The future is still in the future

One of the perils of being an IT leader is facing a lot of “new technology” hype on a daily basis, not just from vendors (whose every version upgrade is an invention of the future) and consultants (who know the future), but also from peers who have faced the same hype and wonder why we are not “looking at it”. Some of this hype becomes reality over a period of time, some of it dies, and some just fail. So how does one predict the future, and does one try to beat it to the finish line.

There would broadly be three approaches to doing so. The first is the Crystal Ball, generally labeled as “gut feel”. The second is an endorsement by a well-respected industry guru. The third is observing the trends in the emerging futuristic technology. Whichever approach is taken, the future is not going to be predictable; at least not in IT. And here is why. Ernest Hemingway once said, “How did you go bankrupt? Gradually, gradually, then suddenly”. Setting aside the negative connotations of bankruptcy, the message here is that future tends to creep in and then jump us. It is this “jump” that is the real future and is therefore unpredictable. A classic example is AI.

Over years, if not decades, AI was being built in various corners of the world. Most of these were specific tasks; and its scope was expanding slowly and steadily. At this point, Google purchased a European company called DeepMind. They were developing a program to play an ancient Chinese game, GO (whose players believe chess is for babies). In 2016 this program, AlphaGo beat the world champion in a 5-game match; and it used moves, which if a human player were to use, he/she would immediately be labeled a novice.

And that is when AI “jumped” all of us; and did it do in style or what! There was no way to predict this timing and applicability; the “future” came at its own pace. And interestingly, it is now spawning other “future” like Machine Learning. We should wait for it to jump us. After all, AI’s slow arrival and adoption has not led anyone to lose the race (yet).

The longhaul future, the one that matters, has three characteristics: (i) incremental value increases; (ii) provision of real value, not just storytelling; (iii) no overnight ground-shifting. And all this makes the future unforeseeable. Value is a shifting paradigm. Every earthquake is not necessarily the end of the current world that provides new opportunities for raising new skyscrapers from the ashes. So, the pertinent questions are: (a) where is the next value paradigm, and (b) which earthquake matters?

Do the answers lie in the crystal ball or with the soothsayers? Or with the trends? Not addressing the first two, the question remains if trends help us see the future. A classic problem with that is trends can be confusing; just look at the cryptocurrency trends today.

So, does this mean that we just lie back and wait. Not necessarily so.

Based on the risk appetite, one can look at when to bet on the future.

While risk reward system works, it does not last forever; so even late adopters can benefit from the efforts of those leading the charge.

Whichever category of risk takers one belongs to, one cannot predict the future; maybe just influence it. The future will never be here; it will always remain in the future.

The author managed large IT organizations for global players like MasterCard and Reliance, as well as lean IT organizations for startups, with experience in financial and retail technologies

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