In fact, it seems journalists write about the launch of some new technology that has the ability to completely revolutionise our lives every day. Of course, some of this is hype. But beneath the hype is a real marching forward: the growth of technological progress is undoubtedly accelerating.
Today, we are in the midst of the digital revolution. Disruptive digital companies and technologies dominate the stock market and investors’ portfolios. Although it’s hard to predict exactly what the next big technological breakthrough will be, we can make some educated guesses. Here are our top five breakthrough technologies of 2018.
“Artificial intelligence” means a lot of things. For some, it is the instantiation of general intelligence (the sort humans have) in a machine – think Robin Williams in the Bicentennial Man. For others it is less dramatic, and refers only to systems that are capable of some level of reasoning, knowledge representation, planning, learning, natural language processing, perception, and so on.
If we take the latter definition, there are already many cases of AI. For example, since 2006, chess programs running on commercial hardware have been able to defeat even the strongest human players. But playing chess is one thing. AI these days is about creating machines that can apply their intelligence to different tasks. Google’s DeepMind, for example, has learnt to successfully play 49 classic Atari games by itself. And driverless cars require software sophisticated enough to navigate complex and unpredictable road systems.
Although true AI, of the kind described in our first definition, may still be a long way off, 2018 will no doubt see AI in the second sense applied to a whole range of different industries. These include, according to Thomson Reuters, news, law, autonomous vehicles, accounting, wealth management, and more.
Since mobile phones first became available in Japan back in 1979, mobile phone technology has exploded! What we call “phones” today aren’t really phones at all. The name is a legacy of a much earlier technology. Really, they’re more like mini-computers, which allow users to take photos, browse the web, watch videos, listen to music, locate themselves on a map, send emails, do a bit of online dating…the list goes on and on.
Today, most smartphone users use 4G mobile technology. This offered significantly improved download and upload speeds compared to 3G, reduced latency and made possible the use of apps that require a speedy internet connection. But 4G was released almost 10 years ago, and now the industry is looking toward something new.
We’re on the cusp of the fifth generation of mobile phone technology. But, at present, there are no solidified 5G standards. This means that different technologies (such as millimetre wave bands or Massive MIMO technology) are competing to support 5G networks. Though there is no definite time-scale for the deployment of 5G networks, we can expect to see them rolling out later this year, with near-complete coverage expected by 2022.
Earbuds that translate a foreign language in real time. That sounds so sci-fi it can’t be real. Indeed, the seamless removal of languages has been a staple for writers and movie producers for years. But now, that dream is becoming a reality.
In October 2017, Google launched a set of Bluetooth earbuds called Pixel Buds with a new feature: instant translation between 40 different languages using a Pixel smartphone. The way it works is this. If you, say, want help speaking Spanish, you simply ask “Help me speak Spanish” and the phone’s speakers will output translated words as you speak them, as the other party’s reply plays in your ear.
That’s a pretty good effort. But it’s not quite the translating earbuds that those sci-fi visionaries had in mind – for one thing, it depends on having a phone. Moreover, the translation feature has received mixed reviews so far. So it’s a good thing it’s not just Google who are in the real-time translation space. Big companies such as Skype, Microsoft and Apple are looking into real-time translation, as are smaller ones such as Waverly and iTranslate. With so many people looking into this technology, we can expect to see some real developments in the near future.
The internet has given us an awful lot. Videos from YouTube. Social networking from Facebook, LinkedIn and the rest. Educative resources from the likes of Wikipedia. And all of it for free! It almost sounds too good to be true…Well, in some ways, it is. Although we don’t pay for these services with cash, we pay for them with data.
Data is incredibly valuable. It gives companies power, direction, the ability to personalise their offerings, become more efficient and better predict the future. Companies want data so much that many well-known brands have fallen foul of failing to protect their users’ data or of using that data irresponsibly.
Most recently the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal left Facebook facing international investigations into the illicit harvesting of users’ personal data.
Something about companies gathering huge amounts data about their users makes many of us uncomfortable. So, a technology that allowed users to benefit from all that the internet offers whist keeping their data safe would be much sought after.
Creating such a thing is an incredibly difficult ask. Nevertheless, true internet privacy may be about to become possible. A new tool is an emerging in a cryptographic protocol called zero-knowledge proof. This lets you prove that you are 18 without revealing your date of birth, or prove that you have enough money to pay for something without revealing your balance.
Though the technology is still very new, we could see perfect online privacy in the not too distant future.
All of the developments we’ve highlighted in this post depend on computers. But our final technological breakthrough changes the fundamental nature of computing itself.
Traditional computers are based on binary digital electronic technology. These require data to be encoded into digital bits, each of which is either in one of two definite states (0 or 1). But quantum computers, taking advantage of some of the more spooky elements of quantum mechanics, use quantum bits, which can be in superpositions of states (such as 0 and 1 at the same time, or even in two different places) and quantum entanglement, which allows information to be transferred instantaneously .
Without getting into the complexities of quantum mechanics, quantum computers are theoretically far, far more powerful than traditional computers. This means that the future of quantum computing will see us solving some of the most complex questions facing the world today, and will massively disrupt the financial, pharmaceutical and security industries.
Although still in its infancy, quantum computing is developing quickly. A small 50-qubit quantum computer exists and is available for experiments via the IMB Quantum Experience project. With so much potential, quantum computing is generating a lot of interest, with many expecting breakthroughs very soon.
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