Ericsson CEO says networked society will connect ‘everyone, everywhere’

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The growing pace of connectivity is going to fundamentally change the way we function as individuals, businesses and humanity as a whole. So much so that we’re all going to be part of something called the networked society. That was the message behind Ericsson CEO Hans Vestburg’s keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Ericsson is a company with a long history. Its vision in the 135 years since its founding has been to connect the world. Hardly surprising seeing as “Communication is a basic human need” was the mantra of its founder Lars Magnus Ericsson. The Swedish communications giant started out selling telegraph parts. Today its infrastructure handles nearly 40% of global mobile traffic. Small wonder then that Vestburg thinks the company is poised to lead the way into the networked society.

But what is the networked society? In order to understand what it entails, you first have to get your head around a few figures, involving the massive growth in mobile connectivity. “By 2015 we expect that we will go from one-billion mobile broadband users to five-billion,” says Vestburg, adding that 90% of earth’s population will have the option of mobile broadband coverage by 2015. To put that into perspective, figures from early 2011 estimated that there were only around two-billion internet users worldwide.

Now with that number of mobile broadband users, and that kind of mobile broadband coverage, you could pretty much have real-time connections covering “everyone, everywhere,” says Vestburg. That’s part of what the networked society is about, but only a very small part.

“Anything that benefits from being connected will be connected in the future,” he says, explaining the scope of the vision. “We believe in 50-billion connected devices by 2020.”

If you want an illustration of how deeply these connections can go, you only have to look at a tree that Ericsson connected to Twitter. Sensors in the tree detect touches, sending out tweets in response to them.

“The networked society will impact users, it will impact industry, and it will impact society” as a whole, says Vestberg.

But the networked society is also all about change. Very little time on smartphones, for instance, is spent on voice calls these days. Compare that to a few years ago and you can see how the rise of data has enabled us to become increasingly connected, not just to other human beings but to a whole host of products and services.

“Voice is getting more like a noise in the networks,” says Vestberg.

If you think all those additional connections are a bad thing, consider this: For every 1 000 broadband connections 80 new net jobs are created. There is also a direct correlation between connections and GDP growth.

It also opens up new spaces for people to innovate on top of new technologies. Data sent between cars, for example, can actively prevent accidents. The world’s largest shipping company, Maersk is also outfitting 400 of its ships with Ericsson technology in a bid to create the world’s largest floating network. It reckons that the information gleaned from its ships being can connected can bring it savings.

Enhanced connectivity can also reunite families torn apart by conflict and disasters. Christopher Mikkelson is one of two brothers behind the organisation Refugees United. The organisation has taken the reuniting of refugees with their families from pen and paper to digital. In the pre-digital world, Mikkelson says, Kenyan tracing agencies could open 700 to 800 cases a year. Now they can open 70 000 to 80 000 cases a year, using everything from, simple SMS and WAP technologies to Android-based smartphone apps.

Much like the banks of computers used by Formula 1 racing teams, “Our environment is starting to behave like a real-time control environment,” says MIT professor Carlo Ratti. He should know too, his Sensable City Lab team is at the forefront of data research, having digitally tagged everything from people’s trash to laptops sent out around the world.

“When one person gets connected their life changes,” says Vestberg, “when everyone gets connected, the world changes”.

Stuart Thomas attended CES International 2012 courtesy of Ford

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