Technology being by design a fleeting concept, journalists, entrepreneurs and investors are endlessly looking to make big bucks by noticing and investing in the famed Next Big Thing. So much so that they sometimes lose their head in the process and spew out very silly things. This happy crowd of predictors often fails to see the irony of using history, which is at heart the study of surprises and changes, as a guide to the future. In doing so, they over-rely on past data as a signal to future conditions in a field where innovation and change is the lifeblood of progress.
Yet readers still eat it up because we as a people like the feeling of predictability and clean narratives. In an effort to get some common sense up in here, below are my predictions for the future of tech, from the boring stuff everyone already talks about to the seemingly weird and unlikely, which is where I’d put my money.
The boring, expected stuff
A.I / Machine Learning / Deep Learning
A.I is often over-estimated, yet definitely IS disruptive. The issue with it is the use of a blanket term for a wide variety of concepts. Machine learning, for example, is very much a thing of the present and is often what is referred to when using the catch-all term “A.I”, but has limited use compared to our dreams of General Artificial Intelligence, which are best left to SciFi writers. The middle ground we should be interested in is in fact Deep Reinforcement Learning, which goes beyond statistics, yet remain highly specialized. It will help create softwares that not only count and cross-reference, but also SEE and HEAR the world, which will change the way we interact with it.
Blockchain is essentially a global ledger capable of automatically recording and verifying a high volume of digital transactions, regardless of location. Its decentralized form means that it has the potential to alter most industries as trust becomes a rare commodity: automating money is old news, but automating trust is BIG business, which explains the very real developments amid the hype.
See also: permissioned vs permissionless ledgers.
Cryptocurrencies / ICOs
Ahahaha *breathes in* hahahaha
Commercial UAVs / Drones
Though we are still developing the platforms upon which drones will rely to zip through the skies to deliver goods straight to our doors or offices, rest assured that the technology will in many ways change how we exchange said goods.
Furthermore, with the decreasing costs of last-mile-delivery, Amazon is likely to yet again increase its margins, allowing it to continue on its path towards world domination.
Finally, one often-forgotten fact is that drones are not necessarily bound by the air: they could also massively decrease costs by carrying goods at sea, or revolutionize space exploration.
Robotics / Cobotics
Robotics may yet have some interesting applications for everyday life, but most of its potential still currently lies in manufacturing. The fact that the term “Cobot” has begun to be used shows how our expectations have adapted to reality: robotics merely assists us in our tasks as co-creators, nothing more. Robots capable of working alongside humans, delivering room service or working in warehouses, will allow organizations to assist, replace or redeploy human workers to more value-adding tasks. Remember: the washing-machine is also a robot which automated washing and liberated women from many time-consuming chores, allowing many to study or work., changing the shape of the economy in the process.
As an entirely new platform, voice is potentially the biggest new way to work, track or advertise digitally since the touchscreen. Verbally interacting with computers is not new per say, yet conversational user interface technology is expected to change the world in no small ways, though it would require computers’ natural language processing abilities to massively move forward. Only then will conversational platforms drive a paradigm shift in which the burden of translating intent shifts from user to computer, getting us closer to a SciFi future.
Wait… is that still a thing?
The pretty OK stuff
A.I Cloud Services / Platform-as-a-service / Data-as-a-service
Though machine learning is not exactly new, its democratization through platforms will be no less life-changing for millions, if not billions, much as the cloud has been.
Allowing anyone to create his or her own basic A.I and train it on freely available data will lead to an explosion of new products (the app store comes to mind as a good example of data-as-a-service’s potential).
Augmented / Artificial / Virtual Reality
Some of those terms are often used interchangeably but are in fact very different: though virtual reality has seen a lot of hype yet few concrete applications, augmented reality shows great potential as an extension to digital platforms: every wall can be a screen! Beyond that, imagine building IKEA furniture using schematics and instructions appearing inside glasses. Or recognising real-world patterns by mixing machine learning and AR. Or identifying certain people in a crowd at a glance.
If you change the car, you change the very way cities are designed.
