Technology is continually evolving, offering us ever more choices in how we use it to solve business and societal problems. But it can be challenging to keep up: In our most recent survey of business leaders, 75% of US CEOs said they worried about the speed of technological change. It’s why we’re so focused on continually scanning the tech landscape to understand which innovations will provide the biggest benefits.
Our work in this area started about five years ago, when PwC analyzed more than 250 emerging technologies to pinpoint those that would have the greatest business impact across industries. We called those with the most potential the Essential Eight. They include: artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), blockchain, drones, Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, 3D printing and virtual reality (VR).
Today, the Essential Eight continue to evolve and make their mark — with the pandemic accelerating emerging tech adoption. Some, like AI, are becoming integral to every type of company. Others, such as 3D printing, have been more concentrated in certain areas like manufacturing. All the while, we’ve been tracking another profound shift: how these individual technologies are combining in transformative ways. While there are other promising technologies like quantum computing and nanotechnology, the most practical and profound impact in the next five years will continue to come from the Essential Eight. But the difference is in how they will work together to deliver this impact.
This convergence reconfigures the eight essential technologies into six power combinations: automating trust, immersive interfaces, extended reality, working autonomy, digital reflection and hyperconnected networks. This wave of innovation promises to significantly expand our capacity to work smarter and more seamlessly with the use of these converged technologies.
To automate trust, Essential Eight technologies — especially blockchain, IoT and AI — can work together to ensure the authenticity of data, verify identities and enable secure multiparty transactions. Converged technologies can provide ways to automate trust in physical, digital and human assets.
In a typical example, IoT sensors can track a pallet of food from the time it leaves the farm to when it gets to the warehouse and then to the retail store, verifying the entire supply chain. This authenticates where a specific shipment is along the route, as well as the condition of the food during each leg of the journey: Is the shipping container becoming too hot, too cold or too humid? This information is recorded in a secure, immutable blockchain. Together, IoT and blockchain can create an immutable supply chain, ensuring that buyers are getting an authentic product that has not been damaged or switched along the way. These technologies can also verify whether a product that contains hazardous materials has been disposed of correctly and safely.
Trust is at the heart of all business and personal relationships. If employees, customers, investors, and communities can’t trust the safety, security and privacy of data, systems and processes, your business will suffer. Without trust and transparency, you also could be subject to regulatory and legal actions.
Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) are a continuum of immersive technologies housed under the umbrella term extended reality (XR), which can merge the physical and virtual worlds.
XR has major applications in the entertainment space, as well as in our everyday lives where, like our mobile phones, XR devices can be persistent, continuously providing information about the world around us. In the business realm, today AR and MR are being used as job aids and for training where data is used to enhance the user’s physical world, while VR simulates environments for users to practice soft skills and job-skill techniques. XR, which often uses AI in its applications and is experienced through IoT headsets or mobile devices, enables workers to practice even risky tasks in a safe, realistic way. Examples include training pilots; educating oil rig workers on complicated safety procedures; teaching insurance adjusters to identify water, smoke and fire damage; and upskilling doctors to perform surgeries. XR technology can benefit virtually all industries by creating more efficient processes, enhancing training and offering ways for people to collaborate in a virtual environment.
Extended reality technologies could potentially deliver a $1.5 trillion boost to the global economy by 2030, according to an economic impact assessment conducted by PwC economists. The value will include areas such as creating new customer experiences, speeding up product development and improving workplace safety.
Immersive interfaces are the next frontier after voice interfaces. Now that we can talk to our tech, the next step is using our senses and other perceptions to interact with it. Immersive interfaces enable more natural and frictionless communications between people, humans, computers and digital environments. These technologies take advantage of human attributes, such as touch and emotion, to bring users closer to the digital world by humanizing interactions with technology.
Capable of gathering and processing massive amounts of data locally with onboard AI, immersive interfaces can sense and react to emotions, full-body movements, brain waves and behaviors — in addition to traditional interfaces such as voice and text. By pairing this information with contextual data about users and situations, immersive interfaces will be able to offer insights and augment workflows, allowing users to intuitively interact with the physical-digital world.
For people to work more effectively and creatively, they must be able to interact with technology in a natural, fluid way. Immersive interfaces can help achieve that by offering novel ways to exploit technology to have a greater impact.
Automation involves transitioning manual processes into digital ones by integrating automation, robotics and intelligent systems so they operate in unison. Working autonomy is the point on the continuum where automation has transitioned from point solutions to providing broader workflow automations and gluing together discrete systems to provide fuller end-to-end automated systems. Intelligent automation gives systems the ability to learn from prior decisions and data patterns in order to make intelligent decisions on their own, freeing people to focus on important work.
A fully autonomous business world is not yet on the horizon. Instead, multiple industries are developing, integrating and even retrofitting autonomous systems into the value chain. Intelligent automation systems and AI-enabled machines are automating everything from backend data processing to ridesharing. Autonomous systems gather large amounts of previously inaccessible data from IoT sensors, transaction histories, machine data, human input and many other sources for analytics and feedback, which can result in better predictive maintenance and intelligence.
Working autonomy will enable companies to support their workers and improve their productivity by automating workflows holistically and providing access to previously inaccessible data and producing essential insights to improve decision-making.
Digital reflection is a virtual representation of complex, interdependent physical processes and interactions. The ability to digitize the world around us has increased dramatically in recent years thanks to advances in IoT, simulation modeling and analytical tools.
