The first thing we think about when we first hear the news about a major breakthrough is the great possibilities it unlocks. The space age spawned fantasies about living like the Jetsons and riding around in flying cars. That still hasn't happened and possibly never will. Yet we've still benefited great from space technologies.
Satellites have truly changed the world. They have made it possible for us to communicate with each other easily, cheaply and seamlessly. News of events around the world gets beamed to us as if it happened next door. GPS satellites help us navigate unfamiliar places as if we lived there all our lives. It's hard to imagine life without them.
In much the same way, many of the breakthrough technologies of today will not turn out how we think they will. The problem is that things that truly change the world always arrive out of context for the simple reason that the world hasn't changed yet. They need to find an ecosystem that is crying out for a solution to a meaningful problem and that's rarely the one they were built for.
BlockChain: From an Alternative Currency to a Distributed Database
On Halloween day 2008, with the global financial crisis in full swing, a mysterious paper entitled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System appeared on a cryptography mailing list. Its author, Satoshi Nakamoto, was a pseudonym and, to this day, no one is absolutely sure of his or her true identity. Nevertheless, the revolution the paper unleashed was all too real.
With the financial system in turmoil, the idea of a currency independent of any central authority had enormous resonance and the value of Bitcoin soared. Many however, were skeptical. For me in particular, it seemed that because nation states have the power to tax in the currency they choose, it was unlikely for an alternative currency to ever dominate.
Today, whether or not Bitcoin will ever become anything more than a libertarian pipe dream is still an open question, but the technology it is based on, blockchain, is already gaining traction as a distributed database. Rather than an alternative currency, the major impact of Nakamoto's invention will likely be as a digital infrastructure.
To understand how this will happen, consider Walmart's recent announcement that it will use blockchain to improve food safety. With conventional technology, it took about a week to trace the origin of contaminated produce back to the farm which it came from, but with blockchain, Walmart has been able to reduce that to 2.2 seconds. That's a major improvement!
"Centralized databases have never been able to scale for food traceability," Frank Yiannas, Walmart's VP of Food Safety, told me. "The architecture of a distributed and decentralized ledger, however, fits perfectly with a distributed and decentralized supply chain. It can capture that information with a barcode, an RFID tag or whatever technology that the supplier uses. It's highly adaptable and cost effective throughout the supply chain."
Virtual Reality: Not Just for Kicks, but for Learning
For a long time, most people assumed that virtual reality would be the next great leap in entertainment. From books, to radio, to television and video games, the history of media has always been a steady march to a richer, more lifelike experience. So it just seems to make sense that's where virtual reality would first gain traction.
Yet so far the technology doesn't seem to be getting much traction in the entertainment world or, for that matter, in the consumer market. Remember how the much lauded Google Glass flopped so badly it had to basically be pulled from the market? On the commercial side though, virtual reality seems to be gaining traction as a training tool.
To understand how it's playing out, consider Bohemia Interactive Simulations, which is building VR simulations to train military personnel at a far lower cost then conventional technologies. STRIVR started out developing VR simulations for $20 million NFL quarterbacks, but now with costs for headsets costing just a few hundred dollars, it trains line employees for big companies.
To get a sense of what the future will look like, check out this video that IBM and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute put out showing off the system they're building to teach students Mandarin.
Clearly, these same systems would make for pretty cool video games as well, but for the moment, there seems to be a far bigger market for training and education. Even Google Glass is gaining a second life now as a training aid.
The False Promise of Quantum Supremacy
With Moore's law coming to an end and, with it, the digital age, quantum computing has emerged as everybody's favorite to be the next big computing platform. Yet here again, the future is unlikely to turn out as many seem to think it will. You will not be picking up a quantum computer at your local Apple Store any time soon and you likely never will.
That's not to say that you won't be able to use a quantum computer. In fact, both IBM and Rigetti offer quantum computing in the cloud right now. You can just sign up and start working with one if you want to. In fact, tens of thousands of people already have. Yet the truth is that quantum computers work fundamentally differently than classical ones and won't be used the same way.
So while much of the attention is focused on the notion of quantum supremacy, the point at which quantum computers definitely outperform the fastest classical computers, that is, in large part a red herring. The great potential of quantum computers is not to do things faster than other technologies, but to do things they can't do at all.
One exciting possibility is the potential for quantum computers to simulate physical systems, like energy levels in a molecule and how atoms interact with each other in a biological system. So the immediate challenge is to figure out how to leverage those capabilities and put them to good use. Look for the first impacts to be in areas like materials science, chemistry and medicine.
Identifying a Hair on Fire Use Case
We always think the next big thing will be an obvious extension of what we're doing now. It's easy to see blockchain as an alternative currency, because we use money every day, but supply chains are much less tangible. A virtual reality video game is much easier to imagine than a training program and a quantum PC is much more cognitively accessible than one that will perform obscure calculations in a lab.
Yet it almost never turns out that way. When something truly has the power to change the world, the world isn't ready for it. It needs to build advocacy, gain traction among a particular industry or field, and combine with other innovations before it can make an impact. That's rarely something obvious.
The most common mistake people make with a revolutionary technology is to look for the largest addressable market that already exists. Yet large markets are, almost by definition, already well served. So a better strategy is to identify a hair on fire use case -- a problem that someone needs solved so badly that they are willing to put up with the inevitable glitches and switching costs to make the new technology work.
Nobody really needs an alternative currency, but food safety and traceability in a global supply chain is an enormous problem. A virtual reality video game would be nice, but increasing training efficiency is worth billions to corporations. We don't really need our PC's to run faster (they run pretty fast already), but scientists have an enormous need to better understand physical systems.
The next big thing is never what you think because the greatest potential lies in unsolved problems that we've long taken for granted. That's where to look if you truly want to change the world.