As they usually do this time of year, Gartner has released their predictions for 2015...
The research firm bifurcated its predictions by putting the long-term view first, then snapping it up with a “Near-Term Flag”: something supposed to happen within the next year or two.
This allows the annual list of predictions to have its science-fiction cake and eat it too. And some of the long view items do read like sci-fi.
How about this: “By 2017, a significant disruptive digital business will be launched that was conceived by a computer algorithm.” Sounds like something out of Rollerball (1975): a mid-70s dystopian future/social commentary film where a “mastermind” computer (represented by a bunch of bubbling water-tubes) was all-powerful – few filmmakers of that era visualized decentralized phone-computers in everyone's pocket.
So the Cray/Deep Blue superbrain will conceive a “significant disruptive digital business” by New Year's Eve 2017? What else is Gartner predicting?
“By 2017, 70 percent of successful digital business models will rely on deliberately unstable processes designed to shift as customer needs shift.” While this sounds a bit like chaos theory, Gartner also predicted that “refrigerators will order groceries, robots will have them collected and drones will deliver them to your door” within the same timeframe.
Sci-fi has become sci-fact
Gartner's predictive boldness isn't unique. Technology Review writes that Google's “secretive DeepMind startup...has built a neural network that can access an external memory like a conventional Turing machine. The result is a computer that mimics the short-term memory of the human brain.”
Arnold as Ze Terminator an inevitable result? Note the word 'mimic' in that sentence. Much of our terminology for computer systems resembles our own bodies and thought-patterns...just as did in Rollerball. Google may build machines that can write code, but as ever, a human's going to have to debug that code.
Gartner's long-term predictions seem based on projections of what might arise from the Internet of Things (or Internet of Everything), which is under construction. As it will take years for the IoT to become mainstream, Gartner properly extended its timeframe for predictions.
It makes sense to change our preconceived notions of tech prediction. After all, writer William Gibson – who created the terms “cyberspace” and “the matrix” in his 1983 novel “Neuromancer” – stopped writing about the future some years ago. Gibson said that he could never have invented the real news events of recent years, so nowadays he writes about the present rather than the future.
My long-term flag
“By 2017, nearly 20 percent of durable goods e-tailers will use 3D printing (3DP) to create personalized product offerings,” said the research firm. I'll flag this as a space to watch.
Asia is still hazy on 3D printing, but it's a technology that will change durable goods selling. For example, my Hong Kong flat has a troublesome sink. To improve it, I hired a pair of young Canadian “makers” to create a dish-drainer for it (makers are simply people who make things, although the maker-community is more interested in unique things like custom jewelry, and objects made using 3DP). They carved some panels out of antimicrobial polycarbonate and, to properly install the device, 3D-printed friction-fit end pieces so it fits precisely.
What's next? A custom-fitted mobile phone case made for my hand? As 3DP goes mainstream, items like this will morph from myth to novelty to “oh you've got one too, now.” What's better: a mass-produced case or one tailored to your hand? Clearly, the latter, so we're talking convenience and price-point. Watch the 3DP space.
How it'll play out on YouTube
I only know one thing for certain: someday, a refrigerator that orders groceries will send an incorrect value and multiple orders of perishable products will be delivered (perhaps dropped by drone?) to an unfortunate customer.
And when that happens, the story will instantly go viral.