The future of business

Finbarr Thomas examines three technologies changing enterprise

From the millennium bug, to the hover cars of The Jetsons, via Nostradamus's predictions of the end of the world: the future, when it arrives, has a habit of making those who tried to call it look silly. Developments that change the way we live and work are often subtler and built on incremental advancements in existing technologies, such as the evolution of the world wide web and mobile technology.

The Gateway is going to go out on a limb, though, dusting off its crystal ball and suggesting that the three areas of technology profiled below will almost certainly revolutionise today's business world.

The cloud

What is it?

A model for delivering IT services in which resources are accessed online, anywhere in the world, rather than being hosted locally - so long as the users have an internet connection.

How might it change the business world?

By 2016, all of Forbes' 2,000 leading global companies will be using the cloud, according to consultancy firm Gartner. "It's increasing and adoption is rising," says Clive Read, a principal in KPMG's CIO (chief information officer) advisory unit which offers guidance to corporate IT teams. "We're seeing big businesses converting and it's fantastic for startups as well."

Cloud computing allows businesses to reduce costs massively. Rather than hosting expensive applications and programmes, they can be hosted remotely and accessed as and when they're required. Software can be ramped up and down when it's needed, as Read explains: "I did some work for HMRC a few years back, around their online tax return-filing system. The number of files that it hosts goes up exponentially close to the tax return filing date of 31 January, so they needed infrastructure to deal with peak demand. By using the cloud, they can scale up the storage capacity just for that day, and scale back for the rest of the year."

For a startup, cloud computing can be revolutionary. No longer do they have to spend money on expensive email programmes, IT departments, or databases and server storage. Capital is freed up for business growth, making users more agile and flexible. "They can do things that wouldn't be feasible before, because of that flexibility," says Read.

3D printing

What is it?

From the Oxford English Dictionary: "A process for making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive thin layers of a material."

How might it change the business world?

3D printing has the potential to radicalise certain business sectors. A specialist car manufacturer, for example, can now "print" a custom component for a few pounds and in a matter of minutes, where previously it might have paid thousands of pounds for an equivalent component to be shipped in from the other side of the world, taking a considerable amount of time. Although the initial outlay on an industrial scale printer is huge, in the long run it could be a canny investment.

"It will completely revolutionise prototyping," adds Read at KPMG. Rapid prototyping, which uses a 3D printer to build a model immediately, in-house, has been in use since the 1980s. However, with the predicted mass adoption of 3D printers, more companies can be experimental and creative with their modelling, without worrying about running up huge bills.

In the healthcare sector, there is great excitement about the potential of 3D printing in human tissue engineering. Experts predict that in the future hospitals will be able to print a kidney, a liver or a lung, reducing fatalities among those awaiting transplants.

But perhaps most excitingly, two food-creating 3D printers are launching in the US this year. Printing off your favourite snacks in your own living room could soon become a reality.

Robotics

What is it?

The branch of engineering that involves the conception, design, manufacture, and operation of robots.

How might it change the business world?

For business, using robots and machines has obvious advantages over employing humans. Once you've bought them, they don't need to be paid a monthly salary. They're never going to call in sick, and can work around the clock. Nobody ever heard of a robot going on strike, and there's no need to worry about the conditions in which they're working. However, the robot has not always changed business for the better - technological evolution is often geared towards increasing efficiency, terminology inextricably linked with job losses.

A 2013 report authored by Oxford research group Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology estimates that 45 per cent of US jobs are "at high-risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades". The advancement of drone technology has already meant that armed forces can function without as many soldiers, while Google is working towards building automated cars, which it says will boost safety and reduce the time taken to commute but may also seriously endanger driving jobs.

But not all hope is lost. From the report's authors: "Our findings thus imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation - i.e. tasks that require creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills." Best get working on those networking techniques!

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