Merging with the machine

Emerging technology is converging on augmenting humanity.

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As a long time CTO, I’m often asked about technology trends. Before I talk about the trends, it’s important that we understand that the rate of technological change driving these trends is accelerating exponentially. Exponential growth of technology capability is hard for humans to grasp. 30 linear steps of advancement are just that, 30 steps forward, or across the room. Thirty exponential steps are the equivalent of more than 25 times around the world! This is why you hear so many voices talking about the impact of technology on our world in the next 10 years. So, what are some of the key trends?

In my view, the most critical digital technologies being explored today all have a common thread. They are focused on augmenting the human experience with digital capabilities. Let’s consider the list.

  • Voice: Voice technology is exploding. Google is said to have sold one new Google Home every second during the 2017 holiday season. Voice is a critical “augmentation” technology because our current interface to computers is slow and inconvenient. Entering words into a computer one character at a time is the equivalent of writing a book by carving into a stone tablet. Computers today can process huge amounts of information, and our interface is to slowly key in our requests? Voice is about increasing the human to machine bandwidth in a “frictionless” way. Consider voice as one step forward on our “input” with the machine. For a lengthy but wonderful discussion on bandwidth between computers and humans, see the waitbutwhy blog on Elon Musk’s Neuralink adventure.
  • Augmented / Virtual Reality: If we update the input, we need to update the output. This is where augmented and virtual reality come in. Augmented reality is available on your smartphone today for everything from projecting restaurant reviews on the restaurant in real time to translating a menu into your native tongue. This is our approach to upgrading the “output” to better connect us with the machine.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): This is about taking Alexa and putting her in every smoke alarm in your house. IoT enables the augmentation theme by surrounding us with our cloud based artificial friend. We achieve this ubiquitous access today by carrying our smartphones with us everywhere we go. Wearables are a step forward, making sure we always know our heart rates, and signaling us with a subtle tap on the wrist when it’s time to go, but these are primitive compared to where IoT will take us. As computer input and output is embedded in our surroundings, we will no longer need to worry about shouting at Alexa in the corner or recharging our phone. The input and output devices will be embedded in the world around us—always on, always listening, sensing and ready to respond to our words and gestures. Yes, the vision of kiosks in the mall that recognize us and call out a offer specific to our desires, a la “Minority Report,” is coming true.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI): I feel a little funny calling something coined in the 1950s an emerging technology, but the level of sophistication and the rate of change makes this the decade of AI. (see my prior blog for more on why!) AI is the cognitive piece of the puzzle that we are using to augment our world, and ultimately ourselves.

In summary, our emerging technologies are designed to merge humanity with the machine; augmenting our human intelligence with artificial intelligence. This brings me to the final emerging technology on the list—really more of an example of how this all comes together in a particular field.

  • Self-driving cars: These are a great example of an application of AI (machine learning neural networks to analyze sensor inputs to “drive”), IoT sensors to enable vehicle-to-vehicle communication and data collection all around the car, and can even incorporate augmented reality, showing your path and the obstacles ahead via a heads-up display projected on your windshield.

I repeat, our exponentially accelerating technology trends are impacting our world in significant ways. Soon, these changes will be merged with us in even more significant ways. As technologists, we need to consider the human and societal impact. Remember, we’re already working in an augmented world. Ask anyone you know what movie won Best Picture in 1976 or who won the 1983 Super Bowl, or even what the square root of pi is. Chances are, their friend named Alexa, Siri or Google will serve up the answer to them, because artificial intelligence augmentation is already here.

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