Each year, right around now the Internet brims with predictions for the coming year. This year the start of the new year coincides with the start of a new job, and I've also been thinking about investments over Christmas so I've also been pondering what's coming next. This post summarizes the key themes I think might have an impact in the coming year, or over the next decade or so. I've attempted to categorize ideas but there’s really no overriding logic to the areas I've included (other than they came to mind when thinking about the future).
New Style of Work
The idea of working for one large company for most of your career has been fading into memory for many. I suspect this trend will continue, with more individuals offering a service, brought together to work on a project through online marketplaces that rank us by our contribution, forming a new style of distributed enterprise. [Forbes: You'll never work the same way again]
Kickstarter is interesting in that it lets entrepreneurs with an idea pitch it to an eager community of early adopters, who then commit to buy the product, or offer feedback to drive the evolution of the product. This use of the crowd to influence innovation ensures that when the initial product hits the market, it has a pre-existing community of customers, who feel like they've been part of the creation of the product; and thus form the first wave of product evangelists.
The momentum behind Open Source vs proprietary software continues to build with more and more mission critical services being built on Open Source components. The ideas behind open source will continue to make their way into open hardware, enabled by 3D printing and modules such as the Raspberry Pi - with more crowd sourced collaborative developments kicking off, although I suspect these will mostly remain niche. It would be nice to think of some sort of hybrid model where the edge of the product development enterprise becomes more porous, and individuals get involved in helping to build products with the features they want, but I can’t quite see how this would work (beyond the sort of interaction we see on Kickstarter). [Wikipedia Open Source Hardware projects]
The effects of global warming will become more apparent with more occurrences of ‘weird weather’ hopefully banishing the last few remaining doubters, and perhaps we might collectively start doing something about it. [NY Times - Global Wierding / BBC What's wrong with our weather / Ecoevo documentary list]
The combination of population growth and climate change will begin to put a lot of places at risk from a lack of fresh water triggering social unrest, wars, and population migration.
Meat prices will come under pressure, because the world won't be able to grow enough meat to feed the growing middle class demand (not to mention the carbon footprint issues of grass fed cattle). Will the solution here be artificial meat, insects, mussels, or are we just going to have to consider meat as something of an occasional treat? I suspect some combination of all of the above.
On the positive side, I think we’ll continue see a slow migration to more low-carbon or carbon free energy sources - wind, solar, hydro, wave, and tidal depending on the location, but these will only ever be part of the solution due to the land use requirements and the fact that that they're only able to generate power for part of the day (although it will be interesting to see if we can use electric cars and batteries as a distributed power store).
Carbon capture systems on fossil fuel plants, or lower emission fossil fuels may continue to increase their share of the pie, but realistically the only near term solution to limiting our CO2 emissions will be to start building new nuclear power stations (and I think fail-safe thorium reactors might be a leading contender).
A move to more efficient forms of transport that generate less CO2 is beginning to gain steam (sic); primarily electric. I think Tesla's big bet on batteries will drive the technology forward whilst driving down prices. According to their latest announcement they've been able to push the range on the roadster to 400 miles through aerodynamic enhancements, improvements in rolling resistance, and something like a 30% incremental improvement in battery energy density. This is even before moving to new battery chemistries. At 400 miles with reasonable distribution of supercharger stations, I think plug-in electric cars are rapidly approaching practicality.
Hydrogen cars have benefits in that they're only exhaust is water, but the biggest issue holding them back is the generation and distribution of hydrogen (without generating CO2 as a side effect). I think I read once that hydrogen can be the byproduct of nuclear power generation - yup and I see that there are other potential ways to generate hydrogen with no byproducts.
Self driving cars are technically possible now... they just need incremental developments and a regulatory framework to start; although given the complexities of this, chances are we'll see more components of the self driving car integrated as driver aids, before we get a truly autonomous vehicle.
India & China continue to show massive growth potential from the original BRIC countries, expected to join the US as the top 3 by GDP in 2050. Half of India’s 1.2-billion population is under the age of 25. By 2020, India will have the world’s youngest population, with a median age of 29 years, compared with a median age of 37 in China [Investopedia].
