Saturday, May 13, 2017

Ten Year Futures

Now that mobile is maturing and its growth is slowing, everyone in tech turns to thinking about what the Next Big Thing will be. It's easy to say that 'machine learning is the new mobile' (and everyone does), but there are other things going on too.

On one hand, we have a set of profound changes coming as a result of new primary technology. Electric and autonomous cars will change cities, virtual and mixed reality will change the entire computing experience, and machine learning is changing the kind of questions that computers can answer. But each of these is also just beginning, especially relative to their potential - they are at the bottom of the S-Curve where smartphones are now getting towards the top. On the other hand, I think we can see a set of changes that come not so much from any new technology as from shifts in consumer behaviour and operating economics. These changes are potentially just as big, and might be starting sooner.

Electric and autonomous cars are just beginning - electric is happening now but will take time to grow, and autonomy is 5-10 years away from the first real launches. As they happen, each of these destabilises the car industry, changing what it means to make or own a car, and what it means to drive. Gasoline is half of global oil demand and car accidents kill 1.25m people year, and each of those could go away. But as I explored here, that's just the start: if autonomy ends accidents, removes parking and transforms what congestion looks like, then we should try to imagine changes to cities on the same scale as those that came with cars themselves. How do cities change if some or all of their parking space is now available for new needs, or dumped on the market, or moved to completely different places? Where are you willing to live if 'access to public transport' is 'anywhere' and there are no traffic jams on your commute? How willing are people to go from their home in a suburb to dinner or a bar in a city centre on a dark cold wet night if they don't have to park and an on-demand ride is the cost of a coffee? And how does law enforcement change when every passing car is watching everything?

Then, virtual reality and mixed reality are also some years away from mass-market adoption. We have some VR products in market today and some very early MR, but for both, it feels as though we are in the 2005-2006 phase of multitouch smartphones - almost, but not yet. Once these really come to market, they may change the world just as much as the iPhone. Mixed reality in particular could change things a great deal, if we all have a pair of glasses that can place something in the world in front of you as though it was really there. Predicting what this could be today reminds me of trying to predict the mobile internet not in 2007 but in 1999 - "stock tips, news headlines and the weather" don’t really capture what has happened since then.

Machine learning is happening right now, and rolls through or perhaps underneath the entire tech industry as a new fundamental computer science capability - and of course enables both mixed reality and autonomous cars. Like, perhaps, relational databases or (in a smaller way) smartphone location, machine learning is a building block that will be part of everything, making many things better and enabling some new and surprising companies and products. I don't think we quite understand what it means to say that computers will be able to read images, video or speech in the way that they've been able to read text and numbers since the 1970s or earlier. But though we are creating machine learning now, again, it's still very early to see all of the implications. It's at the beginning of the S-Curve.

So, we have these hugely important new technologies coming, but not quite here yet. At the same time, though, we have a set of more immediate changes, that have much more to do with consumer behaviour, company strategy and economic 'tipping points' than with primary, frontier technology of the kind that Magic Leap or Waymo are building.

by Benedict Evans |  Read more: