Five Visionaries on What’s Coming Next in Technology

Every year for the past 13, the business and technology forum Churchill Club of Silicon Valley has held a very popular annual dinner where about five tech forecasters and finance people offer up their predictions on what’s coming next in technology in the next three years. On the panel tonight at the venerable Santa Clara Marriott are Curt Carlson, president and CEO of Menlo Park research lab SRI InternationalAneesh Chopra, first chief technology officer of the United States; venture capitalist and speed talker Steve Jurvetson, managing director at Draper Fisher JurvetsonAjay Royan, managing director of Clarium Capital, Peter Thiel‘s company (Thiel was supposed to be here); and futurist Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight (an appropriate title) at Discern Analytics. Emcee is Tony Perkins of AlwaysOn. I’m liveblogging the highlights.

If I remember previous events, this one is a little different in that Carlson, not each individual panelist, is presenting the trends. Each of the panelists raises a paddle with green on one side, to show they agree that the predicted trend will happen, red on the other to show they don’t. Yeah, it’s kinda hokey, but it’s fun. The audience votes with handheld devices as well as little red and green cards.

Trend No. 1: Age Before Beauty: Baby boomers will dictate the technology products of the future. Jurvetson says they won’t dictate design, though he flashed the green because he thinks they have so much purchasing power that they potentially could drive new products. But he says nobody’s really building things for the market so the products that are addressing it aren’t selling; the Jitterbug cell phone for seniors isn’t doing that well, for instance. Saffo, who voted against this trend, says even geezers won’t want to buy uncool stuff like cell phones with big buttons. Universal design, useful to all, will prevail–like the Kindle, which is practical and (not least) provide larger fonts.

The audience is a sea of red on this one.

Trend No. 2: The doctor is in: There will be complete automation of diagnoses, combining AI, the Internet, and low-cost medical instruments. Several red paddles on this one. Saffo, who seems to be more positive on the potential says this will actually be a tool for doctors and paramedics. Jurvetson says this trend is “patently absurd,” with no chance of much automation happening in the next three years. Royan doesn’t think this will happen anytime soon either–not because of technology, which is already there, but because the system won’t change quickly.

Audience reaction: Mostly red.

Trend No. 3: Made for me: products unique to the needs of specific individuals, such as cell phones that have only the hardware you need for the particular features you want, or customized 3-D printing. Panelists are half-green, half-red. Chopra says this trend, while not strong yet, will help restore U.S. manufacturing. Saffo: The hitch here is the three-year time frame. 3-D printing will take decades to get to the mass public. Jurvetson agrees because it’s way too expensive to do one-off physical products unless you have to. But there is a great opportunity in personalization, just via software code. Royan thinks this trend, while not likely to happen near-term, is very important to U.S. manufacturing.

Audience: Mostly red, once again.

Trend No. 4: Pay me now: technology and business models based on attracting customers to share large amounts of information exclusively with service providers. Three greens, one sorta red, from Saffo: He says service providers will not pay us for our data, but instead will provide services that encourage us to share info with them. Royan agrees, but indicates he voted green because it will happen longer-term. So does Jurvetson.

Audience: sea of green.

Trend No. 5: Rosie, at last: Robots will become embedded in our environments, and taking advantage of the cloud, will understand and fulfill our needs. Didn’t catch the panel votes, but here’s what they had to say: Jurvetson says this will happen in the factory well before it happens in the home. Royan: Robots are here to stay. Saffo, who has said before that the next big thing will be robots, nonetheless says it’s a couple of years or more off.

Audience is decidedly mixed on this one, though the majority think it’s right on.

Trend No. 6: Social, really: the rise of true social networks, designed to maintain real, respectful relationships online. Perkins says this is obvious, so on to No. 7. Not really. Saffo sort of likes the trend, in the sense that he thinks it will be cool in the future not to be obviously on LinkedIn or Facebook (though many will lurk). Jurvetson says there’s a problem with “ambient intimacy”; 80% of divorce lawyers use Facebook to build their cases. Royan says the social network trend has been toward more real identity disclosure, as well as more fine-grained features for controlling that identity.

Audience: mostly green–in fact, higher than any other trend at around 80% positive.

Trend No. 7: In-your-face augmented reality: hyper-accurate artificial people and objects that fundamentally enhance people’s experience of the world. (Hello, Cisco; the maker of telepresence systems is a sponsor of the dinner.) Panel is half-green, half-red. Chopra says augmented reality has proven itself in key sectors like the military. Saffo says it’s happening to some extent is 3-D movies. Royan doesn’t buy it. You can’t replace in-person meetings. Jurvetson: Hyper-real immersive environments won’t happen in business in the next three years. But the idea of a technology overlay atop the real world is more compelling.

Audience: mix of green and red.

Trend No. 8: Engineering by biology: practical, engineered artifacts, devices, and computers based on biology rather than just on silicon. Panel: Couple of greens, a red, a waffler. Jurvetson: Some opportunities but not in the next few years. Real opportunity in biological means of reducing oil consumption. Royan: Voted this trend down but wishes it would happen. Saffo (the waffler, I think): The trend is clearly underway; Craig Venter engineered a completely artificial cell. Being in genomics will get you a date; being a software engineer won’t.

Audience: More green than red, while electronic voting shows an even split.

Trend No. 9: ‘Tis a gift to be simple: Cyber defense through widespread adoption of simple, low-feature for consumers and businesses. Panel goes half-green, half-red. Saffo votes green but sounds skeptical–Windows was supposed to make computing simple originally–but apps show that there’s an appeal to simpler software. Royan: I don’t want simple software, I want simple-to-use software. Jurvetson says going to simple software is actually leading to a lot of Internet attacks. The simplicity of the transfer pipes is a mistake. The complexity is in the user interface, the browser, where the mix of content and software code opens the way to malware. Chopra says the government is more interested in fault tolerance than attack prevention.

Audience goes mostly red–lowest yet on the electronic scale, in fact.

Trend No. 10: Reverse innovation: developing countries  will turn around the flow of innovation, as Silicon Valley begins to learn more from them about innovative applications than they need to learn from us about the underlying technology. Panel: three greens, one red. Chopra in particular disagrees with the second part about the U.S. influence elsewhere. Saffo says this trend has already happened–like China. A wild card is the youth bulge in Africa. Silicon Valley used to be the only place where significant innovation happened; no more, but we are listening to the outside world. Jurvetson says this is an opportunity for Silicon Valley to learn from those markets, like how mobile payment systems might work. They vote for president in Estonia by the cell phone. If you want to know the future of multiplayer games, look to South Korea.

Audience: Mostly green; electronic voting shows the same–second-highest positive vote.

Although I think I prefer it when the panelists present their own couple of trends each and then get cut to shreds by the others, there was a lot of food for thought here. And despite that last one about the potential threat to Silicon Valley, it’s clear from what these folks are thinking and talking about that there’s more than enough innovation still happening here.

2 Responses

  1. […] Club, which puts on a bunch of Valley events with top tech folks every year. I wrote about last year’s here as […]

  2. […] Tonight it’s time again for the Top 10 Tech Trends dinner, hosted by the Churchill Club, which puts on a bunch of Valley events with top tech folks every year. It will be interesting to see how the predictions at this 14th annual version will differ from last year’s. […]

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