February 19, 2010

Future of the Internet IV

Part 3: A review of responses to a tension pair about how takeoff technologies will emerge in the future

The hot gadgets, applications, technology tools in 2020

q3: Innovation will continue to catch us by surprise

Respondents were asked to explain their choice and “share your view of its implications for the future. What do you think will be the hot gadgets, applications, technology tools in 2020?” What follows is a selection of the hundreds of written elaborations and some of the recurring themes in those answers:

The experts’ record is so lousy at spotting key technologies ahead of time that there is little chance they will see the killer gadgets and applications of 2020. If you had asked this question a decade ago, no one would have predicted the iPhone. If experts could already see them today, they really wouldn’t be ‘out of the blue’ innovations.

“Our ability to predict hot gadgets has shown to be poor, and this isn’t likely to change.” – Wojciech Dec, Edge Engineering Group, Cisco Systems

“If they could be anticipated now, they’d be the hot gadgets *today*.” – Charlie Martin, author and consultant

“Trends and patterns that we will continue to see – swings between centralization and decentralization, openness and walled gardens, increasing growth of mobile and local information, search and aggregation – but we have no idea what the major gadgets and applications of 2020 will be. Most of the top websites of 10 years ago are no longer in the top 10 – and we never would have imagined many of the hot gadgets available today in 1999.” – David Sifry, CEO of Offbeat Guides, co-founder of Technorati

There are basic trends evident now and some groundwork that has been in place for years that will yield innovation. The internet of things is being built. Sensors will proliferate.

“More-powerful mobile devices, ever-cheaper netbooks, virtualization and cloud computing, reputation systems for social networking and group collaboration, sensors and other small systems reporting limited amounts of information, do-it-yourself embedded systems, robots, sophisticated algorithms for slurping up data and performing statistical analysis, visualization tools to report results of analysis, affective technologies, personalized and location-aware services, excellent facial and voice recognition, electronic paper, anomaly-based security monitoring, self-healing systems – that’s a reasonable list to get started with. Beyond five years, everything is wide open.” – Andy Oram, editor and blogger, O’Reilly Media

“Ten years isn’t very long, even in Internet years. The single biggest change over the last ten years, I think, has been the prevalence of mobile devices. I got my first iPod nine years ago, but had other digital music players long before that. I’ve been using RIMs since well before they’d filed the BlackBerry trademark, again more like fifteen years ago. “Cloud computing” has been talked about for more than ten years, and IPv6 is now fifteen years old as well, and neither of those have yet predominated, though I believe they will in the next ten. In short, looking at today’s popular technologies, I don’t see many that weren’t already thoroughly conceived of ten years ago.” – Bill Woodcock, research director, Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit research organization

“The correct answer is a combination of the two. I think in the ‘device’ space we can see much of what will happen over the next few years: the ubiquitous availability of sensors and actuators, the cyber-car, various sorts of implants and proto-cyborg elements. But the application space is harder to predict.” – David Clark, senior research scientist for the Next-Generation Internet, MIT professor

“The hot products of 2020, especially wearable, context-aware systems, already see their progenitors in current lab experiments. No major surprises for those who are already engaged in a good environmental scan.” – Alex Halavais, vice president, Association of Internet Researchers

There is nothing new under the sun, it is said, and much of what arrives by 2020, people will say “we did that at BBN in the 1970s” or “It was in Plato half a century ago.” Was Facebook or Twitter evident ten years ago? Was it anticipated? I’d feel a little more confident with 2025 on this, but I expect a lot of surprises by 2020, and the beginnings of some massive movements based on a proliferation of networks of sensors and effectors.” – Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher, Microsoft (stresses that these views are his own, not the company’s)

For me augmented reality has to be the future for 2020, together with it’s close cousin the internet of things. I think that these two will grow up together over the coming years, and slowly creep more and more into our daily lives as more and more devices become web enabled, and the ability to connect to the web becomes ubiquitous. It will become commonplace to be able to overlay reviews of a product simply by pointing a screen at it, or check the weather forecast by pointing your phone at the sky.” – Rich Osborne, Web Innovation Officer, University of Exeter

“I don’t think totally new things will come out of nowhere but I do believe that even what we know today may be used differently or some new twist on existing technologies may take use by storm. We are creatures of habit and we are influenced tremendously by what those around us do. We don’t like to admit that but it is true. No one really knows why things catch on but when they do, it is often a surprise. It is not really new but it can be a surprise.” – Link Hoewing, Vice President, Information Technology, Verizon Communications

One of the big reasons experts do not have a strong sense about the innovations of the future is that the environment of technology is still taking shape. Lots more bandwidth and computing power – for less cost than today – will spur changes that cannot be foreseen now.

