Who wouldn't want a crystal ball offering genuine foresight?  "What new tech trends will emerge in the next several years with the potential for explosive growth in about five years' time?"  This is the question posed annually to 5 leading Silicon Valley venture capitalists* at the Churchill Club's Top Tech Trends debate hosted in Silicon Valley.  May 25th 2016 saw the 18th consecutive event in this series and a number of us from Fieldfisher's Silicon Valley Office team were there to share the insights and propositions.

The criteria

The predictions business is a tough one, one made slightly easier at this event as those involved aren't committing actual money!  In making the predictions the VC panelists are asked to deliver trends with two criteria in mind: (1) that the trend is "non-obvious" today; and (2) that the trend will see "explosive growth" within the next five years.  The panelists get to vote on each other's thoughts, critically appraise the views of their peers and then the audience vote online in real time.  It's quite a show. Then, in 5 years time, we get to look back to see how they did. 

So what trends did they predict?

It seems Silicon Valley's VC elite believe that designers will replace programmers in the Silicon Valley pecking order, artificial machines could rank alongside us humans for thought capability, digital borders may rank alongside those of the State and you may be checking-in with that small screen in your pocket a little less than you did as alternative tech interfaces evolve. Bold thoughts and much to think about. Those Top Ten Trends as follows:

Trend 1 (Pat Grady)

Rise of the Designer: Last ten years: everyone built software. Developers were king. Next ten years: everyone builds GREAT software. Designers are king.

Trend 2 (John Lilly)

The Rise of the Digital State (and Digital Embassies): Digital sovereignty is now as important as physical. Countries will protect citizens' digital identities and assets; international laws will respect bits as well atoms now.

Trend 3 (Emily Melton)

The Rise of the Health Activated Individual: Rapid democratization of genomic and other personalized health data give rise to a new wave of health conscious individuals. Individuals will understand and manage their overall health much like their personal finance.

Trend 4 (Ann Miura-Ko)

The Empire Strikes Back:  After a decade of tech pushing the boundaries on regulation, local, state and national government will try to aggressively reign things in. Everyone loses as bureaucratic process lacking technical knowledge overtakes innovation.

Trend 5 (Aydin Senkut)

New Killer Application of Gene Sequencing: There will be $10Bn+ new market cap created in 5 years, leveraging gene sequencing for a biotech cure, extended longevity, diagnostics or more.

Trend 6 (Pat Grady)

Data is the New Oil

Machine learning allows for geometric improvement in digital experiences, but cycle time is governed by availability of training data. Data fuels the digital economy as oil fuels the physical economy.

Trend 7 (John Lilly)

Household Robots: We will all start to live with several robots in our houses, doing special purpose chores for us all the time. First Roomba, now becoming pervasive.

Trend 8 (Emily Melton) 

Kicking Mobile Addiction – An Untethered Future:The dispersion of sensors, "smart" products, and sophisticated interfaces untether consumers from a single device. Ambient computing interfaces transform how humans interact with technology and hopefully each other.

Trend 9 (Ann Miura-Ko)

True Human-Level A.I. Mimics Brain: The human brain will be mapped and the brain circuits underlying intelligence will start to be decoded. We will begin to see algorithms and machines that think not just optimize.

Trend 10 (Aydin Senkut)

Maker Revolution: 3D Printing Will Become Mainstream Starting with Toys:  10% of all toys (in North America) will be 3D printed locally or at customers' homes.

What the audience thought

We all voted along through the evening.  As a group the audience was least persuaded by Trend prediction 7 (more household robots) and 10 (a surge in 3D printed toys).  What's more, while I thought Trend 6 (Data is the new oil) was perhaps "obvious", 77% of the near 500 strong audience agreed with that likely Trend. This idea builds on the frenzy around Big Data, the proposition being that there are now disproportionate rewards to be gained from the vast proprietary stores of data held by many; information which can be mined and used to tailor and improve user experience through AI.  The rest of the panel were less convinced by Pat Grady's thoughts arguing that the latent value in such data is hard to realize because of its overall complexity, but also because only a few will be able to attract the (somewhat scare resource of) best data scientists. 

Of course this US centric panel probably wasn't factoring in the impact in the EU and elsewhere of the GDPR (note under the GDPR's rules even companies that are based outside the EU but are nonetheless processing personal data about EU residents in the context of profiling activities, will be subject to the GDPR, and consequently, will have to comply with the new rules on automated decision-making.  See more at our blog Getting to know the GDPR, Part 5: Your big data analytics and profiling activities may be seriously curtailed). 

My take on the proceedings

The trend that caught my eye the most (and not just because of the Star Wars analogy) was Trend 5 from Ann Miura-Ko of FLOODGATE.  She observed that technology had enjoyed some real regulatory freedom in the last 10 years with many Governments and regulators looking to support and foster innovative ideas (even if those tech ideas didn't conform with current legal frameworks).  This of course has been the mantra of many.  Push and push against the system and find more and faster rewards (take the sharing economy, social media or pushing the boundaries around fair-use in copyright and digital re-use). 

With more and more pushing the boundaries of regulation, local, state and national government will try to aggressively reign things in.  Ann Miura-Lo foresees a world where everyone (in tech) loses as bureaucratic processes and a deficit of technical knowledge overtakes innovation.  This fight back arising particularly at the local and State level.  Could it be that those fearful or lacking understanding of technology and in positions of power start to act to fight it more.  Those with the most to lose may be the most vociferous in this battle.  The Star Wars theme returned with the hope that the digital nirvana will fight back: "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine" (quote Obi-Wan Kenobi (not present)).  Is this why the likes of Uber are so keen to hire Neelie Kroes as competition advisor?  A bold move for the former Eurocrat regulator-in-chief or simply great vision from Uber? This likely Trend is significant for anyone interested in light touch digital regulation and relatively mild regulatory intervention and enforcement.

Finally, the thought of digital States without boundaries is fascinating.  Estonia has already announced the intention to protect digital assets as much as citizen's physical assets.  In today's world State law typically remains fundamental and at the heart of the legal order.  However, we all also operate within digital ecosystems where End-User Terms or Platform Acceptable Use Policies already impose the same rules across national boundaries.  Whilst they may be influenced by applicable State law, these enterprise imposed rules applicable to our daily digital activities don't emanate from the State. Whilst there may be rights to exercise in a national Court, the first port of call (and often final arbitrator) is frequently a platform or website with global reach and influence. Protection of people's digital rights is growing more important but whether this is first a national issue before an issue of international law or treaties we'll have to see.

Until next year, Silicon Valley's innovation rolls relentlessly on.......but where would you place your bet (with real money!?).

Those interested can watch last year's event on YouTube.