This demographic dividend could potentially give India the biggest labor force and make it the largest consumer market in the world. The chap that defined BRIC coined a new term earlier this year: MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) These are the 4 countries expected to show growth because they have a large proportion of the population about to enter working age.
A number of TED talks focus on the city, and make the case that well designed cities can be both more efficient and offer a better quality of life (more walking, less driving). Reductions in food miles can even be seen with local hydroponic and aquaponic systems providing local sources of fresh veg and protein. With more of us in cities we’ll need fewer cars, so hopefully car-sharing solutions will help to address the need for occassional car journeys - (BlaBlaCar, Uber, and perhaps even last mile electric vehicle solutions like the Cite Lib by Ha:mo trial in Grenoble)
I predict we’ll also start to see cities becoming smarter through the use of Big Data to aggregate information from sensors peppered throughout the city (Internet of Things), optimizing use of resources (water, traffic, lighting, power distribution, parking spaces). [Sogeti: Smart Cities & the Internet of things / Cisco's bet on Smart Cities and IoT in India]
Data warehouses and business intelligence have long been the domain of specialist data scientists in the enterprise, leaving the business decision makers one step removed. Due to the capabilities of the systems, analysis has been complicated by the need to limit the amount of data analyzed, constraining complexity for the server, but increasing it for the user. With the new tools coming that are able to process 'Big Data', it now becomes more practical to throw every bit of data you have into the system, then explore to find insights. With better software on the analytics end, in a few years I can see the business decision makers themselves beginning to use the tools to explore hypotheses & generate insights.
Deep learning techniques such as neutral networks are getting more and more capable (Google recently detailed how they can parse all of the street numbers in France in 2 hours), and soon will allow us to analyse the massive amounts of data in more meaningful ways.
The world’s population is aging, and this means more more healthcare will be required, but many of us will also be working longer before retirement.
Big Data and Health
With the increasing availability of low cost sensors in smartphones or wearables to measure our own bodies we're already seeing demand to track simple things like steps (e.g. Google fit) and weight (e.g. Withings). More advanced sensors are on the horizon allowing you to track heart rate via a smart watch; and more attributes (I'm waiting for my Scanadu Scout to be delivered). This trend has been termed the Quantified Self, and those such as the human guniea pig Tim Ferris are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. The big gap at the moment however is this is just data. We need something to analyse the data and turn it into actionable insights. Developments in cloud based big data analytics might provide something here - and all of the companies building the devices must be thinking along these lines. I think Google's approach to offering a central bucket for data from multiple devices (Google Fit) might have the best chance of generating something useful, although Apple and Samsung are also working on platforms. I'm expecting useful insight generated here both for the individual to make their own life choices; and for organizations to aggregate data across populations to study changes affecting larger groups due to changes in their environment or activities. [GigaOm / TechCrunch]
The reducing cost of genome sequencing has already led to companies like 23andme offering a cost effective service to individuals to check for genetic abnormalities; and they've opened their database up to researchers for large scale analysis. In the UK, the NHS have just announced an initiative to collect and decode 100,000 human genomes by the end of 2017, to look for common themes in the fight against cancer and rare diseases.
Government and the crowd
Will the way we're governed through one vote every 4 years, followed by a political party desperately hanging on to power continue? I'm not sure, but with the technology we have at our hands today, it wouldn't be difficult to ask the population to vote on smaller issues more regularly. If the establishment doesn't get this soon, the potential for individuals to utilize the mass participation, crowd enablement platforms to coordinate, protest and drive change. [TED - Jeremy Heimans - What new power looks like]
Additive manufacturing such as 3D printing will get better and cheaper, allowing local manufacturing at the point of use. Initially I think we'll see this utilized for spare parts and components, but eventually I think we'll see local 'replicator' shops able to print more and more complex products on demand. Uses of 3D printing will extend further into verticals such as the medical space printing replacement components, artificial limbs, and scaffolds for the body to repair itself. HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology should be interesting in 2016 as it brings newer stronger materials and the ability to print in multiple materials at the same time.
