26 October 2016

The Next Big Thing in Tech

There is now a set of emerging technology that are competing to be the "next big thing" in tech.

Back in the '90s, the Internet rolled into all our lives, growing from a computer network used mostly by universities, government, and the military, to a full blown social, economic, and political revolution. It hardly surprised anyone. We could see it coming. There were even AT&T television commercials depicting everyday life with Internet powered services that we take for granted today.

Also during that time, we clearly could see that mobile technology would be big. Cell phones were proliferating, especially the Motorola flip phones. We knew that one day, computers would be handheld and merged with the phone. But we didn't know exactly how soon, nor how ubiquitous mobile tech would become. Of course, mobile tech extended and vastly expanded the reach of the Internet revolution.

Now we have some newly emerging technologies that are vying for attention. Namely, virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, chat bots, and driverless cars.

Virtual reality (VR) promises to immerse the senses of the user, in a manner most easily associated with playing video games. VR tech from decades before were heavy, slow, and expensive, but those constraints have been overcome, largely due to the advances in mobile tech. Sci-fi movies have glorified the promise of VR, yet today's news media regularly portrays users of VR as people acting clumsy in the real world while wearing VR headgear. Having to shut out the real world while using VR has its obvious disadvantages, which makes usage of VR a very intentional and inherently isolating act, not something to do for a few seconds or even a minute here or there, like glancing at a smartphone or casually playing a mobile game app.

Augmented reality (AR) trades the immersive aspect of VR with technology that overlays computer generated visuals with a view of the real world.  While avoiding the isolation of VR, the use of AR introduces additional complications, such as distractions from real life hazards, and expensive see-through display technology. I think in the long run, AR has more potential for both business and personal applications, than VR. Perhaps there will be a future hybrid AR/VR device that can easily switch between the two modes.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been envisioned for over half a century and has become viable as computing technology has accelerated in processing power and affordability. Many different emerging technologies are closely related to AI, including learning networks, speech recognition, natural language processing, speech synthesis, foreign language translation, and predictive analytics. There is a common fear, also frequently portrayed in sci-fi films, of AI, especially when combined with robotics, resulting in apocalyptic destruction and death, driven by soulless vengeance and limitless ambition for power. Some predict the Singularity will occur, when the machines develop their own intelligence faster than humans can control. Such fears may limit the trust consumers have with AI, which I predict will give initial prominence to AI related applications that only partially automate things, where people feel they still have some control, but enjoy some benefits of AI assistance.

Chat bots are a mashup of text messaging platforms and some aspects of AI. The shift in attention from disparate mobile apps to the stickiness of mobile text messaging platforms allows for software providers to refocus the entire user experience of an application to a text based natural language processing user interface. Customer service functions are leading the way. Other functions will likely follow. Chat bots, especially if voice recognition is mixed with the text interface, could possibly become the channel for AI to be accepted into daily mainstream use.

Driverless cars have garnered a lot of media and industry attention the past few years. Such vehicles are already in limited use under narrow conditions. Partial automation is also in use in Tesla cars, resulting in some fatal accidents. Truly autonomous vehicles which can navigate all roads under all conditions are still decades away. Fog, snow, and other foul weather hinder the sensors. Navigation maps are not always accurate or up to date. But the impact to the transportation industry will obviously be massive. It is yet to be proven there will be less traffic, but it is hoped that overall traffic safety will improve, while levels of car ownership, already on a downward trend, will likely continue to drop with both the convenience and cost of driverless cars.

What is possibly the most tantalizing idea is the likelihood that the next big thing might not be any of these things. It would not surprise some people, especially those of us in Silicon Valley, if some entirely new technology, built by a previously unknown, innovative teenage girl in her parents garage or basement or bedroom corner, rapidly emerges as the next big thing to change the world.