As five VCs predict the future, robotics and AI rise to the surface

Predicting the future is almost as difficult as figuring out how to prosper from it.

Both is what five venture capitalists set out to do Tuesday night at the Churchill Club’s Annual Top 10 Tech Trends event in Silicon Valley. The evening marked the 20th anniversary of the popular gathering and, as in the past, it offered unexpected and expected takes on what is around the corner in the next three to five years.

The goal was to identify non-obvious areas of explosive growth, and the cadre willing to put its collective neck on the line included Sarah Guo, a general partner at Greylock Partners; Nicole Quinn, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners; David Cowan, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners; Mike Vernal, a partner at Sequoia Capital and Tomasz Tunguz, a partner at Redpoint Ventures.

If there was a general theme it was this: robotics and artificial intelligence are poised to remake the world. On each potential trend, the tech-savvy audience had an opportunity to weigh in with a yea-or-nay vote.

The trends receiving the greatest audience acceptance were:

  • Robotics goes mainstream;
  • Smart cameras will blanket the world;
  • Transportation will be reinvented with broad implications;
  • Software will evolve to authenticate news and other content; and
  • China will pass the United States in key technologies.

Potential trends the audience found less convinced were:

  • Space startups would usher in a new era of extraterrestrial commerce;
  • Conversational smart bots driven by artificial intelligence would disrupt mobile commerce; and
  • Consumers would take greater control of their personal data and in the process challenge data aggregators, such as Facebook and Google.

By in large, the venture capitalists offered solid reasoning for their theories. Robotics advocate Vernal suggested, for instance, that hand in hand with autonomous vehicles would come autonomous robots designed to step into dangerous jobs people fill today. On the supply side, components, such as lidar sensors, will drop in price and engineers in the space will multiply, he added.

Already cheap cameras have spread across the world, offered Guo. Smart software will change the way people live and work. They might, for instance, notify parents when children come home, or charge shoppers for their purchases as they leave a store. Or they could patrol manufacturing lines for product defects, and record drivers on the road, she said.

VC Venture VCJ
Sarah Guo, general partner, Greylock Partners.

All this could spawn a wave of smart camera apps.

Vernal added that he envisions a time in the near future when China will accelerate past the United States in key technologies. Autonomous vehicles may become ubiquitous in China before they do in the United States, and the U.S. healthcare system is noticeably more complicated than the one in China, he pointed out.

“I don’t think we fully appreciate it,” he said, adding that a more progressive U.S. immigration policy would make him feel better.

In the transportation business, self-driven trucks and electric scooters will help make the next decade all about mobility, Guo said.

“I think we’re at a huge moment right now,” she said. “We are entering a new age of mobility.”

Still, regulation and reluctant consumer adoption could hold back growth.

When it comes to content monitoring, Tunguz said he foresaw a new class of software designed to examine authenticity. Blockchain might be a part of the solution, so might a requirement that creators sign what they create, he suggested.

All this could help people sort out what they can and can’t trust.