The Present is Past: SAPPHIRE NOW Keynote Predicts the Future

I tried to figure out how to characterize Monday’s surprise opening keynote delivered by actor Gabriel Byrne at SAPPHIRE NOW. Should I call it a dramatic monologue? A deep-dive into the power of technology to transform everyday life? A rousing, encouraging call to action for beleaguered businesses worldwide?

It was all the above and more. Byrne captivated a near-silent audience (quiet enough for me to hear a BlackBerry buzzing nearby) on the topic of “The Future of Business – Imagining the World in 2015 and Beyond.” He touched on the power of big ideas, big thinking, and a powerful, focused delivery. Maybe it was Byrne’s soft Irish accent that grabbed the audience so, but more likely it was because it was a timely, aspirational message that aligns well with a key SAP message: that those businesses that look to the future, manage information, and deliver on their promises will reap the rewards.

“We are living in a world of profound, seismic change that technology is helping to drive and define,” noted Byrne, who alluded to the journey of explorer Christopher Columbus into the unknown that eventually led him to the “new world.”

He challenged listeners to “look into the future, because the present is already past,” and observed that at each great turn of technology we largely fell short of understanding its impact. “We have new quantum leap opportunities through mobility, the cloud, and in-memory computing,” he said, exhorting the audience to “start imagining our own possibilities,” and to turn “what if’s into why not’s.”

Yes, it was theater, and yes, one wonders what an actor like Byrne actually knows about technology. But, that doesn’t really matter: the medium wasn’t the message here. It was simply a powerful way to grab people’s attention and to kick off an event like SAPPHIRE NOW. I don’t know where Byrne took artistic license and where he stayed true to the script written by some unseen speechwriter (by the way, as a communications professional I say “give that person a bonus!”), but it came off quite well. I got three pages of scribbled notes written in the dark out of it, so I guess that says something.

Technology’s intersection with the human condition

So how do you follow an act like that? Easy: by bringing some of the world’s leading minds onto the stage for a panel to deep-dive into just what business will look like in 2015 and beyond. The panel comprised Dr. Michio Kaku, scientist, professor, and author of “The Theory of Everything”; Michael Schrage, professor and author of “Serious Play”; Isabel Aguilera, business leader and consultant; and Dr. Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE foundation.

Although the discussion was wide-ranging, two key themes emerged: the power of technology to change the world as we know it, and how it will impact the workforce of the future. Surprisingly for a panel at a tech conference, much of the time was spent discussing the human element.

Observing that “Your cell phone has more computing power than all of NASA in 1969 when they put a man on the moon,” Dr. Kaku went on to talk about how this ever-increasing computing power will eventually lead to “perfect capitalism,” where consumers will know the “true value of things” and will be empowered because of it. Because of this, “intellectual capital” will be increasingly important in this new world. “You cannot mass-produce the mind,” noted Kaku.

Dr. Diamandis agreed, predicting that better use of technology will allow us eventually to reach an “era of abundance,” where basic needs will be more easily met, “allowing one billion new minds to come online” and contribute in unthought-of ways.

As Aguilera put it, “Technology will allow us to greatly expand our knowledge and improve the power of our minds.” She went on to say that while tech will naturally cut out a certain amount of jobs, it will also open up new opportunities because we will need to coordinate and communicate in new ways.

Diamandis took it a step further, saying as technology advances, it creates opportunities for people with less training to do higher-level tasks. As an example, he mentioned an X PRIZE project to develop a “Tricorder” right out of the TV show “Star Trek,” which would be able to instantly diagnosis medical issues and suggest treatment, greatly improving access to medical care while at the same time being a disruptive technology with the potential to impact medical care as we know it.

While all agreed that technology will have a profound effect on the near and distant future, Schrage pointed out that one should “never confuse a clear view with a short distance.”

Will the panel’s big ideas come to pass by 2015? I doubt it. I agree with Schrage that the distance may be longer than we might hope. But despite the session’s title, that’s not the point. Think big, do big, and make your mark, in both your business and your personal life, was my takeaway.

How do you think technology will stretch us in the future? What will it look like? There aren’t any obvious answers. That’s the challenge… and the fun of it!

I’ll leave you with a quote that was projected on a giant screen during Gabriel Byrne’s presentation.

“Man’s mind, once stretched, never regains its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes.

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