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The many faces of Digital Transformation – Societal Scenarios XVII

An impressive graph showing how much energy is being used today vs the one used in the past. This increased use is powering our life and makes possible a living that was not even imaginable 300 years ago. From a behavioural viewpoint humans today are a different species from their ancestors. Image credit: Our world in data

2. Better use of energy, raw materials and more sophisticated tools

Societal evolution has been marked by the use of energy, raw materials and tools. From the Stone Age (the issue was to pick up the right stone, usually obsidian, to make arrows) where fire was domesticated to the Bronze Age (where you need the capability to find tin and copper ore plus generate heat to smelt the ore, 1085° C) on the the Iron Age (more difficult since the temperature needs to reach 1,538°C) arriving to the extremely complex Computer Age we are living today, requiring extremely sophisticated tools, supply chain and organisation.

The use of energy can be used as an indicator to gauge the societal evolution. For most of human life on the planet the energy source was biofuel, wood and then coal. The need for energy was very limited and it did not change significantly till the Industrial revolution in the XVIII century (with impact visible in the XIX century). In the XX century energy use started to grow and exploded  in the last 70 years due to transportation, home heating/conditioning and increased good production. The energy use multiplied 8 fold in just 70 years after having remained basically constant for tens of thousands of years (see the graphic).

Electricity has made energy “portable” and grids can balance power needs with production. With the notable exception of transportation and residential heating, electricity has become the main form of energy in today’s world and the Computer Age could not exist without it. Data Centres consumed 2% of electrical power worldwide and this is expected to grow to 8% by the end of this decade.

Low power devices will become pervasive, wearable sensors leading the pack in personal use, environmental sensors mostly using renewable sources and scavenging. The low power demand might be offset by their huge number and not as much by internet connectivity (60 billion devices are expected to be added to the internet over the next 5 years) but because of the number of data processing and services they will enable and this of course is a fundamental part of the Digital Transformation.

All together these sensors are enabling ambient awareness and in turns this changes the way individuals and society behaves. The continuous interplay among individuals as single person and as part of a community and of an environment will create, symmetrically, higher awareness and be a shift towards humans 2.0. Having sensors to supplement our own senses expand our reach and understanding of the physical world, plus it creates a seamless direct link to the cyberspace. A connected human, seamlessly moving through physical and cyberspace, represents and evolution that can be much more significant than a genome alteration.

Hunter-gatherers were smart in recognising raw materials and understanding how to put their characteristics to their advantage, building canoes, shelter and basic tools. Through serendipity and trials they have been able to create the first alloys, bronze, brass…, and to combine different materials to build better goods.

By using science, and lot of computer processing power, in this decade it becomes possible to create new alloys by design, out of an almost unlimited range of possibilities. Rather than searching for an alloy with specific desired characteristics it becomes possible to design and manufacture an alloy having those characteristics. Most of the process takes place in the cyberspace, leaving to additive manufacturing the task of creating the alloy on the spot, at the time it is needed.

Alloys by design are already used in implants and in special manufacturing, like avionics, and their use will grow significantly in this decade. Whilst cars where chiefly made of steel in the last decade, by 2040 it is expected that the percentage of steel in a car will go down to 5% of the total with the rest being taken up by a variety of alloys.

The availability of custom made, both in shape and characteristics, goods will change the way we interact with the world and our ambient, yet another step in an evolution that is not genome based.

Some of these alloys will embed sensing capability and some will be even able to react to a variety of ambient condition (humidity, temperature, pressure…) thus making possible the development of better tools. 

More and more tools will become smart, able to adapt autonomously to the environment and to the task at hand. Planned return to the moon and Mars exploration need this kind of tools and that will create a fall-out on everyday chore and life. This is not future-casting, it is part of existing roadmaps.

Computerised screwdrivers, just to give an example of a very basic tool, can be steered by web services, delivering on spot augmented reality to guide maintenance operation, sensors can detect the torque applied and signal when the right level of fastening is reached. Robotised tools will become the norm in many areas, for building, operation and maintenance and they will be driven by web services. The Digital Transformation will be pervasive in people’s ambient and that will augment individual’s capability leading to human evolution decoupled from the genome.

This human evolution, augmented capability, may become a pre-requisite to find a job, as it might be today the familiarity in using word processors or having a driving licence. These two examples are chosen because by the time augmented capabilities will be a must-have, there may no longer be a request for today’s capability. Word processing will be quite different, no longer based on keyboard interaction and having self-driving cars a driving license will no longer be required.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.