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“Disruptive” technologies – technologies that rapidly obsolete entire well-established industries overnight – are powerful things.

Disruptive technologies, like the Internet, industrial agriculture, and aeronautics, have profoundly shaped the world and our daily lives.  For example, if the smartphone revolution hadn’t happened, numerous aspects of culture, politics, and the economy would look wildly different than they do today.

In this article, we’ll look at five technologies that are on the cusp of having a disruptive impact, and how they’ll affect your life over the coming years.

5. Autonomous Vehicles

As one Google engineer put it,

“One point two million people killed every year [by cars] and 90 plus percent of that is human error, and so if we can bring in technology that’s always paying attention, that can see what’s going on around it, that never gets distracted… that’s a huge opportunity.  When self driving cars are a reality, its going to be amazing. Imagine never losing someone to a traffic accident again.  Imagine a world where you get in your car and it takes you where you want to go, and then you get out, and you don’t have to search for parking, you just leave it, and it goes off and helps someone else get where they’re going.  Imagine cities where parking garages aren’t there. […]  It’s going to be an exciting place.”

Self-driving cars are on the horizon.  There are major problems left to be solved Here's How We'll Get to a World Filled With Driverless Cars Here's How We'll Get to a World Filled With Driverless Cars Driving is a tedious, dangerous, and demanding task. Could it one day be automated by Google's driverless car technology? Read More (navigating in extreme weather, scalable map-generation techniques, coping with construction and route changes), but there’s little reason to believe those problems won’t be solved in the next ten years (and Google’s internal target of 2017 is even more aggressive than that).

Because billions of people commute every day, electric autonomous vehicles will drastically cut the economic and environmental Autonomous Cars: Are Robots Good for the Environment? Autonomous Cars: Are Robots Good for the Environment? The way we use cars is going to change.  Those changes will be wide-ranging, but one area that hasn't been investigated in as much detail: the impact on the environment. Read More cost of moving people and things around, in a convenient way.

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The effects of autonomous vehicles extend beyond just commuting: they also stand to revolutionize the way that people move goods around.  By exploiting electric vehicle technology and the ability to adapt to changing demands, autonomous vehicle networks could beat out traditional distribution infrastructures like trucks and trains, making it cheaper and faster to get parcels to their destinations.

This cheap and easy point-to-point shipping infrastructure could facilitate the growing “sharing economy“, eventually creating a “Netflix for stuff”, in which items that you own but don’t need most of the time could be rented out to others for a small fee (how often do you really use your grill anyway?).

Items you need occasionally but don’t own, would be delivered by robot cars when needed, and removed when not, making luxury an inexpensive subscription service.  Need a projector for the big game?  A specialized piece of cookware for the holidays?  Feel like sleeping on a waterbed this weekend?  It’ll be there in fifteen minutes.  Send it back when you’re done.

A world in which nobody owns anything is also, paradoxically, a world in which everybody is rich.

Maybe the biggest potential impact of autonomous vehicles, is their potential to eliminate some of the side-effects of traditional transportation infrastructure: parking lots, toxic exhaust, and the mass deaths that inevitably result from making fallible apes the pilot of two-ton metal cages moving at eighty miles an hour.  Autonomous cars stand to reduce the footprint of transportation on our land, economy, health, and our time.

4. Genetic Engineering

If you’re reading this in the western world, this one may not have too much of a direct impact on you – in fact, it’s entirely possible that your opinion of “GMOs” are very, very negative.  However, for the billion-odd people on Earth living in extreme poverty (surviving on less than $1.25 per day), the growing technological ability to control food is going to change the world.

Already, scientists have created golden rice, an easy-to-grow grain that contains large doses of vitamin A.  A deficiency of vitamin A causes blindness.  Golden rice has the potential to save the vision of millions of people, drastically improving their quality of life and economic productivity.

According to a paper by its creators,

More than 125 million children under five years of age suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Dietary VAD causes 250,000–500,000 children to go blind each year.  […] Vitamin A enriched rice has the potential to address the problem of micronutrient deficiencies in early childhood. […] A recent study with children has shown that the bioavailability of provitamin A from Golden Rice is as effective as pure beta-carotene in oil, and far better than spinach in providing vitamin A to children.

