After the Internet changed the world in the 1990s, many people kept asking what the “Next Big Thing” will be. Well, instead of one big thing, we got many big things. These innovative and fascinating things are starting to mature and become more commercialized, although their effects won’t be widely perceived by the public for the next few years. Just like the Internet, these technological advances will change the world dramatically in the next decade or so. Let’s take a look at some of them.
When Putin gave a soccer ball to Trump in Helsinki, some joked that the ball was hacked. They were partially right, since that Adidas football has a chip in it! This is a perfect example of IoT.
If the original Internet was composed of people, imagine a new Internet that’s composed of hundreds of billions of smart objects that include not only electronic items such as smartphones, vehicles and appliances, but also ordinary items as clothes, shoes and sports items. Everything is going to be inter-connected; everything is going to collect some data; and everything is going to pass/share those data. Your car will be talking to other cars on the highways, your toothbrush will remember how often you brush, your pill inside your stomach will send a message to your doctor, and so on. Several countries are also working on Smart Cities, which will incorporate IoT and all the other technologies discussed in this article.
To enable all this crazy communication of IoT, we need a new technology that is much faster, more secure and smarter at handling all these devices. Hence 5G. It will be so fast that you download a movie in a few seconds!
China and the US are the leading players in this field, although a Chinese company, ZTE, gets the glory for having made the first 5G phone call. (Perhaps this is the real reason why the US targeted ZTE!). It will take about two years before 5G is widely available, but every sector from manufacturing to healthcare to consumer devices is gearing up for this technology. 5G’s market size is expected to be more than $1 trillion within five years after launch. Big technology, big money!
In the broadest sense, AI means computers that can think like human beings – creative, innovative and even self-aware, rather than just following a set of rules/codes. Tremendous progress has been made in this field and there’s more to come. Of course, even people such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned that machines that are too intelligent and cognizant could one day be a threat to humanity. The point at which AI is as good as any human being is called “Singularity” and is expected to happen by the year 2035. For now, AI’s creativity is benign and is limited to writing novels, composing music and so on.
Much of the AI that we experience in the consumer world are seen in speech recognition (Siri), image recognition (Facebook), predictive analysis (Netflix or Amazon making suggestions), autonomous driving and so on. However, these are not really “intelligent” since they really just employ very smart algorithms and programs written by human beings. These examples fall under “Machine Learning” or “Deep Learning.”
How does Machine Learning work? To give a simple example, say you show the computer an image of a lion.
- First time, the computer thinks it’s a human being
- you tell the computer it’s wrong
- the computer starts tweaking some parameters — called weights and biases — and after 1000 attempts, says it’s a cat
- you tell the computer it’s wrong
- the computer runs the same tweaking procedures 4000 more times and figures out it’s a lion!
In technical terms, the computer uses “neural networks” that sort of simulate how our brains work. The feedback loop is known as “back propagation.”
Machine learning gets better when it has a lot of data. Deep learning is a more sophisticated tool that aspires to learn with much less data.
The field of AI depends on large amounts of data … and we need AI to make sense of large amounts of data! All that mountain of data is called the Big Data.
Big Data, Cloud Computing
Okay, these two have been around for quite a few years, but they’re really going to take off, thanks to Artificial Intelligence, IoT and 5G. If data from smartphones and social media can be compared to a hand grenade, the data from the IoT will be like an atomic bomb. This means that programmers, scientists and mathematicians will be busy coming up with new tools to analyze, visualize and extract valuable information from all that new data. And where do people store all those zettabytes of data? On the cloud. Amazon, Microsoft, Google etc. will continue expanding their services and tools to manage and analyze the vast data. Data is the “new oil.”
Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies
Bitcoin was really hot for a few months and then crashed, but it and its crypto cousins aren’t going anywhere. They have fundamentally changed the concept of finance and economics. Also, thanks to geopolitics and excessive use of sanctions by the US, many countries – not just Russia and Iran, but even Germany! – are desperately trying to free themselves from the dollar hegemony. Hence cryptocurrencies will take on bigger roles in the future. Also, one more financial crisis will convince more people to flee from the fiat money of central bankers.
Blockchain is just the open-source technology underlying Bitcoin. It’s a decentralized, distributed, secure database (or a ledger). In fact, it’s a very simple and a boring system. All it does is add new blocks with new data to an existing chain of blocks (“blockchain”). The beauty and power of this comes from the fact that it’s secure and almost tamper-proof.
The way it achieves security is through four features:
- read-only data in existing blockchain
- can only add blocks to the blockchain. No existing block can be deleted
- consensus – meaning, more than one person needs to agree before a transaction can be entered into the ledger (i.e. before new blocks can be added to the chain)
- cryptography for secure transmission and authentication
Blockchain is being adopted rapidly in many fields such as insurance, titles, global supply chain etc. “Smart contracts” based on blockchain are very valuable since we are assured that the blockchain is immutable.
Ethereum is the platform that allows developers to quickly build applications that utilize blockchain.
Thanks to AI and mechanical engineering, robotics is a very promising sector. Industrial robots are replacing humans in manufacturing and logistics at a rapid pace. In the not-so-far future, expect to see them everywhere – from flipping burgers to making cocktails. At some point, robots will be able to walk, run, climb, lift and do just about everything humans can do. Note that some extremely useful robots don’t look anything like humans – like the robots that move boxes around in warehouses or cook food in the kitchen:
People have wondered about flying cars for a long time. Well, they are here now! They are even green and battery-powered. How long before Uber flies a drone to pick you up?
Autonomous Everything, Industry 4.0
Self-driving cars will become more popular and then there will be self-driving trucks, drones, ships, planes … you-name-it. In the manufacturing industry, “smart factories” enabled with AI, robots, IoT and M2M (machine to machine communication) will analyze themselves to ensure high quality of products/processes, and perhaps even automatically fix errors. The possibilities are endless.
Mobile Payments, E-Wallets, Cashless Society
In big cities in China, very few people use cash or credit cards these days. Transactions small and big are done through smartphones and Q-codes! Banks should be worried, very worried.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
It’s not all just fun and games. VR can be used to train employees and teach students – imagine learning to do surgery or fly a plane while sitting at home. Of course, VR may lead to a whole generation of young people who never go on a date!
- 3-D Printing will revolutionize manufacturing, construction and more
- Quantum Computing provides 100% hacking-proof technology and enormous computing power. For example, the fastest current supercomputers will require 100 million years to solve some intricate problems, while a quantum computer can solve it in 100 seconds! In the classic computing world, we are used to thinking of a bit as 0 or 1, a quantum bit (Qubit) can represent numerous probabilistic values. For example, IBM has a quantum computer where each Qubit can have 50 values!! Rigetti, a startup in San Francisco, is offering cloud services for quantum computing. Right now, they use 32 qubits and expect revolutionary results within the next years when qubits go beyond 100.
- Genetic engineering – scientists will keep tinkering with it. Hopefully not too many Frankenstein monsters!
- Green Energy – from solar to electric vehicles, there’s a lot of room for improvements and efficiency
- Military – expect hypersonic missiles, laser weapons, electromagnetic canons or railguns, autonomous robots/drones that synchronize with one another (gasp!), exoskeletons that give soldiers extraordinary strength and perhaps even genetically engineered superhumans!
So, lots of wonderful things and some scary things. Regardless, from a technological point of view, all these are exciting and also unavoidable. Get ready for the future! It’s here already!
Author: Chris Kanthan