Technology trends that will change the world

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(CNN) – Every year, around the time of the InternationalCES consumer technology show, I am asked to predict the future. It’s a fool’s errand. Aside from obvious riches and personal gain, if I were able to predict the future, it would be far less interesting than what truly lies ahead. It’s not that I don’t see wondrous things in the offing … it’s simply that the future is not what it used to be.

That said, there are a few undeniable trends.

Making sense of the numbers

According to every credible source we can find, there are almost 3 billion people connected to the public internet right now; by 2020 the number will approach 4 billion. According to Cisco, by 2020 there will be over 50 billion connected devices in the world. Some people like to call it the “Internet of Things,” others call it “Machine 2 Machine” or “M2M.” No matter what you call it, these are unimaginably large numbers of people and devices all connected.

So how do you sort it out?

I use three laws to help me understand the rate of change: Moore’s Law, the Law of Accelerating Returns, and Metcalfe’s Law. Moore’s Law is named for Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel. He wrote a famous paper back in 1965 where it posited that the density of semiconductors on silicon would double every 18 months.

This was true for a while, but now, because of the Law of Accelerating Returns(which states that the rate of technological change is accelerating exponentially) we know that this doubling of computing power happens much faster than that. Then there’s Metcalfe’s Law, which tells us that the value of a network increases proportional to the square of the number of users. If this all sounds too geeky, don’t worry — here’s how to think about the remarkable pace of technological change and the huge number of people in simple terms.

1) Technology is changing at a faster and faster pace. In fact, today is the slowest rate of technological change you will ever experience in your life.

2) The more people are connected, the more powerful the network becomes.

Connectivity: everything that can be connected, will be connected

The price and size of sensor technology is falling at a predictable rate (Moore’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns), which tells us everything that can be connected, will be connected. Everything. What exactly might that mean for us?

In 2015, your smartphone is still going to be the center of your electronic universe — and it’s going to know more about you than it ever did before. Smartphones are the central data gathering point for your connected life and average users check them about 150 times each day. Of course, we will see new mobile devices this year: wearables, smart cars, smart homes, and more — but they will all connect to and through your smartphone.

So, while in 2015 there’s still an app for that, our smartphone-centric world is temporary.

As we passively and actively interact with connected technology, we will represent a consortium of data-gathering tools. Our smartphones may be the centerpiece of that consortium, but we will also be creating data with our clothing, wearable technology, smart homes, smart cars, etc. Remember, everything that can be connected, will be connected.

Security and privacy: everything that can be hacked, will be hacked

As we’ve learned from the very public hackings during the past year (culminating in the spectacular Sony hack), there is an enhanced need for security and privacy protocols.

From my perspective, everything that can be hacked, will be hacked. But probably not the way you think about hacking. Breaches of cyber-security protocols cover a wide spectrum, from Jennifer Lawrence’s socially engineered nude picture scandal to attacks by nation states using military-grade, super-cyber weapons.

The Sony hack was not about freedom of speech, but simply about freedom. For centuries, we have used monarchs, heads of state, religion, and political systems to control each other. Any or all of these methods of control seem feeble when compared to the ability of motivated hackers to do harm. Power outages, ravaged accounting or medical records, manipulation of streetlights, launching of missiles … the list is practically endless. A world where people cannot tell the difference between a credible threat and a poorly worded email is a frightening world indeed.

I grew up during the Cold War and my vision of a post-apocalyptic world lies somewhere between “Mad Max” and “The Terminator.” But that’s not how it’s going to go. People will simply live in fear of having their private lives exposed, fear of losing their fortunes, fear of basically everything. In a digital world, everything you do, touch, see and feel is vulnerable to digital manipulation.

Take 50 of the Fortune 500 corporations and Sony-ize them. Take 10 of the biggest world banks and do the same … when a threatening email arrives, will you take it seriously? This may be a more accurate vision of a post-apocalyptic “digital” world.

Access versus ownership: renting is up, buying is down

The purchase of physical media (CDs, DVDs, etc) continues to decline, and the downward trend is accelerating. Digital media downloads are declining as well. Consumers are increasingly comfortable with “renting” content by paying for access to subscription services — music, movies, TV shows, even games and books are moving towards an access model.

In short: “renting is up, buying is down.” You know the story: if you’re not paying for a service with cash, the company is using your data as a currency. This trend will continue, forcing us to learn how to trade data the way we trade other currencies.

The “On-Demand Economy”: I want it now!

On-demand is not new — ask anyone who has ever cared for an infant. What is new is the speed with which the technological infrastructure to deliver almost everything you could ask for on demand is evolving — albeit heterogeneously. The white space is obvious and the trend is clear:

Organizations will voraciously attempt to fulfill our every demand (as close to instantly as possible). This is a quest for convenience unlike any we have seen before, and it is really just beginning.

– On-demand audio and video are commonplace. Business models need to catch up.

– On-demand car service is emerging. Taxi and limousine commissions worldwide are in an uproar.

– On-demand hotel rooms are emerging. Lawmakers and hotel lobbyists are screaming bloody murder about it.

What’s next?

On-demand food, shelter and transportation are obvious. On-demand retail and services of every kind are less so, and the wildcards are the meta-services that will evolve to make sense of our on-demand world.

What does a funds manager do when an app, that uses cloud computing to do your research based on a data-set created by your private investment behavior, replaces his job (both strategically and transactionally)?

What does a skilled repair-person do when manufacturers can diagnose problems over the public internet and deploy outsourced semi-skilled workers who will do a better, faster, cheaper job?

What happens when the manufacturer solves your problem by deploying unmanned vehicles and robots? Too far-fetched, you say?

Remember Moore’s Law, the Law of Accelerating returns, and Metcalfe’s Law. It will happen in the virtual blink of an eye.