There can be little doubt that the world economy is on the cusp of fundamental change. The rise of automation, robotics and big data will transform our world just as the internet, the production line and the industrial revolution did before. Before long we’ll be ordering driverless taxi’s on our phones, getting deliveries by drone and screening our children for genetic diseases, curing them before they’re even born. This will see old industries swept away and bring about a golden age for others. While all of these industries will be driven by new technology, they’ll also need legions of salespeople, marketers, accountants, managers, lawyers and administrators as well as scientists, engineers and IT specialists. And they’ll provide big opportunities for investors too. Here are the big industries of the coming decades.
Big data is the future. With so much of our lives conducted online, and the spread of networked technology into our homes, our vehicles, even into the things we wear, the amount of digital information in the world is vast, varied and growing exponentially. This sea of information can give companies a level of insight, about how people shop, interact with their brand and use their products, which has never been possible before. Through analysing this data, firms can learn how to improve their products and how to meet consumer demand. Data analytics will be important in places you wouldn’t expect. For example, as sportswear company Under Armour starts adding networked sensors to their clothing, they’ll start gathering millions of gigabytes of biometric data about their customers. Data which needs to be understood before it can inform business and development decisions.
Big data is worth billions, so companies specialising in providing data analysis, or that develop software to help companies do so in-house, are going to be big winners in the near future.
In our networked world, outsiders can gain intimate access to a government or corporation’s accounts, communications, data and secrets like never before. The rise of the ‘internet of things’ only increases this threat further and even makes it a tangible danger to human life. Imagine if terrorists could take control of a large drone, or even a passenger jet? What if hackers on the other side of the world could take control of a politician’s driverless car? How much economic damage would be caused if an entire countries communications or power networks were shut down even just for a few hours?
Modern computer viruses are often targeted at securing financial gain, like the recent global, much publicised ‘Wannacry’ and ‘Petya’ ransom-ware attacks, through threatening to delete a user’s data, or by stealing sensitive information like bank details. However, they’re already being used to cause physical damage too. An example of a real world cyber attack on infrastructure dates to 2010, when it emerged that a computer worm known as ‘Stuxnet’, thought to have been designed by the US and Israeli governments, had been deployed to destroy uranium-enrichment centrifuges in Iran.
As the reach of the internet is only set to expand in coming years, and as computer viruses are increasingly sophisticated tools developed by highly skilled teams of professional criminals and espionage agencies, the need for cyber security technology and cyber security specialists will grow continuously. This is an industry that will continue to thrive, as with each evolution in cyber security technology spurs someone to create a new set of tools to defeat it.
Used in the military for decades, unmanned vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, are now becoming more and more common. Small and relatively inexpensive commercial drones hit our shelves a few years ago now, allowing hobbyists and professional videographers the ability to do aerial photography without the expense of hiring a helicopter. While many of today’s drones are piloted remotely by human, the real potential for drones is as autonomous vehicles. Amazon are working on ambitious plans to deliver parcels with a fleet of flying drones. This technology isn’t just for our convenience: the UN has worked with the government of Malawi to trial drones for making emergency aid deliveries.
A number of companies, including Google and Apple, are working to design driverless road vehicles for passengers and deliveries too. At sea, commercial vessels may not need crews for much longer, as work progresses on an autonomous, fully electric container ship. Once these technologies are perfected, and regulations are adjusted to accommodate them, these various autonomous vehicles are likely to develop into multi-billion pound industries as companies are drawn to the cost savings of not having to employ human drivers. Investing in these technologies now could reap big rewards in the future.
As well as seeing drones everywhere in the near future, robots are set to become a much bigger part of everyday life too. Robots have been used in manufacturing for a while now, and as technology improves, these are on track to replace more and more manual jobs as they become cheaper than human workers. But humanoid robots could also make their way into homes and service-based workplaces soon.
Just designing a robot that can walk and navigate independently has been a huge challenge all in itself. Boston Dynamic’s robots started out walking on four legs and are able to do some pretty neat things, despite looking a bit nightmarish. They’ve built bipedal machines too, which are able to stay upright on difficult terrain and when pushed. These robots could one day have serious applications. They could enter situations too dangerous for humans, like fires or earthquake-hit buildings, to search or even rescue survivors. So while it may appeal to our lazy side to have machines to clean for us, a robot could one day save your life. And, of course, robotics companies stand to make a bonanza. Let’s hope by then your average robot looks a bit less scary than this.
It’s not just manual jobs that will probably be taken over by machines in the future. Artificial intelligence has the potential to take over a lot of white-collar functions too, and assist human workers in other circumstances. Imagine if instead of taking hours to set up complicated spreadsheet algorithms, you could just tell your computer what you want to achieve, and let it do it in seconds? Along with robotics and drones, AI could dramatically increase economic productivity.
Lots of companies, including Google and Facebook, are investing heavily in AI research, hoping to be the first to develop true artificial intelligence. IBM has developed a computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, known as Watson. This has a range of applications, but the first commercial use was in a cancer centre in New York.
In 2011, scientists discovered a protein called CRISPR-Cas9. This is an enzyme which bacteria use to attack viruses which infect them. But it had an unexpected application. CRISPR is the most efficient way of cutting and pasting DNA known to humankind, and with enough research, it could change our world.
US based company Editas Medicine has received over a hundred million dollars of investment from a group of investors which includes Bill Gates and Google. This gene editing technology has the potential to delete and replace parts of someone’s DNA, curing a range of genetic diseases. But this technology doesn’t need to stop at preventing illnesses. It could also be used to create so called ‘designer babies’, selecting eye colour, hair type, and so on. One day it could even develop humans which are smarter, stronger, healthier, and longer-lived.
This would have profound ethical, social, and even economic ramifications, allowing economic inequality to be transformed into biological inequality for the first time. It remains to be seen how national governments will regulate this industry, though, in the absence of a global standard, it’s likely some countries will be laxer than others. There can be little doubt that gene editing has the potential to become a massive industry, as those that can afford it aim to guarantee their children are born healthy and, perhaps even to improve themselves.
We’re already able to use phones instead of bank cards for contactless payments in some places, but the technology won’t stop there. Amazon recently opened a store that uses a combination of sensors and an app on your mobile phone so that all you need to do is tap on the way into the store, pick up whatever you need, and walk out. Your Amazon account gets charged automatically.
This could revolutionise the way we shop, doing away with queues at checkouts and scrambling in your pockets or bag for your wallet. This will provide big opportunities to the companies which develop the technology and bring it to the mass market first.
Since the turn of the century, video gaming has gone mainstream, and is now a massive industry, hitting $91bn in revenues in 2016. From PCs to consoles to mobile apps and web based games, video gaming is a diverse industry with many formats, genres and audiences, with some ambitious games designers delivering narrative works of art which are arguably on par with films and television series. The rapid development of graphics technology means we’re approaching photo-realism, but viewing a game on a screen means there’s always going to be a limit to the immersion possible.
Virtual reality technology aims to bring video gaming to another level, giving people 360 degree immersion via headsets. Goldman Sachs predicts the market for this technology will be worth $80bn by 2025, almost as much as the entire gaming sector is worth now. VR need not just be for video games; it could be applied for films and television too, for training professionals like pilots, surgeons and soldiers, and to provide us new ways to interact over social media, ‘hanging out’ together in cyber-space. Perhaps this is how we’ll conduct remote business conferences in the future too. The technology currently has limitations, foremost being the motion sickness it induces in many people, but if this can be solved, it has a bright future.
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