Key trends for 2012: Digital Disruption gets Physical

It’s the trend and prediction season, and there’s one overarching theme which ties together the main three technology trends I believe will break into the mainstream in 2012. Over the past decade we’ve seen a huge amount of disruption triggered by increased internet access – both in terms of speed and availability. The access to information and entertainment has had a massive effect on media and entertainment industries, whether through legitimate ways to access content or piracy. And we’ve also seen new tools and changes in collaboration, business practices, marketing, freelancing, crowdsourcing and much more.

But the majority of these changes have all been concerned with the fact you can transmit information and content effortlessly around the world. The key change for 2012 is that three major trends and breakthroughs will have a far bigger impact than ever before on the physical world. All three have been discussed and reported in technology circles for months, years, and in one case, decades, but all of them are reaching that tipping point where ‘normal’ non-geeks are interested and getting to the stage where they will start to invest with their cash.

Trends for 2012 #1: 3D Printing:

Having previously predicted that 2012 will be the year of 3D printing, I have to lead with it. Since writing that post in August (which was one of my most popular), the profile and interest in 3D Printing has only risen. We’re still at the stage where people can find new ways to utilise it every week, whether that’s criminals using it to produce credit card skimmers, the highly debatable use of creating gun parts, or the potentially life enhancing application of 3D printing to create new bones. One of the reasons I love 3D printing so much is that it’s still at the stage where it’s advanced enough to be indistinguishable from magic, but sadly I suspect that era will be over soon, and we’ll see more companies probably publicly demonstrating how they’ve been using it in-house for rapid prototyping etc.

  • In addition to the BBC link above, it’s being featured by the likes of The Economist, highlighting celebrity 3D printer Jay Leno. We’re already entering the cool celebrity endorsement stage.
  • DIY 3D Printers are coming down in price – e.g. $500. OK, so we’re still at the stage where you need to assemble your own kit, but when the existing companies build enough demand and scale, or when you get someone like Samsung or Toshiba in the market, the ability to source parts in massive bulk and package them in something that’s consumer friendly will rapidly change. How long before a bright pink or blue 3D printer covered in cartoon characters is on the shelves of Toys R Us for example?
  • Having seen Makerbot gain funding and more media attention, now Shapeways has raised $5.1 million for the alternative approach of remotely producing whatever designs are sent to them.
  • The tech, the stories and applications are a dream for anyone in marketing – if any 3D Printing company wants to chat to me about the possibilities, I’d definitely be interested. I can’t think of many technologies that have so many simple yet magical ways to entice consumers
  • And there are a number of startups now building their businesses on the platform of 3D printing, for instance, building personalised robot figurines to order, which leads me nicely onto the second trend…


Trends for 2012 #2: Robots in the workplace and your home:

Robots have been around for a long time in both science fiction, and in the workplace. As ideas and mechanical automatons, they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and in an industrial setting, they began work in the 1960s. More recently, their military use has skyrocketed – for a detailed look I highly recommend Wired for War by PW Singer, and their use in warehousing and distribution has been documented in various places. So why am I tipping something so old and obvious as a trend for 2012?

  • For one thing – use in the home, and the drop in prices. A basic Roomba robot vacuum cleaner costs £239.99 on Amazon, comparitive to a number of Dysons, for example. Sadly robot lawnmowers are still equivalent to the highest end of the human directed version, but I’d put money on that changing in the near future. And when that happens and you send one out, all your neighbours will suddenly get a prime view of it.
  • And the other is the increased sophistication of their role in the workplace. Korea is trialling robot prison guards, Toyota has unveiled 4 robot health assistants due on the market around 2013, and they’ve already got competition from the Riba healthcare robot due to 2015, amongst others. President Obama has already announced the U.S will fund the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, which is part of the many efforts to enable robots to interact with humans in their work, rather than simply isolated on a production line doing a very simple task.
  • Again, cost is an issue with a current personal robot costing $400,00. A bit much for personal use, but costs will decrease rapidly – in 1973 the first personal computer cost around $200,000. And in the workplace, more specific requirements and designs lower the cost to the point where investing is a case of direct comparison with a human equivalent. Whether or not you support or use immigration or cheap labour for repetitive tasks, there are still costs involved and potential problems which robots could answer. And given we’re on the cusp of self-replicating robots and machines, 2012 probably won’t see a personal robot butler in every home, but will see more businesses investing in them, and more widespread use of the single-task robot in your personal life.
  • And one element which might help that spread and help the adjustment is the rise of home working and telecommuting, as there has been work and research which leads to the use of robot ‘stand-ins’ for workers away from the office for meetings etc (The same thing still continues in virtual worlds, despite the perception of business ‘failure’ in places such as Second Life – and the use of more traditionally framed virtual collaboration tools could well lead to a resurgence in the future, particularly with more senior executives of an age where virtual worlds in video games are second nature)


Trends for 2012 #3: ‘The Internet of Things’

Possibly the clunkiest name for any trend, but fairly self-explanatory when you realise this refers to connected devices. Again, this isn’t a radically new idea, and comes accompanied with references to the internet fridges we all failed to rush out and buy. But that was before the iPad started to replace a recipe book on the kitchen counter, next to the internet-connected radio and the smart phone.

