20 bold predictions for the next 20 years What does the future hold for Canadian entrepreneurs? PROFIT polled futurists, experts and CEOs for their predictions in the fields that matter most. Our findings: new opportunities are exploding. And simply doing business will get a lot easier
SOFTWARE WILL THINK FOR YOU
Imagine a PC that routes urgent e-mails to the top of your inbox — and sends 'urgent' entreaties from Nigerian scammers directly to the trash. Machines that instantly summarize annual reports, helping you tell the Enrons from the Exxons. PDAs that find today's best stock bargain — and buy it on your behalf. It's all coming thanks to smarter software that simulates human reasoning and understanding.
Today's dumb software can't really tell Apple (the firm) from apple (the fruit), nor can it get the gist of expressions such as "take a hike", explains John Anderson, director of the University of Manitoba's Autonomous Agents Laboratory. But within a decade, says Anderson, "intelligent agents" might perform time-saving tasks such as junk-free Web searches. Instead of finding mere patterns in huge databases, future data-mining programs might pinpoint the causal relationships in the data, giving companies fast insights into what triggers a sale.
Martin Bouchard, president and CEO of Copernic Technologies Inc. in Ste-Foy, Que., marvels at the potential for agents to perform the tasks humans can't. "Computers could quickly read all of the material published about your company, your industry and your competitor, summarize it based on what is new or interesting, and forward it to the right people in your company," says Bouchard, whose firm makes document-summary software. Agents could also sell, setting prices on demand through a comparative analysis of the immediate motivations of buyer and seller. "I don't know if it's five, 10 or 20 years away," says Bouchard, "but it's leaving science fiction."
YOU'LL REALLY HAVE A ROBOT SERVANT
Intelligent agents could be the brains of robots that do mundane or dangerous jobs such as firefighting or, as one recent project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests, war journalism.
A few U.S. hospitals currently use a 180-kg wheeled droid named TOBOR to ferry medications from the pharmacy to nursing stations. Produced by California-based Pyxis Corp., TOBOR (that's robot spelled backward) uses sonar and infrared beams to find its way around patients and staff, and calls for the elevator using a radio signal. By freeing up time and financial resources (TOBOR can be leased for US$5 an hour), such robots could alleviate some of the stresses on health care.
MANUFACTURERS WILL BEGIN TO DISAPPEAR
One day, stuff might build itself. How? With nanotechnology — the manipulation of single atoms and molecules.
"If anybody perfects the ability to build things from the atoms and molecules up, it's going to completely change everything," says Jeff Harrow, a U.S. consultant and author of The Harrow Report (www.theharrowgroup.com), which covers the bleeding edge of technology. Scientists are already bumping individual molecules of metal together to form hyper-microscopic wires that could anchor tiny microchips. Working in nanoscale, where things are measured in billionths of a metre, could create computers the size of salt grains or spaceships as small as a Honda Civic.
It gets even more radical. Some futurists talk about assembling molecules into machines that can assemble other molecules into useful objects. "You'd have these molecular assemblers and their first job is to make millions of themselves," explains Ken Nickerson, founder of Toronto investment house iBinary.com, and the former general manager of MSN Canada. "Then they'd start to work on something else, say a keyboard or a piece of glass." Companies would license the molecular blueprints for their product, whether it's dish liquid or a TV set, to anyone with a microassembler. Suddenly, old-style manufacturers are redundant.
COMPUTERS WILL BE EVERYWHERE
Ubiquitous computing. Calm technology. The Evernet. Call it what you want. "The notion is that instead of us being slaves to the computer, computers will be enslaved to humans," says Rafik Loutfy, head of the Xerox Research Centre of Canada in Mississauga, Ont. "They will be all around us, helping us do everything we want to do any time we want to do it."
The Evernet should arrive within a decade, powered by broadband wireless, incredible storage capacity and processing power, and miniaturization that lets us put a microchip in every object, from beer bottles to buses. All those chips could continuously interact, some collecting and sharing data, others acting on it.
Say you like to watch Friends every Thursday night, but you're dining out this Thursday, says Dermot McCormack, director of retail websites for U.S. cable conglomerate Cablevision Systems Corp. "Your PDA software could talk to your VCR and when the VCR notices the conflict, it sets itself to tape the show for you."
The Evernet could also benefit tech-savvy businesses. Consider today's most road-ready salesperson, who still relies on a telephone or a wireless laptop to retrieve pricing and inventory information that's generally hours or days old. The Evernet puts detailed customer information and current data from all parts of the supply chain at that salesperson's fingertips. With that information, he can negotiate the best price for the order (assuming an intelligent agent doesn't price it for him.)
