Steve Brown on six high-impact technologies: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

As the former Futurist and Chief Evangelist at Intel Corporation, Steve Brown has more than 30 years of experience in high tech, half of that time spent in strategic planning roles where he imagined and built plans for a world 5, 10, and 15 years in the future.

After leaving Intel in 2016, Steve built his own company, Possibility and Purpose, which encourages businesses to understand the exciting potential of technology–including artificial intelligence, Blockchains, and augmented reality–and to embrace those technologies to fulfill their corporate purpose in new ways. Steve encourages companies to build a better future for people by creating new products and services, optimizing operations, innovating business models, empowering employees, delighting customers, boosting sustainability, and elevating human work.

Now a sought-after keynote speaker, Steve bring his experience in engineering, business, and communications to help audiences understand how automation and other technology will reshape industries, improves our lives, and forever alter the world of work.

Steve uses plain language that’s accessible to all and inspires his audiences with stories about the future and challenges them to think beyond the status quo and to reimagine their businesses, and their lives, for the better.

Steve has been featured on CNN, BBC, Bloomberg TV, and in The Wall Street Journal and Wired Magazine, amongst many other media outlets. Steve’s is also an author. His new book, The Innovation Ultimatum, was published by Wiley in February 2020.

Steve holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Engineering degrees in Micro-Electronic Systems Engineering from Manchester University. He was born in the U.K. and became a U.S. citizen in 2008. He lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon.

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For those who have not as yet read The Innovation Ultimatum, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

As I spent time with highly capable, but slightly bewildered leadership teams across a wide range of industries, a clear pattern emerged. No matter whether I was working with leaders in retail, healthcare, manufacturing, real-estate, or another industry, the story was the same: The pace of technological change has begun to outstrip a company’s ability to understand its implications.

They needed help to comprehend the potential impact of new technology, to imagine how they might use it to drive innovation, and to find the confidence required to lead much-needed business transformation.

This situation is not their fault. Leaders already have plenty on their minds without having to suddenly become experts in artificial intelligence, Blockchain, and other technologies. While leadership roles are notionally strategic in nature, leaders must often deal with more tactical issues….preparing for next week’s shareholder meeting, dealing with a customer on line stop, or handling an HR issue. They don’t have the time they’d like to consider how technology will reshape their business 3, 5, or 10 years from now. And so, I wrote this book for them.

Once I’d identified this pressing need, the contents of the book became clear. The initial chapters explain each of the key technologies that will reshape business in the 2020s, while the latter chapters offer advice on how leaders can use these technologies to solve business problems and drive innovation throughout their organization. Example stories of early successes from a wide range of industries are included to inspire ideation and action.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

The book took a couple of years to research and write. As a futurist, I’m very used to hearing about incredible new applications of technology. I wouldn’t say I’m jaded, but perhaps I’m harder to impress than most when it comes to cool new tech. As I dug into the mind-bending applications of technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, and augmented reality, I found myself constantly surprised by the incredible capabilities that are being built. Innovators shocked me with their audacity and creativity.

In the book I write about an AI that can hear disease — in years to come, perhaps diabetes, hypertension, and even cancer — in the sound of your voice, a company using swarms of drones to replant trees 80-times faster than a human alone, and an AI that can predict outbreaks of Dengue fever three months in advance, to within a 400 yard radius, with 80% accuracy. So you ask if I experienced any head-snapping revelations as I wrote the book? Almost every week. Even this jaded tech junkie was made to feel like a kid again, open jawed as I realized the enormity of what I’d just stumbled across.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

The main difference is that the scope of the book is narrower than my initial plan, purely for practical purposes. As originally imagined, the book would have weighed in at well over 1000 pages, perhaps even more. As it is, The Innovation Ultimatum is about 300 pages long and is packed with information. The initial title of the book was “Hacking Reality” and I planned to explore how humans will use technology to reshape, or hack, our world.

This included sections on how we will hack ourselves using wearables, implantables, and ingestibles, how we will hack our homes and cities with sensors and the Internet of Things, how we will hack our businesses to make them more efficient, how we will hack our planet to address climate change, and finally how we will hack our perception of the world with augmented and virtual reality technologies. I decided to save many of these topics for future books and  pared the book down to focus in on the practical application of technology to reimagine business in the 2020s. And I have to say, the book is much stronger for it. And it weighs a lot less too.

You focus on six strategic technologies that will or at least could “reshape every business n the 2020s.” Of all that could be said about them, what — in your opinion — is the single most important point to be made about each? First, artificial intelligence (AI)

Artificial intelligence is a profoundly important technology. It enables us to predict the future, it can help us to co-create content, it gives machines the ability to hear, see, and to some extent understand the world, and it can find important patterns in oceans of data; patterns that humans can’t see. But the most important thing to understand about modern AI, in the form of machine learning or deep learning systems, is that they enable us to solve problems that we don’t know how to solve ourselves. Unlike traditional computers that execute programs based on pre-defined rules, AI systems are trained with data and can come up with their own rules. That’s the true breakthrough.

