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HP Megatrends Report Showcases a Troubling Future for the World

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I had a chance to talk with Shane Wall, CTO for HP, at some length before he published his blog on the future and the megatrends that will define it. One interesting position I share is that while automation, if not done right, may result in massive unemployment, it will also result in massive numbers of new job types, making retraining critical to a non-dystopian future.

Let’s talk about Wall and his team’s vision for our future, what we must look forward to, and why we should be far better prepared for it than we are.

Urbanization

Urbanization is a world-wide event but most noticeable in parts of Asia at the moment, where families raised on farming move to cities in alarming numbers as farms become automated and jobs continue to shift to factories. Along with this is an anticipated growth in spending at a 2 percent rate (on average) through 2030. That seems like a huge move, but it is well behind the job growth figures, which suggest, given current trends, we’ll have 85M unfilled jobs by that time. It won’t be that we don’t have enough people, it will be because the people we do have will have obsolete skills and these jobs will require unique skills you can’t acquire overnight. Wall argues that the industry will need to resource retraining at a massive scale by 2022 or we’ll have serious problems in job matching, unemployment, and stalled growth by 2030. This suggests a lot of companies that are doing well now won’t be competitive by 2030 due to this skills shortage.

Back in 1969, Paolo Soleri anticipated this problem and came up with the concept of an arcology. This is the idea of building a company or even a city with offices and homes all tightly integrated with education, social interaction, security, and services into a single all-encompassing structure. Frank Lloyd Wright, years earlier, came up with the Broadacre City project, which was similar, and even earlier than that, Buckminster Fuller came up with the Old Man River’s City Project. My personal favorite concept was Walt Disney’s EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). Sadly, Disney died, and the vision was lost, but the promise has never been more important, based on HP’s prediction.

Clearly, different forms of mixed/extended reality (it would be nice if the industry picked one name) will play a huge role, but I think we also need to rethink our cities.

Automation

There continues to be a huge concern that automation will result in unprecedented levels of unemployment. That is a likely outcome if we don’t start retraining a lot of folks currently at risk immediately. We don’t have a ton of time here and a lot of old jobs are about to become obsolete just as a massive number of new jobs become available.

One of the areas to watch is 5G and the massive impact it will have on the world’s networks. You see, we’ve been shifting data centers to a central model for some time and that just isn’t going to work when we move to 5G because the networks leading to these data centers, and the data centers themselves, are likely to bottleneck. This isn’t just HP raising the red flag here. At IBM Think earlier this month, both IBM and AT&T raised the same troubling flag. We need to shift back to a far more distributed data structure, or a lot of our cloud services will fail to perform adequately. Given our increased reliance on these servers for everything from the connected IoT products in our offices and homes, to our increasingly dependent autonomous vehicles, if this shift isn’t timely, the result could be catastrophic failures across several ecosystems. (Autonomous cars, for the most part, are being designed to anticipate this, but other IoT efforts not so much.)

Software 2.0

Software 2.0 is really a massive change in how computers work and if it isn’t done properly, the movie Terminator might be a relatively benign outcome compared to what will really happen. Deep learning has the potential to create computers that don’t need apps, they just learn what needs to be done from the user and the ecosystem and then do it on the fly. This happens at machine speeds, so mistakes can become catastrophic far more quickly than a human could react to the emerging problem.

There is a working concept to prevent the dire outcome called AI Shield out of the Lifeboat Foundation and people are working in several of the largest companies and defense organizations on the concept. A related and better-funded commercial product called Shield AI also exists with a far more targeted agenda.

But without these protections, a mistake by a deep learning system tied to some critical piece of infrastructure could escalate into a catastrophe at machine speeds, making it critical that we have protections in place that can respond just as rapidly. Those protections, in and of themselves, must have controls so they don’t become a bigger problem. This is far from easy to accomplish, particularly when we have no real idea what the first emergence of a hostile AI will look like. But Software 2.0 is coming, and we aren’t ready.

Sustainability (and the problem with the Green New Deal)

Whether you want to believe in global warming or not, the problems connected with the pollution we create are resulting in massive changes to what kind of power we utilize, with a massive shift from fossil fuels to electricity. However, this shift is a bit of a head fake because power generation is still not very clean at all, particularly for dealing with electrical power requirement spikes, (we are only at 18 percent renewable energy right now and we need to be well over 50 percent for this shift to really make sense). If you shift massively to an electric power model but don’t first fix those generating plants, many of which are old and relatively dirty, you could end up doing more harm than good. In addition, shifting old buildings to energy efficiency standards that came decades later is wicked expensive, often far more than just building a Leed certified building from scratch.

The move to sustainable energy is undeniable, and likely critical to the survival of the race, but if we go about it the wrong way, we could do more harm than good. And the Green New Deal (which has an estimated $1 trillion dollar price tag) starts at the wrong end. You must deal with generation, grid capacity, grid security, and management before you start shifting a nation massively to electricity or it will likely go very badly for both the effort and the environment.

Even energy conservation, if it also forces a shift to high polluting sources, may not be the answer and understanding how the ecosystem currently works will be critical to fixing it.

Wrapping Up: HP’s Pivot to the Future

HP does this report to help the company define a strategy for the future. Its efforts to fully automate manufacturing with 3D printers, which should eventually turn factories into massive, exceptionally agile printers, producing everything from processed food to automobiles, is part of the resulting vision. Getting people trained to design, provision and manage these mega assets then becomes the critical path, as does the energy needed to run them. And I didn’t mention one part of the change, which is that the massive influx of millennials and younger generations into major decision roles in places like Asia will cause changes in staffing and office/factory placement in their future. Part of this change is an age shift as boomers age out and millennials step in with very different needs and expectations that will drive very different product choices. And it isn’t just millennials but geographic population changes, as Asia moves to eclipse the U.S. as a market in the latter half of the next decade.

HP is performing the role of canary in a coal mine and pointing out that the world we have this decade will be very different from the world we will have in the second half of next decade. Being prepared for it will make a huge difference in whether we even have a job next decade, let alone where we live, work and shop. This could be far bigger than Y2K was, yet we are less prepared. That doesn’t bode well for our future. More companies should be looking at the future, moving strategic programs to the front burner to deal with it, and instead most are still operating tactically like things won’t change. I don’t expect that will cause this to end well. HP may well be ready, but we need the world to be ready with it, and we are far from that now. As a result, Mad Max may be a tad more predictive than we’d like.

Shane Wall did us all a service with his report. We now need to listen and shift our plans to assure a better future.

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm.  With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle and on Facebook

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