At the beginning of each year, it’s possible to make predictions about the future of the tech sector simply by extrapolating from data in the latest Mary Meeker Internet Trends presentation. It doesn’t require a crystal ball to realize that smartphones and tablets will replace PCs, big data will continue to grow at an exponential rate, and nations such as China will play an ever-greater role in the development of the Internet. Below is an attempt at thinking big, at imagining how a number of emerging trends may combine in unique ways to create disruptive trends in 2014.
Google Glass becomes the must-have tech gadget of the year.
After flirting with wearable tech in 2012 and 2013, the consumer technology market is finally ready to embrace wearable computing as a full-on trend in 2014. And the biggest entrant in the wearable computing market is almost certain to be Google Glass. There’s been almost as much anti-hype as hype around Google Glass over the past 12 months, but it’s a safe bet that if Google Glass is cool enough for the runway models of DVF and the fashion spreads of Vogue, it’s also cool enough for the mainstream tech consumer who’s looking to move beyond the smartphone.
Going forward, broad consumer acceptance around wearable computing — whether in the form of the latest Samsung smartwatch, Google Glass or any of the new fitness gadgets — will continue to open the door to radical innovation in the wearable computing segment. At this month’s CES event in Las Vegas, some of the most-hyped products of the year are related to “biometrics” – such as headbands, socks and bras that claim to be able to measure your brain waves, heart rate and level of physical exertion.
Your next-door neighbor becomes a venture capitalist.
The JOBS Act (aka the Crowdfunding Act) is set to go into full effect by mid-2014, and that could lead to anyone — not just a wealthy accredited investor — having the ability to invest in start-ups, anywhere in the country and in any industry. In short, it will soon be almost as easy to back a hot tech company on a new equity crowdfunding portal as it is to crowdfund a cool artistic project on Kickstarter or Indiegogo.
In the process, expect to see a lot of “What’s the future of the VC industry?” articles. It’s only natural, since crowdfunding seems to have the potential to disrupt the traditional VC industry by creating an entirely new type of investor. And once it’s your temperamental next-door neighbor, and not a cooly rational Harvard MBA making the decision of where to allocate investment dollars, this could lead to some fantastic innovations being funded in coming years. Consider the example of the Terrafugia flying car concept, which has raised more than $10 million on the crowdfunding site Wefunder.
A commercial drone company gets anointed as “the next Apple.”
The excitement around the Amazon drones delivery concept is almost certain to inspire a number of copycat imitators. After the Jeff Bezos “60 Minutes” segment at the end of the year, there was a surge in stories about possible uses for commercial drone technology, including the story of quadcopters being used by Deutsche Post. As drones transition from being used to take out terrorist leaders to being used to revolutionize business models, we’ll inevitably hear talk about the first generation of drone start-ups that are “the next Apple” or the “next Google.” One early front-runner is New York-based Flyterra, which is set to start testing drones in upstate New York, making it one of the first commercial drones companies in the nation.
Six states (including New York and Virginia, both home to huge tech communities) have now been cleared to host drones-testing facilities. If the first rounds of testing go well, we could soon hear talk about other states vying to host their own drones test sites, in order to get a hand in any future economic goodies that come from having a vibrant drone innovation sector. States might begin to woo drone tech companies, the same way they woo tech startups as part of a broader attempt to revitalize their economies.
Virtual reality becomes the next big science fiction technology to go mainstream.
In many ways, 2013 was the year that science fiction became science fact, with Terminator bots, password pills and missions to Mars. In 2014, the one science fiction technology that is finally showing signs of going mainstream is virtual reality. Much of the innovation for now is being driven by the gaming market, where the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset for 3D Gaming is due to come to market by mid-2014.
But gaming is just the tip of the iceberg. People are already thinking of ways that virtual reality could change everything from retail experiences to entertainment experiences. Ford automobile designers are even working on ways to use the Oculus Rift to design better cars.
Bill Gates amazes us again with another innovation for the developing world.
Bill Gates continues to entice us with his vision for changing the future of the developing world, primarily by creating new innovations that can lower mortality rates. In just the past few years, as he reminded us last summer, Bill Gates has turned into a digital age Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s only a matter of time before he amazes us again with a simple, clever innovation for the world’s rising billions that addresses a basic need like clean sanitation.
As the “developing” world starts to catch up to the “developed” world, it’s only inevitable that nations across Asia, Africa and Latin America will begin to attract more attention from the West’s top innovators. We’ve already started to see this in Africa, where innovations in mobile banking and mobile health are occurring as fast — or faster — than in the United States. In a best-case scenario, there will be a virtuous circle, as innovations in health complement innovations in mobile and Internet.
Bitcoin revolutionizes politics.
