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Future visions for a 5G world: Cathy Hackl

A convergence of our physical and digital worlds will see virtual assistants own the relationship with the consumer, with direct-to-avatar becoming the next direct-to-consumer

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What kind of future should we anticipate?


Megatrends are shaping our world from all angles – political, economic, social and technical – but over the last few decades, technology changes have delivered some of the most significant impacts. For example, smartphones and tablet didn’t exist at the dawn of this millennium, and the digital world was far from mainstream. However, here in 2020, the conversation has moved to the digital economy and the 4th Industrial Revolotion (4IR).

4IR encompasses a range of technologies including, but not limited to: augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G, robotics, wearable devices, and bio- and nano-technology. These technologies are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds and opening new vistas for humanity. According to Cathy Hackl, this is the direction we are heading but it’s still a challenge to anticipate the future.

Hackl is a futurist and author and describes the work she does as futures intelligence. She helps organizations make sense of nascent trends and understand the weak signals that are mixed in with the noise of the digital economy, helping them to future-proof their long-term strategic planning. Her thought leadership on AR, VR and spatial computing is recognized globally. In 2016 she was recognized as one of the top Latina women working in VR by NBC News. She was also named as one of “The 10 most influential women in tech right now” by Big Think in October 2020.

Hackl sees a bio-digital convergence on the horizon and thinks it will help humanity but is also realistic about how events will unfold.

“Generally, people tend to see embedded technology leading to a dystopian future,” she says. “Others see it in a more utopian way. But it’s far more likely to fall between the two scenarios.” This realistic approach has a name. “When it comes to the future, I’m a protopian,” says Hackl. “Protopia is a state where tomorrow will be a bit better than today through slow and continuous progress. But as well as bringing new benefits, it will also bring new challenges for us to work through.”

How will technology build a better world?

Hackl is hopeful about the role that technologies will play in building a better future. “With AI, there’s a huge personal and social upside for human health, for example monitoring and regulating oxygen and sugar levels in the blood,” she says, “But AI can also be used to anticipate life-threatening illnesses such as strokes, heart attacks or cancer where early diagnosis increases survival rates”.

We’ll need 5G to make this better future possible

And Hackl is clear that the future scenarios we want to see from AI will need a highly resilient and secure network. “We’ll need 5G to make this better future possible. It will connect the devices, sensors, chips and embedded chips in real-time,” she says.

According to Hackl, when you look at bio-digital convergence and neural interfaces, two things will happen.

First, we will see more dynamic use of AI. It will help the injured or elderly with physical movements or allow disabled people to scroll on a tablet using the power of their mind. Thought-activated scrolling is something that Hackl has experienced directly and confirms that it works.

“This kind of interface and technology will have a huge benefit on their quality of life, and it will ensure that disabled individuals are not excluded from the digital world,” says Hackl. The implications deliver the second change. “If you can scroll your tablet with thoughts,” says Hackl, “it shows you won’t always need a keyboard and mouse to access the online world. Communications service providers (CSPs) and the entire communications ecosystem need to pay attention to the nature of future human interfaces.”  
Hackl continues by exploring some of the potential downsides to bio-digital convergence. “Consistent with the protopian view, there are challenges to this upside and along with the change in human interface, we must be able to centrally verify the source, provenance, integrity and security of the data being used.”

She believes this is vitally important as the data and information accessed via connected glasses, contact lenses or neural implants will be the bedrock of a future. And there is another angle to consider. If technology has a neural interface with humans, and this determines how we see the world, then how do we define the customer?

Businesses need to rethink their marketing approach

Linking humans directly to the virtual world or internet takes us in to the ‘spatial internet’, another specialist area for Hackl. The spatial internet is also called the metaverse, mirror world, AR cloud, or live maps. It provides a 3D rendering or virtual spaces and provides information about your surroundings.

For example: in agriculture, it could show which parts of the field are too wet or deficient in certain minerals that would adversely impact the crop yield. In a factory, it could show if any of the machinery is overheating. When driving it could relay real-time information about road and traffic conditions, plus additional information about proximity of petrol stations and other services. The value of the information will be linked to its timeliness as much as its relevance, so ultra-low latency networks, like 5G for connectivity, are key.

For personal surroundings, it could show opening hours of stores, whether the store has the items in stock that you are thinking about, or exactly how long the queue is at your favorite coffee shop two blocks away. This kind of information can save an individual time and money, but as the world becomes a billboard, it signals a major change for businesses, because virtual assistants will own the relationship with the consumer. How will businesses influence an indomitable, digital Jeeves or benevolent firewall?

Companies have a wealth of information about individuals that can create more personalization. This is the secret sauce. Generally, people are open to sharing information if it’s on their terms, so businesses will need to use AI to continually refine their knowledge of customer preferences to ensure they stay connected to their customers. However, the relationship has to be built on trust.

We must protect individuals’ privacy and personal data and ensure they are in control of their lives, not their virtual assistants

“We need to get the ethical foundations in place now so that we have secure and sustainable foundations for the metaverse,” says Hackl. “We must protect individuals’ privacy and personal data and ensure they are in control of their lives, not their virtual assistants.”

The weak signals are there for CSPs to see

Looking further ahead, what actions can CSPs and businesses take now to prepare for a different business world?

Hackl suggests they take their cue from the younger generation. There are plenty of weak signals present on social media. Younger people are more likely to see gadgets as friends and use online sources as their ‘go to’ helpers. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, they used video to meet friends or help with homework and hung out in online communities.

From their perspective, the best gifts are credits and rewards in their online universe, rather than physical gifts, giving rise to the direct-to-avatar economy that’s starting to go mainstream across video games and virtual communities. This indicates how Generation Z will want to engage with businesses in the future.

“CSPs and businesses cannot assume that their customers’ characteristics will remain constant in the future,” says Hackl “They are dynamic too, and potentially they will be connected to multiple devices. And for flawless connectivity, you need a robust network like 5G that can manage hundreds of thousands of devices in a small area.”

When looking at the future we can see how technology trends are influencing many aspects of both our social and economic future. Connectivity is the key enabler for the changes they bring and CSPs are at the center of this with an opportunity to expand and grow their value in our society.

Cathy Hackl

About Cathy Hackl

Cathy Hackl is a leading futurist and tech/media executive specializing in the impact emerging technologies like AR, VR, and AI, are having on communications and business. Linkedin has recognized her for two years in a row as one of the Top Technology Voices on the platform globally, its highest honor.  

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