Some of 2020’s hot new gadgets are bound to come out of the blue. But for North Americans, I think the Next Big Thing will be an exponential jump in a well-known commodity: bandwidth. Residential bandwidth scarcity in both Canada and the US has held back the availability of immersive environments for personal messaging and multi-player online gaming, not to mention telemedicine, telecommuting, real hi-def entertainment and distance learning. Most of us are still stuck with a single-digit Mbit/s connection; highly asymmetric downlink/uplink architectures; high prices; and very few choices in service provider. If we can get, say, 30% of North American homes on a last mile of 50 megs down and 20 megs up by 2020, we’ll experience a sea-change in our online lives. This development will become especially important as more and more devices become networked, up to and including our kitchen appliances.” – David Ellis, York University, Toronto

“Most of the components are certainly around us, but what really distinguishes the way technology innovation is happening today is iterative and endless recombinations. The potential variety is so great, and the role of end users in shaping the outcome so strong, that there are a potentially limitless number of combinations. Technology innovation will probably be a lot more bottom-up and organic as a result – forecasting it is less about understand linear processes and more about understanding non-linear processes and emergent behavior. It’s going to be hard.” – Anthony Townsend, research director, Institute for the Future

“We haven’t even glimpsed what’s possible yet – but my answer to this question is heavily conditioned on an uprising that will take real backbone and organization. The only way we’ll get great new surprising gizmos and uses is if the network providers let it happen. I’m not confident that there are sufficient market pressures to make the access providers open up. We’re getting good press releases but the reality is that they are oligopolists with a yearning for short-term control rather than long-term social benefit. So: yes, we will have amazing new tools in 2020, but only if we work purposefully towards the openness that will make that possible.” – Susan Crawford, former member of President Obama’s National Economic Council, now on the law faculty at the University of Michigan

Some trends are clear: Mobile connectivity and location-based services will grow in the next decade. Other hot items will include: bigger/thinner TVs, 3D displays, “consolidated,” all-purpose gadgets and apps, speech recognition.

“It’s incredibly difficult to predict which specific gadgets and applications will take off two years from now, let alone 10 years from now. It’s far easier to predict in general terms, based on the direction that technology seems to be evolving: TVs will be bigger and thinner, they’ll have higher-resolution displays, computing power will be cheaper and more ubiquitous, wireless data will achieve higher speeds, etc. But predicting specific hit devices – and the apps that they engender – is next to impossible. Who could have foreseen the iPhone, or its huge impact on the cellphone industry, even one year before it came out?” – Dylan Tweney, senior editor, Wired

“More than a forecast, we would like to state [that consumer needs will create special conditions for a certain kind of innovation]: consolidation instead of novelties. The path of innovation in gadgets and online applications in the last years has been so incredibly fast that there seems to be a common cry useful adoption. Suppliers [will concentrate] on helping the user — the customer — in getting the best of innovation rather than in innovation per se. This will, indeed, decrease cutting edge technology in favour of major and mass adoption.” – Ismael Peña-Lopez, lecturer at the Open University of Catalonia, School of Law and Political Science

“I predict thinner, sturdier, friendlier mobile platforms. I expect that input devices will go from “touch screen” to “touch–air” via interactive holographic sensors that sense movement in the air around you. Honda has truck sized thought controlled interfaces for its humanoid robot and other machinery at this moment. I suspect those will morph to “Borg-ish” hard wired wet and cyber-ware interfaces combined with tactile sensation/movement sensors and inputs that will be woven/ built into clothing that will extend your computing beyond screens and devices to your body as a total input device. Today’s toy robot – will become your “Avatar” controlled through your handheld? Worn? Personal web access device – I don’t think we can conceptualize what will come forth in the next 10 years. Just know it will be what we dream today.” – Cameron Lewis, Program Manager, Arizona Department of Health Services

Many of the components that will drive tomorrow’s most innovative technologies are already being developed. The question is in how they will be used. Just as speech recognition, the semantic web and augmented reality will lead to “TeleLiving’ – a natural conversation human-machine interaction, most of tomorrows applications will be based on today’s technology.” – Bryan Trogdon, President, First Semantic

“The only constant is change. In fact the pace of change continues to accelerate. Fundamentally, we can expect devices, mobility, location-based services, and sentiment to play a bigger role.” – R. “Ray” Wang, Altimeter Group

