Emerging Technology – A Look Back at 2016
By Imogen Rowley
Posted: 21st November 2016 08:22
Oculus Rift. Facebook live streaming. Throngs of people so transfixed by Pokemon Go they fail to notice Justin Bieber lurking in their midst. Reusable space rockets. FitBits and BrainBits and FitBarks. Food scanners that tell you how many calories are sitting in that custard slice. Smart fridges. Smart lawn sprinklers. Smart office chairs. 2016 has seen all manner of weird and wonderful tech, from spoons that encourage kids to eat their vegetables to tech-laden sports bras that monitor undesired wobble; drones in every conceivable size, shape and colour, to alarm clocks that puff scents of lush jungle or flaky croissant at bleary-eyed consumers. While some technological advances, such as jellied ketchup slices that stave off the catastrophe of a soggy bun, are unlikely to change the lives of anyone other than condiment enthusiasts, others have an integral role in improving our wellbeing, transforming industries and addressing major challenges facing the world today.
Technology truly becomes innovative when it transcends geeky curiosities and screwed up blueprints on Cupertino drawing boards and becomes indispensible for everyday technophobes; so commonplace that we can scarcely imagine a world without it. As 2016 turns off its lights and pulls down its shutters, we find ourselves on the cusp of some major advances, as hot young things from Silicon Valley to Shanghai drag us, willingly or not, into a Fourth Industrial Revolution: a brave new world of bio-security, artificial intelligence, immersive user experiences and autonomous everything. Corporate LiveWire takes a look back at the 10 best, most groundbreaking, most expensive or most daring happenings from 2016, all with immeasurable power to mould the future into something unrecognisable.
10. Biometric Security
It began in 2013 when Apple implemented fingerprint scanning on their iPhone home buttons; inherently unique, it is hard to fake fingerprints, just as someone’s ear, eye, gait or heartbeat is intrinsically secure. It is also more convenient to prove your identity with something you always have with you – something not easily lost or forgotten. Descartes Biometrics are experimenting with ear detection security apps, Google’s Abicus Project sets out to monitor speech patterns, MasterCard are employing heartbeat scanning to make purchases ever more infallible, Fujitsu are progressing with iris bill payments, and advanced facial recognition software that can identify pre-offending shoplifters is already in use. So why number 10? Biometric security has some serious security issues – databases are hacked all the time and consumers are rightly suspicious of unleashing their intimate parts to the world. Studies have also shown how high-resolution photos taken from afar and prints left on pint glasses make body part identification easy to hack and track: back in February a New York-based start-up managed to break into the Fort Knox of smartphones – Apple’s iPhone 6 – with a piece of blue Play-Doh.
9. 3D Printing
According to the ‘hype cycle’ conjured by technology analysts Gartner, 3D printing is currently deep in the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’, due any day to begin a steady ascent up the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’. It’s been in our consciousness for years, lauded for its potential to revolutionise and democratise manufacturing but also feared by police the world over for the ease and rapidity with which criminals were expected to start churning out 3D-printed guns. Yet we are beginning to see real impact from 3D printing, from the small – prosthetic limbs for injured dogs to students in Canada using classroom printers to create mini wheelchairs for feral kittens – to the major – NGOs harnessing the technology on the ground in disaster relief to bioprinters using suspended living cells in their ink to grow bespoke body parts. 3D printing has the power to change how we make almost everything, but teething problems such as the propensity for fine parts in machines to wear easily and the need to learn computer-aided design in order to program anything are still barriers to innovation and large-scale adoption.
8. 2D Materials
For millennia, materials science has sent humanity spinning off onto all-new, unanticipated trajectories: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Steel Age, as well as the pioneering discoveries of glass, dynamite, plastic and concrete all shook up the world as we knew it. The revelation of graphene – a material made from a single layer of carbon atoms, up to 300 times stronger than steel, more transparent than most glasses, more efficient and faster at conducting electricity than any other material and the only substance on Earth known to be completely impermeable by gas – has since plunged us into a new era of ‘2D materials’ like something from a superhero’s biggest fantasy. What we previously considered to be the boundaries of our capabilities are now limited only by our imaginations, such as biomaterials that can mimic organic structures, metamaterials that could spell Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloaks and impossibly thin silicon circuits that can be implanted or swallowed and thus catapult medicine into the 21st century and who knows where else. At present, 2D materials have had success in fields such as solar cells, batteries and spacecraft, as well as contributing to the ‘Internet of Things’ with wirelessly connectable clothing and nanoscale processors.
