Friday, May 16, 2008

Silicon Valley Prognosticators Convention


I recently attended the Churchill Club's annual 'Top 10 Tech Trends' event at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, CA. I had been looking forward to this night, since I've attended previous club events, but never this one. I wasn't disappointed, as the panel of tech prognosticators that they brought in was informative, entertaining, and had a good mix of opinions.

I'll lay out all of the trends below, and comment on a select few that interested me the most. This was a panel format, with each panelist getting time for two trends that they could put forth as their top thoughts on the future. After each presentation, the panel got to 'vote' ('red' or 'green'), and explain their reasons. An audience poll was also taken after the panelists were finished discussing, and this was recorded as well. The panel was a 'Who's Who' of Silicon Valley tech experts, venture capitalists, and technologists. The panelists for this evening were:

The evening was moderated by Tony Perkins, Creator & Editor-in-Chief, AlwaysOn. The ten trends presented were:

  • Demographics are Destiny - Tech-savvy 'Boomers' getting older creates opportunities to harness their knowledge (Jurvetson)

  • Device That Used To Be a Phone - Mobile phones turning into mainstream computers to hold all of life's data (Khosla)

  • Rise of the 'Implicit' Internet - How the harvesting of your 'digital trail' could yield useful mashups to make your life easier (Kopelman)

  • Migration of Mobile Phone Market from 'Feature Phones' to 'Smart Phones' - many implications to OEMs and carriers (McNamee)

  • Water Tech Will Be More Important Than Global Warming - Our current focus on global warming may be less important than insuring clean water supplies for everyone (Schoendorf)

  • Evolution Trumps Design - Utilizing evolutionary processes to design better technology (Jurvetson)

  • Fossilizing Fossil Energy - Traditional energy sources (oil, natural gas) will have increasing competition in the form of more economically produced biofuel (Khosla)

  • Venture Capital 2.0 - VC funds have had to grow larger to continue to make a profit & are shifting away from IT/Software opportunities or other tech (Kopelman)

  • Within 5 Years, Everything You Need Will Be On Your Device - result will be more internet traffic to/from mobile devices than PCs (McNamee)

  • 80% of World Population Will Carry Mobile Devices in 5-10 Years - wireline phones/dial tone will be a thing of the past (Schoendorf)


The first trend out of the gate was one that is near and dear to our family, since my wife is a baby boomer. The idea that we will soon have a large population of older Americans that are tech savvy will present some interesting opportunities, both for corporations, and the boomers themselves. Jurvetson theorized an 'eBay-style' market for information processing or technical services. I could even imagine using the accumulated knowledge as a giant 'human supercomputer'. For the boomers themselves, being able to do productive work with sharper minds will provide both financial and health benefits, since studies have shown that those with stronger, agile minds are likely to live longer and suffer less from diseases of aging.

I'd like to address two of the very similar mobile phone trends together - 'Device That Used To Be a Phone', and 'Everything You Need Will Be On Your Device'. The panel and audience seemed split on both of these, mainly because they were not seen as 'future-enough'. I will agree to a certain extent that in places such as Asia and Europe, the concept of a phone that replaces your credit cards, ID, keys, etc. is much further along. However, I believe that Khosla's key element in his trend prediction is one of all of your mobile phone data living in the network 'cloud'. If we are going to rely upon these devices to hold all of our lives (and given the cultural bent toward Ludditism in North America, I'm not sure this will happen soon), there has to be a clean and easy way for you to 're-provision' a new phone should you lose or break your existing device. Even mobile phone carriers should applaud this one, as it would make it much easier to provision new customers, as well as encourage 'upgrades' without the pain that accompanies a phone replacement today - re-provisioning on the network, helping customer transfer address book, calendar, etc. I know that I would appreciate something I could carry with me to replace all of the things I currently shove in my pockets when ready to walk out the door. Putting the data from these devices into the network, and applying appropriate security measures (biometric, plus something you know) would go a long way toward making this future a reality.

The one trend that really resonated with me was Kopelman's 'Rise of the "Implicit" Internet'. His proposal of harvesting the 'digital breadcrumbs' of one's Internet existence is squarely in the cross hairs of Social Knowledge Management - the ability to utilize data from disparate sources that is authored both by you, and others. There have been numerous attempts to break down the silos of information that exist about you on the net (Google search results, Facebook, del.icio.us, etc.). Some of these have been more neutral (FOAF - Friend of a Friend), and some have been commercial (OpenSocial). I believe the first standard to be adopted in this space will have huge impact in terms of both personal productivity as well as monetization opportunities by companies. This could also help usher in the era of Web 3.0 - the ability for computers to take over some of the more mundane tasks that we do 'by hand' now (travel booking, for instance). McNamee brought up the security concerns associated with this data harvesting (which are valid, to a degree), but was shot down by Khosla, who called the argument a 'red herring', and said that we have the technical know-how to make these kinds of systems secure.

Leaving aside the Water Tech and Fossilizing Fossil Energy for now (not because they aren't important, but because I believe we have the impetus and technology wherewithal to get those done), I'd like to close by spending some time on Jurvetson's Evolution Trumps Design. The idea of using evolutionary processes to help build better chemicals is not necessarily new, but the idea of utilizing the same processes in computer science and artificial intelligence for evolutionary computation is still reasonably recent in practice (even though research has been going on for quite some time). The idea of using evolutionary theory to help build better programs by cycling through several computer programs and winnowing the group down to the best one is fascinating to me, and I would hope that it would eventually lead to more stable software overall. It would also remove some of the 'political' aspects of technology solutions, if you could prove that the system(s) chosen were the result of 'natural selection'.

This night was very informative and entertaining, and I enjoyed meeting a lot of new folks at dinner and in the hallways. I look forward to next year's trends dinner, and hope to bring my blog readers more interesting content from other Churchill Club events. Thanks for reading!

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