Sensors and the Internet of Thngs (IoT)

By the end of this decade we will live in a world filled with 100 trillion sensors, and 100 million connected devices. Sensors enable the digital world to understand what’s happening in our physical world. That lets us deploy computers to automate or semi-automate decisions and actions, which in turn makes the world more responsive to human needs. For example, sensors in open parking spots will guide autonomous cars to park in them, and satellite-based AI will spot lightning-strike fire starts on the ground and automatically dispatch firefighting resources before the fires have a chance to spread. Adding intelligence, sensors, and connectivity to objects also lets businesses turn products into services, and services into experiences or transformations.

I share an example in the book of how a dentist developed a smart, connected toothbrush that tells on patients—did they brush their teeth morning and night, hit the molars, and brush for a full two minutes? Since the dentist now knows his patients have good oral hygiene, he also knows they are likely to need fewer expensive dental treatments. This allows him to wrap a dental health service around the toothbrush that includes toothpaste, floss and dental insurance, all offered at a price that’s 15-20% lower than his competition. Using the Internet of Things, a simple toothbrush is transformed into a comprehensive oral health service with pricing that reflects the dentist’s ability to measure rather than model risk.

Autonomous machines — robots, cobots, drones, and self-driving vehicles

The key breakthrough in robotics is the availability of modern AI. AI gives robots the ability to see, hear, and have a limited understanding of their surroundings. This liberates robots from their cages inside factories and allows them to operate safely in the same space as human beings and navigate through the physical world. This breakthrough has lead to the advent of cobots (collaborative robots), autonomous drones, and self-driving vehicles of all kinds. Every industry on the planet is now racing to figure out how to use this new generation of smart robots to take on some of the tasks formerly done by humans. Drones will become modern workhorses. Robots will take on repetitive, boring, or dangerous work. Vehicles will relieve us from the task of driving. This clearly has profound implications for the workplace, as have previous waves of mechanization and electrification that came before.

Distributed ledgers and blockchains

This is a tricky one to explain with only a few words. I dedicated a lengthy chapter to this topic in the book, and even then there was a lot more I could have written on the subject. Briefly, blockchain and other similar technologies act as a way of creating trust digitally. The easiest way to think about a blockchain is as a fancy database. Information stored in that database can’t be edited. It therefore gives us a way to start to agree on what is true. Initially this capability was designed to keep track of currency transactions—this much currency moved from person A to person B. But blockchains can also be used to securely store healthcare records, to track the movement of goods through a supply chain, or to build a new class of applications called dApps, distributed apps.

Blockchains can be used to remove intermediaries from transactions and to “tokenize” assets, which essentially allows assets to be owned by multiple entities, splitting them into digital shares. My futurist gut tells me that the most important uses of blockchains in the future will be to make supply chains more transparent, to help the unbanked to save, to democratize real-estate investment (so an average person can take part ownership in an office building, for example), to crowd-source loans, and to revolutionize the insurance industry. Check out chapter four of my book to find out how. 🙂

Virtual, augmented, and mixed reality

Virtual reality is amazing. When wearing a VR headset, you feel immersed in an alternate reality; transported to somewhere else. It’s an incredible experience, but it’s not the breakthrough. That would be augmented reality, the true breakthrough that will change the way we work, and the way we interact with digital information and services.

AR systems blend digital objects and information into your field of view, overlaying them on the physical world. By keeping users connected to the physical world, these systems have many more uses. When AR, sensors, and AI are combined, they enable incredible systems that will be used to create hybrid workers, workers who are a combination of human and machine intelligence.

For example, a maintenance worker wearing an AR headset might be guided through a complex repair job on a piece of equipment they are not familiar with. As AR technology matures, it is likely to become the primary way we interact with the digital world, relegating the smartphone into second place, the same way that the smartphone relegated the PC before it.

Finally, connecting everything and everyone (5G networks and satellite constellations)

About every decade, cellular technology gets an upgrade. As we move from 4G LTE to 5G networking technology, our devices will all get a bandwidth boost…with download speeds that are 10 to 100 times what’s possible with 4G. That’s pretty cool. But the reason 5G is important is that it’s the first cellular network technology designed specifically to connect things that aren’t cellphones.

5G networks will connect everything and everyone….parking meters, industrial equipment, TVs, drones, robots, wearable devices, and much, much more. The system is designed to be far more reliable, and far more responsive. It’s a MAJOR upgrade. But 5G won’t be available everywhere. For people in rural areas, satellite networks will bring broadband internet to every corner of the earth. We will put more satellites into orbit in the next decade than in all of human history. These satellites will enable the next four billion people to have access to the internet. Imagine a world where it’s possible to connect everyone and everything, everywhere. This decade.