YOU'LL SELL AT EVERY TURN
More than 700 million wireless users will trot the globe in 2005, says market-information firm Intermarket Group. If you've got something to sell to them when they pass by, why not give them a ring?
That's the premise behind location-based advertising: targeted marketing for the wireless world. For example, a consumer would give a retailer her mobile number; whenever she'd walk by one of the retailer's stores, she'd received a message offering 10% off any purchase today. Proponents say adopters will gain customer loyalty and faster access to shoppers' wallets. But will customers want companies to initiate such contact?
"People will do it on a quid-pro-quo basis," says Vancouver futurist and broadcaster Tod Maffin. Grocery shoppers, for instance, might sign up for in-store alerts of end-of-day sales; young men might sign up for last-minute ticket alerts from sports teams. Some New York City billboards already beam product info to receptive PDAs. But Maffin figures it will be three to five years before enough databases are tied together to allow smarter location-based advertising, where a person's location is cross-referenced with knowledge of his or her preferences to decide what message to send and whether to send it.
PRICE WON'T MATTER
Here's more fallout from wireless computing: "We'll see a lot more power in the customer's hands because of the massive amounts of data that are easily accessible," says Cablevision's McCormack, author of Web 2.0: The Future of the Internet. "It's a customer revolution."
Consumers are flocking to the Web to research products, often with the help of comparison-shopping engines that find the best prices. "This puts a tremendous amount of bargaining power in their hands," says McCormack. Once wireless devices and access points pervade society, shoppers will never be more than a few keystrokes away from a better deal — which should flatten prices. When price becomes a commodity, says McCormack, "the differentiators become service and added value. It gives smaller companies a good opportunity to compete."
eUTILITIES WILL POWER COMPANIES
Small business has never taken full part in the tech revolution, thanks in part to the big investments some enterprise-scale systems demand. That problem will go away soon with the help of eUtilities — the online equivalent of your hydro company.
eUtilities will rent computing power on an as-needed basis, says Gary Getson, director and managing principal for IBM Canada's management-consulting practice in Markham, Ont. Any company that needs some hardware or software — from Web servers to data-mining programs — will simply access it online. eUtilities will be most handy when businesses want to strike up alliances that centre on sharing technologies they don't already have. "They'll help businesses combine themselves to create more compelling value propositions for their clients," says Getson. He thinks eUtilities will sprout once the Net has the capacity for full-time computing — perhaps within five years.
COMPUTERS WILL BE ORGANIC
"By 2010 you're going to miniaturize silicon-based transistors to the point where you can't make them any smaller," says Xerox's Loutfy. When the Silicon Age ends, where will faster chips come from?
One solution could be organic electronics, where transistors are composed of organic materials that are finer than silicon. Next, says Loutfy, "We'll marry organic semiconductors with printing technology and print organic transistors on flexible substrates." Basically, an ink-jet printer will spray layers of liquid onto paper or mylar, forming a flexible microchip. "You could print a tiny radio frequency tag onto a package," he says. "It's like a barcode, but it's smart and it could send information to a receiver, such as what's inside the package and how fresh it is." At just pennies per chip, such "printed organic electronics" (POE) could clear the way for ubiquitous computing.
YOU'LL READ ELECTRONIC NEWSPAPERS
POE could also be a catalyst in developing e-paper: thin, flexible electronic displays that replace paper.
One possible application is an electronic newspaper. "It will feel and look like your newspaper," says Loutfy, "but it will wirelessly download the news every morning." E-paper could also be used in dynamic signage that lets retailers make snap adjustments to price or promotional signs according to who's in-store.
Loutfy says dynamic signage is now on display in a U.S. retail pilot. The next obstacle is equipping each piece of e-paper with cost-effective microchips and wireless tags (today's rudimentary e-signs cost more than $200 each). "But once we have POE," says Loutfy, "we can do e-paper cheaper and easier."
THE OFFICE WILL BE OBSOLETE
Technology will make telecommuting possible. And for many businesses, it could be a matter of survival. A decade from now, about half of Canada's nine million baby boomers will be 50 to 60 years old — the age at which many people start looking for flexible work arrangements. "We'll have to be far more innovative at using the workforce we've got," says demographer David Foot, an economics professor at the University of Toronto. "Organizations that can handle a part-time consultant workforce are going to boom" — and profit from lower real-estate costs.