16 July 2018

Disruptive Technologies – Predicting the Future

Too Many Lists!
The world of social media is littered with lists. There are lists for leaders, lists for motivators, lists for technologists, and even lists for haters of lists. Most of these lists claim to be definitive and declare themselves to be incontrovertible fact, and the worst of these lists are the ones that predict the future…

…And so in the spirit of having too many lists that predict the future, here is my contribution.

My blog for today has been prompted by a look back at a tweet from three years ago by @ForbesTech that listed the top 5 disruptive technologies that “will shape the future”. Their list was as follows:

1. The sharing economy (e.g. Uber)
2. Cloud computing
3. Digital supply chain
4. 3D printing
5. Internet of things

If you take the time to follow the link from the tweet to the article you will find out that the actual point of the list is to highlight technologies that will create jobs and provide entrepreneurial opportunities, but I’m not beneath deliberately ignoring this point to pursue my own agenda.

My immediate response to this list was “those aren’t technologies of the future; they are very much with us now” and that led naturally to considering which technologies I considered to be the ones to watch over the next ten years. Having considered this for at least ten minutes I tweeted “IMO it's robotics, implantables, life prolonging drugs, and fast charge batteries. Blog post coming...” and committed myself to justifying myself. I also clearly owe an apology for the dubious act of adding “able” to the end of a verb to create a new noun for which a perfectly good one already existed. 


Apology over; now for that justification.

Look into my Crystal Ball
The first thing to note is that just like everyone else (even those with credentials), I’m guessing, but guessing leads to discussion which leads to argument which leads to new thinking, and that’s what I’m really interested in. So, for clarity, my list is:

1. Artificial Intelligence & Robotics
2. Implantables
3. Life prolonging drugs
4. Fast charge batteries

AI & Robotics – back in 2015 there was a NASA robotics competition which prompted everyone to joke about the fact that robots couldn’t even open doors and fast forward to 2018 where a Boston Robotics video showing robots opening doors for each other goes viral. The simple truth is if you state robots can’t do something, someone will make them do it but this is not the point. The real future in robotics is not about replacing humans; it’s about automating the things we use to make our lives easier, and augmenting our natural abilities with things we find difficult.

Implantables – it’s about convenience. Making the technology just happen. An evolution from the clunky world of machines that make us work their way, to devices that allow us to use touch, gesture and voice, to solutions that simply interface with us in the way we naturally interact with the real world. I blogged about this in my post entitled The Augmented Human.

Genetic Medicine – it’s about being healthy and lasting longer. It’s inevitable. In my grandfather’s youth, antibiotics didn’t exist and the national health service hadn’t been created. If you got a bit sick, you died; the idea of being ill was a universally accepted reality of life. Nowadays, ill health is a relative rarity in western society and that which is unfamiliar is also frightening and must be eliminated. More and more, the problems left to solve are inherently printed into our DNA, but recent advances open the door to creation of new treatments, and the creation of biologically sympathetic products.

Fast charge batteries - Proliferation of mobile devices and a push towards the electrification of transport has created a deep dissatisfaction with battery technologies. This in turn has triggered an explosion in research and development focussed on energy storage technologies as highlighted in the PocketLint article, Future Batteries. The tipping point will be when a battery can achieve the holy trinity of miniaturisation, long life, and near-instant charging; out of this will spring a new generation of technical solutions.

The Sum of the Parts
So, we can all make lists of disruptive technologies, but essentially they are not predictions of disruption. That’s not to say the lists are wrong; quite the opposite. Every single list of technology advances will come true in the end, but they do not represent the change, any more than a list of ingredients describes the meal.

Real disruption is the unexpected new thing that emerges when all these technologies are brought together to create a thing that was previously unachievable. Mobile devices have been “invented” many times, but the real explosion only happened when a whole list of technologies came of age and someone squeezed them all into a single handheld device, connected it to the internet and created an ecosystem around it. We just call the result the smartphone, because that’s the bit we own and hold in our hand.

What’s Next?
You may have noticed that, despite all the noise and publicity around virtual and augmented reality, it didn’t appear on my list; there is a reason for that. I do not consider VR/AR to be a technology as such or just a device, but instead a potential disruptive change similar to that of the smartphone ecosystem. VR is not the headset, and AR is not just a smartphone app. These are, in my opinion, just the PDAs of the 21st century, and they will go the same way as the PalmPilots, Psions and Apple Newtons of the 1990s. Remember them?

Over the course of my life there have been many attempts at introducing virtual reality to the market. To be accurate, VR significantly predates my life. I was born in 1966, 127 years after the invention of the first stereoscopic viewer (View-Master - 1839), 16 years after the first “immersive” virtual reality machine (Sensorama - 1950), and 5 years after the first motion tracking head mounted display (Headsight - 1961). This article on The History of Virtual Reality makes for interesting reading on the topic.

As a genuine fan of virtual and augmented reality, I’m willing to put up with a lot of discomfort to experience it, but even I would say that the most advanced offerings currently on and soon to appear on the market are still not ready to disrupt our lives in the way the iPhone and its successors did. To succeed, the technology would need to become far less intrusive.

However, if you bring a variety of technologies together you could have a genuinely disruptive outcome. Imagine implantable devices made biologically compatible through advances in genomics and powered by subminiature fast charge batteries (perhaps even charged by the body’s chemical processes). Now couple these with an information ecosystem enabled by AI recognition systems and you can bring an augmented world directly into the senses of the individual allowing them to be more intuitive and informed in everything they do.

Now, this could be utopia or dystopia; in reality it will probably be a mix of the two, but for me, there is real promise in this. It could also be the ultimate alternative to reality into which we all disappear and stop interacting completely. The smartphone is accused of exactly this sin, but perhaps those who say this are forgetting the trains full of people reading books and newspapers, and the father at the breakfast table hidden behind his broadsheet. Maybe they’re not aware of the moral panic that arose around “these foolish, yet dangerous, books” during the rise of novel reading as a pastime in the 18th century? (“The Novel-Reading Panic in 18th- Century in England: An Outline of an Early Moral Media Panic” has an interesting take on this). 

Alternatively, and perhaps with the right ethical framework, human augmentation could become a disruption in which technology does all the emotionless, mechanical things so that people have more time to actually be human.

Who knows; only time will tell. Maybe it’ll be something else…

…like faster horses, for example.

The Enterprising Architect

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