Your Next Technology Breakthrough Could Be Waiting In The Wings

There’s a lesson to be learned from HBO’s hit comedy series Silicon Valley. The show tells the story of a brilliant but socially awkward programmer who launches a new company based on his groundbreaking compression algorithm. He created the algorithm to download music faster, but the tech industry picks up on its incredible potential to do much more, and over time, the small company morphs into a provider of video streaming, mass data storage and, eventually, a “whole new internet.”

The lesson? An innovation designed to do one thing might be destined for something completely different and much bigger. It’s a scenario that has played out repeatedly in the business world throughout history — and not just in high tech. The inventor of Coca-Cola was a Civil War veteran trying to formulate a less addictive substitute for morphine. Post-It Notes emerged from a failed attempt to develop an adhesive for the aerospace industry. Bubble wrap was originally marketed as a three-dimensional wallpaper before finding its purpose as the world’s favorite packing material.

I was recently reminded of how the practice of “repurposing” pre-existing innovations is still quite common in our industry today. In fact, it drives the rapid advancement of the digital world we live in. Late last year, I attended a research and development forum in Tokyo sponsored by NTT (the parent company to my organization), where we hosted clients from various industries who browsed a vast array of emerging technologies. Four of these stories, which range from fully realized to early concepts, stood out to the clients we hosted.

Here Today: Smart Cities

The internet of things is an excellent example of how numerous existing technologies have been brought together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Take, for example, the emergence of smart cities, which integrate connected technologies into the fabric of traditional municipal systems. The city of Las Vegas is a leader in this area, working with a consortium of companies to install data-gathering sensors, high-definition cameras and other networked devices throughout downtown to improve everything from traffic flow and pedestrian safety to waste collection and energy conservation. The sky is the limit for exactly how smart cities can become, as they imagine new tech-driven capabilities to make life better for citizens and visitors alike.

Coming Soon: Holographic Sports

Imagine heading out to Chicago’s Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs take on the Dodgers. As always, the hot dogs are tasty, the beer is cold and the roar of the crowd is exhilarating. But what if the players you see on the field are holograms and that day’s game is being actually played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles? It sounds far-fetched, but the technology to make it possible is well on its way.

Using a combination of existing video, sensor and projection techniques, media companies would be able to beam live sporting events in three dimensions to remote locations. Attendees of the R&D forum saw it in action as they viewed live 3D broadcasts of several events that took place elsewhere in the complex. Now, developers are working to fully realize the technology in time to broadcast parts of the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020.

In Pilot: AI In Airports And Elsewhere

Artificial intelligence and machine learning have been building momentum in nearly every industry for years, and yet another new application is emerging in the area of airport security. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is already testing biometric screening and facial recognition. But what we saw at the Tokyo forum utilizes AI for baggage scanning to augment what human agents see and instantly identify potentially dangerous items. Currently, there is difficulty in keeping up with constantly evolving devices that could pose a threat for air travel. AI-equipped scanning systems would not only help to make air travel safer, but they could also help TSA operate more efficiently and shorten the dreaded security lines for passengers.

Down The Road: Quantum Optimization

Quantum computers are still a fringe concept, but experts predict they have the potential to become far more powerful than today’s biggest supercomputers. While these conceptual machines are often associated with the quest for world-changing achievements like curing cancer, businesses are already thinking in more practical terms.

For example, a certain manufacturing company with a large distribution network is considering the technology as a way to optimize transportation. Going far beyond the capabilities of today’s mapping applications, a quantum computer could analyze every possible combination of routes while accounting for traffic, truck loading times and the urgency of each delivery to present the perfect real-time combination of scheduling with minimal distance and drive time for thousands of vehicles. Such capabilities could dramatically streamline logistics and save the company millions.

It would take years for a normal computer to crunch this amount of data; theoretically, a quantum computer could do it in seconds.

Seeking Serendipity

Every organization is looking for the next game-changing technology to delight its customers, make a process more efficient or ensure relevance in our digital society. Chances are the R&D has already been done by someone else. The big question is: How can companies identify that next killer app proactively and use it to their advantage?

The winners of the digital arms race don’t simply stumble upon greatness. They make their own luck by taking deliberate steps to define the needs of their organization and their customers and bring solutions to the surface. In concrete terms, that includes actions like appointing people to stay on top of emerging trends and technologies, attending trade shows, hosting innovation programs or hackathons, and closely monitoring the work of industry leaders as well as pioneering startups. It could also mean enlisting the support of technology partners with the resources and expertise to turn radical ideas into bankable products and services.

Only time will tell which amazing innovation will be next to change the world. But if history shows us anything, it’s probably already out there, just waiting to be applied in a new and ingenious way.