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Balaji Srinivasan, investor and internet entrepreneur, sees 2020 as the tipping point at which the internet age really began. Where previously preference was given to physical items, such as a newspaper, nowadays the focus is on digital. To stick to the example of the newspaper: Articles are written for the website, paper newspapers follow with more context as a spin-off. In his opinion. Actual physical presence or having a physical product will become more and more of a luxury, as he explains in a podcast.

Mark van Rijmenam, the founder of Datafloq and Mavin, also sees the ‘digital transformation’ is speeding up more and more across all kinds of areas. Van Rijmenam is the author of the book ‘The Organisation Of Tomorrow’ in which he explains how AI, blockchain, and data analysis are transforming companies into data organizations. He believes that this acceleration has everything to do with the coronavirus. “I would probably have laughed out loud if I had said last year that we would all be working from home. That, from now on, education would be provided digitally or that we would attend conferences online. Nobody saw this coming. But it has speeded up digitalization.”

Online will not replace everything

According to him, this is not going to change anytime soon: “We did not expect this rapid change, but it did happen. We are getting used to working online and notice that we really don’t have to be at the office in person every day. We can see the benefits of the digital world. Look at the growth of online webinars, for example, which you can simply attend from the comfort of your own living room.”

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Mark van Rijmenam

But that everything will take place in the digital world in the future, as Srinivasan argues in his podcast, is something that Van Rijmenam does not agree with. Often an online environment is no match for actual physical experiences. “Festivals or concerts, for example. People are social beings, you want to be present and experience a festival for yourself. But in the long run, of course, it will go down that road. The real world is merging more and more with the digital world. But that certainly won’t happen this year. Much more computational power and 6G internet are needed for a hyper-realistic virtual world that can merge with the real world. That will take at least until 2030. But even then, a live physical concert really won’t disappear just like that.”

What will 2021 bring?

Then what can we expect this year? Van Rijmenam keeps the options open: “Of course it’s like reading tea leaves. I can’t say what will turn out to be the black swan this year and really break through. A lot depends on the pandemic. How quickly can we resolve it? And what will change? We are also affected by what is happening on the world stage, are things going to remain turbulent in America? What is China up to? And how will Europe react? We also have elections here. That is why I am looking more closely at how trends have developed in recent years and what that may mean for the future.”

For example, Van Rijmenam sees that artificial intelligence (AI) is being used in a growing number of sectors. From manufacturers who want to improve their production methods to doctors who are able to make better diagnoses with the help of AI. And this trend is set to continue this year. “AI is becoming more powerful and faster. An increasing number of applications are outgrowing the lab and finding their way into practical applications. You can already see that well-trained AIs are assisting doctors in recognizing tumors on scans. Technological progress will eventually make visiting doctors far less of a necessity. In the future, doctors will immediately see whether someone is healthy with the help of wearables, data, and data analyses.”

Technological progress is unstoppable

When asked how he manages to persuade doctors – or other professionals – who are not a fan of this transition, Van Rijmenam says: ‘They cannot stop this technology, so it is not a question of taking it on board. They will have to. Whether it concerns a hospital, insurance company, or a factory. They are still companies. If you are able to work more efficiently by using AI and therefore more cheaply, then digitalization will keep expanding.”

In his view, that does not mean that AI will take over all of our work. “Definitely not, the added value of AI lies in the cooperation between humans and machines. We are already looking into this here in the EU. The European Commission is reflecting on the ethical issues concerning AI and is drafting legislation. Nor can companies in the EU just use our data as they please, especially when it comes to medical data. These discussions are only bound to intensify in the coming years.”

Blockchain is important, but not as a payment method

Another technique that Van Rijmenam is expecting a lot from over the years to come is blockchain. Not as a means of payment in the form of Bitcoins, for instance, but as a way to make things more transparent, clear, and efficient. To illustrate this, he cites a flower market. “If I export flowers to America, I need to ship them below a certain temperature. Otherwise, they will not remain in good condition. You can store this in a blockchain and, using so-called smart contracts, automatically attach certain conditions to this. If a sensor records that the temperature in a container was too high for a certain amount of time, I get less money for the flowers. That is fixed and is completely automated. A commercial paper trail is no longer needed.”

Which direction is it all heading?

For Van Rijmenam, the question is mainly about what kind of society we want to live in. Because digitalization also has its downsides. This is why he came up with the term digitalism. That refers to the struggle between companies and – certain – governments that are trying to collect as much data as possible and civilians who are trying to protect their data and privacy. Or take, for example, employers who, since the corona outbreak, have been using surveillance software to check up on what their employees are doing. Van Rijmenam calls this neo digitalism, wherein companies have free rein. “Do we want a society where the big tech companies use their resources for their own gain? That social media determine what you can and cannot say?”

Or are we heading in the direction of state digitalism, as Van Rijmenam terms it, where, for example, technological resources are being used in Hong Kong to track down political demonstrators. “That tracking apps are not only used to map outbreaks of infections but also by the state to track down critical citizens. In Europe, privacy is a key public asset. An employer is not allowed to monitor you digitally at random. With the GDPR and ethical legislation on technology such as AI, Europe is well on its way when it comes to setting up the EU in terms of modern digitalism. This means that data and digitalization are used to empower and protect citizens. Over the years to come, the battle between these three ideologies of digitalism is bound to intensify worldwide.”