The last several years have seen a tremendous expansion in the ideas, concepts, and overall vision of where the world of technology is headed. From mind-bending escapades into virtual and augmented reality, on to thought-provoking voice interactions with AI-powered digital assistants, towards an Internet filled with billions of connected things, into enticing experiments with autonomous vehicles, and up through soaring vistas enabled by drones, the tech world has been far from lacking in big picture perspectives on where things can go.
Vision, however, isn’t the hard part. The really challenging task, which the industry is just starting to face, is actually executing on those grandiose ideas. It’s all fine and good to talk about where things are going to go—and building out grand blueprints for the future is a critical step for setting industry direction—but it’s becoming clear that now is the time for true action.
Excitement around these big picture visions has begun to fade, replaced increasingly by skepticism of their feasibility, particularly when early efforts in many of these areas have failed to meet the kind of mass success that many had predicted. People have heard enough about what we could do, and are eager to see what we can do.
It’s also more than just a simple dip in the infamous Gartner hype cycle, which describes a path that many new technologies face as they enter the market. According to that widely cited predictive tool, initial excitement around a new technology grows, eventually reaching the point where hype overtakes reality. After that, the technology falls into the trough of disillusionment, as people start to question its impact, before finally settling into a more mature, balanced perspective on its long-term value.
What’s happening in the tech industry now is a much bigger change. After years of stunning new ideas and concepts that hinted at a radically different tech future way beyond the relatively simple advances that were being made in our core tech devices, there’s an increasing recognition that it’s a very long road between where we are now, and where we need to be in order for those visions to be realized.
As a result, there’s a major resetting of expectations going on in the industry. It’s not that the ultimate goals have changed—we’re still headed towards truly immersive AR/VR, conversation-ready AI tools, fully autonomous cars, a seamlessly connected Internet of Things, and much more—but timelines are shifting for their full-fledged arrival.
In the meantime, the industry has to dig into the nitty-gritty of developing all the critical technologies and standards necessary to enable those game-changing developments. Unfortunately, much of that work is likely to be slow-going, and, in many instances, won’t necessarily translate into immediately obvious advances. It’s not that technological innovation will cease or even slow down, but I do believe many advances are going to be more subtle and much less obvious than what many have become accustomed to. As a result, some will think that major tech developments have started to slow.
Take, for example, the world of Artificial Intelligence. By all accounts, refinements in AI algorithms continue at a frenetic pace, but how those get translated into real-world uses and practical implementations isn’t at all clear and, therefore, isn’t moving nearly as quickly. Part of the reason is that the difference between, say, today’s digital assistants and future versions that are contextually intelligent are likely to occur along a long, mildly-sloped line that will be challenging for many people to remember. The difference between a current assistant that can only respond to a relatively simple query and a future version that will be able to engage in intelligent, multi-part conversations is certainly going to be noticeable, but there will likely be lots of subtle, difficult-to-distinguish changes along the way. Plus, it seems a lot less dramatic than the first few times you spoke to a smart speaker and it actually responded back.
If we take a step back and look at the larger global arch of history that the tech industry currently finds itself in, I’d argue we’re in a transitional period. After decades of evolution centered around PCs, smartphones, and simple web browsing, we entered an epoch of intelligent machines, seamless connectivity, and web-based services several years back that allowed the industry to dream big about what it could achieve. Now that we understand those visions, however, the industry needs to get to the hard work of truly bringing those visions to life.