Tech VCs, at Churchill Club, predict an edgy future

Look for Amazon to face antitrust action, e-commerce to kill shopping malls and high-tech biomedical advances

road ahead future
Credit: Thinkstock

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Innovation drives the tech industry, but nothing happens without investors. That's why the Churchill Club's annual Top Tech Trends event here in Silicon Valley always sells out -- to find out where the folks with money are placing their bets.

Every year, a panel of leading venture capitalists delivers 10 predictions and defends the trends they think will have a big impact in the next five years. Panelists (and audience members) vote up or down each one -- and offer critiques based on the merits or whether a prediction is so obvious it's not really a prediction.

This is the 19th year the Trends event has taken place and this year included a diverse set of predictions involving food production, anti-plague remedies, artificial intelligence, new forms of education, a new type of investing, big advances in voice technology and the expectation that Amazon.com will be hit with a major anti-trust lawsuit.

l2010369 Churchill Club/Ed Jay Photography

At this year's Churchill Club Top Trends event, from left to right: Mike Abbott, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; Steve Jurvetson, of VC firm Draper, Fisher, Jurvetson; Rebecca Lynn,  partner at Canvas Ventures; Sarah Tavel, partner at Benchmark; and Hans Tung, a managing partner at GGV Capital.

Tiny brains everywhere

Steve Jurvetson, of VC firm Draper, Fisher, Jurvetson, won the most votes Wednesday for his predicition: the embedding of inference engines connected by neural nets that, as he put it, will put "tiny brains in everything."

Four years ago at the event, Jurvetson pegged deep learning as a big trend. "Now we're entering a new phase, pushing intelligence out to the edge, to Fitbits and smartphones, putting a 'brain' in each sensor."

In other words, it's not just the Internet of Things, but the Internet of Smart Things. "Imagine your fitness device becoming a fitness coach or your refrigerator as a health monitor," he said, adding that these smart sensors will be essential to the success of self-driving cars.

Will the feds go after Amazon?

One of the more controversial predictions came from Rebecca Lynn, a partner at Canvas Ventures, who thinks the Trump administration will bring an antitrust suit against Amazon, leading to a significant weakening of online megastores and a rise of direct-to-consumer companies. She sees bipartisan concern over Amazon's mega-growth and argued that if Hilary Clinton had been elected president, she would be even more aggressive with the online retail giant.

"Amazon captures one of every two dollars Americans spend," said Lynn, who believes Amazon engages in the kind of predatory pricing that can spark antitrust action. She believes that the company offers free shipping to help eliminate competition and controls critical infrastructure via its Amazon Web Services.

But other panelists gave that prediction a thumbs down, though they didn't deny Amazon's growing power. "I'm an ecommerce investor, but Amazon's growth is scary now with a market cap of $400 billion," said Hans Tung, a managing partner at GGV Capital. Most of the audience (81%) also disagreed with the prediction.

The rise of DNA applications

Just a few years ago it cost thousands of dollars to sequence a person's DNA; now that cost is down to a few hundred dollars.

Mike Abbott, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, thinks that trend will enable better diagnostic tools than we have today. He said current genomic testing can already determine whether someone has a particular mutation that might pre-dispose them to diseases like breast cancer.

Looking ahead, he envisions something like a "smart toilet" that analyzes waste and suggests changes in diet. While other panelists were in general agreement that low-cost genomic sequencing has great promise, they weren't sure about significant breakthroughs in the next five years that would have an immediate impact.

"The trend of low-cost sequencing is obvious, but it won't reduce health care costs," said Lynn. "What people need to do is lose 10 to 15 pounds, don't eat the Big Mac and put down the Slurpee."

Virtual Reality at the mall

The rise of Amazon wasn't the only retail-related trend. Hans Tung predicted that offline retail will continue its steady decline and more customers will move toward brands with mass market appeal. Shopping malls won't go away, but will morph into community service centers offering everything from day care to tax services. Meanwhile, retail stores will become product showrooms for online vendors, a place where customers can engage in virtual and augmented reality experiences.

"In the spirit of keeping jobs alive we have to figure out a way to keep the malls open," said Tung.

But Jurvetson sees more a shift in how real estate is used -- and not something all that significant. And Abbott agreed with the trend of more shoppers going online, but isn't sure malls face a dramatic threat. "I agree with the trend, but we're social animals and we're used to interacting with other people," he said.

Preventing plague

Plagues may seem a threat from the distant past, but Lynn sees the threat as still very real. She noted that last year 2 million people in the U.S. were infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Her prediction: In the next 5 years, microbiome engineering will create therapies to fight antibiotic resistance. "This will be the ultimate in personalized medicine," she said.

Other panelists were skeptical, though. "I think it's an important, big problem," said Jurvetson. "Thirty percent of people in the developing world die of bacterial infection. But five years? Not with the 10 years it takes to get FDA approval for new drugs."

Abbott said it's important to look at the root cause of the problem, which is that doctors have for decades over-prescribed antibiotics.

Voice will be the ultimate interface

Amazon's Alexa, Google Home and personal assistants like Apple's Siri already make great use of voice recognition. But Jurvetson thinks the best is yet to come, calling Siri "a false start."

"Now we have deep learning to make it all work and (inexpensive) voice recognition chips about the size of a button with an error rate of 5%, which is about the same as for humans. We can speak three times faster than a glass keyboard," he said. Jurvetson expects continuous communication in the next five years, where our devices are always listening -- and smart enough to respond at the appropriate times.

"It's not clear voice will be the only interaction," said Abbott, noting younger people like his daughter use their phone more as a smart camera than for talking.

The future of food, investing and education

Rounding out the predictions, Tung forecast that food production will be revolutionized globally with new plant-based foods and a big increase in indoor growing, spurred in part by the legalization of marijuana in many states.

Sarah Tavel, a partner at Benchmark, predicts a startup will emerge in the next five years with IPO potential that starts out as an ICO (Initial Coin Offering), a kind of virtual currency. "Initial Coin Offerings are the next Kickstarter," she said.

And Abbott foresees a big leap forward in online education, as students take advantage of virtual reality to virtually "go" anywhere in the world.

Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
Shop Tech Products at Amazon