Over the long-run, technology moves at a lightning pace. But at times, it can feel downright dilatory. If you asked me in 1998 if I would still be using paper textbooks in school, I would say there is no way. We’re about midway through 2015, and textbooks are still the norm (in university, at least). If you told me in 2005 that scrolling through an 800-page PDF would be slow on a relatively new laptop (late 2013 rMBP), I would have politely called you a cynic who needs to look up Moore’s Law. And yet, these are the realities we have to deal with. Sometimes moonshot products are revolutionary and change the world. Most of the time though, they are early arrivals and short guests. There are, however, some technologies that arrive right on time and make it to dinner. Here is a short list of technologies I believe will succeed in the next 20 years.
1: Usable Voice-Input
Dictation technology is not new. As far as tech goes, it’s ancient. For voice-input to be truly useful, it needs to do 90% of the job a secretary would otherwise do. Take nearly flawless notes. Schedule and re-schedule meetings with contextual awareness (“John called in sick today, we will need to reschedule to 5pm tomorrow”). We’re still far away from an AI with human empathy, but not so far away from great voice-to-text+a little more input.
2: (Semi)-Self Driving Cars
They already make cars that will alert you from switching into lanes with another car nearby, or breaking for you. It’s still a luxury feature, and it still doesn’t do enough. I can see a future where cars will park themselves, but not drive themselves. Hence, (semi)-self driving cars. What we really want is cars that are totally self-driving, but that is farther than 20 years away. Why, you might ask? Well, it isn’t a technology issue, it’s a trust and safety issue.
For self-driving cars to become a thing, they not only have to be safer than human-driven cars (being as safe isn’t enough), but they have to be viewed as safer. There’s a subtle difference: how safe a car actually is versus how safe we perceive it to be. Air travel is a safer method of travel than automobile, and yet the perception it is more dangerous. This perception of danger is based both on reality and fiction. In reality you’re thousands of miles in the air and not in control (the pilot is, hopefully). In a car, you’re on the ground and totally in control (in reality, you’re texting or listening to music). Self-driving cars need to tackle both reality and fiction to become the mainstream, which is why they will be (semi)-self driving for the next few decades.
3: Stream Everything
Without being too much of a curmudgeon, I’ll say that I grew up in the golden era of Blockbuster and local mom and pop video shops. Sometimes you had to wait a week or two until the movie you wanted to see was back in the store and available for rent. It was glorious and it was miserable, all at once. As a result, there were a lot of movies I wanted to watch but ended up skipping just because of the friction of getting it on VHS.
A bit later, we were introduced to downloadable movies and music, which were mostly available through iTunes and torrent software like LimeWire. This was an improvement over VHS and DVD, but you still had to download the content to watch it (and it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 days to download). Once again, the friction was tugging.
Now we’re at the point where streaming is king. Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Beats, HBO…every content producer already offers streaming, or is planning to at some near point in the future. Still, there are some holdouts. AM/FM Radio is still popular among certain demographics. Podcasts are becoming increasingly more popular, but still not popular enough to be labeled mainstream. What’s more is that podcasts are still mostly downloaded through iTunes or your favorite podcast app (I shuffle between Pocket Casts, Overcast, and Castro at least twice a year). This will change soon. Podcasts will become radio, and radio will be streamed. Some radio stations already offer podcast versions of their shows (NPR, Bloomberg Radio, and many more), but I’m sure most people still listen through traditional means. Cars will be equipped or be more easily parable with smartphones in order to stream shows and music in 5–10 years (I’m talking about mainstream here, not luxury $40,000+ cars).
