The five-minute management idea: Megatech
A weekly shot of new thinking for business leaders: clues from tech innovation tell you about business in 2050
In early 2007 Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s iPhone, in effect ushering in the smartphone era. Smartphones have become so much part of our lives that it seems extraordinary that they barely existed just a decade ago.
If such a revolution can happen so fast, what’s the point of trying to guess where technology could take as far ahead as the middle of the century, as I attempt to do, with the help of 20 contributors, in Megatech: Technology in 2050?
Actually, peering into the future can be fascinating and fun. It can help us grapple with the issues we will face as a result of the changes that lie ahead. And there are many ways of catching glimpses of what those changes might look like.
Follow The Money
One approach to divining tech’s future is to follow the money. Developments in computing have come in waves, suggests Ann Winblad, a venture capitalist who has witnessed several of them.
These waves start far out in the ocean, carrying many new companies, but only the leading innovators make it to the shore. Half a dozen such waves have rolled in since the 1950s, bringing mainframes or today’s “internet of things”.
Now Silicon Valley investors are riding the newest wave – carrying artificial-intelligence (AI) companies. Billions of dollars are pouring in to firms developing AI tools; the impact will be felt long into the future.
Turn to Science
Alternatively, you can try following the science. What does the state of physics or biology say about the potential for technological advances in the years ahead?
Physics has reached a remarkable level of maturity. Frank Wilczek, a Nobel prize-winner from MIT, makes a striking assertion. “We have, today,” he claims, “accurate complete equations adequate to provide the foundation of nuclear physics, materials science, chemistry and all possible forms of engineering.”
The practical implications of this are immense: for the first time in history, he says, “in principle we could, by solving the appropriate equations, replace experimentation with calculation, in all those applications.” This means progress can speed up; a profound understanding of matter suggests “brilliant opportunities for creativity in the service of human ends”.
Biology, meanwhile, bubbles with youthful excitement.
Gene sequencing is getting faster and cheaper at exponential rates reminiscent of the relentless progress seen in computing over the past half-century. In the decades to come, predicts Robert Carlson, a biotech entrepreneur and author of Biology Is Technology, we will learn how all parts and systems underpinning life fit together. Bioengineering will transform industries from food to pharmaceuticals, as it becomes a platform to “build just about anything we see in nature” as well as much more besides that.
Look at other Industries
This points to a further prism through which to see the tech future: industry by industry. Ask specialists in particular sectors about the likely developments in the coming decades. They envisage dramatic changes.
In agriculture, for example, technological advances should enable us to feed a planet that by mid-century is expected to have 10 billion people. This will be thanks in part to techniques that make existing types of farming much more efficient: smart data that help farmers decide exactly what to plant and when to harvest on particular patches of land, more productive crop varieties developed with the help of precise gene-editing tools, maybe even a turbo-boost to photosynthesis that will make crops grow much faster.
But it may also involve novelties such as vertical farms in urban areas producing vegetables using hydroponics and carefully controlled lighting, and lab-grown meat and other animal products based on cell culture: true factory farms.
In sector after sector similar transformations are coming into view.
The rise of renewables, especially ever more efficient solar power, promises to reshape the energy industry. The car industry is looking ahead to a new era of autonomous vehicles, brilliant batteries and new materials; already the body of the BMW i3 is knitted together from a synthetic thermoplastic rather than bashed out from steel.
Healthcare is ready to be reshaped by a deluge of data, targeted therapies and replacement body parts.
And so on: from military technology (think bullets that can turn round corners) to manufacturing (with the help of smart materials and three-dimensional printing) to computing (perhaps on the brink of a quantum leap), the prospects are mind-bending.
Fine edge cases
Another way is to make use of a toolkit favoured by my Economist colleague Tom Standage, a canny observer of tech. In the opening chapter of Megatech, he suggests that we can find useful clues in three places.
First, there may be lessons from history; for example, he points to the striking parallels between the story of the internet and that of the electric telegraph in the mid-19th century. Second, forecasters can seek out “edge cases” from the present that might spread to the mainstream: an early idea of the potential of smartphones, for example, could be gleaned from watching how young people in Japan used them long before such features were available on phones in America or Europe. Third, the “imagined futures” of science fiction can provide thought-through scenarios of where technology could lead, as well as inspiration for real inventions, such as flip-phones or being able to talk to computers.
Try out the toolkit on, say, spaceflight. An obvious historical analogy is with the development of aviation—at first something seen as difficult and dangerous, then commercialised for the rich, then widely affordable and commonplace.
Perhaps private space-travel will follow a similar trajectory. Science fiction, meanwhile, offers plenty of speculation on the potential and pitfalls of colonising the solar system.
What does it all mean?
Put together all these ways of looking at the future, and what do you get?
First, a sense of excitement. The signs point to a speeding up of technological change: an impending era of “megatech”. Technology should open up extraordinary possibilities for improving material wellbeing and the quality of life. This extends beyond physical goods to services such as education and the law, where harnessing the power of data promises to make things cheaper, faster and more widely available: in this respect technology, often blamed for helping to widen inequality, could also prove to be part of the solution.
Alongside the excitement, however, are legitimate concerns. Regulators will struggle to keep up with the pace of change in areas such as medical ethics and the protection of privacy. At least for a while, robots may well destroy jobs faster than new ones are created around the industries of the future.
As in previous periods of innovation, which produced side effects such as a hole in the ozone layer and global warming, technology will bring unintended consequences. Frank Wilczek worries in particular about three perils, or “failure modes”, of technology: nuclear war, ecological collapse and AI warfare.
Yet there is nothing inevitable about how all this plays out.
Technology does not have a will of its own, and its impact is only partly a matter of the innovations of scientists, geeks and entrepreneurs. The outcome will also be shaped by the actions of governments, the strategies of companies and the choices of individuals. In short, it is up to all of us to make the most of megatech.
Megatech: Technology in 2050 is published by Economist Books. It is nominated for Management Book of the Year 2017/2018 in Innovation and Entrepreneurship category. For more information visit http://yearbook.managers.org.uk/about/the-competition