Every decade or so, a new technological megatrend emerges that takes on a momentum of its own, and becomes both inevitable and inexorable.
Megatrends of the past included personal computers in the 1980s, the Internet in the 1990s, mobile phones in the 2000s and the ubiquitous smartphones of today.
Each of these technologies changed, in immeasurable ways, how we live our daily lives.
Megatrends such as these also created companies like Apple and Google, each of which today is among the most valuable companies on the planet.
So what is the next technological megatrend that will be the source of these great fortunes?
The best description I have heard calls it ???machine learning:??? the process of turning data into a computer program???s independent decisions.
That means that once a basic computer algorithm is written, the computer learns on its own.
Although it???s an abstract concept that may be hard to get your head around, ???machine learning??? shifts the technological paradigm at least as much as prior technological megatrends.
Here???s why machine learning is emerging at this time in history???
Today???s leading technology companies are collecting untold amounts of customer data, website content, data on personal browsing and shopping habits and much more.
Machine learning can turn all of this information into everything from images of virtual reality to self-driving cars or even recommendations on where you should go to dinner tonight in Paris.
The battle lines are being drawn as you read this???
Microsoft (MSFT), Facebook (FB), Google, Inc. (GOOGL) and Apple (AAPL) all are battling for control of the virtual and augmented reality markets.
Apple, Google and Tesla (TSLA) already have started to battle to dominate the self-driving car market.
Apple, Google and Amazon (AMZN) already are using ???deep learning??? across wide swathes of their businesses to guess what you want before you even think of it yourself.
Here are the three major areas you???ll be seeing evidence of ???machine learning??? in the coming years.
I. Virtual Reality (VR)
VR is still largely the province of a geeky gamers lost in a world of make-believe. And if you are over the age of 30, you probably have no idea what VR is.
VR headsets cover the wearer???s entire field of vision and provide an immersive video and audio experience. It gives you a feeling of being somewhere else. It can replicate everything from the experience of illicit drugs to walking on Mars.
VR traces its origins back to the 1950 when both NASA and the U.S. Air Force used primitive VR as a tool for training pilots. But lagging screens due to slow processing speeds caused trainees to vomit after only a few minutes. A half a century later, even today???s VR applications can make users feel queasy.
Largely the result of an explosion in raw computer processing power, VR today is on the verge of going mainstream. The latest VR computer games require extremely powerful graphics processing units (GPUs) to keep the experience smooth, and avoid motion sickness.
When pundits discuss the potential of VR, it quickly starts to sound like science fiction. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has predicted that Facebook???s Oculus Rift will render business travel redundant. Hollywood is already starting to produce VR-compatible films.
VR apparently also makes chronic pain go away, creating the biggest advance in pain treatment since the opium poppy first was cultivated in 3,000 BC.
In addition, Augmented Reality (AR) is coming down the pike. AR headsets are computerized glasses that overlay information onto a wearer???s field of view. These are the kind of screens you see on science fiction films like the Terminator, with whizz bang features that overwhelm you with information about your immediate environment.
This is set to be big business. The combined market for VR and AR is set to be enormous with optimists expecting sales to hit $150 billion by 2020.
II. Self-Driving Cars
The world is at the very start of a revolution in transportation with the advent of self-driving cars or electrical vehicles (EVs).
High-profile Tesla with CEO Elon Musk is winning the public relations battle on this front, with its high-profile announcement of giga factories and a sleek new fleet of EVs.
But there are a wide range of additional companies investing in the EV sector. Those companies include Google, Apple and even privately held Uber, which poached an entire academic department of Carnegie Mellon University to lead its efforts. The biggest EV (and battery manufacturer) in the world is Shanghai-based BYD Company, in which Warren Buffett has a stake.
Estimates are that the market for self-driving cars will grow 134% between now and 2020. But imagine a world where almost all cars become self-driving, and the scale of the potential for EV makes all forecasts essentially meaningless.
As with VR/AR, it is hard to say who will win among the players in the self-driving car market. The only sure thing is that machine learning — and the technology that supports it — will be involved.
III. Deep Learning
Deep learning is another killer application in machine learning. This essentially involves churning through petabytes of data to find patterns to predict everything from what???s around the corner to what movies you like on Thursdays.
Microsoft (MSFT), Alibaba (BABA), Baidu (BIDU) and Twitter (TWTR) all have adopted ???deep learning??? in their cloud operations, which also are powered by graphic chip-maker NVIDIA. Amazon is also ramping up its cloud-based, artificial intelligence services. Amazon Web Services (AWS) will rent out computers to companies seeking to run cloud-deep learning or artificial intelligence (AI) software.
All of these machine learning applications are game changing. And each is likely to change our lives in ways we will find it difficult to imagine.
As with any gold rush, fortunes will be both made and lost. But the next technological megatrend is already here. Keep your eyes open if you want to profit from it.
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