“Today’s ‘savviest innovators’ are in fact the ones that are inventing future hot gadgets and applications. The 2020 themes to watch for will be intelligent devices and cloud services accessed across a wide variety of platforms: web, smartphone, tablet, set-top box, smart surface, etc. By 2020 we will see next generation 3D HD Display technology, coupled with multi-modal sensor input application integration. This will include HDTV with can recognize and understand the viewers using multi-modal (sight, sound, speech, touch) and services which help manage and personalize media. Imagine an experience more like Apple’s Knowledge Navigator (circa 1988), where a conversational intelligent agent helps to organize and synthesize your work or entertainment or personal schedule, all completely integrated and personalized for you.” – William Luciw, Managing Director, Viewpoint West Partners LLC

It’s the unintended consequences that really surprise.

“At the pseudo-trivial, hand-waving, vague-generalization level – yes; many gadgets and applications will not be that surprising, especially when one includes the wild fantasies proposed in sci fi fiction. However, there are substantive examples of what exists now, that wasn’t even fantasized 10-20 years ago. I expect we will see many innovations that almost everyone will find ‘came out of the blue’ – notably including many unexpected, unintended results from innovation that was initiated for some entirely-different purpose. (E.g., it might be said that the foremost – and completely unintended and unpredicted – result of the invention of automobiles was the creation of suburbs with most people residing far-distant from where they work.)” – Jim Warren, longtime tech entrepreneur and activist

“Indwelling” technology is the kind with the greatest impact.

The hottest gadgets in 2020 will certainly involve extending one’s senses and one’s body. In fact, this has been the case for all inventions since humans first made stone tools, and painted the walls of caves. That’s because humans are characterized not only by their intelligence and their ability to speak, but by their capacity to extend their senses, and their abilities, through their tools and technologies. Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher, called this indwelling. It is through indwelling that the carpenter’s tool becomes an extension of his arm, and he has the power to pound nails through wood…. The computers and smart phones of today are to some degree extensions of ourselves, but not to the extent that a hammer extends a carpenter, a car enlarges a driver or a plane enlarges a pilot. Something other than a computer or a smart phone will do that. Hopefully this will happen by 2020. If not, it will eventually.” – Doc Searls, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto”

It takes a generation to figure out which technologies have real impact and which are just fads.

“Peter Drucker wrote about the major transformations in history. The printing press, steam engine driven industrial revolution, and the then emerging Internet. His main point, that I share, is that it takes a generation, about 25 years, for the new ‘thing’ to real have its impact. At first society uses the new tool to better do what they have been doing. The generation raised with it finds totally new things and ways to do things. Thus we will be working in jobs that we cannot now see or define. Going through our work and play days doing things we cannot now envision or perhaps which only a few now envision, but have trouble getting others to see their vision.” – Ed Lyell, former member of the Colorado State Board of Education and Telecommunication Advisory Commission

Personal data clouds will emerge.

“I choose to see personal web-server technology (Opera Unite, Firefox POW, etc) as a breakthrough technology, so people can put their own data into the cloud without paying Flickr or whomever. It is this sort of ‘personal technology’ I believe will characterize (what we now call) web 3.0 (and not 3D, or semantic web, etc.). So my dilemma is that, while these technologies are pretty evident today, it is not clear that the people I suspect Pew counts as “the savviest innovators” are looking at them. So I pick “out of the blue” even though (I think) I can see them coming from a mile away.” – Stephen Downes, National Research Council, Canada

Brain interfaces might be on the horizon.

“I’ll take a gamble: In 2020 (or perhaps a couple years later) heads-up-displays with brain-control interfaces will start to emerge as a useful way to interact with information. Kids, businesspeople and academics will want them. People will be worried that everyone is ‘tuning out’, but others will say that this is an inevitable and obvious progression of technology.” – Bernie Hogan, Oxford Internet Institute

Look to emerging markets for “out of the blue” changes.

Depends on what one means by ‘out of the blue’ – I think a lot of the hot gadgets and apps will come from the developing world and non-Western markets. Thus to Americans and Europeans they may seem more ‘out of the blue’ than to others.” – Rebecca MacKinnon, Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy

The health care arena will be a hot growth area.

“Health care will see new applications — driven in part by financial necessity and in part by expanded possibilities. Individuals will play a larger role in their own health care. We will monitor and treat ourselves and electronic communication with medical professionals will be common. These applications will be driven by custom and law as well as new technology and knowledge. They may be invented in developing nations with very different needs and customs from the US. Improved biological technology and knowledge will also drive unexpected applications of the Internet.” – Larry Press, California State University, Dominguz Hills