Top 10 Things in 2014 that made me optimistic for the future

In 2014, we witnessed many tragic events, from Ebola deaths to the attacks on schools in Nigeria and Pakistan, but there were also glimmers of hope for the future. Some of the events that spelled the most promise for the future were the following:
  1. Medical 3D-printing – With the breakthroughs in the use of 3D-printing for medical purposes, the potential for breakthroughs in healthcare is huge, and could radically lower healthcare costs over time.
  2. Rosetta’s Philae comet landing – The landing of the small Philae probe on its moving target, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, was a nice step forward for space exploration, and gave us some much needed hope in terms of how we can start to explore space again.
  3. Big data silver lining in Ebola outbreak – With all the terrible news coming out of the Ebola-affected countries, it was nice to see at least a little bit of silver lining from this outbreak – a number of organizations were able to use big data from e.g. mobiles to help map the outbreak. This kind of use case will hopefully help stem future outbreaks.
  4. VR Tech – After decades of false promises, the advent this year of Oculus Rift and Magic Leap seems to suggest that we are finally seeing breakthroughs in the field of virtual reality. Having tested the first version of Oculus Rift, it’s easy to see why Mark Zuckerberg was so excited about non-gaming uses of Oculus for all kinds of purposes, from social interactions, to travel and medicine.
  5. Modi – The election of Narendra Modi this year has potentially the highest multiplier effect of any elected politician. Given the enormous population of India and the large percentage of them that live in extreme poverty, if Modi can change their lives just with a sliver, the resulting effect would be the largest upgrade of human quality of living since the early days of China’s rise under Deng Xiaoping.
  6. Climate deals – Recently emboldened President Obama’s climate deal with China, and the global deal that it facilitated are reasons to cheer. They are not enough, but it is still a huge step forward for the world to have a global deal in place. Although it is not enough to prevent temperature rises that will affect millions of people, the fact that there is a framework in place gives me hope that it can be built upon, and have measures added to it, both for climate change prevention, and climate change reversal.
  7. Google’s self-driving cars – With the success of Google’s experiments with autonomous vehicles, and those of other car manufacturers joining the fray, such as Sweden’s Volvo, a future where we can read books while being driven to our location of choice seems just a matter of time.
  8. Tesla – The huge success of Tesla this year gives me hope that electric cars can become mainstream, they just need the right branding and performance. Hopefully the new battery factory can help spread the revolution.
  9. Disruptive technology in the universe of atoms as well as bits – For most of the digital revolution, disruption has happened in the universe of bits only, i.e. it has been only digital functions that have seen change. Now, however, we are increasingly seeing the application of data in real life, changing the functions of analogue, tangible functions. For example, Waze is revolutionizing how we navigate traffic, based on vast amounts of data and payments are becoming digitized with Bitcoin and Apple Pay. This will change our lives to an even greater degree than the bits disruptions.
  10. Sleep Science – More and more studies from sleep scientists are coming out that show that the circadian rhythms of most people would be better suited for a workday that starts and ends later. I don’t expect to see a change soon, but these kinds of recommendations, long seen as mumbo jumbo, are finally getting  some traction. Perhaps we can all soon sleep in just a little bit longer, which would add tremendously to our cumulative world happiness.

Top 10 Interesting Ideas of 2014

2014 was full of good new ideas. Here is a top 10 list of some of the ones I found the most interesting:
  1. Crowdfunding – not a new idea this year, granted, but it felt like this was the year when it really took off. There were some great campaigns on both Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Especially for hardware, where we’re really seeing a revolution in terms of innovative products coming to market.
  2. Shared Economy – same thing here, it’s not a new thing this year, but again, the year it really took off. At least if we define take off by the moment when regulators discovered it and tried their best to shut it down. Especially Uber and Airbnb, given their size, were the targets of regulators everywhere from Germany to New York.
  3. “Take X and add AI” – Kevin Kelly commenting on the business plans of the “next 10,000 startups” in Wired.
  4. The Blackphone, The Onion Router, and other similar privacy tools have seen a huge increase in interest in the post-Snowden era.
  5. 10x improvement instead of 10% improvement – the Silicon Valley mantra. Reinvent from the bottom up rather than tinkering with incremental improvements.
  6. Bitcoin – perhaps Bitcoin itself will not be the revolution many thought, but this was the year that the idea of a digital currency as the default payment method of the web started making sense.
  7. Data Journalism – this was the year that data journalism became “a thing”. Everybody wanted to start their own data journalism venture this year. In addition to Vox and 538, there were data deep dives and infographics everywhere.
  8. Cyborgification – the idea that humans are already part human, part machine, given the enormous capabilities we have with smartphones in our pockets. We also saw cyborg/augmented chess teams, consisting of computers and humans teaming up, and beating stand-alone humans and computers.
  9. 3D-printed food – explored by NASA and the military. Soon a consumer reality?
  10. Geoengineering – the climate change debate took a turn and started looking at whether we should give up on the 2 degree target and focus on geoengineering and similar methods to reverse climate change instead.

The promise of Bitcoin falters?

Bitcoin banknote
I’m all for the creation of an online currency. As we heard on e.g. this Cato podcast, the benefits of sending money for free on the Internet are huge, especially for poorer people who currently have to use money transfer firms. For ecommerce overall, relying on digital currencies and taking out the card transaction fees would enable vendors to lower prices further, benefiting all.

However, there are more and more signs that Bitcoin might not be it. First of all, the price would need to stabilize, which it doesn’t show any sign of doing. The price is now down below $500 from being above $1,000 less than 2 months ago. Second, it doesn’t seem to be ready for mainstream usage, given the recent news about Mt Gox closing down, possible due to insolvency. The unfortunate truth is that Bitcoin did start gaining popular momentum only after it was featured in the story about Silk Road being shut down. Bitcoin has felt somewhat a part of the global liquidity boosting trend, with the Fed’s QE money finding somewhere to be invested.

The future would look brighter if we had functioning digital currencies, but there is a long way to go.

Picture by CASASCIUS (CASASCIUS) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons