Technologies never move in straight lines. They wander. They cross-pollinate. And they create opportunities you’d never expect.
Nothing is harder to predict than the future of science and technology. Remember former IBM president Thomas J. Watson’s 1943 remark that there was a worldwide market for “about five computers”? And then there was Bill Gates’s 1981 prediction that 640 kilobytes of computer memory “ought to be enough for anybody.”
Why do even brilliant technologists like Watson and Gates have such trouble reading the future? At the Institute for the Future, my colleagues and I have observed that new technologies don’t always arise in a linear fashion. When cutting-edge fields of knowledge come into contact, new disciplines can be spawned, and progress can go zooming off in unexpected directions.
If history is any guide, then, some of the most significant tech trends of the future are likely to begin at the intersection of disciplines that are just now beginning to flourish. The map on the facing page, which represents the current thinking at the Institute for the Future, suggests where some of these interactions might occur.
Of course, this map of the future — and the timelines inside the gatefold that follows — will certainly err in some ways. But being wrong didn’t hurt Watson and Gates, who went on to dominate industries built atop trends they overlooked in their early forecasts. The important thing is to have the agility to embrace change as it occurs. The advances of the next 20 years will present opportunities no one can imagine today. But the imagining has to start somewhere — and the pages that follow are as good a place as any to begin.
A Technology Road Map
Today’s cutting-edge research can be broken into four main areas — infotech, materials science, bioscience, and energy — each with its own group of subspecialties. Click this diagram to see a pdf of ways in which many of those subspecialties could merge in the future, giving rise to new disciplines like
What happens when today’s tech trends begin to intersect and feed off one another? They’ll spawn new fields of knowledge that will transform everything. Don’t miss Brad Wieners story on the technologies of the future.