Disruptive Technologies – Just About Everything Is Going to Change

Why Disruptive Technologies? What Is That About?

Disruptive technologies is a term  coined by Clayton M. Christensen and introduced in his 1995 article Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave,  co-written with Joseph Bower. There has been a lot discussed and written since then, but the term has come to primarily mean that new technologies can disrupt existing support networks for goods and services by creating new and better goods and services that displace a primary one.  E-mail disrupted faxing, and mobile phones disrupted land line phones.  Together, they disrupted pricing models for long distance charges.  Mobile phones have created an app market, case and cover market, and much more.

Why Should Any of Us Care About All That

Because one, or more than likely man,y disruptive technologies are going to affect you in countless ways, what you buy, how you interact with family and friends, your job, the environment, and in  ways that no one as yet may know.

Anticipating some nascent disrupting technologies might help you now, long before their full impact is known.  It may delay a major life purchase because something new and better is just ahead.  It may may you look to possible investments, whether on Kickstarter, in IPOs, angel funding, or mutual funds.  A word of caution, though: coming up with a cool technology idea is one thing; making it disruptive is quite another.

I offer my thoughts to you on possible disruptive technologies.

3D Printing

I put this first for two reasons. One, it is not new, having been around for a few decades.  Two it may be the biggest disruptor of all in the near future.

The fact that it has been around for a while but is only now poised to be disruptive is something to pay attention to.  Disruptive technologies don’t just describe a brilliant idea or concept in a product, application or service.  They are things that change everything.  Edison was far from the first to create a light bulb.  He did produce a long lasting one, but his disruption was in creating the power companies that distributed electricity.

What will make 3D printing truly disruptive is what we can print and at what cost.  The first 3D printers were very expensive.  They either deposited very thin layers of plastic resin to build up a 3D model or used metal with lasers to do an equivalent task.  But today, the cost has fallen to a few thousand dollars or less for simple 3D printers.  Look for  pricing trends to mimic those of inkjet and laser paper printers, falling to very cheap with lots of features and choices.  At the same time, look for commercial printers to do amazing things.

The real disruptive piece of the 3D printer puzzle will come from inks, what can be used as the base material for 3D objects these printers can create.  Already, tissue and organ printing is being used to create replacement heart valves and other replaceable body parts that are now created from titanium and plastics, but the real breakthroughs will come when lungs, kidneys, hearts, livers, and pancreases can be printed with your own tissue, grown in a culture from a few cells.

Let your imagination run wild with this.  Imagine an ink that prints wood made from sawdust or other wood waste.  Or completely synthetic wood that can mimic at the cellular level real woods, including exotic and rare species.  Whip out a beautiful mahogany desk and chair, complete with intricate carvings, in a few hours.  Or how about a replacement part for your car, lawn mower, refrigerator, you name it.  Need a special container or a new piece of luggage to a custom size?  Just whip one out.

It is not hard to imagine composite ink cartridges that can print a variety of substances intermixed.  Like electronic circuits inside a case.  Print your own device.  A new thermostat, perhaps, or a custom remote control.  Or a new smartphone.

Consider all the ways this is disruptive.  Some factories will close as will their associated warehouses.  Shipping and distribution companies and retail stores will diminish if not disappear.  New businesses will emerge like 3D ink makers and image creators whose products will tell the printers exactly how to make things.  Printing centers will emerge where you go to pick up things you cannot realistically print at home on your own 3D printer. Not unlike the copy centers of today.

Imagine a new kind of Home Depot where most of the space is taken up by large, high speed 3D printers.  Your shopping cart is a large touch screen where you can order things to be printed from off the shelf (so to speak) items from name brand creators (who now design the image files and provide the custom inks to Home Depot), or you can do so online and then arrange for local delivery or pickup.

Will all items be printed by 3D printers?  Probably not.  The cost and time to print a nail or a screw won’t be competitive with making them in a factory for a while if ever, and food items are still going to be food items.  We have far too much processed food and I hope 3D printing doesn’t mean more of it.  Those items will still require central growing or creating, distribution and retail outlets, but don’t be surprised if it all dramatically changes one day because an Edison sees something the rest of us don’t.

Drones

Maybe we have had enough Predator style drones as weapons, but I am not optimistic on that prospect.  Rather, drones can develop into serious disruptive technology because of all the other great things they can do for us.

The definition of a drone is a male bee that stings, makes no honey, but devotes itself to mate with the queen.  That should sound very familiar to many of us, but this is not about social dysfunction, so I will move on.

In the technology realm, drones can be aircraft, sea-craft or land-craft that are autonomous or remotely controlled, or both.  They can go places we humans cannot; they can, with sensory equipment, see, hear and touch things beyond what we can do; they can exert way more or way less force than we can; they can perform mechanical tasks with precision and skill beyond our abilities.

While a Predator drone costs millions, hobby drones are as inexpensive as a hundred dollars or so.  GoPro, the helmet camera maker, is launching a series of aerial camera drones.  DJI has a prosumer $3000 model that uses one remote control for flight and another for the camera aimed at videographers who would rely on aircraft to take their cameras on high.  There are countless others entering the market, and not just aircraft drones, but submersibles and crawlers, too.

