What's in store for the future of technology? For Paul Saffo, a noted Silicon Valley forecaster and a consulting associate professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, that's the wrong question.
"What is the future of homeownership?" Saffo asked me rhetorically during a recent interview. His answer is as interesting as the question, which is born not merely from the current crisis, which Saffo argues began brewing long ago, when Americans first started thinking of their homes as piggy banks rather than sanctuaries, but from a pattern he sees. Humans are, once again, nomads -- able to work anywhere, anytime. Business models and technologies are emerging to support the shift, he says.
Meet George Jet ... er, I mean, meet your softbot
Saffo argues that we've shifted from an ownership society to a subscription society and that our on-the-go lives will demand a suite of services to work. Filling the gap, he suggests, will be robots -- lots and lots of robots.
And not just gadgets like iRobot's (Nasdaq: IRBT ) Roomba. Saffo says a robot is any computer-powered device or software program that directly interacts with the physical world. A "softbot," for example, is what you get from Nuance Communications (Nasdaq: NUAN ) when it creates a voice recognition system that gives you directions or assists you with a travel booking.
Other robots are physical enhancers; bionics, if you will. Intuitive Surgical's (Nasdaq: ISRG ) da Vinci system, which allows doctors to operate remotely with precision, is a perfect example.
More broadly -- ominously? -- Saffo says that the robotic revolution will be fueled by a massive increase in computing power through multicore chips. A "core" is a unit of processing power that can be assigned to handle a specific computing task. New chips from Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) and Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD ) are being created to support multiple "cores" on a single chip, or a die.
Saffo thinks it's possible to have hundreds of cores on a single die. "In 10 years everyone will be carrying at least one supercomputer in their pocket. If you're only carrying one supercomputer then you'll be a tech laggard."
Every man will be worth $6 million
What your supercomputer does may have a lot to do with how you think, act, speak, and live. Biology, Saffo argues, is becoming the model for technological breakthroughs in everything from medicine to manufacturing.
Biotech is part of the revolution, to be sure, but investors should look deeper. "We know that biotech is slow because the challenges are big because there's a lot left to be discovered," Saffo says.
But, in the interim, progress is being made. Genetic screenings are becoming more common. Genetic decoding isn't nearly as pervasive, but thanks to the work of firms like Celera Genomics (NYSE: CRA ) , it is, according to Saffo, proceeding at the pace of Moore's Law, which says that it's possible to double the power of a microprocessor every two years. Were access to genomic decoding to advance at a similar pace, every American could have a genetic report card within 10 to 20 years.
And yet Saffo finds biomimicry -- a term that describes biologically inspired design -- just as interesting. For him, there's symmetry between the architect who borrows from the working processes of the human body and nomadic workers who follow paths of least resistance to exploit their talents profitably, wherever those paths might take them.
I'll do it myself, thanks
Where Saffo ultimately sees humans taking ownership is in their surroundings. From tools to gadgets to content, he suggests that the winds of technology innovation are blowing toward a do-it-yourself culture, and that its manifesto is a magazine called MAKE, published by open-source software advocate and tech guru Tim O'Reilly.
Call it the result of being an increasingly self-reliant, on-the-go species that's lost patience with the pace of change. "One of the great assumptions of the '80s and early '90s was that you had to be a passive user ... People are no longer afraid to open anything up," Saffo says.
And companies will need to shift their thinking to address these more aggressive "participants." That's right, that's what he calls them -- "participants," not "consumers." The working nomad, who's perfectly content to leave the U.S. if that's where his talent takes him, demands a role in shaping his world.
One example: Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) YouTube, which Saffo calls the "horseless carriage" for what movies can be when consumers are no more, and participants rule.
A Foolish future
All of which points to a simple truth for Saffo: Technology has done plenty to improve the human experience. Its next job is to improve the human condition and, as such, ensures a shift "from electronics to biology," he concludes.
Robots. Biology-inspired tech. A culture filled with do-it-yourself geeks. Welcome to the future, Fool. Col. Steve Austin is waiting.