By Steve Brown
When I saw my first digital watch, I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world. I was ten years old and it felt like I was suddenly living in the future. As I’ve grown older, it takes more and more to impress and amaze me. We have almost become numb to the myriad ways that new technology transforms our lives. The supercomputers we carry in our pockets and purses have become the norm, and on-demand movies, streamed to our homes in high definition glory are now old hat. But the future is still amazing. And a wide range of cool startups are setting the pace for incredible technology-driven change.
As a futurist, I live in the future, immersing myself in stories of what’s coming from the best innovators on the planet. I see a lot of cool stuff, but some companies still amaze me with the audacity of their visions or the impressive capabilities of their technology.
Zipline builds drone networks that deliver urgently needed medical supplies to remote locations. Their first trial focused on the country of Rwanda, where challenging terrain, heavy rains, and poor infrastructure make it impossible to access some locations by road for several months of the year. Zipline’s drones sail over mountain ridges and washed-out roads to reach remote rural communities with urgently needed blood supplies, vaccines, and medicine. More than 2 billion people around the world have inadequate access to essential medical supplies due to geographical and infrastructure challenges. A national drone delivery network planned for Tanzania (which is twice the size of California and has only 8% of its roads paved) will connect more than 1,000 local health centers and run up to 2,000 flights per day, serving a population of 10 million people.
Another drone company, DroneSeed, uses drones to plant tree seedlings and reforest areas after fire or harvest. They are particularly useful for areas that are difficult to access, such as steep hillsides. Drones shoot seeds into the ground like a flying paintball gun. Each seed is enclosed inside a small capsule of nutrients that protects it as it enters the soil and then nourishes it as it starts to grow. DroneSeed’s vision is to make reforestation scalable through automation and develop a solution that can reverse the massive deforestation that has occurred in the last decades. Planting millions of trees to sequester carbon from the atmosphere will be an important part of the fight against climate change. DroneSeed claims that while a good human tree planter can plant about 800 trees in a day across about 2 acres, a single operator working with a swarm of 15 drones can do the equivalent of 360 manual hours of tree planting in a single day.
The recent uptick of raging fires in places like California and Australia are a major cause for concern. EarthNow, an ambitious startup funded by Bill Gates, Airbus, Softbank, and others, is building a constellation of satellites, each containing four powerful, high-definition cameras. Artificial intelligence built into the satellites runs applications to interpret camera images and add intelligent insight. These applications will reveal important details about activity on our planet. A lightning strike in a remote location can start a devastating forest fire that rages out of control. Detection, rapid response, and early containment may save millions of acres of land from incineration, prevent damage to structures, and save lives. Other cool applications will run on the satellites too, including tracking whale migration, volcanic eruptions, and illegal mining and logging activity.
Talking of satellites, more communication satellites will be launched into orbit in the 2020s than all the satellites launched ever. A new set of entrepreneurs, perhaps most notably Elon Musk with his Starlink program, are racing to build satellite constellations that use thousands of small satellites, organized in an ever-shifting patchwork network, to move data from one point on earth to another. These networks will be used to connect planes, cruise ships, and cars to the internet. But more importantly, they will bring low-cost, broadband internet to billions of people who are currently offline. Light moves much faster through the vacuum of space than it does inside glass fibers, so Starlink may be able to offer faster point-to-point communication than traditional ground-based fiber optics. Trading desks in major financial centers like New York, London, Tokyo, and Shanghai will likely have strong interest. In high-velocity automated trading markets, every millisecond counts. It’s a great strategy. Big financial giants will pay for the network, and everyone on earth will ultimately benefit.
As the world braces for pandemic, our awareness of the race to keep ahead of rapidly mutating pathogens is more acute than ever. In their search for new drugs, pharmaceutical companies need all the help they can get. Artificial intelligence is a huge ally for humanity. Companies like Atomwise use AI to make intelligent suggestions on the chemical structure of drugs that may have the desired effect on diseases. Pharmaceutical companies use Atomwise to build a short list of drug candidates. This narrowed list of candidates informs first-pass exploration, saves pharmaceutical companies millions of dollars, and accelerates the time it takes to get life-saving new drugs to market. There is a good chance that somebody reading this article will have their life saved by a drug that was co-discovered by an AI.
These five examples barely scratch the surface of the incredible tech that will shape our lives in the 2020s and beyond. Devices that can “hear” cancer in your voice, robots that can put up drywall, and electric-powered passenger drones that can safely move people through the skies are all on the way. I’m still amazed by the level of innovation I see coming. It feels really good to recapture that same feeling my digital watch brought all those years ago. Tech is amazing, and will continue to do amazing things for us all.
Steve Brown is an energetic speaker, author, strategist, and advisor with over 30 years of experience in high tech. He is the former futurist and chief evangelist at Intel Corporation and helps others understand the business and societal impacts of new technologies and how they will shape the future five, 10 and 15 years from now. He is the author of The Innovation Ultimatum: How Six Strategic Technologies will Reshape Every Business in the 2020s. Steve holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Engineering degrees in Micro-Electronic Systems Engineering from Manchester University. He was born in the U.K. and became a U.S. citizen in 2008. He lives with his wife in Portland, OR.