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Recent books that spotlight how change is impacting our world

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Social Lead for IBM Analytics - Financial Services Sector, IBM

I read a book today, oh boy. Actually, I read a lot of books—not quite one per day, but close to one each week in 2016. 

Worth reading

When browsing the Internet, I am continually bombarded with stories about politics that cause me to wonder what is happening in the world. I have such a love for progress, but civility, globalization and acceptance of others were seemingly going backward in 2016. As I look through the list of books that I read during the past year, apparently I was immersing myself in books about how changes in technology and social connections can propel the world in the direction I would like to see it take. With these thoughts in mind, here is my roundup of books I read in 2016.

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 2016)

by Thomas L. Friedman

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of AccelerationsCognitive, or artificial intelligence (AI), is happening now and is expected to only become better and more prevalent. In his book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, Tom Friedman argues that it is technologies such as AI that are reshaping the world and causing change faster than ever before. But, at the same time that massive changes are occurring in technology, we are also undergoing economic, political and climate changes. Friedman helps us understand how to get the most out of these changes and to minimize the impact they may have on us personally.

One of the stories in this book that I loved best had to do with the inflection point of technology changes. In 2007, for example, Apple released the iPhone, and together with advances in silicon chips, software, storage, sensors and networking, Friedman pinpoints 2007 as the year when a new technology platform took shape. The result is the world we know today: Airbnb, the Android operating system, cloud storage, Facebook, GitHub, Kindle, Twitter and my personal favorite—IBM Watson. At the time, we didn’t know the changes we were experiencing would have such an impact, but now that this technology is so much a part of our lives, doesn’t it make you wonder how we lived prior to 2007?

Friedman argues how the time was right for all these changes to happen essentially at the same time and predicts that this infrastructure will lead to increasingly faster change. We can expect self-driving cars, personalized health, new sources of renewable power and much more. The consequences of such massive changes are expected to be disruption to many jobs, which isn’t a novel concept. Over the years, technology has caused disruption in many jobs and industries, and winners and losers have resulted. Think about when cars overtook horses as a primary means of transportation. The need for horses, stables, food supplies, and cleanup crews was replaced by the sudden need for car builders, fossil fuel, gas stations and mechanics.

To cope with such massive change, we need to rethink much of the way the world works. We need to continually learn to keep up, we need a different type of government and perhaps we need new systems altogether for banking and social networking. Of course, none of these ways of rethinking about the world matters if we don’t first get serious about the reality and consequences of climate change. Friedman offers theories on what he believes people need to do to cope with the coming changes. I share his optimism and believe that humans will come together and collaborate to make the right changes for a continued existence. 

Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane 

by Brett King

The main theme of Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane (Marshall Cavendish International, May 2016) is how technology is expected to transform our lives. The final chapter of this book even shows how different the future could be for students and newly employed, skilled and retired workers as a result of the coming augmented age.

King defines the augmented age as the follow-on from the machine age, the space age and the digital age. We know from history that previous ages have brought significant disruption and changes, but overall, new jobs were created, wealth was improved and the health and security of society progressed. Read this book to find out what the augmented age can bring in terms of AI, embedded experiences, infrastructure and health.

Consider AI. Some fear that super-intelligent robots may take over the world, but most likely, we’ll see that AI or cognitive technology can instead augment decision making. And it can do so because digital advisors are better at consuming large amounts of data and recognizing the patterns in the data.

The chapter on robots takes us through a history of sci-fi movies and books that have shaped our current understanding of what a robot is. We already have robotic vacuums, lawn mowers, pool cleaners and even a robot named Pepper helping customers in Japanese banks.

One of the best uses for robots is as an assistant in the care of the elderly. These assistants can be personalized for an individual, have access to all medical information for that individual and communicate and emulate caring as though human. This robotic approach is expected to eliminate current concerns around elderly care such as patient abuse, theft, overcharging and neglect.

Also consider autonomous or self-driving cars. This technology exists now and is being tested on real roads. Once self-driving vehicles are in widespread use, we’ll no longer need to worry about distracted, impaired or tired drivers; finding the best route; or navigating rush hour traffic. Tests have shown that self-driving cars are better than humans at these tasks and therefore safer than human drivers.

Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane Healthcare in general is another area expected to see many changes because of technology. We’ve already seen how wearable devices are being used to track activity, food and water consumption, and sleep, but tracking is only a small part of the story. The data collected can be used to provide personalized advice on how to improve your well-being. IBM Watson is building domain skills to help diagnose and treat cancer patients. Robotics are assisting surgeons. Human genome sequencing has identified diseases that are genetic such as autism, breast cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Gene editing is expected to help manage or eliminate these diseases. Collectively, these changes should help us increase our lifespan and allow us to be healthier as we age.

And advancements are being made in hearing, sight, and limb and organ replacements. Going beyond what can be done today, we could possibly see technology progress to the point of developing the augmented human. Think bionic hearing and sight, or limbs specialized for running, climbing or fashionable adornment. The chapter on this topic is fascinating, particularly in regard to what is possible today such as 3D-printed bionic hands and robotic exoskeletons.

