This year’s Looking Glass report from Thoughtworks highlights ways in which technology will impact everything from how we interact with the world to the role it plays in going green.

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Understanding the impact of technology on businesses and society at large is hard. This year’s annual Thoughtworks Looking Glass report attempts to put a broad range of technologies into perspective so business leaders can get an idea of where tech is taking them. 

The report takes a holistic approach to analyzing the impact of 100 current and emerging technologies. Broken out into sections called lenses, the report “offers industry leaders recommendations on how to best compete and become disruptors themselves.”

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“We use the lenses in the Looking Glass to help make sense of all of the individual trends with the lenses akin to the big ‘storylines’ that we think will be important,” said Michael Mason, Thoughtworks global head of technology. “What’s interesting is to also consider the lenses in combinations. If we overlay the evolution of the human-machine experience with an explosion in AI, what ramifications will that have for a particular industry or organization? Whilst we offer some of these combinations in the report, this exercise is also a good one for readers to use to stimulate their thinking.”

Partnering with AI

The first lens, Partnering with AI, looks at how businesses can get the most from the rapid adoption of machine learning and AI. To do this, businesses must understand where the technology works well and where it doesn’t. For example, problems that require creativity or intuition are not the best use cases for AI. Applying AI in these situations should be done to aid human decision making, not replace it.

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In other areas, such as deploying chat bots to answer basic queries or escalate a customer request to a human customer service rep, AI works very well. Areas that benefit from AI-driven automation include dynamic pricing, recommendation systems, anomaly detection and supply chain optimization.

Some trends to watch in this space include: privacy respecting computation, AutoML, federated learning and, in the most distant future, quantum ML.

Evolving the human-machine experience

The next lens focuses on the human-machine experience. As everyone knows, this is an area ripe for improvement. This section focuses on the emerging concept of the metaverse, an area of reality where the real and digital worlds overlap. Extended reality applications — VR, AR and mixed reality — dominate this space. 

The report’s authors expect to see more focus in this area as VR and AR device makers and startups try to cash in. According to research cited in the report from Emergen Research, the metaverse market is set to explode, growing 40% YOY to $800B by 2028. 

Technologies to watch include: brain-computer interfaces, retinal projection, affective emotional computing and, in the more distant future, the metaverse.

Realizing the potential of platforms

The third lens focuses on platform building as a core business strategy. This is an area “fraught with ambiguities,” the report said, because even the idea of a “platform” or “platform approach” can be hard to define.

“A successful platform approach depends on nailing down definitions,” the report said. “Platforms can drive various kinds of value and misunderstanding or misalignment among stakeholders regarding these will lead to subpar or wasted efforts.”

To avoid these issues the report recommends first defining what you are trying to achieve, the results you want, and to make sure all the stakeholders understand and share the same goals.

“A platform is an accelerator or catalyst, having the platform allows you to do something faster,” Mason said. 

According to Mason, there are three types of platforms in use today:

  • Developer-focused infrastructure platforms that accelerate time to market and mitigate risk through a common, validated approach to security and compliance

  • Business capability platforms that accelerate new product development by providing a set of APIs that encapsulate existing business capabilities and make it easier to build new services with existing resources 

  • Platform business models where value is created by facilitating interactions among consumers, peers and service providers

Some of the technologies to watch in this space include: fog computing, trust ecosystems, machine to machine collaboration and, in the more distant future, private IoT PaaS platforms.

Expanding impact of hostile tech

Through this lens the report’s authors explore the idea that even good technology can be used for bad purposes. 

“‘Hostile’ tech by our definition can encompass not just criminal tech such as malware and hacking tools but also use cases like advertising and customer targeting,” the report said. “One example is bias in algorithms or machine learning systems. These may exhibit ‘hostile’ tendencies towards certain customer groups without having been compromised or deliberately designed that way, because of unplanned and unnoticed distortions in the way they were constructed or developed.”

Even lawful activity such as tracking people as they surf the web can be viewed as hostile by some people, while other people freely give up their privacy in return for perceived benefits such as target advertising.

To avoid alienating customers and improve trust, the report’s authors suggest being respectful of customer wishes, avoiding intrusive targeting and rooting out bias AI. 

Some trends to watch in this space include: privacy-respecting computation, privacy-aware communications, differential privacy and, in the more distant future, quantum machine learning and the metaverse.

SEE: Research: Digital transformation initiatives focus on collaboration (TechRepublic Premium)

Accelerating towards sustainability 

The fifth and final lens looks at the big picture and long-term viability of technology-fueled growth and consumption. Consumers, governments and investors are all demanding greater environmental accountability from companies as “going green has gone from being optional to a business imperative,” the report said.

“Technology is a major contributor to climate change and most tech companies are attempting to address this … ,” the report said, but it “can also help make our everyday lives more sustainable, by for example supporting smart cities that optimize traffic to reduce pollution. The move to a sustainable world is accelerating and the trend has wide business implications.”

Some of those implications include government policies and legislation that mandate energy efficiency and sustainability; investors preferring companies with strong environmental, social and governance standards; and companies leveraging green initiatives to attract new customers and keep existing ones.

“There are two key trends to be aware of,” said Mason. “First is that consumers are increasingly aware of the need for sustainable practices and are concerned about environmental impacts and climate change, and they absolutely do change their buying behavior based on the perceived sustainability stance of a company. That’s not the same as basing a buying decision off an actual ESG rating, however.”

Some technologies to watch in this space include: technology for circular economies, blockchain for sustainability, green software engineering and, in the more distant future, the metaverse and DNA data storage.

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