Keeping up with technology trends can be overwhelming. There's always something new to learn about, and just when you think you're starting to grasp a new investment idea, another one pops up.

You can hardly go online or switch on the news without hearing something about blockchain technology, artificial intelligence (AI), or driverless cars. But what exactly is happening with these technologies, who are some of the big players, and what is the market size of each? Read on for some straightforward answers to these questions. 

Computer motherboard lit up with pink lights.

Image source: Getty Images.

Blockchain technology

You've probably heard the word "blockchain" used in conversations about bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But what exactly is it? Blockchains are digital public ledgers that securely keep track of transactions of information. The data kept in blockchains is decentralized, meaning that it's not stored in any one location but rather across many computers, and it's protected using cryptography.

This makes blockchains ideal for financial transactions, which is one reasons it's used for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but it can also be applied to many other industries. For example, Walmart is testing blockchain technology developed by IBM (NYSE:IBM) to help track where some of its produce comes from, so that it can more quickly determine where recalled food originated. In early tests, IBM's tech was able to track food to its source within just 2 seconds, compared to about a week using its current system. 

Blockchain ledgers are already being developed for everything from medical records to personal identifications, and nearly every industry will be able to implement some form of the technology. Perhaps that's why the blockchain market is projected to be worth about $61 billion by 2024, up from just $708 million last year.

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Artist's rendering of a brain in the middle of computer connection lines.

Image source: Getty Images.

Artificial intelligence

The term "artificial intelligence" is thrown around a lot and nearly every technology company is pursuing, using, or talking about AI in some fashion. But what do they mean when they say AI, and what can it actually be used for?

First, you need to understand that the broad term AI can refer to several different technologies. Algorithms and computer intelligence that are good at doing one specific task are commonly referred to as narrow artificial intelligence. Image recognition is a form of narrow AI, like when you upload a picture to Google Photos and the app knows that it's a picture of the beach, a table, a person, etc. and classifies it for you. 

And then there is machine learning, which is part of AI. NVIDIA Corporation (NASDAQ:NVDA), which makes graphics processing units (GPUs) that are used in many AI data centers and driverless cars, says that machine learning is, "the practice of using algorithms to parse data, learn from it, and then make a determination or prediction about something in the world." Hence the "learning" part of machine learning.

NVIDIA believes its own total addressable market for selling GPUs for AI will be about $40 billion by 2035, and Gartner says that AI augmentation (humans working alongside AI systems) will generate $2.9 trillion in business value by 2021 and create more jobs than it eliminates by 2020.

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A Waymo driverless minivan on the road.

Image source: Waymo.

Driverless cars

The term "driverless cars" is actually a little less accurate than it suggests, because it's often used for vehicles with varying levels of automation. There are five levels of vehicle autonomy that technology companies and automakers are working toward, with Level 5 being the ultimate goal: a vehicle driving itself on any road at any time, with no assistance from a human driver.

Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google grabs a lot of attention in the driverless car space, especially since the company spun out its driverless car segment into its own business, called Waymo, back in 2016. Waymo has logged 5 million miles of real-world autonomous driving, and Alphabet recently announced that Waymo will launch its own public ridesharing app later this year, after conducting extensive public tests in Phoenix.

Autonomous vehicles are being made possible through AI technology, like NVIDIA's Drive PX Pegasus computer, and once they become prevalent, they're projected to save 300,000 lives per decade in just the U.S. Tech companies get a lot of attention for driverless cars, but traditional automaker General Motors (NYSE:GM) could be one of the first companies to bring fully autonomous vehicles to the public. The company plans to launch its own autonomous taxi service some time next year and has already spent $100 million to upgrade two of its factories to allow them to mass-produce self-driving cars. 

There are a lot of estimates for how big the self-driving car market will be, with some forecasts saying it'll be worth $77 billion by 2035 and others saying that autonomous vehicles will create new economies within the transportation sector that could be worth $7 trillion by 2050. It's worth mentioning the recent news that one of Uber's test autonomous vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian. Uber has suspended its testing and the accident is raising more questions about autonomous vehicle technology and what new laws may be needed. 

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Of course, none of these tech trends are bulletproof, and the companies investing in them may still have a long way to go before they'll reap the benefits. But each one presents a massive opportunity for investors and the companies that are betting on it. It isn't too late to find great companies that are making big moves in these segments.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Chris Neiger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Nvidia. The Motley Fool is short shares of IBM. The Motley Fool recommends Gartner. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.