When it comes to the game-changing technology of the past few decades, several things come to mind. The rise of the PC in the ’80s changed the way we work. The ‘90s brought us the World Wide Web. The 2000s saw the spread of cellphones, smartphones, and social networks. All of this begs the question: What’s next? What new technological innovations will have as big of an impact as those did?
We have some hints, thanks to a number of new technologies that are just starting to get off the ground. Here are some of the most promising new ideas that could change the world in the coming years.
1. Artificial intelligence
If movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Her are correct, verbal communication could be the main way we interact with computers in the future (though, hopefully without the murder and romance). While we have a long way to go before conversation can be the main way to interact with a computer, we’re already seeing the beginnings of a path that could lead there.
That’s because we have artificial intelligence like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant. Whenever the big players in tech are competing with one another on something like AI, it could become the next big thing.
But, it will take awhile. To use any of these AI assistants right now is to wallow in disappointment and dreams unfulfilled. They have their uses, but they also have enormous blind spots and annoying tics that make interacting with them less than ideal. Still, these companies have all the time in the world to improve their AI offerings, so we’ll probably get there eventually.
2. Space travel
Air travel, it turns out, is for suckers. The real fun is in space travel, something that will come in handy once we inevitably ruin this planet. That’s according to tech titan Elon Musk, who has come up with a step-by-step process to colonize Mars — and that’s just for starters.
The problem with our species being stranded on Earth is that if an extinction-level event happens, that’s the end of the line for us. If we spread out across the solar system, Musk argues, we have a better chance of surviving whatever fate may throw at us.
The company Musk has working on this problem is SpaceX. SpaceX plans to fund the colonization of other planets by doing other space-age jobs like sending satellites into space and shipping items anywhere in the world in under an hour. It sounds ambitious, but the only way to achieve great things is to aim high — really, really high.
3. Self-driving cars
If you believe the hype, we won’t be doing much driving in the future — our cars will do it for us. Or maybe we won’t even own cars, and we’ll just summon them as needed. The companies currently working on self-driving cars include Google, Tesla, and Uber.
As with many of the other items on this list, we still have a long way to go before the technology will be ready for the mainstream. Many thorny issues remain, including a legal framework for self-driving cars, protection against hackers, and questions like how the cars should act when a crash is inevitable.
4. Virtual reality
Who needs the real world when you can immerse yourself in a digital realm of your choosing? Virtual reality is already available on a number of devices, ranging from standard cellphones to powerful rigs that cost thousands of dollars. But is this hot new technology here to stay? It’s too early to tell, but Mark Zuckerberg believes in the concept so strongly that Facebook paid $2 billion to buy Oculus, the maker of the Oculus Rift headset.
We have a long way to go before VR will be as convincing as the holodeck on Star Trek, but if we can get close to that point, it’ll be worth the wait.
5. Home automation
The idea behind the “Internet of Things” is that, in the future, many of our everyday items will be connected to the internet. They’ll be able to “talk” to each other and anticipate our needs to relieve us of many of the common tasks we do today.
Smart devices are already hitting the market. There are light bulbs you can control from your phone and program to turn on and off at preset times. You can also use devices like the Amazon Echo or Google Home to change the temperature on your thermostat, lock your door, and check if your garage door is up or down.
Does automating these simple tasks sound lazy? It sure does, but that doesn’t mean it won’t catch on. Home automation devices haven’t made an enormous splash yet, but as they become more capable and more automated, they could have a major effect on our day-to-day lives in the future.
6. 3D printing
What’s so great about 3D printing? After all, printers are among the most boring pieces of technology imaginable. For starters, 3D printers can do a lot more than the standard paper-and-ink kind can. They can create real-life items, made to order. If you think about 3D printers on a large scale, you can imagine a world in which companies will no longer outsource manufacturing of most items to workers in other countries.
But it doesn’t stop with textiles, toys, and gadgets. If the futurists are correct, we’ll be able to print everything from food and houses to replacement limbs and organs, each item designed to your individual specifications. There are problems to solve along the way, like how to regulate 3D-printed guns, but this could be one technology that drastically changes the way the world works.
7. Augmented reality
While companies like Facebook and Sony are busying themselves with virtual reality, other companies like Microsoft and Google want to bring digital images into the real world. With an augmented reality headset like Microsoft’s HoloLens, you can still see the world around you, but it’s filled with digital images that look like they’re right in front of you. It’s reality, but better.
Potential applications for augmented reality include education, skill-based training, advertising, and gaming. If augmented reality takes off, you may be able to see whatever kind of information you want overlaid across your vision. That could be useful in any number of ways.