Based on research in academic journals, an analysis of venture capital portfolios, and interviews with experts, McKinsey has identified what it calls the disruptive dozen – twelve technological developments that have the potential to disrupt current economic practices and have wide-ranging consequences for our lives.
These twelve represent a best guess about what technologies are going to shape our lives and businesses for the next twenty years.
Although we only have space to briefly list them here, it’s worth reading the executive summary of the McKinsey report if you’re interested in the topic.
An iPhone 4S retails for around $400. In 1975, a computer with the same amount of processing power would have sold for $5m. With the explosive growth of smartphones and tablets, the internet has gone mobile, and with it has come a revolution in how we navigate and experience the world. Mobile internet is bringing millions of new people online, and is creating new opportunities for developers, retailers, entertainment companies and many others.
Automation of knowledge work
Remember all those video clips of Japanese factories where cars are put together mostly by robots? Manufacturing was the first industry to experience the disruption of automation, but knowledge work could be next. Smarter software could allow computers to read X-rays, answer questions posed in natural language (think Siri), and do increasingly complex “thought-based” tasks. This could displace many knowledge workers, and reduce costs and improve efficiency for businesses.
Internet of things
More and more physical objects have the internet embedded in them. Sensors measure moisture levels in crops, or the flow of water through pipes, or the progress of parcels through the transport network. This allows better management of resources, and these technologies could also be applied to healthcare, allowing for monitoring of patients with chronic diseases. They could promote much greater efficiency in resource use, and even save lives.
Increasingly, software applications are delivered through the cloud. On the back end are massive servers capable of doing complex or intensive computation, on the front end, a thin client (Siri works like this – your phone just accesses a massive databank/voice recognition system to get her to respond). The expansion of the cloud changes costs for businesses, and could mean dramatically less spending on IT, as well as new computing capacities and business models for small businesses and individuals.
Those Japanese car-making robots were early attempts, capable of big, awkward movements but not able to do things requiring dextrousness or responsive intelligence. Nowadays, robots are getting smarter, more nimble, and adaptable, meaning that they can do more and more manual jobs. Further disruption in the manufacturing sector is likely as smarter robots replace more workers.
Autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles
Driverless cars have made a splash in the headlines, as have military drones, and near-autonomous trucks have been at work on mines for many years. If regulations allow it, such technologies could mean a dramatically safer transport system (the only time Google’s driverless car crashed in 300,000 miles was due to human error). At the very least, driver-enhancing technologies like collision avoidance braking systems could help keep us safer on the streets.
A human genome can be sequenced in a few hours, at a cost of just a few thousand dollars. Combine this with massively expanded data-processing capacities, and you have a potential revolution in healthcare – new ways to discover and test drugs, and to diagnose and treat disease. It’s even possible that this technology could lead to designer organisms for use in agriculture or biofuels.
Items that store energy for future use, like batteries, are developing in new directions. Cheaper, more efficient and higher-capacity batteries could make things like electric cars more realistic, and could help us harness alternative energy like solar or wind power, which is unpredictable and results in surges of energy that must be stored or lost.
3D printing may seem gimmicky, but improvements to the technology mean that it could soon diffuse among customers, enabling people to create items they need on demand (and saving countless trips to the hardware store). At the corporate level, it could revolutionise on-demand manufacturing, inventory management, and the design of new products. Low-cost, portable, on-demand manufacturing has the potential to disrupt any number of industries.
Chemists have been hard at work designing smart materials – self-cleaning, for example, or self-healing. Nanomaterials (materials made on the nanoscale, which is very, very small) can be enormously strong, or have quirky electrical properties and so on. These new materials could lead to entirely new types of products, as well as massive improvements to current ones, and even new medications that target particular cells or biological processes.
Advanced oil and gas exploration and recovery
Worries about peak oil are receding as new technologies for extracting shale oil and gas have developed. Previously inaccessible deposits can now be tapped at relatively low cost, and these technological developments could ultimately open up access to new forms of fossil fuel, leading to new energy and chemical revolutions.
The promise of renewable energy is enormous – an endless source of energy that doesn’t strip the earth of resources or pollute. Renewables are growing as a part of the grid in many countries, and as technology evolves, it will become ever-more practical to exploit them on a grand scale.
These twelve technologies offer new challenges and opportunities to businesses and individuals. Machines will replace many workers, but new opportunities will also emerge for the creative and skilled, and the quality of all our lives could improve dramatically.