You may know that I am a believer in technology, and that I think we are seeing the rate of technological progress accelerate. Well, you may or may not agree with me, but let me tell you about two products I have read about in the last couple of days, and then you tell me: are we in the early stages of something stunning, or what?
Let me start with a story that to me, sitting as I am as I write these words in safe Buckinghamshire, seems a tad trivial. I guess for some though it is a matter of life and death. Western Australia has a shark problem. One solution proposed has been a shark cull, which is not an idea that has gone down well with conservationists. Now scientists in the area have fitted 320 sharks with a special transmitter that tracks movements. If a tagged shark swims within a kilometre of a beach, an alert is triggered.
Indulge me for a paragraph. Let’s assume the technology between tweeting sharks and wearable technology are combined, maybe surfers will get a heads up display in their swimming goggles. As they surf the waves they can get an update on the proximity of sharks, how close they are, in which direction they are swimming and how fast. Maybe a better idea still would be if the tweets could be converted into audio signals, and as the shark approaches the signal begins playing der dum, der dum, and then as it gets closer, dum dum dum dum da da DUUUM.
Okay I confess, the last paragraph was not meant to be taken seriously, I tell this story about sharks and twitter in part because it amuses me, but also to illustrate one of a thousand ways new technology is having an effect. And on the subject of technology and nature, I also read that new drone technology has the potential to create little drones that can replace bumble bees in the function of pollinating plants should our friend the bumble bee become extinct. See: Tiny drones can avoid obstacles
Back to the subject of tweeting sharks. I realise there is a growing consensus that Twitter stocks are in the midst of a bubble. I guess that this is probably right, although I might add that for me one of the definitions of a bubble is that hardly anyone spots it at the time. Given that the words Twitter and bubble are going together so much at the moment, I am tempted to say there probably isn’t a bubble.
Now let me turn to 3D printed houses. It works like this: the printer itself is pretty big –it has to be I guess – to print a house it must be bigger than a house. The technology was developed by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California. It includes a robot that can “spew out concrete” and build the house in 24 hours. The technology used is known as, and may entail, the concrete spewing robot travelling along rails, as it goes about its business.
I think there is another point here. In the world of material science we are seeing the development of new materials that may transform this process further still. There is a lot going on with 3D printing at the moment. Last year we were told about a NASA project to print a pizza, there are examples of some people who managed to print a car. The latest version of 3D printers can work with metal, and then you get 3D printers that can print 3D printers. There is an open standard emerging too, meaning that hundreds, nay thousands of different people can work on the technology and each can complement the other’s activities.
Let me turn to the latest CES show, running at the moment in Las Vegas. I read that will. i. am was there, and he is now the creative director of a company called 3D Systems. At the show he predicted that within a decade 3D printers will be in most homes, and also predicted they will have a pretty transformative effect on the High Street. Roger Chang, chief executive of Singapore-based Pirate 3-D, was widely quoted as saying: “The same way iTunes allowed independent musicians to flourish by posting digital songs, indie toy designers can let their customers just print out the toys without worrying about economies of scale or distribution deals.” See: 3-D Printing Poised to Shake Up Shopping
What can investors do? Well I have written here before about 3D printer companies that are listed on a stock exchange, see: Bull and bear: 3D printing: here are some companies you can buy shares in
Let me make two wider comments. Firstly there is the disruptive effect of 3D printing. Consider the impact on traditional businesses. How will house builders be affected by a 3D printer that can build a house? I think the housing market is going to have a good year, but I am really not so sure about the longer term.
I would avoid any traditional company unless it can show that it is taking digital technologies seriously. It does not have to have answers, but it must at least be posing questions.
This takes me to the second point. I read that blue chips have been paying so-called digital entrepreneurs to escort them to the CES show, just to explain what’s going on. I am getting déjà vu. Back in the late 1990s blue chips knew they needed to get into the dotcom arena, but they didn’t understand how or why. We saw a lot of good ideas. We saw some awful ones too, and few seemed to be able to differentiate between the two. We kind of saw three waves. Wave one, in which fortunes were made. Wave two, when dotcoms crashed and fortunes were lost. Wave three…well that is where we are now; things settled down, the internet changed the world, companies went bust, but one tech that was nearly bust and another that was founded in the late 1990s, did so well that today they are the first and third largest companies in the world by market cap.
It is starting all over again, but this time it is bigger. The dotcom boom and crash was like a dry rehearsal for what we are seeing now. At the moment, we are still in the first wave. Make sure you learn the right lessons from the last time.
These views and comments are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees