Digitization - chance, challenge and revolution

 „Digitization will permeate every single area without exception. We are facing tremendous changes on a huge scale, yet nobody really seems to comprehend the magnitude of the situation“ Rob Nail, CEO of Singularity University

Tim Höttges asks Rob Nail

What would you say are the benefits of the digitization for society, for people, and what are for you the biggest threats?

Rob Nail: Well, I think if history is any indication, technology has continually helped humanity progress on every indicator for a thousand of years. Our life spans, our health, the cost of transportation, infant mortality rates. Technology has improved every metric we have about society and humanity. And technology is going to continue to do that. So, we are going to live longer, we are going to be more productive. I think we are going to have opportunities to do things that we could have only imagined in science fiction in the past. Along the way, there are definitely some really interesting challenges.

In order to cure cancer and to eradicate certain types of diseases, we are going to need to utilize new types of tools and techniques. And so, there is a lot of amazing progress over the last few years in genetic engineering. This is a scary proposition for a lot of people, because what does it mean to re-engineer a human being? In fact, there is research in labs today that’s able to re-engineer the human embryo. That sounds like a scary sci-fi thing that we potentially could create new human beings with, for example, four eyes and six legs or something like that. Would we? That doesn’t make any sense. But we have the capability to do some scary weird stuff.

But that exact same technology will allow us to completely eradicate a whole subset, for example heal about 50 different specific genetic diseases. If I could stop your kid from having a disease, you probably would say you would do anything to stop it. And if I told you that you would have to genetically engineer them to do it, it makes you wonder. Right? So, this is where we are in our society. We have this amazing tool that allows us to get rid of disease, but we have to do things differently. We start to think differently about what it means to be human.


There will be a lot of opportunities and chances from digitization. We live longer, and we have probably an easier life than the generation before us and the generation before, as it always was with evolution. On the other side, robotics, automation, digitization might substitute not only the blue collar worker, they might substitute as well the white collar workers in the future. So, how do you see the risk of unemployment? How do you see the risk of people not educated in this digital world, you know, to become losers in this environment?

Rob Nail: Well, that is a really loaded question. As for the first part of that, I’d say, the digitization piece is pointing to a lot of the great short-term opportunities for especially a company like Deutsche Telekom. I mean, you probably have access to information and sensor systems and information platforms that give you a unique perspective about people, about the environment, about how things interact. The possibility to draw some very exciting correlations to help people live, to help their lives being more productive or for the work to be more productive.

There is an example I always love to give: I saw you have an Apple Watch or Fitbit. And we had a project a few years ago where a team discovered that people that wear the Fitbit or an Apple Watch, actually make better financial decisions in their lives. It’s an interesting correlation of data. It’s not that the Fitbit increases your math skills, but it does mean that there is a certain type of person that does certain types of things that lead to certain types of valuable resolve. And there are so many opportunities. This is about data analytics. It’s about looking at information in a different way.

The skill to do that kind of data analytics is a new one. This is something that when you and I went to school, there was no such thing as data science. That was crazy stuff. So, it is a new job. And that’s for me where I’m most optimistic about the future of jobs.

In the 60s there was a group of leading technologists in the U.S. who were really freaked out about these computer things, because they saw computers wiping out a majority of white collar jobs. They thought: no accountants in the future, no lawyers, so many things were going to go away. And computers have eradicated a lot of jobs. But what has happened is that a lot of totally new opportunities that we never imag-ined have come online. That’s going to continue to happen.

The difference today is that computers really started coming online in the 60s. so we had 50 years to adapt. We’ve sent our kids and next generations to college to learn about computers and the next tier of technologies and to cover new jobs. And so we’ve had generations to adapt. And we have kept up pretty well. The technology is moving exponentially, which means the timeline is getting compressed.

And so, the amount of changes happening in the next single generation is pretty extraordinary. And so, the responsibility to adapt and do retraining and new skills development is your responsibility, and mine, and the responsibility of the leaders of corporations and the leaders of governments. And our whole education system worldwide has to shift in mentality. In fact, I think the term education should be eradicated. The concept of getting a degree and then being deemed to success and to be able to do things should be eradicated. We need to start creating the principle of continuous learning at every age. We can no longer stop learning, especially in a world where things are moving so quickly.


Shouldn’t we have a more societal discussion and ethical discussion about the implications of digitization? For instance, for the employees of our companies, for people who are not part of this digital society; for the implications on privacy, about the right of forgetting on the Internet? So, how do you look on what is needed to have another ethical debate about the implication of digitization?

Rob Nail: So, this is a great question. And this is one of the most important things that we try to focus on at Singularity University. When I look out in the world at peo-ple, where are the ethical conversations actually happening? The only place you really hear people talk about ethics are politicians, religious leaders, academic ethicists in a coffee house in Paris and sometimes in Berlin.

Most of those are actually not productive. They are not able to figure out: How do we decide whether we should have drones flying around outside that could potentially be looking through the windows? Who decides that? And right now, the regulatory bodies that are deciding these things, they are not considering sort of long-term ethical considerations or the impacts on society.