Then there are products like the salt-water potato, which farmers can cultivate in salt-heavy soil or brackish water, making agriculture possible in places that don’t have the infrastructure to desalinate water and aren’t near naturally-occurring fresh water.  Then there’s drought-resistant corn, currently approved for sale in the US.

This corn is going to be a much bigger deal for the African sub-continent. It will also be very important as the effects of climate-change become more pronounced.  Pest-resistant crops are also easier to grow, even if you don’t have the infrastructure or the technical knowledge to effectively use pesticides.

This is important, not just because starvation is terrible, but because the costs of hunger are far-reaching.  Early childhood malnutrition can cause permanent brain damage and other health issues that will limit the sufferer’s economic potential for the rest of their life.  The first step to bringing the prosperity of globalization to the poorest regions of the world is allowing those areas to feed themselves.  GMOs represent one of the most powerful tools to make that happen.

3.  Cryptocurrencies

Banking and finance are things that affect nearly everybody on Earth.  A typical middle-class person’s wealth is invested, in one way or another, in the stock market.  They rely on loans from banks to buy a car and a house, and to pay for college.  They rely on the credit card network to pay for goods.  In many cases, they rely on wire transfer services to send money back home to their families.

The industries that provide these services are opaque, deeply provincial, and fiercely anti-competitive.  It is, for practical purposes, impossible for private citizens to launch any kind of financial services company due to the impenetrable, arcane, and incredibly expensive mass of regulatory hurdles surrounding the industry.

There’s very little innovation, minimal competition, and minimal growth.  Costs are high (the cost of sending money overseas is often in the double-digit percentages).  Customer service is appalling.  This sort of industry is a prime candidate for technological disruption, which is finally coming in the form of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. These new digital currencies have managed a kind of end-run around the existing financial industry, and are creating real growth for the first time in decades.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies work by maintaining a verifiable public ledger of transactions How Does Bitcoin Work? How Does Bitcoin Work? About a year ago when the Bitcoin train was just starting to gather steam, a friend turned to me and asked, "So why can't you just copy a Bitcoin?" Read More , protected by cryptography.  This ledger is international, and can’t be tampered with externally.  This allows you to do a number of exciting things with Bitcoin that aren’t possible with cash, and which would otherwise rely on the existing poor financial infrastructure.

Want to send money overseas?  Bitcoin can do that for you for a tiny cost.  Want to start a bank out of your garage?  There’s a software package for that.  There are dozens of new currency markets, online banks, and payment processors cropping up within just the last year or two.  You can buy things with Bitcoin, invest it, move it around, or store it.  The CEO of Overstock.com is trying to build an alternate stock market based on block chain technology – which if it works, is going to radically change the logistics of trading and the holders of power in the world of finance.

It’s a world in which investment is entirely democratized and is available to anyone on Earth with a cellphone. It’s a very different world than the one that exists today.

According to Peter Diamandis,

“At its core, bitcoin is a smart currency, designed by very forward-thinking engineers. It eliminates the need for banks, gets rid of credit card fees, currency exchange fees, money transfer fees, and reduces the need for lawyers in transitions… all good things. Most importantly, it is an ‘exponential currency’ that will change the way we think about money. Much the same way email changed the way we thought of mail. (Can you remember life before email?)”

The downside to this sort of out-of-control, wild-west growth-heavy free-for-all is an increased level of fraud and financial crime – the high-profile collapse of Mt. Gox is a telling example.

There are benefits to financial regulation.  There is, however, a silver-lining to the situation, which is that the anarchic nature of Bitcoin has led to the development of a number of powerful tools to protect people from financial crime through cryptographic means, without the need for additional regulation.  Multisig wallets, for example, let you store your money with a Bitcoin bank like CoinBase, without allowing them to spend the money without your consent. It’s not just that they aren’t allowed to, it’s that they literally can’t — at least, not without knowing your secret key.

This sort of technological progress allows customers to be safe without increasing the barrier to entry for new companies.

2. Immersive Technologies

The Oculus Rift and its blooming VR revolution have garnered quite a bit of hype over the last year, and for good reason: the experience, when you first put the headset on, is one that it’s difficult to convey.   Being teleported into a virtual world that surrounds you and feels just as physical and tangible as the real world is incredibly exciting.

Virtual reality is going to change the way you play games, watch movies, and even use computers Why Virtual Reality Technology Will Blow Your Mind in 5 Years Why Virtual Reality Technology Will Blow Your Mind in 5 Years The future of virtual reality includes head, eye and expression tracking, simulated touch, and much more. These amazing technologies will be available to you in 5 years or less. Read More in fundamental ways.

