There have been major breakthroughs on several technological fronts recently, some of them occurring much more rapidly than anticipated. Many of these technologies are not going to just assist or entertain us; they are going to change our lives and how we work. These technologies are also going to offer tremendous opportunities to the entrepreneurs and the businesses that learn how to leverage them. They may also transform the very concept of work as we know it. Thinking about these technologies today will help us use them wisely tomorrow. Here are three technology trends that are already on the way to changing our lives.
Less Workers to Pay – and Less Employment
Artificial Intelligence and advanced computing are going to power technologies that transform work – and what we think of as workers. As artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated, the ability of machines to replace humans in all manner of work is only going to accelerate. Over time, virtually any job that humans can do right now, a machine will be able to do better. This is already happening. In Philadelphia right now for example, Uber is testing a fleet of autonomous vehicles in place of human drivers; a decade from now, companies will be able to transport and deliver items without a single human driver playing a role This will ultimately enable companies to save substantially on payroll – robot cars are cheaper and almost certainly more efficient and safer – but the robot car is illustrative of the dual nature of AI’s efficiencies: as companies are able to employ more and more machines in place of humans, it will likely exert an increasingly downward trend on employment.
When AI and powerful computing begin to rapidly drive personnel costs down, companies will have opportunities to realize more profit, regardless of where they are based. A manufacturer in the northeastern United States, for example, freed from excessive labor costs, may now be able to compete with an overseas firm taking advantage of a developing country’s cheap labor. However, it is quite possible that, as smart machines replace more and more people, the United States may sustain an unemployment rate in the double digits. The socioeconomic impact of this is hard to measure, but no doubt we will need to plan for it to ensure that any gains from powerful artificial intelligence are not tremendously offset by social unrest.
Your Printer is a Factory
3D Printing, or additive manufacturing, is already transforming how we make things. Soon, it will transform who makes them. Unlike standard industrial milling or mold pouring, additive manufacturing can produce a complex item, such as a pair of plastic sunglasses, as a single item on a single production run. Long used for making scale models or prototypes, 3D printing is now a mainstream manufacturing practice. Most hearing aids, for example, long made through a complex, labor-intensive process, are manufactured on 3D printers. Lockheed Martin uses the technology to manufacture titanium satellite parts, simultaneously increasing quality while reducing time and cost. As the technology and software become more widely available, more and more companies, and individuals, are adopting it.
As additive manufacturing technologies become more widespread, they will transform and empower small businesses and individuals. Artisans, for example, will be able to use the technology to make complex items – glass items, silverware, circuit boards, or anything they can imagine – with increasingly affordable 3D printers and software. Small business entrepreneurs will be able to make a living producing made-to-order repair parts for machines like automobiles, air conditioners, or drones. Downloading design plans for parts and machines, and then printing them, will be no more complicated than searching for a YouTube video to see how to repair your dishwasher. However, this powerful technology will also present challenges to society as well. People have already used 3D printers to manufacture guns. No doubt, in the wrong hands, additive manufacturing could enable would-be terrorists to mass-produce improvised explosive devices, or drug dealers to make increasingly potent narcotics. And there are no easy answers to regulating this technology.
Choose Your Reality
Virtual reality, a long-stalled technology that seemed like it would never live up to its promise, accelerated into high gear when Facebook purchased Oculus in 2014, and promised to “unlock new worlds” for all of us. Already transforming entertainment, Facebook and other companies are promising to use VR to change how we experience all aspects of life. In the near future, students all over the world will be able to use virtual reality to get a first rate education no matter what their zip code is. The ability to attend school, meet with colleagues, or work without ever leaving our homes will free us up to live where we want, and reduce how much we spend on transportation. We’ll likely spend less on clothes, too, since our avatars will be the only part of us people see most of the time. Work will be fundamentally transformed as well. Much like the Internet, virtual reality will make it easier for diverse groups of people to collaborate, share ideas, and profit. Businesses leveraging this technology will be able to compete for the best people from literally all around the world. As firms increasingly adapt to the new environment, undoubtedly the VR platform will provide the basis for greater economic opportunity and growth.
While this VR offers immense socio economic opportunities, there will be pitfalls to overcome as it becomes ubiquitous in our lives. Virtual reality, much like the Internet, can lead individuals to become increasingly isolated. There have already been cases where people, obsessed with massively multiplayer online games, have literally played themselves to death; no doubt a platform that not only simulates reality, but actually supplants it, will lead to similar unfortunate outcomes. As this technology is increasingly widespread, society will no doubt have to grapple with how to help the people who lose themselves within it.
Artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, and virtual reality are going to change the world. In fact, they are already starting to. Businesses and entrepreneurs that learn how to leverage these new technologies will garner competitive, game-changing advantages over their peers. However like anything that fundamentally changes us, these technologies will present great challenges for our society to address as well. The sooner we understand them, the better chance we will have to ensuring that these promising technologies play a beneficial role in our businesses, our communities, and our lives.