This digital world can evolve without human intervention to help us uncover new insights and test scenarios. Digital reflections can be virtual replicas of physical objects — products, processes, places and even human societies — that can be experienced or experimented on in simulations in order to gain a deeper understanding of their environment and life cycle. Using a virtual replica of a physical object, actions can be tested against real-time scenarios in order to predict an immediate outcome or inform business decisions. For example, businesses could use this tech to develop a virtual automobile, a factory or even a city.
Developing digital replicas of real-world systems, processes, places — or even the world itself — is important because it enables organizations to create safe testing spaces. In a digital reflection, you can model different scenarios and explore different outcomes.
Hyperconnected networks rely on an infrastructure of networks and IoT to process information at blistering speeds in order to intelligently connect numerous people, devices and systems. These technologies are pushing connectivity further and processing faster than ever before, enabling seamless interactions between humans and autonomous systems.
Billions of IoT-connected endpoints, combined with the cloud, 5G and mesh networking, can create stable, high-speed, low-latency networks that serve as the backbones of larger-scale infrastructure, making connectivity ubiquitous. Localized IoT device-to-device communication can produce AI-driven insights and responses, when and where they are needed, without involving the cloud. When processing time is not critical (and therefore does not need to be performed locally) data will be sent to the network through 5G, satellites, low-power wide area network (LPWAN) and other communication standards. Localized, efficient computing combined with continuous intelligence will enable business opportunities that previously had been considered many years away.
As the volume of data continues to grow exponentially, it becomes increasingly essential to gather, distribute and house that data in a secure, scalable and accessible way — and that includes data sent from one machine to another. Hyperconnected networks — which include AI, IoT, blockchain and even drones — can handle data from diverse sources in a fast, efficient and secure way on a massive scale. Hyperconnected networks are pushing closer and closer to ubiquitous connectivity. There will be persistent connectivity everywhere, with varying levels of transport: low power for low data and high throughput networks for mission-critical applications. Hyperconnected networks will create a world blanketed in connectivity with "dead spots" becoming a thing of the past.
Get a quick refresher on the core technologies that are powering the emerging tech convergence themes.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is not a monolithic technology. Software algorithms automate complex decision-making tasks to mimic human thought processes and senses. A subset of AI, machine learning, focuses on the development of computer programs that can teach themselves to learn, understand, reason, plan and act when blasted with data. Machine learning carries enormous potential for the creation of meaningful products and services. Hospitals can use a library of scanned images to quickly and accurately detect and diagnose cancer. Insurance companies can digitally and automatically recognize and assess car damage, and security companies can replace clunky typed passwords with voice recognition.
Augmented reality (AR) is a visual or audio “overlay” on the physical world that uses a smart display to provide contextualized digital information that augments a user’s real-world view. AR-enabled smart glasses can help warehouse workers fulfill orders with precision, airline manufacturers assemble planes and electrical workers make repairs. The power of bringing information to the point of action in a seamless, unobtrusive manner is undeniable. This blending of the physical and virtual worlds is revealing a new realm for businesses and industries to explore.
A blockchain is a distributed digital database or, more broadly, a digital ledger that uses software algorithms to record and confirm transactions with reliability and anonymity. The record of events is shared between multiple participants, and once information is entered and verified, it cannot be altered. Blockchain has the potential to usher in an era of autonomous digital commerce. It is an enabling technology that can solve problems affecting organizations by providing transparency, security and trust in transactions.
Depending on their design, drones vary greatly in their capacity. Some drones need wide spaces to take off, while quadcopters can squeeze into a column of space. Some drones are water-based; others are land-based. Some can operate and navigate semi-autonomously (via remote control) or fully autonomously (via onboard computers). Companies are using drones for wide-ranging reasons, including surveillance, survey, sports, cinematography and delivery. Drones are also regularly used for data gathering — collecting information for industries such as infrastructure or agriculture projects.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of physical objects — devices, vehicles, appliances — embedded with sensors, software, network connectivity and computing capability that enable them to collect, exchange and act on data, usually without human intervention. By monitoring a supply chain, IoT can increase confidence in the end product, while its tracking of machines and systems can provide better predictive maintenance and asset management. Industrial IoT (IIoT) refers to its use in the manufacturing and industrial sectors.
Robots are machines that offer enhanced sensing, control and intelligence to automate, augment or assist human activities. The robot market is poised for growth in a broad range of service applications. These applications are transforming both manufacturing and non-manufacturing operations with new capabilities that address the challenges of working in changing, uncertain and uncontrolled environments, such as alongside humans without being a danger to them.
Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated simulated experience that creates an artificial three-dimensional image or environment. Viewers can use special equipment to interact with the simulation in realistic ways. The gaming and entertainment industries are obvious proving grounds for VR. However, VR has the potential to transform many other industries as well, especially in the realm of experiential training and upskilling. Research shows that VR can help businesses upskill their employees faster, even at a time when training budgets may be shrinking and in-person training may be off the table. VR can also be used in situations that would be risky, difficult or cost-prohibitive for workers to do in the physical world, such as putting out fires or landing a plane.
3D printing creates three-dimensional objects based on digital models by layering or “printing” successive layers of materials. The technology relies on innovative “inks,” including plastic, metal, glass and wood. Some companies use this technology for creating product prototypes, while others use 3D to manufacture parts or even complete products. 3D printing has the potential to turn every business into a factory. 3D printing is moving beyond the use case of widgets and prototyping and is being used to create consumer-ready products. It is also extending into the industrial space now with eccentric use cases such as large scale 3D printers being used to “print” buildings.