Software Defined Infrastructure is a buzz-phrase that's popular at the moment, describing infrastructure that's less rigidly single function, and more programmable - allowing it to be optimized for a particular workload or task. In some instances, virtualization is used to abstract the realities of the underlying infrastructure - however this can come with quite a performance penalty. Smarter implementations allow software at each layer to negotiate with the layer below to allow for a more optimized overall solution. In 5 years time I don't think we'll be talking software-defined any longer, as software intelligence will just be built in at every layer regardless.
Apps vs the Cloud
There has been some debate over the last few years as to where apps should run - locally (android, iOS, windows) or via web applications based in the cloud delivered by a browser; but I think the best solution for most apps going forward will be a thin local app for responsiveness and caching optimized for the platform it is on, coupled to the bulk of the application hosted in the cloud. Google Inbox and Feedly are both good examples of this model. An idea from the cellular operators (Mobile Edge Computing) is also leading to the push of applications to the edge of the wireless network, providing a compute platform within the network for caching to reduce network load and latency.
Human / Computer interfaces
Voice recognition for control of technology & live translation are both getting closer. Android's voice control is already pretty good; and Microsoft have just demonstrated live voice translation between English and Spanish on a Skype call.
3D VR systems will continue to improve (Oculus Rift, Google cardboard) allowing consumers to experience products and places in augmented reality; making gaming, online retail, and tele-presence more immersive. This could drive demand for more 360 video and photography content, although I suspect the majority of content for these systems will be computer generated.
2014 started off with massive hype around Google Glass, and whilst I can see applications in certain niches (Recon Instruments, Aircraft maintenance, printer servicing), I don't see regular consumers walking around with these just yet. Smart watches on the other hand will provide a way for us to leave our phablets in our pocket while still being able to check & process notifications, or access Google Now/Siri. I don’t see much of a future for the standalone activity tracking devices, as this will just be a feature of another smart device.
The automated home is also getting closer, although innovation is getting stalled by the plethora of standards, resulting in islands of disconnected devices. Perhaps a single uber home hub that can talk multiple standards will address this one, or broader adoption of the AllJoyn framework from Qualcomm’s AllSeen Alliance.
Shopping & 3D printing
As more of our shopping is done online via Amazon, with some actually being 3D printed at a local depot, I doubt the future of retailers on the high street is rosy. I think they may end up being replaced by vendor owned or vendor sponsored showcases - allowing the customer to touch and feel the product (or use 3D scans and augmented reality to see themselves in the clothes) before ordering online for shipment to the showroom or the home. In some ways the Apple micro stores within other stores are a precursor to this, although I was a little surprised to hear that Samsung had just shut down their flagship store in London.
Security & Hacking
Yes… this is going to get worse before it gets better. [The Next Web - Tech things I'm excited about in 2015]
And just to soften the above positive view of the future, here are a few less predictable events that could really shake things up.
I wonder how realistic the space debris destruction cascade issue is from the movie Gravity. If we lost a good proportion of our satellites, and were unable to put up replacements, then we'd be set back in a whole host of areas.
There is still a possibility of a massive asteroid impact, albeit a pretty small one. The chances of 1950 DA hitting earth has been calculated to be 1 in 4,000 on the 16th March 2880… but are there others we don’t yet know about yet, and will we be able to do something about it before it's too late? [Slate.com]
Global warming triggering a runaway effect, melting the glaciers, unlocking further stores of Co2 and methane from the arctic permafrost, rising sea levels, and turning off or disrupting the jet stream. This could accelerate the effects of global warming far faster than we could mitigate them.
If you've made it this far - I'm impressed. I was originally intending this post just to be a list of bullet points, but then added a few comments and links to explain what I was thinking.
To hear more of my thoughts on tech and the future - follow me on twitter @andybryant, and remember...