Opinion: It's time to match tech and mindsets

As new technologies bring the future closer, is public awareness of these changes a step behind?
GITEX: From AI to flying cars, the ‘smart city’ tech of the future is here now.
By Bernd Debusmann Jr
Fri 13 Oct 2017 12:11 AM

As far as technology is concerned, the systems and connectivity that will enable smart cities of the future are already here. One need look no further than last week’s Gitex Technology Week, with its blockchain, augmented reality and sophisticated AI to see that. But is awareness of what these innovations will bring still lagging behind?

For the uninitiated, the value of these products is often obfuscated by complex jargon, and a failure to explain what these innovations actually do, how they work, and what they will mean in practice. 5G connectivity is a prime example: the record-breaking speeds recorded by Etisalat last week won’t just mean faster film downloads. In this case, 5G is a key step towards driverless cars, robotic tele-surgery, and much, much more.

The challenge for technology companies, the businesses and governments that implement their solutions (and also for journalists), is to raise awareness of the almost unimaginable changes that are just over the horizon.

Some innovations will be relatively simple to explain. The sign-language customer service technology unveiled by Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) allows for easy communication by disabled people. Or take the bio-metric camera tunnel that will scan passengers and cut time spent at airport customs to 15 seconds or less.

Other technologies will hold tremendous business opportunities for those who get in on the ground floor. The much-discussed ‘flying taxis’, which have been called the “star” of Dubai’s innovations, will require significant initial investment. This includes ‘vertiports’, efficient battery technology, dedicated air traffic control systems, and a multitude of new apps. Businesses in these sectors – and many others – are in for a boom time if they stay ahead of the curve.

Just as important: reassuring the consumer that the innovations of today, which in eyes of many seem plucked from a futuristic sci-fi movie, are safe to use. Officials from RTA last week, for example, said they were already preparing how to explain the safety mechanisms of a flying taxi.

On a wider level, the world of the Internet of Things (IoT), in which everything is connected and constantly produces and shares data, is obviously a concern. Will your data, or the data of your customers, be secure? If one part of the network is compromised, will the entire house of cards – our home appliances, businesses, health monitors, transport systems and just about everything else you can think of – come falling down? What about privacy concerns?

Such questions will drive conversations surrounding the implementation of innovations, both in the UAE and around the globe. As Cisco System’s MEA VP David Meads told Arabian Business last week, he “can’t remember the last meeting where security wasn’t in mind.”

“As you conceptually talk about IoT, you’re basically extending the network from being very centralised to being hyper distributed,” he said. “By default, as you extend the reach of the network, you’re potentially exposing it [to security threats]. IoT and security and digitisation very much go hand in glove.”

In Cisco’s case, the company plans to open a “innovation and experience centre” in Dubai to educate businesses about what digitisation means, and how it will affect sectors ranging from education and healthcare to retail and finance.

Once there is common awareness of what the latest technology can do, and how it can be used securely and productively, the business potential is enormous. According to AT Kearney, the IoT solutions market in the GCC alone is expected to reach $11bn by 2025, generating a potential value for the economy of $160bn – or $14.50 for every dollar spent.

Given the speed at which technology is moving, the time to begin educating potential customers is now – before the technology is fully rolled out. Delaying may be the death-knell of companies that hope to take advantage of this historic opportunity.

Online businesses, for example, are already being rapidly transformed by blockchain, a technology still very much in its infancy, and companies that haven’t understood it will soon fall to the wayside.

This is just one example – albeit a huge one – of how technology will sweep away those who don’t adapt. And while we can’t know for certain what comes next, last week’s Gitex exhibition gave us some big hints as to where we are right now, and the place we’re headed to next.

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