It’s that simple.
However, today’s autonomous vehicle are not capable of driving safely on their own (as per this handy guide). Continued advancements in sensing, imaging and mapping — as well as A.I and computing — are needed to reach higher levels of automation. We should as such dampen our excitement and concentrate on semi-autonomous vehicles which could be used to transport goods faster and with more accuracy. They could reduce accidents, improve traffic, and even slow urbanization as people will have the ability to use travel times for higher-value cognitive processes, and as such won’t need to live near city centers.
I’d stick to my crowded metro for now, though.
This change has already begun, and will soon be implemented throughout the Western world. I’m talking about light-bulbs controlled by smartphones, fridges which order for you when you’re low on milk, and self-adjusting thermostats.
The crazy thing about this is that it sounds pretty damn dull right now, when 5 years ago I’d have been called a hack for merely discussing it. Smart fabricsare also in the work with plans to integrate the tech to the wider smart home ecosystem, but the hardware (See Carbon Nanotubes) still needs some research.
Though 5G still has many challenges to face ahead, it is likely to be the platform upon which much of the future is built. We’re talking 10x speed, 10x connection density and 100x network efficiency, all of which is needed to feed most of the above (and below).
The ultra-low latency and ultra-dense deployment to massive mobile data will also grant great competitive advantages to those willing to embrace it. Most CEOs should know or be asking about their local infrastructures’ stages of development.
All hail 5G.
Bit of an oddball, that one. Quantum computers will be capable of feats of computation inconceivable with today’s machines, but we haven’t yet figured out what we might do with those powers (should they FINALLY materialise). One likely and enticing possibility: precisely designing molecules to revolutionise manufacturing, chemistry and medicine as we know it. Though general-purpose quantum computers will probably never come to be, the technology indeed holds great potential in narrow, defined areas.
Fun! Excitement! exoskeletons! There are now countless ways for us to augment our bodies, some as wince-worthy as implanting a chip under your skin or as simple as strapping on some computerized knee braces. Human augmentation has the potential to use technology to enhance bodies and minds, but also raises ethical and legal questions, so the jury is still out on the democratisation of some of these tools.
The Very Exciting Stuff
IoT / Edge Computing / Intelligent Edge
While the vast majority of data processing for connected devices now happens in the cloud, sending data back and forth across a central server can take seconds (!) too long. As such, allowing objects to process data on their own (at the”edge” of the eco-system) could make objects such as autonomous vehicles possible, and would also be invaluable in healthcare and manufacturing, among others.
As is the case for other developments both above and below, we must however let the hardware catch up before implementing these ideas (see “deep neural network ASICs”).
As intelligent “things” proliferate, expect a shift from stand-alone intelligent objects to swarms of collaborative intelligent things. In this model, multiple devices will work together, either independently or with human input. The leading edge of this area is being used by the military, which is studying the use of drone swarms (RELEASE THE SWARM) to attack or defend military targets, but could likely go much further with hundreds of potential civilian uses.
The current main idea behind micro-chips is for tracking bio-metrics at work, as part of the smart workspace technology ecosystem. Though it’s nothing too exciting yet, this technology currently helps with identifying employees and paying for lunch and coffee (Woo).
Unless everyone suddenly agrees to let their blood pressure be monitored daily at work, this tracking is likely to remain benign in the near future. Beyond work, these chips (which are made from an array of molecular sensors on the chip surface that can analyze biological elements and chemicals) will be able to detect diseases early. Which leads us to…
For those wanting to go even smaller than micro-chips: nanorobots, which are currently in the R&D phase, are essentially very very tiny sensors.
The first useful applications of these nanomachines may very well be in nanomedicine. For example, biological machines could be used to identify and destroy cancer cells or deliver drugs. Another potential application is the detection of toxic chemicals, and the measurement of their concentrations, in the environment.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: Smart Dust will be discussed soon.
