For awhile now I’ve been planning a post about some awesome technologies that will probably bring great changes to the world by the end of this decade. Azmyth recently did a similar post and inspired me to stop procrastinating on mine. So, without further ado, here is my list:
1. Driverless cars
What is it? Cars that are smart enough to drive you places safely while following all traffic laws. Also known as “autonomous” or “self-driving” car.
Why is it so cool? It will greatly reduce vehicle accidents, which still kill over 30,000 Americans each year and injure many more. (No more worries about drinking and driving. Or texting and driving.) It will also greatly reduce the opportunity cost of driving, as you’ll be able to do a lot of other things during your commute. Some folks have utopian visions of automated taxi services that reduce the need to own a vehicle or build a bigger parking lot. It could disrupt the shipping industry. It could keep all the old Baby Boomers active. I wonder if police will have fewer people to pull over.
How close are we? Google has been driving around a real prototype for a couple of years, although it’s probably not quite ready to handle all the driving conditions and complicated intersections of the American landscape (though as some say, humans are so bad at driving it’s not hard to make a computer that’s better). A few states have pre-emptively signed laws allowing driverless cars, and many manufacturers are supposed to be working on them. We’ve had cruise control for a long time, and we’re starting to see cars that can parallel park themselves and use cameras to warn you when you get too close to things. Completely reliable driverless technology is probably at least a couple years away, and even when it comes it will take awhile to trickle down from the new expensive models (unless we come up with a cheap way to convert older cars, but it seems like you need a lot of sensors – i.e. hardware – around the vehicles). But by 2020, even if we just have thousands of cars with a fancy cruise control that can stay in the lane and avoid collisions on highways, that would still be an incredibly valuable leap.
2. 3D Printing
What is it? A box that can take a file of a 3d object and make one for you on the spot. Also known as additive manufacturing.
Why is it so cool? It will disrupt the economies of scale required to manufacture most things with on-demand, customized, just-in-time manufacturing. Lost or broken parts can be replaced in a jiffy, extending the life of all kinds of equipment, and it never matters if the original company goes out of business. You can invent your own toys and figurines and anything else you can imagine. Stuff becomes cheaper to make, and even standard manufacturing becomes cheaper to design through faster, cheaper prototyping.
How close are we? 3D Printers have existed for decades as giant, slow, expensive machines in fancy factories. But like the computers of the last century, they are becoming cheaper, faster, and easier to use, and they are now in the domain of hobbyists who pay $1000+ to put a printer together from a kit and spend hours in calibration and more hours waiting for their plastic figurines to print. We are seeing accelerated advances in newer, cheaper models that can print more kinds of materials at higher qualities, and they could be just a couple years from breaking into the mainstream. But if you thought the last decade’s war over digital sharing of digital files was insane, just wait til you see the war over digital sharing of real stuff! Retailers are already getting hit by “showrooming” – what happens when you can walk into a store, take a picture with your smartphone, and go home and
order one online print one yourself? I see DRM fights and patent troll bloodbaths in our future, but no matter what, I think it will lead to cool things.
What is it? Remote controlled aircraft that are smart enough to drive themselves and usually take pictures. Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles.
Why is it so cool? Well, as CNET says, “There is both a hopeful upside and a terrifying dark side to the rapid advances in small, cheap drones.” Our government is already using them to kill and/or spy on people in foreign countries, and they could be used for spying on its on citizens. Combined with advances in face recognition technology, the thought of drones constantly filling the skies and tracking our every move is a scary thought. But there are potential benefits, too, especially in the domestic/commercial market: Improved monitoring for farmers. Search-and-rescue. Potential delivery models. Dousing wildfires through the night. Better hurricane tracking? Um… more options for movie shoots? These features don’t really overpower the ominous shadows of totalitarianism, but I’m hopeful that we will come up with many cool things to do with drones that we just haven’t thought of yet. It may make it easier for governments to spy on us, but maybe it will make it easier for us to keep an eye on our government. And hopefully it won’t lead to all-out drone warfare overhead!
How close are we? Like 3D printers, domestic drones are already firmly in the hobbyist phase, but they’re even cheaper and easier to use, and I think they’re going to break into the mainstream even sooner. But just like 3D printing will intensify the debate about copyrights, drones will intensify the debate about privacy. It’s too early to say if the technology will result in terrible fears or cool innovations, or a little of both – follow @drones to keep up with the onslaught of advances.
WILDCARD: Space Exploration
What is it? Spacecrafts, sometimes with people in them, leaving our planet.
Why is it so cool? Space is so huge and we’ve only sent a handful of things into it in our entire existence. There are so many possibilities for even the short-term future, from discovering more things about the planets of our solar system to sending people back to the Moon or to Mars for the first time, to mining asteroids for resources. Besides just being really cool, all of this stuff has the potential to drastically change and improve our lives here on Earth.
How close are we? It seems like not much has happened since the last moon landing besides sending a few rovers to Mars (hopefully the latest one will land successfully Sunday night!) and sending a bunch of stuff into our own orbit. NASA’s budget isn’t likely to bloom, but a new wave of private space exploration has begun in recent years, thanks in large part to adventurous billionaires spawned from last decade’s Internet boom. With SpaceX bringing down the cost of launching satellites, Virgin Galctic preparing to start commercial spaceflights this year, Planetary Resources planning to scout asteroids for mining, and more, new ventures are being created, funded, and launched at an increasing pace. There will undoubtedly be failures and setbacks along the way, but it feels like science fiction coming true before our eyes.
There are undoubtedly other future innovations coming that I’m not aware of. Azmyth is excited about meat replacement. This wasn’t even on my horizon but I saw a popular article about it just a week ago. Wikipedia actually has a really cool list of a whole bunch of emerging technologies. Some of them have been “emerging” for decades or still have decades to go, but there is lot of potential there for some pretty awesome stuff. And you never know when we might get a “white swan” innovation that nobody is even anticipating yet. There are plenty of reasons to be scared about the future. But there are plenty of reasons to be excited too.
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