PREDICT the future and you can be certain of one thing: in the future, you’ll be embarrassed by your mistakes. Pitch your prediction too far and it’s science fiction that’s forgot before the due date. Pitch it too soon and all you’re doing is taking today’s tech and giving it a once over. Predictions are easy to make but easy to make wrong.
Bill Gates, in his 1999 book Business@ the Speed of Thought, predicted people would carry around small devices for news, commerce and communication (smartphones), people would pay their bills online, and friends would make social plans through online communication. But then again he predicted the future of computing would be tablet devices (right) running Windows (not so right). His friend, and successor as Microsoft CEO, Steve Balmer, famously said “there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share”. IBM chairman Thomas Watson famously predicted, in 1943, there “there is a world market for maybe five computers”.
So, what will the world look like in 2020? Here is a snapshot of predictions by various technology experts.
There will be self-driving cars on Australian roads. Our homes and lives will be organised by connected smart devices interacting with our personal digital assistants. We will wear sensors, perhaps as contact lenses or even tattoos, that will monitor our body and report irregularities to our doctor. Some of us will wear clothing with digital sensors, that will do everything from monitor the way particular muscles work during exercise to control social interactions, such as communicating with the clothes of friends and acquaintances. Manufacturing will be revolutionised by 3D printing and autonomous delivery, be it through self-driving cars or drones, and 3D printing will also be used to make human tissues and organs. Passwords will be a thing of the past, with biometrics replacing them.
It’s one thing to make predictions, it’s another to ponder what it all means. Here are four ways life will change in the next five years and what it means for you.
The push for self-driving cars is not just because motorists would rather let the machine do the work. It’s because taking humans out of equation means safer travel and smarter traffic flow.
To look forward to how we will drive in 2020 you just have to look back to 1957. The US electricity industry ran a newspaper ad promising a life of leisure in the future with a now iconic image showing a near empty highway and a family in a self-driving car with a glass bubble roof. Instead of worrying about the road ahead, the family are doing what all families do in their downtime apparently — they play dominoes and clearly don’t have a care for skin cancer.
When it comes to self-driving cars, the year 2020 doesn’t just mark a vision of the future but a deadline.
Nissan and Mercedes-Benz have set 2020 down as when they plan to introduce cars that can navigate city streets without the need for a driver.
Volvo, which will soon begin trialling self-driving cars in Australia, has taken that one step further. Back in 2008, Volvo’s lead safety expert Anders Eugensson predicted that “by 2020, nobody shall be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo”.
Since then, Volvo has added some fine print to that bold prediction. Volvo safety expert Trevor Rourke admitted earlier this year that “not even the Pope is infallible” but said the trend was towards zero fatalities by 2020.
No matter how attentive a human driver can be, a self-automated car with lasers, radar, sonar and video sensors gives the car the edge in keeping an eye on the road.
If the self-driving car is the top of a mountain, many players are a fair way up the climb.
In many ways Google is leading the charge towards self-driving cars with its autonomous vehicles now having driving nearly 3 million self-autonomous kilometres with only a handful of minor accidents and most of them caused by drivers running into the self-driving car because they are distracted by the Google logo and sensors on the top. But other new players working on autonomous cars include Uber, Tesla and, if the rumours are true, Apple.
As Telstra Chief Technology Officer Vish Nandlall says, we’re already down the road towards self-driving cars, with self-parking and automatic braking now common features.
“The difference between those and what is being looked at as the vision for self-driving cars is that the human is still in the middle of the equation,” he says.
Fully automated cars offer far more than just convenience. They are a tool rather than just a target, with the aim being better traffic flow, the elimination of human error in road safety and the ability to revolutionise industry.
Anthropologist and Fellow with the silicon chip-giant Intel Genevieve Bell says one of the real challenges as we head towards self-driving cars is not the technical but the ethical, moral and legal.
If a kangaroo jumps in front a car, a driver automatically puts the life of himself and passengers above that of the kangaroo. How do you teach a car to make the same decision?
