Ireland must capitalise as digital revolution gathers pace
Ireland can be among the winners as human smarts transform the world - if the right choices are made now
Digital has already become all-pervasive. The ways we live, work, shop and play have all been transformed by the digital revolution. Digitisation of healthcare is changing the practice of medicine and the way many therapies are delivered.
Workplaces and ways of working have changed almost out of recognition in the course of years instead of generations, and what professional sports coach wouldn't be seen without their tablet and performance-analysis tools?
Our leisure experiences have also been transformed. The way we purchase and consume travel, concert tickets, clothes, news, TV, music, and even our clothes, has been made quicker, faster, and more convenient thanks to digitisation - both of the underlying services and the human smarts behind them.
But, as Al Jolson said when ushering in the era of talking pictures: "You ain't heard nothing yet." This really is just the beginning.
We have now moved into a far more potent phase of the digital opportunity, one where human ingenuity itself is being digitised and enhanced. One where human inventiveness and creativity is being extended by new technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality.
Technology has the capacity to improve what already exists, but human inventiveness - human smarts - can create products and services that have yet to be thought of or even imagined.
This has always been the case but we now stand at an economic inflection point at least as important as those which ushered in the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions. The digital revolution has moved beyond mere products and services and we are now seeing the digitisation of human smarts. The way a product functions or the way a service is experienced will be based on the human smarts encoded within the product or service.
Architects are 'walking around' inside virtual houses that haven't yet been built; machine operators are learning the manufacturing process through online learning powered by augmented reality; engineers are test-driving new cars that won't roll off the production lines for years yet; and surgeons are working with robots to perform life-saving procedures that wouldn't have been possible even a year ago.
What was once confined to the realm of space shuttle pilots and the most advanced aircraft flight simulators is now penetrating all facets of industry, and we are about to enter an era where scanners programmed by humans and assisted by AI will guide 3D printers in the production of artificial replacement human organs tailored to suit the precise needs of the individual patient.
Ireland is uniquely well placed to take a leadership position in this global digital revolution.
We may be poor when it comes to natural resources in the form of metals and minerals beneath our land and waters but we are immensely rich when it comes to human capital. We possess a massive resource in terms of our digital-savvy young people.
Couple that with the existence in Ireland of thriving financial services, fintech, software, electronics, social media, medtech, and pharmaceuticals sectors - the key industries involved in the digital revolution - along with a vibrant public and private sector research ecosystem and you have the essential ingredients for success in the new economic reality. But this will not happen on its own. For Ireland to be a winner in the digital revolution we need our workforce to be not just digitally-literate but also both digitally-comfortable and digitally-intelligent, and able to work collaboratively to achieve game-changing outcomes. The economy itself must be friendly and conducive to digital entrepreneurship.
Tomorrow's competitive economies will be adaptable to a high rate of renewal and transformation. This will require Ireland to complement the already open nature of our economy with deeply embedded digital experience and expertise.
Industry is already playing its part. Government is taking action as well. Investment in education must continue to promote STEM subjects, while enterprise policy must be geared towards supporting digital entrepreneurship and convincing the brightest and best home-grown and overseas talent that Ireland is among the best places in the world to live, work and start and grow a digital business.
There can be no room for complacency. The prize, if we get it right, will be sustained, world-leading economic and employment growth based on a resource which no one can take from us - our human smarts. The price of failure is just too big to contemplate.
Ben Hurley is chief executive of the National Digital Research Centre, which sources, builds and invests in digital startups
Sunday Indo Business