It gets under the skin: What is the next level of digitization?

When it comes to digitalisation, many first think of their own smartphone, smart fridges and self-driving cars. But the human body can also be a carrier of digital innovations, for example in contact lenses for augmented reality, microchips under the skin as an early warning system for diseases or as a payment option. Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas, founder of the Institute for Generational Research, gives an insight into the future.

What comes after the smartphone? Which innovations have the chance to prevail and why?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: First of all, the mobile phone will be supplemented with, for example, smartwatches and smartglasses – development has already started. In fact, the mobile phone is already exhausted in terms of its functions: cameras, batteries and screens will improve, but large companies such as Apple and Nokia assume that no decisive innovations will be developed. In addition, the technology is becoming more and more intuitive and integrated. This means that users will type less in the future and need fewer clicks to reach their goals. The technology will learn the habits and idiosyncrasies of users and anticipate emotions and desires. It will (have to) make many more decisions as consumers will be overwhelmed by the complexity of the ever-expanding digital world and its possibilities. In the future, it will be more about customer experiences. We already see this in the increasing enthusiasm for immersive experiences. Immersive experiences describe immersion in a virtual environment that people perceive as an extension of their reality. Technologies such as AR, VR or mixed reality can augment reality or allow us to escape into a more desirable alternative. Metaverse makes such an experience possible. An interesting thought experiment by the way, because if you spin it further, a younger generation could build their world the way they like it. For example, in the Metaverse, your avatar can do things that are not possible in the real world. In addition, the following developments are very promising: Hyperautomation will ensure that in the future we will be able to have a digital assistant that will make our everyday lives easier. Another development is a digital alter ego, a kind of digital twin that has a lot of information from us. With this information, he can calculate how we behave or what we will need in the future. For example, a politician can appear as an avatar or hologram at several congresses around the world at the same time and in the respective national language. There are also digital twins or multiples of machines, processes and entire systems. They are copies of something real. For example, an entire city’s infrastructure can be displayed digitally and different urban development scenarios can be tested. Permanent microchips, the keyword human empowerment, are only about ten years in the future: Mojolense, AR contact lenses, Neuralink or smart tattoos from Microsoft are just a few of the many possibilities.

In recent years, the human body has become more and more connected to technology. Artificial knees, stents and insulin pumps – what is the next step in medicine?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: In the future, medicine will focus much more on healthy people. The big tech companies, like Apple, are already following this path and are already diligently collecting data using the Apple Watch to answer questions such as: What can people do about diet, exercise, physical and mental stress and depression, so that they feel even better and not get sick in the first place? Telemedicine, artificial intelligence and robotics are growing rapidly and achieving a great leap in knowledge for the healthcare system. The healthcare workforce will also be closed with the support of robotics, as by 2030 more than 11.5% of the world’s population will be over 65.

So far the interventions have been of a medical nature, are there other conceivable functions?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: The question is whether non-medical interventions are ethically justifiable for certain groups of people, who is legally allowed to perform them, and whether they are affordable. But in principle, anything can be thought of that makes everyday life easier and makes us independent of WLAN and batteries. 30 million people in Germany are over the age of 55 – and the trend is increasing, which means that more and more older citizens will be able to participate in life for a longer time. Payment systems via finger rings, entry systems for people with visual impairments, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s are conceivable. This is also a great option for people with disabilities: people with Parkinson’s disease, for example, cannot use EC machines. The new technology will give them access in an alternative way.

Is there any interest in this development among the public?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: A clear “yes”. Many people want to simplify their lives because the social pressure and the complexity of task management for the individual is increasing. Any help that makes everyday life easier is gratefully received if the cost-benefit ratio suits the individual. One of our surveys showed that 21.9% of respondents voted “I would wait and see if it makes my everyday life much easier.” The population’s willingness to have a microchip implanted is relatively high, especially for medical purposes. 39.9% of respondents would use one as an early warning system, for example in the event of a stroke. After all, 18% still see opportunities for IDs in the form of microchips and 16.4% will use the microchip for everyday use, for example instead of keys.

What do you associate with the term “biological transformation”?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: By this I understand the effort to create a change or a change with the means of biology. I also associate this with the concept of bioeconomy. The bioeconomy has been a hot topic of conversation in Germany since 2005, and this discussion is going in different directions.

One stream emphasizes the circular economy with an attempt to replace non-renewable raw materials with renewable materials, and then there is the stream of bionics. Bionics means learning from nature. Another is the use of biological processes to produce higher value products from biomass. All streams are committed to the goal of sustainable value creation. In my view, the difficulty lies in the fact that ecological growth has limits, and as we understand it, the economy must continue to grow if it is to be successful. These aspects are therefore at odds with each other, and it is important to decouple economy and growth. There are examples of this in the implementation of sustainability projects. The bioeconomy can be understood as a transformation concept for major challenges in our society.

How long will it be before people with an implanted chip pay for their groceries or download music, for example?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: These systems already exist. I think it is important to stay away from the idea that a chip will inevitably be implanted under the skin. In order to pay, for example, I only have to identify myself, all other data is in the cloud. The American provider Eyeverify reads the vein structures of the eyes for the payment application Alipay. This currently still works with a smartphone app.

Is it a development that you think makes sense? Should people take this step? If so, what are the benefits?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: Transhumanists would argue that not doing so would be ignorant of the fact that human evolution is far from over. The fact that technical development enables people to concentrate on the essentials again is often sold as an advantage.

What are the challenges for interested companies in development and marketing?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: In addition to public acceptance, further challenges are the legal, ethical and medical factors: Uncomplicated financing of such projects, especially for SMEs in Germany, is still a future dream.

What factors must be in place for society to become more receptive to digital innovations?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: They must offer real added value, for example promoting my health. In addition, they must be uncomplicated, authentic and affordable.

What fears do people have when it comes to implants? How can companies refute prejudice?

Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Hartwin Maas: Many people worry about the integrity of their bodies. I can put my smartphone away, I can decide for myself when to pick it up and when not to. It is similar to wearables, such as smartwatches, but they already sit directly on the body. There is another big hurdle to overcome with implants: they become part of my body and I can’t just take them off. In addition, there is a high degree of vaccination skepticism in Germany in a global comparison, so it is conceivable that there is similar skepticism towards implants. For this reason, the question arises whether implants are actually useful or whether physical contact is sufficient, for example as with smartwatches, smartglasses, rings or watches. Prejudices could be challenged by utility and security, for example by increasing the chance of living a healthier and longer life.

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