Aneesh Chopra, Steve Jurvetson, Paul Saffo Debate Top Tech Trends, from Rosie the Robot to Augmented Reality

The Churchill Club, a networking group for Silicon Valley technology executives, hit the quarter-century mark in November, and for the last 13 of those 25 years, it’s organized an annual “Top 10 Tech Trends” dinner. The format is simple. A panelist or guest proposes a trend that will shape markets and define entrepreneurial opportunities over the next three years, and the other panelists either praise the idea or shoot it down. Lather, rinse, and repeat 10 times. While the content is serious, the discussion is usually raucous and no-holds-barred.

The latest Tech Trends dinner, held last night at the Santa Clara Marriott, was as contentious as ever. This year’s trends were dreamed up the by folks at Menlo Park contract research giant SRI International (which hosted Xconomy’s “Beyond Mobile: Computing in 2021” event last week) and delivered by SRI CEO Curt Carlson. Reacting to the ideas was a panel consisting of Aneesh Chopra, chief technology officer of the United States; Steve Jurvetson, managing director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson; futurist Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight at Discern Analytics; and Ajay Royan, managing director at Clarium Capital, the venture firm founded by Peter Thiel. AlwaysOn founder and Churchill Club co-founder Tony Perkins moderated, and the audience got to participate via electronic voting pads.

I found myself agreeing with most of Carlson’s proposals. Whether all of SRI’s trends will materialize within the specified three-year time frame is another question (and one that consistently tripped up the panelists), but they all make excellent food for thought, even echoing in many cases the scenarios that we discussed last week at “Beyond Mobile.” So I’m going to outline them briefly here, along with the audience reaction on a 1-to-10 scale (1 indicating total disagreement, 10 indicating total agreement).

These aren’t verbatim quotes but rather my own boiled-down summaries of SRI’s ideas and the panelists’ reactions. If you have your own opinion about whether these trends will have a big impact in the near future—or the distant future, for that matter—let us know in the comment section.

1. Age Before Beauty

The trend: Baby boomers will dictate consumer product trends as designers pay more attention to their tastes and needs. We’ll see more products on the market such as GreatCall’s Jitterbug cell phones, with their very large keys.

The panel reaction: Thumbs down. The over-65 crowd is a huge and growing market, but won’t set trends; good design is universal and great products will speak to many demographic groups. (“Boomers will be as excited about phones with big buttons as toddlers are about training diapers,” Saffo quipped. “Or maybe it’s the other way around,” replied Perkins.)

Audience rating: 4.4

2. The Doctor Is In

The trend: For the diagnosis of many types of health problems, virtual assistants, low-cost sensors and remote, automated imaging technology will replace face-to-face visits with physicians.

The panel reaction: In the near term, only “health hobbyists” and the “worried well” will invest in such technologies. More likely, government incentives will lead to the adoption of technologies that enhance decision-making and reduce operating costs in actual medical clinics.

Audience rating: 4.0

3. Made For Me

The trend: 3-D printing and networked microrobotics will make one-off manufacturing of custom products far more affordable, as is already occurring in fields like jewelry and dentistry.

The panel reaction: Rapid prototyping equipment is powerful but still too expensive for mass adoption. On the other hand, if the U.S. is to regain manufacturing strength, it will likely occur in high-tech sectors like mass customization.

Audience rating: 4.6

4. Pay Me Now

The trend: As market researchers and big consumer products companies grow smarter and more aggressive about behavioral targeting, they’ll find ways to lock consumers into exclusive, paid agreements to share their personal information, product reviews, and the like.

The panel reaction: Unlikely. Internet giants like Google and Amazon have already figured out how to extract extensive and valuable data on consumer behavior without paying a cent to consumers.

Audience rating: 6.9

5. Rosie, At Last

The trend: If we broaden our definition of “robot,” we’ll notice them entering our homes and other environments in many new forms—from autonomous vacuum cleaners to self-loading dishwashers and self-driving cars.

The panel reaction: At the moment, robots are still more valuable in industrial contexts than the home, but in the longer term, robotics will be at the heart of the next big mind-blowing consumer technology revolution, on the same scale as the Web.

Audience rating: 6.0

6. Social, Really

The trend: The novelty of Facebook—a rowdy mix of friends and strangers—will finally wear off, and we’ll see the rise of true online social networks that reflect real, respectful relationships between people.

The panel reaction: Unanimous agreement, with the caveat from Ajay Royan—whose Clarium partner Peter Thiel was one of the earliest investors in Facebook—that Facebook itself, with its focus on real names and identities, is quickly figuring out how to build more trust into social interactions online.

Audience rating: 8.0

7. In-your-face Augmented Reality

The trend: Interfaces such as mobile phones and wearable displays will enhance our view of the world with an overlay of digital information, creating “an enchanted world filled with hyper-accurate artificial people and objects.”

The panel reaction: Virtual-reality glasses are still a ways off, but augmented reality apps such as StarWalk on the iPad are already providing consumers with inexpensive “edutainment,” and the technology will likely advance rapidly thanks to commercial and military interest.

Audience rating: 5.8

8. Engineering by Biologists

The trend: Computer designers will harness biological processes to grow circuits and other artifacts.

The panel reaction: While this isn’t like to happen in the next three years, it’s an area that merits much larger R&D investments. In the nearer term, biomimicry and old-fashioned genetic engineering will help solve industrial and environmental problems.

Audience rating: 5.1

9. ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple

The trend: Creators of malware such as computer viruses usually exploit the complexity of modern-day software, so designers will combat future hacker attacks by reverting to simpler models of software design.

The panel reaction: It’s unlikely that software will decrease in complexity, especially since it usually takes a lot of complexity to make software seem simple. However, the atomization of software in the form of apps may provide some protection.

Audience rating: 2.9

10. Reverse Innovation

The trend: Silicon Valley will diminish as a hotbed of technology innovation as engineers and entrepreneurs in developing countries, whose infrastructures are leapfrogging forward faster than our own, get better at identifying and addressing local market opportunities.

The panel reaction: While the trend is real, Silicon Valley’s prominence won’t fade, as the technology community here has always been good at tapping globalization, listening to world markets, and attracting the world’s best engineers.

Audience rating: 7.1

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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