Trends get a bad rap, mostly because they are often equated with fashions. Talk about trends and people immediately start imagining wafer thin models strutting down catwalks in outrageous outfits, or maybe a new shade of purple that will be long forgotten by next season.
Yet trends can be important, especially those long in the making. If lots of smart people are willing to spend years of their lives and millions (if not billions) of dollars on an idea, there’s probably something to it.
Today, we’re on the brink of a new digital paradigm, where the capabilities of our technology are beginning to outstrip our own. Computers are deciding which products to stock on shelves, performing legal discovery and even winning game shows. They will soon be driving our cars and making medical diagnoses. Here are five trends that are driving it all.
1. No-Touch InterfacesWe’ve gotten used to the idea that computers are machines that we operate with our hands. Just as we Gen Xers became comfortable with keyboards and mouses, Today’s millennial generation has learned to text at blazing speed. Each new iteration of technology has required new skills to use it proficiently.
That’s why the new trend towards no-touch interfaces is so fundamentally different. From Microsoft’s Kinect to Apple’s Siri to Google’s Project Glass, we’re beginning to expect that computers adapt to us rather than the other way around.
The basic pattern recognition technology has been advancing for generations and, thanks to accelerating returns, we can expect computer interfaces to become almost indistinguishable from humans in little more than a decade.
2. Native ContentWhile over the past several years technology has become more local, social and mobile, the new digital battlefield will be fought in the living room, with Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple and the cable companies all vying to produce a dominant model for delivering consumer entertainment.
One emerging strategy is to develop original programming in order to attract and maintain a subscriber base. Netflix recently found success with their “House of Cards” series starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Amazon and Microsoft quickly announced their own forays into original content soon after.
Interestingly, HBO, which pioneered the strategy, has been applying the trend in reverse. Their HBO GO app, which at the moment requires a cable subscription, could easily be untethered and become a direct competitor to Netflix.
3. Massively OnlineIn the last decade, massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft became all the rage. Rather than simply play against the computer, you could play with thousands of others in real time. It can be incredibly engrossing (albeit a bit unsettling when you realize that the vicious barbarian you’ve been marauding around with is actually a 14 year-old girl).
Now other facets of life are going massively online. Khan Academy offers thousands of modules for school age kids, Code Academy can teach a variety of programming languages to just about anybody and the latest iteration is Massively Online Open Courses (MOOC’s) that offer university level instruction. (For a good example, see here).
The massively online trend has even invaded politics, with President Obama recently reaching out to ordinary voters through Ask Me Anything on Reddit and Google Hangouts.
4. The Web of ThingsProbably the most pervasive trend is the Web of Things, where just about everything we interact with becomes a computable entity. Our homes, our cars and even objects on the street will interact with our smartphones and with each other, seamlessly.
What will drive the trend in the years to come are two complementary technologies: Near Field Communication (NFC), which allows for two-way data communication with nearby devices and ultra-low power chips that can harvest energy in the environment, which will put computable entities just about everywhere you can think of.
While the Web of Things is already underway, it’s difficult to see where it will lead us. Some applications, such as mobile payments and IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, will become widespread in just a few years. Marketing will also be transformed, as consumers will be able to seamless access digital products from advertisements in the physical world.
Still, as computing ceases to be something we do seated at a desk and becomes a natural, normal way of interacting with our environment, there’s really no telling what the impact will be.
5. Consumer Driven SupercomputingEverybody knows the frustration of calling to a customer service line and having to deal with an automated interface. They work well enough, but it takes some effort. After repeating yourself a few times, you find yourself wishing that you can just punch your answers in or talk to someone at one of those offshore centers with heavy accents.
Therein lies the next great challenge of computing. While we used to wait for our desktop computers to process our commands and then lingered for what seemed like an eternity for web pages to load, we now struggle with natural language interfaces that just can’t quite work like we’d like them to.
Welcome to the next phase of computing. As I previously wrote in Forbes, companies ranging from IBM to Google to Microsoft are racing to combine natural language processing with huge Big Data systems in the cloud that we can access from anywhere.
These systems will know us better than our best friends, but will also be connected to the entire Web of Things as well as the collective sum of all human knowledge. The first of these, IBM’s Watson, costs $3 million to build, but that price will drop to about $30,000 in ten years, well within the reach of most organizations.
When Computers DisappearWhen computers first appeared, they took up whole rooms and required specialized training to operate them. Then they arrived in our homes and were simple enough for teenagers to become proficient in their use within a few days (although adults tended to be a little slower). Today, my three year old daughter plays with her iPad as naturally as she plays with her dolls.
Now, computers themselves are disappearing. They’re embedded invisibly into the Web of Things, into no-touch interfaces and into our daily lives. While we’ve long left behind loading disks into slots to get our computers to work and become used to software as a service – hardware as a service is right around the corner.
That’s why technology companies are becoming a increasingly consumer driven, investing in things like native content to get us onboard their platform, from which we will sign onto massively online services to entertain and educate ourselves.
The future of technology is, ironically, all too human.