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Businesses are adopting digital technologies at an unprecedented pace, with spending on digital transformation expected to reach a staggering $1.25 trillion in 2019. As a result of these efforts, digital technologies are increasingly powering core business operations. In fact, 79% of the more than 6,600 business and IT executives worldwide that Accenture surveyed for its 2019 report, “The Post-Digital Era Is Upon Us,” say that digital technologies — specifically social, mobile, analytics, and cloud, which we refer to as SMAC — have now moved beyond adoption silos to become part of the technology foundation for their organizations.
So now that many global organizations have completed this first wave of transformation to become digital businesses, what’s next?
In this fast-approaching post-digital era, becoming digital is no longer a competitive advantage but rather the table stakes for doing business. With digital saturation and a level playing field, companies will face the challenge of meeting rapidly evolving and increasing demands from customers, employees, and partners. In the post-digital world, successful companies will be those that build upon foundational SMAC capabilities and apply a new generation of technologies and innovations to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by delivering the right experience to customers at just the right time.
We forecast four key technologies will drive the next wave of innovation and growth: distributed ledgers, artificial intelligence, extended reality, and quantum computing — what we at Accenture collectively call the DARQ stack. For organizations, each technology may be at a different point on the adoption curve, but investments across the stack are steadily rising. Forward-looking leaders are already starting to capitalize on their potential, so it may be time to evaluate your organization’s strategic plans.
Distributed ledger technology (DLT). This refers to a category of technologies that includes blockchain, which uses cryptography and a distributed messaging protocol to create shared ledgers, enabling multiple parties to share access to the same data, at virtually the same time, with an unprecedented level of transparency. Initially developed for the financial services industry to increase trading efficiency, improve regulatory control, and eliminate unnecessary intermediaries, DLT has expanded to other industries, including supply chain and logistics, and helps companies hard wire trust into a variety of transactions.
Artificial intelligence. Maybe the most familiar of the group, referring to an evolving set of technologies that sense, comprehend, act, and learn — AI is also the most widely used of the DARQ stack. AI is already optimizing processes in companies across numerous industries and can improve decision-making by bolstering human skills with intelligent technologies. For instance, Swisscom, Switzerland’s leading telecom provider, implemented an AI-powered “Ask the Brain” solution from Starmind, through which workers can pose questions to identify relevant experts across the company. The knowledge of each employee is easily accessible to others, with more than half of questions now answered in less than two hours — enabling people to spend more time putting the answers to use. When we asked executives which DARQ technology will have the greatest impact on their organization over the next three years, the greatest number (41%) cited AI. Forty-two percent reported that their organizations have already adopted AI in at least one business unit, including 18% who say they are using AI-powered technologies across multiple business areas.
Extended reality (XR). This set of technologies includes augmented reality, virtual reality, and newly developed immersive technologies — which enable humans to interact naturally with technology, connecting and engaging customers at deeper, more meaningful levels. Extended reality technology helps employees improve their productivity and performance and creates entirely new ways for people to experience and augment the physical world around them. IDC predicts worldwide spending on augmented and virtual reality products and services to surpass $20 billion in 2019, demonstrating significant momentum in this space.
Quantum computing. Perhaps the most experimental of the DARQ technologies, quantum computing represents a new processing paradigm with novel ways to approach and solve computational problems. While still in its early stages of development and not yet primed for widespread enterprise adoption, significant progress is underway with quantum computing, as hardware and software capabilities have started to move out of university labs. There are offerings available today, such as the IBM Q Network, that give companies a way to develop and test quantum solutions for specific enterprise needs, providing the chance to prototype early options for meaningful, cost-effective business results.
While each of these DARQ technologies is clearly powerful on its own, it’s when they converge that we’ll see a true step-change for businesses moving into the next stage of their digital transformation efforts. As these technologies reach maturity, they’ll allow businesses to expand upon their digital capabilities to build intelligent and highly customized, in-the-moment experiences.
What could this look like? Imagine something as simple as enjoying a movie. In the future, audiences will live inside of stories, fully immersed in fictional worlds through virtual reality. Humanlike AI characters will respond, anticipate, and react to each audience member’s choices, and payments and access will be facilitated seamlessly by distributed ledger technology. This may seem far-fetched, or at least far off, but companies in the entertainment industry are already starting to explore the combinatorial effects of DARQ technologies, and similar experiences will have applications across all kinds of industries.
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Volkswagen, for instance, is using quantum computing to test traffic flow optimization as well as to simulate the chemical structure of batteries to accelerate development. To further bolster the results from quantum computing, the company is teaming with Nvidia to add AI capabilities — most likely intelligent copilot systems — to future models. The automaker is also testing distributed ledgers to protect cars from hackers, facilitate automatic payments at gas stations, and create tamperproof odometers. Augmented reality may also have a role in Volkswagen’s future by providing step-by-step instructions to help its employees service cars, a benefit for both employee and customer experience.
Another example is DHL’s application of distributed ledger technology in the logistics industry. In an effort to address one of the pharmaceutical industry’s major challenges — the distribution of counterfeit medicines, which Interpol estimates claims up to 1 million lives each year — Accenture collaborated with DHL to develop a system that securely tracks pharmaceuticals from their point of origin to the consumer, preventing tampering and errors. All steps are securely recorded on a ledger that can be shared with business partners throughout their ecosystem, from manufacturers, warehouses, and distributors to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors. And after purchasing a product, end consumers can independently validate that their medication is of legitimate origin and can be used safely. DHL is examining how the impact of blockchain solutions like this one can be combined with technologies such as AI to more effectively manage complex supply chains across the globe.
These are just a few examples of the power of DARQ, but the message is clear: Success in the post-digital future means thinking strategically about these technologies now. The opportunities to lead will come from how quickly companies can continue their digital journeys and master more than the basics. Leaders in the future will be those best prepared to combine and exploit those competencies as the technologies reach enterprise-level maturity, well ahead of shortsighted competitors.
The fate of companies that were slow to embrace SMAC technologies provides a valuable lesson for enterprises in the post-digital age: Adapt and adopt at pace, or risk being left behind.