“Those decisions are ethical. Those are the decisions about morality. They are going to look different in different countries. How are you going to decide what rides are self-driving rides? What standards are you going to implement?” Bell says.
Then, as Bell says, there is a question of computers speaking to computers but not talking the same language. It is like having an Apple Watch and the latest Samsung smartphone — both are great devices but just do not communicate with each other.
“Imagine a world where all of these self-driving cars all have different algorithms, a world where some cars are Android, some are Linux, some are Apple OS. What will that look like?
Already your smartphone probably has your email, your contacts, your location and your calendar. The promise of a smarter digital assistance is that your smartphone will be smart enough to look at all of that and know what you should be doing and where you should be doing it. Think of the next generation of the digital assistant as like the previous generation of the super-efficient secretary but always on.
Today, Siri is the voice you probably only hear when you accidentally hold the button on your iPhone for too long. But the annoying voice in your phone today is set to be the super smart digital assistant in the future offering a “hyperindividual experience” of making your world all about you.
While it doesn’t have the sexiness of an Apple smartwatch or the gossip factor of the Ashely Madison hack, one of the most significant tech stories this year was the battle of the digital assistants because of the promise of a more simple life it offered.
Google increased the powers of Google Now, the digital assistant that prompts you to act based on your calendar. Apple promised that Siri would be smarter, Microsoft launched Cortana, Facebook came out with M (for Messenger), which cannot only manage your diary but can be instructed to buy gifts for loved ones or book restaurants and Amazon unveiled Echo.
Nandlall says digital assistants are smart but, in five years, they will be smart enough to think more like a human and consider context.
A digital assistant is currently smart enough to prompt you when you have a meeting. A human assistant is smart enough to prompt you to leave a meeting you don’t want to be in.
Today, we typically turn on a digital assistant with a voice command. But to be truly useful a digital assistant should know we want something before we even want it.
“The future is that it’s always on and it’s listening to you,” Nandeall says.
“You may be having a talk with your wife about `let’s go to that movie tonight’ and you don’t have to actually command anything, it automatically makes the booking.”
The future digital assistant knows that you’re not joking and calculates the next step, such as booking a sitter.
“Once that capability comes to personal assistants then you do have something that can be intuitive.”
With powers like that will come privacy concerns. Do we really want our devices listening to everything we say? Do we want that device to make those decisions or to put that information into the cloud, so our network of smart devices can share the thought process?
Bell says one of the interesting things about the current generation of digital assistants is that typically they’re all programmed to have a response to “I love you” and “Will you marry me?”
“They end up with names. They routinely have genders. They often have temperaments, personality and a portfolio of really bad jokes,” she says.
“That tells me something interesting about our expectations”
While it is clear digital assistants will increasingly manage our lives, Bell looks at what might happen next.
“What happens when everything you’ve ever done is known? How do you reinvent yourself when the choices being served up to you are what you’ve always already done? How do you discover a new thing?”
The internet of Things
It’s the simplest of terms that is obsessing the tech industry and confusing the public: The internet of Things.
It is the term, apparently made up by someone who lacked a thesaurus, to describe a network of devices all connected through the internet. It’s a sign that we’re moving from the age of the smartphone to the era of the smart toaster.
There are currently 13.4 billion things connected in the world — smartphones, smart TVs, computers, tablets and the odd fridge and robotic vacuum. Juniper Research predicts that figure will reach 38.5 billion by 2020. Technology analysts Telsyte predict the number of connected devices in the average Australian home will jump from the current figure of nine to at least 24 and the internet-enabled white good will become the norm, just as smart TVs are now standard.
Rose Schooler, who heads up Intel’s internet of Things group, says there is an upside and downside to the hype of internet of Things.
“It is creating a large rallying point for innovation. That’s the upside,” she says.
“The challenge that comes with anything like that is that we have to make sure that there is a realistic set of expectations around adoption and scale and value.”
The hurdles towards building the IoT is, in the main, not technical. Chips will be routinely put in things, things will routinely be able to connect to each other.
Rather the challenge for the next five years is to explain to people why their things need to get smarter and what will happen when they do.
