The 4 hottest tech trends that are transforming the world in 2018

The revolution is happening right in front of our eyes, and it's not coming from politics, government, or world leaders. Here's where to look for it.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

These are the top 12 emerging technologies to watch in 2018

"The only thing constant in life is change," said 17th century French thinker François de La Rochefoucauld.

That goes for double in the tech industry.

By 2006, the people of the world were doing 100 million Google searches every day--which, by the way, we thought was an enormous number at the time.

Now, we're doing 4.5 billion searches a day--45 times as many--which shows just how far and wide the digital revolution is still sweeping the planet and embedding itself deeper and deeper into our everyday lives.

It took radio 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million users. TV did in 13. The iPhone? Just 3.5 years. Facebook took 2 years. Two summers ago, the Pokémon Go app did it just 19 days.

SEE: The 10 most important iPhone apps of all time (Download.com)

But when we get down to business, the real revolution isn't happening in internet search or media. It's in data.

There are now 2.5 quintillion bytes of data being created every day, and 90% of all the data that exists in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. And all of that data that has been created in the past two years is more than all the data in human history before that point combined. That's because we're capturing, recording, and digitizing more of the human experience than ever thought imaginable--and it's having sweeping implications for global business, personal freedom, and how we organize society.

Each month, ZDNet and TechRepublic editors from across the globe come together to do a deep dive on the most important topics that are transforming business and technology. These "special feature" packages combine Tech Pro Research surveys of our 10 million members with case studies, executive interviews, and original features from our cadre of 100 technology writers from around the world.

We've taken the intelligence from that monthly research and distilled it into the following list of four tech trends that are causing the most disruption in the world. These are the areas that are preoccupying the most brain cycles from technologists and business professionals, and they are the ones that are capturing the most investment from executives.

Agree or disagree with this list? Let me know on Twitter: @jasonhiner

1. Artificial intelligence

When we think of artificial intelligence, we still tend to think of The Terminator or Ex Machina and our fear that AI and robots could someday wipe out humanity. Even tech icons like Bill Gates and Elon Musk occasionally peddle irrational tales and dire warnings.

But the biggest problem with AI today isn't that it's too smart. In fact, it's too rudimentary to be much use in many cases. One of the dirty little secrets about AI and machine learning is that they are so bad at dealing with ambiguity, gray areas, and understanding the context of data that many companies are having to hire armies of human beings to do the data sorting, data cleansing, and data preparation that's needed to feed the algorithms pristine data so that they can do their work.

From a business standpoint, AI is all about automation, prescriptive analytics, business process automation, and driving radical efficiency. That's why the market for AI solutions is expected to reach US $47 billion by 2020. However, keep in mind that AI's first-cousin big data--AI need big data to do massive pattern analysis and big data needs AI to process today's massive volume of bytes--will reach over US $200 billion by 2020.

That helps put in perspective the fact that AI is still very nascent as business solution. Nevertheless, the best way to get your startup funded is to call it an AI startup--whether you're delivering dog food, building a selfie drone, or creating an app to organize your calendar.

SEE: How to Implement AI and Machine Learning (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

Over the past couple years I spent a week in Beijing and a week in Paris--two of the hottest startup ecosystems outside of Silicon Valley--talking to VCs, entrepreneurs, and accelerators, and 50% of all the startups claim to be working on AI. The same is true in Northern California--because so much of the tech money is being poured into AI solutions. That's where the biggest bets are being made, in the hope that it will automate mundane things, identify inefficiencies that are holding us back, help us solve some of our most intractable problems. And that's why it's number one on this list.

2. Cybersecurity

If you read the tech headlines every day--from both ZDNet and across the web--than the topic that often sucks all the oxygen out of the room is cybersecurity. Whether it's the latest breach of a company or government agency, a new vulnerability in a piece or popular software, or a lax security practice from a company that should have known better, there are moments every day where we can't help but shake our heads at the sad state of cybersecurity.

The problem is that the technology industry has been so focused on innovation for the past several decades that security has too often been an afterthought. While that has improved somewhat in the last several years and many companies are now designing products that are more secure by design, the stuff that attackers target is not usually the latest and greatest but the outdated products that make easy targets. That's why the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. We still have a lot of cybersecurity debts that need to be paid.

SEE: A Winning Strategy for Cybersecurity (ZDNet/TechRepublic special report)

That's why it's incumbent on everyone--technology vendors, enterprises, and individuals--to take cybersecurity best practices a lot more seriously. With the tech revolution embedding itself in every part of society, cybersecurity is no longer just a matter of being inconvenienced or losing money. It's rising to the level of national security and public safety risks, and since attackers can use all kinds of unprotected systems to launch their attacks, it makes it incumbent on everyone to play their part.

New York City Manhattan skyline
Jason Hiner

3. Internet of Things

For most of its history, the tech revolution has been about outwardly apparent things like computers, smartphones, and digital cameras. However, today it's about technology disappearing into everything--from cars to home appliances to drones to stop lights to security cameras to entire cities. That's the Internet of Things.

And while the Internet of Things brings new lots of new capabilities to lots of different objects, it's primarily about sensors collecting data, which is allowing us to measure and quantify things in ways that were never possible before. And once we can measure and monitor things then we can manage them. We can find inefficiencies that we didn't know existed and optimize them away.

SEE: Harnessing IoT in the Enterprise (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

There are now over 15 billion IoT devices in the world, and that number is expected to grow to over 30 billion by 2020 and 75 billion by 2025. The amount of investment in IoT is expected grow to US $1.3 trillion by 2020 (five times the spend on AI and big data combined). So if you're looking for where the most money is being spent in tech in the years immediately ahead, this is it.

4. Digital transformation

It's the buzz phrase that's arguably bouncing around businesses and the tech industry more than any other this year. Nevertheless, while the other three items on this list are all technologies, this one is not.

It's simply about telling better stories.

The enterprise has been talking about better IT-business alignment for decades, which is evidence that it never quite sunk in. Digital transformation has finally become the catalyst--and the rallying cry--that's making it happen. IT leaders are using it to lead with the business impact of tech projects in ways that everyone in the organization can understand.

SEE: Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

For example, in the past a CIO might go to the council of leaders in an organization and appeal for a new set of servers for $1.5 million that was going to enable new real-time analytics capabilities in the company. Now, that same CIO pitches a $1.5 million digital transformation project that will save $2 million in expenses by streamlining one part of the business and generate an additional $1 million in revenue in another part of the business by accelerating the order process. No servers were ever mentioned. The first pitch was dead on arrival. The second is an easy sell.

That's why digital transformation is sweeping across the tech world--and you can read how to make it happen in your organization on ZDNet (including new case studies coming in August).

The tech that changed us: 50 years of breakthroughs

ZDNet Monday Morning Opener

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:

Editorial standards