Computing technologies from 5G to artificial intelligence and their implications for the economy and society were major features of the recent Davos Conference, according to analysts at McKinsey writing in an article ‘Reflections on technology from Davos 2020’. Dr Steve Bone reviews the article and suggests that computing is just the most visible part of disruptive technology. Other potentially more disruptive game-changer technologies are often hidden from consumers.
This article was part of key issues that discuss digital reinvention, from modernizing IT to competing in digital ecosystems. The authors start by describing how ‘Technology’ (called ‘Tech’) was dominant at Davos and the conference was well populated by the world’s biggest tech companies. They suggest we’re on the edge of the next wave of computing power with 5G expected to kick off a new wave of innovation, especially in Industry 4.0, quoting Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as predicting that ‘500 million apps will be developed in the next five years because tech is becoming so much easier to use’.
Tech points for discussion by the authors included:
- Corporations are becoming educators and making a commitment to lifelong learning: This is because technology and artificial intelligence (AI) tools are become better and easier to use. Some said that “using AI will soon be like using spreadsheets”.
- Companies are aware of the need for tech leadership around social responsibility: The authors translate this into people thinking hard about bias and “explainability”. Summarizing in management consultant speak they are thinking in terms of new kinds of multifunctional teams such as data scientists, engineers, lawyers, ethicists, regulators, and many more working together to figure out the problems and how to use technology for good. At a grass roots level, my opinion is they already do this to some extent and conversations between scientists, engineers and patent lawyers take place daily.
- AI is getting real: The authors claim that AI at scale is really happening, even at large incumbent companies. Their own experience and research have derived a set of necessary core practices to capture value at scale, including aligning business, analytics, and IT leaders on the potential value at stake; investing in talent, such as translator expertise; and ensuring that business staff and technical teams have the skills necessary for successful scaling.
- Technology has a growing role in addressing climate change: McKinsey Digital suggests that increasing sophistication and usability of technology is leading to some promising developments in terms of addressing climate change. For example, is equipping ships with high-tech sails, which he claims can reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent. In another example, the open-banking movement is leading to an open-carbon-data movement. A number of players are also using technology and AI to build the technical infrastructure to support the development of financial instruments that facilitate carbon trading. This is very true but a very small part of how technology will address climate change.
To summarize this white paper is a very useful summary of technology at Davos seen through the lens of an AI, Digital or IT consultant. It does however miss many other very important technology trends, for example:
- The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors[i].
- Genomics will redefine medicine: within about five years it will be possible to make essentially any kind of change or edit to any genome in any celled organism with precision. This is currently a very topical subject in viral research. On January 29, 2020, the Institut Pasteur, which is responsible for monitoring respiratory viruses in France, sequenced the whole genome of the coronavirus known as “2019-nCoV,” an important first step in tackling the virus.
- In item 4 the authors missed the real technologies in addressing climate change. For example:
- carbon capture could be the game-changer the world needs. One of the key technologies is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a set of technologies that prevents carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere and safely stores them deep underground in dedicated geological storage[ii].
- new catalyst systems have created a technology for the dry reforming of methane for the production of syngas (mixture comprising of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen). The syngas can then be converted through catalysis into dimethyl ether for production of olefins, not from oil.
- In sustainability more generally there are lots of other new technologies. For example, A French think tank called Atelier Luma is investigating whether treated algae can be used as an alternative material to plastic[iii].
- Emerging advanced smart materials and nanotechnology that requires advances in the structure, combination, properties, portrayal, execution and material handling. For example: further big advances are predicted in graphene, fullerene, conductive polymers, metamaterials, nanolithography nanomaterials: carbon nanotubes, delicate lithography, super composite, coatings, aerogel, air graphite, lithium-particle batteries, polymers that change shape with external stimuli and so forth[iv].
Many more technologies were also discussed at Davos: autonomous driving, augmented and virtual reality plus extended reality (XR) (catch-all term that covers several new and emerging technologies being used to create more immersive digital experiences), drone swarms replace fireworks, much smarter speakers etc etc.
The big question in my mind is where does the CTO and R&D Director start?
Technology is becoming more specialized and expensive, specialisms are segmenting, technology is emerging/diverging/combining and disruptive. It’s not enough to talk about well-known general management trends in technology . Finding new opportunities and defending from disruption requires much more detailed analysis. A well-researched and objective technology roadmap and technology strategy is required.
Read the article
Reflections on technology from Davos 2020, written by McKinsey Senior Partners Nicolaus Henke (Chairman of QuantumBlack – McKinsey’s advanced analytics and AI firm), Jeremy Palmer (CEO of QuantumBlack), Kate Smaje (global leader of McKinsey Digital) and Steve Van Kuiken (global leader of McKinsey Technology).