And the key development is that the infrastructure is now available in ever-growing areas – ever-faster broadband, wifi, power lines etc.

  • Consider that the EU has already seen fit to sign a framework for privacy for RFID applications, which power the connectivity.
  • Businesses are already there – remember the warehouse robots from our last trend? RFID. Want to be able to connect all your vehicle assets? RFID. Want to be able to track all your inventory, no matter where it is in the supply chain, down to a single box? RFID.
  • Increasingly we’re controlling more of our lives from a small group of devices – smartphone, tablet, laptop, Kinect etc.
  • There are already a huge number of applications and businesses utilising existing technology, such as Arduino, to allow your plants to message you when they need more water, or your doorbell to text you when someone rings it.
  • And remember the Internet Fridge back in 1999? Well, it’s back and wifi enabled. And given that the likes of Tesco have started using augmented reality to allow you to snap a picture of your groceries on the wall of the underground station while you are waiting to come home, suddenly being able to access what’s in your fridge and what you need to buy when you’re out and about suddenly doesn’t seem quite so daft…
  • If that all seems a bit too far – consider the amount of self-diagnosis being utilised in cars. And imagine the time and frustration saving when your rubbish washing machine is internet connected? This isn’t about using your tumbledryer to surf the web – it’s about saving time and effort when it breaks by contacting the engineers directly to let them order a part and come and fix it, rather than trying to arrange an appointment via a call centre for someone to come and look at it, go away again, and then come back with the right bit to fix it.


The implications of 2012’s Physical Disruption

The one outside element which might have an effect on the timescales is the perception of the global economy. I don’t think that will slow 3D printing particularly, as tough economic times tend to see a rise in DIY and self-repair, plus investments in items which are very much about longterm quality and value.

It may be harder for robots to be accepted into the family – they inherently seem more frivolous, even with the argument that the time-saving means more productive work can be done to show a decent return. In the workplace the cost savings are more immediately apparent and the future looks less accessible for anyone in an unskilled manual labour role. Much as the longterm prospects for call centres might start to decline this year, which I don’t think anyone except employees will mourn (Sorry for the few good call centre people I’ve dealt with).

Put simply, 2012 is the tipping point, I believe, for small business of crafted products. I remember watching a presentation video, which I believe was JP Rangaswami (Annoyingly absent in every history and bookmarking tool I use, so I’ll continue to try to locate it), in which he talked about a return to a pre-Industrial Revolution business world, and 2012 seems to be the point where that becomes an increasing reality. Big brands will continue to exist, but already they’re moving to a world in which they retain their size by the interests they own and the backroom elements they can provide more than leading the storefronts and businesses with their brands.

That has positives – at the point were you can save money by printing your own products rather than paying to import them from outsourced manufacturer in Asia. Optimistically, saving on the more menial healthcare tasks may allow for more training and specialisation in more complexity, assuming the NHS isn’t completely destroyed. And a connected house should mean more time to be productive or relaxed.

But it also has scary implications for employment – the easy reassurance is that when the economy improves, everyone will be back in work and everything will be OK. But the effect of digital disruption has been that it creates money, and employment, but in sheer numbers the workforce will always be much smaller than what was replaced, as we increasingly use algorithms instead of humans. Extend that further out into unskilled and semi-skilled professions and we need to rapidly reconsider the education system and the industries which the UK and the world will be pursuing in the future, and how that maps out against the world’s population.

So that’s something to look forward to next year.

Great book for fans of technology, futurism or ‘fracking cool robots’

As a New York Times bestseller which has received countless positive reviews, and which features a quote from The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart on the cover saying ‘This book is awesome’, it’s safe to say you may have already heard about ‘Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century‘ by P.W. Singer, but if not, I strongly suggest you take a look at it.

I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in technology, futurism, AI, etc whether or not you have an interest in the military itself or find warfare abhorrent. Singer is quite open in the fact that he has attempted to write for people interested in technology as much as the military, and does a great job of blending scholarly information, awe at the progress of robotics, and character stories in a readable way.

It’s fairly substantial, with the paperback hitting 436 pages before the acknowledgements and footnotes, and the fact I’ve raced through it in a matter of days shows that it’s pretty digestible despite the fact it’s got a lot of interesting, useful and surprising facts. And there are a lot of references to consumer technology alongside the military applications, whether it’s because iRobot split their time between army products and the Roomba, or because warehouse management technology can be applied to U.S Navy ships.