In 2012, technological advances will lead to our digital lives being combined with our physical lives, as software and hardware combine to create the robotics revolution.
Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley, Zynga New York product director Kati London and Discern Analytics managing director Paul Saffo sat down to discuss the possibilities earlier this month at The Economist's World in 2012 festival. What emerged were predictions on how we'll pay for things, how we'll get work done and how we'll interact with our new, digitally connected world, where computers aren't a portal into another world, but are an intelligent layer on top of the existing one.
Crowley said that 2012 would be the year of the sensor, and applications that would allow people to begin to bridge the gap between the digital world within their smartphones and the physical world around them.
"[We'll be able to] augment the real world with all the social data that people are contributing to the internet," he said. "Sensors are going to be in everything we interact with", from televisions to appliances. "We're going to be interacting in new and natural ways."
London predicted that "frictionless products" will not just change how we interact with the world, but usher in a new set of rules for doing so.
"Your fridge is going to talk to your television, which is going to talk to your social networks," she said. "We might end up seeing toasters that have opt-in buttons on them."
One promising technology is near-field communications (NFC); as NFC systems are used to facilitate payments, they'll allow retailers to learn more about the customer than ever before. In turn, those people paying with cash may end up paying a premium for using unintelligent means, she said.
But the potential with such technology is great. For example, governments can apply lessons from the video-game world to encourage civic participation in a more natural way — such as selling scratch-and-win lottery cards that also register you as a voter, she said.
"The utility is felt in the real world," she said. "You're seeing the positive aspects of it [in your life offline]."
Or a company like 23AndMe — the Google Ventures-backed genetics outfit — could pair with social-networking companies so that "you spit in tube and are automatically paired with 20,000 relatives" who you didn't know you had.
"It's like Facebook in a bottle," she said. "Change and disruption is going to continue in 2012."
But there are risks, she said.
"In 2012, a college dropout will figure out a way to sell debt portfolios to regular people on their smartphones," she said, adding that mortgage lending is among the "greatest value-added frictionless products of all time".
Meanwhile, Saffo said that the new generation of robots won't be hardware, but, rather, a software layer that will create efficiencies that will impact our economy in unexpected ways.
People who are having trouble finding jobs have been replaced by robots and intelligent systems, he said, saying that we should look at Facebook or Google, which have very few employees relative to their corporate size.
"In the next few years, 'cyber-structural unemployment' will come into our vocabulary," he said, adding that it isn't a cyclical downturn, but secular.
Despite the software focus, hardware will continue to advance. Real-world robots, like Google's self-driving car, will actually change the way we get around.
Google's car is "more than just a research project," Saffo said. "It has really important commercial applications."
Its very existence has prompted Nevada and California to legalise autonomous vehicles, he said, urging the audience to think about how that kind of technology will change our landscape. There was little doubt that autonomous vehicles would lead to an eventual change in the layout of Google's Mountain View campus and later the world beyond that, he conjectured, "because parking a Google car won't require a parking structure as we know it today".
"We're all waiting for the robotics revolution," he said. "It's just over the horizon ... but there are things that have already happened."