More than once you’ve probably looked at some new digital or technological development and asked yourself, “How did we miss that?”
In order to chart the best way forward, you must understand emerging trends: what they are, what they aren’t, and how they operate. Such trends are more than shiny objects; they’re manifestations of sustained changes within an industry sector, society, or human behavior. Trends are a way of seeing and interpreting our current reality, providing a useful framework to organize our thinking, especially when we’re hunting for the unknown. Fads pass. Trends help us forecast the future.
To identify emerging trends, I use a six-part methodology beginning with seeking out those on the fringes doing unusual experimentation or research. Next I look for patterns using my CIPHER model, where I identify previously unseen contradictions, inflections, practices, hacks, extremes, and rarities. Then I ask practical questions, mapping trajectories, building scenarios, and pressure-testing my conclusions.
At the end of each year, I apply my forecasting model to surface the most important emerging tech trends for the months ahead. My 2016 trends offer early warnings and opportunities for managers in all industries. Here are eight to note for 2016.
Algorithmic personality detection. Did you know that some life insurance underwriters are attempting to assess your personality — via your magazine and website subscriptions, the photos you post to social media, and more — in order to determine how risky an investment you are? Some lenders have used personality algorithms to predict your future financial transactions. (The data show that if you look at two people with the same professional and personal circumstances, the one with a higher college G.P.A. will be more likely to pay off a debt.) Algorithms will harness personal data in order to assess an employee’s predicted success at work: for example, how likely she is to bounce around jobs.
Bots. Software applications that run automated tasks are called “bots.” 2016 will bring a host of creative bots that will supercharge our productivity, keep us company, and help us track what others are doing. What’s new: you’ll have the opportunity to use and program them yourself. Microsoft’s experimental Mandarin-language bot, Xiaolce, is akin to Samantha in Her. She lives inside a smartphone and has intimate conversations with her users, because the program is able to remember details from previous conversations. She also mines the Chinese internet for human conversations in order to synthesize chat sessions.
Bots do more than offer conversation. News organizations will soon use bots to sort and tag articles in real time. We’ll see advanced bots manipulating social media and stocks simultaneously. The intelligence community might deploy bots for surveillance and for digital diplomacy. HR managers can use bots to train employees. Meantime, as Slack continues to grow in scale and popularity, bots within that environment will help automate meetings and status updates and so on, saving time and increasing productivity.
Glitches. Expect to hear more about “glitches” in 2016. While there have always been software bugs, what we’re seeing now is so much new technology coming online so quickly — without the usual testing — that we don’t know what the interactions will be in advance.
In 2013, technical glitches caused a three-hour stop at the Nasdaq. Last year, a glitch caused 5,000 United flights to be grounded for two hours. Technical glitches halted trading at the New York Stock Exchange recently. Glitches cause temporary outages — and big headaches — for streaming providers such as Dish’s Sling TV, which interrupted service during the premiere of Walking Dead spinoff Fear the Walking Dead. Glitches at Netflix have caused outages as well as strange mashup summaries for different films. A favorite: “Inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel, this Disney film follows a gentle, crippled bell ringer as he faces prejudice and tries to save the eyes of individual dinosaurs.”
In many cases, glitches have to do with degraded network connectivity or a miscalculation of the bandwidth needed. But a lot of times, glitches have to do with newer technologies, which we are learning break in unexpected ways. Glitches aren’t software bugs, which can be tested and rectified. Glitches are a newer phenomenon, which are difficult to predict in advance. This is not an argument against technology — it’s a recommendation for increased systems monitoring and regular conversations with IT managers.
Backdoors. Backdoors are lines of code developers intentionally install in firmware so that manufacturers can safely upgrade our devices and operating systems. It’s a way for manufactures to get into your system to fix a problem without interrupting your experience. The challenge is that backdoors can also be used surreptitiously to harness everything from our webcams to our personal data.
Some government officials will be advocating for a set of “golden keys,” which would allow law enforcement to use backdoors as they wish. This won’t just affect the usual suspects, such as Facebook and Google. In 2016, any company that stores customer data could be asked to create a backdoor. This might include banks, advocacy groups, travel agencies, hotel companies and more. Opponents argue that the simple act of creating a backdoor would leave ordinary people vulnerable to everyday attacks by even unskilled hackers. If your organization is approached next year, what will you do? Do you have a point of view and a plan to address backdoors?
