Big words vs big Inventions: Which tech innovations have lived up to their promise?

As the 21st century enters its third decade, have the big innovations of the past few years delivered on their early promise?

Since the millennium, the world has enjoyed a period of intense innovation and rapid technological progress. Ranked highly by market capitalization, the giant industrial, chemical and energy companies that dominated stock markets for much of the previous century have been all but replaced by a new generation of software and technology firms. Billions of dollars have flowed into R&D investments in computing, communications and related sectors. Five sectors – computer technology, electrical machinery, sensors and measurement, digital communication and medical technology – now account for almost 30% of annual patent applications.

Yet even big ideas often have to travel a long and arduous road from invention to world-changing impact. The first electric car rolled through the streets of Wolverhampton in the U.K. in 1884, for example, but the idea languished for well over a century until the combination of better batteries and heightened environmental concern ignited the current period of rapid EV growth.

Other innovations end up as mere footnotes in the history books when they fail to find significant markets, or are superseded by competing ideas. In 1930s London, cranes, bridges, elevators and rotating theater stages all operated on hydraulic power distributed through a network of high-pressure pipes from steam-driven pumping stations across the city. Today, the hydraulic power stations are gone, and those jobs are done by electric machines.

So where do the more recent crop of innovations stand? Which of the 21st century’s big ideas are really reshaping the world, and which have yet to find their niche?

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The number of connected devices for every person on Earth, 2019

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The growth in robots in the logistics sector 2017 to 2022

Connectivity is everywhere

Perhaps the biggest change story of the past 20 years is the growth of connectivity, especially wireless connections to the internet. That change has happened so fast and become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember a time when mobile phones were not fully functioning miniature internet terminals. In 2001, however, telecommunications companies were just launching the first of the “fast” 3G networks that would make mobile data a practical reality. Today, more than 5 billion people subscribe to mobile services. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the lowest rates of mobile ownership, subscriber penetration rates are rapidly approaching 50%.

People aren’t just buying mobile devices in their millions, they’re also using them more often, and to do more with them. Traffic on the world’s mobile data networks has grown at around 60% a year for much of the past decade, with much of that expansion driven by users’ seemingly endless appetite for video services. Wireless equipment-maker Ericsson estimates that global mobile data use will grow from today’s 38 ExaBytes (EB) per month to 160EB by 2025, with video accounting for 76% of that traffic.

The shift to online – especially mobile – services for shopping, leisure and information access has had a radical effect on many types of business. After fighting the change for many years, the music industry has almost entirely embraced downloads and streaming services as its primary distribution channels. E-commerce is transforming retail, and 2019 was the first year that the global advertising industry spent more money online than in traditional media.

If humans have embraced the world of seamless connectivity with great enthusiasm, machines are catching up fast. Excluding “traditional” computers and mobile phones, researchers believe that the number of internet of things (IoT) devices exceeded the human population of the Earth in 2017. There may already be more than two connected devices for every person.

The majority of those devices today are consumer products, such as smart speakers or connected home security cameras. Internet security company Avast estimates that 40% of homes worldwide now contain IoT devices, with the figure rising to 66% in North America. Industrial applications of IoT technologies, however, are also reaching critical mass. A team of researchers from McKinsey and the World Economic Forum has been traveling the world for the last two years collecting “lighthouse” examples of manufacturing companies that have managed to create real value from the application of IoT and other advanced digital technologies. In their latest report, published in January, the group notes that the best companies are now using these techniques to manage and coordinate not just factories but whole supply chains.

Semiconductor-maker Infineon, for example, used IoT in its manufacturing operations to cut material costs by 10%, while digital connections between its factories and subcontract suppliers have halved the time required to react to quality problems and quarantine suspect material. Chemicals company Henkel has connected all its plants and distribution centers in a single cloud-based digital network, an approach that it says has helped it transform productivity, reduce energy consumption and increase forecast accuracy by a fifth.



Doubling down on data

If connectivity really has transformed the way we live our lives and run our businesses, what are companies doing with the estimated 3,000EB of data that flows through the world’s networks every year? Humanity’s ability to manipulate and extract information from data has changed dramatically during the course of the century thus far. Faster, more powerful computers allow the processing of far larger volumes of data. The data used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its models of global warming impact has increased in size by a factor of 27,000 since 2001, for example, with the latest predictions based on around 300 PetaBytes of data.

