In the closing days of 2011, I revealed what I felt would be the biggest trends in technology over the coming year. It won't take too long to find out if I'm right or wrong, but other prognosticators wanted to be more ambitious. IBM picked out five innovations that will change our lives in the next five years, and some of them are pretty darn lofty. Here's my counterpoint, with five Foolish technology predictions that might come to pass by 2017.
Electronic interaction won't be quite so flat
This is a combination of two loosely connected ideas about how we deal with our devices. The first: Many electronic screens will be flexible. Concept devices already exist, but the technology will need refinement -- much as the tablet needed Apple's unique vision to catch fire. Nokia gave us a silly "twist" on the tablet, but Samsung is putting their muscle behind flexibility, with bendable smartphones planned for release next year. Universal Display's (Nasdaq: PANL ) OLED technology will help move this forward thanks to widespread licensing deals.
The other side of the coin: You may not even use a screen at all. It's not yet time for the virtual-reality lifestyle, but projected displays are already in the works. Once augmented reality programming can more easily interact with the real world's endless diversity of forms, projected interfaces ought to see serious mainstream interest. Solving this problem will be a towering challenge for both technical developers and interface designers. The ball's in Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) court, as the company appears to be on the leading edge of projected-interaction research as I write this. For the next five years, though, it's really anyone's game.
Autonomous systems become a common sight
The War on Terror is increasingly fought with drone strikes, which have become so prevalent in the American arsenal that they have their own lobbying group. There are more than six million iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT ) house-cleaning bots scuttling about the world's living rooms. Rosey (the Jetson's robot maid) it ain't, but robotics development has been accelerating, and five years is a long time for technology.
Google has self-driving cars and Sergey Brin-bots. Military development has often been a springboard to civilian use -- think nuclear power plants and ARPANET -- and Google's cars are already street-legal in Nevada. The first systems you'll notice are freight deliveries made without people and multifunctional cleaning solutions for businesses. The next decade won't be a good one for the humble truck driver or the hardworking dishwasher, and will start to very visibly highlight the fact that we may not need as many humans to keep the economy going as we used to.
3-D printers gain widespread adoption
The technology for 3-D printing has been well-tested and well-used in industry for years, but it's nearing the threshold for popular appeal. All that's holding it back is cost and convenience, and both barriers are getting some serious sledgehammering. Start-up Makerbot Industries is challenging twin titans Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS ) and 3-D Systems in the home market with a printer that costs just over $1,000. The company behind the My Robot Nation website is on the leading edge of accessibility, with customizable prints based on a preset format -- in this case, the cute little robot format.
The psychologically important $1,000 barrier will be broken very soon, but most people don't have the high-level computer design ability to make full use of a 3-D printer's complexity. Until neophytes can print impressively complete objects with a few easy tweaks, 3-D printing will remain on the fringe. My Robot Nation is a robotic baby step toward that goal.
Solar and battery advances begin a real alternative energy shift
I could catch serious flack for this prediction, and I'm sticking my neck out farther for it than any other. Even my own research has shown that both technologies are a long way from replacing natural gas and coal as our electricity-generating mainstays. Solar is more efficient than wind power, but both suffer from intermittency problems -- they can't work all the time.
But the solar stock collapse of 2011 doesn't stop the march of progress, which has seen solar compete with "old energy" on costs. Panels were three times more expensive just three years ago, and solar technology has been undergoing exponential improvement for some time. Recent battery advancements promise to make future capacities and charge rates each immensely better than today's, and we could see the new technology commercialized within five years. That would give solar boosters a way to build out without needing backup alternatives for when the sun won't shine.
Better energy storage solutions are necessary to make full use of alternative sources, but the world's searched unsuccessfully for the "better battery" for decades. Solar won't be anywhere near our main energy source in 2017, but I'm hopeful that the technologies it requires for broader adoption make a great leap forward by that point. This is the prediction I most hope will be right, but most expect to be wrong.
Inexpensive DNA screening starts a medical revolution
This isn't idle speculation. Full-genome sequencing costs have already slipped under $10,000. Based on the pace of this progress, the $1,000 genome will arrive in 2013, with 2016 heralding $100 sequencing. That's less than the (uninsured) cost of most doctor visits where you get nothing more than a couple of questions and maybe a cup to pee in. Millions of fully sequenced genomes will be available to medical researchers.
This is a boon to major sequencing companies Illumina (Nasdaq: ILMN ) and Life Technologies, which have the scale to support rapid growth with diminishing prices. Pharmaceutical companies gazing over the patent cliff could make ample use of the data windfall to re-engineer drug formulas and target consumers more directly.
A few last words
Part of the peril of predicting the future is that -- no matter how much research you put in and how many times you crunch the numbers -- nothing to come is guaranteed. But a big part of the fun in predicting technology's future paths is thinking about how interesting life will be after everything changes (yet again). What do you think the next five years will look like?
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