Last week, as I was writing a Foolish piece about "Investing like Lewis and Clark," my editor challenged a statement I made about the future being "significantly different than what most people believe." He was concerned that people had said the same thing about the dot-com mania in the late 1990s, and he was afraid that it came off as a little Pollyannaish.
It was a valid point, and in a subsequent draft, I backed up my belief by saying:
"Exponential or near-exponential advances in everything from computer processing power to data storage to bandwidth, and amazing scientific advances in disease diagnostic technology, brain-scanning technology, pharmacogenetics, and proteomics, are poised to usher in an age of unprecedented change -- change that will require many corporations to modify their existing business models, or adopt new ones, if they hope to remain competitive."
I stand by the statement, and a series of recent articles have clarified my belief that the next five to 10 years will be so much different than the recent past.
Simply put, the maps are getting better. Yesterday, when I wrote about how the mapping of the poplar genome would speed up the development of ethanol production, I unwittingly provided an example of how a better map is facilitating change.
Today, I came across an article about how Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) is threatening to replace Rand McNally as the gold standard in mapping. Google has figured how to add a new level of detail to maps by combining them with 3-D satellite images.
However, Google has also taken mapping to an even higher level. It's creating richer, more vivid, and ultimately more useful maps by getting thousands of its users to add additional information -- such as links to magazine articles, personal observations, photos, or even movies -- to coordinates on the maps.
Thanks to all this new information, not only can people find what they are looking for more easily (searching by keywords or even photos), they can also use this enhanced information to uncover new insights about their destination -- insights which they are, in turn, more likely to share on the map.
In essence, a positive feedback loop is created, generating more and more information with every cycle. As this new information is created, new business opportunities will emerge, as advertisers and retailers alike figure how to tap into this extraordinary potential.
Another case in point about how mapping technology is speeding change can be found in today's New York Times. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) co-founder Paul Allen has invested $41 million to create an electronic atlas that shows, in real time, which genes are switched on in neurons throughout a mouse's brain.
The technology might not sound like much, but the vice president of research at Genentech (Nasdaq: DNA ) has said its significance is "on par with the human genome project." If Genentech can understand which genes are active, it can more readily uncover methods to influence the behavior of those genes.
If you then add in the mapping work that IBM (NYSE: IBM ) is doing with supercomputers on its "Blue Brain Project" -- a program designed to create a detailed model of the circuitry in the neocortex -- you can suddenly begin to see the formation of a massive positive feedback loop around our understanding of the workings of the human brain.
This wealth of information can then be used by researchers, bringing us that much closer to exciting new treatments for everything from depression and Parkinson's to brain cancer and Alzheimer's.
Of course, it's still possible to get lost when following a map, and sometimes even the best maps don't list the latest detours or obstacles. But in general, just as a good map will help you arrive at your destination in the fastest and most efficient manner, I believe that by tracking the new interactive maps Google is building, the genomic maps that Genentech is utilizing, and the maps of the human brain that IBM is generating, individual investors will be able to reach their financial destination that much sooner -- because they'll have a clear picture of where the future is headed.
Interested in learning more about some of the companies mapping this new future? Consider taking a dive into a free, 30-day trial ofMotley Fool Rule Breakers.
Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology, including Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big. He does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.