Jason Pontin

With hyper-connectivity, 'we're reinventing what it means to be human'

November 6, 2013: 9:54 AM ET

At Moscow's biggest annual technology and innovation forum, technologists from around the world agree: Connectivity is changing us.

By Clay Dillow

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"How to Find Russia's High Priority Place in the Prospective Map of the Industries and Technologies Development" talk at the Open Innovations Forum. Panelists (L-R): Oleg Alekseev, Kathleen Kennedy, Jason Pontin, Anna Belova, and Evgeny Kuznetsov

FORUTUNE -- "The world's biggest problems are the world's biggest business opportunities," author, physician, space entrepreneur, and X-Prize Foundation Founder and Chairman Peter Diamandis remarked at the Open Innovation Forum in Russia last week. More than 10,000 people from around the globe converged in Moscow Thursday and Friday to discuss and demo the emerging technologies they predict will drive innovation and economic development in the coming decades, and to see if they can gain business opportunities by distilling those big problems

The forum featured panels involving the prime ministers of Russia, France, and Finland and included discussions ranging from the role government can play in spurring technological innovation to the 3-D printed future to the digital wallet (or the lack thereof). But ultimately most discussions came back to a few key themes, chief among them "hyper-connectivity" and the many opportunities and challenges facing traditional enterprises in a world where everyone is plugged in.

"Compared to how we'll be connected 10 years from now, we're not connected yet," Diamandis said. "Distance will mean nothing anymore -- where you live and where you work do not need to be the same." The forum showed a glimpse of that future. I traveled to Moscow and was there in the flesh, but every panel was either livestreamed or filmed and available online after the fact, so people who are continents away can consume the content. They also had free device charging stations everywhere, and some of the better open Wi-Fi I've experienced at a conference this size, to allow guests to stay in contact with the outside world.

Panelists and guests also drilled down to the tangible, specific technologies that will drive economies and innovation, both within the context of a highly connected world and outside of it. The idea of hyper-connectivity alone won't drive growth, after all, and in order for economies to grow and populations to prosper, ideas have to become products and processes that improve the lives of individual people.

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That is, innovation for innovation's sake won't cut it. "Individual innovations must be valuable, they must exist inside some market or at least some generalized context of supply and demand," Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review, told attendees on Friday. "In a hyper-connected world, the innovations of a nation's entrepreneurs and technologists are its main comparative advantage."

What kinds of innovations will actually drive growth and provide that advantage? Pontin and his staff produced a list of four "megatrends" accelerating technological innovation across sectors in the publication's recently-released "2013 Emerging Trends Report." Those megatrends track loosely with the topics that repeatedly rose to the forefront across the forum: nanotechnology, automation of work, a shift in power from producer toward the consumer, and the rise of hyper-connectivity and the so-called Internet of things.

In electronics, miniaturization has been the name of the game for decades, but at the nano-level the art of the possible makes a powerful leap forward, Pontin said. New materials derived from nanotech will enable better personal electronics, more efficient ways to generate and consume energy, and breakthroughs in medical technology. But perhaps most importantly, cheap and inexpensive sensors will be embedded everywhere, generating data and creating new big data opportunities and a world where everything--not just smartphones, tablets, and computers -- will be networked.

Likewise, robots wired into this network will alter not just industry but culture. The Internet is still trapped inside our devices, said Dmitry Grishin, CEO of Mail.Ru -- Russia's most popular email hosting service -- and recent founder of a venture capital fund focused solely on consumer robotics. Robots will increasingly allow the Internet to exist not only in cyberspace but also in the physical world.

For manufacturing and other kinds of useful work, the implications of this new kind of widespread automation aren't yet clear, Pontin warned, and some of them could create economic hardships in the short term. Automation will claim many more jobs than it already has, both blue- and white-collar, while mass customization will upend the traditional model of mass production over the next decade or two. However, robotics will create a new booming industry in itself; sales of robots will jump 5% between now and 2015, the beginning of what many expect to be a long, accelerating climb in the number of robots sold at both the industrial and consumer levels.

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The mass customization enabled by increased automation and connectivity won't just challenge traditional business models and economic paradigms but will alter consumers themselves, creating a very different kind of customer for most of the world's providers of goods and services. "Today's consumers are no longer content to swallow whatever companies dish out," Pontin said. "The new consumer expects the best products at the lowest prices at any time." The ability to pick and choose from products around the globe -- or even customize one's own product and have it fabricated, say, via 3-D printer -- shifts a good deal of power that's traditionally rested with the producer to the consumer. That's a fundamental change in a relationship that has remained largely the same throughout the modern era, and one that will dictate the winners and losers as hyper-connectivity increases.

Over the next decade or two these disruptions will drastically alter not only the global economic landscape but the individual people that underpin it. "We're reinventing what it means to be human," Diamandis said, capping off his remarks. "We're moving towards a world of 7 billion hyper-connected humans, and we can plug in to it. People will want to be connected. We're evolving what humanity is, and it's happening in the next few decades."

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