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Future Studies: Technology, 25 Years from Now

New devices, apps and business models promise to change the way we work and live.

CNBC, a frequent partner of this publication, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and far from looking back and reflecting nostalgically on what the Gordon Gekko–style brick cellular telephones of “Wall Street” looked like, the satellite and cable television business news channel is looking far in the distance — to what technology will look like 25 years from now. CNBC and Singularity University have been so kind as to invite me to speak on this subject at their Exponential Finance event in New York next week, and I want to take a moment to share some reflections on that question with readers of this column, since nothing could be closer to our weekly purpose.

The tech industry has come under fire recently for concentrating its energy on ever more insignificant, first-world problems. Start-ups like Brooklyn-based FlyCleaners are out to “disrupt laundry,” rendering the lives of a few hundred thousand people a little bit easier. Laundry disrupters do abound in tech land — as do late-night cookie and cold-pressed juice delivery services — but the real difficulty with complaints about these companies is that their detractors can’t see the forest for the trees. The loudest critics of technology — especially of the start-up world — stick to consumer-facing companies, without understanding the trends behind them or the deeper ways that our lives and our culture will change, our prosperity will increase and our quality of life will improve over the next 25 years of innovation. What will we see, if we accept the premise that technology — especially computer and Internet technology — will continue to alter every part of our lives, shifting the very horizons of what we can do and know?

The laundry disrupters are signals of dramatic changes that have already taken place. Labor and communications, logistics and the shapes of major cities are already shifting to accommodate the sharing economy. San Francisco–based Airbnb, which connects users with paying guests, boasts 300,000 global listings. San Francisco–based TaskRabbit already dispatches local errand runners and messengers through its app, in advance of the laundry busters. Transportation company Uber, also headquartered in San Francisco, began experimenting with the same kinds of chore and shopping pickup services this year. Google recently began delivering packages from local stores with express vans; Amazon plans to do so with drones. These companies are all part of the same breaking wave of technology, which brings new convenience and increased value to consumers by upending staid retail conventions that have been in place since the invention of the strip mall. Buyers can have what they want, when they want it — freeing up vast blocks of time previously given over to trips to the mall and to grocery stores.

The speed at which goods circulate through the country will ratchet up, as will competition between online merchants and brick-and-mortar stores of all sizes. Big-box retailers will have to keep finding new ways to attract and keep their customers, especially in and around flyover cities and towns that still rely on the Walmart or Target on the outskirts of urban centers. At the moment, that means gathering information about customers and keeping pace with the market intelligence already collected by companies like Google to capture and serve new and existing customers. Smaller retailers will likely find new ways to send their products out into the world, as out-of-the-box web development, payments processing, crowdfunding and fulfillment solutions evolve. Demand determination, prepayments, minimal transaction fees: All have arrived or are arriving for online business, making more — and often custom — goods available across continents.

At the level of the electronic device, developments are equally fascinating. How about a change as small as no longer having to type anything? State-of-the-art speech recognition may render the keyboard obsolete for average users, making familiarity with QWERTY as antique a skill as texting on the number keypad of an old mobile handset — and could change your relationship to the written word. Tell your computer what you want. Moreover, along with those explicit instructions, a machine-learning system could begin to anticipate your needs, reminding you when to buy toilet paper, or even asking your permission to buy it for you and having it delivered by drone. Or Google van.

The toilet paper example is a slightly silly one — though it’s true that such small actions, daily tasks, fill the bulk of any human life. But what about operating systems that are so intelligent that they can be asked in plain English to build simple — or not so simple — programs? Maybe you’re a young parent, and you want your baby monitor to sync with your child’s breathing as he falls asleep, and play a lullaby for him that matches his slowing heartbeat. The device you bought at Target or Bed Bath & Beyond might not come programmed with that functionality, but it could program itself to do so once you tell it what you need. Less sleepy examples include the ability to tell your computer to bring together all the tide data from up and down the California coastline and integrate those data with traffic patterns from your point of origin to the beach — then guide you from your doorstep, via car, through that last mile walking down the sand, to the spot on the beach most suitable for your temperature, your wave height and choppiness preferences, using your Google Glass’s navigation system. And you can have the car drive itself there if you’d like to spend the time reading On the Road. A more complete man-machine integration with wearable computing that allows us to extend our sense perception into scales and speeds of nature not naturally discernible to the human senses — such as constantly updating real-time water wave levels miles away that you intend to swim in — will change our psychological relationship with weather and nature.

Technology will continue to push manufacturing ever farther, affecting not only the functionality of the things we buy but also at what point in the manufacturing process we receive them. A rush of recent efforts in 3-D printing means you might be able to construct that baby monitor — or that sound system, that coffee table or that new component of your modular cell phone — at home. Thinking of being able to construct at home, too, should make us think of repurposing and of more sustainable building and manufacturing technologies: Products with 3-D printer inks could be picked up by 3-D-printing firms and broken back down into usable, good-as-new cartridges. Entire buildings are being designed to be fabricated on site, reducing the cost and the resources required. Affordable housing could become more affordable than ever, both in impoverished American cities and around the world.

We are already living in the age of the sensor. Imagine if the sensors we now find in our smart thermostats and our cars and spread throughout the world’s network of more than 1.5 billion smartphones were not only communications devices but also the best way to monitor fluctuations in carbon dioxide at millions of points in the world’s atmosphere? Or if smartphones and online money transfers replaced ATMs? What if the future of mobile messaging weren’t in smartphone apps like WhatsApp but in platform-agnostic technologies that could be used on any device — say, on SMS, which has already revolutionized business in developing countries, bringing mobile currencies to unstable economies, and is still the most effective marketing channel? It’s worth thinking about what will come back from the recent past — technology pushes relentlessly toward innovation, but returns to old friends are always possible.

Then again, what if the smartphone and the feature phone were to eventually disappear from the landscape entirely, replaced by smaller wearables like the next generations of the Pebble watch? And what if wearable computers were truly wearable? It’s possible to imagine sensors woven into the threads of our garments, so that we wouldn’t need a Fitbit on our wrist to keep track of our vitals and turn our pulses and the distances we travel into actionable data that give us the opportunity to live more wisely, to manage our diets, our sleep patterns and our moods? Google Glass is only the beginning — the first step toward a time when wearable computers aren’t relegated to the status of an accessory but instead are as important as, well, your pants, or any other piece of clothing you wouldn’t want to leave home without. A personal digital assistant built into your T-shirt and connected to all your devices could authorize purchases, provide financial advice, aggregate stock tips, make a dinner reservation in a foreign city based on its organic understanding of your dietary needs and preferences. It could also turn off the lights you left on in the garage from a continent away.

Thinking about what’s next has become a field in itself, and a fascinating one. Future studies — often driven by exquisitely sophisticated computational arrays at work on big data — have begun to shape our technological present by thinking more insightfully than ever about our future. Big data has allowed us to detect patterns that would have gone unnoticed, and to refine further and further the means by which we understand our world and its many, interlocking systems: markets and the societies with which they intersect, human behavior and human potential. From the seemingly superficial to the deep, almost miraculous changes tech has already wrought in our knowledge, we should acknowledge that the future — in every industry, in almost every aspect of our culture — belongs to technology.

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