By 2020, computers and technologies – including warehouse management systems – will be 32 times more powerful than today’s yet they will increasingly be operated by ageing brains.
There are two conflicting hypotheses that will dominate our lives in the next 50 years: the aging population and the exponential growth of technology. Why do they conflict? Because as people age they become less able, perhaps less willing, to absorb technological change; yet change it does and at an ever faster rate. How will we all cope? What can we, those of us in the business of technology, do to ease the pain?
By 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), over 35% of the UK population will be over 50. As the baby boomer generation, that has fuelled the economic growth of the world for the last 50 years, moves into its retirement phase, something has got to give. That something will include, indeed has already included, working longer. And with the ONS also
predicting that around 10% of people now aged 65, and one-third of babies born today, will live to be 100, the chances of a reversal is slim.
Combine that demographic certainty with a little technological speculation and what starts off as a social difficulty becomes a societal crisis. As technology increases the workforce charged with taming it ages and its ability to do so recedes. Yes, medical science has the ability to keep us physically healthy for longer, but does that automatically increase our mental capacity at the rate that will be necessary to keep pace with the change? Probably not!
Ray Kurzweil is an American futurist and inventor. His work on the exponential growth of technology is used to advise governments and large multi-national organizations the world over. His research says that the capabilities of computers and the technologies that run them roughly doubles every 12-18 months.
Few who work in the business would dispute this. But extrapolate the figures and you get some very scary results. Start from today and do the sums. In six years, by 2020, we have computers and technologies that are 32 times more powerful than they are today – all being increasingly used and managed by aging brains.
Look a little further, say to 11 years from now. The figure is now over 1,000 times more powerful than in 2014. Try again. Run it up to 20 years, to 2034, and we can expect technology to be over 1 million times more powerful. In 30 years it’s a billion times. In 40 years it’s a trillion times. The figures lose all meaning.
Look at it another way. Since the dawn of time mankind has become more technologically advanced. Mr. Caxton invented the printing press 540 years ago, the industrial revolution kicked in 250 years ago, the telephone was invented 140 years ago and the computer 70 years ago. Each new major development has a shorter time between it and the one before. The process continues on its inevitable course to what Kurzweil calls, the Singularity, the point at which the time between technological
developments approaches zero.
So what can we do? How can we expect the human brain, an aging one at that, to cope? Well, perhaps we can’t. Perhaps we should be directing all our human ingenuity towards managing this exploding technology. Let us accept that we can do nothing to stop the growth even if we want to; it’s just part of what us humans do. But we can become cleverer at controlling it. We can develop human- machine interfaces that make life easy for us allowing all that computing power to be harnessed for the benefit of its creators.
We can all do better. How often have we struggled trying to sync a mobile with the Internet or a laptop with a LAN? It should be simple, but it never seems to be. When it comes to industrial systems we can do better too. We can make them more intuitive, easier to use, more reliable, faster, and although they will inevitably become more complex and powerful on the inside, we can make them simple on the outside. So simple, perhaps, that even the weak and feeble brains of our rapidly aging population will be able to master them with ease. That is the challenge of the future. Power will come automatically, but do we have the intellect to allow us to dominate it?
It seems that in the last 30 years the world has become much more complicated, more difficult to understand and much more frustrating. But it doesn’t need to be that way. What we need is for the technologists to stop worrying about what is possible – and open their minds. They must direct their efforts towards harnessing all the power they have available to make it work for people, to make the world a simpler, better, more enjoyable, more exciting place and perhaps a little richer for all of us.
The warehouse management market is not immune. At MACS Software we are constantly working to use the power of computing to enable our systems to work faster, do more and be easier to use. It is clear that in the future harnessing that power to minimise the human input and keep that interface as simple as it can be will become fundamental so that mere mortals can use them with ease. Even for the increasing minority who are still breathing in their sixth decade and beyond, for they will need to use it too.