Technology Disruptions through 2025

TechDistributions

Technology has always been a major driver of change, even disruption, in human affairs. Through 2025, it is poised to do so in significant new ways—impacting areas ranging from energy to consumer lifestyles to World 3 development to warfare—thanks to revolutionary advances now in the wings.

To pinpoint and understand these shifts, Foreign Policy magazine invited a selected list of experts to share their thoughts on the biggest technology-driven changes facing the world through 2025.1 While the opinions range widely, collectively the authors make a persuasive case that technology will provoke large, disruptive effects in this timeframe, of which most are still largely unrecognized.

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • Technik—knowing how to use and apply particular technologies—will be as important as the technologies themselves in the future.
  • Robotics will expand beyond industrial manufacturing to the business and consumer sectors.
  • Small groups and individuals will become important sources of both innovations and new threats, in business and military spheres.

UBIQUITOUS INNOVATION

By 2025, technology will have “insinuated itself into every sphere and nook of human activity”—and humans, in their efforts to keep up, will increasingly seek to integrate themselves with technology, argue Ayesha and Parag Khanna, co-directors of the Hybrid Reality Institute.2 “Human evolution has become human- technology co-evolution,” the Khannas write, ushering in what they call the Hybrid Age.

At the same time, this ubiquity of advanced technologies will put tremendous power to innovate and solve problems into the hands of ordinary consumers, including in Worlds 2 and 3. As a result, “micromultinationals”—tiny companies that use technology to operate globally—will be one of the hallmarks of the coming decades, according to Hal Varian, chief economist at Google.3 “Even the smallest company can now afford a communications and computational infrastructure that would have been the envy of a large corporation 15 years ago,” Varian writes.

The disruptive effects of the next wave of technology will be larger in scale, scope, and impact than those in previous eras of rapid tech innovation, thanks to key differences in the underlying technologies:

  • Technology will be ubiquitous. Enabled by ever faster, cheaper semiconductors, computers are becoming embedded in everything. By 2015, IBM estimates, 1 trillion devices will be connected to the Internet, constantly exchanging information with each other and with their owners and controllers. “We will literally live in technology,” observe the Khannas.
  • Technology will be smart. Technologies will be able to understand the data they process, and increasingly to use it to work autonomously. When the IBM computer Watson conquered its human competitors on the gameshow Jeopardy in 2011, it signified the true advent of the Hybrid Age.
  • Technology will be social. Technology is poised to be truly anthropomorphic, relating to humans in human-like ways. And humans will respond, forming emotional attachments to sociable robots and other personal devices. “The love you have for your iPhone is just the beginning,” the Khannas say.

3 POTENTIAL OUTCOMES

The growing intimacy between humans and technology means that “paradigm-shifting change [will] happen in multiple arenas and at multiple speeds all at once.”

Outcomes include:

  • Technology will be more disruptive. As noted at the beginning of this section, technology will be able to disrupt industries and societies faster and on a larger scale than perhaps ever before. “The more technologies that exist, the greater the number of combinatorial possibilities, resulting in ever newer and more complex products that revolutionize industries,” the Khannas point out. For instance, DIY manufacturing will allow individuals and small businesses to create custom products on demand, with potentially huge disruptive effects for economic and cultural life.
  • Technik will be as important as technology. “Technik” is a German term meaning not just technology, but also “mastery of the methods and processes that shape and steer” technology. As technology becomes more central and more complex, competition will recenter on Technik, with actors ranging from “cities to diasporas to corporations to cloud communities” struggling and competing to boost their Technik.
  • Different societies will adapt differently. Societies will be distinguished not just by their geography, culture, and economic maturity, but by their ability to adapt to fast-changing technological circumstances. “Some governments will provide Technik for their citizens; others will fail.” Many governments will retract to a mostly regulatory role.

3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

  • Technology’s disruptive potential will manifest in unforeseen ways. With DIY manufacturing, for instance, people will be able to create tailor-made products in their own homes and establishments—potentially threatening industrial manufacturing and, at the extreme, undermining national economies. If DIY manufacturing undercuts China’s industrial base, for example, it could affect China’s ability to buy US Treasury bonds. While such impacts are highly speculative, they imply that companies will need continual, comprehensive monitoring and consideration of new technologies, including those that seem far afield.
  • Being able to effectively master and apply new technologies (the German concept of Technik) could become as much of a competitive advantage as being able to develop and commercialize them. As the Khannas note, in many cases companies may win employee and consumer loyalty by offering affordable Technik, rather than just affordable technology products.
  • The global democratization of innovation, already well underway, will accelerate. Consumers at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) will increasingly shift from being recipients of disruptive technologies, such as mobile devices, to being innovators of new services on these technologies. Quality of life in poorer parts of World 2 and World 3 could see dramatic upgrades as consumers gain access to the tools to innovate and create “homegrown” solutions.