Unmanned drones delivering Amazon parcels. 3D printing machines that can produce a tiny heart valve to save a baby’s life or a working gun. That future is already here. So what do the next 10 years on the Net have in store?
To find out, Informilo interviewed over a dozen scheduled speakers at LeWeb, an annual Internet conference organized by Loic and Geraldine Le Meur. To mark the conference’s 10-year anniversary the focus this year is on what the Internet will look like in 2023.
Here are a few of the speakers’ predictions:
- In less than five years we will be able to buy a functioning Star Trek-like medical tricorder: a cellphone-sized device that can diagnose most illness better than most doctors, predicts serial entrepreneur and active investor Fabrice Grinda.
- Grinda also predicts 3D-printed organs based on your personal genetic make-up will eliminate the organ shortage and rejection issues in the next 10 years.
- Education will continue to be democratized, he says, with the best professors reaching hundreds of thousands of students, allowing people from everywhere in the world, of every age, at every stage in life to take classes.
- Virtual money will become more mainstream, promises speaker Shakil Khan, an active angel investor and bitcoin believer.
- Driverless cars will become the norm; with automakers from Tesla to Mercedes offering such models, says Ramez Naam, a computer scientist and author of the science fiction novel Nexus. Raam also lectures on energy, environment, and innovation at Singularity University, where he serves as Adjunct Faculty.
- 3D printing and the maker movement will impact manufacturing and purchasing. In a world where things can be made on demand at the local level, why do we need retail stores or warehouses? asks Jeremiah Owyang, Chief Catalyst at Crowd Companies. Some stores will mainly be used as a source of building block materials by consumers who make their own products in adjoining labs. Others will become a kind of 21st-century version of photocopy shops, pumping out a specified number of widgets on demand instead of bound reports or marketing literature.
- The lines between offline and online shopping will blur even further, predicts Sonali de Rycker, a general partner at Accel Partners in London. Merchandise and promotions will not only be consistent across all retail channels, adapting to consumers who want to use different channels simultaneously, the offers will be personalized according to a specific consumer’s purchase patterns, social network affinities, website visits, loyalty programs, and other data-mining techniques.
- Affordable humanoid robots that can do useful things will start appearing in homes as early as 2014, promises Bruno Maisonnier, CEO and founder of France’s Aldebaran Robotics.
- Every company in the future will be a software company because software will be the biggest asset needed to attract and retain customers, says Forrester Research CEO George Colony.
- As a result all companies — whether they sell toothbrushes or insurance — will be competing with the Googles and Salesforces of the world to hire the best developers.
- As market behaviors shift, every corporation will have to consider introducing products as a service, tapping the maker movement and crowd collaboration to stay relevant, says Crowd Companies’ Owyang.
All of these expected changes will bring about radical disruptions, says Naam. Highly-paid and highly-educated professionals such as doctors, radiologists and ultrasound technicians risk being supplanted by automation as will others in jobs that require less training, such as factory workers and bus drivers.
In the U.S. alone some 100,000 deaths have been attributed to medical errors, wrong drugs or the wrong diagnosis. As Grinda points out, IBM’s Watson is already better at diagnosing certain types of cancers than doctors are.
“Watson can help improve the quality of life and lower the costs in the U.S. but there are huge institutional barriers to that,” says Naam. “Physicians don’t want to use medical artificial intelligence even when it is superior.”
Radiologists, who today earn high salaries in the U.S., could become redundant, as could ultrasound technicians. In some cases software reads results more accurately. In other cases it does a reasonably good job. “This could bring huge benefits as it could be possible for the first time to deploy X-ray machines and ultrasound machines in the developing world,” says Naam. “The local midwife may not be as good or as well trained as an ultrasound technician but it is a huge step up from what they had before, which was nothing.”
The whole educational system will also be disrupted. “There is a huge role for teachers as mentors, facilitators, people who can answer questions, but there needs to be an inversion of what happens in the classroom today, ” says Naam. “It may make more sense for students to watch the lectures at home on their devices and use the classroom to interact,” he says. “The big barrier here is not the technology — it is the institutions. Universities are more open to experimental ideas. [Grades] K-12 [are] less dynamic; there is zero competition and it is highly regulated so there is much less experimentation. So change is likely to trickle down from the universities and happen on the fringes.”
