This conversation took place in May 2017 with Lars Thomsen, Chief Futurist & Founder of Future Matters.

Clips from the interview


A New Kind of Machine

Lars Thomsen: “I have had this computer for quite a few years. I spend more time with this machine than with my family members and colleagues, it knows everything about my life, my travel plans, my schedule, my presentations, everything. But it hasn’t come to the point where it is able to interpret the information it is processing so it could help me in my daily life. If I could ask the computer, ‘We had this thing about half a year ago where somebody asked me about a specific technology.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, I looked into it and googled it and put some charts together for you. Here’s the history. I even found some videos on YouTube, let’s look at them together.’ That sounds like science fiction to many of us right now, but I would argue that in the next five years, we will look at computers in a totally different way than we are looking at them right now.”

Learning Machines

Lars Thomsen: “The old way of programming was the if-then paradigm. People would write thousands or millions of lines of code, programming a machine that if a variable was this way, then the computer would do that. We had to think of everything and the computer was not able to learn and get smarter by itself. This paradigm is shifting right now. With artificial intelligence and deep learning, we are looking at machines that can actually learn. Think of a robot. Just a few years ago, people had to program everything so this robot could stand up. Nowadays, we are putting artificial intelligence into the machine and give the robot two legs, put it on the floor and say, ‘I’m going home now, tomorrow, I’ll see if you have learned to walk.’ It will do trial and error just like a small child when it is learning to walk. Probably it’s falling down a few times and learning in the process. You can see that after a few hours or days, these machines teach themselves to walk. This is a totally different paradigm, which is important to know when looking at artificial intelligence. Machines can learn languages by reading text and by comparing two languages in text or in speech. They can teach themselves and can learn every day. Learning used to be the domain of humans. There weren’t many intelligent systems in the world that were able to learn. Now we have competition.”

Crowd Learning

Lars Thomsen: “If you’re trying to learn how to drive a car, you’re on your own. You get your driver’s license when you’re sixteen or eighteen, depending on where you live, and you make a lot of mistakes in the time you’re driving. It takes quite a long time until you’re an experienced driver. When we look at autonomous cars and cars that drive in fleets, we are looking at something called crowd learning. If you had 10,000 cars driving 100 kilometers every day, they experience a lot of different situations. At night, they share their information in the cloud. They are combining what the fleet of 10,000 cars has learned in a day, and this will outperform your driving skills in a few weeks, because after a few weeks, the combined knowledge of these 10,000 cars has much more driving experience than you can gather in a lifetime. This is also a part of artificial intelligence and the changes and paradigm shifts we’re seeing in computing. We are arguing that we are now at a tipping point where we see accelerated change in the way we can apply artificial intelligence into our work and routines and daily lives.”

The Future of Mobility

Lars Thomsen: “Mobility will become a service, just like information is becoming a service. Once you have a smart phone, you have a button for an information service, and you can ask the smart phone a question and you get an answer. That’s information at the push of a button. Mobility will be the same because when cars can drive themselves, you can just push the button ‘I want to go home now’. The car will pull up, you can see on the phone that it will be here in 30 seconds, it’s just around the corner. You get in, there’s no driver, but it will drive you and will take you home. We calculated how much it costs to operate such a self-driving car. If you calculate that you don’t need a driver and drive it electrically, we come up with about ten cents per mile total cost of operating a self-driving fleet of cars. Even if you want to earn some money and charge twenty cents per mile, it’s still cheaper to use this than taking the bus. If you’re driving three miles on the bus you have to pay maybe three dollars, but with this service, you pay sixty cents, and it picks you up where you are and drops you off just where you want to go so you don’t have to wait at the bus stop. This is just a small example that artificial intelligence or digitalization or whatever you want to call it is not only changing the way we are working on a computer, it is also changing mobility and our understanding of services in the future. I believe digitalization is affecting basically every industry that we’re looking at.”

Impact on Industry

“In your view, what is the impact of all this on existing businesses?”

