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Why Digital Tech Will Create More Jobs than it Destroys

Proteus, where author Thompson is CEO, makes Digital Medicines that communicate with your mobile device when swallowed.

Proteus, where author Thompson is CEO, makes digital medicines that communicate with your mobile device when swallowed.

I often hear folks express concerns about inequality.  Many worry that new digital tools, robots and artificial intelligence are going to replace entry-level and middle class jobs.  A common view is that we are going to become a society of a few rich programmers and a vast number of incapable meth heads who have no chance of getting meaningful employment (unless you include burger flipping).

I appreciate the concern these people have for the fate of their fellow human beings.   But I think they are just about 100% wrong.   These new technologies do represent a step change in the capabilities of machines.  But just as the new utility of the 20th century – electricity – created vastly more jobs than it destroyed, the new utility of the 21st century – the mobile internet – will also create more jobs than it replaces.

A key to helping people navigate is to ensure that we use the same technologies that are changing how we live, work, play and pray to also enable change in our economy. That will help ensure everybody is equipped to participate in education and training, healthcare, the way our cities run, and how our companies are organized.  To fulfill that promise will require investors and entrepreneurs to identify and pursue opportunities and address the needs of citizens adapting to the new digital economy.  New government policy that supports changes in how public services are delivered and paid for will also be important.

We are at the beginning of a major change in how humans interact with the world.  Everything is moving from a context of buildings, people and products to one that is about mobile devices, software and services.  Mobile solutions are incredibly powerful and engaging for consumers. One example:  Facebook’s earnings are up 300x since it went mobile.

How can mobile technology and the engagement it creates enable us to diminish inequality and prevent fulfillment of the dire visions of a future of rich nerds and an impoverished underclass?

Let’s start with financial services. In December 2016 Billy Jack at Georgetown University published a study on the impact of M-Pesa, the widely-used mobile money system in Kenya.  People using mobile money get better jobs.  They earn more. They save.  They enter a different strata of life experience that includes credit scores, the ability to access loans and acquire assets like a house or a car.  According to the FDIC, 20% of US households qualify as being under-banked, so this is an enormous opportunity here as well.

What about healthcare?  I am CEO of a company that makes Digital Medicines – drugs that when you swallow them are able to talk to a cell phone.  We enable therapies that include measurement, feedback and behavioral cues – things that we know help people improve compliance and the effectiveness of drugs.  With Digital Medicines the patient gets an app, the doctor gets a dashboard and the payer gets analytics.

Widely-published research shows that patients using regular medicines have a Medication Possession Ratio (MPR) of 50%.  That means only half of people even bring home the medicines that have been prescribed to them. So a reasonable assumption is that regular medicines are actually used about 30% of the time.  By contrast, patients using Digital Medicines use them 85% to 95% of the time and have much improved outcomes, documented in many clinical studies and through real-world evidence.

Education is another area where technology is going to have a huge positive impact.  I am a founder and board member at Summit Schools.  It has developed a student-centered, public school pedagogy built on mobile devices. Students can engage in learning on their own terms, in their own time and in their own way.  The student gets an app, the teacher gets a dashboard, the principal gets analytics.  Sound familiar?

In a regular high school in California about 70% of kids will graduate, according to the State’s published data. Of the graduates, 40% will be college ready.  Around 25% will be admitted to college by the time of their high school graduation.  Kids attending Summit Schools are selected by lottery.  Before graduation 99% are admitted to 4-year college.

These are just three examples in finance, health and education of how new digital technologies can promote positive outcomes for people who are struggling with complex life tasks.  Why are these tools so successful?

Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow describes how humans operate in what he calls System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is your reflexes; your operating system.  System 2 is your highly-educated brain.  Most people live in System 1 as much as possible and rely on reliable heuristics to get through life.  Engaging System 2 is difficult and stressful and is something people avoid.

What digital technology does is force producers to change in ways that are extremely beneficial to many consumers.  With a five-inch screen and short attention spans, companies engaging consumers on mobile must follow new rules of delivery.  The first rule is task segmentation: keep things incremental and quick.  Second is task simplification:  make things easy and intuitive.  Finally, task relocation means you should enable the consumer to get the job done within their preferred daily life flow.  In very simplified terms, mobile forces producers to create things that System 1, your reflexes, can handle, as opposed to relying on System 2, your educated brain.

This kind of process is something that those who are stuck in the world of buildings, people, and products struggle with.  In financial services, banks often intimidate customers with complicated paperwork.  Healthcare is frequently bogged down in blizzards of indecipherable forms and long waiting times.  And in education, kids are required to put in seat time (instructional minutes) without anyone thinking about how that might fit with their preferred life flow.  Incentives, coaches, carrots and sticks all miss the point.   Mobile can eliminate much of the dysfunction that stems from complexity and reduce the disenfranchisement that results.

If this hypothesis is true, then we can make enormous strides socially, economically and politically using digital tools. We can change higher-level life tasks that citizens otherwise struggle with.  This includes pensions, taxes, visiting the doctor, taking medications, getting an education through high school and on into later job training (perhaps avoiding the debilitating costs of college). Such a transformation can also extend to voter participation and civic engagement.

So digital technology, robots and AI should be at the top of our list when it comes to thinking about how we emancipate and empower people in our increasingly-complex world.   Worries about “nerd nirvana” should be dumped in the digital trash-can.

Andy Thompson is CEO of Proteus Digital Health. He will speak  at the Techonomy Health conference in New York on May 16.

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