man on a cellphone
Digital disruption gets a lot of attention, but is it changing anything in a major way — and for the better? PHOTO: Clem Onojeghuo

We are all obsessed with digital transformation. 

Management consultants happily advise us on digital. In one of its top articles for 2016, the Economic Essentials of Digital Strategy, McKinsey told us how to think strategically about digital disruption. 

Technology analyst firms opine at great length on digital adoption. IDC predicted, “by the end of 2017, two-thirds of the CEO's on Forbes' list of The Global 2000 will have digital transformation at the center of their corporate strategy.”  

And research studies endlessly publish digital trends and responses. A survey commissioned by IFS reveals that 86 percent of C-level executives say digital transformation will play a key role in their market. 

We are admonished to get on board the digital train now. Dire warnings predict that those who haven't started building and executing a digital strategy are running out of time. 

But is digital actually fulfilling its transformative potential? And if so, where?  

Digital Finds its Personal Voice

One of 2016's most progressive areas married digital and voice technologies. 

The rise of the virtual personal digital assistant has us all talking to ourselves, or rather, smarter AI versions of ourselves. 

Digital assistants have flooded the market and are vying to become the future of search. As I wrote in Burning Zombies, Apple's Siri is installed on hundreds of millions of iPhones and Apple Watches, Microsoft’s Cortana is an integral part of its new operating system and Amazon’s Alexa, who we met in its 2016 Super Bowl commercial, connects to its smart Echo appliances and promises to execute our every command. 

Google Home is also on the rise, but I refuse to seriously consider it until it gets a decent name. 

As anticipated, Mark Zuckerberg just announced personal assistant Jarvis, voiced by Morgan Freeman. Jarvis is a shout out to scifi's Just A Rather Very Intelligent System, or J.A.R.V.I.S., the name of Iron Man Tony Stark's artificially intelligent computer.  

So is this digital technology transformative?  

Not necessarily.  

Virtual assistants have definitely brought major change, but many would argue whether that change is for the better. As Maurice E. Stucke and Ariel Ezrachi conclude in "The Subtle Ways Your Digital Assistant Might Manipulate You,"

Digital assistants have much to offer, but the next technological frontier may not be entirely rosy. As our digital butler increasingly controls our mundane tasks, it will be harder to turn off. It will be tempting to increasingly rely on the butler for the news we receive, the shows we watch, and the things we buy and even say. We may feel that we roam the fields of free ideas. And yet, we are increasingly ushered by the super-platform’s digitalized hand, not recognizing its toll on our well-being.”

Digital Disruption Escalates

OK, perhaps we continue to doubt digital’s impact on our personal lives, but surely digital has made a transformative impact on the enterprise? We’ve certainly seen digital disruption escalate in almost every vertical industry, along with a widespread influx of digital investment. 

Saying that digital “makes everything new,” McKinsey is calling for a return to the fundamentals of supply, demand and market dynamics to understand the deeper forces behind disruption to “explain not so much which companies will disrupt a business as why — the nature of the transformation and disruption they face rather than just the specific parties that might initiate them.” 

Deeper insight is important, but on the face of it there is clearly major disruptive change happening: 

Are these digital transformation initiatives delivering transformative impact … a major change for the good? 

The upside seeks the benefit or “good” result of competitive advantage. The price of failure is operational cost overruns, poor customer experience and compliance difficulties. But in some sectors, the benefit of digital success — and cost of failure — is even higher, and that is where we will find transformative impact. 

Saving Lives with Digital

Nothing has more significance than improving or even saving lives, so healthcare and life sciences are perhaps where digital has the best chance of being truly transformative. 

A good deal of our attention is focused around digital improvements in IT systems for clinical trials, medical records and claims and payment optimization in those industries. While certainly important, three areas are candidates for transformative impact in my opinion. They are: robotics, 3-D printing and wearables.

In the '60s scifi film "Fantastic Voyage," a submarine crew shrinks to microscopic size and ventures into the body of an injured scientist to repair damage to his brain. Farfetched? Fast forward to today and we have digital “ingestibles” that monitor core body temperature and photograph our innards. 

If what you’ve already ingested turns out to be a mistake, then there are  tiny 'origami robots' in development that doctors can use to remove foreign objects from the stomach. Small enough to fit inside an ordinary gel capsule, once swallowed, the robot's origami structure unfolds, allowing doctors to move it around from outside the patient's body with magnets. 

Advanced medical robots are also augmenting the surgeon’s potential with superhuman precision and repeatability, like the tele-operated da Vinci® Surgical System.   

For proof that 3-D printing has arrived as a force to be reckoned with, look no further than my perennial go-to scientific source, The Big Bang Theory, whose 3-D episode was both incredibly funny and insightful. 

Gartner predicts a new digital industrial revolution with 3-D printing as a means to reduce costs through improved designs, streamlined prototyping and short-run manufacturing. 3-D is impacting multiple industries, but nowhere is it as meaningful as in medical applications where it is changing lives for the better every day. 

3-D printing allows personalization and customization to the extreme — and nothing requires that more than parts of the human body. From digitally generated 3-D prosthetics that restore or improve quality of life with custom limbs at a reasonable cost, to multi-material 3-D printer-created anatomical models of internal organs that can eliminate errors and misreading of traditional operation plans and drastically reduce operation times.

We are on the cusp of some amazing digital-inspired advances in medical wearables. 

For insulin-dependent diabetics, the FreeStyle Libre is a 14 day patch with digital sensors that measure glucose in the interstitial fluid via a small filament inserted just under the skin. And Google’s smart contact lenses have embedded sensors that interact with tear fluid to determine a number of health-related factors, including blood glucose levels.

The Digital Way Forward

The smart money is betting on digital. 

IDC predicts the emergence of the “DX (digital transformation) economy.” Forrester Research forecasts digital transformation budgets will top the billion dollar bar this year. And Gartner tells us that CEOs expect their digital revenue to increase by more than 80 percent by 2020.

The application of digital technology has the potential to transform all aspects of human society. Which digital innovations will generate transformative and sustainable impact for good? 

Perhaps we all need to be more like Ebenezer Scrooge in a Christmas Carol whose focus was all about making money in his business until he learned that “mankind was our business.”  A good lesson when it comes to our digital future.