Emerging Technologies

"Emerging" is a word that's I'm hearing a lot right now (emerging leaders, emerging change, emerging strategy, emerging markets, etc) and one that I'm not sure about – this uncertaining is has been highlighted by having just come from a conversation centered on "emerging technologies". It left me wondering – What is 'emerging'? What are these technologies? What, if any are the connections between the various emergings – for example, do more emerging technologies come from emerging markets than from mature markets?

Going back to basics, 'emerging' means "to come forth into view or notice, as from concealment or obscurity" so when yesterday, I was discussing "emerging markets" I meant markets that were coming into view i.e. people were beginning to take notice of them for various reasons. And like the 'emerging markets' there are 'emerging technologies' i.e. those ones that are beginning to hit the mainstream and become noticed.

MIT's Technology Review lists 10 for 2010 and links to the ones showcased in previous years. The ones listed for 2010 are:

1. Real time search
2. Social TV
3. Mobile 3-D
4. Green concrete
5. Engineered stem cells
6. Implantable electronics
7. Solar fuel
8. Dual action antibodies
9. Cloud programming
10. Light-trapping photovoltaics

Out of curiosity I looked at the ones listed for 2001:

Brain-Machine Interface | Flexible Transitors | Data Mining | Digital Rights Management | Biometrics | Natural Language Processing | Microphotonics | Untangling Code | Robot Design | Microfluidics

Unfortunately I wasn't expert enough to gauge how many of these 2001 ten have 'emerged', how many are still 'emerging' and how many have sunk without trace. Also it begs the question of how long can something be judged as 'emerging' – robot design, for example, must be something that is continually emerging at least at this stage in the robot game. And if this is the case why doesn't it remain on the list? Or is there a scale of emergence – something can only be on the emerging list if it is at a certain point on an undefined maturity curve?

A further part of the discussion on emerging technologies was the question of government policies related to these. Hmm – if it's an emerging technology does it require a fully fledged policy or an emerging policy? At what stage in emergence does a technology require a policy, and more importantly why does it? There may not be much point in developing a highly engineered policy for a technology that doesn't go anywhere. How easy is it to judge which technology is going to require a government policy or is it possible to have a kind of blanket emerging technologies policy? If so what would it cover?

I looked at the Technology Policy Institute website this seems to deal in discrete technology areas that have recognizably emerged e.g. broadband, internet governance rather than a blanket policy. This makes it easier to formulate a policy around them because they're more understood. However, the danger of thinking this way is that in setting a policy it potentially stymies the continuing emergence of that particular technology. Policies tend to hamper innovation.

So where this whole discussion got me was to a point of thinking about tests of emerging technologies, when they pass reach a certain test score then a policy might be worth considering. Tests could be on the lines of questions:

Is this technology potentially damaging or harmful from what we can see now e.g. engineered stem cells
Is this technology likely to cause conflict between nations e.g. digital rights management
Is this technology likely to result in interoperability issues e.g. mobile 3D

Where the technology had a 'yes' score of x then a policy should be considered (but only if there is a compelling and well understood/accepted rationale for the policy).

So no concluding thought beyond look for clues about when and why considering a technology policy for a particular technology might or might not be prudent whether a blanket 'emerging technologies' policy might be worth further thought.