Over the course of my career in the tech industry, I have witnessed the development of a series of social and technological advancements that have radically transformed our world. My theory is that these advancements have occurred in four distinct ages, beginning in 1995, continuing into the present, and forecasting the immediate future. By documenting these waves of advancements, I hope to illustrate our inevitable movement into the Intelligent Automation Age.
Each of these ages builds upon those previous, and the usefulness of each earlier age carries on into the next. Rather than becoming obsolete, they aggregate and lead us to our present circumstances. While the chosen dates for each age are open to debate, my choices reflect a confluence of social and technological advancement that drives the following age.
The Connected Age (1995)
Key Company: Netscape (Founded 1994)
Key Enabling Technology (to build on top of): The Internet
In the early 90s, I was working at a small company in Memphis and working my way through college. I had taken out a loan in my first year of college, but later decided to rebel against the established loan system that was in place, getting a job to fund the rest of my way through school. This choice became foundational to my emerging career in the tech world, allowing me access to the technology that was available in the corporate world as well as the academic world at the time.
The internet was nascent, and the Web, along with email, wasn’t commonly accessed or known about yet, at least in Memphis. My focus prior to this period was on Bulletin Board Servers (BBS) which eventually led to our early interest in the world-wide network now known as the Internet. At the time, there were a variety of different ways to explore this young network, but each was as cumbersome and ugly. What we needed was a better visual interface which would allow users to access all of the data stored on this network easily and in a more visually appealing way.
Then, something interesting happened. The World Wide Web was emerging, driven by something called a “browser”, which was the graphical interface we had been hoping for and expecting. My first encounter with a browser was at Christian Brothers University, with Netscape Communicator v1.0. I immediately knew that things would be different from that point forward.
Around 1995 was the point of emergence of the Connected Age, ushered in by the Web browser pioneered by Netscape. It was a new element that would make the Internet something visually appealing, and accessible to a massive base of users. This was the beginning of the giant, steep growth curve that would introduce a new technology that could connect us, adding a better user-interface layer and launching the Connected Age. The pieces had come together to establish the foundation of the technology that would start connecting billions of humans. The Connected Age had begun.
The Social Age (2005)
Key Company: Facebook (Founded 2004)
Key Enabling Technology: The Browser
Building on the technologies brought to us in the Connected Age; social sites began to emerge in the mid to late 1990s. Several great social companies developed and experimented in their own ways. But Facebook, which was founded in 2004, succeeded in capturing the largest user base which carries on to this day. I chose 2005 as the beginning year for the Social Age. Driven by the ever-evolving capabilities of the Web, social functions emerged as a way to take the connections of information sharing that the Web provided, and added the ability to connect people. The trend started earlier, but Facebook drove the mass adoption of this age.
The Collaborative Age (2010)
Key Company: Uber (Founded 2009)
Key Enabling Technology: Mobile (Smartphone, Mobile Web, Mobile Apps)
For many reasons, Uber is the true innovator of the Collaborative Age, one of many companies which emerged in various industries that utilize different forms of sharing and crowdsourcing to lay the foundations of new business models. Today, these companies pop up in the news every day though not all of them will survive. I chose 2010 as the beginning of this age. Those that make it should already be planning for the next age, however.
The Intelligent Automation Age (2015)
Key Enabling Technology: Artificial Intelligence (AI with IoT, long-term)
Automated assistants and smart things will start becoming useful to consumers and businesses in this upcoming phase. It will develop over five to 10 years, marked by various advancements that are already being tested. Autonomous cars will become consumer items, changing the way we get around. Autonomous trucks will improve our logistics chains. Automated assistants will help us do our jobs across a wide array of tasks and industries. I think that the user interface that will emerge to help enable this age will be the hybrid conversational interface. The hybrid conversational interface will use natural human language (text and speech) plus it will mix in additional elements (such as visual elements) where appropriate in order to improve the experience and become more efficient at communicating with humans than humans can communicate with each other within some domains.
I’m moving on to a new phase in my career and leaving FedEx as of January 15th to co-found an intelligent assistant company with some awesome people. One reason I went this direction is that I realized in 2015 that we were moving into a new age of computing, and I wanted to be part of that. These are some of my initial thoughts. I hope to have more and will document them here.