Thursday, January 2, 2020

Looking forward to technologies of the 2020s

Years ago I heard the phrase "In 2021, hindsight will be 20/20". I'm certainly not the prognosticator on the level of Ray Kurzeweil, but as we start turn over the year number in the tens place I'm thinking about technologies that I'm looking forward to in the next ten years. In no particular order I am anticipating:

Better digital assistants and smart devices
Smart speakers and phone-based digital assistants are useful for some things, but we still find ourselves repeating or rewording commands. There are also quite a few instances of "I can't help with that yet". I'm optimistic that we will get to the point of our digital assistants learning how to work for us, and our smart homes adjusting to our lifestyles and patterns without us having to continually yell at them and reconnect devices to the WiFi. These devices and services should make it less work for us to accomplish tasks.

More automation of uninteresting tasks (including driving)
I'm a big fan of freeing up humans to accomplish uniquely human achievements, or watch more streaming video if they prefer. To help achieve that, I'm looking forward to more automation of tedious or dangerous tasks. While this may lead to more unemployment, or less depending on who you listen to, maybe we can get to the point as a society of eliminating jobs that people dislike. And perhaps decrease our workload without decreasing our standard of living, so that we have more time for volunteering and leisure activities.

Better virtual reality and augmented reality
VR seems to be used primarily for leisure activities such as video games, and perhaps some basic virtual field trips, but there are many other interesting applications. It still feels like early days, especially with AR, but the technological capabilities and developer proficiencies are improving. I'm particularly excited about the potential for psychological treatments using VR and AR.

Advances in psychology and neuroscience
Technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging are giving us better insights into how brains work, and it feels like we are just at the beginning of our understanding. We may start to see useful mind-computer interfaces, and at some point even the ability to create backups...

Improved information literacy
As we understand more about how our minds work, perhaps we can devote more resources to helping people distinguish reality from fiction. There seems to be a growing recognition that disinformation and "face news" are issues, but no consensus about what is fake and how to deal with this issue. I'm optimistic, however, that it is a solvable problem. It may require a re-think of how we remunerate individuals and organizations, and our advertising-based economy.

eSports
We've seen a growing phenomenon of watching other people play video games, and "cyberathletes" making the kind of money that professional athletes can make. Not sure if this will supplant traditional sports, or if we would want them to, but the risk of concussions is lower. There is automated comment moderation in some streams, but the communities tend to be somewhat toxic, especially for female gamers. Although I don't usually recommend technological solutions to behavioral problems, internet filtering for example, maybe technology can help teach us to be better people.

Ubiquitous data access
I am in favor of better data access, and improved information for education and decision making (I believe Wikipedia is one of humanity's greatest achievements). We are seeing intriguing ideas about ways to provide internet access in remote areas, such as drones, balloons, or low Earth orbit satellites (which hopefully won't interfere with astronomy). This is particularly useful for underprivileged areas and people groups.

Blockchain
Beyond cryptocurrencies, which may help when government-backed currencies are subject to catastrophic inflation, there are other applications of blockchain ledgers for identity management and verification, supply chain tracking, contracts and asset transfer, and other financial services such as payments and escrow. We may even see blockchain-based voting.

These are some of the technologies and trends that I'm thinking about these days.  Of course we will likely see some unexpected dark horse technologies have significant impacts on our lives and society. But as they say, predictions are difficult. What are your thoughts?