What Will Be The Problems Of Tomorrow?

Amitabh Ray, Managing Director, EricssonEvery morning we wake up and find that some problem or the other that we thought were mysteries which were unsolvable has been answered by science and new technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, or Genetic Engineering. The velocity at which we are solving yesterday’s problems is incredible.

At this rate we will soon find answers to several medical challenges like cancer or diabetes and perhaps even the common cold. We will soon be travelling to outer space as tourists, and maybe living in Mars or at least travelling at hypersonic speeds in the hyperloops or cruising in our autonomous vehicles. At the same time there are new problems that are coming up which we will need to find solutions to as otherwise these exciting technologies would be meaningless to some extent.

Two recent incidents have set me thinking on the new problems and the problems that will come up in the future. The first, was the suffocating weather in New Delhi and most parts of northern India. Pollution is ever increasing and as yet we do not have much of an answer. It is, however, expected that with the digital transformation of a large number of industries, we will use less of fossil fuel which in turn would reduce this choking environment that is ruining our health. Industry and technologists need to figure out an answer to this challenge immediately.

The second, was the spread of Dengue ‘the unknown fever’ in most parts of India. A mosquito is causing a medical crisis and as yet we do not know the solution. Humankind is becoming immune to antibiotics and therefore making us vulnerable. The recent Ebola and Zika epidemics exposed our global vulnerabilities to deadly microbial threats and highlighted the need for proactive measures in advance of outbreaks and swift action during them. At the same time, it shows our ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat deadly infectious diseases through new technologies. It is a time of great potential for devastation or advancement for one of the greatest challenges of our lifetimes.
Technological improvements, while potentially important in reducing the per capita impact of climate change, are not sufficient to make us sustainable unless we also stop growth in human numbers and reduce average consumption, while simultaneously lessening the gap between the richest and the poorest people on the planet. So far, non-renewable resources are what primarily drive our economic engine. But by definition, non-renewables are being depleted and for the most part will stop being economically available in this century. So we must plan rapidly for the day when humanity can live using just renewable resources, while maintaining the biodiversity that makes the planet habitable. This will be the biggest problem of the present and future that we need to solve.

Via biosensors, DNA sequencing and imaging, we can define each individual’s medical essence thereby paving the path to digitizing humans, but that in turn raises another challenge. The problem is that this generates many terabytes of data, which includes real-time streaming of key metrics like blood pressure. Aggregating and processing the data, derived from many sources, with algorithms and artificial intelligence (particularly deep learning) is a daunting task. Once we can do this, we’ll be on our way to a virtual medical coach – the smartphone providing instantaneous feedback on all your health and medical metrics to help prevent you from getting sick.

Technological improvements are not sufficient to make us sustainable unless we also stop growth in human numbers and reduce average consumption

I was travelling from Bangalore airport to our office in the outskirts in the other end of the city. A distance of about 50 km, which should ideally take not more than an hour. Massive traffic snarl-ups, almost doubles the commute. It is the same for almost every Indian city. Massive population growth in our cities are creating tremendous pressures in the infrastructure. If we cannot solve this challenge, there will be huge socio-economic tensions that will negate any economic growth that will come in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities. 150 million people are moving to cities each year. By 2050, over 7 billion people will live in cities (80 percent of the world), and cities will be responsible for 75 percent of global carbon emissions. Cities are places where infrastructure gets locked in for decades, if not centuries, but city planners must make investments now in a world where technology is changing rapidly where people live, work and play, and how they access buildings, transport, energy and waste management. The fastest growth is happening in thousands of secondary cities where mayors and city managers are not well schooled in technical urban planning.

These are some of the challenges that are just emerging and will need all our energies in the future to find solutions to. We will need to collaborate across nations, political affiliations, we will need to find innovative applications of technologies and convergence of new technologies to be able to solve these problems. The time is start on this journey is yesterday. I only hope we are not too late.