7 Wonders of the 21st Century … exploring the incredible technologies that are rapidly changing our worlds

February 16, 2020

The technological revolution affects everyone and everything, it is transforming the worlds of education and healthcare, agriculture and hospitality, as well as the more obvious communications and entertainment, retail and finance.

Once technology could be left too technologists. Now, despite its enormous complexity and intimidating language, it is a core topic for every business leader.

What is important, is to understand the capabilities of these new forces,  and their opportunities and potential impacts. MIT defines seven technological areas that will have most impact on our futures:

  • Pervasive computing
  • Wireless mesh networks
  • Biotechnology
  • 3D printing
  • Machine learning
  • Nanotechnology
  • Robotics

These technologies unlock a world beyond our traditional boundaries, of how we see markets and businesses today, and even beyond our previously imagined possibilities.

I often say that we will see more change in the next 10 years than the last 250 years. That might seem like an easy thing to say. Another puff of futuristic hype. But think about previous revolutions:

  • First Industrial Revolution (1760-1840): mechanised spinning of textiles, large-scale manufacturing, steam power, and iron-making
  • Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1940): railways, the telephone, electricity and other utilities
  • Scientific Revolution (1940-1970): radio, aviation, and nuclear fission
  • Information Revolution (1985-present): the internet and digital media and devices

Revolutions are typically mapped out by S curves, as a new paradigm slowly takes hold, rapidly grows, and then matures. At the centre of each S curve, the point of maximum acceleration is an inflection point. The tipping point when the new paradigm becomes the new normal.

In each instance, the inflection point that marked the new revolution was the appearance of new technologies that fundamentally reshaped key aspects of the world, from manufacturing to medicine, society and the environment.

Technological Revolution

Our current technological revolution is right at those inflection points right now. Each of the 7 technologies exhibit three distinctive and rapidly evolving capabilities that are significantly different, more advanced, and larger in scope than the technologies of past revolutions:

  • Intelligent … New technologies are intelligent, with the ability to sense or predict an environment or situation and act on that knowledge. This extends far beyond knowing facts or rote learning; it is the ability to “make sense” of things.
  • Integrated … They connect with humanity, with the ability to align with the actions, traits, and intuitive schemes of humans, as well as the physics of nature. They embrace voice, gestures. They augment, or enhance human capabilities.
  • Immersed … They are everywhere, with the ability to be omnipresent in previously discrete transactions, objects, machines, and people. These technologies can be embedded within everyday objects and surroundings.

Each technology is powerful in its own right, yet together they are transformative to a degree which is difficult to comprehend. Their combination will give rise to new classes of super technologies, that will transform business in ways we have not yet imagined, to connect activities and immerse in our lives in ways that break old our established boundaries and rules, and to solve problems – including the biggest social and environmental challenges – in new and profound ways.

The 7 Technologies 

Here, building on futures and technology research by IFTF and WEF, plus MIT and Stanford, and many others, are the 7 technologies and some insights into their power and potential:

Pervasive Computing … embedded, proactive, networked

Pervasive, or ubiquitous, computing delivers information, media, context, and processing power to everyone, wherever we are. It is characterised by vast networks of connected microprocessors embedded in everyday objects.

The way information is shared across these devices is very different from the way it has been shared in the past. In contrast to data being recorded and updated in private, centralized databases, data is now embedded and continually reconciled in public networks. This makes it more difficult to corrupt data, and it has vast implications for workflow, commerce, and financial systems. Witness blockchains. It drive the internet of things (IoT), but it is more accurate to think of it as the engine of the internet of everything. 

It is reforging established chains of business logic. It supports the creation of products with a strong informational component that can engage and be shaped by customers. 

Example: VitalConnect’s VitalPatch MD is a biosensor worn on the forearm. It has three electrocardiogram electrodes that detect and record the wearer’s heart rate, temperature, breathing, and movements. This data is delivered in real time to the servers, computers, and mobile devices of health care professionals.

Wireless Mesh Networks … high-bandwidth, dynamic, smart connectivity

Wireless mesh networks (WMNs) are ad hoc loops of wireless connectivity in which only one device requires an internet connection. These are smart networks of wireless devices that can form, disperse, and re-form at the user’s command. Because WMNs are created from the bottom up by connections between devices (versus top-down, inflexible network infrastructures), their self-forming — and self-healing — capabilities ensure robust and reliable communication anywhere, at low cost and without fixed infrastructure.

For 20 years, the structure of connectivity has been based on a hub-and-spoke mentality in which devices connect through fixed points and are governed by the web’s protocol. Now, devices can form their own networks off the grid. Thus, WMNs open a new frontier of high bandwidth and more efficient collaboration in processes that involve any sort of coordination between machines, people, enterprises, and products.

Example: WMN-equipped vehicles, drones, and devices will extend our geographic reach, increase access to information content, and expand business capabilities far beyond current network technologies. Already, Toyota Land Cruisers have been successfully used as WMN nodes to provide dynamic network capabilities in dense cities, as well as in Australia’s vast Outback.

Biotechnology … enhanced life-forms and systems

Biotech is the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products. Humans have been bioengineers for thousands of years, ever since we first planted and crossbred crops. Today, advances in digital technology, genetic engineering, informatics, cell technology, and chemical sciences are greatly expanding the boundaries of biotechnology.

