Once upon a time, business leaders could leave technology to the technologists. But today, we are at the starting line of a universal technological revolution — one that is fundamentally altering four key realms of our world: commerce, health care, learning, and the environment. Given the pervasive and diverse nature of this revolution, business leaders must understand the technologies that are driving it, the capabilities they offer, and their potential impacts.
This report provides executives with a lexicon to the revolution. It identifies seven core technologies — pervasive computing, wireless mesh networks, biotechnology, 3D printing, machine learning, nanotechnology, and robotics — and describes their implications for commerce, health care, learning, and the environment. Use it as a guide and a basis for strategic discussion as you and your team seek to understand today’s business frontiers and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Seven Technological Sparks
“You’re only given one little spark of madness,” said the late actor and comedian Robin Williams. “You mustn’t lose it.” Williams used his spark to ignite his comedic rocket and blast past the established boundaries of his craft. Technology provides a similar spark: It enables us to push beyond the established boundaries of our world.
The mechanized spinning of textiles, large-scale manufacturing of chemicals, steam power, and efficiencies in iron-making sparked the first Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). Railroads, the telegraph and telephone, and electricity and other utilities sparked the second Industrial Revolution (1870-1940). Radio, aviation, and nuclear fission sparked the Scientific/Technical Revolution (1940-1970). The internet and digital media and devices sparked the Information Revolution (1985-present). 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, such as commerce, health care, learning, and the environment.
Today, we see technological sparks everywhere. They are emerging from the digital, chemical, material, and biological sciences, and they are precipitating a revolution that is altering nearly every dimension of our lives.1
But what are the dominant technologies driving this revolution? And how will they shape and reshape the world of commerce — and the world at large? These are critical questions for executives, and the answers will determine how value will be defined in the future, how businesses will be structured and managed, and where new opportunities for profitable growth may lie.2
To help executives answer these questions, I conducted two surveys of veteran technology entrepreneurs working in companies in a variety of sectors, analyzed the results, and then developed and assessed the validity of the findings in a series of individual interviews and field visits. The study revealed seven classes of technology that are driving today’s universal revolution: pervasive computing, wireless mesh networks, biotechnology, 3D printing, machine learning, nanotechnology, and robotics. (See “Seven Technologies: A Strategic Framework.”)
Each of these technology classes exhibits three distinctive and rapidly evolving capabilities that are significantly different, more advanced, and larger in scope than the technologies of past revolutions.
- Intelligence: 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.
- Natural interface: the ability to align with the actions, traits, and intuitive schemes of humans, as well as the physics of nature. It is the inclusion of voice, gestures, and other biomechanical cues in accomplishing digital tasks.
- Ubiquity: the ability to be omnipresent in previously discrete transactions, objects, machines, and people. These technologies can be embedded within everyday objects and surroundings.
What makes the seven technologies distinct and important is that each exhibits a universal impact in its own unique way. Individually, they are fundamentally changing the way we work and consume (commerce), our well-being (health), our intellectual evolution (learning), and the natural world around us (environment).
Beyond their individual impact, an intriguing and powerful aspect of the seven technologies lies in their potential as combinations. Today, we can draw distinct lines between the forms, capabilities, and evolution of these technologies. But already, the boundaries between them are beginning to blur. Soon, the synthesis of the technologies will give rise to new classes of super-technologies that not only transcend their discrete elements, but also offer rich opportunities to companies that can imagine and harness them.
In the sections that follow, I describe the seven technologies individually, explore their impact on our world, and offer innovative examples of their application. I will conclude the report with a glimpse of the impacts and opportunities ahead as the technologies combine.
While the content in this report is informed by expert technologists, it is intended for business executives and other nontechnical professionals. I encourage you to use it in whatever way suits you best. You can read it start to finish to understand all seven technologies and use it as a framework for creative discussion regarding how this emerging, universal revolution might reshape your company and your markets. Or you can dip into the report selectively and explore a specific technology as you encounter it in your work or life.