“When you start looking at these new use cases, what are the unintended social consequences that we need to consider or opportunities,” Schooler says.
“When you’re not driving to work everyday (because of your automated car will be one of those internet of Things) you have potentially, depending on your commute, an extra couple of hours.
“What do you do with that time? Does it lead to more online shopping because you don’t have to drive your car? Will your productivity at work increase?
Nandlall says the advantages of the internet of Things become obvious as the number of connected units grow.
“My connected car signals to my connected home that I’m pulling into the driveway and to turn the lights on, turn the heat up and maybe start heating up the coffee,” he says. “It knows that I’m tired because the sensors in the car have looked at my stress levels.
“Is that a connected car experience or a connected home experience? It’s a connected life experience.
“This is so sticky _ it’s the how did I ever live without it.”
The price of all these connection is a loss of privacy and serious security implications. This year a security expert demonstrated how he could connect to a Jeep, through a connected entertainment system installed in cars in the US market, and force it off the road.
Bell says one of the first questions people ask when she explains the future of the internet of Things is concerns personal privacy: When all of the machines you own can talk to each other, will they gossip about you?
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The wearable market has, so far, been a case of hits and misses. Google Glass, the smart spectacles that were set to be the next big thing, are now widely derided and worn by people known generally as “Glassholes”. Whether that says something about wearable technology or more about the failed marketing strategy of distributing a new product to a select elite is open to interpretation (although, in my view, it’s clearly the later).
Despite that hiccup, a recent report predicts smart glasses will be common in manufacturing shop floors, healthcare, mobile workforce and 3D modelling scenarios.
Smart watches, for now, are a thing for early adaptors. But even though it is in early days, with the launch of the Apple Watch the market seems set to become mainstream.
HIS Technology predicts the smartwatch market will grow from 3.6 million last year to 101 million in 2020. According to Strategy Analytics figures, Apple sold more smartwatches in the first 90 days than Samsung, LG, Pebble, Sony and Motorola combined sold for 2014.
Much of the attraction now with smartwatches is they offer notifications on your wrist, so that you don’t have to grab for a smartphone at every buzz and bing. But, as the activity tracker market matures and merges with mobile health, that focus will shift to something beyond convenience.
Google has made prototype of a smart contact lens that measures glucose levels in tears using a tiny chip and miniaturised sensors.
Motorola has developed a FDA-approved pill which can to produce a signal that, as a password replacement, could be used to activate devices such as a smartphone, computer or car, while a French company has made smart shoes that prevent elderly people from falling.
MHealth, as the field is known, has enormous potential but also raises some serious questions about privacy and security.
Nandlall gives the example of a smart pacemaker as an example of the challenge. You can encrypt the data so that no one can hack into the information about your heart rate but that is not as important as ensuring the integrity of that pacemaker from getting hacked.
You don’t want a stranger getting access to your heart rate data. You really don’t want a stranger getting the ability to turn your pacemaker off at will.
Apple fitness Jay Blahnik, who headed up development of the fitness tracker in the Apple Watch, says having health sensors that monitor things such as heartrate or blood pressure all day could provide a new insight into our health.
“From a medical health and fitness perspective, there’s a ton to learn there,” he says.
“This space is ripe for exploration. The notion of all day sensing, whether it comes from something as simple as the steps coming from your phone, to heartrate throughout the day through GPS when you’re running … I think there is going to be really interesting things to learn that if you can only get at a moment of time, it isn’t even the same information. It doesn’t even tell you the same story.”
While sensors might give us new insights into our physical state, there are signs of how we might turn to technology to deal with our emotional and mental wellbeing.
At the recent Intel Developers Forum in San Francisco, Intel research scientist Lucas Ainsworth demonstrated origami robotic Worry Birds that are programmed to look for a particular word on social media and react. They worry, so you don’t have to.
Bell, who introduced the Worry Birds, sees them as them as a discussion point about what we want wearable technology to become.
“Prototypes are about not what you build but about the questions that you might ask,” she says.
“Are there other ways to manage our relationships with physical things that don’t have to be literal?”