Coming to grips with the great Digital Revolution: Part 1 – Describing some parts, but never the Elephant

Describing Parts of the Elephant 


There is that familiar parable of the blind men and the elephant, originating from the Indian subcontinent. Let me use the Jain version to make my point;

“A Jain version of the story says that six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

A king explains to them: “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.[2]””

I use this story to make this point, that everyone who understands the promise and possibilities of the emerging technologies in Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Internet of Things, etc can only talk about some trends and patterns – no one can credibly predict how all these forces will converge and how the changes and the revolution they bring about would look like. In a sense, we are all describing the various attributes of the Elephant, but none of us have seen the Elephant in it’s glorious entirety. It’s here though, it’s so big and it’s presence cannot be ignored.

The Second Machine Age 

One framework I like to use when considering the problem is the idea of platforms, that there are certain technological breakthroughs, when they occur,  suddenly accelerate progress from the regular slow drudgery of linear growth to an almost instantaneous burst of exponential growth.

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In their influential book “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time go Brilliant Technologies“, Messrs Brynjolfsson and McAfee chart this phenomenon. The Economist sums up the book very well;

“Innovation has always driven advances in mankind’s standard of living, from agriculture to electricity. Information technology, the authors argue, is quantitatively and qualitatively different. It is, thanks to Moore’s law, exponential: its effects, barely perceptible for the first few decades, are turning explosive. It is also digital. Formerly complex tasks can be mastered then reproduced and distributed at almost no cost. Finally, it is recombinant, merging separate, existing innovations and innovators through networks and crowdsourcing.”  

These spikes occur in a phenomenon that some have come to call Platform moments. Deloitte explains this as a series of events;

1. The cost to performance ration of the 3 building blocks, compute, storage and bandwidth has improved exponentially over the last few years
2. Innovation is built on these building blocks and they drive up value and competitiveness, so as more and more attempt to leverage this phenomenon, the effect of no 1 is further amplified
3. Innovations start to coalesce and combine to form platforms and ecosystems that then drive innovation as a whole, bringing exponential change and disruption

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 3.58.16 PM

So in a nutshell, the slow upward trajectory of progress of individual components begin to build up into platforms that can suddenly launch us into accelerated progress that seems so sudden, and out of nowhere. It is with this framework that I will attempt to describe some parts of the elephant and then predict some of the possible platforms and spikes that could come, but by no means will I ever even imagine to pretend to be able to describe the elephant. That would be as absurd as being an old Mongolian solider on my horse (before the invention of the automobile) trying to predict the future of electric cars.

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