Smarter AI will work wonders, and challenge human workers.
AI/ML, drawing insights from data and acting on it through automation, will transform just about every digital interaction in our lives. And at this point, nearly every interaction in our lives has a digital component. As the above trends come together — ethically sound algorithms that are robust against adversaries, and that can learn on their own — we’ll see them act more like humans, making more consequential decisions and actions.
Humans, however, will still have work to do in a world so transformed by AI. Ram Sriharsha says that the human disruption will be substantial. Many current jobs will be eliminated or fundamentally altered, and many new jobs will be created. In both cases, a new workforce will be needed, and organizations should begin retraining now.
Companies should be training their workforces, Sriharsha says, noting that such training used to be more common. “Companies are going to realize that it’s a value-add for them to train their employees now. In-house training on new methodologies, new techniques and so on, is going to be important.”
A McKinsey article in May says that the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the effects of sudden change on a workforce, and underscored the need for training as companies must match workers to rapidly evolving roles:
This dynamic is about more than remote working — or the role of automation and AI. It’s about how leaders can reskill and upskill the workforce to deliver new business models in the post-pandemic era.
To meet this challenge, companies should craft a talent strategy that develops employees’ critical digital and cognitive capabilities, their social and emotional skills, and their adaptability and resilience. Now is the time for companies to double down on their learning budgets and commit to reskilling. Developing this muscle will also strengthen companies for future disruptions.And every organization’s strategy coming out of 2020 is to build resilience to further disruptions.
And every organization’s strategy coming out of 2020 is to build resilience to further disruptions.
Pretty much since the invention of the smartphone, the focus of our digital lives has been the screen in our hands. For software developers, mobile first was a mantra for years until now it’s so basic that it needn’t be said. Splunk’s chief technology officer, Tim Tully, notes that he can do 80% of his job on his smartphone (but adds that, since COVID-19 sequestered him at home, he’s reverted to a heavy, powerful desktop machine for the first time in a decade).
The rise of the mobile device was significantly driven by the arrival of 4G networks that allowed mobile data streaming, which in turn powered the success of Netflix and YouTube, Uber and Lyft, all the social media networks and more.
(Before 4G, we still mostly used phones for talking. Now, we use our phones for data and bark instructions at an AI-enabled hockey puck that lives on our coffee table.)
5G is next on the horizon, but there are significant roadblocks that will slow its rollout. Before we consider the longer term, there are immediate mobile trends that were greatly accelerated by the pandemic. To name two: two-factor authentication and digital payments.
Two-factor authentication will become the widespread norm, not an option.
The sudden wave of office workers logging in from home raises security concerns, because now there are more people logging in from outside your network who might not be who they said they are.
It’s a challenge that should be keeping security experts and mobile software engineers awake at night. “The surface area of security has expanded because of COVID and mobile,” says Splunk Head of Mobile Engineering Jesse Chor, “and I think it’s definitely a concern.”
Expect to see more adoption of two-factor authentication, whether by a phone app that asks, “Did you just try to log in?” or a biometric scan. Mick Baccio, a Splunk security advisor who has worked for the Dept. of Health and Human Services and the White House, and was CISO for the Pete Buttigieg presidential campaign, agrees that 2FA is growing, and he sees hardware tokens as the likeliest solution. Hardware tokens include little USB security keys, or can be incorporated into mobile phones.
“A hardware token pretty much shuts down the risk of account takeover,” Baccio notes. “Who doesn’t want to shut that down? It’s one of the biggest problems security teams face. Just shut it down and move more resources to your next biggest problem.”
“The scary part now is that there are only two incumbent mobile operating systems,” Chor says. “If Apple or Google screw up their operating system, think about how devastating a vulnerability could be. A simple bug around my PIN, say, could let you get into my work network, hack my email, use my ecommerce accounts, hit my bank. You can basically be me.”
And as for the form factor of the two-factor, Chor says he’s “a big fan of biometrics. I think COVID is going to really accelerate the adoption of biometric identification for security and payments.”
An important value of biometric logins, Chor says, is that it replaces the physical device. If the mobile phone is the interface for the biometric identification, but does not store biometric data, it’s useless to a thief. (See below for more on biometrics.)
“Just like we don’t send passwords over the air anymore, we send hashes, the devices will send a hash of your biometric data,” Chor says. The device becomes a conduit for information that is confirmed in the cloud. A lost or stolen phone is no security threat, as long as you still have your thumb on hand. “I think security is going to head that way, where the phone is just a conduit.”
Contactless payment will rise faster than expected. (Like, really fast.)
COVID has driven adoption of digital payments, in terms of contactless payment apps such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, Square Cash, Venmo and PayPal One Touch. And after the pandemic recedes and we achieve a “new normal,” expect the convenience and no-touch benefits to continue to gain traction.
“People still go out and buy things, and when they do, they’re more often using contactless payments, which generally involves a phone,” Jesse Chor says. “And ideas like the digital wallet — Apple Pay — will make a lot more sense to a lot more people.”
In an April report, Bain & Co. noted that disruptions to businesses from restaurants to retail to the entire travel industry meant that payment volumes were down, and payment services providers were suffering. But not so, the contactless payment industry. Bain observed signs of growth, including hiring at several of the payment providers, and predicted faster-than-anticipated adoption even after the pandemic ends and the economy recovers. Bain’s pre-COVID estimate was that 57% of transaction value would be done digitally by 2025. Since the pandemic, Bain has revised the prediction to 67%.
Simon Davies, vice president of Splunk in APAC, says COVID has pushed several emerging technologies to center stage in the Asia-Pacific region. “Before COVID, people were already doing things like blockchain, mobile technologies, etc. but weren’t seen as being mainstream,” he says. “Now contactless payments have become much more prevalent — essentially the norm. That wouldn’t have happened quite as quickly if it weren’t for the pandemic.”
