I’ve been writing about and publishing reporting on technology for almost half my life now. Going through some old files full of clips recently, I noticed how far popular notions of novel consumer tech have come since I wrote about product launches at my first print magazine gig. (See below.)
Desktop robots that plug into USB ports have been replaced by a new generation of Roombas, personal assistants, and other products with practical uses meant to save us all time, whether that means speeding up searches for baseball scores or vacuuming entire floors in our homes. In many cases, however, consumers choose to pay for these services with their data, creating double-edged propositions where companies learn more about their users and monetize that knowledge on enormous scales. As that happens, policy-makers have begun conversations about regulating big tech companies — and even breaking them up into smaller pieces.
I don’t plan to weigh in on big-tech breakups today, but I do want to highlight a list of areas in tech that I think everyone should be watching. These are technologies that promise to play big roles in our lives in the near future — if they aren’t already doing so. Each one offers at least one value proposition to consumers or businesses while simultaneously asking something of its users (and in some instances society at large).
1. Conversational AI vs. person-to-person experiences
Artificial intelligence is an exciting place to watch right now, software that knows how to improve itself, technology that endlessly creates pictures of people who don’t exist, and much more. And the underlying tech is improving every day. What I personally find most interesting is AI’s improving ability to imitate human actions and communication. Yes, as a person who communicates for a living I have a vested interest in knowing how close it’s coming to replacing me (which in and of itself is a concern) — but watching Google’s Duplex demonstrations made me keenly aware of how good a first-to-market solution already sounds as it becomes an intermediary for people who are actively avoiding talking to one another.
And let’s face it, in the age of chat apps, there is a market for services to people who want to avoid face-to-face communication with other people. That’s what I really wonder about, and I hope the art of conversation isn’t left by the side of the road on the highway to superior AI.
2. Unmanned vehicles vs. nascent ethics standards
Driverless vehicles are already roaming the streets of Pittsburgh and Mountain View, California. Unmanned aerial vehicles are a key component of U.S. military options, and civilians registered 181,000 drones with the Federal Aviation Administration within the first two weeks of the FAA’s drone-tracking program in 2015.
As software gets smarter and companies prove through testing that their vehicles can deliver people and burritos with greater safety and efficiency, the barriers for operation are going to fall. When they do, you can expect to see roads, sidewalks, and skies fill with streams of machines that lack human pilots behind their windshields.
I, for one, am excited about the prospect of safer streets and more social, entertainment, or work time in vehicles while en route from point A to point B. But as this era arrives, questions of responsibility and safety standards will get passed on to software companies, networks of vehicle fleets, and probably other people and things we can only guess at. These parties will need ethical guidelines, and society will have to figure out how to set them.
3. Gene-editing vs. unknown impact
Recent revelations about CRISPR use on humans in China set off a wave of international calls to stop work that’s already underway and build an international consensus around how the world should proceed. In fact, a World Health Organization advisory committee on editing human DNA is asking the United Nations agency to set up a global registry for all research in this space, and it’s recommending that scientific journals refuse to publish unregistered studies.
We’re already well into uncharted territory on this one, and it seems like the world has little choice now but to watch and see what happens to the babies born under under scientist He Jiankui’s watch.
4. Genetic databases vs. the first big hack
I see wonderful stories all the time in my friends’ social media feeds about the DNA test results they’ve received and the details that emerged about their likely family trees with bits and pieces that they inherited from around the globe. I realize that these tests don’t come with 100 percent certainty guarantees. But even if they’re just mostly correct, they offer compelling windows into personal origins and family portraits.
What I wonder about is the destiny of the databases, though. And even if these companies are taking active steps to secure their data and obtain consent for third-party use, you have to wonder what the big hack is going to look like and what will be at stake.
5. Transhumanist cybertech vs. tiered human capabilities
Transhumanism has long been one of the most fascinating fields of tech to me. Bionic limbs, body hacks, and personal liberties regarding individuals’ rights to augment themselves introduce worthwhile conversations that we should all be having at the national policy level — not just when it comes to who can compete at the Olympics.
As we figure out how to fix our bodies and replace our parts, though, we’re also learning how to make are selves stronger and more capable that we were to begin with. That’s going to create challenges down the road on a scale much larger than the Olympic Games.
6. Augmented reality vs. personalized everyday life
The wave of AR devices and software that followed Google Glass are mostly resonating in the enterprise now. (Though Pokémon Go also seems to be doing quite well.) Heads-up displays and glasses will be wonderful tools for drivers and workers numerous professions, whether they’re performing surgery or repairing space stations.
The questions that occupy me in the consumer futures, however, are how individualized AR experiences will shape how we interact with one another, especially if AR gives way to bespoke hyperrealities, full of filters and added content that eventually emulate the bubbled-off social media experiences people already inhabit, growing less knowledgeable of and empathetic to people with whom they disagree.
6. Smart cities vs. rampant surveillance
It’s my fondest hope that the current generation will be able to leverage technology to make cities safer, more livable environments for people. Shaving commute times and transportation-related fatality stats are great places to start. Moreover, there are opportunities to reduce pollution and increase energy efficiency.
Massive numbers of sensors can easily become sprawling surveillance operations, though, and one of the biggest challenges to free and open societies will be balancing associated capabilities and values.
7. Geo-engineering vs. irreversible environmental changes
With fatalistic predictions everywhere about global warming and our collective ability as a planet to ward off catastrophic outcomes, geo-engineering solutions can seem intoxicatingly attractive. Even on small scales, I can believe that there are solutions in this toolset that could complement responsible rethinking of fossil fuel use.
However, I can’t help but wonder what happens when we only have one Earth on which to experiment. The more powerful the technology, the more we would put at risk by making bold moves for the first time.
8. Robot workers vs. human-robot coworking
We’re entering a new phase of workforce integration where there are sound arguments for recruiting robots to do unsafe jobs, as well as dangers presented to humans when new robots report for duty. Just look at the vests Amazon made as a protective measure for its human employees.
The future of work and where new jobs will emerge to replace old ones is a larger issue altogether, but in the short term I can’t help read about employees hospitalized because a robot couldn’t safely handle a canister of bear repellent and question which measure employers would rather take: reducing robot presence or human presence to avoid human injury.
9. Smart homes vs. firmware reliance
Personally, I’m only just beginning to wade cautiously into the automated home experience. Managing a refrigerator and turning lights on or off just aren’t pain points for me in the course of a given day. But consumers face a marketplace willing to automate many parts of our homes and security across single platforms — and there are plenty of incentives.
Cybersecurity is just one point of skepticism here, but what I worry about becoming more of an annoyance is dependency on firmware updates for more and more devices. And how do you know which platform to bet on with the expectation that a brand will still be around to support and provide those firmware updates five, 10, or more years down the line. These are the thoughts that make me satisfied with good, old-fashioned door locks.
10. Cloud-based gaming vs. personality mapping on a whole new level
If Netflix could leverage data about choices users make watching a choose-you-own-adventure-style episode of Black Mirror to inform content production and recommendations, then what could a company do when it controls the processing and hosting for games the way Google’s new Stadia service appears to do?
Mind you, I’m not saying that Google will be tracking every little move a player makes in the games it provides (and Google has committed to certain privacy standards), but if a company could make personality profiles of users based on how they play through an Assassin’s Creed or a Fallout game, you have to ask yourself, “What would those profiles look like?” I’m simultaneously curious and a little worried about the potential answers.