In the last few years technology has evolved to a new level, and society needs to take a breather to make sure it’s happy with what’s coming next.
It started gently. The first stage of any technology is to provide support to existing human behaviours. Things pick up in the second stage when human behaviours start to change as the capabilities of the new technology become apparent. Take the automobile industry: people needed to get to places more quickly and it was a natural development to move from the external combustion engine of the steam train, to the internal combustion engine of the car and then to our current autocentric society. But recently we have taken a further step still and are now adapting our behaviours to keep up with the demands of modern technology. We are beginning to be shaped by our creations, and the science that we once thought we had harnessed, has harnessed us.
Scanning the near horizon, 2019 looks set to introduce some game changing and behaviour changing technologies. We are affected in many ways by our creations: some make our lives easier, others make our lives safer or longer, either at the personal level, or globally. And some, such as the internet, suddenly underpin our very existence. Predicting the future is a tricky thing, and with the current political turbulence trickier than ever, but technological development has its own momentum and we can draw trends from sources ranging from government projects and thinktank reports to the barometer that is the patent system.
Robotics is set for a giant leap for robot-kind with a range of technologies which are designed to make life easier. From “co-bots” (human robot interactions), through the drone wars revolutionising product delivery, through to the burgeoning area of driverless cars: the machines are moving from simplifying and accessorising human behaviour, to becoming intrinsic parts of our lives and routines.
Patenting activity suggests that the rate of growth is spectacular, with a tripling of published patent applications between 2004 and 2013. Factor in artificial intelligence, and Asimov’s wildest dreams are just around the corner.
Since the biotech revolution of the 1990s, the medical world has been shifting from development of new pharmaceuticals to “personalised therapy”. 2019 is poised to bring a new range of technologies around immuno-oncology- stimulating the immune system to fight back, when it usually wouldn’t be able to.
IP activity again reflects this – and underpins it. The “access to medicine” debate goes on, and the question of a reasonable reward for the innovator drug companies continues; but here the growth in patenting reflects the fundamental reliance of new technology and investor confidence on the platform of IP rights protecting it. Luckily the model works and the global medical industry continues to innovate.
Sometimes technology has a role beyond complementing human behaviour to correcting for it and the ever-declining environment is a perfect example of this. Concerns over sustainability have been around a long time but human behaviour simply isn’t adapting to help; enter a creativity drive to compensate for our inability to respect the planet. The EU Strategy for Plastics has been unveiled which is a welcome step in the right direction, and technology is following closely behind to ensure that the prediction, that in 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, does not come true. Robotics is once again one such area; work is currently being done respawning the coral reefs using automated mechanisms. 2019 is also going to see a strong push towards bioplastics, made from recycled materials, these are rapidly degradable and compostable and, if the uptake is right, could genuinely make up for human indifference.
All of this change is against an unsympathetic political backdrop. As leadership agenda shifts towards issues such as immigration and a hybrid of national fragmentation versus global commerce, the platform for the world’s most creative people to continue supporting and improving human behaviours seems unstable.
The innovation framework is similarly fragmented with countries running competing programmes, but one bright spot for 2019 is the continuing stability of the legal framework supporting creativity and innovation.
The international efforts for patent harmonisation continue, lowering the regulatory barrier to provide protection for ideas, and even the highly divisive and utterly unpredictable Brexit battle is having minimal impact on the European-wide patent, trademark and copyright system.
The technologies highlighted so far have moved beyond the “assisting behaviour” stage to the “altering behaviour” stage but none have matured enough to control behaviour. On the other hand, we have already reached this third act of the evolutionary scale in the area of information technology and telecoms. It would have been impossible to predict even 15 years ago the extent to which human behaviour is now dependent upon and subservient to the web. But the internet has changed us beyond all expectation and as connectivity and communication become a basic human necessity, the shift to 5G will render communications ever faster and ever more connected. 5G will impact on every area, from remote diagnosis to a collision with robotics in enhancing autonomous driving, and will make the Internet of Things… a thing.
From a regulatory perspective the main players, after years of legal manoeuvring are apparently reaching an innovation-favourable status quo with an uneasy coalition of monopolies, intellectual property rights and standards frameworks having been thrashed out in the courts. However, the legal battles are not over yet, as non-practicing entities (NPEs) holding IP rights are still testing their strength. Led by the UK courts, the legal authorities worldwide are working to manage this risk but 5G will not be free of the new turf wars between OEMs and NPEs.
2019 could prove to a turning point for the evolution of technology. We already know that the speed and scale of change is more than a changer of games. As the world’s most creative people compete and collaborate ever more effectively through 5G, enhanced by AI, freed up by robots and co-bots and increasingly free of health fears, the pace of evolution picks up. Maybe, given our track record on sustainability, we humans need a bit controlling, but let’s hope that this new phase of technological development works for us as well the machines.