By Brian Burke

Technology innovation is a key enabler of competitive differentiation and is the catalyst for transforming many industries. Breakthrough technologies are continually appearing, challenging even the most innovative organizations to keep up.

For example, let’s take a look at non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. An NFT is a unique blockchain-based digital asset that links to real-world assets, like digital art or music, and tokenized physical assets like houses or cars. NFTs use immutable public blockchains and, as of last month, had a collective market valuation greater than $300 million. This technology forms part of an entirely new means of monetization and potentially a whole new digital ecosystem—meaning that it’s something business and technology leaders must pay attention to.  

NFTs are one of the additions to the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2021, which highlights the 25 breakthrough technologies that will have the most significant effect on business and society over the next two-to-ten years. This year’s technologies, selected for their potential transformational benefits and broad potential impact, fall under three main themes: engineering trust, accelerating growth and sculpting change.

graph hype cycle for emerging technologies

Theme 1: Engineering trust

For IT teams to effectively lead technology-enabled business transformation, they must engineer a trusted business core. Trust requires security and reliability, but it must also be built on working practices that are repeatable, proven, scalable and innovative. These practices establish a resilient core and foundation for IT to deliver business value.

For example, real-time incident command centres as a service improve situational awareness for organizations by fusing together information from various sources. Typically, a public safety organization has some more manual way of integrating databases, sensors, video, and communications systems for an emergency command centre. However, the as-a-service offering simplifies the real-time function of a command centre. Initial interest came from creating next-generation real-time centres to reduce crime. However, use cases have expanded to include wildfire management, natural disasters, special events, and pandemic response.

The major challenge with this technology is the required amount of interagency cooperation. All of this data (i.e., databases, radio, IoT, mass notifications, license plate readers and geolocation tracking) is typically owned by separate entities. Nevertheless, real-time incident command centres as a service can improve emergency response.

Other technologies in that fall into the engineering trust bucket include sovereign cloud, homomorphic encryption and data fabric.

Theme 2: Accelerating growth

With a trusted business core in place, IT leaders and CIOs must focus on initiatives that drive the organization’s growth. That means balancing technology risk with the appetite for business risk and ensuring that organizational growth targets are near-term and achievable.

Consider digital humans, which are digital-twin representations of people. This technology presents an opportunity for licensed personas that enable new revenue streams. They can appear as avatars, humanoid robots or conversational user interfaces, like chatbots or smart speakers. These interactive, AI-driven representations seem human and behave in “humanlike” ways supported by a range of technologies including conversational UI, CGI and 3D real-time autonomous animation.

Use cases abound for these humanoid technologies in HR training, communications, medical care and customer service. COVID-19 has pushed the technology potential to enable no-touch experiences, combat social isolation and provide care to the elderly. Digital humans have appeared in feature films, performed at conferences and acted as brand influencers. Societal roadblocks and ethical concerns, in addition to immature technologies, create challenges for digital humans, but the potential for business impact and differentiation is pushing some organizations to pursue this technology.

Other emerging technologies that fall under accelerating growth include multi-experience, industry cloud and quantum machine learning (ML).

Theme 3: Sculpting change

Change is naturally disruptive. The key is to recognize the disruption and embrace technologies to sculpt the shift and bring order to what otherwise may be chaos. You must anticipate and influence change to mitigate risk.

For example, physics-informed artificial intelligence (PIAI) is AI that can build physically and scientifically sound AI models. PIAI has garnered particular interest as a more efficient option for modelling complex systems like climate and environmental issues, which are challenging to model given their scale.

Traditional digital AI models have limited adaptability because they can’t generalize beyond the data they were trained on. PIAI creates a more reliable representation of the context and physical product. COVID-19 highlighted the vulnerabilities of business models that are too brittle. PIAI creates a more flexible representation of the context and conditions in which systems operate, allowing developers to build more adaptive systems. It can also create more robust and adaptable business simulation systems, which are more reliable for a wider range of scenarios.

Other emerging technologies in this area include composable applications, composable networks and influence engineering.

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Brian Burke is a Research Vice President at Gartner, Inc. with a primary research focus on trendspotting emerging and strategic technology trends. Gartner analysts will present additional insights on emerging technology trends during Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo 2021, the world’s most important conferences for CIOs and other IT executives, taking place virtually in the Americas on October 18-21.

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