Predicting the future of technology (and why we get it wrong)

Predicting the future of technology, even over just a few years, is mind-numbingly difficult. Science fiction writers and tech companies have tried and tried and, mostly, got it wrong. Why? One of the main reasons is that it’s far easier to imagine changes to existing things than entirely new things. But now and then something comes along and it all changes… Welcome to the world of “convergence technology” and “paradigm shifts”.

The concept of convergence technology is best understood by imagining the ultimate version of it – a device that just does everything. That’s pure science fiction, but take a look at your smartphone or tablet – it’s the best and most widespread example of convergence technology today. So what is convergence technology about, and why do we care?

I first came across the term in about 1995, when I was asked to look into the “information superhighway” and this new “world wide web” thing, to see whether any of it was worth bothering with. The fact that this was even in doubt now seems laughable, but back then it was The Big Question being asked at board level in all major companies around the world: it wasn’t obvious what people would actually do with the internet, let alone how companies would make money from it. And yet, within just two or three years, the world was going internet-crazy and everybody was talking about web sites and portals and intranets.

What changed? Convergence. The same telephone lines that were present in every business and most households could now be used to connect devices (mostly computers) anywhere at any time. The world suddenly got a lot smaller – we could buy, sell, publish, research, chat and flirt in real time and across borders. Very highly paid consultants were predicting the imminent demise of traditional “bricks and mortar” businesses, such as bookshops and travel agencies, as those businesses moved from the high-rent high street onto (almost) zero-rent web sites. Many people in those traditional business models were genuinely worried about their future – would they be replaced by 24/7 web-based businesses?

Fast forward a few years and many non-specialist bricks and mortar businesses continue to lose market share to online – because if all you want to do is fly from London to Madrid then you don’t need a human to arrange the ticket – but the high-service and specialised (“niche”) markets are still out there and still going strong, because, if you’re planning a six-week concert tour of eight cities, a web-based booking engine is probably not much help. But the panic was, mostly, unfounded. Businesses that adapted to the new models survived, and high street shops are still there (although you’ll find far fewer books and far, FAR more coffee…)

What did happen was a whole cascade of new ideas and new businesses based on this ever-increasing technological convergence. Not long ago, we had laptop computers, mobile phones, mp3 players, video games, cameras, and so on; a separate device for each function. Then came mobile phones with built-in cameras, then camera-phones that could play mp3 files, and so on, until we now have devices such as tablets and smartphones that combine most or all of these features into a single device that is typically far more powerful than the individual specialised device that we used for each function even 5 years ago. Generally speaking, at least two devices that each do one thing are replaced by one device that does at least two things – each new generation means the redundancy of the previous one. Landfill sites are not just full of mobile phones that are just mobile phones; they’re also full of devices that did everything from A to F but not G.

With hindsight, it seems obvious that this was the way things would go, but that’s because we’re now the other side of that paradigm shift. A paradigm shift, in this context, is a change in something that is so fundamental it changes the way people think about things. Notable examples include the rise of the web, smartphones and tablets (which in turn are converging), and the rise of cheap, downloadable apps. Before a paradigm shift, it’s almost impossible to imagine what life will be like afterwards. After the paradigm shift, a new chapter begins: we all wonder how we managed before, we come up with new ideas based on the new way of doing things… in short, we change the way we think, the way we work, the way we live. Either that, or we get left behind playing Colossal Adventure/Tetris/Angry Birds/Next Big Thing while the smart companies adapt and move on… again.

One of the most credible big predictions of the late 90s (just when the web was beginning to boom) was web TV. Why have two boxes in your living room, a computer and a TV, when you could make the TV a bit smarter and web-enabled? Brilliant! And utterly wrong. With hindsight, it’s easy to see that the TV was never going to be the dominant technology – computer technology was more advanced and getting smarter all the time (although, much to my amazement, companies are still trying to push web TV, only they’re now calling it Smart TV… which I think is missing the point entirely). So now, with the rise of on-demand HD media streaming services, many people are asking the same question again, but from a different perspective: why have two boxes in your living room, when your computer is TV-enabled?

So, let’s make an easy prediction based on the technological convergence we see happening right now:

The TV will disappear, and films and programmes will be watched on a computer.

Seems a safe prediction, doesn’t it? Yes… but only while we think of watching films and programmes as a static activity that requires a rectangular screen to view pictures that change at x frames per second. What if something comes along next year that changes the entire viewing experience? What if TV becomes truly interactive? What if the pictures could be generated in our eyes, rather than in front of them? Or generated directly in our brains? Or… something else? That’s the problem – because we don’t know the technology of the future, the only safe prediction we can really make about most technology is that it will become, at some point, something else.

All most of us can do is keep watching out for that something else, that paradigm shift, and embrace it when it comes along. It happens more often than you might think: as bizarre as it now seems to anyone under the age of 16, there was a time before the web… and back then, almost nothing in this article would have made any sense.

Keith Juden is a Senior Editor at Health4Brands Europe.