I am not into technologies, those that change so ever fast, and always. But I do observe technological trends, along which the development of scientific applications revolves.And of all trends, perhaps disruptive technologies are the defining path of industrial implications, a linear passage that technological progress almost invariably follows. Though the concept of “disruptive technologies” is only popularized in 1997 by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen in his best-seller “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, the phenomenon was already evidenced back in 1663, when Edward Somerset published designs for, and might have installed, a steam engine.As put forth by Clayton Christensen, disruptive technologies are initially low performers of poor profit margins, targeting only a minute sector of the market. However, they often develop faster than industry incumbents and eventually outpace the giants to capture significant market shares as their technologies, cheaper and more efficient, could better meet prevailing consumers’ demands.In this case, the steam engines effectively displaced horse power. The demand for steam engines was not initially high, due to the then unfamiliarity to the invention, and the ease of usage and availability of horses. However, as soon as economic activities intensified, and societies prospered, a niche market for steam engines quickly developed as people wanted modernity and faster transportation.One epitome of modern disruptive technologies is Napster, a free and easy music sharing program that allows users to distribute any piece of recording online. The disruptee here is conventional music producers. Napster relevantly identified the “non-market”, the few who wanted to share their own music recordings for little commercial purpose, and thus provided them with what they most wanted. Napster soon blossomed and even transformed the way the internet was utilized.Nevertheless, there are more concerns in the attempt to define disruptive technologies than simply the definition itself.One most commonly mistaken feature for disruptive technologies is sustaining technologies. While the former brings new technological innovation, the latter refers to “successive incremental improvements to performance” incorporated into existing products of market incumbents. Sustaining technologies could be radical, too; the new improvements could herald the demise of current states of production, like how music editor softwares convenience Napster users in music customization and sharing, thereby trumping over traditional whole-file transfers. The music editors are part of a sustaining technological to Napster, not a new disruptor. Thus, disruptive and sustaining technologies could thrive together, until the next wave of disruption comes.See how music editors are linked to steam engines? Not too close, but each represents one aspect of the twin engines that drive progressive technologies; disruptors breed sustainers, and sustainers feed disruptors.This character of sustaining technologies brings us to another perspective of disruptive technologies: they not only change the way people do business, but also initiate a fresh wave of follow-up technologies that propel the disruptive technology to success. Sometimes, sustaining technologies manage to carve out a niche market for its own even when the disruptive initiator has already shut down. Music editor and maker softwares continue to healthily thrive, despite Napster’s breakdown (though many other file sharing services are functioning by that time), with products like the AV Music Morpher Gold and Sound Forge 8.A disruptive technology is also different from a paradigm shift, which Thomas Kuhn used to describe “the process and result of a change in basic assumptions within the ruling theory of science”. In disruptive technologies, there are no assumptions, but only the rules of game of which the change is brought about by the behaviors of market incumbents and new entrants. They augment different markets that eventually merge. In Clayton Christensen’s words, newcomers to the industry almost invariably “crush the incumbents”.While researching on disruptive technologies, I came across this one simple line that could adequately capture what these technologies are about, “A technology that no one in business wants but that goes on to be a trillion-dollar industry.” Interesting how a brand new technology that seemingly bears little value could shake up an entire industry, isn’t it?You are probably asking, why then that no one wants it? Or how true is the money claim to these disruptive technologies? And if it is true, what are the implications to the business practice? How do market incumbents and new entrants behave?The scope of this article could only let me take the first question. Well, it is not that dominating companies are not visionary to see a disruption is coming. They can’t. A disruptive technology is inherently not attractive initially; no one could see how Napster could boom and lead to the thriving market of audio softwares like the music editors and mixers, except the disruptors themselves. Even if one manages to foresee it, the “Innovator’s Dilemma” is there to keep them from acting.And as the books show, technology has always evolved in waves of disruption.
