Special Report – Technology Fueled Transformation is Just Getting Underway

Since 2000, I have been giving small demonstrations of an early prototype 3D Web browser in my keynote talks, showing audiences what it would be like to step into an inner-spatial, immersive environment to shop and get customer service.

As you click on this site, you have the sensation of stepping into a room where you are surrounded by content of different types on all sides. Turn to the right, and there on the wall is your live newsroom — CNN, USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, BBC, whatever your favorite news sites and sources are, there they are, all open simultaneously. Now look to your left, and there are the most current projects you’re working on. Look behind you: itineraries for your next trip, your banking and investment information, whatever information you like to have nearby.

The applications of such an experience will be transformational, not only in and of themselves, but also as combined with their real-world counterparts.

Right now, let’s say you and I attend a big trade show on the latest technologies for your industry, whatever it may be. All the biggest suppliers from around the world are there, showing off their latest, greatest new stuff. Even though we’re there for several days, dawn to dusk, there’s no way we can get to all those booths and see all those displays. I’ve been to trade shows that feature entire city blocks’ worth of the latest technologies. How do you take it all in? It’s impossible. So let’s make it possible.

When the conference is over, everyone packs up and goes home. What if instead, we just cloned the entire event to 3D virtual? The CAD (computer-aided design) drawings of the building already on file can instantly recreate the entire conference center in 3D form, needing only graphic artists to get the colors right, let the vendors add their virtual products, and “Presto!” you have your fully immersive trade show.

Now, when we go home, everything is still there: It’s never over! You can click on any and every booth and connect to a real salesperson via video conferencing anytime you like. And by the way, the vendors are still paying a fee, albeit a fraction of the in-person cost. Now, instead of having a three-day conference, you have a twelve-month conference.

Because of runaway multiplication of the three digital accelerators — processing power, bandwidth, and storage — over the next several years we will see this kind of dimensional experience come to the Web for the general user.

Web 4.0: Ultraintelligent electronic agents

If Web 3.0 is the future, then what’s beyond that? Web 4.0, of course; a further iteration of the online experience that will transform how we do everything. The essence of Web 4.0 is this: instead of our having to go searching for what we want, it will come to us.

Advances in artificial intelligence have created a type of intelligent search that tailors itself to the individual user, learning our parameters and preferences to make our searches automatically more relevant and useful to each of us individually. Soon we will be using a powerful new tool to do a good deal of our Web-based work for us, thanks to an emerging technology called ultraintelligent electronic agents.

Because they reside on the Internet, you can access your e-agents from anywhere, regardless of where you are or what device you are using. Only you will have access to your personal e-agent. You will use two forms of biometric identification, like your voice and face, or your voice and fingerprint, to identify yourself.

You will be able to select various types of plug-in agent functionality. For example, your financial planner may offer an agent plug-in module to help you manage your money. Your travel agent, if you still have one, might offer a plug-in giving you highly customized and unique travel advice. Your trainer from the gym might offer a virtual trainer plug-in to be with you on the road. The list of possible plug-ins is endless.

You will most likely have one main e-agent you interface with most often, but you will have others that help you both at home and at work. Organizational e-agents will execute tasks on behalf of a business process. Personal e-agents will carry out tasks on behalf of one user. In time, businesses and individuals will delegate basic responsibilities to a customized collection of highly intelligent e-agents.

Your e-agent will use neural network technology to learn more about you every time you use it. This is the function, for example, that allows Amazon to build a profile of your preferences by keeping track of your searches and purchases, and how it is able to make personally relevant recommendations. The more time you spend on Amazon, the better it gets to know you and the better its recommendations become.

Your ultraintelligent e-agents will take this functionality to a whole new level. Imagine sitting down in front of your television, turning it on and, since it is connected to the Web, your e-agent pops up and asks what you are in the mood to watch. Let’s say you want an adventure movie that you have never seen before. The e-agent will suggest a particular movie (set in the future because your past adventure movie selections were also set in the future). If possible, it will suggest a movie that has your favorite actors and director, and a plot that has twists and turns the way you like it best. Or, if you want something fresh and different, a complete change from your usual choices, then your e-agent can fill that bill just as easily.

For many, the e-agent will become a friend, listening to and helping to solve minor problems, responding sympathetically, and suggesting helpful resources. They will be great “listeners” and will respond only when a response is needed and with the kind of response you have found most helpful over time.

Think of your e-agent as a personal concierge desk. Wherever you might benefit from a human agent, mentor, or coach, you will begin to find electronic versions that will serve as virtual assistants of those human advisors, helping you stay on track. And since the Web will go with you wirelessly wherever you go, your e-agent will always be there when you want or need help.

Sometimes when I talk about such developments, people say, “That sounds terrible; a world where everyone interacts with machines and artificial intelligence, and nobody talks to each other anymore?”

But in fact, it’s quite the opposite. As we transform into a vastly more high-tech society, we will see our world become more human, not less. There is a simple reason for this, and it goes to a crucial flash foresight principle that governs how all this digital transformation will actually play out in the real world: the both/and principle.

Think both/and

In the late eighties, many futurists predicted that by the late nineties, our offices would be paperless. We’re still waiting. When the late nineties arrived, experts started predicting that within years, we would have no more shopping malls. The malls are still with us.

Executives, managers, and the business and popular press all tend to make the same false assumption about the future of technological change. Every time a new product category is introduced, they assume that the older category will soon vanish.

But that’s not the way it works.