Monday, December 21, 2015

What technological advancements will the next decade bring?

There have been amazing progress in technology in recent years. Just to name a few, I would mention deep learning, big data, ubiquitous tablets and smartphones, advances in medicine, BitCoin, 3D printing, accurate voice recognition, Arduino, Raspberry pie, maker movement, drones, etc. I can't help but wonder what we will see next, in the coming decade. What discoveries we will be able to make? How would the world change? I am very curious and excited about the future.

To extrapolate to 2025, indulge me as I go back to the year 2005 to extrapolate. Ten years ago, iPhone was still not introduced (iPhone 1 got introduced on June 29, 2007). Smartphones were rare. Internet was not a household item. Cloud was not there. Tablets were not there. In fact, none of the technologies mentioned in the previous paragraph were there. In ten years we have come a long way.

Let me add an anectode about how I witnessed this ride in the last 10 years. In 2005, I joined University at Buffalo as an Assistant professor, and  started teaching CSE 646: Wireless and Mobile Computing, a graduate level project-based course on wireless sensor networks. In order to pique the interest of my students, I would start the class by a review-assignment on a short science-fiction story by Vernor Vinge, "Synthetic Serendipity". (If you have 10-15 minutes, do read this story; it is really good.) So, every year, we would talk about which technology mentioned in this short story may get realized soon. A funny thing started to happen around 2010. It seemed like, every year we would find a couple technologies mentioned in the book to get realized: Google Glass, delivery drones, Arduinos, robot sets for education, augmented reality, BitCoin, holograms, etc.

This leads me to be optimistic about the kind of progress we would see in the next 10 years. (Ok, maybe not as optimistic as the singularity guys and what their law of accelerating returns predict.) Let me wear my wizard hat, and look into my crystal ball. (I will stick to predicting only computing related advances with which I have some familiarity.)

Advances in machine learning 

Machine learning is all the rage now. Thanks to big data and cloud computing, machine learning stole the show in the recent years. However, machine learning is still just simple statistical learning today. In other words it is still in its infancy. I think we are going to see much better technology and accelerated progress in machine learning in the coming years. Five years ago, I would not put singularity before 2150-2200 timeline. Nowadays, I am not so sure. The AI winter is over, and AI is blooming. With all the attention it is receiving we are bound to witness more breakthroughs in machine learning.

I wager that by 2025 we can expect to have AI as smart as a 3rd-grader. This AI will of course be a savant at book/Google knowledge in specialized fields, but in addition it will be able to synthesize and contextualize the information and use cognition as well as a 3rd-grader can. (This article summarizes cognitive capabilities of an 8-10 year old.)

This will of course be accessible through our smartphones. Siri will get that good. We will have a personal asistant who has human intelligence at the level of a 3rd-grader, and who will have all the world's knowledge accessible through filtering of a 3rd grader's synthesis/creative capability. It was already uncanny when I witnessed my 4 year old having a conversation with Siri a couple months ago. I wonder how this would feel to the middle-aged and elderly. It may come as a total culture shock and be an alienating experience as predicted in the Synthetic Serendipity story.

This is the pattern of software-based innovation. Software-based innovation virtualizes a physical thing, and then improves on it every year thanks to the availability of exponentially more computing/querying power. By 2025, we will have a virtual personal assistant, virtual nanny, virtual teacher, and a virtual doctor in our smartphones.

If you have missed the movie "Her", schedule sometime to watch it. I thought it was pretty good. Come to think of it, in the most recent Terminator movie the SkyNet was rising from the smartphones. Coincidence?

Advances in Internet of Things (IoT)

Arduino and maker movement made a splash. Raspberry Pie is already getting dirt cheap. Yet, the Internet of Things domain is still looking for a killer application. I expect the killer application to arrive, and obviously I don't know what it will be. Maybe it will be in querying the physical spaces as well as we can query the cyber space with Google. Being able to query for car keys at the house, or items in schools, warehouses. I don't know. Maybe we will become a security/surveillance-obsessed community and employ IoT to record/query audio and video.

In any case, I wager that IoT will finally take off. I include 3D-printing technology as auxiliary to IoT. In 2025, you may not quite be able to download and print a car, but I believe we will start downloading and printing toy cars for our children at least. (Whatever you can't print at home will be printed at an Amazon warehouse nearby and will be drone-delivered to you within a couple hours.) Of course the toy car would be steerable from the Internet and it would streaming videos to YouTube :-) Most amazing of technologies always start as toys, then find serious use. I remember in 2005 I had an argument with a graduate student who thought "the newly released Google Maps was a silly toy idea because we already have paper maps" (I kid you not).

Printable IoT utensils/tools/gadgets may help revolutionalize/democratize retail the way cloud computing revolutionalized/democratized the IT startups domain. Walmart's business may be in jeopardy in 2025, because printable IoT technology will accelerate the innovation in consumer items/tools and bridge the gap between idea to production and delivery in retail. If you have a good idea for a smart kitchen utensil, you will be able to prototype it and get it into production and retail at large-scale quickly. This will be like Kickstarter on steroids. We may see next Instagrams, Dropboxes, Apples(?), flourish in the domain of printable IoTs.

The way cloud computing provided pay-per-use elastic-scalability to software-as-a-service, an IoT printing platform can provide pay-per-use elastic-scalability to retail-as-a-service. Amazon was the cloud computing platform provider which facilitated/accelerated IT-based startups. Can Amazon be the platform provider for IoT printing business as well? Wow, I might have figured out Amazon's convergent strategy to world domination in 2025.

Software is already eating the world, and by 2025 software will be rebuilding/reintegrating to the world. Maybe for future science-fiction reading in my classes, I should assign Neil Stephenson's "Diamond Age", which is set in a future world in which programmable-nanotechnology affects all aspects of life.

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