The Tech Trends You Can’t Ignore in 2015
Is your company poised to build the next Uber? Have you started imagining how cryptocurrencies could be used to shore up your company’s digital security? Have you considered that the algorithms your company uses might inadvertently be lying to you?
At the end of each year, I apply a framework to surface the most important emerging trends in digital media and emerging technology for the year ahead. It analyzes consumer behavior, microeconomic trends, government policies, market forces, and emerging research within the context of our continually-evolving tech and digital media ecosystem. My colleagues and I use a core set of five attributes to look for emerging patterns: contradictions, inflections, oddities, coincidences, and inversions. Those attributes help us identify a set of likely trends on the horizon. Then, we put each trend through what we call The Five Questions:
- Where/how are people wasting their time?
- Where/how are people having difficulty with technology?
- Where/how are people looking for information?
- Where/how are people stuck?
- How do people want to be perceived?
The Five Questions help us qualitatively and quantitatively assess whether or not that pattern is actually a trend that will stick in the future. We also pressure-test the ideas borne out of the trends we identify. Our 2015 trends offer great opportunity – along with some unusual new challenges – for managers in all industries. Here are six of note.
Deep learning: Artificially intelligent computers are now capable of deep learning using neural networks, which you can think of as brain-inspired systems capable of translating pixels into English. Toward the end of 2014, Google researchers unveiled a new project that uses neural networks and deep learning to identify multiple elements of a scene without human assistance. Its software “learned” how to think by processing vast quantities of data. For example, deep learning will eventually allow robots to recognize objects they haven’t seen before and navigate to new locations on their own. Deep learning intersects with numerous fields, and it will soon aid in manufacturing, medicine, retail, utilities, and beyond.
Smart virtual personal assistants: SVPAs started entering the market in 2013. At the time, they used semantic and natural language processing; data mined from our calendars, email, and contact lists; and the last few minutes of our behavior to anticipate the next 10 seconds of our thinking. Most of those original apps have now been acquired. Emu was acquired by Google, Donna was acquired by Yahoo, Cue was acquired by Apple…and the list goes on. When it was still active, Emu was a clever stand-in for a personal secretary. It would monitor the conversation and automatically make suggestions as two people texted. For example, if you asked your friend to see a movie, Emu would immediately geolocate both of you, suggest a nearby theater and show films and times, then check your calendars for your availability. It would even display a preview for you to watch. Once it determined the best time for you to meet, it would help you purchase tickets and enter all the data into your calendar. And it did all of this inside a single mobile application. In 2015, consumers will begin to see SVPA technology baked into their mobile phones. For example, Google is quietly starting to release a new SVPA function for Android users: it automatically detects when you’ve parked your car, marks your parking spot for you on a Google map, and helps get you back to it once you’re ready to start driving again. All without you explicitly asking it to do so. Marketers, credit card companies, banks, local government agencies, political campaigns, and many others can harness SVPAs to both deliver critical information and to better read and understand constituents.
“It’s like Uber for ____”: In spite of harsh criticism about its business practices, 2014 was a banner year for Uber. With a $40 billion paper valuation, the simple app connecting drivers to passengers is now worth more than Halliburton Corporation, Aetna, General Mills, Delta Airlines, Kraft Foods, and Charles Schwab. Uber’s fast growth is due to lightning-fast consumer adoption, and that’s because Uber does two things very well. First, it monetizes downtime. For professional drivers, Uber is a fast, easy way to find riders. It’s also been a boon for people who’ve lost their jobs, offering them a way to make money when other jobs are hard to find. Second, Uber provides a seamless payment interface. Riders don’t need to carry cash or even a credit card, as the entire transaction is handled via a simple mobile interface. Uber’s success has inspired hundreds of other entrepreneurs who want to emulate the best features of the company. In 2015, expect to see lots of new, Uber-ish delivery and intermediary businesses, including fast grocery delivery, helicopter rides, portable ATMs, alcohol delivery, in-home massage service, dry cleaning and laundry, iPhone repair, personal shopping, medical marijuana, dog walkers, and on-site car mechanics. Meantime, consumers will respond to one-click transactions that process payments in the background – meaning there’s a great opportunity for established retailers, transportation companies, banks, and others to leverage what’s becoming standard consumer behavior.
Oversight for algorithms: In its essence, an algorithm is simply a set of rules or processes that must be followed in order to solve a problem. In the coming year, we will also begin questioning the ethics of how algorithms can be used, and we’ll scrutinize the tendency of some algorithms to go awry. Programmers are adding in subjective judgments to algorithms and allowing them to deliver answers. As a result, those in the big data space are increasingly misclassifying objects, data, and even people. There are numerous stories of algorithms wrongly identifying terrorism suspects at airports. High-frequency trading algorithms once nearly destroyed the stock market. A glitch in Amazon’s algorithm caused the price of The Making of a Fly: The Genetics of Animal Designto spike to $26,698,655.93. During the next several months, managers should discuss how to include accountability systems for algorithms.
Data privacy: Ongoing breaches have continued to dismantle the public trust. According to a Pew Internet and Society poll, 91% of Americans surveyed either agreed or strongly agree that consumers have lost control of their personal information and data. Whether it’s fear of a third party monitoring our mobile phone activity or concern about the safety of online transactions, people are increasingly concerned about their privacy, and they’re pointing the finger at business, not maleficent hackers. In 2015, businesses must not only work to meaningfully encrypt their data, but they must make a public showing of the measures they’re taking to safeguard our personal information. One new area of particular note in 2015: digital consent. Lawyers could soon use our personal data against us in court. Fitbit data, processed through a third-party analytics tool, was used in a courtroom late in 2014, around the same time that the FTC began investigating Fitbit’s practice of selling users’ personal data to advertisers. We will see growing demands for digital consent agreements and increased transparency.
Block chain technology: The block chain is the transaction database that’s shared by everyone participating in bitcoin’s digital system. It’s how the cryptocurrency promises complete anonymity while using a crowd-regulated public ledger system. Think of the block chain as a sort of distributed consensus system, where no one person controls all the data. Even if Bitcoin itself never really gains traction, block chain technology has enormous promise. For instance, some people argue that a block chain system would have prevented the massive credit card breach at Target. A new company, Blockstream, plans to turn the block chain into a universal platform that can be used for anything requiring signatures or authentication. It would let people participate in “trustless” transactions, where buyers and sellers work with an intermediary like an escrow manager, a trustee, or other middlemen.
In some way, each of these tech trends will affect your business in the coming year. The best way to prepare for coming disruption is to learn as much as you can, discuss implications with others in your company, and then commit to launching small experiments internally to help you see the trends in motion.
(For more information, check out https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-tech-trends-you-cant-ignore-in-2015)
(Jan 2015, by Amy Webb, a visiting fellow at Harward University, and the founder/CEO of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy firm that advises an international client base on near-future emerging technologies and digital media trends.)