The pace of technological change always seems to hit us like some sort of tsunami.
It just looks like a far-off wave at first, and its potential impact has yet to be fully grasped. Then, as that wave moves closer to shore and appears increasingly ominous, we begin to realize the full extent of its power. Finally, by the time it crashes into the shore, we're rapidly pulled underwater—being swept away in what had at first glance looked like just another wave at the beach.
But rather than hitting us with one big wave all at once, technology tends to hit us with a series of smaller waves which, once they've all been tallied up, amount to something far more powerful than what a single big wave could produce.
There are a few more of these technological tsunamis headed our way at this very moment, though it may end up taking decades for them to reach their full potential. Here's an overview of five of the biggest tech trends to watch over the next few decades:
1. Global High-Speed internet
Since the first iPhone was introduced 10 years ago, the market for wireless internet-on-the-go has exploded. Today in 2017, most of the populated land-mass of the Earth is covered by mobile networks—almost all of which include some basic level of internet access.
In some developing nations, the rise of mobile networks is enabling them to bypass the need for landlines entirely. And the number of people connected to the internet via smartphones is set to increase dramatically over the coming decades—as is the speed of each individual connection. By 2050, the number of internet users worldwide may reach as high as nine billion.
That's almost three times more people connected to the internet in 2050 as are connected today in 2017. And almost all of them will have connections that are equivalent to or greater than the bandwidth enabled by 5G.
Even now, internet accessibility is reaching some of the poorest people on Earth. Throughout the developing world, the majority of the population has access to some sort of mobile phone (such as a rudimentary flip-phone that can call and text)—in a few more years, most of thees will be replaced with rudimentary smartphones that are connected to the worldwide web (some of which are projected to sell for as little as $30 USD beginning this year).
Not only will internet access one day become ubiquitous for every human being on Earth, it will also become entirely global. The days of being locked into a SIM card and a geographic region are gradually eroding, replaced by visions of a next-generation network that works equally as well no matter where you are on Earth.
One of the ways that this can be achieved is by implementing a global network of satellites that are capable of beaming high-speed internet down to everyone, everywhere.
Satellite internet technology is being enabled by a number of factors: satellites are becoming cheaper to build (hardware prices have fallen rapidly over time), cheaper to launch (thanks to commercial launch providers like SpaceX), and increasingly capable with each passing year.
Both Google and SpaceX have stated their intentions to create a global space-based internet service capable of reaching every human being on Earth at an affordable price. This would mean that, not only would I have an internet connection in the middle of the Congo (for example), but so would would the people who actually live in the Congo.
This sort of innovation would enable every human being—whether rich or poor—to have access to all of the world's information, from any location on Earth. That means, by 2050, nine billion people with humanity's entire library of knowledge at their fingertips.
Eventually, we'll hit a point where there's simply too much information to possibly sift through, and then we'll need some method of automated curation—this brings me to #2 on this list.
2. Virtual A.I. Assistants
In the Iron Man series, Tony Stark has his own artificial intelligence assistant named JARVIS. And if tech behemoths like Facebook, Amazon, and Google get their way, every human being on Earth will have their own JARVIS-like A.I. within a decade.
And we need it. With six billion people soon to be added to the global digital community, a tsunami of information is coming our way, and we're going to need something or someone to act as a filter between us and the world wide (open) web. This is where A.I. will shine.
Projects like Google Brain have already been implemented in online platforms such as YouTube. Ever notice that endless stream of 'recommended' videos always popping up in your autoplay list? Yup, that's Google Brain—an A.I. that's been learning our viewing preferences in order to better guess what we'll want to watch next. And it's not often wrong.
This same sort of technology is also being deployed across the rest of the internet. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have their own curation algorithms that attempt to prioritize updates from people you seem to pay the most attention to, while burying the updates of those you rarely interact with.
All of this creates a cleaner and more dynamic user experience—we're far more likely to remain engaged with the platform we're on if we're continuously fed more of the content that we're interested in. This is just plain old smart business.
Over the next few years, these systems are going to become far more sophisticated than our current 2017 versions are (think back to the YouTube of 2009 compared to the YouTube of today). Instead of being subscribed to a mailing list and receiving an Email every time our favorite publications post a new article, we'll forego the Email entirely in favor of instantaneous updates from our personal A.I. assistants.
There's a reason Google killed its RSS reader: managed subscriptions are eventually going to be replaced with A.I. content curators. The days of 'checking' social media or 'checking' the RSS feed or 'checking' our favorite channels will be gone.
