The world in 2014: Shrinking populations, shrinking productivity

Updated: Feb 2 2014, 08:37am hrs
Contemporary trends suggest clearly that adults are living longer and fewer children are being born in countries that account for half the worlds population. Even in a poor country like India, life expectancy has increased by five years in just the last decade, while birth rates have been falling. What this means for the global population is that in six or seven years from now, over 50% of the world will face shrinking populations and a corresponding rise in the number of old people.

In global terms, it means that in the richest countries of the world, tax bases will shrink and these countries will be spending more on old-age benefits. In India, this will apply to children of retired parents, who will be living well into their 90s. In some parts of the world, a shrinking population also means a smaller workforce. The prediction is that this will lead to a reduced gross domestic product in most of the world.

Big data and you

The amount of data in our world has been exploding, and analysing large data setsso-called big datawill become a key basis of competition, underpinning new waves of productivity growth, innovation and consumer retail, as per research by MGI and McKinseys Business Technology Office. Leaders in every sector will have to grapple with the implications of big data. Indeed, the increasing volume and detail of information captured by enterprises, the rise of multimedia, social media and the Internet of Things, as it is being called, has huge implications for individuals and society as well.

Computerised sensing and broadcasting abilities are being incorporated into our physical environment, there is data flowing from sensor networks, your social media usage, surveillance cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles and increasing use of electronic services for all our normal use is a log of where we have been and where we are going. In the future, these big data streams will be integrated into services, platforms and programmes that will provide a window into all our lives and our future.

Surveillance and transparency

Big Brother will be watching even more closely. Edward Snowden revealed the amazing extent to which the US government was conducting mass surveillance and it suggested that most governments, including in India, were doing the same. The excuse is anti-terrorism and anti-crime, but that has enabled agencies to bypass privacy laws and judicial protection, and conduct cyber surveillance and data mining on a global and unprecedented scale. Two other trends will emerge from this growth in artificial intelligence: one will be a movement to protect individual identity and private information, while the other will use the same weapons, used by hackers and activists, to create a society of whistleblowers who will expose governments and their use of technology to spy on their citizens.

Mobility of talent

Technology again will drive this trend, and is already doing so. The demand for talent and specialised skills means that the global talent pool is now accessible to everyone. This has also allowed employers to beat the downturn by hiring people from cloud-based sites. These virtual workers are hired to work from anywhere in the world. New skills and talent will be increasingly in demand in the coming years and it may not be available locally. One estimate put the size of the virtual worker at well over $1 billion and the number of cloud-based companies offering virtual services to clients is also growing fast, and include Staff.com, oDesk, Elance and Freelancer.com to name a few. For corporates, the benefits are obvious: significant cost savings since they do not have to pay regular state-enforced benefits, a flexible workforce and one that is available 24x7.

Detecting and treating diseases

The advancement of medical science and tools combined with research has given doctors and health experts a firmer handle on the detection, treatment and post-operative care for a variety of diseases. Cancer, cardiac and brain disorders are no longer life-threatening. Many are treatable and curable, and this trend will continue as early detection with scans and bio-markers, as well as advances in genetics and the potential of breakthroughs with stem cell research grows and spreads to areas where it is currently unavailable.

True artificial intelligence

Conventional computers cannot make decisions, as humans do, but we now have quantum computers that eventually might. These computers use programs based on quantum mechanics to see multiple possible outcomes to any given problem and combine information from each to formulate solutions. Quantum computing allied to advanced robotics may yet create true artificial intelligence in our lifetimes, currently confined to sci-fi novels and Hollywood.

Crowdsourcing our future

From political campaigns and political parties to scientific projects, music concerts and corporate start-ups, crowdsourcing has created a global network of volunteers and amateurs, as well as donors who are backing a variety of issues and individuals, as well as technology, scientific research and business ventures. It is the way of the future. Procter & Gamble repeatedly call on enthusiastic amateurs to solve scientific and technical challenges, while companies as diverse as iStockphoto and Threadless employ just a handful of people, yet generate millions of dollars in revenue. Crowdsourcing is how the power of the many can be leveraged to accomplish things that were done by a specialised few.

Precise manufacturing

The two big ideas in manufacturing are nanotechnology and 3D printing, and both will radically change the quality, methodology and cost of current manufacturing techniques across the world. Nanotechnology, invented by Eric Drexler, refers to a process which involves atom-by-atom production, which will allow for extraordinary improvements in manufacturing, whatever the product.

Nanotechnology may be able to create many new materials and devices with a vast range of applications in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and cleaner energy production. 3D printing is already creating a huge wave of excitement. It is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. The additive manufacturing process is faster, more flexible and less expensive when producing relatively small quantities of parts, and designers and concept development teams can do this using a desktop-size printer. It can potentially be used to make everything from car parts to pre-fabricated houses. Currently, it is expensive, but wider use will reduce costs and allow for manufacturing things

like body organs and impact almost every aspect of manufacturing.