Brian Gaynor 's Opinion

Brian Gaynor is a Weekend Herald columnist.

Brian Gaynor: Technology revolution only just beginning

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Greater strides heralded in financial reporting, transport and healthcare

The world has undergone enormous change over the past 10 to 20 years, mostly technology-driven. These developments make the Industrial Revolution look like a stroll in the park.

Our technology-driven revolution, which has had a dramatic impact on individuals, businesses and governments, is only beginning. This is the prediction of a number of experts including Google executive director Eric Schmidt and Google ideas director Jared Cohen in their bestseller The New Digital Age.

The book's sub-heading is: "Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business."

We should pay close attention to the predictions of Google executives, because the search engine provider is the third largest US-listed company by market value, behind only Apple and Exxon, and has a very impressive growth record.

This is reflected by Google's share price which has appreciated 56.3 per cent over the last 12 months compared with Apple's 22.2 per cent decline and Exxon's 16.3 per cent share price rise.

Amongst the questions being asked by Schmidt, Cohen and others are:

• When will we have driverless cars?

• Will electricity-powered cars replace the traditional automobile?

• What impact will technology have on medical care?

• Will the continued development of technology lead to widespread monitoring of private phone conversations and emails by government agencies?

• How will governments respond to their loss of power?

• When will we all have wearable computers?

• Will vining, the 6-second video innovation bought by Twitter last year, become more popular than tweeting?

• Will Google's Moto X smartphone challenge the iPhone?

• When will sporting stadiums let spectators in for nothing in response to falling attendances due to widespread television coverage?

• Will listed companies be required to disclose financial figures on a monthly or even weekly basis?

Schmidt and Cohen describe a world in which we wake up each day to the pre-programmed aroma of freshly brewed coffee and by light entering our room as curtains open automatically.

The traditional alarm clock will be extinct and our wake up time may be adjusted by a monitor that is programmed not to interrupt our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle.

Our dwelling will be an electronic orchestra with translucent screens showing the latest news, our schedule for the day and a list of chores our house-keeping robot is to tackle.

These would include automatic laundering and dry cleaning as well as ordering food that has run out.

We will travel to work in a driverless car that will identify the quickest route based on a GPS system that takes into account traffic congestion and flows.

These aren't fancy dreams as Google is developing a driverless car with Stanford University, and the states of California, Nevada and Florida have legalised these robotic automobiles.

These driverless cars will have automatic pilots that are similar to those used on aircraft and can be switched on and off.

This week Google announced the acquisition of Waze, an Israeli navigation software start-up, for a reported US$1.03 billion.

Waze has developed a GPS navigation application for smartphones that identifies the best route to travel to our destination after taking into account road works, accidents, speed cameras and congestion.

Thus Google is developing a driverless car and has purchased a GPS system that Schmidt and Cohen wrote about in their book.

Another exciting development is the electric car by Silicon Valley-based Tesla Motors.

Tesla has reached a market value of US$11.3 billion ($14 billion) as its share price has surged 229.8 per cent over the past 12 months.

Tesla has sold 10,000 of its Model S automobiles at US$90,000 each and the company's big test will be the promised launch of a mass market vehicle in 2016.

This will have to be at least 50 per cent cheaper than its Model S to attract a large number of buyers.

The problem with the electric car is the huge cost of batteries, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars and have to be recharged every 320km.

Many cities, including York in the UK, have purchased electric-driven buses because they travel less than 320km in a day and can be recharged overnight.

The electric car could have the same impact on the electricity industry as the mobile phone had on the telecommunications sector in the early 1990s, but only if battery costs can be significantly reduced and their life increased.

As far as medical care is concerned, Schmidt and Cohen predict that mobile phones will be able to scan our body parts the way they do barcodes and there will be "a slew of physical augmentations designed to monitor your well-being, such as microscopic robots in your circulatory system that keep track of your blood pressure, detect nascent heart disease and identify early-stage cancer".

In other words, our smartphone and other devices will automatically detect our health problems but, before we get too excited, Schmidt and Cohen warn that they will not have curing capabilities.

One of the biggest technology issues is the conflict between individual empowerment and increased state surveillance.

Technology has empowered individuals through the use of blogs, online comments, talkback radio, Facebook, Twitter and so forth. Political party membership is falling as individuals use technology to make their voices heard.

Recent demonstrations in Turkey and Sweden, as well of most of North Africa in recent years, indicate that social media is now a powerful anti-government tool.

However, the flip side of that is the controversy over the whistleblowing former CIA and US National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden and the widespread surveillance of private phone calls, emails and texts.

Many governments, including the Chinese, have barred social media and other websites.

Reconciling the conflict between individual privacy and state security will be one of the biggest issues in the years ahead.

But we are really only starting as far as technology is concerned.

When will we all have wearable computers, either on our heads or on our wrists?

Will Google's proposed Moto X smartphone be more innovative than the iPhone?

Will vining overtake tweeting in terms of usage?

This week's revelation that Craig Heatley is forming a company to provide sporting events through smartphones shows how much the world has changed. Television and sponsorships now provide most of the finance for sporting organisations as attendances continue to fall.

American sporting organisations recognise that it is important to fill stadiums to create atmosphere and they offer exceptionally low entry prices, particularly compared with US salaries and wages, but charge like wounded bulls for food and drink.

When will our sporting bodies respond to the changing world and offer much lower ticket prices to fill our stadiums?

As far as sharemarkets are concerned, James Surowiecki recently argued in his New Yorker column on insider trading that companies should report more regularly to investors.

He wrote: "In a world where companies increasingly know about their business in real time, it makes no sense that public reporting mostly follows the old quarterly schedule. Because investors are kept in the dark, the value of inside information is artificially inflated."

Surowiecki has an excellent point as improved technologies would make it relatively easy for companies to release monthly revenue, expenses and profitability figures within five trading days of month end and to compare these figures with the previous year and the current budget.

Finally, the good news is that Schmidt and Cohen believe that modern technology has created a level playing field as far as innovation is concerned and the latest developments may come from anywhere in the world including Botswana, Kenya, Israel or New Zealand.

Sam Morgan and Rod Drury have created $1 billon technology companies in New Zealand but why haven't we produced more?

Why haven't we created more companies like Waze, the Israeli start-up now worth in excess of US$1 billion?


Brian Gaynor is an executive director of Milford Asset Management.

- NZ Herald

Brian Gaynor

Brian Gaynor is a Weekend Herald columnist.

Brian Gaynor has written a weekly investment column for the Weekend Herald since April 1997. He has a particular particular passion for the NZX and its regulation. He has experienced - and suffered through - the non-regulated period prior to the establishment of the Securities Commission in 1978 and the Commission’s weak stewardship until it was replaced by the Financial Markets Authority (FMA) in 2011. He is also a Portfolio Manager at Milford Asset Management.

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