Since our A.I. content curator will know about all of our content preferences automatically, its job will be to continue forwarding fresh content to us before we even know that we want it. And depending on how we react to the content being put in front of us, the A.I. can continue making appropriate adjustments in order to more closely match our preferences as times goes on.
What makes these A.I. curators highly desirable is the potential revenue increase from online ads and content consumption. The next-generation of targeted ads won't just look at our past search histories and keyword usage for clues—they'll analyze our personalities, our deepest interests, and perhaps even our moods in order to more effectively present us with products and services that we'll want to purchase.
But another option may be to forego the ads altogether, replacing them with an internet-wide micro-payment plan that leverages another exciting technology: the third entry on this list.
3. Digital-Only Currency
We're already moving in this direction at a rapid pace. In our emerging digital economy, cash is going to be completely replaced by a wide range of digital payment methods. Even developing nations like India are transitioning towards a 100% cashless economy, as they seek to reap the social and technological benefits of every person in country possessing their own unique bank account—even if they can't afford to make a deposit just yet.
The next big step in digitization of currency will be in utilizing the internet itself to make payments directly. Let me explain.
As things currently stand, online payments don't go through the internet like other information does. Instead, payments are funneled through a separate infrastructure that runs on the internet. And it's slow and cumbersome.
When we make any sort of online payment today, it has to go through an array of third-party payment services and multiple banking institutions, all of whom want to take their own cut of the transaction as a 'processing fee'. With this system, it takes days for payments to arrive at their destination.
This is where blockchain technology, like Bitcoin, comes in.
Rather than processing your payment through third-party fee-chargers, blockchain encrypts your payment information automatically and allows you to send money from user to user. This is done instantaneously, with no requirement for a third-party company to process your payment.
Blockchain simply cuts out the middlemen in order to save fees and speed up the transactions—and the security is designed to be at least as good as sending money through the traditional online payment infrastructure.
Another defining feature of blockchain technology is the ability to setup micro-payments: these can be any size, such as 1/1000th of cent, which simply isn't possible with current online payment methods.
One potential application for micro-payments would be in paying online content. Rather than having to purchase a subscription to an online publication in order to read just one article I'm interested in, I could instead choose to access the content for a really small transaction—such as one cent.
Utilizing micro-payments, our browsers could be setup in such a way that every time we read an article or watch a video online, the content creator is automatically sent a 'micro-payment' of any amount of our choosing. This payment could range from a minuscule 1/1000th of a cent, up to a more reasonable 1 cent. There could even be an option where, every time you hit 'like' on an article or video, your digital wallet sends an additional few cents to the content creator.
Rather than having a few premium users paying a large subscription fee in order to access all of the content, we could have millions of micro-payment users paying for only the content they consume—and the content creator would get paid just the same.
This sort of micro-payment plan could also be implemented in conjunction with our A.I. curators, whereby the A.I. is responsible for paying creators depending upon how much time we spend consuming their content.
In sum, digital currencies have the power to keep the internet open and accessible to all, while also democratizing content in such a way that valuable content is incentivized with micro-payments, while deceptive or invaluable content is brushed aside altogether.
The digital economy is growing significantly faster than any other market in the world, and digital content already makes takes up a significant portion of our free time. As our lives become increasingly digitized, more and more people will become reliant on the digital world in order to make a living. And that's going to lead to yet another ubiquitously-adopted technology, listed here as #4.
4. Self-Driving Cars
Driving is the most dangerous activity that most people do on a daily basis, but our collective urge to remain glued to our smartphones still causes thousands of additional automotive-related deaths every year. Lucky for those insatiable texters, the rise of self-driving cars will save us from ourselves.
In the early 19th Century, nobody knew about bacteria. Physicians would rarely wash their hands in between procedures, and the spread of infections due to unsanitary conditions caused untold numbers of deaths over the centuries.
When physicians were eventually presented with evidence that regular hand-washing could drastically reduce patient mortality rates, they resisted, even going so far as to state that 'a gentleman's hands are always clean.' It simply wasn't convenient for them to change their habits, even if it could save lives.
When humans are confronted with hard evidence that a certain activity is harmful or detrimental to our health, it can take time before that information is acted upon culturally. For an example, look at how many people still smoke cigarettes, despite knowing full-well that doing so can lead to a two-fold increase in their chance of dieing on any given day.
