NEXT23 theme: Let’s get physical

The digital revolution is entering a new phase. It will lead to a fusion of digital and physical, and a rewrite of how the world works.

The NEXT Conference is a full-day gathering of curious minds, digital-savvy decision-makers, marketers, strategists, innovators, thought leaders, creative thinkers and doers from across industries. With this year’s conference topic “Let’s get physical” we’ll dive into complex issues and explore the strong interconnectedness between our physical and digital worlds. Check out our fabulous preview article to see where we’re heading.

The digital world is merging with the physical world, creating the next iteration of the web: the phygital world. The driving force behind this iteration turns out to be neither Web3 nor the metaverse, but artificial intelligence: generative AI, text-to-everything, large language models (LLMs), and all that jazz. “AI is the real Web 3”, as Azeem Azhar sums it up. Everything is information, and soon everything will flow into AI systems, creating what Amy Webb calls “AIsmosis”.

The internet as we know it is dead.

In 2019, the last pre-pandemic NEXT Conference was all about Parallelwelten (parallel worlds). We discussed how reality has turned into bits that can be easily and cheaply manipulated. Just a few months later, our physical world came to a screeching halt and caught fire. Digital took over, leaving physical behind in the dust.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, the polycrisis and permacrisis have made clear that there is no way back to our 2019 normalcy. The way we live, work, and shop has shifted permanently. Meanwhile, physical has staged a remarkable comeback, with supply chains, energy, climate change, and a full-fledged war in Europe making headlines – all very physical phenomena.

For decades, we have perceived and conceptualised the digital and physical worlds as neatly separated Parallelwelten. The pandemic, with its overemphasis on the digital, and the metaverse, as a concept of reality, were perhaps the last hurrah of this era. Now, even Meta (neé Facebook) seems to have lost faith in the metaverse and joined the AI bandwagon.

Time to get physical

It’s a bit of an irony that as recently as last year, the merger of digital and physical worlds into a phygital world was being attributed to the metaverse. The release of ChatGPT in November 2022 immediately changed this perception. Instead of moving into immersive digital worlds, we are now seeing the difference between physical and digital collapse.

Since the inception of NEXT in 2006, we’ve talked a lot about digital technology and its impact on our world. In 2023, it’s time to get physical. After three pandemic years, we’re yearning for physical experiences.

But what we’ll get is a different story.

Perhaps the greatest power of digital technology is to transform the physical world. We’ll see this impact in fields as diverse as health, mobility, robotics, and cities. And it will be driven by AI, but also by new human/machine interfaces, brain/computer interfaces, quantum computing, biological computing, gene editing, medical bionics, or synthetic biology.

We need to turn our attention to the physical, because that’s where the real, hard challenges are. Digital is transforming physical by merging with it. It’s more than digital twins. It’s far more than apps, gadgets, data, and software. Digital will disappear as a separate category. Everything will be digital, as everything used to be physical. It’s a paradigm shift – as we anticipated in 2012.

Most importantly, everything is information, and information is everything. LLMs with their enormous hunger for training data will eat the world in ways beyond Marc Andreessen’s imagination. Amy Webb’s AIsmosis is a new internet in which all types of data flow into AI systems through any source or situation. At the very least, it is a major step towards a technological singularity.

Work will change dramatically

A more immediate change is, again, brought to the tables of white-collar knowledge workers. Having LLMs at their disposal, integrated into plain-vanilla office apps from Microsoft and Google, won’t kill their jobs, at least not immediately. But it will raise the bar. As Azeem Azhar has put it, LLMs

might help mediocre graduates become excellent ones!

In general, we’ll outsource tasks machines are good at and spend more time on tasks we human beings are good at. Value creation will shift accordingly. This is a pattern, I think, that will hold. After all, we’ve done that since at least the dawn of the agricultural age.

It will, however, finally destroy the office as we know it. Work will change dramatically. The shifts we’ve seen in the last three years were only a quiet prelude. We’ll continue to automate repetitive tasks with grammatical structures, rule-based processes, and predictable outcomes, as we have done since the industrial revolution. We won’t need offices designed for a type of work that’s about to disappear. We’ll need places where we can convene, meet and discuss.

We’ll need studios designed for creative, collaborative work in the broadest of senses. Despite the onslaught of creative machines like generative AI, they won’t conquer human creativity and ingenuity. Just as the advent of photography didn’t kill painting, creating a new art form instead, generative AI enables new avenues of art and creativity.

But this is just the beginning. As Accenture’s Tech Vision 2023 states, we “can already see that this technology is poised to shape the future of science, enterprise data, how we design and manufacture products, and so much more.”

Thomas Friedman has dubbed this a Promethean moment, like the invention of the printing press:

Only this Promethean moment is not driven by a single invention, like a printing press or a steam engine, but rather by a technology super-cycle. It is our ability to sense, digitize, process, learn, share and act, all increasingly with the help of A.I. That loop is being put into everything — from your car to your fridge to your smartphone to fighter jets — and it’s driving more and more processes every day.

The next great technology cycle

If pundits like Paul Kedrosky and Eric Norlin are correct, we’ll see the next great technology cycle manifest as a huge wave of software fueled by the cost of coding dropping to an approximate zero. You might be surprised to hear that we haven’t produced enough software for decades, accumulating what they call “society-wide technical debt”. In their view, software hasn’t eaten the world yet, contrary to what Marc Andreessen predicted in 2011.

For a variety of reasons that they explain in detail, software has been too expensive, crippling demand. The current wave of AI is going to change that. It’s less about displacing developers and replacing them with machines, and more about augmenting them with new and better tools.

The current generation of AI models are a missile aimed, however unintentionally, directly at software production itself. Sure, chat AIs can perform swimmingly at producing undergraduate essays, or spinning up marketing materials and blog posts (like we need more of either), but such technologies are terrific to the point of dark magic at producing, debugging, and accelerating software production quickly and almost costlessly.

This will be transformative.

A software industry where anyone can write software, can do it for pennies, and can do it as easily as speaking or writing text, is a transformative moment. It is an exaggeration, but only a modest one, to say that it is a kind of Gutenberg moment, one where previous barriers to creation—scholarly, creative, economic, etc—are going to fall away, as people are freed to do things only limited by their imagination, or, more practically, by the old costs of producing software.

This Gutenberg moment, or Promethean moment, will have a massive impact on our physical world. It will lead to a great redesign, a fusion of digital and physical, and a rewrite of how the world works. Digital technology created powerful feedback loops, leading to profound behavioural change and massive scale. The next technology cycle will implement those loops in the physical world.

Our world will become programmable in new, unseen ways. But it’s no longer just us who are at the steering wheel.

It’s more than software, and more than AI. In a 2019 essay, George Dyson described what happens when digital and physical systems merge:

The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls. If enough drivers subscribe to a real-time map, traffic is controlled, with no central model except the traffic itself.

These hybrid digital/physical (or, in Dyson’s terms, analog) systems are the ones to watch. His essay closed with a prediction that may have sounded bold in 2019, but now rings familiar:

The next revolution will be the ascent of analog systems over which the dominion of digital programming comes to an end. Nature’s answer to those who sought to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build machines whose nature is beyond programmable control.

NEXT Conference 2023: Don’t miss the opportunity to connect with thought leaders, marketers, strategists, innovators, creative thinkers and doers from across industries. Be part of the NEXT community and join us along with more than 800 international guests by applying via our website