networks and the ability to virtualize functions allow us to try, fail fast, and quickly start again.
Note, too, that we no longer have mere mobility. We have broadband wireless capacity and mainstream coverage that allows for experiences in cars, on the street, in a stadium, or nearly anywhere else that once required sitting at an elaborate setup of hardwired computers, modems, and networks. Goods, services, and entertainment can be bought, sold and delivered 24/7 throughout the mobile subculture. Emerging 5G networks will finally liberate the machine-to-machine communications of the Internet of Things (IoT) from niche applications into the mainstream in ways we have yet to imagine.
And, last but certainly not least, of course, we have the artificial intelligence (AI) needed to help us manage all the data, figure out what it adds up to, and do something meaningful with it.
Now that Everyone’s in IT, What Are the Ramifications?
All these innovations have helped push IT, little by little, beyond traditional business borders and into the hands of the masses. With much of business now being conducted online, the once rigid demarcation boundaries between “enterprise IT” and “consumer IT” have all but evaporated. In some ways, nearly everyone in a first-world country that’s functioning according to its societal norms is in the IT business by default, at least to some degree.
Regulatory processes have far to go to catch up with all the technology. Privacy protection in an inherently transparent world has reared its head and has seen its first major coup in the form of the far-reaching General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect in the European Union in May 2018.
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There are plenty more regulatory and cultural issues to figure out as industries continue to innovate in ways that create situations that we’ve never run up against.
Consider blockchain, for example. The emerging digital distributed ledger technology has the potential to completely overhaul the way supply chains work, how money changes hands, and how all types of record keeping and audit logs take place. It accomplishes this through the use of secure, peer-to-peer technology that casts aside traditional centralized middlemen and clearinghouses.
Aside from figuring out how to properly apply the digital distributed ledger technology, there are also issues to overcome surrounding the cultural acceptance of a whole new way of running the world’s transactions, and regulations need to evolve to match the new processes. Getting to the point where blockchain will reduce the power of dominant clearinghouse-type companies will rely on widespread agreement over the fundamentals of how business gets conducted.
It’s clear that our goals and aspirations with tech are 180 degrees from what they once were. Not so long ago, we focused on computerizing file cabinets stuffed with paper with the goal of keeping better, more accurate, and accessible records and to generally speed things up. Now, we’re looking to new levels of computerization and network power as a conduit to completely overhaul how a business or industry operates, which can have startling side effects. Who would have said “Amazon” and “Whole Foods” in the same breath five years ago?
With Change Comes Progress — and a Few Skinned Knees
It’s clear that the volumes of data and the number of connected devices we have attained have turned traditional ways of doing things upside down. Let’s take a brief look at a few of the successes.
Personalized medicine -- Many a clinician grumbles that he or she didn’t go to medical school to type patient data into a laptop. Even so, there’s a lot we now understand digitally about an individual’s health at any point in time that was once beyond our reach. Drugs and other treatments once relied on random samplings and statistics to predict success rates and side effects, but they’ve now given way to much more personalized applications of medicine.
Sensors in smartwatches or other wearables, for example, report on an individual’s blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels and a dozen other variables — over wide-area networks to clinicians who may be anywhere — and are no doubt saving lives. Coupled with the patient's electronic medical history, conditions, medications, and so forth, the real-time health data can be crunched to determine diagnoses and treatments far more efficiently than in the past.
Digitizing genetic data -- Big data has allowed for other similar strides in the life sciences, where research labs are now able to digitize genetic data. For example, you can simulate how changing the genetic structure of a virus will impact an interaction. We’re learning with high precision how the pathways to disease work, replacing lab rats with computer modeling and increasing the speed and precision with which we can understand science. Big data and analytics are also aiding in the creation of treatments much more tuned to an individual’s body chemistry. DNA tests have become available to tell you which drugs are counter-indicated and which ones you are likely to tolerate best.
Manufacturing -- Robotics and drones now represent physical instantiations of powerful computing. Where once manufacturing robots repeated the same task over and over again, now they have the power to react and adjust to situations.
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Agriculture -- IoT is taking this industry by storm. Sensors placed strategically around fields along with image recognition technologies send farmers up-to-date information about their crops in real-time, so changes can be made accordingly, enabling higher food production with less waste. In some vineyards, sensors in the soil determine the exact moment when grapes need water and how much, triggering the irrigation system to activate at just the right time with precisely the right amounts of water for a “very good year” of winemaking.
Automotive and transportation -- One only has to utter the word “Uber,” and the essence of digital disruption and transformation becomes crystal clear. Those of us already enjoying the GPS navigation tools in our cars and the safety features that warn of road hazards can envision the next step of self-driving vehicles. There have been notable snafus as the technology has developed. Yet there may come a day in the not-too-distant future when people shake their heads in disbelief that at one time in history, humans actually controlled vehicles and that hundreds of thousands of lives were lost each year because of human error.
Role of AI and Machine Learning
The evolution of humans takes place over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. Tech, obviously, advances far more quickly. How can we keep up?
With powerful computing and massive volumes of data, it’s possible to do extraordinary things at “web scale.” But we need some AI capability to manage, filter, and interpret all the data. As you get more and more data coming into a system, you can use AI to mimic user understanding and decisions, which provides assistance to humans.
Analysts have predicted a 10-fold increase in the amount of data the world creates by 2025 to 163 zettabytes. It’s hard to envision what such a number translates into in everyday life. But some say much of that data is going to be critical for sustaining life as we know it, such as helping life scientists figure out how to grow enough food to feed the world’s population.
Without AI and machine learning and at least a dash of analytics, the deluge of data residing in all these systems so necessary to making critical decisions would just be a pile of bits, uncorrelated, and unable to tell us the story we need to hear to understand our world and make decisions to help save and improve it.
Can We Ever Unplug?
There are a lot of noble efforts to be made with the data and compute power we have at our disposal. Still, it’s also created an always-on culture, one that doesn’t allow you to unplug without risk. Unplug, and you’ll miss a tremendous amount as the world moves quickly on without you.
There is a very real pressure to remain connected that’s resulting in being quantitatively more connected with a diminished quality of person-to-person relationships. It’s hard to gauge what the results of that phenomenon will be down the road.
What is known is that we’re living in interesting times, in a special period of history for innovation, change, and technology. It’s not a time where the winners will be conservative, doing the best with what they have and limiting their pace of change. All industries need to be in a growth mindset and open to rapid relearning. Over the next 10 to 20 years, the winners will be people and organizations in hyperlearning mode, those that can figure out how tech will change the art of what’s possible and apply it successfully to their organizations.
Joanie Wexler is a contributing writer and editor with more than 20 years experience covering IT and computer networking technologies.
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