Viewpoint: The small business of 2063
- 3 January 2013
- From the section Business
Our world is changing faster than ever and, in recent years, a number of transformative technologies have moved from science fiction and the research and development R&D laboratory into the realm of practical application.
These new technologies, combined with demographic shifts and globalisation, will have a profound impact on the future of SMEs.
Who would have thought that advanced machinery and electronics such as GPS navigation tools, which only a decade ago would have seemed completely science fictional, would now be a part of our everyday lives?
Even the tablet computer, prophetically shown in Kubrick's 1968 film 2001 A Space Odyssey, was a part of the fictional world.
But now we are more than familiar with the object, seeing it used for both business and entertainment purposes.
It is always hard to predict the impact of technological developments, but we are already witnessing how the way we work could be transformed in the near future.
Many of the tasks we typically perform in the office today can also be done at home; we share and discuss documents seamlessly and have access to videoconferencing.
But beyond this is the exciting possibility of telepresence robotics.
These relatively simple systems - using cameras, microphones, speakers and screens - are already in use.
Surgeons use telepresence robots to place themselves "in" trauma wards thousands of miles away.
Some who have used telerobotics have even reported a strong sense of feeling "embodied" in the remote location, as if they were really there.
There will always be occasions when we would rather be somewhere in person, but telepresence robots could have truly world-changing consequences; a combination of 3D vision, tactile and proprioceptive feedback, and full-body telerobotic control could eliminate the need for physical travel altogether.
The virtual-physical high street
The traditional High Street's evolution has recently been accelerated with the collapse of many well-loved retail institutions around the world.
Some 37% of UK SMEs - small and medium enterprises - believe that in 50 years, traditional business centres will disappear and advanced telepresence could replicate many of the benefits of walking into a traditional shop.
Indeed, robotics and augmented reality (AR) may open the possibility for hybrid High Streets, which exist in both physical and digital spaces simultaneously.
A small or medium-sized company (SME) operating without a fixed location could rent empty property on a street that it then occupies with virtual products and services.
Imagine a hundred customers in an empty shop at one time, all experiencing different AR consumer environments.
The temptation might be to assume that the High Street as we know it will be replaced by an entirely electronic presence, but we must appreciate that people generally like interacting with one another.
A virtual-physical hybrid High Street is therefore a distinct possibility.
Global trading and delivery of products
With the elimination of trade restrictions posed by currency and state borders, and the emergence of multilingual, multicultural telepresence workforces that may be spread across multiple time zones, it will seem prohibitive and unnecessary for many SMEs to be tied to a particular country, or to have anything resembling a head office.
This may have real risk implications in a business world, however, particularly where intellectual property (IP) is emerging as the source of lasting competitive advantage.
Secondary worlds will also continue to be developed over time, becoming more realistic and, above all, more intuitive to navigate.
Inevitably, the economies operating in these virtual spaces will become more complex, with their own institutions and laws.
One by one, all the remaining barriers to SMEs engaging in international trade will be eroded by technology.
Real-time voice translators are beginning to hit the market in the form of smartphone apps, and industrial-scale 3D printers, possibly incorporating elements of nanotechnology, may supplant much of our familiar manufacturing base, enabling complex consumer devices such as cars or washing machines to be 'printed'.
The US Army's Rapid Equipping Force is already delivering self-contained print labs to Afghanistan.
If every individual is able to order and "print" goods themselves in the near future, this is likely to cause extreme disruption to global manufacturing.
In addition, military research and development (R&D) is partly responsible for the increasing maturity of driverless vehicles.
Three US states have already legalised driverless cars, the use of which has huge implications for the supply of goods and services.
These advances are only part of a broader trend in which autonomous robot technologies will play an increasing role in our lives; cleaning robots are already patrolling Tokyo skyscrapers at night.
While there will always be tasks that people are better at, there is no doubt that robots will become an increasingly common feature of our lives over the next few decades (even if they are not quite as ominous as the pilotable Japanese super robot Kuratas).
Whether true AI - machines with actual consciousness and a sense of identity, rather than machines that give the illusion of intelligence - is on the horizon or not, no one can say.
In the end, we may find that the distinction is not so important, at least not to us. The machines, of course, may have different opinions on the matter.
Predicting the impact of future technologies is never easy, but if we start thinking about the future now and begin to understand the various risks and challenges that lie ahead, we may avoid being caught out when it arrives.
Alastair Reynolds is a best-selling science fiction author and former space scientist at The European Space Agency (ESA). He has been working with Zurich Insurance on the future for small and medium sized businesses.