Thinking Aloud

Get ready for an Uber future

Disruptive change could hit soon and out of the blue

You are driving home in your new electric car.

Actually, it is one of those driverless vehicles, so you are seated comfortably in the back seat, with your own artificially intelligent chauffeur.

You whip out your tablet, tap a few buttons and, via the Internet of Things(IoT), switch on the lights and air-conditioning at home, as well as start the electric oven to warm your dinner.

As you pull up to your driveway, a sensor detects your car and opens the gates. As you reach the front door, the key in your pocket triggers another sensor and you are let in. You walk into a bright, cool room, just the way you like it.

Coldplay, you say, and Chris Martin springs to life, belting out A Headful Of Dreams.

Dreaming? Science fiction? Somewhere in a galaxy far, far away?

No, actually, everything in the scenario above is either available today or almost ready to roll.

So I discovered at the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where the future of technology, manufacturing and jobs was on many minds.

Taking a break from the formal discussions, I sat down one frosty afternoon for a chat with Mrs Jeannine Sargent, president of innovation and new ventures at Flex. This is the new 21st-century incarnation of Flextronics, the Singapore-headquartered American company that bills itself as a "global supply chain solutions provider". (Translation: They see themselves as a technology company helping firms improve their products, processes and delivery to the market).

She gives me a Wink and a nod to the future. Wink, she explains as she points to a glossy magazine on the table, is a smart-home platform that links dozens of devices, from assorted manufacturers, and allows you to control all of them via your smartphone.

This is just the beginning. Every home could have hundreds of devices connected through the IoT, she notes, giving rise to new possibilities for businesses and consumers. Indeed, a recent McKinsey study predicted that the economic value of the IOT could range from US$4 trillion (S$5.6 trillion) to US$11 trillion within a decade.

Wink is already working with some American cities to make them smarter, she notes, citing the example of Schenectady, New York, a city of about 66,000 people.

This could see old-style street lamps replaced with more energy-efficient LED ones, which also serve as Wi-Fi nodes. These will also bring high-speed Internet services to residents and businesses alike.

"And Wink is looking at ways to leverage that new connectivity by allowing small business owners to install motion sensors, smoke and carbon-monoxide alarms, and cameras potentially subsidised by the city that will feed information back to the city; imagine if the authorities could tag surveillance footage in the case of a break-in, or detect and contain a fire before it flares out of control. Connectivity, then, is infusing a new layer of intelligence into cities that wasn't before possible," the city's mayor Gary McCarthy is quoted as saying in the Flex magazine.

Flex, Jeannine continues, is also working with other partners, like Nike, for example. Lasers will be able to cut the multiple parts needed to make a pair of running shoes to precision. Robots will wield the soft fabrics and materials used for running gear into place more efficiently and with less waste than humans can today.

The upshot of this: running gear that is better, faster, cheaper - to borrow the National Trades Union Congress' old mantra. It might even be possible to customise your shoes to fit perfectly, just for you. Imagine, bespoke runners without the runaway prices.

It all sounds a little too good to be true to my sceptical journalist mind, so I put some questions directly to Jeannine - Is this all for real? Are these technologies ready? And if so, what does it mean for workers out there?

She replies reassuringly: "Actually, technology is not the main limiting factor to the adoption of most innovations. We are. Regulations which we put in place for various reasons. Regulators need assurance, as do communities.

"But if you look at history, science and technology has always led to progress for societies. It takes time for people and society to adapt."

Therein lies the rub, I suppose. People are going to have to adapt; we might not have much time to do so.

A WEF report, Technological Tipping Points, based on interviews with 800 leaders in the technology sector,released last November, noted that about eight in 10 of those polled believed that driverless cars would make up at least 10 per cent of the vehicle population within the next 10 years. The first 3D-printed car would also have rolled off the production - or printing - line by then. Over half of the Internet traffic would be for users connecting to devices in their homes.

So, sound the tsunami siren, as waves of change are coming, and these will be big, fast and unrelenting.

Yes, I know, we have all heard such alarm bells rung before. Many of us would be familiar with the general notion of technological change and disruption. Yet, I suspect, few of us have grasped just how sweeping this might be, and how soon its effects could arrive on our shores.

So, the committee led by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to ponder the Future Economy will have its work cut out to help people see just how these disruptive technologies might revolutionise our lives.

Discussions on Singapore's economic future are now, understandably, focused on more pressing concerns - high costs, labour shortages, the slog to raise productivity.

No doubt, these will have to be discussed and addressed. But the committee's work will not be complete unless it also manages to lift society's gaze a little farther on the horizon to the challenges that are looming.

Perhaps the committee might borrow an idea from the WEF's very clever founder Klaus Schwab. He figured that it was not enough to just talk about new technologies. Instead, he invited Hubo the South Korean robot to Davos, filled the conference centre with exhibits of 3D printers and other technologies at work and screened virtual reality shows so that delegates might realise that change is nearer than some might think.

Similarly, efforts might be made here to bring robotics, artificial intelligence, and other signs of change to come to a school, shopping mall or community club near you.

A greater awareness of how rapidly the world might be changing might also prompt deeper reflection on what it will mean for society.

Consider an intriguing, and amusing, essay published in Foreign Affairs last July, titled "Will Humans go the way of horses?", by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of a best-selling book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, And Prosperity In A Time Of Brilliant Technologies.

They note how the population of horses in the United States rose sixfold between 1840 and 1900 to more than 21 million. Horses were used on farms as well as in the growing cities, to transport people and goods. By 1960, however, this number had fallen to three million, down 88 per cent in just over half a century. The internal combustion engine, cars in the city and tractors on farms made horses redundant.

"Is a similar tipping point possible for human labour? Are autonomous vehicles, self-service kiosks, warehouse robots, and supercomputers the harbingers of a wave of technological progress that will finally sweep humans out of the economy?"

After much discussion on this troubling question, they conclude: "Humans, fortunately, are not horses... if human labour becomes far less necessary overall, however, people, unlike horses, can choose to prevent themselves from becoming economically irrelevant."

In other words, people can - and will have to - adapt. They will learn new skills, create new jobs, products and services. As always, some will do this better than others; those who do it best, will thrive.

The two authors go on to pose some longer-term questions that bear pondering.

"It's time to start discussing what kind of society we should construct around a labour-light economy. How should the abundance of such an economy be shared? How can the tendency of modern capitalism to produce high levels of inequality be muted while preserving its ability to allocate resources efficiently and reward initiative and effort? What do fulfilling lives and healthy communities look like when they no longer centre on industrial-era conceptions of work? How should education, the social safety net, taxation, and other important elements of civic society be rethought?"

It is indeed time we started talking about these issues in our Future Economy discussions.

For, as I see it, we are all in for an Uber future. Many more of us are going to find, just as taxi drivers everywhere have learnt, that lives and livelihoods can be disrupted dramatically, for better or worse, quite out of the blue. This future could be either uber-thrilling or uber-terrifying. Which way it turns out depends on whether we can adapt, and do so fast enough.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'Get ready for an Uber future'. Print Edition | Subscribe