Forest or trees: Navigating the emerging technology wilderness

March 31, 2016



How to stay informed about emerging technologies without becoming overwhelmed by the endless possibilities.

Artificial Intelligence. 3D Printing. Autonomous Vehicles. Technologies that most, if not every, technologist is well aware of. Memristors. Graphene. Quantum Computing. Maybe a little more nuanced for some to track? Smartdust. Aerogel. Meta-Materials. Say what??

The beauty of being a budding technologist is that the landscape is constantly changing and forever in flux. What was once a herculean task of reading magazines and books with the hopes of finding the necessary information to connect the dots has been trivialized to a simple “online search” or a quick question to your phone.

With the general accessibility of the internet, the ability to track and understand the technology landscape has simplified. However, with this comes an abundance of information that often obfuscates the value of the information as a whole. So the question becomes not whether one can become an expert on a subject, but how does one see the forest through the trees.

Although the experts are crucial and play a vital role in advancing areas of research and execution, as a technologist, our role is to see how the pieces fit together, or assemble them in entirely new ways. To try and connect the dots, it is necessary to understand how technologies interrelate and to find the disruption or innovation often hard to see.

There are a few fundamental technologies that can and will stand alone to disrupt the world as we know it. Software like artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning, materials such as graphene, or new developments in existing technologies, e.g., batteries, will likely create a seismic shift in how we use technology over the next 5-10 years. The real power is when you begin to assemble these fundamental technologies with other emerging technologies.

However, the flow of information is so great, it’s critical to step back and see what is really happening and to put it into a story that is developing right under our noses. Take AI for example, we know that it is just beginning to stretch and become relevant. Combine this with chip and hardware developers who are working to scale down and make affordable, boards and chipsets that will make it possible to embed AI on “smaller” devices. Now, sprinkle in materials like graphene and memristors and suddenly things are even quicker, smaller, and more scalable. Don’t forget how research into flexible batteries and higher capacities is driving the mobility and longevity of mobile devices. Start looking at this altogether and the forest starts to take shape among all the trees.

Today, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are more than just a hobby. They are used by industry for aerial mapping and retailers are looking to the tech as the “next big thing” in personalized shipping. Fold in the advances of battery and solar tech and the brief flight times and distance become less of a hurdle. Developments in composite materials reduces weight and further extends their capabilities. Real-time image analysis utilized in autonomous vehicles is also contributing to aerial obstacle avoidance. Taken together, our skies may be much busier than ever thought possible over the coming years.

When stepping back and looking at the forest, it becomes much easier to see where things are going and how it relates. Technologists can focus on a topic or area of development and become an expert, but for an emerging technologist, the challenge is to broaden their view and look at the trees to appreciate the forest.

While in law school, during one of my many intellectual property classes, my professor proudly told us that intellectual property attorneys are “jacks of all and masters of none.” This has become a mantra by which I look at the emerging technology world. For me, up close the trees are beautiful, intricate, and complex, but take a few steps back and the forest is much more interesting.



Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Anand Rao

Global Artificial Intelligence Lead, PwC US Tel: +1 (617) 530 4691 Email