No, I’m not talking about Gattaca (yet). But we’re getting pretty close to it: scientists can already use your genome to predict your chances of getting heart disease or breast cancer, and even your IQ (mine is anywhere between 75 and 135 according to random, non-scientific BuzzFeed Quizzes). As such, DNA-based “predictions” could be the next great public health advance, regardless of the risks of genetic discrimination. For example, if women at high risk for breast cancer got more mammograms and those at low risk got fewer, those exams might catch more real cancers and set off fewer false alarms, leading to a better treatment rate and lower insurance premia.
It could also lead to the rise of personalised medicine, though the logistics of such a task would likely be a financial and logistical disaster given the current political climate.
Even if a Gattaca-like future does come about, changing some genes to make an individual healthy could be the key to ruining a perfectly good apocalyptic future. CRISPR/Cas genome editing techniques have many potential applications, including medicine and crop seed enhancement.
Editing germs to make new viruses is however less fun.
Either way, I look forward to a time when every man looks like a mix of Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba.
3D metal printing
3D printing may already appear to be a thing of the past (when in fact the ideas behind it have only gotten more realistic), but we’re yet to see the full extent of the tech’s capacities with regards to new materials. Working with various metals will allow for lighter, stronger and more complex objects, which will be great for complex or custom mechanical parts (think tricked out car engines). The process is however incredibly hard to master (I cover 4D printing below,for those brave enough to go there).
The future is ear!
Though Voice may be the next big platform, I would not discard Ear so easily (Voilà, in view a humble Vaudevilian…). Smart headphones could soon act as daily advisers for all questions, hopefully without being prompted (ever wished you could remember that guy’s name?).
Thinking about such a tech practically: ears are close to the mouth, can multitask, work in your sleep and are more open to fashionable accessories than the mouth or the eyes. And that’s without getting into the whole translation thing.
At this rate, it won’t be long before Amazon can send ads for coughing syrup when it hears you cough.
Zero-Carbon Natural Gas
The ability to efficiently and cheaply captures carbon released by burning natural gas.
That’s it. No jokes, no gimmicks.
Do you want your great-grand-kids to know what it’s like not to despise the sun? Then forget about all the above and concentrate on Green Tech.
The Very Obscure Yet Very Exciting Stuff (I’m not very good at titles)
Smart dust is a swarm of incredibly tiny (.15 x .15 mm) sensors which would gather huge amounts of information over a large area without disturbing the ecosystem. Some of the applications include detection of corrosion in aging pipes before they leak in factories (Or drinking water… oh, hi Flint), tracking mass movements in cities or even monitoring inaccessible areas, however large they may be.
One of the issue with this technology being discussed is the ecological harm these sensors could cause, as well as their potential for being used for unethical behavior. Another is how actionable the data gathered may be as opposed to satellite images.
The name 4D printing can lead to confusion: I am not implying that humanity will be able to create and access another dimension (Only Rubik can do that). Put simply, a 4D-printed product is a 3D-printed object which can change properties when a specific stimulus is applied (submerged underwater, heated, shaken, not stirred…). The applications are still being discussed, but it could be a way for many industries to become more sustainable, and for some products to be much more practical.
How cool would it be to own clothes and footwear that optimise their form and function by reacting to changes in the environment?
Now this is what I call real SciFi. Taking a page from biology, physics, mathematics, computer science, and electronic engineering, neuromorphic engineering aims to create hardware which copies the neurons in their response to sensory inputs.
We’re not really sure how far this idea can be taken, but exploring it is, if anything, great for theoretical A.I research. Should said research go further and become actionable, you’ll find me knocking on Sarah Connor’s door.
Digital twins integrate artificial intelligence, machine learning and software analytics to create a digital replica of physical assets that update and change as their physical counterparts change, hence providing a variety of information throughout an object’s life cycle. With an estimated 21 billion connected sensors and endpoints by 2020, digital twins will exist for billions of things in the near future, if only for the potential billions of dollars of savings in maintenance and repair. Improving operations and optimising the IoT’s performance is also very much on the table.
All the above is very cool, but imagine how much cooler it’d be if instead of objects we could make a digital twin for humans to see diseases in real time, or even for entire cities!