I was speaking with a friend the other night about his great grandfather. His great grandfather was born in 1875. He lived until 1965. Can you imagine the technology that this man saw come online? Let me name a few: the typewriter, the electric dental drill, the telephone, the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, the hearing aid, the electric fan, the dishwasher, the escalator, the airplane, the Model T automobile, the air conditioner, the defibrillator, the atomic bomb, the electric guitar, the nuclear submarine, nylon, the polio vaccine, and the laser. He died right when the first minicomputer was coming to fruition. All of that in the span of his lifetime. Which leads me to the topic of this article. Technology has completely changed the way we live. And technological advances have accelerated at unbelievable speeds. Technology is converging in ways no one could have foreseen. I want to highlight some of the most interesting technologies out there. These are technologies that will change the world, for good and bad.Nano TechnologyProbably the most interesting and frightening of the emerging technologies is nano technology. Nano technology is a cross disciplinary field that deals with building and synthesizing materials at scales of 100nm or less. Nano technology usually works in one of two ways. It either pulls smaller parts together to build or it breaks bigger parts down. The parts are then used to form smaller, new materials. But why is nano technology so important?Nano technology is important because it will have massive effects across every area of life. As I write this, researchers are working on a nano particle to target cancer cells in lungs. In 2004, Rice University tested gold nano particle cancer treatment. In this treatment, these 150 nanometer gold particles were injected into the blood stream of cancerous mice. Gold particles at this size pass into tumors, but not healthy tissue. The researchers then passed infrared through the mice. The tumorous cells absorbed the infrared, heated up, and were destroyed. They are also working on quantum dots that allow doctors to easily identify multiple diseases quickly and accurately. But the uses don’t stop there. Nanotechnology will drive down the scale of electronics. This will lead incredibly small devices. The applications are limitless. And you can bet that the military will be clamoring for nano technology. The military is looking to have numerous nanotechnologies online by the year 2015. Such advances include performance enhancing nanotechnology that aids bodily functions. These will include response times, oxygen use, and heightened senses. But nanotechnology can also be used for reconnaissance and combat. Nanobots could scout areas without being seen. They could also enter into enemies for espionage. They could kill targets from within the host’s body. The possibilities are frightening.Alternative Energy & FuelsWhen gas prices skyrocketed this past year, many people suddenly took an interest in alternative energy and fuels. And because demand rose, companies suddenly found themselves forced to take interest. Most of the common arguments for alternative energy and fuels center around issues of pollution, cost, dependence, and jobs.What most people don’t realize is that alternative energy and fuels always have environmental effects. This can be in the form of heat generation, air pollutants, waste by-products, land usage, extraction, etc. Instead, we have to talk about pros and cons around each type of energy and fuel. There is no silver bullet. Costs, dependence, and jobs also vary depending on the energy type.There are a host of alternative energies being tested. Wind powered energy plants are already in place in many parts of the world. Solar energy production has taken huge steps forward with the help of nano technology. One such company is Nanosolar. Nanosolar is producing solar cells that are 100 times thinner than conventional cells. Not only are the cells cheaper to produce, but they also convert the solar energy much more efficiently. Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) uses the temperature differences in the ocean layers to produce energy. And OTEC can utilize this colder water (36 degree F cooler) in other things like on shore agriculture and refrigeration. And the list goes on.Massive interest was generated in alternative fuels this past year when gas prices hit record levels. New developments in battery technology could help. One such development is Millennium Cell’s hydrogen battery technology. This technology differs greatly from traditional rechargeable batteries in that it’s instantly rechargeable. It also has a much great efficiency for energy conversion, so it is much smaller and lighter. There is also greater reuse efficiency since you don’t need to replace the entire battery. You only need to replace the energy module. Developments are continuing in biodiesel, electric, hydrogen, methanol, etc. I think there could be some serious future synergy between nano technology and alternative energy.”Bionetics”This is my name for the incorporation of technology into the body. The dermal display is a great indication of things to come. Though I have yet to find a working demo version of this concept, I have no doubt that it will become a reality. The display would be driven by millions of nanobots. These nanobots would display light when touched. This would print a display onto your hand, or wherever the nanobot display would be housed. And this is where it gets really interesting. The display nanobots would be connected to millions of other fixed and mobile nanobots throughout the patient’s body. This would give instant readings on hundreds of vital statistics. Again, nanotechnology plays a strong role here.The bionics revolution is already underway. There have been four major cases of robotic limbs recently, the latest being a woman. The robotic limbs take advantage of the functional nerve endings in the limb stump. These nerve endings are used to actuate the robotic limb and to provide feedback to the brain. More money is being poured into robotic limbs every year.”Functional bionetics” are implants that enhance our lives. And you may be surprised to know that people are actively doing this as I write. People are inserting tiny electronics in their bodies that will unlock their front doors and their cars. The same technology is being used to unlock computers. But it doesn’t stop there. There is talk of implanting devices that will carry health information. You could be carted into a hospital totally unconscious and they would be able to access all of your past medical history. Most of this is done through RFID technology.”Bionetic networks” will be networks of connected bionetic devices. This would allow people to share sensation, feelings, and communication. If this sounds completely fictional, I invite you to consider the work of Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, England. He has implanted an extra-sensory device that interfaces with one put in his wife. They were implanted in their arms. The first experiments are aimed at exchanging sensory inputs, like pain. The hope is to extend that to other, more complicated neurological processes like thoughts and emotion. Obviously, that would drastically change relationships and indeed the world. Forget about your teens text messaging, maybe they will be brain linking in the future. Now that’s really scary!What will we be able to say came online in our lifetimes? I’m sure we could already list a lot of important technologies. But keep your eyes out for these emerging technologies. They are set to change the rules of our world. These technologies will upset economies, change military tactics, empower people, and be used to control others. Keep an eye on them.