Most commentators focused on the future agree that “we ain’t seen nothing yet” when it comes to technology. We’re standing on the precipice of enormous change, just as our forebears did at the end of the 19th century with electrification, the motor vehicle, and fossil-fuel power generation.
There’s a case to be made, however, that the coming changes will be even more profound than in the past and synergize together in ways that we can’t yet imagine. What’s more, the technologies that we’re about to discuss are already proven. None of what follows requires further fundamental breakthroughs in science. For the most part, it’s just a matter of waiting for cost curves to come down and for infrastructure to be fleshed out.
Artificial intelligence is something of a nebulous term, but in the current canon, it’s come to mean things that a computer can now do which were once thought the preserve of people. In the past, AI computer systems could beat chess grandmasters. Today they can recognize faces in a room or write stories for sports columns.
AI has vast potential to impact all of our lives. Whether humanity will ever create a truly conscious entity instantiated in a mass of silicon and copper wires remains to be seen. However, it’s clear that AI in its current form already offers massive utility for the things that we really care about, like moving robot arms, managing financial transactions, and providing our smartphones with more features.
We’ve had industrial robots since the 1960s, but these weren’t particularly impressive devices. Sure, they accurately welded car bodies onto each other, but they were dumb. If you removed the car, they would just go through the motions endlessly, without realizing the futility of their actions.
Modern robotics is changing all that. Established players, like Fanuc, and upstarts, like Boston Dynamics, are pushing the boundaries of what a robot can do. The most exciting development is the deployment of robots in non-standard environments, opening up numerous applications in product packing and management.
Drones are something of a blank slate waiting to be populated by entrepreneurial ideas. So far, people have suggested using drones for package delivery, site investigation, and media production. In the future, engineers might use drones to investigate pipe networks or inspect pylons.
If life is so prevalent throughout the universe, where are all the aliens? If you ask some people, they’ll tell you its because they’re all plugged into some ultra-sophisticated VR that’s so good, exploring the galaxy feels like a mundane chore. VR is opening up a host of opportunities in gaming, dating, education, journalism, and tourism.
Augmented reality is VR’s business-focused cousin. Here, users wear a headset which lays digital features over the physical environment. The world first encountered the power of AR back in 2016 with the Pokemon GO phenomenon. People used their smartphones as AR devices, looking for Pokemon creatures to collect around towns and cities.
Businesses want to use AR to assist workers in the field. Construction companies, for instance, could use AR overlays to provide precise instructions to their crews on the ground.
Blockchain technology makes it possible for two strangers to transact with each other, without relying on a trusted third-party, like a bank. Distributed ledgers - the core of blockchain technology - look set to transform the world’s financial system, making it possible for the poorest people on the planet to get access to financial services. What’s more, blockchain offers a degree of traceability and security that no other system can match. Governments around the world are looking into the technology and asking how it can help make financial systems more stable, secure, and user-friendly.
The idea of connecting physical devices to the internet has been around for a while, but the Holy Grail of the internet of things is to use it to automate the value chain fully. We already see the emergence of this kind of technology in today’s factories and warehouses. Companies are using IoT tools, like sensors to monitor equipment, optimize production flows, and automate swathes of their operations. Pioneers include companies like JD.com that are trying to set up fully automated warehouse facilities that do not rely on human operatives at all.
3D printing first emerged in the 1980s, but as the resolution improves, the potential applications of the technology are expanding. We’re seeing 3D printing moving out of the realm of prototyping and into areas like organ-printing and mass production. 3D printing allows manufacturers to create objects of enormous complexity with practically no waste.