Left: PRECISION INSTRUMENTS: One semiconductor-maker uses the internet of things in its manufacturing operations; right: SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME: It’s still unusual to see robots – such as this patrol robot – deployed in public

Computers have also become much better at tasks they once struggled with, especially with the emergence of advanced analytics techniques, which can extract useful information from noisy or uncertain data, and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies that can make complex decisions and judgements. The COVID-19 crisis has made this very clear. According to Forbes, China relied on its strong technology sector as part of its response to fighting the virus. Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei and other companies accelerated their healthcare initiatives and are now involved with clinicians, academics and government enitities around the world to activate technology, with AI, among other things, able to identify, track and forecast outbreaks, helping to diagnose the virus and processing healthcare claims.

Technology’s successes in some categories of tasks made many companies optimistic that they would soon find solutions to a whole range of more difficult problems. Some of those tasks have proved more stubborn than expected. In 2017, leading carmakers, including GM and Ford, announced that they would be able to sell fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles by 2020 or 2021. Both companies have since pushed their timelines back. Ford, for example, still hopes to launch a fleet of self-driving taxis in 2021, but admits they will only be able to operate in a few areas where road and traffic conditions are favorable.

The challenge of self-driving technology comes partly from its complexity. Vehicles need to sense and understand busy, noisy and unpredictable environments, then make instant decisions based on that understanding. But the high stakes also add significantly to the challenge. Misunderstanding a driving situation, or making a bad decision, can have fatal consequences.

Today, it seems that business uses for autonomous driving technologies will progress more rapidly than their consumer counterparts. There are plenty of applications in manufacturing and logistics environments that offer the sort of well-controlled, predicable environments that computers can handle. Volvo is currently using Vera, its autonomous electric tractor unit, to move shipping containers around the port of Gothenburg in Sweden. And a third of the 400 giant haul trucks working in Rio Tinto’s mining operations in Pilbara, Australia, have been retrofitted for fully autonomous operation. The company says autonomy has reduced costs per load by 15%, while not having to cater to the needs of human drivers allows each truck to operate for an additional 1,000 hours per year.

The rise of robots

And what about the robots? Perhaps the archetypal image of the triumph of technology is a robot fulfilling a role that once required a human. Robotic vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers and other specialized machines have enjoyed steady sales growth, but the robot as general purpose domestic help remains a thing of fiction.

NO DRIVER REQUIRED: An autonomous electric tractor moving shipping containers around Gothenburg in Sweden.

In fact, the 21st century has been a great one for robots thus far, but most of their successes have remained out of the public eye. According to the International Federation of Robotics, a trade body, there are now 2.7 million robots operating in the world’s factories, a number that is set to rise to 4 million by 2022. China, which had almost no robots in 2000, is now the world’s largest market for them.

The fastest growth area for robotics, however, is outside their traditional manufacturing roles. In 2017, the annual market for robots in logistics applications was 69,000 units. By 2022, that market is forecast to be more than 10 times larger. Medicine and agriculture, both much smaller applications in terms of units sold, are also forecast to expand rapidly, with annual unit sales growth of 40% and 50% respectively in the coming years.

CLOSE CALL: Voice recognition technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

In many of today’s high-profile areas of innovation, the challenge is no longer the technology itself says Alexander Gunde, President of the Global Technology Sector at DHL. “In the past few years we’ve seen costs come down and capabilities increase. Now the biggest barrier for many companies is working out how they will integrate these innovations into their existing operations.” That process often requires significant experimentation, he adds, noting that in DHL’s Supply Chain division alone there are currently some 1,500 pilots in the pipeline globally, with around a third already live, in areas from robotics and wearable devices to AI-assisted planning. The most successful ideas are then rolled out to other appropriate sites.

“Technology, people and processes all have to adapt to each other,” he says. “And, especially in the supply chain, that can require coordinated changes across multiple business functions and organizations. It will also require leaders who dare to take risks, pioneering the application of new technologies, new ways of working and new types of collaboration.” ― Jonathan Ward


Published: April 2020


Images: Teera Konakan/Getty Images; STR/AFP/Getty Images; Genkur/Alamy/mauritius images; Andrei Stanescu/Alamy/mauritius images; Nicke Johansson/Volvo Trucks; Andriy Popov/Alamy/mauritius images; DHL