However, it goes further than that: virtual reality is going to change the way you communicate.  Commodity depth cameras are rapidly growing cheaper and more accurate, and they can be used to facilitate powerful social experiences in virtual reality.  There will be virtual communication platforms with precisely tracked faces, gestures, and body language.

This technology, combined with the shared sense of space and physicality provided by VR, is going to put every other form of digital communication to shame.

Skype (crudely) approximates the experience of staring at your conversation partner through a tiny window.  VR can put the two of you in the same room.

When virtually hanging out with your friends feels just like hanging out with them in real life, the advantages of VR will become clear.  If you can press a button and be anywhere, with anyone, doing anything, regardless of physical location, your social life is going to look very, very different than it does right now.

This potential can be pushed through haptic technologies to engage other senses.   Will people still care about tourism in that world?  Will Delta Airlines still exist?  What will telecommuting look like?  Relationships? Geopolitics?  Casual sex?

Even in the field of education, something you’d think would be divorced from a device that started out as a gaming peripheral, there’s potential for massive change.  Brendan Iribe, the CEO of Oculus, put it like this:

“As we were marching along, we started to realize it was going to be a lot more important and have a lot more impact than just gaming. We believe this is going to be one of the most transformative platforms for education of all time. I know, it’s easy to say, hard to prove. But time will tell.”

Right now, users spend an astounding amount of time on the Internet, because the content there is much more diverse and polished than the content they can easily consume in the flesh – even though Internet content is actually very low bandwidth compared to real life (consisting primarily of text, images, and 2D videos).

The Internet, as cool as it is, can only give you experiences that take the form of sitting down and staring at a small glowing rectangle and tapping buttons.  What happens when that’s not true?  What happens when the Internet can engage every part of your brain?  I don’t pretend to know exactly what a world reshaped by virtual reality will look like, but ‘radically different’ is a pretty good bet.

1. Cognitive Computing and Neuromorphics

One of the rising tides in the computer industry has to do with “cognitive computing” – or, as it used to be known, “artificial intelligence”.  Software has been getting more intelligent for a while, to the extent that it can now make good on some of the failed promises of science fiction.

IBM’s Watson software is incredibly powerful, and able to eat enormous amounts of unstructured text, read it, and extract useful information from it on a dizzying array of topics. The same software, with minor modifications, can serve as a lawyer, doctor, and chef.

Google’s “Knowledge Graph” is a similar piece of technology.  Advanced techniques Microsoft vs Google - Who Leads the Artificial Intelligence Race? Microsoft vs Google - Who Leads the Artificial Intelligence Race? Artificial intelligence researchers are making tangible progress, and people are starting to talk seriously about AI again. The two titans leading the artificial intelligence race are Google and Microsoft. Read More like ‘Deep Learning’ are letting computers analyze unstructured images and audio and extract detailed information about their contents. Microsoft has a Cortana app that can take any picture of a dog and tell you the exact breed with high accuracy, an application that was science fiction a few years ago.  IBM is pioneering the use of low-power neuromorphic chips to speed up AI processing.  Computers are finally getting smart.

Jobs from lawyer to diagnostician are on the verge of being mostly or entirely automated – but a more substantial impact comes when this technology meets wearable technologies and the Internet of things. Omniscient artificial intelligence that knows everything about your life and can work for you.

This is a technology that will be able to find you jobs and new friends, give you medical and legal advice, and pay your bills and manage your money. This technology is both the most exciting tech application to come along in a long time, and the biggest potential privacy nightmare ever.

According to the former lead of the Watson project,

“Cognitive computing is the most significant disruption in the evolution of computing since the advent of the Internet. It helps extract patterns and insights from data sources that are almost totally opaque today, what is sometimes known as ‘dark data’.  Examples include extracting disease insights from healthcare records and social feeds, or finding financial fraud or opportunities from discrete geopolitical, social, and business events.”

The ability to build intelligent systems that know more and think faster than humans, is going to make a lot of things better in a lot of broad, hard-to-measure ways.  What happens when CEOs can pipe all of their data into a big analytics engine that can intelligently answer questions and put together arguments for various strategies?  What happens when your doctor lives in your phone and can take a look at that lump the second you notice it?  What happens when machines can design experiments and test hypotheses without human intervention?

