PALO ALTO, Calif. – Whenever Shane Wall is asked what he believes the next big thing in tech will be – and as HP Inc.’s CTO and global head of HP Labs, he’s asked that question a lot – his answer throws people off.
“What we do at HP Labs doesn’t start with technology,” Wall told the crowd during his Sept. 27 speech introducing HP Reinvention Week, the company’s celebration of HP Labs’ 50th anniversary.
“It’s not about starting with the latest process, node, memory hardware, or configuration,” he said. “It’s not even about looking at IDC’s report, Gartner’s report, or anything else… it starts with people, how we look at society, and what we see going on for the next 30 years.”
To that end, Wall highlighted four trends that he sees guiding the next 30 years of tech:
- Rapid urbanization, with more than 97 per cent of the next 30 years of population growth expected to occur in emerging markets including China, India, and Africa;
- Changing demographics, with more than half of the world’s population expected to be over 50 years old by 2046;
- Hyperglobalization, which, despite the efforts of certain American presidential candidates, is likely to expand as more people in developing nations gain access to the Internet; and
- Accelerated innovation, as what Wall called “glass slabs” make way to wearable and, eventually, implanted technology capable of bringing us online.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, the world had only 10 megacities – defined as 10 million people or more – Wall said. By 2030 there will be 41 megacities, and by 2046 we’ll have more than 50.
What’s more, the majority of those megacities will be located outside the mature markets of Australia, North America, and western Europe – in fact, the majority will be in China and India, and some will even be in Africa.
“Those changes are going to affect everything about humanity… how we interact, how we manage precious resources – and how we design products,” Wall said. “And so thinking about the solutions we need to bring to bear to address those issues becomes a framing piece for what we do at HP Labs.”
For example, one issue facing humanity that Wall said HP Labs is currently studying is 3D transformation: although we live in a 3D world, much of our work environment is currently in 2D – experienced on monitors, smartphones, and tablets.
As technology becomes more adept at scanning, manipulating, and producing physical objects, however the result will be another industrial revolution – led by what Wall called “digital manufacturing” – with cities capable of using 3D printing to manufacture whatever is needed, wherever it is needed, rather than relying on a physical supply chain.
“It will change how we work in cities,” he said. “It will change all aspects of humanity.”
Today’s marketers love to focus on millennials – that vast, much-reviled generation born roughly between 1982 and 1998.
But in 30 years, the largest demographic will be people over 50, and their expectations will shape future technological change.
Moreover, the generation that will be decried as the 2040s’ answer to millennials will have grown up with technology even more advanced than smartphones in their hands, Wall said, and 97 per cent will have been born outside the U.S. and western Europe.
“It will profoundly influence how they look at the world around them,” he said.
Another topic of interest to HP Labs is microfluidics – the transformation of industries with new technology – and by 2046 Wall expects technology will have had a profound impact on many sectors, particularly the healthcare industry.
“You can move from a world where systems are centralized – where doing tests are very expensive and slow – into a world of global diagnostics, where things happen very cheaply and the power is put into the hands of the individual,” he said.
It’s Wall who made the Donald Trump joke, not us.
“Despite the move to build walls, or erect barriers and the like, the move to a global environment will be unstoppable for many reasons,” he said. “One is the emergence of geographies like China, or India, or Africa – but it will also be because of technology itself.”
The Internet has created a world where many of us now expect things to happen instantly, often across international borders, at the speed of light, Wall said – and by 2025, well before the 30-years-from-now mark, half of the Fortune 500 is expected to be located outside the U.S.
So with technology developing at such high speed, and with such an international scope, new ideas and products will be developed exponentially faster until they’re being executed and released at a speed we can’t imagine, Wall said.
Another subject of great interest to HP Labs is the “Internet of all things” – hardly a surprise, since as a printer manufacturer HP has one of the industry’s largest IoT networks.
But imagine tables being connected to the Internet. Chairs. Bills. Plastic. Every one of them capable of being uniquely tagged, identified, and associated with an Internet service.
“Think about the profound changes that will have on humanity,” Wall said. “Everything in the manufacturing supply chain will change. Security, how you track a parcel will change. The opportunities are endless.”
Wall didn’t spend very much time discussing accelerated innovation, but said that HP Labs thinks a great deal about it internally, and its effect on what he called “hypermobility.”
“The tablets, phablets, and phones we have today aren’t going to be 10 times more powerful in 10 years – they will be a billion times more powerful,” he said. “We can only dream of the usage models and what they can do – and that’s in 10 years.”
Hypermobility, meanwhile, is HP’s vision for what connecting to the Internet will look like once we move on from the “glass slabs” that, on average, we stare at 137 times a day to attachments on our bodies.
At that point, he said, computing will become part of the human experience, as natural as breathing, and disappear into the background – a state that Wall called “blended reality.”
“You see it in everything around us,” he said. “You see it in the medical technology that attaches to your body to monitor your physical health… You see it in agriculture, with the networked tractor that… can look at entire images, analyze the soil… change the amount of nutrients in the right place at the right time.”
“When the technology disappears into the background to solve human needs, that’s blended reality.”