Something Digital This Way Comes
In case it wasn’t obvious, the industrial age is over and the digital era has begun. Information technologies now drive almost every interaction and transaction. This transition to a more digital-driven world brings substantial promise for exponentially increased insight and information about how people live, the capabilities they have at their disposal, and the beneficial effect they can have on society.
The technological capabilities that are getting the most attention are cloud computing, edge computing, data analytics, artificial intelligence, fifth-generation (5G) cellular communications, machine learning and automation, quantum computing, the internet of things and blockchain.
All hold a variety of promise for the nation and it is worth quickly reviewing what each entail.
Cloud computing exponentially increases the computing power available by harnessing the power of multiple computers across multiple locations. Instead of a finite set of computers available in one data center, cloud computing offers a scalable computing capability that can be brought to bear on a challenge. This technology is now sold as a commodity, offered by dozens of companies and readily available.
Edge computing is computing power closer to the end user, delivering enhanced computing capabilities to the edge of the connected space and beyond, wherever the need is deployed.
Data analytics is the ability to consume and process ever-larger sets of data and turn it into actionable information. Information today can come from anywhere, and we increasingly need to be able to digest the volume of information that is generated from open sources, networks of sensors, intelligence gathering and other means to glean the specific details that can inform decisions.
Artificial intelligence or AI involves teaching computers to make decisions like humans based on available data. Frequently, there is too much information for a human to ingest and analyze, much less to make informed decisions. AI offers promise to be able to assess data to make informed decisions and stay ahead of threats and vulnerabilities.
5G internet connectivity substantially expands the amount of bandwidth available to each device, the speed with which those devices can access data, and increases the number of devices that can be connected at any one time to the internet.
Machine learning or robotic processes can take low value, repetitious or dangerous functions and automate them. These can range from sending in a robot for reconnaissance or firefighting to checking whether an application for health benefits is complete. Machine learning offers the promise to transform functions across every sector of our economy.
Quantum computing, while still in its infancy, promises to take computing power to the subatomic level and increases the sophistication of computing capabilities. One promise of quantum computing is that it will be able to solve challenges that are beyond current computing capability. These range from solutions for health care to making encryption obsolete.
The internet of things is nothing new to the national security space, which has had networks of interconnected sensors for decades. The next phase of the concept includes making most internet-connected devices act as a sensor, while exponentially expanding the universe of devices that are enabled to connect. Everything from transportation, energy consumption, personal health care and home automation would all be transformed in such an interconnected world.
Blockchain is already being used to create new ways to authenticate transactions and holds promise for issues like supply chain assurance and combating fraud. The open-ledger of blockchain means that each transaction, and the entities or individuals involved, are verifiable.
These quick descriptions are simplifications of the technologies and their capabilities but can help one envision their potential for creating benefits for society. Now imagine combining two or more of these capabilities, like 5G and the internet of things. What does this massive influx of new data mean for AI, data analytics and the power of quantum computing? Many believe we are very early in the transition from industrial era to digital era, and we simply cannot fully grasp or even imagine all that these technologies can deliver.
Harnessing the potential of these capabilities and permitting U.S. innovation to flourish to mature these technologies is critical to the nation’s continued economic success in a very competitive global market. U.S. companies still drive global innovation and the benefits that delivers for society and the economy. But the innovation gap we once enjoyed has closed and many believe that there are other nations that are peer or near-peer with the United States in several of these technologies.
This shift in market leadership has triggered a tremendous increase in competition among nations to develop and deploy these technologies. To get a sense of the scope and scale of these efforts look at the 2018 report on “Foreign Economic Espionage in Cyberspace” issued by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. The report outlines several ways in which American innovations from across the economy are being stolen using a wide array of means, including joint venturing, talent recruitment, research partnerships, academic collaborations and direct investment.
With the innovation gap the U.S. once enjoyed over other countries tightening, the United States is struggling, both as a society and a government, with the challenges, growing pains, threats and vulnerabilities these technologies can bring. Understanding and mastering this menu of current or emerging technologies is critical to the nation, its economy and security.
A few of the unknowns include impacts to the current workforce and a lack of direction on how to train the workforce of the future. How will individuals be changed as technology takes a central role in most everyday lives? What new threats are enabled because of the increasing use of these capabilities across the economy? What about security, both individually and as a nation? We have a long way to go to address these and other questions that are emerging in conjunction with these technological innovations.
Experts say that many of the jobs today will no longer be needed in the future. Think about autonomous cars and trucks. Not too long in the future, there will be a declining need for vehicle operators, be they long-haul truckers or cab drivers. What will we train these former drivers to do in an autonomous vehicle world?
The internet of things holds promise to change almost every aspect of individual lives, with the advent of sensors in the electrical grid, home appliances, clothing and even medicine. These sensors will transform individual activities from energy consumption, meal preparation, shopping, home chores and even health care. AI will help people to understand the tremendous volumes of data this new network of sensors will create. Many already possess such capabilities in the form of personal and home assistants. These devices combine sensors with AI and help automate homes, placing an order for food delivery, composing and sending a text or ordering a refill of dog food.
But the ubiquitous nature of these sensors is also helping fuel a global debate about privacy and data protection. Who owns the data these sensors create? What data do devices used in everyday life collect? And what access do individuals have to their data? How will data or AI be used to make determinations about things like credit or eligibility for government services? Researchers have only just begun to examine how data sets could be inherently biased as a result of what they were created for or who created them.
All these questions and the challenges or vulnerabilities they reflect are the result of the advent of these technologies. What other debates will these technologies trigger? It is the proverbial, “we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Other concerns regarding both personal and national security arise as these technologies and their capabilities mature. For example, quantum computing promises to help solve previously unsolvable questions, but it also means that existing protections and capabilities, like encryption, that are designed for the current computing paradigm and offer protections for corporate and government networks, as well as personal information, will no longer be effective.
If other countries can mature this technology first, or can exceed our level of capability to digest, manage and understand data in a data-driven era, it is not hard to imagine the negative consequences for the country, its economy and people.
Hackers continue to wreak havoc on personal data with ransomware and phishing attacks, while our government and economic sectors struggle to stay ahead of the cast of bad actors on the internet. The United States is faced with the real possibility that critical infrastructure may fail, or mission essential capabilities will not work when they are most needed.
All of this is to say that these technologies — and the others that will spawn from them — hold unimaginable options for individuals and the nation. But, with progress comes challenge. It was that way during the advent of the industrial era and the advent of the digital era cannot be expected to be any different.
As long as we enter this next era knowing we don’t know everything, the future holds much promise. H.G. Wells, in his futuristic book The Time Machine, perhaps captured it best: “We should strive to welcome change and challenge, because they are what help us grow.”
Trey Hodgkins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is CEO of Hodgkins Consulting.