eco Trend Report: On the Cusp of the Digital Revolution – How AI, Quantum Computing and More Will Change Our World

Artificial intelligence (AI) is THE technology trend of 2024 – that’s the consensus among IT decision-makers in Germany. Earlier this year, a representative survey commissioned by eco – Association of the Internet Industry revealed that almost three-quarters of respondents (73.6 per cent) see AI as the most important driver of digital innovation. Their prediction seems to be bearing out: according to a recent eco study, 51 per cent of all German companies are already using the technology in a wide range of areas – from word processing and data analysis to process automation.

And this is just the beginning. It is clear that AI, quantum computing and other digital technological innovations will fundamentally change our world in all areas over the next decade.

AI is driving a paradigm shift in the world of work

The increased use of AI is already having an impact. AI in its various forms (generative AI, machine learning, etc.) is already transforming the world of work. However, the media discourse is still primarily focused on the fear that the use of AI will reduce the number of jobs, as AI could replace humans. The fact that new areas of activity are emerging, that technology can be used to address skills shortages, and that the wide range of AI application scenarios will significantly increase overall economic productivity are all too often still considered to be of secondary importance.

Rather than replacing human workers, AI will complement our skills, relieve us of monotonous or physically demanding tasks, and augment our perception. For the first time, this view is also shared by a majority of the population: According to the latest eco survey, 52 per cent of respondents in a representative survey see more opportunities than risks in the use of artificial intelligence in the world of work. This is good news for Germany as a business location!

This type of supportive use of AI is being combined with augmented reality, for example. In the manufacturing industry, the integration of virtual information enables machine operators to make better and faster decisions based on design plans or real-time data. Machine learning algorithms can also detect deviations in manufacturing or in subsequent operation or use, generate notifications or recommendations and create new business models.

In general, we can expect a paradigm shift in the way people and machines work together, and it is likely to be quite pleasant – contrary to what some people expect. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from 2023 also shows that skilled workers feel comfortable working with their “robot colleagues”.

Openness and enthusiasm for new things as well as an education system that meets the new demands of a digital world are therefore crucial to making Germany an attractive place to do business.

Efficient digital infrastructure as a basic prerequisite for the development and use of AI

However, the use and spread of AI is not only driven by its application in industry. We are also increasingly relying on virtual assistants, recommendation systems and, in the future, autonomous driving in our everyday lives. Artificial intelligence is being used in research into quantum computing to make high-performance computers even more efficient, and the technology trend of 2024 also took centre stage at this year’s Hannover Messe.

If we now consider the applications of artificial intelligence in politics and, in particular, in public administration, it can be said that all citizens will ultimately benefit from this digital transformation in terms of the impact of the use of AI.

However, the widespread use of the technology requires a high-performance network of digital infrastructures. We are talking about the expansion of data centres, Internet Exchanges, fibre optic networks and the nationwide availability of 5G and, in the future, 6G networks.

It is no secret that the training and subsequent application of AI models, in particular, rely on massive computing and storage resources. It is often essential to create proximity between infrastructure providers and companies in order to ensure low latency times, for example – even outside of well-served urban centres.

Data centres play a key role in driving the digital transformation forward. Not only are they urgently needed due to the increasing use of AI, augmented reality, quantum computing and the like, but they also help to enable the efficient, sovereign and sustainable use of technology in business and society.

In other words, in all future decisions at European, national, regional or local levels, we must balance the conflicting priorities of digital performance, digital sovereignty and digital sustainability for the benefit of the location, because the ecosystem of digital infrastructures is the backbone of digital transformation and all the business models and value chains based on it.

Digital transformation for greater sustainability

It is not only AI itself that can lead to greater sustainability, for example through integration into smart grids or by optimising manufacturing and logistics chains; the infrastructure that enables this technology can also play its part.

For example, modern data centres are already becoming increasingly sustainable thanks to smart cooling technologies, efficient hardware and comprehensive energy management. Running on renewable energy also helps to promote resource-saving digitalisation. Using waste heat from data centres to heat residential, office and industrial buildings also reduces CO₂ emissions. However, we need to maintain a close dialogue between policymakers and the Internet industry to ensure that this does not remain a pipe dream. In all political decision-making processes, we must achieve a logic of dovetailing between regulatory requirements and the framework conditions that exist in reality.

The eco study “Digital Transformation for More Sustainability: The Positive Impact of Digital Technologies and Infrastructure on the Carbon Footprint of Industry and Society” shows the added value of sustainable digitalisation. The environmental impact of digitalisation is already positive today. Data centres have contributed to this, with CO₂ emissions declining across Europe since 2015. Energy efficiency has also improved impressively, requiring, on average, 12 times less energy per workload than in 2010.

With this foundation, the industry is not only enabling the widespread use of modern technologies, but is also helping to create new business models, change social paradigms and develop sustainable technological solutions for the long term.

Digitalisation needs skilled workers

For this to work, we need to focus on people as the drivers of digital transformation. To realise the potential of trend technologies such as AI – both in the B2C sector and in the rethinking of traditional industries in the B2B sector – we need versatile specialists from a wide range of disciplines.

To arouse more interest in innovative technologies in this country too, it is therefore advisable to start early. Digital literacy must become an integral part of school education in order to enable all pupils to use digital information safely and critically. A basic understanding of programming, algorithms and data literacy is just as important today as learning maths, science and foreign languages. Ultimately, these skills not only allow us to communicate with our “robot colleagues”, but also pave the way for the design of a digitally sustainable and secure data ecosystem that will shape our social and economic future.

The future is in our hands, for we are only at the beginning of a digital revolution that will have a sustainable impact on business, science, society, politics and administration. Let’s shape our digital future now – it will pay off for all of us!

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