Waiting for the new new thing

The smartphone wars are over, and everybody won. Life without our phones is almost unthinkable. I just spent the last five days on a couple of remote Pacific islands, and every so often I’d look up and see a flower-garlanded local child immersed in a Samsung tablet — and this seemed wholly unremarkable.

But now that the gold rush is over, and we’ve entered the mopping-up phase — what next? What is, as Michael Lewis once put it, the new new thing? Conventional wisdom gives us five major contenders: AI, AR/VR, biotech, blockchains and drones.

AI is the biggest contender. Neural network pattern recognition opens whole new categories of hitherto insoluble problems. Computers that can see and know what they’re seeing? That’s a very big deal, as evidenced by, for instance, self-driving cars. Also, AI-as-in-pattern-recognition is very likely a major step (albeit one of very many) toward AI-as-in-artificial-intelligence.

AR/VR is also transformative. A whole new, uniquely immersive form of media, entertainment and cognitive/navigational tools. I am no biotech expert, but by all accounts it’s at the dawn of a new era, and not only because of CRISPR. Blockchains could upend the finance industry, transform commerce, destroy the barriers that keep out the world’s unbanked and underbanked and replace most international aid.

Drones — meaning not just polycopters, but unpiloted vehicles of all kinds — will (for better or worse) transform the military, defense, surveillance and disaster response industries far more than they already have, and may turn the transport of high-value goods into an aerial packet-switched network, just as shipping containers revolutionized bulk goods.

…But the weird thing is, none of these transformative technologies are likely to be truly transformative, in terms of their effect on the majority of ordinary human lives, any time soon. (By which I mean: the next few years, i.e. by 2020.) Eventually, yes! Immediately, no.

It’s like 1995, when everyone in tech knew the internet was going to be huge, utterly revolutionary — but not quite yet. Or the first iPhone demo, when those with eyes to see recognized that this would change everything — in a few years. Like that… times five.

It’s as if we’re standing on a beach, knowing that multiple simultaneous tsunamis have been set in motion on the opposite side of this ocean. One or two of them may falter and vanish beneath the waves, but at least a few of them will upend everything, when they hit.

Startups and investors don’t want this pause at all; they want a brand-new smartphone-sized gold rush, and they want it now. Hence their desperation to e.g. make chatbots happen. But given the scale of the manifold changes coming our way, maybe a year or three to catch our collective breath, to ready ourselves, won’t be such a bad thing. Because it seems clear that the rate of change of the 2020s is going to make these topsy-turvy teens look like stasis.