We are living in a period of global change that is probably the most momentous in human history. Within digitalization – perhaps the most visible driver of change – Sweden has performed well, thanks to forward-looking policy reforms and to a favourable innovation climate. It is no coincidence that Stockholm, after Silicon Valley, is the city with the measured highest per-capita number of 'unicorns' – innovation startups valued at more than one billion US dollars.
But we believe that Sweden can reach further and become a world leader in an even more important arena: building reliable, long-term visions for a future with significantly greater challenges – visions that are especially important at a time when people are greatly concerned about the future and are easily attracted to simplistic policy solutions.
We can't turn back time. Today's digitalization is only the beginning. Services, products and ideas travel at the speed of light worldwide via the internet in the form of digital information. The power of change lies in the fact that a digital copy costs almost nothing, reaching the entire world with one click. It destroys existing business models – as in the music industry, where services like Spotify and Apple Music are replacing the sale of both CDs and digital downloads. These drivers are reinforced by the blurring of boundaries between different digital businesses, where services can be freely mixed and combined.
The digital revolution is upending all sectors and industries. Companies that fail to reinvent themselves will fail. Consider, for example, what could occur to the finance industry via block-chain technology – the basis of the crypto-currency Bitcoin that eliminates the need for banks and card companies for guaranteeing transactions.
People: the critical element
Even more interesting is what happens when people are added to the equation. Connecting via informal networks with global reach, people can build large entities such as Wikipedia and open-source code – for example Bitcoin and the operating system Linux – simply because they want to. Free. Previously this could be accomplished only by states or global corporations, at immense cost.
The sharing economy is also built by people who exploit digital opportunities to share resources that cannot be copied digitally – everything from travels, cars, accommodations and pet-sitters to funding and loans.
When people communicate through their own networks, organizations and companies also change. The once-clear boundaries of organizations are becoming porous, knowledge flows in and out, and more people are becoming self-employed. Many firms will have to get used to considering employees as many parents think of their teenagers – they have them on loan. If they have employees, that is.
Automation, robototics and AI (Artificial Ingelligence)
The next step, linked closely to digitalization, is automation. Google's self-driving cars have travelled more than 1.5 million miles on public roads; next year Volvo will be the first carmaker to put 100 self-driving cars with ordinary users into everyday traffic.
Automation is becoming commonplace in areas such as sales, finance, services, office administration, and of course industrial production across many sectors, as noted above. But it won't stop there – automation is taking over more and more advanced tasks when combined with artificial intelligence, AI.
This technology is evolving rapidly. Current AI systems not only beat human masters in Jeopardy and in the world's most advanced board game, Go, but also diagnose cancer, solve legal problems and handle customer service over the phone faster and better than humans.
Despite this, it will be a while until we have human-like robots, partly due to effective robot bodies still being much clumsier and heavier than human bodies. But we should prepare for them.
Additionally, 3D-printer technology may radically change large parts of the manufacturing industry, in combination with Industry 4.0 – industrial production that is controlled in real time through continuous analysis of large amounts of sensor data.
What happens when we add people to the equation? Research has shown that about half of today's jobs may be taken over by machines within one or two decades. We therefore need to help people to find new, hopefully more interesting, jobs, in many cases in collaboration with automated systems. Some of these jobs could for example be within Industry 5.0 – the quest to add human feeling, even in highly automated production.
But the challenges are most probably even greater – we will likely have to fundamentally change our view on work. It is possible, for example, that many people will not need to have a traditional job.
This presents opportunities as well as challenges. How do we encourage people to pursue education if they don't need to? How can we design an educational system that can last a lifetime, given the ever-faster rate of change?
Nothing suggests that the accelerating technological pace can be stopped or slowed. Clearly, society faces major ethical, economic and political challenges.
Already, worries about the future are giving rise to fear, the concern about basic cultural shifts. And the only effective answer to populist and simplistic political solutions are credible long-term visions for the future.
Sweden has a long technology tradition, and a strong ability for mutual understanding and dialogue. That is a good foundation for wide-ranging discussions, essential in dealing with the challenges we are facing, and to build realistic visions. But political awareness will also be required.
Our suggestion is that all elected policy makers in Sweden be informed about how far today's most advanced technology has reached and where it is heading, through a day's training with content designed by people who have insight into what is likely technologically possible within a decade. We offer to help initiate such a programme, which could also lay the groundwork for a model for education fit for the future.
Article written by Danica Kragic Jensfelt, Professor in Computer Science, Royal Institute of Technology; Mats Lewan, Science and Technology Journalist, author, M. Sc. in Engingeering Physics; Robin Teigland, Professor in Business Administration, Stockholm School of Economics.
It was first published in Swedish by Dagens Nyheter and translated by The Local's intern, Jack Schofield.