7. Advanced Machine Learning
Essentially a method for clambering ever higher toward the fabled realm of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning is a buzz-phrase for the teaching of a computer to recognize patterns, scour data and come up with insights traditionally thought to be purely the products of our own squidgy grey matter. Greater exposure to data provides machines with the capabilities to then continue to learn about the world on their own. With consumers increasingly demanding highly personalised and reactive content and corporations suffering from information overload, machine learning is big business. It has been used with success to replace much of the menial drudgery of legal work, for example, by helping lawyers to speed-analyse mountains of legislation, automatically drafting contracts or enabling apps to offer ‘superintelligent’ advice on the fly. Our social media comments are also hot property for analysis by advertisers and government thinktanks alike, with the traditional homo sapien hurdles of sarcasm and irony increasingly surmountable by crafty computers. However, Microsoft’s embarrassing foray into AI chatbots with Hitler-worshipping, cannabis-smoking, sex maniac ‘Tay’ back in March proved an interesting study, showing that in fact, ‘Tay’ learns just fine and it is perhaps us humans who need to keep up.
6. Internet of Things
From 3D printed dresses that adjust depending on the wearer’s adrenaline, stress level or body temperature, to toilet bowls that can inform you that you need to see a doctor, the Internet of Things is often described in terms of gimmicky gadgets and incredible sci-fi analogies, when really it is much more far-reaching: the analyst firm Gartner predicts that there will be over 26 billion connected devices by 2020, but other speculations stretch as far as 100 billion. Since the first web-connected toaster dazzled techies with its bread burning prowess back in 1989, wifi-enabled objects have become increasingly engrained into our daily lives, and the Internet of Things has the potential to seriously alter the way we engage with the world around us. Getting caught up with the ‘things’ themselves runs the risk of overlooking the colossal impact such machine-to-machine data monitoring could have – any physical object with a sensor can track information about itself, contributing to huge leaps forward in Big Data and artificial intelligence. However, a crippling attack on seemingly innocuous home devices such as security cameras in October this year turned them into a silicon army of hackers that bought down Twitter, Amazon and Spotify for several hours on the United States’ east coast – a significant assault that foretells a kind of dystopian Wild West of unregulated cyber ‘things’ that could be mobilised for even greater effect by any undesirable with an Internet connection.
5. DNA App Store
They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but our genes are the windows to our past, present and future. Cracking the code reveals information about our health risks, physical and personality traits, ancestry, predisposition to certain illnesses and more – every day it seems biologists unravel some new discovery about how our genes affect every aspect of our lives. There are companies that can map out your genes at a relatively low cost, but for the average person it is difficult to gain any practical knowledge from such information – the grand plan now is to put the power in the hands of the consumer, probably with the help of their GP, to interpret and make medical decisions based on the information gained (or simply to add some weight to your constant assertion that however hard you try not to eat cake, you just have a ‘sweet tooth gene’). Start-ups such as Helix, which launched in August 2015 with US$100 million in funding from investors, aim to store your genomes and make them accessible to companies on a platform – like a DNA App Store – which can then provide useful insights to customers on a pay-as-you-go-basis, rather than the costly and time-consuming method of submitting samples individually to entirely separate companies who then sequence the same genome. They are already working with Good Start Genetics – a company which provides pre-conception testing for genetic conditions – but the scope is huge. There are still regulatory constraints (apps that reveal medical information need approval from the US Food and Drug Administration), but with constant advances in medicine, such personalised sequencing could be potentially life-changing.
4. Virtual Reality
2016 was touted to be the ‘Year of VR’, with the much-anticipated March release of Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Sony’s Playstation VR following closely behind in October. Initial uptake was lukewarm for a number of reasons, including the need for ultra high resolution screens, the drought of refined, useable content and the troubles inherent in being blind and deaf to the outside world yet still wired to an expensive machine. Although news stories about VR addiction and VR nausea abound, companies such as NBA have wholeheartedly embraced the technology, promising to broadcast at least one game a week in VR, and there is still massive potential here, particularly for brands (test-driving new car models, visiting potential vacation destinations and even previewing home improvements made possible with naught but a headset). Companies however need to move beyond novelty, possibly instead adapting the trends of augmented reality that have taken off in a big way this year – Pokemon Go was downloaded 100 million times in its first month, reportedly earning US$10m a day at its peak, while Snapchat allows companies to sponsor its filters and in turn make a huge profit from AR, and Google’s pioneering translation technology, although still wobbly, can be used to translate reams of foreign text in seconds simply with a smartphone camera. AR and VR alike tread icy philosophical ground about what it means to be conscious, human and alive in 2016 – as entrepreneur, engineer and inventor Elon Musk stated, “if you assume any rate of improvement at all, then games will become indistinguishable from reality”. Watch this space.
