Generative AI has captured the attention of so many within the corporate world and among professional services firms, but the pace of change means companies should already be looking to what’s next: quantum computing and a resurgent blockchain
Over the past year, the professional services market has largely set their technology goals and aspirations alongside the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI (Gen AI). And for many, that belief is fully understandable: Two-thirds of professionals said they believe the emergence of AI and Gen AI will have a transformational or high impact on their profession within the next five years, according to the Thomson Reuters Future of Professionals Report.
However, the speed at which Gen AI has captured the market’s attention underpins a very important fact: The speed at which technology in general advances continues to increase rapidly, meaning that truly forward-looking companies and firms should not only be planning for Gen AI, but already thinking beyond Gen AI.
Sound complicated? Jeff Wong understands. As the Global Chief Innovation Officer of Big 4 consultancy EY, Wong regularly advises business leaders and leading innovators on how to better understand the ways in which the future of technology will impact the working world. In a recent podcast on the Thomson Reuters Institute Insights channel, Wong says that due to the recent introduction of Gen AI, “a lot has changed both in the technology marketplace as well as perceptions of technology and how things are moving.” However, he also notes that 2023 is not the end of technology growth. “I think what you’re going to see is a pretty remarkable 2024, as well,” Wong says. “I don’t see things slowing down at all, in fact, I probably see things accelerating.”
So, for those aiming to look beyond Gen AI, what technologies should they be focusing on now? Wong names two in particular that are currently making waves in his research and conversations — blockchain (again) and quantum computing.
Remember the blockchain? Before the recent focus on AI, many companies touted blockchain and related concepts — such as cryptocurrency of decentralized finance (DeFi) — as the next disruptive technology. In recent years, however, the talk has lessened, particularly as major cryptocurrency markets have struggled or fell to scandal. “There’s a difference between the hype curve and the reality curve,” Wong says. “And blockchain went through its hype curve.”
Indeed, as recently late 2021, the value of the total cryptocurrency market neared $3 trillion, but then fell to less than $1 trillion. In recent months that number has started to increase again, but either way Wong says that “you start to recognize that there’s a lot of value” there.
To him, the proof of the technology’s staying power is not individual traders, but large financial companies and institutional investors that are launching exchange traded funds (ETFs) tied to the spot price of bitcoin. These “provide a bridge for the traditional investing public to be a part of the blockchain cryptocurrency investment ecosystem world without some of the harder methods of doing it. It’s a little bit harder for consumers to do that today,” he adds.
While many outside observers may have viewed blockchain-centric finance as a Wild West that they did not wish to enter, that perception is slowly changing. “The large traditional dollars were standing on the sidelines.” Wong says. “They may have seen some of the benefits or the possibilities, they made have thought about some of it. But without that clarity, their boards, their C-suites, the CEOs were saying, ‘Boy, I need some clarity to see if I can use this technology for the benefit of our organizations.’”
Wong admits the financial services industry is not a traditional early adopter industry, but they are all very much paying attention to blockchain now. “They’re just not talking about it out loud.” And while institutions may be hesitant to invest in developing their own backend tech to do this work, “many, if not most, are making these nice, quiet moves to make sure they have infrastructure that’s available.” Wong adds that those who are willing to invest in their own backend infrastructure will be better equipped for a future of DeFi and technical differentiation.
The other technology on which Wong is focused may not be as well-known to many professionals; however, he says it could become the most disruptive technology of the near future: quantum computing.
Quantum computing refers to a category of computer that relies on quantum mechanical phenomena — in which physical matter exhibits properties of both particles and waves at small scales — to process information much more quickly than possible with traditional physics and the limits of current computers.
Originally, quantum computing was seen as a futuristic technology and not something for which companies imminently needed to plan. However, Wong says his recent conversations with academics and scientists have been revealing a new timeline. “We used to say decades — then we started saying decade. And then we started saying, well under a decade,” he explains. “And now the latest estimates from a national organization — I’m not saying this is my estimate — is five to six years. It’s a coin flip.”
Five to six years, of course, would put the introduction of quantum computing before 2030, possibly even within the current scale of corporate and firm technology planning cycles. The ability to process information a magnitude more quickly could have numerous effects for work efficiency, communications, and even the way we could leverage other technologies such as Gen AI.
Indeed, many of the companies Wong says he’s speaking to now are focusing on the potential risks that come with quantum computing. Think cybersecurity: As of now, it could take centuries to break a good encryption key. However, that scale becomes much shorter as processing speed rises exponentially.
“That’s a coin flip for five or six years that breaks all of your security infrastructure. How many companies can survive that, right?” Wong asks. “I know that I don’t want anybody reading my emails outside the company. So, we [at EY] are obviously prepared and preparing ourselves for that eventuality, but large organizations around the world need to be thinking about this.”
Regulators have their eye on this area, he adds, and there may even be a possibility of action within the next couple of years, “in which case you’ll be forced into that upgrade cycle.” Some companies are also proactively planning for this eventuality and what steps they would need to take to protect their data, Wong explains.
Even among those companies that are planning, not many are talking about what they’re doing publicly due to the sensitive nature of cybersecurity, Wong says, adding that planning is certainly not universal, however.
Wong says he believes more companies and professional service firms should be planning today, calling quantum computing “one of the under-talked-about topics of the world.”
Ultimately, he explains, it goes back to the increasing rate of change and what makes for a successful company. Whether blockchain technologies, quantum computing or whatever will be the next big thing beyond Gen AI, the most important position a modern company or firm can adopt is a capacity for change.
“We’re getting to a pace of invention where things are getting invented that outpace the update-upgrade cycles that we’re talking about. That goes back to the concept of why innovation is important overall,” Wong says. “Flexibility, agility, and resiliency — the ability to make change at the pace that the world’s throwing it at you.”
This, he says, is a strategic characteristic of companies now. “No longer is it this fun thing that you do called innovation,” he notes. “This is now core to your pillars of how organizations need to be built.”
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