Welcome to episode 263 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
On the podcast this week, we’ll discuss the idea of super technologies, or the combination and subsequent amplification of some of the emerging technologies that we’ve been discussing on the show for a while. Things like 3-D printing, and AI, or robotics coming together and creating sort of a virtuous cycle, where they all reinforce one another. The reason that we’re going to embark on this discussion today, is because MIT Sloan recently released an executive guide called Seven Technologies Remaking the World, which is a PDF that you can download from their site, and we’ll link up to that on The Digital Life website so listeners can check it out after the show.
As I mentioned, these are all technologies that we’ve discussed before, but it’s, I think an interesting exercise to think about how these puzzle pieces fit together. And in fact, Dirk, we, just a few months ago sort of described a super technology chain of our own, which we entitled Smartware. And that was a series of articles that we published with our friends at UXmatters. So there were five or six columns detailing how technologies could come together to enhance how humans can do everything from creative functions to the manufacturing of the future.
It was gratifying to see how closely what they have presented lines up with the things that we were talking about. But it’s also interesting to see the things they had that were a little different. The whole thing was cool.
Yeah, so first let’s … I think we should break out the seven core technologies that they’re addressing, that the authors at MIT Sloan are addressing. So, those are pervasive computing, so computing everywhere. Obviously some of the underpinnings of the internet of things. They talk about wireless mesh networks, so being able to get broadband connections, not just via sort of the top-down networks that we’re so used to, but being able to chain some of these devices together. Biotechnology, 3-D printing, machine learning, which of course was a big one that we highlighted as well. And then nanotechnology and robotics. So those are the big seven core technologies. Now, I think they did a great, page and a half summary of each of those in the reports, and we’ll let the listeners check those out.
Dirk, did you have any quibble with the technologies they highlighted versus maybe some of the ones that we did? For instance, I see that they’re missing augmented reality, virtual reality, as a key technology. And that, we thought, would be pretty important.
Yeah, I don’t have any quibbles with what they presented. They took a little bit different framing than we did, and so they had some things on sort of the hardware pipes side, that just didn’t … For what we saying, didn’t seem terribly relevant, like the wireless mesh networks. It’s true, there’s more internet connectivity, and it’s faster and more capable, and that’s something I sort of took for granted, but they are really highlighting as one of the key pillars. And I can see that, it’s not how I would frame it, but I can see it.
The two things that we talked about that they didn’t mention is the augmented reality, and to me, that’s a pretty … Given their framing, that’s a pretty big omission, ’cause it think the impact of that is going to be massive. And the second one, I’m not as surprised at, which is the identity grafts. They don’t at all cover the interrelationship between robust identity grafts on users and how smartware is going to be integrating with that potentially highly customized to each of us environment. But from the standpoint of how they were looking at it, I don’t have any arguments with the things that they mentioned.
So what I find exciting about their analysis, and how it lines up with our discussion of Smartware earlier this year, is this idea that there’s additional potential, or even greater potential. Not just in the individual technologies themselves, but in their potential as combinations. Right? So bringing these different elements together. And they highlight a couple different areas where they think there’ll be some particularly exciting advances. Healthcare, I think is a fairly obviously one, and you can imagine how your healthcare information can be used, whether it’s your genomic data, your biometric data, can be used in different ways to more precisely deliver the right medications, the right kinds of treatments at the right times to you, so as an individual you have this sort of very precise set of data associated with you, and then very precise ways of delivering whatever the treatment may be. So you can see how everything from 3-D printing a particular drug, or even creating that particular drug just for you could use any number of these technologies and sort of give you the best therapy just in time.
So when we’re thinking about how these technologies combine, I think it’s probably worth mentioning that these are all sort of seen as separate areas of study of research in our current system that we’re familiar with. But I imagine, as we get closer and closer to these technologies bearing fruit, the approach is much more going to be about blurring the boundaries between what we see as these separate silos right now. So for us, Dirk, I think biotechnology is just a completely separate silo that is very different from information technology, which is very different from the human factors and user experience, where we have the majority of our expertise. But even in the designers that I see coming into the studio now, where people have multiple degrees, say in biotech, and they’ll also have comp sci, or user experience or human factors background. These areas are overlapping, and I don’t think the younger designers, at least the ones who are interested in the work we’re doing at the studio, I don’t think they see those boundaries in quite the same way.
Should they. Or, nor should they.
No, they shouldn’t. And I’m quite jealous, actually, because it’s … I feel like I’m flexible, that I can make the intellectual … Shift the gears, or change the way I think, but I’m afraid, also, that it’s getting harder and harder for me to think in as flexible a way as I did when I was younger. So just … And a side there, that for whatever reason, these bright lines that I always associated with separate silos seem almost embedded in my head, for better or for worse.
I’m seeing some streaks of gray in your hair, there, buddy.