How can drones be disruptive?  Aren’t they just new things and don’t disrupt existing networks?  You might answer differently if you are Boeing or Sikorsky or other manufacturers.  Or UPS and FedEx if Amazon is successful with their drone delivery plans.  Shifts from their products and services to drones clobbers big support networks: parts manufacturers, maintenance systems, insurance, financing, and all sorts of jobs associated with them.

Drones create brand new opportunities though.  They do have to be manufactured and sold and maintained and serviced. (maybe parts made with 3D printers.) There will be drone flight training and traffic controllers and more.  But what is really exciting is all the things we as humans will benefit from uses we put drones to.

An example of that is drones being used by archeologists in Peru.  Drones with high resolution cameras take aerial photos of ancient sites, the video images are loaded onto computers with special software that converts them into 3D images which can be viewed from different angles by rotating them in 3D computer space.  Drones also monitor activity at the sites, to mark progress on excavations, for example, and to monitor for disruptive activity like trespassers.

Drones don’t have to be large or even model airplane sized.  Considerable work is going on to make insect-sized drones that inconspicuously keep tabs inside and outside our homes and work places. Ant technology, lots of small things working together to do big things.

If that makes you paranoid that someone might be spying on everything you do, you just may soon be right.

Images

Humans have long loved images.  Cave paintings, oil and water color works through the centuries, film for photographs and video, and more recently digital images. We are now inundated with digital images of all kinds, on our phones, cameras, on the Internet.  We don’t just look at them anymore; they have become valuable forms of metadata – information about the image that is added to the image itself in a meaningful form.

Not that long ago digital cameras started doing this metadata tagging.  They added the date and time the image was taken, and with GPS cameras, the location as well.  Now we know it is common for people in images to be recognized and tagged too.  Facebook does it well – it has a head start because you have told it about who your friends are!  But surveillance camera have good facial recognition as well.  Biometric scanners can tag and image of our eyes with who we are and associate a wealth of information behind that recognition.  Gait technology is making advances, too.  The camera might not see your face but can recognize you by how it sees you walking.

Now Google has demonstrated that image software it is developing can “look” at an image and describe, in English words, what the image contains.  Like someone riding a bicycle or eating an apple (no, not an industry joke).  As this matures, likely the image can be described as “Bob Smith eating a hamburger sitting on a stool.”  You see where this is going.

What I consider disruptive about image technology is how much (more) it will change and alter our lives.  Personal privacy is disappearing into the ether by leaps and bounds.  Governments, police forces, and commercial enterprises all want to know everything about us to keep us in line, find the bad guys, sell us more and more things they know we want but we ourselves may not.  If you are paranoid about this happening, go back and read what I said earlier.

Human Communication

Or more precisely human to machine to human communication.  We already see some amazing things in this area that have come into everyday use.  We can use voice commands to create emails and text messages, dial phone numbers, set our navigation systems to guide our cars, tune to a radio station or find music.  More and more we can do this with ordinary speech and no individual voice training.

If you grew up on 2001 A Space Odyssey, talking to a machine and having it talk back to you is not so magical.  I have yet to have my phone or car say “Sorry Dave I can’t do that.” though.  Your phone may come close to passing the Turning Test (side note, go see The Imitation Game).

Disruptive human machine communication is a distinct possibility though.  Consider Skype Translator, a recent Microsoft proof of concept demo last month.  A Skype caller speaking English to a another Skype user speaking Spanish has almost instant translation from either language to the other.   Imagine the ways in which that, available in many language combinations, would change the world.  Entertainment, medical help, tourism and travel are a few things that come to mind.

But imagine the ability of machines to add human-like, continuous speech to their interactions with us.  They already have the ability to gather, analyze and categorize data in ways we might appreciate with a bit of wonder but when they start telling us what they “know”, they may never shut up. Or maybe they will stop wasting their time talking to us, since we can’t keep up.

I guess I look forward to casually saying things in any room of my house and computers respond and obey my commands.  But I prefer a Downton Abby approach.  They will know what I want without having to ask, and will be at the ready for every need.  I am going to name mine Carson.

Predicting the Future

In 1955 or 1956 a television special with Dave Garroway predicted the world of 1976 with great inaccuracy.  Our lives were not filled with flying cars, nuclear powered appliances nor with robots.  Why, you may wonder, do future predictors so often get it wrong?

Disruptive technology is a likely cause.  Predictions are based on a linear extrapolation of what we know and don’t anticipate unexpected shifts on that straight line.  Think of the telephone, television, transistors, computers, and integrated circuits that 20 years or so before they existed as mainstream forces may not even have been imagined.  Certainly their impact was not.

But we have had so much disruptive technology in the past half century we have gotten better at imagining how it might occur next.  If I am still around in twenty years, I want to re-read this and see how close I came or how wrong I was.  Hope you do the same.

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