The Future Fast: The Next Big Things

There was a time when we could expect major changes to take decades, while the near future would remain one of steady, imperceptible change. Now, massive changes in the fundamentals of society occur every year as the social, technological and geopolitical environment is continually shaken.

What are the biggest changes we can tell in technology this decade? We asked Max Peterson, vice president of global public affairs at Amazon Web Services, to predict three major developments. But first we talked about science fiction.

Q: Do you think we’re in an era where science fiction becomes reality in regards to the most grandiose visions we saw 50 years ago?

I started at AWS in December 2012. And I was sure that we were on the cusp of all these new capabilities and new ways in which government, education or space could be used for the good of humanity and the planet. What we’re really seeing now is that sometimes it takes a really tough challenge to break through old thinking. The Covid pandemic has been one of those urgent challenges on a global scale. It really forced us to think massively differently. So we’ve done a lot of great incremental stuff. But as I’ve been looking around with all of our customers around the world, now they’re coming out post-pandemic and taking a look at the remarkable achievements they’ve made. Sometimes they are stunned because they had to give themselves permission, sometimes legal permission.

For example, in the case of Ukraine, we had the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, who is also the Minister for Digital, on stage with me (at the AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas in December). And it was interesting that while they were trying to get all the technical parts right in the lead-up to the Russian invasion, they also had to get the political parts right. This happened by accident, literally five days before the invasion began. They changed the law that allowed them to run national systems not just on-premises in the country, but in the cloud wherever needed.

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It’s such a small thing, but this random change allowed them to act quickly, protect the country’s digital assets, and engage in humanitarian efforts like training. The world’s largest K12 educational technology company is a Ukrainian company called Optima. Because they needed to immediately move everything they had into a virtual and online environment, and that’s what the small changes that enabled and unblocked a tremendous amount of work were all about.

But the same thing happened in Covid. Governments gave themselves permission to innovate by taking measures that had blocked innovation and introducing an exemption. Let’s take GovChat in Africa as an example. I met up with (former) CEO Eldrid Jordaan not long ago when we had a delegation from South Africa in town. We talked about how GovChat was originally purpose built before being used by virus test results management as a chat bot that could scale very quickly. People have realized that the platform is extensible. It could be used for a number of different electronic citizen communication channels in the same cost-effective way.

Q: The big challenge South Africa faces is energy and one of the big issues is energy policy. What do you see coming here from an innovation perspective and from a political perspective?

At AWS, we are firmly committed to powering our entire cloud infrastructure with new renewable energy. The original goal was to run everything on renewable energy by 2030. We are now on track to run everything on renewable energy by 2025. You need to set firm goals and then pursue them, whether it’s government or industry or anyone else, because that’s the only way you’re going to actually reach that pivot point. And it’s not just about power at AWS or the Amazon Cloud. When we started this commitment to be net carbon neutral in 2019, it affected a very large fleet of traditionally carbon-consuming products.

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We now have more than 300 organizations that have signed up to the Climate Pledge, which has a goal of being net carbon neutral by 2040 where the Paris Agreement is 2050. We believe that governments and organizations should set big goals for them, and then they have to work to achieve them.

Q: What are the biggest innovations, big three, that you expect to see in this decade and what impact will they have on African development and benefits to the African people?

One of these is commercial space operations and space opportunities. We’re seeing a dramatic increase in the number of startups with innovative ideas from around the world that are now capitalizing on opportunities in space thanks to things like AWS cloud services, AWS Ground Station.

Next is health. Health has historically been a challenge in many ways, and yet now with the many advances that have sprung from the fire of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are able to reach the population with telemedicine advice on a much larger scale. In India we developed a system (that was) that was initially capable of handling thousands of telemedicine consultations per day, now well into tens, hundreds of thousands of telemedicine consultations per day. Imagine populations around the world who struggle to access healthcare and the opportunities they have now that you can use Amazon Cloud to improve population health.

A third very important point, which is vital to our all long-term survival, is the focus on sustainability. Check out what AWS and Amazon are doing in the renewable energy space. All of our AWS cloud computing centers will be powered by renewable energy by 2025. If you look at what is being done to achieve the current net carbon neutrality, we have set ourselves and the 300 other organizations, including governments, targets to be carbon neutral by 2040, a full 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement.

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Of course, water is a scarce resource in many parts of the world. So we are taking action now to be water positive, AWS has stated that it will be water positive by 2023.

And I think the last thing I would say is back to space. The possibilities for improving life on earth through earth observation from space are almost unlimited. Whether it’s about improving agriculture, whether it’s about faster response to natural disasters and disaster relief, whether it’s about maritime operations and making ports and supply chains more effective. There are just tremendous applications from space that will help us in relation to life here on Earth.

* Watch highlights of Arthur Goldstuck’s interview with Max Peterson here: