5 'Next Big Things' in High Tech
Compare how you lived 20 years ago to today: technology makes a big difference, doesn't it? There is no end in sight, because these newest 'big things' are driven by two relentless trends.
Massive computing, and massive connectivity. More processing power lies in your smartphone than was at Mission Control for America's moonshots of the 1960s and 1970s. Internet users in 1995 numbered less than 1 percent of the world's people; today that's up to 45 percent. By 2025, says a study from Cisco Systems, they will hit 300 percent. Yes, 300 percent, and to find out how that works – read on.
Not-so-Heavy Weather – the Rise of Big Data
Will it be a hot weekend? That question gets ever easier to answer. According to The Weather Company, which among other things runs The Weather Channel, reliability is the same for 2015's 3-day predictions as it was for 2005's 2-day and for 1995's 1-day. This affects industries from agriculture to waste disposal. A company making, say, ice-cream, now has plenty of time to gear up for a scorching Saturday-Sunday: boosting production, adding inventory, laying on a promotion. This is a big advance, and behind it is something called Big Data. Big, as in lots of it, or rather the ability to process lots of it. Computers now can sift through (very) big amounts of information to discover all sorts of patterns: weather, traffic, how the weather will affect the traffic, which flavour ice cream people will buy when they're stuck in traffic in hot weather, which retailer they will buy it from, and so on. Today our phones are smart; tomorrow our entire surroundings will be.
Even Bigger Data, the Internet of Things
Part of that future 'smartness' will come from inanimate objects. The Internet of Things, as it's called, by 2025 will be a network of not just 8 billion people, but another 16 billion things such as your car, your kitchen, your home's heating/cooling system, the power grid, traffic lights and more (hence Cisco's 300 percent user prediction.) These all will be controlled remotely, and talking. So when that summer heat wave rolls in, the utility company automatically will know to turn up the juice for your extra air-conditioning, signals and cars will be coordinated to avoid a traffic jam, and your refrigerator will have auto-ordered and –delivered ice cream waiting for you. Ahhh, life will be orchestrated just so. Of course, we're still a ways off from a full-on Internet of Things, but the IoT, as some call it, already is showing its face. A company called eVolution Networks, notes Credit Suisse Managing Director Philippe Cerf, is a good example. The Israeli start-up measures traffic on wireless networks and base stations, i.e. from lots of things, and then analyses this big data to figure out which can be dialled down or shut off without compromising service. Power happens to be one of wireless operators' biggest costs: eVolution says it can cut these by 35 percent.
The Internet of Banking: Fintech
Meanwhile, this combination of computing and communications is piling into what used to be called banking. Financial technology, or FinTech, is a sector-specific rendition of 'robots take over the world', or 'automation rules'. It's finding a lot to automate: asset management (e.g. Betterment, FutureAdvisor, Personal Capital, Wealthfront); cashless payment (Currency Cloud, Xoom, Zomato); credit rating (Kreditech, ZestFinance, Credit Karma); digital currency (Coinbase, Bitcoin, Blockchain); online payment (2CheckOut, PayPal, WePay); small-business lending (LendingClub, Kabbage, OnDeck); taking and tracking payments (Klarna, Square, Stripe); and trading analytics (2iQ Research, HedgeChatter, Madrone, Market Prophit). Analysts disagree as to how much market share FinTech is likely to seize from traditional banks, but they agree that like data, it will be big – as much as 30-40 percent. Ironically, banks are not only aware of FinTech, they are taking stakes. Credit Suisse, for example, in 2013 set up of a 500-million-dollar investment fund in the sector. This isn't the cannibalism it might seem. Stricter, post-2008 regulations restrict banks' freedom of movement into FinTech. Moreover, FinTech needn't be a threat; instead it can be a way to innovate with other people's capital. In the long run, argues one industry insider, "the FinTech companies are going to need banks, and vice versa. This could come out as a win-win."
Share and Share Alike
Although most FinTech relies on robots, one aspect also banks on sociable humans. Or, on turning sociable humans into banks. Whichever, peer-to-peer lending (Lending Club, RateSetter) and crowdfunding (Kickstarter, OurCrowd) channel money from lenders to borrowers via an Internet platform. The former works similarly to a lending bank with time deposits, while the latter is closer to sponsorship or venture capitalism. Either way, "these platforms allow you to invest in some great start-ups, without even meeting with the founder," says Gigi Levy-Weiss, a well-known technology manager and investor. "You just follow other investors into a syndicate." In this respect, the funding business is one of many. For a range of industries – automobiles, hotels, logistics, job recruitment – syndicates are all the rage. A September 2015 report from Credit Suisse Equity Research, "Global Equity Themes", calls this trend 'the sharing economy', adding that the value of its firms already totals 220 billion dollars. An estimated 1.1 billion dollars of that has accrued to Waze, a company that Credit Suisse's Philippe Cerf cites as a great example of share-ware. The Israeli-created platform networks drivers to help them avoid jams and find cheap fuel. Simple idea, but based on a complex combination of data analytics, mobile communication and the network effect of the Internet. "Only a few years ago," Cerf points out, "Waze would have been impossible."
Computing at the Next Level… Quantum
Impossible is almost an understatement, when it comes to the fifth next-best-tech. If moonshot mainframes look like toys next to today's phones, just imagine things in another decade or two. Chad Rigetti already has. He and his team of brain-boxes (some of them human) at Rigetti Computing are racing to build quantum computers. Along with a lot of competitors, from Cambridge Quantum to D-Wave to IBM and Intel, they aim to build synthetic brains that will dwarf those of computers today by a factor of several thousand. Qcomp will be so smart and so small, says Credit Suisse analyst Uwe Neumann, it could be the 'brain' of your car, your air-conditioner, your refrigerator, your lawnmower, basically every gadget around. And all of these can link into the Internet of Things, which… well… you got the point already. Massive computing, massive connectivity – these are driving the next big things.