4: Virtual Economy
The fiat dollar was one innovation that spread like wildfire. The next natural step is a wholly virtual economy. Apple Pay, Google Wallet, Square Cash, Venmo, and the hundreds of other payment apps already make physical currency irrelevant. But again, they’re all technologies used by technocrats, and not the mainstream public. Most stores still don’t accept mobile payments, although this is changing rapidly. I expect to see mobile payments for shopping to become totally mainstream (75%+ adoption) within five years. We’ll be going to supermarkets without our wallets and only with our phones/smartwatches/future wearables. Paying at the pump will be a similar ordeal. I can already go into Walgreens with only my Apple Watch to buy a bar of soap and some Colgate toothpaste, but not all companies are as forward looking. That’s why I’m giving them five years to catch up.
I wrote about the state of financial technology (fintech) a few months ago, which includes the aforementioned payment apps in the previous paragraph. In this next one I’ll talk about the virtualization of investing. There’s a huge amount of startups that will take your money and invest it for you in diversified portfolios. In the old days, you had to schedule a lunch meeting with your broker to discuss the performance of your stock portfolio. A little more recently, you would have had to at least pick up the phone and give them a call. Now we’ve got apps like Wealthfront, Betterment, and Robinhood that promise to provide you with the same performance through well-designed mobile apps that are powered by complex algorithms. The metric used to gauge the popularity of these companies is Assets Under Management (AUM), which in English means how much client money they’re actually holding. Thus far, these robo-advisors are still a small percentage of the total investment base, but it will undoubtedly increase in the future as traditional investing companies make robo-advisor services of their own (Charles Schwab and Vanguard already started offering their robo-advisors services).
Unlike mobile payments, however, robo-advisors and other investment vehicle (investment vehicle - doesn’t that sound great and important?) services will take longer to propagate. Most people are extremely conservative with their investments. After all, these are your life savings that we’re talking about. These robo-advisor startups will need to tackle the psychology of investing before they make any other breakthroughs. For this reason, I’m guessing it will take five-ten years for them to truly become mainstream.
5: Educational Shakeup
This one bothers me a lot. I would be more willing to accept the theory of survival of the fittest as it applies in business if not for the for-profit education industry. I was sure that by the time I entered college, all textbooks would be all in digital form. But here we are, four years later, and printed textbooks are still in final, dominant form. Some publishers offer digital versions of their books, but the interface is such an atrocity that I would rather buy a printed copy of the book. Of course, some students are mischievous cheapskates and find older PDF versions of the book from undisclosed sources in unidentified locations - sources familiar with the matter tell me this is the case anyway.
Online classes are popular now, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a student to tell you (honestly) that they’re actually academically helpful. The material may mirror that of a regular class, but watching pixelated low resolution videos of PowerPoints narrated by monotonous voices makes me think we can do better. Interactivity is key. You should be able to click items on the video to see annotations, practice problems with clear step-by-step explanations, and be able to contact the teacher at any point during the lesson as you would in a normal classroom. Some online learning websites got this right, but they’re not degree-bearing institutions so how much do they really matter at the moment? Most people I know use and love Khan Academy, but until you can get a valid bachelors degree from these institutions, their value is capped to a minimal amount.
Academia moves notoriously slow, so I will have to place an educational revolution farther on the timeline: 15–20 years. That’s when colleges will offer fully featured online classes that replicate the in-class experience. Alternate/Virtual Reality technology may help with this, but at the end of the day it’s time that does the innovation in the educational milieu.
Full disclosure: I’m not very qualified to talk about drones because I follow the topic only lightly, but I have a hunch that it will be meaningful sometime soonish in the future…five-ten years max. My reasoning is simple. You look at drone technology and you can just tell how much can be done with it. Construction, photography, travel, military, espionage, delivery…these are all applications that immediately come to mind. The major obstacle for drones will be government regulation. The drone companies that traverse regulation well will succeed. Those that don’t will fail.
This isn’t a comprehensive list. It’s a list of bigger items that I think will be breakthroughs in the coming two decades. There will undoubtedly be disruptive technologies that I have missed, but that’s because they’re impossible to predict with any certainty (see a technology palm reader for that). Hopefully this site will be around in 20 years for us to grade my scorecard.