Despite rising appetite, 5G won’t hit in 2021. Expect rollout to be held up by hardware challenges at least into 2022.
Pre-COVID, the telecom industry was eager to roll out 5G, the next-generation telecommunications standard that promises greater bandwidth and lower latency, and a cell tower every eight feet or so. The technology could make our mobile devices more powerful, and fuel other emerging technologies, including virtual and augmented reality. These days, robust deployment of 5G looks more like a three-to-five-year proposition.
Tech industry news site EPS News predicts slow and uneven 5G adoption: “Before the pandemic struck, the mobile industry was rushing to bring 5G networks and technologies to market. With declining revenue and a shrinking market, this shift is less likely to take place soon. Some carriers and manufacturers already delayed upcoming releases of 5G devices and services.”
Analysts at 451 Research also see the delays, but note that this is no time to sleep in, writing1 in July, “5G will not move the needle in the enterprise in 2020, but planning must start now. … A couple of years from now, 5G networks will support ultra-low latency and mission-critical communications that enable the applications and processes supporting the digital transformation of industries, some of which will see acceleration due to COVID-19.”
“5G’s problem is the chicken and the egg,” says Jesse Chor. “You need demand that’s realized in devices that can use 5G, and you need the carrier infrastructure. But who’s going to build one without the other?
“I think the biggest obstacle for 5G is the physical limitations of the technology,” he says. Not only does the new standard require new cell towers, but 5G has a much shorter range than 4G, and is not great at penetrating walls, meaning we’ll need a lot more towers than earlier standards required. That’s expensive, and also, there’s a global pandemic.
“Especially with COVID, manufacturing has been slowed, and it’s really hard now to get fleets of people to install things, to even get the proper permits,” Chor says. “But despite the real barriers to adoption right now, the demand for higher bandwidth is going up. Between work-from-home and the hunger for streaming entertainment, people are very bandwidth-hungry.”
Chor sees the tipping point coming from the device side: “I think phone manufacturers need to get on it. We’ve just seen it with Apple, which launched the 5G iPhone 12 in October. That could increase the total addressable market by 30% or so. Other carriers will follow, especially if they have assurances from carriers about when 5G coverage is coming.”
Another impediment to rollout is that the pandemic has shuttered key locations for initial rollout. Chor expects corporate and college campuses to work with carriers to roll out the infrastructure.
“Once offices broadly reopen, I think a lot of tech companies will start instituting 5G within their campuses or buildings and pump it up that way, because there’s a lot of productivity they can gain with connected devices with low latency,” Chor says. And if tech employees or college students and staff are enjoying high-speed bandwidth as they work, they’ll drive demand where they live.
Look for initial networks to roll out in Asia, he adds. “China is already rolling it out in a lot of places. I was there just prior to COVID, and I saw the towers popping up everywhere,” he says. “And developing economies, in Asia and elsewhere, have an advantage in terms of lacking legacy infrastructure. It’s just a different discussion when you’re starting from near-zero, versus upgrading from an extensive legacy investment.”
The World Economic Forum lists 5G as one of 10 emerging technologies to watch in the wake of COVID-19, from distance learning and telehealth to drone deliveries and contactless payments, and notes that nearly every other technology on the list depends upon stable, affordable, high-speed internet. But while acknowledging the power of the technology, it also notes that “the adoption of 5G will increase the cost of compatible devices and the cost of data plans. Addressing these issues to ensure inclusive access to the internet will continue to be a challenge as the 5G network expands globally.
Never Mind the 5G, Here’s the WiFi 6
Jesse Chor says that a lot of the benefits we want from 5G will be delivered first by WiFi 6, an available but not-yet-widespread technology.
“WiFi 6 is at least 10 times faster than regular WiFi, so it will bring the bandwidth and low latency we talk about with 5G,” he says. “If you’re a business, you want to roll it out fast, and you can have it today — you just need connected devices that can use it.”
Many new devices, such as iPads and iPhones, are ready for WiFi 6. Schools and corporate campuses can benefit from the technology, and it will be a major part of the bandwidth equation that includes 5G.
“WiFi 6 is great for internal devices you control, manage and own. 5G would be for outside devices that you don’t necessarily control and own, but you want them to be connected,” he says. A shopping mall would want 5G available for shoppers, for instance, but might use WiFi 6 internally for retailers and management.“
Just like 5G, WiFi 6 will soon be ubiquitous,” he says.
In a few years, pretty much any WiFi enabled device you buy will be WiFi 6.
Chor notes that 5G promises much more than just higher bandwidth. Both 3G and 4G networks ushered in new services, and whole new industries, from Lyft to Door Dash to the kaleidoscope of digital streaming channels. Telecommunications bandwidth unlocks tremendous economic power.
“And I’m sure that 5G will do the same, with greater bandwidth and lower latency unlocking new things we didn’t think of,” he says. “If you look at the market caps of internet companies, they exploded every time another telecom standard was unlocked.”
Among the new possibilities to be unlocked: new mobile form factors. (Prediction: In the future, we’re all Tony Stark.) “The future of mobile is hands-free, wearable devices,” Chor says. “Connected glasses, like a phone on your face, totally makes sense, especially given the rise of AR/VR.”
It will take a few years, say five to 10, and it’s not just about use cases.“
You need advancement in material sciences, battery technology, a lot of stuff that needs to catch up,” Chor says. “But once we have them, who would not want glasses that do everything? Then you’re like Iron Man. It will be a while before we get there, but it’s definitely coming.