Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

3 Trends that Will Define Our Future

A Roadmap for Living & Working with Robots

This week, I am in Japan teaching a course on business and law in a digital world. To prepare the next generation for the future, it is necessary to think about recent developments in technology. We cannot avoid it.

But we don’t hear much from Japan these days (compared to the late 80s when Sony, Nikon, Toshiba and other amazing Japanese businesses were dominant).

Yet, for various technologies, companies in Japan are still innovative and important.

Take robots.

Japan approaches robotic technologies in a different way from other technology regions, such as Silicon Valley. The focus is not on “man versus machine”, but on “man living with machine”. Japan’s robots come with stories surrounding them; a seamless blending of robotic technologies into everyday life.

This is the perfect starting point for the course:

What should we be doing to prepare for a world where we have to co-exist with intelligent machines?
How can we live in “harmony” with these machines?
And, what should we — as educators — be teaching students to give them the best chance of success in the future?

The World as Experienced Today

But before we start to predict the future, think about the world as we experience it today. People feel stuck and confused. We are at a crossroads.

Here is why.

The Exponential Growth of New Technology

This is the single biggest difference between the world of today and the world of my childhood. We have always experienced technological innovation, but these days the innovations appear to accelerate each other: artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, etc.

All of this new technology makes life easier, more efficient and creates new opportunities.

But, the acceleration of technology is often experienced as threatening and the source of tremendous uncertainty. People are anxious about its effects.

For a start, there are concerns about the loss of privacy and control.

People also worry about whether they are going to be “replaced” by machines. Lawyers, for example, see many simple tasks being automated and this leads them to wonder about what will be left for the “lawyer of the future” to do.

This is especially true for the students who are in the class. They may find it more difficult to learn on the job, as most basic legal tasks are outsourced to machines.

The warning of Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking regarding traditional jobs disappearing is real.

A Sense of Crisis and Mistrust

Anxiety about technology connects to a more general sense of crisis.

The traditional sources of authority within our society — corporations, mass media and financial institutions — are widely perceived as failing. They are not meeting expectations. As our institutions lurch from crisis to crisis, this sense of failure grows, feeding the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.

Everybody is Now an Entrepreneur

People are dissatisfied. They feel that they can no longer rely on institutions. They want control and the freedom to do their own thing. As we live longer, healthier lives, we see more, we experience more. Everyone needs to be more entrepreneurial.

But, traditional jobs and opportunities are disappearing. So, it is difficult to know how to develop yourself and express yourself in a fast-changing society.

So, What Will Define our Future?

We are stuck. Well, here are three trends that we need to understand to define our future:

1. The Digitization of Reality

Technology is being integrated into all aspects of everyday life. And this includes business and working life.

The Internet of Things links the physical and digital worlds. A global network of connected sensors records everything. The information that is generated is utilized for various purposes, including improving performance. The information will all be in digital form and managed via software, predictive algorithms and blockchain.

The result? A digital reality generates trust and truth that allow us to know, with remarkable precision, exactly what has happened and what is likely to happen.

2. Data-Driven Decision-Making

Sensor-generated data facilitates faster and more accurate decision-making. Crucially, such decisions are made by machines, as it is only machines that are capable of handling the vast amounts of information generated.

Automated algorithmic decisions are quicker, faster, and more accurate.

3. Peer-to-Peer Culture and “Democratization”

As our world becomes digitized and data-driven decision-making becomes more pervasive, many of the “intermediaries” who previously controlled and dealt with information become less relevant. Think of lawyers, bankers, consultants.

For instance, we will see more referenda (“direct” democracy in which intermediaries — the representatives of the people — are bypassed). Also, more attention is given to encouraging “active” shareholders in companies.

In both cases, the focus is on facilitating direct control.

New technologies increasingly combine all of these three trends. Perhaps the most obvious example is blockchain-based smart contracts, which are currently being tried and tested in Ethereum for multiple uses across all sectors of the economy.

The Result

What do these three trends mean? Well, they are going to transform every aspect of how we live and work.

To take a legal example, think of how contracts and contractual disputes will be transformed. Imagine the automobile accident of the future in which cars communicate directly with insurance companies to self-execute the terms based on “facts” “agreed” between the cars and the sensor data generated at the time of the accident.

What is the role of the lawyer? The “smart contract” in such a case exists in “code”. Of course, it will still need to be “drafted”, but this will be done through code and not words. Beyond that, the traditional functions of the lawyer, related to execution and enforcement, will “disappear”.

So, What’s Next?

We need to embrace a different and more open mindset that is able to identify opportunities and solve the new problems of a digital world.

The increased reliance on robotics, big data and AI means that all of our lives will be disrupted. But, it also means that we will have more time and freedom.

Technology has reached a stage where we need to create a new reality. We won’t have to deal with many of the daily things that occupy us now — the “nonsense” of everyday life, if you like. Instead, we need to build new knowledge and apply that knowledge in a never-ending process of transformation.

Recall, the warnings of Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. We have to think about robotics and automation now. We have to take action. Perhaps, by doing so, we may come out even stronger.

Only by embracing new realities will we avoid being taken over by “robots” and “machines”. Now that smarter and more advanced robots are nearly here, we are free to be smarter. And, maybe, even a little bit more human.

As educators, we have the obligation to prepare students for this future. We need to encourage all students — and that includes law students, business students and other social science students — to engage with new technology and to think about what it means for their lives and the different careers they wish to pursue.

This is how I see my role in Japan.

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