Following on from last year’s sellout event, PwC Australia and the Churchill Club Inc hosted four technologists who debated what they believed would be the non-obvious top tech trends to have an explosive impact on society in the next three to five years. Here’s where they landed.
Biology as we’ve never
seen it before
Synthetic biology is a rapidly accelerating market, with an estimated conservative global valuation of around US$14 billion.1 To polymath hacker and explorer JJ Hastings, the ability to produce fast, efficient and customisable materials enabled by machine learning and computer-aided design will change the world with an array of entirely new, advanced materials.
The extraordinary is now possible: producing spider silk without spiders, egg proteins without chickens and fragrances without flowers. These materials can now be produced by renewable feedstock, reducing the need for large scale agricultural bases or energy-intensive manufacturing. The predicted impact of biomanufacturing drew US$1.7 billion in 2017 investment alone.2 Synthetic biology companies are partnering with fashion designers, heavily backed by VC dollars, as well as forming ‘organism foundries’.
But while the growth of the market has been remarkable, Hastings says its true impact has not yet been seen. The era of AI now upon us will rapidly increase the pace of discovery, and produce materials not seen in nature, through extrapolation and generative design. For example, generating tens of thousands of molecular designs to fight fibrosis, screen them, synthesise them and validate new drugs in just 50 days — 15 times faster than a traditional pipeline.3
Soon, AI will utilise its learning of the natural world to make guided inferences which produce entirely new materials. AI and biomanufacturing, says Hastings, offers an acceleration in the production and precision of novel biomolecules.
The future of AI-assisted
The CEO and founder of AI startup Move 37, Dave King, is passionate about artificial intelligence. As a creative thought partner, he believes that AI can help people to think critically and laterally to solve important problems and, ultimately, be a sounding board that helps humans be more creative. In his work, King sees natural language processing, machine learning and deep learning offering incredible advantages to the concept of creativity — that is, in the process of creation rather than the end artefact.
There are 240 million knowledge workers globally,4 people who think for a living and who are increasingly being tasked with shifting through masses of structured and unstructured data to gain insights. A creative AI sidekick will help distill that data and simplify results. As automation takes away less thought-intensive, repetitive tasks, roles will increasingly rely on critical thinking and problem-solving. An AI helper will augment those capabilities and help escalate the creativity within.
From a technology perspective, we’re experiencing an explosion of capability that will be invasive in the next 3-5 years. Language models have come a long way, to the point where full models are being kept private so as not to endanger the public.5 Common Sense models — where the AI understands the ‘why’ and causality of relationships — are enabling interactivity beyond driving directions and weather predictions to in depth analysis and conversation. With all this in mind, King wonders: what will humans and AI create next?
A new space
Founder of space business company Moonshot, Troy McCann believes that space gives humanity a new perspective with which to solve our greatest challenges, and is therefore a new frontier for commercial activity. Space infrastructure, such as satellites, already underpin all of our economic sectors enabling modern society. Moreover, McCann argues, we’re on the verge of a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of new opportunities and the ability to create new wealth for the world.
Already today, says McCann, the average person has the ability to start their own commercial space venture for less than the cost of a juice franchise. There’s been a lot more talk about space recently, with the set up of Australia’s Space Agency, and the US building a new space force. In part, this is because over the last 15 years, cheaper and more frequent rocket launches have been taking cargo into space, shifting agencies from pure research into industry facilitation, he says. And with the miniaturisation of technology, space is not only the realm of governments and billionaires.
Earth observation from cheap satellites generating high-resolution data holds the key to providing economic efficiency across the board. Space-based data, and the ability to monitor things in real time from above — such as oil production — is invaluable. And then of course there is space mining, a prospect that with Australia’s advanced mining experience, could prove bountiful.
Imagination and the future
of game development
PwC Australia’s Charmaine Green believes secret trends can hide among obvious ones. She outlines three trends leading to her hypothesis that Australia is well placed to become the global creative hub for video game development.
First, the world is becoming tribal as uncertainty rises. Niche, but global (think #metoo or #cancelled) people seek tribes for belonging. Second, there is a booming demand for products that enable escapism, from opiods to streaming TV. And third, video games are increasingly demanding share of wallet. Last year alone their revenue surpassed the projected global box office of the film industry,6 and cloud gaming will dominate as companies race to create the ‘Netflix of gaming’.
Less obvious, Green shares, is what these trends hide: the need for a new kind of game developer, those who can mesh technical mastery with the imagination to build new worlds. AI and AR will combine to create games of increasing sophistication, and each tribe will need its own guild of game artists to serve it.
Economies like Australia are positioned to capitalise on this trend, and video game development can become a permanent and substantial part of the economy. In Australia, Green argues, we have all the basic elements needed: high ingenuity, creative risk taking, and the freedom and flexibility that comes with the country’s small-to-mid studios. The era of mass production for the mass audience is over, and as consumers of video games are distributed, niche and tribal — so must be their producers.
Wondering how the audience voted on the night? Biomanufacturing came first, followed by creative AI, space commerce and video game development. Only time will tell if their choices prove accurate!