Understanding the disruptive power of technology

Read time 4min 20sec
Aurona Gerber, associate professor within the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria.
Aurona Gerber, associate professor within the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria.

ICT professionals eagerly embrace technology breakthroughs such as autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, robotics, artificial intelligence and wearables, seeing these disruptive technologies in terms of the new ideas and solutions they will inspire.

While it is clear humanity's future will be heavily influenced and altered by these and other innovations yet to come, it remains a challenging and daunting task to understand how life will change, or what the impact will be on society and business.

"For example, does disruption mean 'new ways of doing what we've always done' (such as teaching online rather than in a classroom), or does disruption mean there is no place anymore for the way things were done before (for instance, in the case of digital photography replacing film photography)," says Aurona Gerber, associate professor within the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria.

"Several futurists predict major upheavals in healthcare, finance and education based on technology examples such as Sophia, the humanoid robot. Sophia caused a stir at CES2019 when she quite convincingly dialogued with humans on aspects such as religion and what it means to be alive.

"The term artificial intelligence (AI) was coined by John McCarthy in 1956, so why is AI now coined as a disruptive technology more than 50 years later? To understand exactly what is meant by 'disruptive' is also vague. What is being disrupted and how are things disrupted?"

This is the starting point from which Gerber developed a conceptual framework to assist with general understanding of disruptive technologies and what role they will play in the future.

The framework depicts three technology development categories. The first category, foundational technology developments, represents the necessary developments that underpin modern technology.

"Secondly, we recognised that technologies that are referred to as 'disruptive technologies' mostly represent a technology fusion with the 'integrated technology development'category.

"Lastly, we identified 'technology solution development' as the final category because the novel application of technology fusions to solve human, society and business needs is a central determining factor that explains disruption," notes Gerber.

To break this down further, says Gerber, the framework considers:

Data and digitisation: The ability to create digitised representation of reality by connected users and devices, as well as the ability to collect measurements through masses of deployed sensors is causing an exponential growth in data.

Computational power: Since Moore coined his famous Moore's Law in the 1960s, computing power experienced exponential growth. Today, we have access to computing power in a common smartphone that was only available in mainframe computers a decade ago.

Connectivity and networks: The incredible growth of the Internet is representative of the exponential growth in connectivity and network technologies. It is estimated the Internet grows by approximately a million users per day and almost 1.7 billion people were connected to the Internet since January 2012.

"The exponential growth of the foundational technologies has changed the technology landscape drastically. When these technologies are integrated, fused and enhanced, we see the emergence of disruptive technologies.

"Any so-called disruptive technology is a technology fusion that in some way exploits the functionality provided by the exponential development of foundational technologies.

"Lastly, technologies cannot be disruptive without the human component, with developments applied to satisfy human, society and business needs.

"It is when intelligent technology platforms connect smartphone users that need rooms with users that have rooms that we see the emergence of disruptive businesses such as Airbnb.

"When refined AI algorithms are allowed to learn from vast amounts of medical data, we see diagnostic results for diseases that promise to outperform human specialists.

"The increase in the number of unicorn companies (valued at $1 billion+) that focus primarily on AI to solve unique problems, is significant.

"Unicorn platform companies continue to be at the forefront of disruption focusing on diverse human needs, such as chat services and social networking, connecting farmers and restaurants, or providing intelligent services to corporations to store and analyse data.

"The applications of technology fusions are diverse and novel, and as society adopts these technology solutions, it is being altered itself. The ways in which we do things is being changed, or, in other words, disrupted.

"In conclusion, disruptive technologies are affecting all aspects of human life and will increasingly alter and disrupt society.

"Next time you stumble across a disruptive technology that represents a technology fusion, evaluate both its use of the foundational developments, as well as its possible application to solve pressing human needs. In such a way, it is possible to understand its disruptive power."

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