What to start in 2062: The 50-year start-up plan

Forget 2013. What about the businesses you could start that will change the world by 2062? Sci-Fi expert Alastair Reynolds shares his vision

Our world is changing faster than ever and, in recent years, a number of transformative technologies have moved from science fiction and the R&D laboratory into the realm of practical application.

Zurich recently commissioned research into how advancements in technology will affect SMEs – it found that over half (54%) of SMEs believe the high street as we currently know it will disappear in just eight years, being replaced by a ‘virtual’ equivalent.

Many of us rely on systems that only a couple of decades ago would have seemed quite science fictional – GPS navigation tools, for instance – and there are technologies coming into usage now that may in 20 years become part of the everyday furniture of our lives.

How will this change the way people do business? Predicting the impact of future technologies is never easy, but here are some of my thoughts on the topic.

Telepresence robots and global communication

Telerobotic devices allow individuals to interact with environments that may be thousands of miles away. Feeling physically present and embodied in a remote location will offer a vastly more immersive experience than simply using a webcam or teleconferencing system.

Beyond that, it could have truly world-changing consequences; a combination of 3D vision, tactile and proprioceptive feedback, and full-body telerobotic control could eliminate the need for physical travel. Imagine renting access to a robot anywhere in the world with just a few clicks.

The high street will be replaced by a virtual-physical hybrid

Advanced telepresence could replicate many of the benefits of being able to walk into a traditional shop. Indeed, robotics and Augmented Reality (AR) may open the possibility for hybrid high streets, which exist in both physical and digital spaces simultaneously.

An SME operating without a fixed location could rent empty property on a street which it then occupies with virtual products and services. There could be a hundred customers in the empty shop at one time, all experiencing different AR consumer environments. At the moment a virtual transaction is completed, robotic manufacturing and logistics systems swing into action.

Secondary worlds will be more immersive and realistic

Secondary worlds will continue to be developed and improved over time, becoming more realistic, more immersive, and above all, more intuitive to navigate. Inevitably, the economies operating in these virtual spaces will become more complex, with their own institutions and laws.

There have already been legal disputes conducted around issues of intellectual property violation in virtual spaces. While most small and mid-sized companies do not presently need to concern themselves with serving the market share offered by virtual consumers, one can anticipate an increasingly vibrant cross-border economy becoming the norm.

‘Industrial scale’ 3D printing will replace the need for factories

Industrial-scale 3D printers, possibly incorporating elements of nanotechnology, may supplant much of our familiar manufacturing base, enabling complex consumer devices such as cars or washing machines to be ‘printed’.

Any small or mid-sized company involved in manufacturing should consider the likely impact of 3D printing on their business; almost a third (29%) of SMEs in Zurich’s research said that everyone will own a 3D Printer by 2020 and this almost doubles to 54% by 2062.

With the possibility of every individual having the capability of ordering and ‘printing’ goods themselves in the near future, it is likely that this will have a disruptive effect on global manufacturing across all business levels.

Driverless vehicles will revolutionise logistics for businesses

Military R&D is also partly responsible for the increasing maturity of driverless vehicles, and three US States have now legalised driverless cars.

Clearly the advent of driverless vehicles will have huge implications for the supply of goods and services to small and mid-sized businesses, with fleets of driverless lorries being the norm, but these advances are only part of a broader trend in which autonomous robot technologies will play an increasing role in our lives.

Many small business services will be delivered by robots or telepresence

Cleaning robots already patrol Tokyo skyscrapers by night, riding the elevator between different floors. While there will always be tasks that people are better at, there is no doubt that robots will begin to become an increasingly common feature of our lives over the next few decades.

Many services offered by smaller businesses – for instance, the installation and maintenance of domestic appliances, household electricity and plumbing, and so on – could be provided via a combination of telepresence and fully autonomous robot assistant.

Translation systems will eliminate barriers to overseas trading

Real-time voice translators are beginning to hit the market in the form of smartphone apps, and it is likely that these systems will become vastly more sophisticated and reliable in the future.

Embedded into AR glasses, and coupled with visual translation layers, these systems will make international communication extremely fluid. Looking further into the future, translation systems could be built into contact lenses or implants, to the point where the user forgets that they are wearing them.

One by one, all the remaining barriers to smaller companies engaging in international trade to all markets will be eroded by technology.

Alastair Reynolds is a best-selling Science Fiction author and former space scientist. He has been working with Zurich Insurance to provide his visions of the future for SMEs. To see more about the research and Alastair’s views click here.

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