Of all these technologies, which one seems to pose the most serious challenges? Please explain.
In their own way, each of these technologies presents challenges to us. If you think smartphones are addictive, just wait until we all get augmented reality headsets. And not only will we be able to live inside media bubbles, augmented reality will ultimately give us the power to edit our perception of the world. That’s concerning for obvious reasons. Blockchain probably presents the biggest challenge to the status quo. It is a threat to the status quo in the financial world, real-estate, supply chain, and highly centralized authorities. Overall, the most challenging technology is likely AI. AI is an incredibly powerful tool. We should not be afraid of AI (forget what Hollywood keeps telling you), but as with all powerful technologies, it must be handled with great care.

We need to watch out for issues like bias, and we need to think carefully about how we deploy AI in the workplace. If we get it right, AI will elevate most human work (it’s inevitable that it will replace some of it), and will create more jobs than it destroys. Leaders need to be smart about how they deploy AI and autonomous machines.

I spend quite a lot of time addressing this in my book, and I hope that leaders will play close attention and be mindful about their process automation and worker augmentation strategies.

Years ago, Henry Ford II (CEO of Ford Motor Company) and Walter Reuther (head of the United Automobile Workers union) were engaged in a lively conversation.  At one point Ford bragged about the fact that his company’s early-generation robots would never go on strike and never pay dues to Reuther’s union. “Maybe so,” Reuther allegedly replied, “but not one of those machines will ever buy an automobile either.” Your take?

As is almost always true in life….everything in moderation. As we automate and augment, and as we enter the next era of work, we need to be thoughtful about how we deploy technology. Research shows that organizations that seek to use tech to partner with their human workers, rather than replace them, do better in the long term. Automation that replaces humans can lead to short term gains, but they are never sustained.

My tip to leaders: Focus on how to use technology to lift up your workers and boost the humanity in your operations and your brand.

What did you learn about yourself while creating this book that you did not realize before?

When I first started researching and writing this book, I thought I just wanted to provide people with interesting information; helpful information that would help readers to make better-informed decisions. It quickly became clear that I was setting the bar too low, that I had a bigger mission. I realized that I was passionate about what I was writing. That I have a clear point of view, one that is informed by 30 years of experience and a great deal of research, and that I wanted to share that point of view with the world.

I write in the book about the intersection of purpose and possibility, and that companies with clear purpose will prevail in a landscape of rapidly expanding possibility. It made me question my own purpose, and why it is that I choose to do what I do. What I realized is that my role on this planet, in whatever small way, is to guide people to build a better future. And that felt really good. I hope that the book delivers on this mission for at least some of the people that read it.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in The Innovation Ultimatum will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Anyone starting out in business today needs to be literate in technology. This book is designed to offer just that. If you don’t know your AI from your AR, and your Industry 5.0 from 5G, then you’re not going to be as relevant in the workplace of tomorrow. In the latter part of the book, I challenge readers with a number of strategic questions that I hope will help to guide them as they make plans for what’s next. I wrote these questions with business leaders in mind, but they have equal value for those just starting out and preparing for a career in the business world.

By understanding these key questions, people will better understand how the jobs they do will support these strategies. These insights will also accelerate people’s careers by allowing them to operate at more strategic levels, making them far more valuable in the workplace. I guess what I’m saying is…buy my book and accelerate your career trajectory! 🙂

To C-level executives? Please explain.

C-level execs are overwhelmed. That’s why they get paid the big bucks. And while their jobs are notionally strategic, much of an executive’s time is spent on more tactical execution and issues. When they do have time to address strategic planning, they aren’t always equipped with the insights they need to ask all the right questions. It’s not fair to expect that the chief medical officer of a hospital, the CMO of a major hotel chain, or the CFO of a mortgage company knows much about AI and how it can be used to solve business problems. This book was written to empower leaders with the information they need to ask the right questions and to lead their companies through the coming decade of technological change.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

You don’t need to be a giant corporation with a massive IT budget to participate in the next round of innovation. Technology is getting cheaper every day. Cloud-based computing services lower the barrier to entry for innovation and make it easier for smaller organizations to play in the big leagues. This book will be as helpful to small- to medium-sized businesses as it is to giant corporations. It will equip readers with the right questions to ask of their suppliers as they imagine the future.

While a Fortune 500 exec needs to know what strategic questions to ask their IT department, smaller companies largely outsource IT and so ask these same questions of their technology or equipment suppliers. Only by becoming literate on the capabilities of technology like AI, Blockchain, and next-generation networks will they be empowered to demand answers from their suppliers.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

“What most excites you about the future?”

Everything! Even though we face significant challenges as a species—climate change, inequality, disinformation, pandemic threat, injustice, to name a few—I find myself incredibly optimistic about the future. With the technologies described in my book, we have the potential to transform the way we live for the better. We will likely discover new life-saving medicines and breakthrough new materials. We will transform work for the better, using machines to take on repetitive, boring, or dangerous jobs that we really don’t want to do. We will create new products and services that lead to the creation of exciting new jobs. We will democratize access to education, healthcare, and other services. And we will finally get the flying cars we have been promised for decades. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1 of this interview.

Steve cordially invites you to check out the resources here:

His website link

His Amazon link

LinkedIn  link

TED link


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