Let’s take a broad look at the areas and what technological breakthroughs are happening or are imminent.
It would be trite to say now that we are living in the age of technology. We have been doing that for the past decade and some. But the way technology has taken over almost all aspects of our lives – and continues to do so – is remarkable, and that too in such a short time.
We are at a stage where we look to technology to solve virtually every problem that we face as a nation, a society, as human beings, or as earthlings. And technology is at a stage where it can. It is at a stage where it can make our future inclusive and sustainable. Or, almost. Earlier, the question was: “What technological revolution can we expect in the next decade?” Now, the expectation is almost “What in the next year?”Why not ask that question now? 2020 is a nice round year to maybe take stock, and see where we are and where we are headed with technological innovation. So, without too much more ado, here are the Top 10 tech innovations that is sure to impact us in the coming year, ie, the very near future. Of course, the Top 10 in technology would be treacherous ground to be on. There is so much happening in this highly connected world, that it would be very difficult to pinpoint just ten. So, let’s take a broad look at the areas and what technological breakthroughs are happening or are imminent.
- Internet of Things, or IoT
Talk about IoT started quite a few years ago, but in the last couple of years, it has gathered steam. The term itself has been around for two decades. It was coined by Kevin Ashton, who was working on RFID technology. But it is only in the last decade, since the universal availability of broadband connectivity and increasingly cheap data, that it has come into prevalence. Originally confined to the industrial space, smart machines have now come into personal spaces. We may not relate to it automatically, but a smart watch or a smart TV, belongs to the universe of IoT. But the use of IoT is universal, and the humongous amount of data that the devices collect on people and processes progressively make things more efficient.
IoT has been performing huge leaps in recent years. For instance, in 2017 the world used about 8.4 billion IoT devices, according to Gartner. That is 31% higher than in the previous year, and almost a device a person. By 2020, this number is projected to cross 20 billion; by 2030, this is estimated to zoom to 125 billion. Expect your lives to depend on IoT as if, well, your life depended on it!
IoT will ease up your life, but do keep a tab on the security and privacy concerns, as every time you use an IoT-enabled device, you generate data, which will be shared and used by agencies and tech companies, not to mention governments. And there are these stories floating around of Alexa and Siri, which brings us to…
- Artificial Intelligence
All the tech giants that rule our lives – Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft – have an assistant for us that reminds us of everything from our engagements for the day to prompting us to buy milk. With advances in Artificial Intelligence proceeding at a fast clip, and with IoT combined, we will also have them telling us to attend to the stove since it is 3 minutes since the milk was kept to boil… or perhaps do it for us!
Big data and AI mean that these assistants know more about us that we ourselves do, as they track us and our activities through the day. The same privacy concerns remain from above, but when your smart watch is able to monitor your vital signs and warn you of a change from the ideal in your body and alert you to take your medicine or visit the doctor, you could justifiably become ambivalent about privacy concerns.
But AI is bigger, much bigger. It impacts and betters activities across the board, such as improving services in sectors such as health and finance, data security, and pushing frontiers in science and technology. AI is now at a stage where it can learn games by itself without external assistance. This can put human activity at the cutting edge, when it is combined with the advances in…
Just as AI is able to learn things on its own, robots are at a stage in development where they are able to learn physical tasks by themselves through watching human beings do them. There is of course the fear that they will take away human jobs, but many experts and observers believe that if that happens at any alarming scale, it is way beyond the foreseeable future; robots, like computing, are going to open up new avenues of activity, too, which will require human minds. Robots are now at the cutting edge in many areas of endeavour and technology. Some of the areas which impact us at a personal level are healthcare and self-driving vehicles, and here robotics is enabling us to do things with a level of accuracy, speed and scale that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. Warehousing and logistics is another area where robots are making a big difference. With online shopping growing fast, robots are making it cheaper for you to get your purchases delivered, and delivered right. Drones, with prices dropping, will become more universal and personal. Already, surveillance and photography have changed because of drones. It is only legal restrictions that are stopping the use of drones for logistical purposes. Robot assisted surgery is already making its presence felt and we will soon see it doing more, better and cheaper in microsurgery and lung cancer, for instance. This has huge implications in the lives of millions every year.
The technological advances in the area of health are numerous, and promising and encouraging. Where does one begin and where does one end? Just a numerical ticking off of the uses of technology in health would include: personalized cancer vaccines that can help the body identify tumours and nip them right in the bud, thus preventing many cancers; smart watches that work as ECGs and identify atrial fibrillations, which are often precursors to a stroke or heart attack; a pill that can be swallowed instead of having an endoscopy, which immediately can reach the benefits of endoscopy to virtually everyone on the planet; a blood test instead of an invasive procedure to predict a premature baby on the basis of free-floating DNA and RNA. And that’s just a sampling.