So, our approach at Singularity University is to bring all those different groups to-gether, every forum we bring together. We really try to have entrepreneurs, corpo-rate, governments, non-profit groups, other academic groups as well as finance and economic leaders. And we get those six groups together with also the diversity of geographic representation, gender representation, you get artists and you get tech-nical people all together, you get a diversity of thought that I think is really not found anywhere else. And then you inspire them to think about technology in a different pace. And now let’s have a conversation about where this takes the world. And the types of conversation are so rich and powerful that they usually bring those back and try to figure out how to inject them into the government and others.

Timotheus Höttges: As a consequence, do you believe that the way how markets, how societies regulate it, how the legislation is organized, this is going to change dramatically or has to change dramatically?

Rob Nail: It definitely has to change. Our infrastructure, our systems, our economic models, they were set up hundreds and thousands of years ago when technology was moving very slow and very linearly. It was actually moving exponentially, just on - sort of - the flat part of the curve. And there is no way those systems can keep up with an exponential progress. So, something has to shift.

One major challenge today that we have is: Even if a regulatory body decides to stop something, does it make a difference? So, in the U.S. during the G. W. Bush era he had an ethical concern, a moral concern about embryonic stem cells. And so we reg-ulated, we stopped all research in the United States around embryonic stem cells. Now, did that stop that research? No, it moved to China, it moved to Brazil and some other places. And the biotech sector in China boomed, and the U.S. lost the perspective and their visibility in all that research on what’s happening.

The same thing is occurring today. Genetic engineering. Genetically engineering designer babies or something like that is not going to happen in Germany anytime soon, it’s surely not going to happen in the U.S. anytime soon. I bet it happens in China and a few other places.

So, how do we as a global society come together to grapple with this thing? Because we are talking now about the future of humanity. So, who is in control? Who should be discussing and dictating where that goes? And for me, I think what we saw at the COP 21 in Paris around environment concerns, what we did with biotech in the 80s with the Asilomar Conferences is about bringing the scientists and thought leaders together to have these ethical conversations. It’s not necessarily about regulation.


We see a lot of new stuff that maybe people haven’t used and haven’t heard about. About 2020 and the megatrends which you currently see: what are the top three topics which are going to affect consumers heavily?

Rob Nail: One thing I think is going to get just injected in every part of our lives is this concept of data analytics and smart devices. So, it is shocking to me that my phone right now does not act like it knows that we are in a meeting, in an interview right now. It does know. It totally knows who I am talking to and what I am doing. So, it should act appropriately. Every device could act appropriately to the environment in which it is in. So, when I go home and I had a horrible day and my house knows it - because I had horrible meetings all day and it recognizes my emotional state be-cause I have a robot like this which is picking up my emotional state -, you know what, it should dim the lights and the beer should roll out of the fridge.

But there are so many little things that we can try that help enhance our lives and respond to the actual situations. So, that’s all about AI, machine algorithm and look-ing at data in different ways and making clear assumptions. When I look left when I’m driving the car, the car should know I’m thinking about going left. That’s a simple, simple thing.

And in the next five years we are going to see a lot of new capabilities in all of our devices because they are getting a little bit smarter. So that’s one big thing.

Also Robotics are pretty interesting. I’m a robots guyThe robots are really rapidly progressing in some interesting ways. When you have them in a controlled environ-ment where every variable doesn’t come after them, you can allow them to do some very specific stuff.

A company called Aldebaran has built Pepper, a little four feet tall little robot and it has emotional awareness. It knows that you are happy or sad or other and it can act accordingly. And so they introduced it to the Japanese market as a companion for the elderly, because if I have a parent that’s a thousand miles away and I know they are depressed and they don’t have any friends around, well, I can send them a robot as a companion, which seems a little creepy.

The third topic are autonomous cars. They are going to change so many things. And it’s not just cars. I have some friends working on some flying autonomous vehicles as well.

So, it’s really about how we move ourselves and things. I have got friends that are building autonomous little suitcases. I hate carrying my suitcase and rolling my suit-case through the airport. It should just follow me through. It does know where I’m going, so just to track me.

But the cars is extraordinary. And even two years ago talking to some major car manufacturers they were still in total denial: This autonomous thing, it’s a long way, or I don’t think so. And this year you can see every major car manufacturer said: By 2020 we have fully autonomous cars available.

One really important thing: When people talk about autonomous cars, they often will say “the driverless car”. In fact, the car companies call them driverless cars, too. Do you ride in a horseless carriage today? No. The horse doesn’t matter. The driver doesn’t matter in the car, either. It’s no longer a steering wheel and wheels that we have put computer interfaces into. The vehicle of the future is a computer with wheels.


At an event of Deutsche Telekom Rob Nail, CEO of Singularity University, talked about exponential technologies and how they are fundamentally disrupting every part of our lives.

Rob Nail
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