For true technology aficionados things obviously cannot move forward fast enough. We would like to see the coming year fulfilling all the promises of the latest digital revolution. We want the technology to relieve us, advise us, drive us around, pamper and protect us. We want our environment and our appliances to think with us, keep our calendars, book our holidays and take care of our daily routine. But even digital revolutions take time. Although next year, like last year, will bring about a lot of change and innovation, it might be more interesting to take a look at how technologies that are still in their infancy today, will change our world beyond recognition in the coming five years.
1. The End of the App
In 2011 Steve Jobs called Dropbox a “feature” instead of a product. He predicted a future in which the Dropbox app would be nothing more than a part of iOS. Now, five years later, it seems that he will be right: the individual app as we know it is about to disappear. And it’s about time, too. Because why should we have to open a separate app for every tiny function? Why not let our virtual assistant take care of everything, from hotel bookings to the fastest routes to our destinations, from our calendars to our custom news feed? Instead of the “dumb” isolated apps, we now see the emergence of virtual assistants that unite the functions of all the different apps on our phones, computers and tablets in a single user interface. Thanks to the economy of APIs, it’s mostly a matter of linking it all together and sitting back. Within five years, the science fiction film Her will probably be science fiction no more.
2. The Rise of Cyberspace
Currently, it’s still little more than a gimmick for girls and boys with toys, but that situation will change rapidly. Augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality will have become an essential part of the world within a few years’ time, and this revolution is already happening. The technique has come so far as to make really impressive results possible, and engines of games and software platforms now have default VR support. The possibilities are endless, and the first applications are already emerging—for now, mainly for entertainment purposes (e.g., the movie app that lets you watch a 3D movie in a virtual cinema), but it won’t be long before we start using business applications. Because why would we still go to meetings if we can meet on a virtual beach in virtual Hawaii? Or on top of the Himalayas, with a live video feed around us? Anything is better than our boring meeting rooms, with their modular ceilings and their cold fluorescent lights. Social media will also experience a transformation and will offer an immersive user experience. It’s no coincidence that companies like Facebook invest so heavily in virtual-reality technology.
It might all still seem far away, and the technology is still somewhat unworkable, but compare it with the first mobile phones: they transformed from clunky gimmicks to flat and lightweight powerhouses in a few years’ time.
3. Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the Masses
Deep learning (the new name for artificial intelligence) is hot. Earlier this year, Microsoft made available on GitHub a free deep-learning tool kit, which fits the company’s strategy to make AI available to the masses. Developers can use this tool kit to develop smarter applications that can learn from their interactions with humans and other computers. Think applications that fully understand human speech or security software that works on the basis of facial recognition. Or the aforementioned virtual assistant on your phone, with which you can have a meaningful conversation and which can tell what mood you’re in by your facial expression.
It’s inevitable that we will start to see more and more applications of artificial intelligence in the business world. Many companies and sectors already use it to a greater or lesser extent. Consider the chat-bot applications that banks use to answer customer inquiries. Or IBM’s Watson for Oncology, which advises doctors when choosing treatments and learns from data collected by the doctors themselves. As the power of computers grows, the technology will increasingly nest in every part of our organizations. It will lead to extensive automation of business processes, it will help us make informed business decisions and it will free up time that’s currently consumed by all kinds of manual, repetitive tasks.
4. Internet of Things
We’ve been waiting a while for the Internet of Things for consumers to make the transition from our toothbrushes and thermostats to the rest of our stuff, but obstacles remain, such as the lack of a common safety standard. That the security aspect still needs attention was proven last month, when a large part of the Internet in the eastern United States was shut down by a DDoS attack originating from Internet of Things gadgets such as smart security cameras and routers. Still, in the coming years we will witness an explosive growth of the “things,” and by 2020 there will be 20 to 50 billion devices connected to the IoT (depending on which analyst you ask).
The industrial Internet of Things is already a reality. Consider the Rolls Royce aircraft engines, which continuously send real-time data to the manufacturer to predict problems and prevent disasters. Or the John Deere tractors that inform farmers about what crops they should plant, when and where they need to plow, and what is the best route for plowing. All thanks to the addition of sensors and data connectivity.
And also our offices will go through the IoT transformation. Philips, Cisco and Axians are working on a digital ceiling, which transforms an ordinary modular ceiling into an intelligent data hub that can increase productivity, cut the operating costs of buildings and provide personal environments for workers. In short, the IoT will change everything, and companies should be aware of the implications.
5. Internet of Everything
One cannot view these exciting new technologies in an isolated manner. Everything will connect to everything, and the data we collect with our connected cars, refrigerators, telephones, sensors, wearables and computers can be reused to give us information and assistance in many other locations and applications. Boundaries between the IoT, VR and AI will fade, of which we already see the first symptoms. The new Tesla models are equipped with three radars, eight cameras and a GPU that’s 40 times more powerful than in previous models. Here we see the IoT intersecting with virtual intelligence: the forthcoming Tesla models will reduce Autopilot’s function and make the software “shadow drive” alongside the driver. Tesla will then analyze what Autopilot would have done better than the driver and in which situations it would have made mistakes. Using these metrics, it will show that its Autopilot is safer than a human driver to eventually obtain approval for widespread use. This was a model that we already knew in SaaS but have not seen before in the automotive world.
The combination of data sets will make the distinctions fade even further. Ultimately, the intelligence in our devices will be omnipresent and fully aware of its environment. This capability will result in applications that we cannot even imagine now, in all sectors, from transportation to health services, from offices to factories. Give it another five years.
The Business Revolution
Whoever still thinks that this brave new world will be confined to consumer products will face some major surprises in the coming years. All these innovations will find their way into the workplace, just as tablets, mobile phones and app stores did during the consumerization of IT. If you don’t prepare now, then in five years you will be helplessly standing on the sidelines. You must be able to predict what people need, you must be able to predict what they will bring to the workplace and you must implement the right security measures. If you fail in any of these regards, you’ll be unable to get the best employees and you won’t stand a chance against the competition that did make the necessary preparations. You’ll also have a hard time keeping your IT secure.
Companies that 10 years ago thought the cell phone wouldn’t affect their corporate IT are now trying to cope with the BYOD revolution. Companies that now believe VR, deep learning and IoT won’t challenge the way they structure their IT are downright naive. The days in which IT could behave as shepherd are gone forever. IT has to become much more of a service provider and a supplier of new technologies—the next five years more than ever.
About the Author
Bob Janssen is the SVP of Innovation, CTO & founder of RES. He has been responsible for product vision, strategy and development at RES since founding the company in 1999 and is a prominent RES spokesperson at industry events. He was instrumental in the creation of the flagship products, RES Workspace Manager (now RES ONE Workspace) and RES Automation Manager (now RES ONE Automation), released in 1999 and 2005, respectively. During his tenure, RES has sold millions of licenses worldwide. Bob holds several patents for the solutions he has developed at the company and has worked with the RES R&D team to file numerous others.