Technology is already pretty amazing. Just think about what a modern smartphone can do compared to twenty years ago. There’s just no comparison.
But given this incredible progress, many people are asking themselves just how much better things can get. Isn’t there some sort of hard limit imposed by physics?
Well, yes – technically speaking there is. But we have no real idea where that lies in terms of practical devices. We don’t even fully understand how the universe actually works, with major mysteries remaining at the core of science. So, as far as we can tell, the capacity for technology to progress appears almost limitless.
Whether it will be practically useful, though, remains another question. Currently, smartphones are in a bit of a lull. For the first few years, they offered consumers tremendous improvements in features and functions. Each new model promised to revolutionize the consumer experience and people lined up outside stores in the middle of the night on launch day to get their hands on products first.
But those days appear to be behind us. It’s not clear that this year’s iPhone offers people much more than last years. And now commentators are wondering whether progress is stalling.
It Depends On Where You Look
In technology, nothing ever moves in a straight line for long. Benefits tend to follow an S-shaped curve through time. At the start of any project, technologies are expensive and not particularly good. Just think back to the early mobile phones. They were great hulking things that you needed a sherpa to help you carry around. Then in the early 2000s, the technology started to get good, and we’ve been riding that wave ever since.
In the last few years, however, that pace of progress has begun to taper off, just as it has done in things like washing machines and dishwashers. Like them, smartphones are bumping up against the limits of what’s possible.
If you take a look at this site, however, you’ll find that it’s a different story in other industries. Drones, for instance, continue to improve at a rapid pace, with new innovations coming on board with each iteration.
There are also rapid improvements in other areas of note. Machine learning is revolutionizing software in a way that nobody expected. Blockchain is changing the financial world (even though it is still only just getting started). And robots are learning how to be dexterous in a way that nobody thought was possible just ten years ago.
Technology, therefore, tends to arrive in fits and starts. Things go well for a time, and then they taper off. Then new developments take their place, with some back-compatibility with earlier technologies. Everything builds on everything else, creating a remarkable edifice.
But What About The Human Element?
Sure, individual technologies are progressing well. But stitching them together seems like a challenge. For instance, we’ve had the technology to do telemedicine for about fifteen years. Yet, it’s only recently that the idea has really begun to take off.
The same goes for machine learning. We’ve known about its applications in marketing for about ten years, and yet most companies have no plans to use it.
For consumers, some new technologies are downright undesirable. Google tried to evolve the smartphone into wearable glasses. But, to their surprise, people didn’t want to look like the Borg. The technology exists to do it, but socially-speaking, it’s just not viable. Smartphones are infinitely more acceptable.
Pushing The Limits
A movement towards a more technological society, therefore, is both cultural and technical. You need the right science and engineering in place to make it happen. But you also need a willing population to allow brands to commercialise solutions. We could quite easily have a well-established smart glasses segment by now if individuals were willing to wear computers on their faces. But it doesn’t look like they are, so that idea is going to have to sit on the back burner for a while.
Pushing the limits is also going to require rethinking the human body. The vast majority of individuals are not cyborgs, despite arguments to the contrary. But to make our technology more useful, the bandwidth between it and us is going to have to expand. In other words, we need to figure out ways to plug it into our brains. And that’s not going to be easy to do or sell.
How much better things will get is, therefore, unclear. Perhaps we’ve already harvested all the low-hanging fruit technologically-speaking. Or maybe there’s still a long way to go. We just don’t know.
This post is a collaborative effort by St. Louis Dad.