1920s automation vs. 2020s automation
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Technology predictions are for losers. Everyone makes them, but does anyone pay attention? Guilty pleasure confession: I do, and I suspect many of you do too. As technology watchers, we look to predictions as our trend guideposts. So I’ve decided to take the long view. Here are my predictions for the roaring 2020s, with a nod back to the 1920s, the original roaring '20s.

Technology-Led Innovation

The 1920s were called “roaring” because of the exuberance of the decade. It was a time of economic prosperity in western culture, giving rise to the consumer society and new styles of music, dance and fashion. The decade was also a time of technology-led innovation. How tasks were accomplished changed dramatically with a spate of labor-saving inventions like the vacuum cleaner and a host of innovations for the factory. All this was powered by a new level of access to electricity. 

By the end of the decade, electricity operated approximately 70% of American factory machinery, compared to 30% just 15 years earlier. Rather than using belts for power, machine tools suddenly used motor drives, and another new technology, hydraulic transmissions, quickly emerged.

The 2020s will again be a time when technology dramatically impacts the human condition. And even if we debate whether there will be a positive or negative impact, certainly change will be the order of the decade.

Related Article: What You Can Do to Build an Innovative Ecosystem

From Watching to Being Watched

The 1920s saw the invention of the television, and then the subsequent creation of the world’s first electronic television by Philo Taylor Farnsworth. Starting in high school, Farnsworth began to think of a system that could capture moving images and deliver them to different devices. By 2019, according to the latest Nielsen study, more than 300 million people in over 120 million US households were watching televisions.

Now our electronic devices watch us. Gartner predicts that the Internet of Things (IoT) is now being extended to people, known as the Internet of Behavior (IoB). Through facial recognition, location tracking and big data, organizations monitor individual behavior and link that behavior to other digital actions, like buying a train ticket. It would seem that the science fiction technology of the Minority Report has become reality.

And much as the technology advances of the 1920s — that improved the economic welfare — challenged the social norms and raised concerns, technology advances in the 2020s will raise security and trust challenges.

Adam Piore’s Newsweek article “We're Surrounded by Billions of Internet-connected Devices. Can We Trust Them?” revealed that lab students at the University of Texas at Dallas had cracked a wide array of IoT devices. Among other things, they hacked into a popular small, talking dinosaur toy networked to the internet and “demonstrated they could take over the toy and use it to insult the child, instigate inappropriate conversations (using the trusted voice of the toy) or tell the child what to do.” 

Related Article: Can Privacy Coexist With the Internet of Things?

From Healthcare Aid to Augmentation

From the brilliant simplicity of the invention of the Band-Aid to the life changing discovery of insulin, the 1920s saw significant advances in medicine that resonate to this day.

In 1920 Dr. Frederick Banting of the University of Toronto and his colleague Charles Best successfully made a pancreatic extract and soon research teams were working on the production and purification of insulin for diabetic patients. The first tests were conducted on 14-year-old Leonard Thompson early in January 1922. Following the publicity of the success of these tests there was a huge world-wide demand for insulin.

In the 2020s, AI-powered innovative approaches and augmentation devices will aim to transform diabetes care.

According to “Transforming Diabetes Care Through Artificial Intelligence: The Future Is Here” published in Population Health Management, AI will drive improved automated retinal screening, clinical decision support and patient self-management tools. Four years ago, I wrote about advances for insulin-dependent diabetics in Europe with the FreeStyle Libre, a 14-day patch with sensors that measure glucose in the interstitial fluid via a small filament inserted just under the skin. A scanner is passed over the system to get a reading in stark contrast to the continual pin pricking that traditional monitoring requires. Now many Continuous Glucose Monitoring devices like glucose sensors and insulin pumps, smartphone applications, and other decision-support aids are in the market and more are on the way.  

Related Article: The 10-Year Customer Experience Challenge, Healthcare Edition

From Auto-mation to Intelligent Process Automation

Henry Ford made transportation easier and faster in the early 1900s with his Model T automobile and production assembly line inventions. By June 4, 1924 when the 10-millionth Model T rolled off his Highland Park assembly line, Ford had set the stage for productivity gains across industries, by decreasing the number of laborers needed to do a job.

Fast forward and today we see automation continue to help people, right out of their jobs. 

The very industry that gave us “auto-mation” and benefited from electrification of the factory, will see widespread impacts going forward. The world's carmakers are on track to cut more than 80,000 jobs over the coming years, according to a Bloomberg analysis, while manufacturers reconsider their needs in light of electrification, self-driving technology and ride-sharing services. In turn, their suppliers will reduce staff in the face of dwindling demand and the move to electric vehicles will force parts providers to find new markets, develop new businesses, and go through major restructuring.   

In the 2020s, job loss will continue to be one of the biggest concerns associated with the impact of process automation. Robotics and artificial intelligence will replace some activities of course but will also complement how work gets done. The jobs picture across industries is set for a decade of change because of automation. According to Chris Gardner, principal analyst at Forrester Research, we should expect to see repetitive tasks like posting account ledgers and calculating HR benefits increasingly replaced by process automation. Human-touch jobs though will increase. Work that requires intuition, empathy and mental agility, such as cross-domain knowledge workers, teachers and explainers, will add 300,000 jobs to the economy. Those roles, however, will also see change as AI is increasingly incorporated to improve how work gets done.

Related Article: Why Process Automation Is Not Always Process Improvement

Technology and The Future Human

Respected analyst firms often make mild technology conjectures about the tenuous state of the future, and at times even attach likeliness percentages to predictions. Here’s to Daryl Plummer, distinguished vice president and Gartner Fellow, who ventures bold with his prediction,

“Technology is changing the notion of what it means to be human.”   

The burgeoning generation of the 1920s caused Colleen Moore, famous film actress of the era, to say,

“I don't know if I realized as soon as I began seeing them that they represented the wave of the future, but I do know I was drawn to them. I shared their restlessness, understood their determination to free themselves …”

This same quote might well describe a dystopian view of robots and humanoids in the coming roaring twenties decade. Yet there are so many wonderful technology advances poised to enhance our lives as well. This human is excited to see how it all plays out. Happy 2020!