See you in 2050 for the details.
Volumetric displays / Free-space displays
If one cuts through the blah blah, volumetric displays are essentially holograms. Their use in advertising may be either greatly entertaining, or absolutely terrible because of potential impracticabilities (you can imagine which easily by watching Blade Runner 2049). The same can be said for more or less any industry which would claim to use such a tech. I’m also dubious about the tech’s importance: computers were supposed to kill paper and I still print every single presentation I receive to read it.
I don’t see hologram being anything else than a hype-tech attached to other more interesting techs (such as adaptive projectors).
A brain-computer interface, sometimes called a neural-control interface, mind-machine interface, direct neural interface, or brain–machine interface, is a direct communication pathway between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device. It sounds super cool and futuristic, but you’ve probably already seen it at work in prosthetics, for example.
But it’s the 24/7 access to internet which would be most transformative. Beyond the sociological, ethical and financial worries, it is the theological issue which interests me more:
if everyone has access to the entirety of human knowledge at all time, every single human will be, in essence, a god. And if everyone is god, nobody is.
It’s a comforting thought.
Zero-knowledge proof (aka: zero-knowledge succinct non-interactive argument of knowledge)
Privacy: ever heard of it? Computer scientists are perfecting a cryptographic tool for proving something without revealing the information underlying the proof. It sounds incredible but not impossible once you wrap your head around the concept and the fact that it’s a bit more complex than saying “c’mon bro, you know I’m good for it”.
For all their promise, though, zk-SNARKs are computation-heavy and slow. They also require a so-called “trusted setup,” creating a cryptographic key that could compromise the whole system if it fell into the wrong hands. But researchers are looking at alternatives that deploy zero-knowledge proofs more efficiently and don’t require such a key.
Flying autonomous vehicles
This one is easier to grasp as it has been part of the collective imagination for dozens, if not hundreds of years. Waiting curbside for an Uber or Lyft driver might one day be the old-fashioned way of getting around, however silly the idea of flying cars may sound now.
We’re already struggling to stop people from attacking “classical” autonomous cars so the jury is still out.
Smart Robots / Autonomous Mobile Robots
This has also been a staple of SciFi for many years, for obvious reasons: imagine mixing robotics with enough General Artificial Intelligence to entertain the idea of the digital world becoming physical.
Welcome to your tape.
Before any of this can ever happen, we will need to improve robotics (robots don’t move so good right now) and create a new branch of A.I research. AMRs will also need nice a strong batteries, hence the current research into Lithium–silicon technologies. Elon Musk can’t get ALL the glory, can he?In any case, EdX actually offers a free class to learn about Autonomous Robots’ basic concepts. Check it out.
Biotech / Cultured/Artificial tissues
These biohacks will fall into four categories that will redefine what it means to be human: technology augmentation, nutrigenomics, experimental biology and grinder biohacking.
- Technology augmentation is the use of various tools to improve our poor limbs (think augmented vision, 3D printed limbs or artificial tissues).
- Nutrigenomics is the study of the effects of foods and food constituents on gene expression, and could be use to slow down aging, cancer or obesity once properly grasped.
- Experimental biology is primarily and experimental science (as per its name) and I don’t fully understand it soooo…
- And finally, grinders are people who apply the hacker ethic to improve their own bodies with do-it-yourself cybernetic devices or introducing chemicals into the body to enhance or change their bodies’ functionality. Turns out, DIY might in fact be the way of the future. Thanks IKEA.
There is ALWAYS something new coming. That’s been the way of the world for the past 4 centuries, give or take. You can look at it as tech coming to us, or as us picking a tech to get excited about and pouring money into it.
No one know which way the correlation runs anyway.
As such, the future is looking bright regardless of the reality of the advancements described above.
Let’s try to keep it that way, if not for ourselves, then for future generations.
Every week, I work hard to bring new and interesting topics to thousands of inboxes. Sign up using this link to join the fun.
I Compiled a List of Tech’s “Next Big Things” So You Wouldn’t Have to was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.