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The future of tech: wireless, frictionless, cautious

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At The Economist's World in 2012 conference, Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley, Zynga's Kati London and tech futurist Paul Saffo offer their visions for a connected society.

NEW YORK -- In 2012, there will undoubtedly be technological advancement that will refine today's products in a way that will make our lives easier and more connected.

There will also be developments that, for some places in the world, will dramatically change the way people live forever.

Experts sat down to discuss the possibilities earlier this month at The Economist's World in 2012 festival, and what emerged were predictions on how we'll pay for things, how we'll get work done and how we'll interact with our new, digitally connected world, where computers aren't a portal into another world but an intelligent layer on top of the existing one.

Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley, Zynga New York product director Kati London and Discern Analytics managing director Paul Saffo offered their vision for how the world will look (and act) in 2012.

Crowley said 2012 would be the year of the sensor and the applications that would allow people to begin to bridge the gap between the digital world within their smartphones and the physical world around them.

"[We'll be able to] augment the real world with all the social data that people are contributing to the Internet," he said. "Sensors are going to be in everything we interact with," from televisions to appliances. "We're going to be interacting in new and natural ways."

London predicted that "frictionless products" and "bottom-up consumer agency" will not just change how we interact with the world, but usher in a new set of rules for doing so.

"Your fridge is going to talk to your television which is going to talk to your social networks," she said. "We might end up seeing toasters that have opt-in buttons on them."

One promising technology is near-field communications; as NFC systems are used to facilitate payments, they'll allow retailers to learn more about the customer than ever before. In turn, those people paying with cash may end up paying a premium for using unintelligent means, she said.

But the potential with such technology is great. For example, governments can apply lessons from the video game world to encourage civic participation in a more natural way -- such as selling scratch-and-win lottery cards that also register you as a voter, she said.

"The utility is felt in the real world," she said. "You're seeing the positive aspects of it [in your life offline]."

Or a company like 23AndMe -- the Google Ventures-backed genetics outfit -- could pair with social networking companies so that" you spit in tube and are automatically paired with 20,000 relatives" you didn't know you had.

"It's like Facebook in a bottle," she said. "Change and disruption is going to continue in 2012."

But there are risks, she said.

"In 2012, a college dropout will figure out a way to sell debt portfolios to regular people on their smartphones," she said, adding that mortgage lending was among the "greatest value-added frictionless products of all time."

Meanwhile, Saffo said the new generation of robots won't be a hardware taskmaster but a software layer that will create efficiencies that will impact our economy in unexpected ways.

"Those [jobless] people have been replaced by robots" and intelligent systems, he said. Look at Facebook or Google -- they have very few employees relative to their corporate largesse.

"In the next few years, 'cyberstructural unemployment' will come into our vocabulary," he said. It's not a cyclical downturn -- it's secular, he said.

But hardware will continue to advance. While we're all waiting for a real-life Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons -- "The extravagant vision of the intelligent, autonomous robot is a long way off," he said -- real-world robots like Google's self-driving car will actually change the way we get around.

Google's car is "more than just a research project," Saffo said, and "it has really important commercial applications."

Its very existence has prompted Nevada and California to legalize autonomous vehicles, he said -- and just think about how that kind of technology will change our landscape. There's little doubt that autonomous vehicles will lead to an eventual change in the layout of Google's Mountain View campus and later the world beyond that -- "because parking a Google car won't require a parking structure as we know it today."

"We're all waiting for the robotics revolution," he said. "It's just over the horizon…but there are things that have already happened."

More coverage from The Economist's World in 2012:

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure