Looking for a relaxed movie night with friends? No problem: we get our cell phone out, send an instant message or make a quick call on the go, and the date is set. Of course, we have already ordered and paid for the movie tickets online and stored them in our smartphone wallet. Using a carpool app, we make our way to the movie theater, taking the route our navigation system suggests. While waiting for our friends to arrive, we check the latest news or have the intelligent assistant in our phone search, filter or sort through a certain request. At the same time, we send a picture tagged with our exact location out into the vast digital world. After the movie, we are hungry. While still sitting in the comfortable seats in the movie theater, we search for a nearby restaurant, book a table and peruse the latest reviews.
Doing so, we already know what we want to eat and where to sit before we even walk into the restaurant. There is no question we pay contactless with our virtual wallet. While the local public transit company’s online service is still updating us about the arrival of the next subway, we have already turned on the heat at home via an app. That way, we can comfortably handle all our online shopping for daily necessities once we get back. Luckily, Alexa just reminded us of that. Finally lying in bed, we take a last look at the heart rate display on our smartwatch and ask Siri to set our alarm for the morning before drifting off into digital-analog dreams.
Quietly, but certainly with a lot of determination, the possibilities offered by digitization and the subsequent Digital Transformation have sneaked into our lives and have become indispensable. It is like with the smartphone, whose presence we notice less than its absence.
For several decades, we have been part of a digitization process that will continue to evolve over the next couple of years. It is not surprising that this development carries both opportunities and risks. But as standstill does not offer any further movement, there is only one direction to go. That is one principle Netflix has stuck with several times in its company history. Initially started as a DVD rental company, it later switched its entire business model to become a streaming platform. But this big step from a logistics company to a service provider would become even bigger. Thanks to data collected from its viewers, Netflix was able to start tracking who is watching which content at what time. So why not use the collected data and produce movies and series yourself? Evolving from a logistics firm to a movie production company – that is the digital story from rags to riches. Who knows to what degree we would be able to develop if we were open to all possibilities, explored them in a conscious but critical way and made the most of them?
A new phase of automation
Just like a world that no longer needs people to light lamps or manually reset bowling pins, we will find our way in this new phase of automation. Imagine if we had told someone a hundred years ago that thousands of people nowadays work as software developers. They would have called us crazy or whatever the term was those days.
Now let us also consider other professions: doctors, for example. Those were certainly around hundreds of years ago. But all generations of doctors have been and still are being challenged to transform technological innovation into meaningful and good medical practice for the benefit of the patient. And there is a lot happening in this field.
When the doctor takes your data...
The digital development in the medical field is not just about staff at hospitals and doctor’s offices transferring analog files into electronic systems, about booking appointments online or about electronic invoices – that is just the beginning. Digital analytics and big-data applications can support a physician’s decision when determining complex, severe illnesses. Information from various medical databases can be utilized to derive supplementary treatment information. Additionally, data from diagnoses, medications and treatments can be stored centrally, so that emergency physicians can immediately see pre-existing conditions a patient may have. Based on this data, computers can even calculate statistical probabilities for future diseases. Plus, digital medicine allows us to tackle the major problem presented by a lack of medical care in rural areas through telemedicine-enabled virtual visits. Smartphones are turning into minilabs for cardiac diagnostics, and electronic data transfers from personal fitness trackers are becoming increasingly important.
The roles are changing
Nowadays, the patient can be fully involved in the treatment of his or her condition by, for example, generating daily records via a smartwatch app, thus optimizing the treatment process. But this also means that the role of patients is changing, as they will have to take on an active role as independent and confident customers.
It is already evident that the future of medical treatment is not going to work without data. In spite of these numerous opportunities, fundamental aspects such as access rights and data security must be top priorities so that risks are kept at a minimum and sensitive medical data does not fall into the wrong hands, among other concerns.
The ethical and social component
But not only that: the supposed objectivity of digital medicine does not exist. Even in a digital world, risk classifications, diagnoses and medical treatments always have an ethical and social component that must be considered by a human heart and mind because it cannot be described by an algorithm. And although computers examine huge amounts of data for patterns, they are still unable to look into the future.
The prerequisite for statistics is to make people calculable, i.e. to treat them as data profiles. However, these probabilities say nothing about the individual human being. There is a huge difference between a statistic and an actual person, between calculated probabilities and an unpredictable life story. The same is true for predicted statistical risks, where possible peculiarities are correlated with threatening illnesses. These then hang like the sword of Damocles over a future which, despite all statistical predictions, is not predictable.
The green side of digital change
But medicine is not the only field in the midst of major digital changes. Digitization and artificial intelligence can also become an important element when it comes to protecting our climate. As with digital medicine, it all started on a small scale when we replaced printed letters with e-mail, switched to digital invoices instead of including them in the parcel and started using e-government services. The development has continued with first attempts to optimize the availability of food products. In the future, customer demand will be analyzed more precisely and all data from past sales, weather and trends will help to reduce the amount of food that is thrown away at the end of the day.
And let us not forget the tackling of one of the biggest problems: the pollution of our oceans. Some companies have set themselves the goal of freeing the oceans from plastic waste by installing autonomous trapping nets using solar energy. Currently, the plastic waste is detected by research aircrafts with infrared spectrometers and then evaluated by human researchers. In the future, however, satellites and artificial intelligence will take over this job. ROSEN employees have also been involved in this project. This September, several colleagues met at the San Luis Obispo coast and collected not only trash but data, as well. In doing so, they supported an international data collection effort to determine where the most trash is located, how it can best be disposed of, and what measures can be taken against environmental pollution.
Digital Transformation and traffic?
Let us now take a look at the road: ridesharing can reduce traffic up to 90 percent, cut traffic jams and save fuel. Uber, for example, says the company has helped to significantly reduce the number of kilometers driven. In Los Angeles alone, the number of kilometers traveled was reduced by 12.7 million over a period of eight months, which corresponds to a 1,400-ton reduction of CO2 emissions. This development is based on the use of digital technologies to arrange the rides. Mobile devices with cloud access also reduce kilometers driven, and their use can sometimes result in avoiding long commutes to work or meetings. Especially through this transfer of more and more software and data to the cloud, it becomes possible to use hardware with lower consumption. The trend towards tablets, smartphones and thin clients allows for less material consumption and less transportation effort during production.
The price of technology
But even on the green side of digital change, not everything is green. Because technology has its price. The material basis of bits and bytes is not sustainable per se. And where is all the energy supposed to come from if our future is becoming more and more digital?
In the ten years since the first iPhone was launched in 2007, 38,000 tons of cobalt, 107,000 tons of copper, 157,000 tons of aluminum and thousands of tons of other materials have been used for the production of the approximately seven billion smartphones. When it comes to actually using those devices, they primarily consume electricity. Internet consumption already accounts for around seven percent of global electricity demand. The Internet and all its associated devices thus consume more electricity than Russia, for example, and almost as much as Canada and Germany combined. To put it in perspective: worldwide, it would take 25 nuclear power plants to produce enough electricity to keep the Internet going.
Stop right here and start from the beginning? Throw away all opportunities and developments we have worked so hard for? No, there is no turning back now, only a conscious way forward. Our critical and attentive assessment of all new developments must automatically include social, ethical and climate-friendly considerations. Not only for us right now, but for all future generations as well. Our children no longer think about how to accomplish digitization and Digital Transformation, they are already living in it.