But again, going through the process of quitting smoking simply isn't convenient. And that's where self-driving cars have a serious advantage over hand-washing and cigarette-smoking.
Driving is a hassle. It requires us to stop everything we're doing and pay attention to something mundane and boring for an extended period of time. Similarly to the A.I. curators that will find all the good stuff on the internet for us, fully self-driving cars will become the norm within the next few decades.
Millions of hours of productivity are lost every day just because people have to physically drive themselves to work or school, trading valuable working hours for the need to manually pay attention to the road and navigate through city traffic.
There's also the fact that traffic accidents result in 1.25 million deaths per year, globally. That's more than are killed by malaria.
More and more, self-driving cars will start taking over our roads. And it won't be a public-health necessity that people resist, or a law that needs to be enforced—most people will be eager to possess a computer-on-wheels that doubles as a personal chauffeur.
As this transition takes place, vehicle interiors will also be transformed into something that resembles a portable office on wheels. High-speed internet, a fully equipped work station, and access to all of the resources you'd typically find in the home or office will become staples of the automotive industry over the coming decades.
By freeing up the hours that people had previously spent driving themselves, digital consumption will increase, and our A.I. curators will be given an additional task: find something that the passenger can watch or read in precisely the time it takes to get from point A to point B.
Having this extra stretch of time available will also enable the continued emergence of #5 on this list.
5. Online Classrooms
In the uber-digital world of the 21st century, falling behind technologically will be a severe problem. And as increasingly abstract technologies continue to emerge (digital money? cloud computing?), there will be more opportunity than ever for the non-tech-savvy to get left behind entirely.
Out of necessity, people will continue to pursue an upgraded education throughout their working lives—new skills in order to adapt to the new technologies and careers that will emerge in our increasingly digitized world.
And thanks to the previously discussed tech trends, people are going to have more access to new education channels than ever before. The online education industry is set to explode.
One day, all of the best education options are going to be available online and for a fraction of the price of attending a physical university. At that point, potential employers are going to start wondering why you had bothered going to an out-dated 'real school' rather than pursue a world-class online education—not the other way around.
Tuition for online courses will also be significantly cheaper, thus relieving the student debt and education funding problems in one big sweep. With online institutions able to handle millions of students every year (rather than thousands), tuition costs will only be as expensive as the digital infrastructure used to operate the online classroom—which, thanks to cloud computing and ubiquitous high-speed internet, will be minimal.
Helping things along will be technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality. Thees will enable online learners to actively participate in the digital classroom, which will eventually become a fully-immersive digital 3D environment not unlike the current physical classrooms of today.
While delivering an affordable and world-class education, these online classrooms will also be able to offer a more diversified learning experience.
If you don't learn well in a traditional classroom setting, then you could opt for a more hands-on learning experience. Or, if you're someone who prefers to be more self-directed in their learning endeavors, then perhaps having a helpful A.I. assistant act as your personal education advisor/mentor would be ideal.
Even if online classrooms don't completely replace physical classrooms, having the option available could be a game-changer for the future of humanity. Education is one of the most important contributing factors to human development, and having high-quality education available online to everyone in the world is one crucial step towards developing a strong global society.
As you've probably realized, all five of these emerging tech trends have already arrived in some form. 4G mobile networks cover most of the developed worlds, with developing countries following closely behind. We already have virtual assistants built-in to our operating systems (Cortana, Siri, etc).
And digital currency has started to go mainstream. Bitcoin recently hit its all-time high, with a total market cap that's 50% higher than during its initial price surge three years ago. Automated driving technologies are now coming standard with a range of new vehicles, and Tesla is on the verge of making its entire fleet of electric cars fully self-driving.
As time goes on, the barrier between online degrees and in-person degrees will erode even further. And in the 21st century job market, the online learning environment will fit in perfectly well with our increasingly digitized work-from-home careers.
None of these emerging tech trends are far-off ideas. They're all things that are arriving now, and advances in each have helped to enhance the impact and reach of the others. We're in the midst of a technological tsunami that there's no escaping from; our best bet is to ride the wave as best we can, while we can.
- Peter Diamandis, Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think
- United Nations, "World population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050"
- Fortune, "This is Google's Plan to Save Youtube"
- Mashable, "India needs $30 smartphone, says Google CEO Sundar Pichai"
- Quartz, "Smartphones can and must go from causing car accidents to saving lives"
- NPR, "The Doctor Who Championed Hand-Washing And Briefly Saved Lives"