The continuing development of the CRISPR-Cas system is a notable example. It enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit genes, bringing us closer to the day when Huntington’s, sickle cell, breast cancer, and many other genetic diseases can be treated before they attack the people who carry them within their DNA. The notion of engineering living cells and the emergence of the life sciences industry will radically change the boundaries of health care, agriculture, and chemicals.

Example: Biotech is the basis for a new form of authentication: bio-identification, also known as biometrics. Rather than keys, passwords, credit cards, and codes, biomarkers such as retinas, fingerprints, and voice are the new gateway to information access and commerce. As bio-identification continues to evolve, other unique biomarkers such as our ears, nose, body odor, and even the patterns of our veins will provide (or withhold) access to everything from automobiles to electronic devices.

3D Printing … digitally designed, chemically manufactured

3D printing is a revolution built on chemistry that is being amplified by continually evolving capabilities in digital and machine technologies. Also referred to as additive manufacturing, 3D printing transforms a digital blueprint of an object into a physical finished good. For example, rather than ordering a part from a supplier, 3D printing enables us to retrieve a digital rendering of the part and make it. It also enables us to create a digital rendering of a newly conceived product and immediately manufacture it in almost any material. 3D printing is manufacturing on demand, on the spot.

3D printing upends the assumptions on which manufacturing is based. As the digitization of product designs, availability of 3D printers, and emergence of intermediaries accelerate, executives will rethink how their companies design and manufacture products and will reshape — or completely reimagine — their current supply chains and distribution systems.

Example: Customers will become intimately involved in product design and finished goods manufacturing. Value will shift from finished goods to the digital representations of goods. As the barriers to reaching production scale melt away, a flood of new entrepreneurial opportunities will become available to inventors and innovators, and the plants and machinery needed to manufacture goods will become unnecessary.

Machine Learning … augmented, automated data analysis

Machine learning covers a broad context of technologies and capabilities. Some scientists approach the domain purely from a perspective of computer programs that “learn.” A related perspective encompasses computer-based pattern recognition, statistical modeling, and analytics for decision-making. A third, and more holistic perspective, combines computer algorithms, statistical patterns, and artificial intelligence. Today, there are three principle technologies that when bundled together unlock key aspects of each perspective: cloud computing, big data, and artificial (augmented) intelligence (AI).

  • Cloud computing is the on-demand access to computing resources, including software applications, storage, network, and other services. The advent of the cloud signaled the separation of storage and processing from the device, thereby creating ubiquitous access to software and data. It also gave rise to creative forms of collaboration (witness Pokémon Go).
  • Big data is the generation and collection of massive amounts of structured and unstructured data in the search for new insights and new responses to challenges that organizations and decision-makers face.
  • AI is the programming and algorithms that allow digital devices to access, combine, and share data to learn, explain, and forecast events, processes, and trends.

Example: Businesses have used data to build profiles of buying habits, prices, and other retail contexts to better target products to consumers. For example, data from store loyalty programs and credit card purchases are now used to anticipate shoppers’ needs ahead of time. In the grocery industry, data analytics are used to determine how often shoppers buy milk, condiments, or other products, and then send each household coupons based on specific purchasing habits. Across many industries, this has led to methods of product and service design that are less linear and more focused on the dynamic aspects of supply and demand, as well as the dynamic nature of customer experiences and outcomes.

Nanotechnology … engineered, super-materials

Nanotechnology, which encompasses molecular engineering, is a new and radical engineering science that is designing and manufacturing incredibly small circuits and devices that are built at the molecular level of matter, typically 1 to 100 nanometers. To put this in perspective, there are 25.4 million nanometers in 1 inch.

Dry-fit clothing, drug delivery patches, water-repellent shoes, and antibacterial bandages are all consumer product applications of nanotechnology. As we slip into our odor-repelling nano-silver socks, molecular engineers are pioneering new ways and new tools to see and manipulate the atoms that make up food we eat, the clothes we wear, the places we dwell, and even the air we breathe.

Example: Nanotechnology will support the development of molecular structures that replicate living cells. These molecular structures will be the foundation for the regeneration or replacement of body parts that are currently lost to infection, accident, or disease.

Robots … precise, agile, intelligent

Robotics is the design and development of mechanical systems (a frame, electrical components, and code) that can operate autonomously or semi-autonomously. Robotics isn’t a new technology in and of itself, and if the technology were relegated to performing narrow ranges of repetitive tasks, it wouldn’t merit our attention. But in the past decade, robotics has undergone a radical transformation driven by three traits:

  • Precision: the ability to accomplish extremely exacting and detailed tasks accurately.
  • Agility: the ability to accomplish a variety of tasks quickly and easily.
  • Intelligence: the ability to acquire and apply new knowledge and skills.

Example: in healthcare, robotics is revolutionizing surgery. The Da Vinci Surgical System allows physicians to translate their hand movements into precise movements of small instruments inside the patient’s body. A high-definition, 3D vision system and tiny-wristed instruments provide surgeons with enhanced visualization, greater dexterity, as well as greater precision and ergonomic comfort. For the patient, a da Vinci procedure may offer all the potential benefits of a minimally invasive procedure, including less pain and blood loss