Over the last several centuries technology has dramatically impacted the world and people’s lives. You can trace these technological breakthroughs back to the wheel, Gutenberg Press, then to the steam engines, locomotion, the cotton gin, the telephone, Edison’s light bulbs, and even the first automobiles introduced in the late 1800s. I saw a stat recently that from the first flight of the Wright Brothers and the birth of aviation to landing on the moon were just about 60 years apart.
Film, radio, and television technology has expanded our world, and with the Internet, that world has become simultaneously more broad and more intimate. Radar and satellites brought pinpoint navigation to all sorts of applications that have changed our world for the better. And of course, the introduction of big iron computing in the late 40s and 50s to personal computers in 1972 and then commercialized by Apple in 1977 birthed the age of computing that impacted how we learn, work, and play today.
These technologies and others have to be considered game-changers that have significantly impacted humanity and society in general.
In this century, the first truly transformational technology that has impacted our world in dramatic ways is the iPhone. Even though the first smartphones showed up at the end of the last century, the iPhone introduced in 2007 became a computer in your pocket and made smartphones instrumental in the way we communicate and interact with information anytime, anywhere today.
Recently I was asked that, given my 40-year history covering tech, what would be the next big technology leap that will impact our world as much as the iPhone and smartphones.
To answer that question, I said that while most of us did not predict the impact of the iPhone at first, many signs starting in the late 1990s pointed to smartphones and their potential impact in the future.
I had my first glimpse of a mobile future when Jeff Hawkins invited me to his office and showed me a production version of the Palm Pilot. Jeff showed me the wooden mock-up of the Palm Pilot that served as the original Pilot’s guide in that meeting.
Toward the end of the 1990s, I saw some crude smartphone concepts that became more refined in 2004 when Palm introduced the Treo 640 smartphone. I got to test it early and understood it could be a game-changer. Its screen was hard to read and had many Palm Pilot features that limited what it could do. However, it did have a cellular radio and was one of the first actual commercial smartphones to come to market.
Then in 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone with its color touch screen and easy-to-use interface, and the smartphone era was born. Its growth has been exponential. In 2021, 1.43 billion smartphones were sold worldwide.
Those early signs pointed to smartphones becoming the next big thing to impact society, and one has to only look at the current converging technologies to see what may be the next big thing that changes our world.
For me, the next big thing will be fully automated vehicles.
Although I don’t expect to see entirely automated level 5 vehicles in broad consumer usage before 2030 if then, all technology signs point in this direction. Today, we already have level 1 or assisted driving features in many new car models. And Tesla has introduced Level 2 and some level 3 navigation in their models, although even these automated driving levels are still in the early stages of delivering actual self-driving vehicles.
However, the continued development of dedicated technologies points to a day when fully automated cars will replace our current vehicles. Advancements in processors for smart cars, advanced 5G radios, sensors, 360-degree cameras, AI explicitly designed for computerized navigation and driving, and many other significant software developments are all factors needed. This transition will be slow, although we could see some critical developments in the next three years that could speed things up. I believe this will be a 25-35 year transition. On the other hand, even early versions of level 5 self-driving automation will have a game-changing impact on many and expand to all by mid-century.
One other technology shows momentous promise, although I don’t think it will have the same societal impact self-driving cars will. That is VR-XR and AR. These new technologies that will bring your computer screen directly to your face via glasses or VR-AR headsets will enhance the man-to-machine interface and deliver to many a much more immersive and interactive computing experience.
However, I see VR-XR and AR as more of an evolution of personal computing that will impact many age groups but not be adopted by all. On the other hand, self-driving cars would be a godsend for the elderly, whose driving abilities diminish as they age, and for those commuters who want a “chauffeured” driving experience for longer commutes.
There is always the possibility that we could see another breakthrough technology emerge that could deliver significant benefits and become transformative over the next decade or so. Still, I sense that the next most significant technology impacting most of the world will be rooted in our self-driving cars of the future.