A review of “Our Digital Future” by William Webb (2017)

This attempt, by a British professor who has worked for Ofcom and now runs his own consultancy, to predict the future in 10, 20 and 30 years time has three characteristics to commend it: it is short (just 120 pages), it is accessible (no specialist knowledge required), and it is eminently balanced (no over-optimism). The structure of the book is to start by looking at a dozen possible key enablers, then considering specific impacts in the home, workplace, travel, leisure and public services, and finally pulling together predictions for the world in 2027, 2037, and 2047.

For Webb, the key enablers will be the Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) with useful advances in big data and robotics and autonomous vehicles as somewhat important. He notes that: “Most of these enablers are associated with business rather than the individual. Hence the change noticed by the individual may be relatively small compared to the change of the last 30 years.” Perhaps surprisingly, he believers that previous key enablers such as the Internet and broadband communications “have reached a point where they are not enabling anything new and so are unlikely to drive further innovation”.

Looking back over the last 10, 20 and 30 years, he identifies a special event in each decade: respectively the iPhone, the Internet and the mobile phone. Looking forward 10, 20 and 30 years, he anticipates that again there could be a special event in each decade and speculates that these will be respectively IoT, AI, and robotics. Interestingly – the book was written before the Congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerburg – he comments: “I would not be surprised if Facebook no longer existed 20 years hence, although there will be other social media platforms to take its place”. Presciently he writes: “Society may become ever-more concerned about changes wrought by digital and there may be some push-back.”

So how will different sectors change? The office will see widespread deployment of IoT, biometrics and robotics. Transport will not change materially but we will be better connected while travelling and there will be a gradual growth of driverless vehicles. Vehicle maintenance may decline. Agriculture and manufacturing will make extensive use of IoT. Retail will continue to decline. Construction and hospitality will witness little change.

Web concludes soberly: “In essence, the key gains will be in convenience, productivity and reliability. The world will be a similar place to today, but will work better.” He acknowledges: “This will strike many as pessimistic when others talk of flying cars, cyborgs and AI that is superior to humans. I would suggest that it is pragmatic realism.”

Full disclosure:  I currently serve with William Web on the 4G/TV Co-existence Oversight Board


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