If you’ve ever listened to King’s podcasts or read his articles, you’ll know that he’s very keen on having technology seamlessly integrated into our lives. We are expected to see many of our devices disappear while having the functions that are currently provided by these devices being built into our homes, cars and even clothes. We’ve already seen how smartphones have eliminated the need for a camera, Global Positioning System (GPS) device, calendar, home phone and in many cases desktop or laptop computers. Smartphones are now eliminating the need to carry a wallet because you can use it or your smart watch to make payments, collect points and provide identification. We are likely to have greater integration with our technology and in real time through interfaces that are more powerful, highly capable and less complex to operate.

I’ve only covered a fraction of what is discussed in this very thorough investigation on how every aspect of our lives will be augmented by technology. You may find these predictions exhilarating, but many will find them threatening. These transformative changes require us to think radically about careers, city infrastructure, education, financial systems and healthcare.

Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World 

by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott

Think of blockchain as the next generation of the Internet. But instead of the exchange of information, it provides an efficient, trusted exchange of anything. Lack of trust of Internet activity has caused problems such as privacy issues, plagiarism, copyright violations, anonymous haters, fraud, identity theft and more. Blockchain infrastructure is being designed to eliminate these concerns through shared distributed ledgers that are permissioned, follow business rules and can make transfers across all networks. Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World (Portfolio, May 2016) points out that this approach is expected to bring transparency and trust while conducting any transaction.

The financial industry is likely going to benefit greatly by this technology. Remember bitcoins? The technology behind bitcoins is what blockchain is built on. But the use cases and implementation go beyond anonymous cyber currency. For blockchain to be as profound as it is predicted to be, principles are needed and consortiums made up of world-class governments, start-ups, technology companies and universities are working out the details related to governance and standards. The goal is to have clear governance and transparency on the standards to make the infrastructure open, secure and scalable.

This book thoroughly discusses the background on how blockchain came to be and why it is needed. Many interesting use cases are explored including those surrounding the accounting, legal and music industries as well as contracts, reputation, social media and much more. Active use cases of the blockchain already exist, but many parts of the technology are still being decided upon. Open debates and collaboration are taking place to ensure this technology is inclusive so everyone on the planet can benefit while attempting to keep the criminals and dictators from taking control.

If you want a glimpse of a sci-fi utopia that just might come true, read this book. It is very well written and a pleasure to read.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future 

by Ashlee Vance

Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the WorldWe all know time travel isn’t possible, but visionaries such as Elon Musk represent what a time traveler might be like. His outrageous ideas and pure determination to see them through are quite incredible and documented in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (Ecco, May 2015).

Musk has founded or cofounded several companies; for example, Zip2 was an Internet directory that was created before we even knew what a browser was. Think of the result of Googling a restaurant or any business. You get directions, hours and reviews. That approach to search is what Zip2 was intended to be. Next came PayPal, which can be thought of as banking without a bank and an approach that tries to keep the transaction fees as low as possible. Musk’s visions for this company were not realized as a result of his rejection as CEO. But in the book’s second appendix, the author publishes the plans that Musk had for PayPal—or X.com as he wanted to call it. Those who took over the business didn’t quite see his vision.

Musk was involved with those start-ups while in his 20s, and it helped him to become extremely wealthy. Once he had money, Musk created two start-ups that he’d dreamed of since he was a young boy—Tesla, a fully electric-powered car, and SpaceX, a delivery service for space. After these companies got going, Solar City was created to make solar panels and solar energy more practical for the masses.

All three of these businesses had been tried previously to a lesser degree than Musk envisioned them to be. Regardless of hearing from everyone that it “can’t be done,” he went ahead and did it. Tesla is a luxury all-electric car that was designed as an electric car. It wasn’t simply a morph of combustion engine–powered cars. Once you get in a Tesla, you can drive it for free. No fueling up is necessary, and if you charge it at Solar City charging stations, that energy is also complimentary. And very little maintenance is needed because most of the car is software-driven; updates and fixes can be delivered to your car while you sleep.

To make this kind of car work, Musk needed to create a battery that can power the car for up to 300 miles. Musk accomplished this goal, and he makes his batteries available to any car manufacturer who wants to create an electric car. Musk’s goal is to reduce or eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels, and he’s opened up his patents for all to see.

Another company, SpaceX, is even more ambitious. Eventually, Musk wants to see Mars colonized. To do so, hundreds of daily launches with a reusable rocket are required to send all the supplies to the colony. Although this goal is quite lofty, the first steps have already been taken. SpaceX didn’t rely on old technology for rockets that could be acquired from Russia or China, Musk instead has them built entirely in the US using materials that had to be invented. To help finance this company, he set up SpaceX as an inexpensive service to launch satellites and then to deliver supplies to the space station. Now the company is working on getting to Mars.

This book was enjoyable to read, and it details the many ups and downs that come with being Musk and trying to convince people to trust his ideas. The book’s third appendix provides a letter to his SpaceX employees on how to manage stocks and the pros and cons of going public. Currently, SpaceX is not a public company, and some employees wanted it to be public. However, they likely changed their minds after reading this very convincing email from its founder. If you have any desire in changing the world to a significant degree or you want to see how a start-up can be successful, these books are a must read. Musk had to learn many lessons the hard way about being a CEO at a start-up, and you can learn from his experiences.

Worth considering

I hope you enjoyed my summary of these inspiring books. I encourage you to read these books and others to spark your optimism for the technology changes that we are likely to experience in the coming years. I also encourage you to take a look at how IBM is helping to change the world with forward-thinking technologies that affect every industry. Specifically, see how IBM envisions a cognitive bank.

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