Five Ideas for the Future
Lists predicting future innovations are pretty common these days. There are usually a few recurring themes, like artificial intelligence, personalized medicine, and the “Internet of Things.” This list is five ideas that could make a big change in the future but haven’t really been explored yet.
- The Sharing Economy of Goods
The sharing economy is an economic system where an individual’s (or group’s) excess resource is provided to another individual (or group) that needs that resource. My favorite example Is Airbnb, a company that helps people with excess rooms rent them out to travelers in search of accommodations.
I think there is a huge opportunity to create the sharing economy for goods. The first modern iteration of the sharing economy for goods was Craigslist, which allowed people to sell their unused stuff to local buyers. eBay provided a similar marketplace on a national scale, with auctions and electronic payments to automate pricing.
The main issue with the existing methods of peer-to-peer commerce are that they involve too much friction (contact seller, haggle over price, arrange meetup, travel to meetup location, transfer money and goods) and there is no trust (Craigslist repeatedly warns you of scams, selling on eBay is fraught with scams as well, Craigslist murderers, etc). However, Craigslist were combined with Amazonesque logistics, the volume of goods sold locally would explode.
The other big missing piece is rentals. In my neighborhood, every home has its own lawnmower, even though no lawnmower is ever used for more than two hours a week. There are many other goods, like lawnmowers, that sit idle most of the time*. Peer-to-peer rentals would create the true sharing economy of goods. Standards of living would go up as people would consume and waste less. Lower consumption is better for the environment by reducing trash volume and reducing resources needed to produce items.
The above is why I’m working on Circa, a startup that removes the logistical barriers of local buying and selling.
- Personalized Education
The advent of MOOCs and flipped classrooms in the last decade has begun changing the way we learn. I think we can take it one step further, by using machine learning to personalize education.
Imagine if, for every class, a large set of problems was created, covering all the topics in the class and of varying difficulty levels. Imagine that, using a mobile app, website, or even (shudder) desktop software, every student began completing those questions. Now imagine aggregating this over hundreds or thousands of students. The results is that, using machine learning, you could quickly determine with a high level of accuracy what a student’s individual strengths and weaknesses were, and only show them questions/content in their weak areas so they’re not wasting time reviewing what they already know.
It’s possible that you could build a platform for this, where any content could be “plugged-in” and individualized for each user, ensuring they learn the most material in the shortest amount of time. I actually started building this, but had to shelve it when other projects came up.
- The Personal API
I think the “Internet of Things” is overhyped, but one aspect that excites me is devices that monitor biometrics. I eventually see a future where data like heart rate, serum nutrient and hormone levels, sleep/REM cycles, and even stool composition are regularly collected and analyzed. This data could be collected and accessible through one API, which developers could build apps atop of. While there would certainly need to be thought to privacy and security, creating a personal API that could be accessed in a standardized way could lead to useful analysis, such as:
- Relationships between nutrition and sleep
- Relationships between when meals are eaten sleep
- Relationships between nutrition and mood
- Relationships between exercise and mood
- Preemptively discoveries of allergies
- Preemptively discoveries nutrition deficiencies
The above is by no means an exhaustive list—I could write a whole article about the beneficial analysis that could come out of a Personal API. With machine learning, all of this analysis could be personalized, while at the same time being anonymized and uploaded to the crowd, where it would be aggregated and provided to researchers.
- Unlimited Energy
I believe, within our lifetimes, most (if not all) of our energy needs will be met by solar energy (or we figure out how to harvest lighting). What’s most exciting is that lack of clean energy is the base case for many modern problems as “[a] lot of problems—economic, environmental, war, poverty, food and water availability, bad side effects of globalization, etc.—are deeply related to the energy problem.”
There could be some revolutionary breakthrough, but I think the most likely route is simply the continual, evolutionary increase in efficiency (both cost efficiency and energy efficiency) of photovoltatic cells and decrease in cost of solar power. Solar energy is already cheaper than conventional fossil fuels when accounting for negative externalities.
Since the sun’s useful energy is limited only by our ability to harness it, I think we’ll eventually reach a point where we’ll have virtually unlimited energy. What kind of future can we build where energy isn’t a concern? Perhaps we could eliminate water scarcity or alleviate the intensity of droughts via mass desalinization, which is currently too energy intensive to do in most places. Maybe there are incredible materials currently requiring too much energy to produce on a mass scale. It’s exciting to think about.
- Green Roofs
Green roofs are roofs covered with vegetation—essentially, mini-parks atop buildings. The American Planning Association notes parks have all sorts of benefits, such as reducing air pollution, reducing the heat island effect, decreasing stress levels, promoting exercise, reducing crime, increasing happiness, and making cities more aesthetically pleasing. If every or nearly every urban rooftop was a green roof—that is, every resident of a city was within a 100 second walk from a park or garden—it would revolutionize urban living.
I’ll admit I don’t know quite as much about this topic, and there are certainly quite a few practical considerations (weight bearing capabilities of rooftops, altitude limits, possibilities of storms knocking trees over, etc.). Wikipedia claims, “[These issues make] it unlikely for intensive green roofs to become widely implemented due to a lack of buildings that are able to support such a large amount of added weight as well as the added cost of reinforcing buildings to be able to support such weight.” But if we went in with the attitude that this is the default normal roof, rather than as a peculiar exception to normal roofs, I think we’d figure out a way to scale it, and I think it’d be shocking just how drastically improved all aspects of urban life would become with such a simple change.
* My neighborhood has about 250 houses, each with a yard. Currently, each house has its own lawnmower. During the summer, there are 12 suitable hours for mowing the lawn, or 84 hours a week. Assuming each homeowner wants to mow the lawn once per week, that means there is demand for 250 hours of lawn-mowing per week. Even if we only assume 50 percent efficiency in lawnmower allocation, that means six lawnmowers could service the entire neighborhood! Lawnmowers are about $200 (on the lower end, anyway), so the neighborhood would collectively save about $50,000 on lawnmowers.