“We could be doing a lot more in the fight against aging,” PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel said at the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin during his interview with Financial Times editor Caroline Daniel, pointing to a rising theme in Silicon Valley. “It’s a problem that could be slowed. We could figure out what causes it, how to reverse it. Almost every disease in the world is linked to aging: We have a one in a thousand chance of getting cancer in the next year at age 30, and a 1 in 10 chance at age 80. Almost everything is like that.”
Tech giants are exploring ways to tackle age. Google is backing Calico, a biotech company focused on health and well-being, particularly in relation to aging and associated diseases. Explained Google CEO Larry Page: “Illness and aging affect all our families. With some longer term, ‘moonshot’ thinking around health care and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives.” In September 2014, the company announced a new facility to research diseases that often affect the elderly, such as neurodegeneration and cancer. Watch this space.
It marks the latest direction in Silicon Valley’s rhetoric of solving world problems. Will the techies enable us to live forever? And should they even try?
Haptic technology, robots and the Internet of Things will lead to the age of the Tactile Internet, argue Mischa Dohler, head of the Centre for Telecommunications Research and professor of wireless communications at King’s College London, and Gerhard Fettweis, a professor of mobile communications at Technische Universitat Dresden. They refer to the Tactile Internet as a “true paradigm shift” and write: “Sufficiently responsive, reliable network connectivity will enable it to deliver physical, tactile experiences remotely. ... It will be able to interconnect with the traditional wired Internet, the mobile Internet and the Internet of Things— thereby forming an Internet of entirely new dimensions and capabilities.” According to the professors, for example, this could have great impact on medical care, with diagnoses and treatment delivered remotely.
While this is still at the very early stages, innovators are playing with haptic technology, wrapping in Internet connectivity with physical action.
Companies and brands, particularly the behemoths, are taking a dualistic approach to future-proofing by looking at both the long- and short-term games. They’re introducing innovation units to remain nimble, agile and in touch with change—everyone from Target and Coca-Cola to Levi’s and Marks & Spencer has introduced in-house labs and innovation units to keep abreast of new technology and test new concepts.
Coupled with this, many are setting up long-view projects to analyze how macro shifts in the economy and consumer trends will affect them. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a famous advocate of long-term strategizing, defending Amazon’s lack of profit and reinvestment as key to capturing a greater part of the future of commerce. San Francisco’s The Long Now Foundation recently launched The Interval, a bar dedicated to discussing the future and what it will mean. Meanwhile, many businesses are embarking on research projects that focus on the world in 2020. London- based trends consultancy The Future Laboratory has dubbed it the Age of the Long Near.
More companies appear to be taking not just a near-term but also a macro view of future business, which could have long-term implications for business models. When short-term gains are sacrificed in the interest of 50-year plans, how will publicly traded companies adjust?
While consumer 3D printers have been getting more affordable, and some toy and jewelry companies are selling 3D-printed products, we’ve yet to see consumer-facing 3D printing reach critical mass. Pundits and futurists, meanwhile, continue to raise concerns over intellectual property and quality control. This is set to change in 2015, says Sophie Hackford, director of Wired Consulting: “I’m watching a raft of service providers appearing that will make it real for business.” These include authentication companies such as Authentise, which helps 3D designers optimize their designs and protect and stream design files to print to ensure quality control; Medical Modeling, which manufactures anatomical implants; and Etsy, which is now providing wholesale services for the micro-businesses of the maker movement.
3D printing, while heavily publicized, has not yet been embraced by the mass or consumer markets. New services that help regulate some of the contentious issues around 3D printing could drive wider adoption.
There will be moral, political and public relations battles ahead as the public and governments cast a more critical eye over the behavior of Silicon Valley companies. And as their exploration continues and advances race ahead, lawmakers will work harder to keep up and establish regulation of new business models, modes of trade and legal loopholes.
Silicon Valley may claim to be “making the world a better place,” but the past year has seen a rising tide of criticism. Facebook was hit with a backlash after manipulating the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users to see how that would affect their emotions. Uber’s reported attempts to aggressively sabotage rival Lyft were documented in the press, and CEO and founder Travis Kalanick infamously suggested digging up dirt on critical journalists.
Meanwhile, as our digital footprints continue to grow, our awareness of the companies holding our data is also growing.
The past decade has been defined by the exponential rise of tech giants, and the pool is still growing, as businesses from Airbnb to Uber spring ahead. But in some instances, this growth has accelerated ahead of developing a responsible corporate culture. As these companies reach critical mass, consumers will put more pressure on them to conform to standards expected of corporations in traditional sectors and to build clear cultural codes.
After digitizing all payments, the next frontier in banking is the global unbanked and underbanked population. In October, Bill Gates spoke about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s goal for those who lack effective banking: “to help people in the world’s poorest regions improve their lives and build sustainable futures by connecting them with digitally based financial tools and services.” Venture capitalists and corporations like American Express have also been exploring initiatives to bank the unbanked. American Express sponsored a documentary, Spent: Looking for Change, that focuses on the 70 million Americans locked out of traditional financial options.
Arjan Schütte, founder and managing partner of Core Innovation Capital, told Bloomberg Businessweek that as many as 1 in 3 Americans are un- or underbanked, and spend disproportionately on emergency financial services as a result. “It’s a mass-market problem and opportunity,” he said. “The un- and underbanked generate a trillion dollars in income. They are spending $100 billion in financial services. There’s an opportunity to make money as well as change people’s lives. Historically, people addressing the un- or underbanked have fit into two buckets: They’re either in the missionary camp or the mercenary camp. We’re in the visionary camp. There is a third way.”
The worlds of philanthropy and commercialism are increasingly merging.