In recent decades, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented explosion of transformational technologies, including the advent of the internet, smartphones, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and blockchains. In many ways, our world feels remarkably different than it did just one generation ago. How did we get here, and what does the current technology landscape tell us about what comes next? Understanding the underlying trends that drive innovation helps us imagine the art of the possible, and what we can expect for future transformations in society, technology, and business.
Maybe you’ve heard of Moore's law, the observation that the number of transistors that can be squeezed onto a single computer chip doubles about every two years. This trend has generally held true since the early 1970’s, and continues today, with profound implications. When computer chips get smaller, the devices that they control become much more powerful. Computations that were barely possible on state-of-the-art computers twenty years ago now run unnoticed on the smartphone in your pocket. As the availability of computing power explodes, the devices it powers become exponentially more powerful.
Along with the massive proliferation of available computing power, the past two decades have witnessed key advances in software and IT infrastructure. Virtualization technology has made it possible to create multiple virtual machines on a single physical server, which enables better utilization of computing resources. Server farms and specialized computing hardware have been codified into large data centers that enable efficient storage and retrieval of enormous amounts of data that are generated from all over the world. Advances in fiber optic technology have increased the accessibility and reliability of high-speed internet, which has enabled video streaming, online gaming, and other high-bandwidth applications. And standardization of web services has paved the way for interoperability between geographically distributed applications and distributed computing.
One of the most compelling results of these advances has been the emergence of cloud infrastructure. Advances in server architectures and distributed networking have facilitated large-scale migrations of software and data from physical onsite computers to shared virtual machines in the cloud. This migration has been critical for businesses, as it drastically reduces IT infrastructure maintenance costs, enables frictionless scalability of computing resources, and offers vastly improved workplace collaboration and data sharing experiences.
The widespread availability of cloud computing resources has also led to unprecedented acceleration in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). Cloud infrastructure provides computing resources that can scale to meet the demands of a broad range of dynamic workloads, from the execution of simple analysis tools to the training of massive AI models that would take thousands of years to accomplish on a standard desktop computer. Cloud-based systems also simplify the process of storing and accessing massive amounts of data, which can be used for building more powerful and accurate models.
Finally, cloud also helps democratize AI. Businesses of all sizes can now build powerful models without the need to invest in onsite hardware and infrastructure, and AI that is hosted in the cloud can be accessed from anywhere in the world, which unlocks possibilities for AI-as-a-service, on-demand predictive analytics, and federated learning, where collaborators can aggregate their data into large predictive models without revealing intellectual property or trade secrets. These developments have led to the deployment of models with unprecedented size and capabilities, such as AlphaFold, GPT-4, and BaGuaLu. Generative AI, including chatbots and image generators, has made enormous strides – and elicited correspondingly strong reactions from the public – due to its uncanny ability to exude creativity, thoughtfulness, and depth. Leveraging cutting-edge AI not only keeps businesses competitive today, it provides a guide to the art of the possible tomorrow.
In the future, we expect to see ubiquitous utilization of AI across a broad range of business use cases. AI will be used to help businesses understand and predict customer behavior and create extremely personalized marketing campaigns using generative text and images. AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants will provide around-the-clock customer service support with low latency, offer detailed personalized recommendations based on subtle user cues, and report their findings back to centralized databases for further analysis. Supply chain models will predict demand, identify production bottlenecks, automate purchases, and learn and adapt from complex data streams in real-time. AI-powered agents will continuously scan for threats related to compliance, data corruption, and fraud, and will execute high-stakes financial decisions when time-sensitive investment or arbitrage opportunities are detected. Finally, AI will power our transportation system, from managing our self-driving cars to automating and optimizing the schedules and routes of public transit vehicles.
Large-scale AI is not the only innovation that has been unlocked by advances in cloud computing infrastructure. One of the most fascinating developments in the evolution of computer networks has been its amalgamation with decentralization and cryptography. In 2009, the world witnessed the birth of the first cryptographically-secure decentralized computer network capable of storing state information – a public blockchain called Bitcoin. While conventional cloud infrastructure relies on a central custodian who oversees data storage, controls user access permissions, and manages network upgrades, Bitcoin is run independently by participants all over the world who each store a full copy of the network’s data. This ensures that there is no central point of failure, that no single entity has special privileges for accessing data or resources, and that software infrastructure for the network is fully auditable and transparent to everyone who participates.
Since the advent of the Bitcoin network, there has been an explosion of other decentralized public blockchains. While the blockchain space is still latent and rapidly evolving, there are already business implications that are hard to ignore. Since blockchains enable direct peer-to-peer interactions without the need for trusted intermediaries, it’s possible for the first time to eliminate the need for third party banks, brokers, and clearinghouses that are traditionally used to oversee financial transactions, which reduces the potential for inefficiencies and fraud. Blockchains are inherently transparent, tamper-proof, and easy to audit, which improves trust and accountability between transacting parties. Smart contracts, the self-executing software programs which run on the blockchain, can enable the automation of many aspects of business, including payments, decision-making, and compliance. Since they provide end-to-end visibility into the creation, transfer, and provenance of unique digital assets, blockchains can also serve as a viable tool for supply chain management.
The rate of development, adoption, and excitement in the blockchain space is unprecedented. We expect that the potential use cases for blockchains will continue to grow rapidly, and that completely new, previously-impossible business models will emerge, thrive, and transform the technology landscape. By tracking new developments in blockchain technology and experimenting with innovative prototypes that promise to revolutionize business, technology, and society, we explore the art of the possible.
July 28, 2023