Of all the technologies on this list, artificial intelligence is the one that’s going to have the biggest impact.  In the same way that the Internet changed our lives in ways that nobody could have foreseen, so cognitive computing is going to reshape and improve things in entirely unexpected and powerful ways.

Humanity is headed headfirst into a century that’s going to contain at least as much change (and possibly a good deal more) than the last one did.  Innovations as large as the automobile and the Internet are coming, and our lives, in a few decades time, are going to look very different than they do today.

Hopefully, this article has given you some idea of what changes are coming, and what shape the future may take.  What are you most excited about?  Any transformative technologies that we missed?  Let us know in the comments!

  1. Gerry
    November 19, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    I'm wondering about disruptive technologies that disrupt disruptive technologies. If quantum computing should mean the end of cryptography, where does that leave cryptocurrencies?

    • Andre Infante
      November 20, 2014 at 7:39 am

      Interestingly, cryptocurrencies are relatively resistant to quantum cryptanalysis. Because transactions are sent to the hash of the destination address instead of the destination address (and hash functions are not vulnerable to Shor-like attacks). As a result, wallets are not vulnerable to quantum computers until they actually make a transaction and claim their Bitcoins. The Bitcoin network can weather the creation of quantum computers by transitioning to generative wallets that produce a new wallet for the remaining balance of every transaction (so each transaction comes from a fresh, secret wallet).

  2. DonGateley
    November 18, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    Very well written, Andre. Watson both thrills me and terrifies me.

  3. Jason
    November 18, 2014 at 4:13 am

    Your fears are misplaced, these things aren't what disrupt the world. People disrupt it, specifically ignorant people who parot nonsensical fears based on something they don't understand . Yes things can go wrong, but more often they go right.
    Just ask a starving kid if he would rather die from hunger, or eat the food you label as a weapon? Or better yet, stop eating hybrid tomatoes you picked out of the garden. People have been genetically modifying food for thousands of years. The simple act of hunter gatherers staying in place and planting crops set it in motion by the plant species now being grouped together in an agricultural environment that provides exponentially more opportunity for cross pollination of various similar species. So what's different with gmo? Is it that you think it's done in a creepy lab? Are there beakers and lab coats and dry ice and name tags and awkward spectacle wearing stooges being jabbed by greedy bean counters? Well you're right! But it's people you're fearing, and they are doing things you know nothing about. Not everyone is trying to disrupt the world like you are with your lame comments, they are trying fix problems that you're doing jack shi+ about while trying to get paid.

  4. dragonmouth
    November 17, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Let's just hope that these technologies are not disruptive and shocking in unanticipated ways. The Atom was supposed to bring us unlimited power and end to pollution. It almost did that by wiping out humanity. It still may.

    5. Autonomous Vehicles - where they would do the most good, their adoption will take a very long time. Just because the proof of concept works great, there is no guarantee that it will work on a real life scale.

    4. Genetic Engineering - the Ultimate Warrior, Weaponized GMOs.

    3. Cryptocurrencies - fraud raised to the Nth power. Whatever happened to all the Bitcoins in Mt. Gox vaults???

    2. Immersive Technologies - the more we retreat into the electronic world, the more isolated and alienated we become from each other.

    1. Cognitive Computing and Neuromorphics - be careful what you wish for. AI may come to the conclusion that the Earth must be cleansed of organic infestation.

    • wodloo
      November 18, 2014 at 7:18 am

      5. Agreed
      4. A nuke can do more than a superhuman, there is a reason we don't use nukes.
      3. Credit card fraud. Whatever happened to all the money in every ones bank. Mt. Gox was bad sure but it was Mt. Gox not bitcoin dont confuse the merchant with the product.
      2. Electronic world is a hige genralization. Show me a study about Immersive Technologies instead of your paranoid closed off opinion.
      1. That's retarted. Simply unfounded fears of something you don't understand.

  5. Greg Degama
    November 17, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    I'd just LOVE to know what collective group of FLAMING bleeding hearts colaborated to concoct this pipe dream!

    • dragonmouth
      November 17, 2014 at 7:28 pm

      Just a bunch of rose-colored glasses wearing Polyannas who refuse to admit that there may be negative consequences; that their utopias might turn into dystopias.

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