It is important that an overhaul of the educational system does not take too long. “We are in a race that involves the increasingly fast pace of technology and how fast people can pick up new skills,” says Naam. “What happens to a 45-year-old taxi driver when driverless vehicles are introduced? People have to be able to retrain fast enough. We need to revamp education so that it is not just for people aged five to 22 but for people of all ages.”
Businesses also face radical transformation as power shifts away from institutions to customers, says Forrester’s Colony. “It will be imperative for companies to build extraordinary customer experiences,” says Colony.
Crowd Companies’ Owyang could not agree more. “All companies must radically alter their business models to adapt,” he says. “I am suggesting they don’t have a choice.”
That message appears to be resonating with large companies. At LeWeb, Owyang will announce the launch of Brand Council, a group whose membership already includes GE, Home Depot, American Eagle, Autodesk and Ford. The idea is that big brands pay membership fees to access private events and presentations about the collaborative economy, to learn from each other, and to meet selected start-ups that agree to provide content and possibly do business with the corporations.
Owyang predicts that companies in just about every vertical will end up embracing new collaborative consumption and creation models. Many will end up partnering with or acquiring some of the more than 200 start-ups that have recently launched in this space with the help of some $2 billion in venture capital.
As more and more consumers endorse the concept of renting rather than owning, traditional businesses will have to get used to offering services rather than selling products. “BestBuy, Audi, P&G, will offer products for rent or lease — not ownership or consumption, Owyang says in a blog post. “Service-based companies like Manpower, Kelly Services, H&R Block, may all need to develop methods that allow for independents to be involved in the workforce, extending the model to peer-to-peer-based services markets where they take a margin cut. Even the hospitality space is impacted. Expect companies like Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, to not only rent rooms at their hotels, but to certify individual home owners’ houses to be rented out on secondary market exchanges like Airbnb … or create their own market.” In short, businesses will have to embrace collaborative creation.
“They have to allow customers to become part of the company, to create and to revenue share,” says Owyang. This will mean that the line between customers and employees will continue to blur. What is the benefit to the business? A company’s capital expenditure goes down because the crowd is helping improve the product, he says. The company can then extend its brand to the products it approves and take a commission.
In more radical use cases, Owyang says brands may give away products for free as gifts, in expectation of donations, a promise for customers to come back later, to receive something as barter, or for no reason at all. “Crazy? Not really, consumers are already doing this, and businesses must often model consumer behaviors to stay relevant,” he says.
Some of the same approaches that companies are using to seek solutions to difficult commercial problems or simply to improve their products could be used to tackle some of the world’s most urgent problems.
There is a chance to harness technology to have a real impact on the world, rather than creating another way to shoot animals on our mobile phones or the next iteration of Instagram. “I want to challenge people in the audience at LeWeb,” says Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group, a research firm focused on disruptive technology. “Instead of focusing on the innovator’s dilemma that Clayton Christensen describes I want people to focus on being the dilemma’s innovator — to look at world and societal problems and figure out how to fix them using innovation to make the world as they know it and life as they know it better.”
Start-up advisor and investor Alexander Mouldovan, another scheduled speaker at LeWeb, will promote a similar message. Technological advances were supposed to increase production and create wealth and leisure, but that is not how it played out, says Mouldovan. The Web has spread wonderful efficiencies but there have been some quite severe side effects, such as wrenching changes in employment. So now, he says, we need to figure out what we will create with the next wave of change, disruption, and innovation. Tech entrepreneurs “need to think bigger to figure out what is important to us and make sure we are working towards that,” he says. “Think about what could happen if we could take the creativity and drive that Travis Kalanick (another scheduled speaker at LeWeb) put into building Uber and put that kind of energy into solving problems like hunger and pollution.”
The only constant is change, says Mouldovan. And it is coming at a faster and faster pace. “The one thing we can control is whether we will steer it in a way that is going to make a real difference to the world we live in,” he says, and create a better future.