Insurgencies and uprisings around the world — especially in the Arab world — have been quick to use new technologies — everything from smartphones for rapidly organizing protests to Twitter for getting their message out to the world. So why not Bitcoin? Couldn’t sovereign states such as the United States use Bitcoin to fund rebel groups — say, the Syrian rebels — so as not to leave behind a paper trail for the media to follow. In other words, Bitcoin could help avoid another Iran-Contra Affair.
Bitcoin, or any of the other emerging crypto-currencies, are perfect for insurgents — anonymous, hard-to-track and just as good as cash. For that matter, they are also perfect for mainstream politicians. It’s only a matter of time before politicians are able to accept Bitcoin, and that could lead to an awkward situation where you really don’t know who’s funding a candidate. In Texas, one Senate campaign could feature Bitcoin in 2014. And, if Bitcoin truly is anonymous (and there’s been debate about that), money could be theoretically funneled to mainstream political candidates to circumvent current campaign donation limits.
DIY biology becomes the next big tech hobbyist trend, replacing 3D printing.
Just as 3D printing captured the public imagination by radically changing our notions of what it is possible to create in the physical world, DIY biology could have the same impact on the way we view the biological world. Thanks to Craig Venter’s pioneering efforts to map the human genome more than a decade ago, the average person now has the potential to understand his or her own genetic destiny, and that’s leading to the arrival of new startups like 23andMe as well as new DIY biology hacker spaces.
The only question, of course, is how the DIY biologists and geneticists cope with the legal, moral and philosophical questions of their work. As we’ve seen with 23andMe, it’s not always so easy to gain regulatory approval — and that’s even before the hackers get involved. In some futuristic scenarios proposed by Craig Venter, it’s also possible for biologists to hack the genetic code of some microorganisms, leading to radical new mutations and new forms of life. Most likely, in 2014, you’ll start to see more crowdfunding efforts of the type pioneered by the Glowing Plants project in 2013, which raised nearly half a million dollars to make possible genetically modified glow-in-the-dark plants.
The world sees the first-ever 3D-printed organ.
Organovo, a biotech company in San Diego, recently claimed that it would have a 3D-printed liver ready to go by the end of 2014. So far, organs have been too complex to print, but there have been limited successes with things such as human tissue and bone. It appears to be only a matter of time before 3D-printed organs become a reality, thanks to new high-tech “bioprinters.”
This growth in 3D-printed organs will lead to a number of debates about a whole range of possible industries that may be possible in the future, such as cosmetic internal surgery, in which you receive brand-new organ transplants. It would be like the scenario in the science fiction film “Elysium,” where the wealthy are never sick because they could presumably simply swap out unhealthy organs whenever needed.
The first MOOC is fully taught by a machine rather than a human.
If you think about the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) as just a form of cheap distance education for people who can’t afford “the real thing,” then you’re not thinking far enough out of the box. Thus far, the traditional market leaders – elite universities such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT – have been at the helm of the MOOC movement. That could change in 2014, if the first artificially intelligent machine begins to fully teach a MOOC — lecturing, grading and engaging with students the way a human professor might, thereby opening the door to new educational start-ups to challenge the entrenched incumbents by demolishing the current cost structure of higher education.
Unlike humans, machines would be willing to complete all the coursework and do all the assignments. Machines could enroll in — or even teach — these MOOCs not just for the knowledge, but to study how humans learn, and to pick up the various nuances of a specific field of knowledge — the same way that IBM’s Watson learns about medicine not just by memorizing a bunch of medical knowledge, but also by analyzing the case work that shows how doctors think. In short, the MOOC may have started as a way to educate humans, but it may end as a way to educate machines. At the very least, once a MOOC can be taught by a machine, it may end up making the delightfully erudite college professor a quaint artifact of the non-digital past.
The United States experiences its first big cyber attack.
Don’t say we haven’t been warned — people have been warning of a “Cyber Pearl Harbor” on U.S. soil for more than two years. There are clear signs that the Chinese and North Koreans are working on cyberweapons, and it’s only a matter of time before Al-Qaeda or some other rogue terrorist organization uses cyberweapons to shut down part of the U.S. utility grid, or even worse, to unleash a major attack on a U.S. city by doing something like playing around with the computers inside nuclear reactors.
It’s not for nothing that the Pentagon has begun to fundamentally alter its force posture to emphasize offensive cyberweapons rather than defensive cyber precautions. It’s safe to assume that the good folks at DARPA are already working on next-generation “Plan X” cyberweapons that make Stuxnet look like a toy pop gun. To discourage a foreign entity or rogue terrorist group from initiating an attack on U.S. soil, look for the nation’s top generals to start thinking in terms of cyberweapons with destructive payloads rather than in terms of conventional or nuclear weapons.