Lars Thomsen: “It is very hard to see disruptions through the eyes of the incumbent. If you are in the car manufacturing business for decades, you think you know how the story goes: People buy a car, they love going to the dealership and pick up their new car, you service it over a few years, and then after a few years they have to buy a new one. It used to be that way, but technology enables us to propose a totally different business model. Mobility at the push of a button and just paying as you go changes the car industry profoundly. I would argue that most people who live in cities and have problems finding a parking spot don’t care to have a car sitting 23 hours a day sitting at the road side. If they have the ability to call a car every time they want with a push on their smart phone, they will do that. That will change the ability of car manufacturers to sell cars in cities. Most of the world’s population is already living in cities. Few people living in remote areas will still need to buy a car, but this number is getting smaller. The mobility industry used to be dominated by car and truck manufacturers, but we see a tipping point where new players are coming in from IT and consumer electronics who say, ‘We just have to build a device that can transport people in a convenient way,’ and they’re disrupting an industry. This is happening already.”

The Future of Work

Lars Thomsen: “Computers will do routine jobs. Everything that is done the same way all over again, whether it’s cleaning an industrial complex, whether it’s driving a bus or taxi, whether it’s making your tax returns–that is routine, and artificial intelligence will do it. What artificial intelligence will not do is being creative, being innovative, being empathic–well to some extent. To help companies grow, reach the next level, to improve customer experience, to come up with a new idea how to wow people. Whether it’s on a strategic basis or on a day-to-day basis of interacting with people, those jobs will still be done by humans for a long time, but more and more jobs compete with artificial intelligence. Often it’s just a question of money. If I have a personal assistant who I pay quite a lot of money every month just to handle my routines, she competes with a computer system that in a few years can do ninety percent of what she’s doing for me today. She has to advance to do something within the ten percent this computer cannot do that will still be worth for me to employ her and pay her thousands of Swiss francs every month. Everybody is challenged to compete with artificial intelligence.”

The Utility of Inventions

Lars Thomsen: “Artificial intelligence is just another technology mankind is inventing to make their lives easier, better, safer, and more convenient. I would argue there was someone a few thousand years ago who invented the wheel. I bet there were many people who said, ‘We have learned to carry things with a stick and on our heads, and nobody needs a wheel.’ Then they tried it out and found, ‘Hey, this is great. It’s less work, we can go greater distances, we can put a horse or donkey in front of it… great invention!’ With artificial intelligence, we still have to find out how great it is. Many people look at it at the current stage and say ‘nah’. But we’ve just seen the tip of the ice berg, the very very early stages of this technology. I believe it will change the way we view work in our society and how to manage our lives much more than the steam engine has. Imagine that: Before the steam engine, only two percent of people lived in cities, we had no international trade, we had not enough power for electric light or communication systems. Imagine what artificial intelligence can do if it has such a profound impact as the steam engine.”

Curiosity About the Future

Lars Thomsen: “It has never been easier to be curious and to learn the things you want to learn or don’t know yet. Twenty years ago, when I saw something and didn’t know what I was looking at, it was hard to find someone who would explain it to me or to find a book in the libbrary. Today you point your camera in your smart phone to it and the system will tell you what you see. It’s never been easier to explore and be curious. As young children, we are curious and want to explore the world, and the older we get, the less curious we are. If somebody asked me, ‘What is the number one skill you need to be successful?’ I’d say foster your curiosity. Live just like a child and try to see things not in a way that you say ‘I’ve never seen that and don’t want to see it,’ but try to understand what you see. We have all the skills and powerful tools at the moment to do that. If we look at history, every time we had a disruption and new technology, people were scared that it would ruin their lives. This has never been the case. From the invention of the wheel, the steam engine, telecommunications, electric power, the automobile–they have enhanced the capabilities of people. They have changed jobs and the way people live and how society and education systems function. We’re at this point again. You will not succeed by hoping the future will not be different than today. It’s about taking part in it, in a small way or a big way. I’m convinced in the long run, if we look back in the year 2050 and look back at 2017, people will ask ‘How did you ever manage to live a life like that? Receiving two hundred emails a day and having to answer them all yourself… no way.'”