Many trace the origin of the Digital Revolution to 1947 and the invention of the transistor, upon which much of our modern digital computing has been built. As a student of technology evolution and history, I’d like to take a contrarian view.
The (distant) origins of the Digital Revolution can be traced back to 1876 and Alexander Graham Bell. This might sound a bit far fetched as his invention of the telephone was in the realm of analog electronics. However, Bell didn’t merely transform communication, but laid the foundation for many of the important computational and digital breakthroughs of the 20th century. The lineage of his laboratories has left a lasting impact on the Digital Revolution.
The transistor itself was invented at Bell Labs, where 9 Nobel Prize laureates have labored in the shadow of its namesake, inventing information theory, the laser, multiple programming languages including C and C++, and the Unix operating system. Silicon Valley even owes Bell its very name, as it was at Bell Labs that Silicon was discovered to be the best material for semiconductors. To quote Douglas Coupland, Bell Lab’s “work is at the core of humanity’s internal rewiring.”
But that’s just it: we’re not rewiring at all; we’re going digital.
Building on historical foundations
Every industry, from manufacturing to agriculture, is going digital. But what has this meant and what will it mean?
The Digital Revolution began in earnest when digital computers and digital record keeping became the norm. It can be thought of as a revolution in communication, moving from telephones and telegraphs to computers, cell phones, and the internet.
Over the last decade, this revolution has filtered into the marketplace, first through digitally native disruptors and then through the efforts of incumbents adapting to drive their own digital transformation. We are now at a stage where the digital enterprise is pervasive, and most competitive organizations have embraced cloud-based data solutions and software stacks to become increasingly agile – now they need to shift their focus from internal transformation to an externally focused ecosystem of integration, connectivity, and collaboration.
The AI/ML advantage
Though some speak of the Digital Revolution as already having taken place, it is merely entering a new phase. Just look at Industry 4.0, where digital connections, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and AI/ML are drastically accelerating manufacturing efficiency. Whereas all other transformative moments in communication have been enabled by humans, the current phase of the digital revolution is being built on the back of AI/ML. In this sense, the Digital Revolution is now an AI/ML Revolution where all communication between enterprises, people, and devices is now analyzed and optimized by algorithms.
Consider this: current estimates show that 1 in 5,000 drug candidates make it to licensing approval, costing $2.5 billion per new medication. It’s no wonder healthcare costs are astronomical in the United States. AI technologies are poised to streamline this process. Already algorithms are being used to repurpose existing drugs, which have already gone through the extensive regulatory approval process, to find novel uses for more conditions. This is an incredibly painstaking and labor-intensive process for humans. AI can also predict complex mixtures of chemicals to optimize, test, and create new drugs at a fraction of the time and resources needed for traditional methods.
For instance, researchers at MIT recently trained a deep learning system on a data set of 2,500 drugs and 800 natural compounds. By evaluating the effect these drugs and compounds had on bacteria, the system was able to identify their successful molecular components. Then this system was used to evaluate over 6,000 compounds to find those that had both antimicrobial potential while also being substantially different from existing antibiotics. Within only a few hours, the system had identified several new antibiotic candidates, one of which, named Halicin, shows a lot of promise.
What does this mean for the future as we see it through the power of AI? Less medication, cheaper medication, and more targeted medication, instead of a cocktail of “what-might-work,” recommendations.
From internal to external focus
The transition to the new phase of the Digital Revolution is happening in every industry. As people increasingly become more digitally connected, AI allows the digital data to “speak” by visualizing complex problems in easily understandable formats for humans. That’s precisely why Glassdoor has ranked the data scientist role as the best job in America for the last four years, with Harvard Business Review going so far as to call it the “sexiest job of the 21st century.” We are moving towards a digital, data-centric world, and AI is acting as an algorithmic switchboard operator, connecting us to the data even as it connects us to each other.
Though the Digital Revolution might have been pushed in the right direction by Bell’s telephone lines, those lines are fading in the face of a digital world. We are just now feeling the full force of the Digital Revolution, and with the advent of widespread AI/ML across industries, we are now in a new phase that is as transformative as it is amazing. Enterprises that have weathered their internal digital transformation must now pivot to an external focus of integration and collaboration.
Perhaps Mr. Watson, to whom Bell said his famous first words on the telephone, should be replaced by another Watson from IBM, to fit our modern, AI world: “Watson – visualize novel compounds with antimicrobial properties – I’d like to see them.”
The next phase of the Digital Revolution is here: are you ready?