Blockchain. The blockchain is a sort of distributed consensus system, where no one person controls all the data. Thus far it’s gotten the most press as the technology behind bitcoin, but everyone agrees that bitcoin probably isn’t the blockchain’s killer app. The cryptography team at Blockstream recently launched its first prototype “sidechain,” which functions as a separate ledger with its own code. Sidechains allow for easier authentication. Blockstream and the sidechain projects that follow will turn the blockchain into a universal platform that can be used for anything requiring signatures or authentication. It will disrupt entire industries.
The blockchain enables people to participate in “trustless” transactions, eliminating the need for an intermediary between buyers and sellers. And it potentially eliminates the need for all intermediaries in most transactions, even those outside finance. The 21 Bitcoin Computer, is a small, bare bones, Linux-based piece of hardware in which the bitcoin protocol is a feature of the operating system. Any products or services built with it — games or music or any online content—would have bitcoin built in as a component. It integrates bitcoin so seamlessly into devices that you’d never know that you’re using the blockchain at all. It has the potential to eliminate thousands of intermediaries, such as payment services companies.
Drone lanes. In 2015, two drones inadvertently prevented firefighters from putting out a rapidly spreading California wildfire, which crossed over onto a freeway and destroyed a dozen vehicles. Currently, the FAA does not allow drones to fly near the airspace of airports — but while there are no-fly zones, there aren’t no-fly circumstances. From the Valley to DC, everyone will be talking in 2016 about whether or not the airspace should be regulated for hobbyists and commercial drone pilots, which will prompt difficult conversations between technologists, researchers, drone manufacturers, businesses and the aviation industry, since each has an economic stake in the future of unmanned vehicles. I anticipate the sky being divided soon: hobbyist pilots will have access to operate UMVs in the 200 and below space, while businesses and commercial pilots will gain exclusive access to 200–400 feet zone overhead.
Quantum computing. In short, quantum computers can solve problems that are computationally too difficult for a classical computer, which can only process information in 1s and 0s. In the quantum universe, those 1 and 0 bytes can exist in two states (qubits) at once, allowing computations to be performed in parallel. Therefore, if you build two qubits, they are able to hold four values at the same time: 00, 01, 10, 11. Quantum computers are not only more powerful than anything built to date — they require special algorithms capable of doing new things. For example, quantum computers require special programs like Shor’s algorithm — invented by MIT’s Peter Shor — that can factorize any prime number. The National Security Agency is already predicting that the cryptography in use will be rendered completely obsolete once quantum computers go into widespread use.
Scientists have been researching quantum computing for decades. The challenge has been proving that a quantum machine is actually doing quantum computations. That’s because in a quantum system, the very act of observing information in transit changes the nature of that data. While you won’t be able to buy a quantum computer in 2016, it’s a trend worth watching. Researchers at IBM’s experimental quantum computing group have begun to unlock difficult problems in quantum computing, such as detecting errors. Recently, D-Wave Systems announced that it broke the 1,000 qubit barrier, which (if true) would make it the most powerful computer on the planet. Now, IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Google, as well as D-Wave, are trying to figure out how to advance and commercialize the technology.
Augmented knowledge. We don’t recognize it as such, but we are living in an age of digital telepathy, where we can send information directly to each other’s brains via the internet. Scientists at the University of Southern California have been working on a cognitive neural prosthesis that can restore and enhance memory function. This research has a practical and altruistic purpose: to help victims of stroke or traumatic brain injury regain their cognitive abilities and motor function. Rather than having to relearn, they need only reload those memories. But this implies that someday you might be able to augment your mental ability — much like robotic suits allow us to enhance our physical strength — with a computer device. Rather than simply baking a Thomas Keller brioche, you could install his specific technique for kneading bread. Or you might go into a contract meeting armed with Madeline Albright’s negotiation skills. Which begs the question: In the farther future, what will it mean to “learn”? What will be the difference between having knowledge and simply acquiring it?
By Amy Webb is the founder and CEO of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy firm that advises an international client base on near-future emerging technologies and digital media trends. She is also a Visiting Neiman Fellow at Harvard University.