Looking over my predictions for the teenies from a year ago, they already look pretty lame. Take 1/3 off USA’s PPP GDP and you already get China, the latest Sony portable device has a 4 core processor, Intel’s latest set of CPUs are once again pretty awesome, schemes to let you pay for stuff with your phone are already getting under way (via both screen bar codes and near field communication), and a graphics card review I read the other day noted that the most graphically demanding games on high resolution monitors with all the graphical bells and whistles switched on now run very well on the latest “mid range” graphics cards.
At the time that I made my teenies predictions I thought they seemed a bit like predicting the obvious. But I’m now starting to wonder whether many of my predictions could have been more tightly assigned to the following 3-4 years, rather than the next decade.
One thing I’ve noted in the past is that it’s usually easier to predict fundamental things like FLOPS per dollar than is it to predict how these technological fundamentals will translate into applications. That might be true, but knowing that your computer of five years hence will have X bytes of storage and perform Y computations per second is a bit abstract for most purposes. What will be the new toys, the new applications, the new businesses? These are the things that impact people.
If predicting specific applications is a bit much to ask for (and if I could I might not want to tell you!), perhaps the next best is to predict the general nature of applications during a period of time. What you might call the “technological theme” of a period.
1980 to about 1995 was the period of the PC. Starting with hobbyists and niche applications and spreading to take over a large chunk of the office. The IBM PC marked the point at which this went mainstream. The defining characteristic was that the communication was typically local, if the machines were networked at all.
1995 to about 2010 was the period of the internet. First emails and basic web pages, search, then ordering online, online banking, music, video, etc. Netscape marked the point at which this went mainstream. The defining characteristic was that the communication was now global but the interface with the world was usually pretty traditional: keyboard, mouse, monitor.
So what’s the next theme? Mobile internet might be an answer, but I think that it’s more general than that. As great as the internet is, most of the important stuff still occurs in that other place called reality. Maybe it’s a new house with a swimming pool, throwing a party with friends or coming down with a serious illness. I think the next theme will be for technology to interface more effectively with the world, being mobile is only one aspect of that. If I had to pin the start of this going mainstream on one thing, it’d say it was the iPhone as that’s when the internet started to show up in the day to day moments of people’s lives as they’re out and about doing things.
Once the location, state and function of many everyday objects starts to spread onto the internet, all sorts of creative efficiencies become possible. Need to pay for the coffee? Just press a button on your phone. Not sure where your car is? Ask your phone to show you the way. Need a cab or a pizza or… just select what you want on some menus on your phone. Prices, special deals, time you’ll need to wait — it will all be there. Need to keep a close eye on your health? Get a small sensor implanted that monitors your blood insulin, oxygenation, pressure, cholesterol, heart rate and so on and wirelessly updates this information to your phone. Should a problem arise, your phone can let medics know where you are and what the problem seems to be.
I don’t expect this to be a sudden change, but rather a gradual absorption of goods, services and various everyday objects into an all pervasive information network. I think this will be a hot area until about 2025. Yeah, it’s going to take a while, not so much for many of these things to become possible, but rather for them to become cheap enough to be economic.
What’s my pick for the theme that comes after that? Well, once you have so much of the economy automated and hooked up together with vast amount of information about anything and everything swirling around, the key leverage point becomes how well you can intelligently process all this in order to control and coordinate things. Thus my pick for the theme from 2025 to 2040 is machine intelligence.