Yeah, it’s not a happy occurrence. I’m calcifying as we speak. So Dirk, your takeaways from this idea of super technologies, or how we can layer different technologies together to create better outcomes?
I think it starts with awareness and understanding the different things at our disposal. Looking at this article from MIT, layering on some things that we’re talking about that aren’t covered, like alternate reality and identity grafts. Looking in other places, and getting other ideas. And kinda across, and whatever your domain is. There are some domains for which robotics is really important. There’re other domains for which it’s not important at all, and so identifying which of these trends are germane to your organization, to the markets that you are in, or want to be in. And researching, reading, thinking, and seeing where things are going, and get ahead of it, get on board, and be part of not just responding to these things coming together, but help to bring them together yourself, which is a daunting task, and requires a company, not a person, at a certain level. But that’s okay. You have to start somewhere, and it starts with the awareness and the ideas and putting the pieces together. I don’t think it’s rocket science. At the end of the day, it just takes focus and effort.
So do you think that this is different from other technological revolutions because of this ability to recombine technologies in more advantageous ways? So it’s the thesis of this MIT Sloan report that this is a fundamental difference of, call it this next wave of technologies, that it’s not a fixed set of technologies, but rather one that has just sort of limitless potential for these combination. I’m trying to think of examples from the various industrial revolutions, and I think I agree with the author. Is that the same for you, Dirk?
I’m not sure. So at the macro level, you mentioned various industrial revolutions. If we look at the original industrial revolution, the big one. The one that took us from practically a cottage industry, rural life, into urban life, and big machines. That was bringing a lot of things together, too. And so trying to compare the two, which is more or less, I’m not equipped to do. But what I can say is, if we look at the history of computing, the PC revolution was driven by a very narrow band of things around computer hardware, computer software. The internet revolution, 15 years later, 10, 12 years later, was driven essentially by one technology, the internet. The smartphone revolution, that was driven by a little bit more of a confluence of things. A smartphone was sort of the culminating device, but there was a lot of stuff coming together going into that so that both the Smartware as a hardware device as well as a platform as well as a social environment, were able to come together and make all of us computer users.
How quickly are the different things going to happen, and to what degree is it going to be creeping change, or is it going to be sweeping change? And it’s gonna be fun to live through it and watch it all unfold.
Yeah, I like that creeping change versus sweeping change, that’s a good turn of phrase. Because I think that’s part of what frustrates people when we have these discussions. Because there are changes underneath the surface, of course, and then there’s sort of huge, huge moments that we call can sort of point to and say, “Okay, that’s when everything changed.” The iPhone is sort of the iconic moment for mobile technology, but I think it’s very hard to see what’s going on underneath the surface when it come to some of these technologies. Nanotechnology affects a whole host of materials that we use sort of in our everyday lives that are commercialized. And we don’t see those changes quite in the same way, although there’s all sorts of interesting, new materials that are based on nano tech that appear in our sports equipment, is exceedingly more sophisticated, but there’s not that iPhone moment. There’s no, at least so far, it doesn’t have that big cultural moment that coincides with it. So we have this creeping change, or at least it’s more invisible and difficult to detect.
One final point I wanted to make, just about this idea of super technologies, the idea that we can combine different emerging technologies into something greater, is that that’s the kind of thinking that designers are pretty good at. That is an area where, if you look at the sets of skills around system thinking and sort of being able to see and envision a bigger picture that incorporates a lot of disparate elements, that is what designers really do at their core. Now, we may have a particular tactical focus when it comes to certain technologies, and you obviously have to ship product. But there’s, what I feel like, there’s lots of opportunities for design to help facilitate these super technologies to be a part of this interesting work, and I think a lot of it comes down to being able to be comfortable with perhaps more science, with working across teams of engineers and scientists that is only just beginning to surface when it comes to the design conversation. Dirk, I know you’ve spoken about this and thought about this a lot, but this feels like a great opportunity for design, as well.
Yeah, it certainly can be. I take a little bit of issue with … When you talk about the core skillset of designers, I think unfortunately a lot of it more tactical. I don’t think designers who are at large are thinking at system level and big level. So I think there’s a need for reorientation, and maybe even retraining for designers to really thrive in this environment. I think there’s some, of course, who will and can, and already sort of have those skills and worldview and way of thinking. But I think for a lot of others, especially the ones we were talking with a couple weeks ago, about with Dan Harvey on the show, people who’ve been trained more task-based, the more recent UX sort of diploma mill graduates, from places like General Assembly. There might need to be some more steps in their training to get there. But certainly, the process, the creative process, the skills, design as a practice does lend itself to problem solving these kind of things.
Let’s just remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here, in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. And if you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course, the whole show’s brought to you buy GoInvo, the studio designing the feature of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O .com.
You can follow me on twitter, @dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for episode 263 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.