Climate change surely is real enough for us to feel its effects! This has brought about unpredictable changes in weather patterns which cause worry as far as our food and water are concerned. In the middle of this is the projection that year 2050 will see close to 10 billion humans, which surely has the ability to exacerbate the effects of climate change. Using technology to change the face of agriculture is already happening. With the help of big data and AI, and the use of genetic engineering, we are able to produce more for less. One of the ways in which farming will become more environment friendly is through the wider adoption of slow-release fertilizers, which optimize the uptake of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients by the plants. This minimizes the release of greenhouse gases and the leaching of excess potassium into the soil. And these technological tools are going to be seen much more of in the immediate future.
When we talk about the environment, climate change is an overall concern. The human-related concerns that affect sustainability and threaten the environment include what are perhaps the most important factors – plastics and greenhouse gases. In both these areas, huge advances are being made, and the technologies are on the verge of making a massive difference. One is bioplastics. Plastics have been both a bane and boon, depending on their usage. Their very indestructibility has also made their widespread use a menace. We produce hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste every year, and they go into landfills and, even more destructively, into the ocean. Plastic recycling has never really taken off, especially in India, where less than 10% is segregated and recycled.
Bio-plastics, offer a totally sustainable alternative, being made of plant material and hence being completely biodegradable. It is already being used in India though its availability and price are not yet optimal. If the cycle is broken properly, availability will improve manifold and price too will drop. We can expect technological progress to help in this. This has the potential to cause a paradigm shift in the effect of plastics on the environment.
This is another area where greenhouse gases cause a great deal of concern. It is also another area where technology is providing solutions to counter the negative effects. Electric vehicles have received a huge impetus, especially in India, with the stated government policy to promote them in a big way. New technology means that batteries can be charged quicker and can hold more charge for longer. The biggest step by far is being taken by renewables, and solar and wind energy is poised to take a huge lead forward. For long, coal has been king, but now solar power capacity is being built at a fast rate. India has the lowest installation cost of solar power, and the price of solar power is already 18% lower than that of coal. This has the capability to make real the promise of power to everyone, and can also make it cheaper for everyone. Better storage also means the ability to use solar power in much better and more widespread ways. It also makes it more flexible, so it can be used in situations where it needn’t be part of a larger electrical grid for it to be functional. This makes rooftop solar installations realistic… and this is already happening.
Advances are happening in the area of nuclear power too, with the imminent advent of safer nuclear reactors. Among them are modular miniature reactors that are safer, cheaper and are much greener. Fusion has been much talked-about but this might be the breakthrough year, with a lot of research going into it and being on the verge of success.
This has now been around for a few years, but attention has shifted from it after an initial period of hype. However, developments have been afoot that address the limitations of a technology that has immense potential to change the way we do things. One of the problems was a limitation on the number of transactions that could be done – seven transactions per second a couple of years ago. That would make it virtually impossible for wider acceptance and usage. However, continuous research into the area of distributed ledgers has provided a series of breakthroughs that reduce the network size, making it possible to do more.
Eric Pulier, an expert on blockchain, predicts that blockchain technology will change the way transactions are made – from commerce to documentation to privacy and security where people have control over their own data. Apart from securitizing transactions, blockchains will also make it cheaper to do things. Blockchain is expected to create business value to the tune of $3 trillion in the next decade.
In the context of India, Aadhaar has already brought a lot of identity-related transactions under the umbrella of biometrics. The next range of smartphones will all have biometrics based security; an increasing number of top-end and midrange phones have already prioritized biometrics as a better and more secure way of access than passwords. This has immense potential to change people’s lives. Of course, the usual caveats of privacy, security and connectivity remain, but in this scenario it is also easier to take them increasingly for granted because the capability to provide them exists and will also improve in the near term.
- DNA Storage
With more data comes the need for more, and better, storage. While on a personal level data storage has become perhaps less important, with cloud storage options, at the enterprise level this becomes all the more crucial. Conventional modes of data, in the form of tapes and disks, have been around for decades now. However, the amount of data being generated is increasing on a daily basis. By 2020, it is estimated that every second, 1.7 MB worth of data per person will be created. That is the equivalent of more than 400 billion 1-TB hard disks worth of data every year. A good part of this will have to stored. All this requires physical space and also a large amount of energy.
DNA storage has been researched for a few years now – essentially, storing data as information in DNA. The storage density of DNA is such that an entire year’s data storage requirement can be met by a cubic metre of DNA. Compare that with 40 billion 10-TB disks.And all this is not just talk, either. Research has been progressing, and in 2017 images of a human hand were recorded on to a genome of E coli bacterium, and retrieved with 90% accuracy. Many companies are engaged in research to store and retrieve data stored in DNA. Though you and I may not be storing our movies and music in DNA soon, the development will make it easier for scientists and agencies that need to store massive amounts of data. In the age of data and information technology, this can only be a good thing.Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro and gain access to curated markets data, trading recommendations, equity analysis, investment ideas, insights from market gurus and much more. Get Moneycontrol PRO for 1 year at price of 3 months at 289. Use code FREEDOM.