3. Conversational User Interfaces
The Internet in the early 90s was a very different, somewhat desolate place, one of ‘black mirror’ screens and blinking cursors, before Graphical User Interfaces came along and eased clumsy human-computer interaction with a trove of sparkly new buttons and windows and icons. Yet even this visual language must be learnt – however intuitive the intentions, we do not inherently know that a blue circle surrounded by tricolour shapes is our portal to the Internet via Google Chrome, nor that we need to point, hover and click our ‘mouse’ to get there. Conversational User Interfaces have grand aspirations of days where we merely talk to our machines in order to arrange trips, shop online or organise our finances – not entirely unlike Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Her’, but perhaps less... weird, machines and humans will have more meaningful interchanges without the awkward, robotic phrasing of present day Siri – more like “Who sang Shake It Off? Let me know when they release a new album – in fact, just download it for me”, or “Find me an Italian restaurant that allows smokers, but not a chain and not too far away”. As the technology of language recognition and processing evolves, digital services will become more accessible and easier to use. Sitting at the intersection of a number of technologies on this list, such as the improvements in Advanced Machine Learning and the Internet of Things, our apps will understand the context of our requests and intelligently reason accordingly. One market research firm, TMA Associates, predicts that CUIs will be a US$600 billion market by 2020, while Gartner believes that we are only at the beginning – formerly a realm purely for the insane, one day we will all be talking at the toaster.
Launched in 2009, the technology that underpins the decentralised, peer-to-peer digital payment system Bitcoin has surpassed its spawn and gained serious traction in itself: Blockchain has the potential to transform financial services and even become indispensible in industries such as music distribution, healthcare, title registry and the sale of diamonds. Essentially a way of structuring data – where data can be transactions, agreements, contracts, or anything that needs to be recorded and verified – in a continuously growing list in sequences grouped into blocks. It may sound dull as ditchwater, but the data is secured from tampering and revision by complex mathematical algorithms – each block is chained to the previous block and encrypted, where the maths keeps everything transparent and lowers the risk of fraud, while the digitisation speeds up transactions and cuts costs. Distributed across potentially limitless numbers of computers and servers, blockchains are more protected from hackers, while also not controlled by any central authority: no single party can tamper with the records. IBM project that blockchain will be used by 15% of banks worldwide as early as next year: not a large proportion, but nonetheless representing massive sums of money and individuals. There are flaws however: blockchain represents a profound shift from centralised to decentralised business models which worries many with big business clout, and it is unclear exactly how much information about a transaction each party needs to be able to see in order for their computer to verify the transaction, while still keeping necessary elements of the trade private. It also comes with its own issues of regulation and potential cybersecurity threats, and is very much still exotic territory.
1. Self-driving cars
Self-driving cars are advancing towards us; a fleet of four-wheeled aliens stopping jerkily at red lights and cautiously easing into car parking spaces large enough to fit a tank. We are still several years away from fully autonomous vehicles that can handle every challenging situation our roads toss at them, but Elon Musk, one of the principal founders of Tesla, is hoping for full Level 5 autonomy as early as the end of 2017 – that is, a car at which you simply bark your destination (although it will probably already have read your mind, or at least your calendar) before driving you there in full, uninterrupted bliss, “without the need for a single touch, including the charger”. Mercedes and Ford, however, are predicting a more conservative 2020-2025 timeframe for such automotive wizardry, but the consensus is the same – self-driving cars are coming. The major problems that remain include our inherent human distrust – in October the German government requested that Tesla refrain from using the term autopilot, because it overinflates the confidence drivers have in their wheels – as well as the perennial problem of how to build societal values into the car’s interface: Barack Obama discussed the issue with the classic moral dilemma – “if the car is driving, you can swerve to avoid hitting a pedestrian, but then you might hit a wall and kill yourself” – what do you programme the machine to do? With the likes of Google recently patenting the light detection and special recognition systems in their autonomous vehicles, the technology is largely there: technology that could potentially reduce fatalities and improve transportation efficiency, but the problems that afflict the wider, philosophical ethics of artificial intelligence are given an even harsher spotlight when it comes to something such as cars – potential killers that we all encounter on a daily basis.