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Covid-19, while profoundly disruptive, didn’t create new enterprise technology trends so much as catalyze those already underway.

Organizations fast-tracked multi-year technology roadmaps for major investments like artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and cloud, completing them in months or even weeks. The result? Many organizations have arrived at their desired futures ahead of schedule.

But the future is still comingToday’s innovations will be our successors’ legacy. So executives must be mindful of meaningful advances and capabilities forecast for the decade ahead—to ride tailwinds, dodge headwinds, and forestall, or at least minimize, the interest payments due on their eventual technical debt.

But the signal-to-noise ratio in most projections of future tech is abysmal, introducing an anxiety-inducing blizzard of buzzwords every year. That’s why our futures research gets right down to identifying the subset of emerging technology innovations that can create better customer experiences, modernize operations, and drive competitive advantage.

Three classes of emerging tech are poised to transform every aspect of business in the next decade: quantum technologies, exponential intelligence, and ambient computing. These field notes from the future can give business leaders a strategic view of the decade ahead to help them engineer a technology-forward future.

Quantum Technologies

“I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics,” Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said.

To eschew the physics lesson: quantum-powered solutions exploit the quirky properties of subatomic particles to allow us to solve seemingly intractable problems using physics instead of mathematics. Quantum represents as big a leap over digital as digital was over analog.

As quantum R&D turns the corner from R to D, the race among technology giants, governments, and early-stage startups will quickly find commercial applications.

Three areas to watch:

  1. Quantum computing can solve complex computational problems by processing enormous data sets in new ways. Quantum computers have demonstrated they can complete specialized tasks in five minutes that would take classical supercomputers thousands of years.
  2. Quantum communication is a hardware-based technology that can vastly improve cybersecurity by creating theoretically tamper-proof networks that can detect attempts at interception and eavesdropping. This secure communication will use emerging techniques such as quantum key distribution (QKD): which is a way to more safely exchange encryption keys to transmit data across optical networks.
  3. Quantum sensing devices, more responsive and accurate than conventional sensors, offer promising use cases in sectors including energy, transportation, and health care. Quantum sensors may be lighter, more portable, more energy efficient, and less expensive than their predecessors.

Quantum’s appeal to techies is clear, but business leaders must consider its potential to deliver specific competitive advantages against discrete business needs. Its spoils will first accrue to those who figure out in advance which problems they need quantum to solve.

Exponential Intelligence

Traditionally, the most widely adopted business intelligence solutions were descriptive: discovering and surfacing hidden correlations in data sets. The last 15 years saw the rise of predictive analytics: algorithms that could further extrapolate what’s likely to happen next.

Most recently, AI-fueled organizations have used machine intelligence to make decisions that augment or automate human thinking.

This escalation of next-generation intelligence—from analyst to predictor to actor—will increasingly access human behavioral data at scale, so that it better understands and emulates human emotion and intent. Enter the age of “affective” or “emotional” AI.

To a machine, a smile, a thoughtful pause, or a choice of words is all data that can, in aggregate, help an organization develop a more holistic understanding of customers, employees, citizens, and students. Its data organizations can further use it to develop classes of automated systems that better connect the dots among their financial, social, and ethical objectives.

For customer service representatives, caregivers, sales agents, and even stage actors, the business cases for these creative machines are compelling. But it’s imperative that leaders recognize the importance of committing to trustworthy AI practices to reduce any risk of bias, both tacit and explicit, in the training data, models, and resulting systems. As the authors of Technology Futures, a recent report from Deloitte and the World Economic Forum, put it: “We must teach our digital children well, training them to do as we say, not necessarily as we’ve done.”

Ambient Experience

The past 20 years of human-computer interaction might be summed up as an ever-bigger number of ever-smaller screens. With powerful mobile devices and advanced networks now ubiquitous in our workplaces and homes, we’re literally surrounded by digital information.

Ambient experience envisions a future beyond the glass when our interaction with the digital world takes place less through screens than through intuitive, out-of-the-way affordances that more naturally cater to our needs.

Recent advances in digital assistants and smart speakers light the way. These language interfaces generally speak only when spoken to and dutifully respond. Increasingly, devices will anticipate our intentions and offer help based on their understanding of content and context.

The other side of the coin: an unlimited reality. Virtual reality (VR) is not new, but enterprises increasingly turn to VR as a tool instead of a toy to support functions as varied as training, team building, and remote operations truck driving.

These ambient experiences could drive simplicity, reducing friction in the user experience. As technology develops, a voice, gesture, or glance could signal intent and initiate an exchange of business-critical information. Tomorrow’s digital concierges could handle increasingly complex routines in smart homes and cities—without any logins or other traditional steps for activation.

Foresight is 80/20

These three field notes from the future are not an admonition to drop today’s plans in favor of what’s next. Rather, they are an encouragement to keep going.

Today’s investments in cloud, data, and digital experiences lay the groundwork for opportunities in quantum technologies, exponential intelligence, and ambient experience.

Research indicates that leading organizations put 80 percent of their technology budgets toward existing investments and 20 percent toward emerging tech.1 By keeping their eyes on the future and their feet in the present, organizations can start creating tech-forward strategies today—so they can compete, lead, and advance their businesses tomorrow.