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TECH TALK: Letter to a 2005 Baby: Emerging Technologies

June 17th, 2005 · No Comments

Dear Abhishek,

Technologies old and new will be as much part of your life as the air you breathe. So, I thought a good starting point to think about the future and put it in perspective would be to look at it from the eyes of one of the most respected technology publications, MITs Technology Review. For the past few years, it has been publishing a list of 10 emerging technologies. While some of these sound gobbledygook even to me, you will get an idea of the world that is being created.

Here is the 2005 list: Airborne Networks, Quantum Wires, Silicon Photonics, Metabolomics, Magnetic-Resonance Force Microscopy, Universal Memory, Bacterial Factories
Environmatics, Cell-Phone Viruses and Biomechatronics.

Last year, Technology Review had this list: Universal Translation, Synthetic Biology, Nanowires, Bayesian Machine Learning, T-Rays, Distributed Storage, RNA Interference, Power Grid Control, Microfluidic Optical Fibers and Personal Genomics.

Go back a year and you find this list: Wireless Sensor Networks, Injectable Tissue Engineering, Nano Solar Cells, Mechatronics, Grid Computing, Molecular Imaging, Nanoimprint Lithography, Software Assurance, Glycomics and Quantum Cryptography.

In 2001, this was the list: Brain-Machine Interface, Flexible Transistors, Data Mining, Digital Rights Management, Biometrics, Natural Language Processing, Microphotonics, Untangling Code, Robot Design and Microfluidics.

As you can see, there is plenty to think about! A lot of innovation is happening across multiple areas. For good measure, here is a list from CNN of the top 10 innovations (from a list of 25) of the past quarter century: Internet, Cell phone, Personal computers, Fiber optics, E-mail, Commercialized GPS, Portable computers, Memory storage discs, Consumer level digital camera and Radio frequency ID tags. How many of these would we have imagined in 1980?

As you ponder the impact of all these existing and emerging technologies, it will be good to keep in mind these words from The Wall Street Journal published a couple years ago:

Technology companies are often described as “inventing the future.” Maybe they do. But they aren’t very good at predicting it. That’s how it is with the future: You never quite see it coming.

Let’s not discount out of hand the idea that something unforeseen might appear on the scene to change things. Just don’t expect to recognize it for what it is right away.

People in the technology world are forever searching for the “killer app” — the must-have sure thing that the whole world will want to buy. Invariably, though, they never find the killer app; it finds them. You wake up one day and realize that you can’t remember how you ever got along without, say, search engines.

It’s a problem for technology companies. Most of the really transforming technologies bubble up in unexpected ways. More often than not, they require some sort of existing infrastructure, which they gently nudge in the direction of additional usefulness. The Internet, for instance, would never have happened without a vast and efficient telephone network, not to mention tens of millions of powerful PCs.

And these technologies are almost never envisioned in advance, but instead are appreciated after the fact, like the laser printer. Name your favorite technology. I’ll bet it wasn’t introduced with a big product launch. The typical pattern is that by doing something useful, simple and slightly new, it attracted customers and programmers who then began investing it with ever-more uses, many of them utterly unforeseen.

Next week, I will give you my thoughts on some of the big ideas for tomorrows world.


TECH TALK Letter to a 2005 Baby+T

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