Tech predictions for 2017: Bots, blockchain and smarter things

19 Dec 2016779 Shares

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What does tech look like in 2017? Image: Fer Gregory

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In his predictions for 2017, John Kennedy forecasts how blockchain will be about more than money, IT will move to the clouds and bots will become humanity’s new best friends.

Predicting the future in tech is never an easy business, mainly because tech companies are, by nature, secretive and like to have the last word. Any time I predict what Apple is up to, for example, I always end on the line: “But only Apple really knows.” Because that is simply the truth.

But no one could have foreseen the events of 2016. We witnessed the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, the loss of so many stars who wrote the soundtracks to our lives, the tragic killings in Nice and the bloody endgame in Aleppo, which will always be a shame for the world to remember.

Predictions for 2017 build on a crazy 2016

In tech, it was business as usual with very few real surprises; except maybe for Apple killing off the headphone jack in its iPhones; fake news infecting Facebook and allegedly influencing the US elections; Putin’s government hacking America; exploding Samsung Galaxy Note7s; hacking getting out of control, especially with ransomware and leaks to Wikileaks; Apple taking on the FBI; no one wanting to buy Twitter; Vine dying on the leaf; and mega acquisitions, such as Facebook buying LinkedIn and Verizon buying Yahoo. It all sounds like a rousing verse from R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It…

On the home front in Ireland, the biggest news was the European Commission lobbying a €13bn tax levy against Apple to the chagrin of the latter and the Irish Government; Britain’s decision to Brexit the EU; the stalling and stalling of the National Broadband Plan; and of course, mega acquisitions such as Verizon’s decision to buy Fleetmatics for $2.4bn and Intel’s acquisition of Movidius for an alleged sum $300m.

So, dear reader, what will 2017 hold for us through the tech lens?

Blockchain will be about more than just payments

If there was one breakthrough technology of 2016, it had to be blockchain: the enabling smart ledger technology that was fundamental to the rise of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and a whole slew of new fintech start-ups and platforms.

But more and more experts are coming to the conclusion that blockchain technology could be very useful in ways that go beyond fintech or cryptocurrencies.

The ingenious automated technology could end up being an enabling force for a panoply of platforms and uses, such as network and systems management. The key is the digital trail of crumbs: blockchain technology – which underpins emerging digital, virtual or cryptocurrencies – consists of blocks that hold timestamped batches of recent valid transactions, which form a chain with each block reinforcing those preceding it.

Pay close attention to an interview I did with Seamus Cushley, PwC’s expert on blockchain who runs the company’s blockchain lab in Belfast. Cushley indicated that in the last nine months of 2016, some $1.4bn of investment went into blockchain start-ups.

According to Cushley, blockchain is being investigated not only as a way to enable the viable exchange of contracts for value in everything from FX trading to property acquisitions and more, it foretells the future structure of the internet as we know it.

The future of work

If, like me, you witnessed the onset of the internet being heralded as a revolution in how we work, leading to all kinds of newfangled ways of working, such as teleworking, e-working or nearshoring… you were had. Our lives were meant to get easier, there would be more quality time with loved ones, more time to be creative… wrong.

The digital world has created a noose that means people are working longer hours. Countries like France have even passed laws preventing employers from emailing workers after certain hours.

As skills shortages rise, stress levels soar and entrepreneurship becomes more appealing to talented young executives eager to break free of the rat race, employers will be forced to reassess how they conduct relationships with workers. How do they retain talent, get the best out of enthusiastic people and ensure health levels are optimal?

‘What is the future of work?’ is a question that employers and employees alike will obsess over in 2017 and beyond. Creative companies that value human capital will examine new ways of working, pilot intrapreneurship endeavours to help sate the entrepreneurial wanderings of top talent, vent creative frustrations and ultimately find the key to a quality work/life balance.

The old mantra that work should not just be a place to go, but somewhere you actually enjoy going to, might be dusted off and given a new shine.

Time will tell, however, if questions of the future of work will be a meaningful cause or just more management consulting navel-gazing.

Fintech goes mainstream

In parallel with the arrival in Ireland of mobile wallet services like Android Pay (recently) and Apple Pay (eventually), smartphone-toting consumers are going to embrace fintech apps as a cleverer way of managing their money.

Think of these apps as the Swiss Army knives of finance.

Companies like Dublin and London-based Circle – which enables users to instantaneously transfer funds to friends and family via the app or by text message on the iPhone, using blockchain as a core enabler and Barclays as a licensed service provider – are at the forefront of this trend.

Rather than displacing banks as some had feared, this signals a gradual move by banks to employ fintech apps on the front line as an easier and more cost-effective way to deal with consumers, while enabling them to focus on more productive, higher value work as branches become fewer.

Expect banks to employ programmes to franchise fintech apps or initiate outright acquisitions in 2017.

Machine learning becomes a discipline and no longer confused with AI

For too long, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have been lumped into the same conversation. That is going to change in 2017, as a broader understanding of what AI is all about pervades the tech industry.

Machine learning is remembering and AI is thinking, remembering, deciding and acting.

Quite simply, machine learning in apps and internet services is all about improving as time goes on, learning and assimilating users’ tastes and preferences – for example, for airline travel or hotels.

AI, on the other hand, powers the bots that have conversations with the users and employs machine learning as one powerful subset of a myriad of capabilities.

Start-ups and established tech players that use machine learning, which I have met on the trail from Amsterdam to Lisbon in the past year, are quite clear that it is not to be confused with full AI.

Beautiful bots

Humankind’s friendship with bots – or automated artificial agents – will be cemented in 2017.

Facebook is currently leading the charge, creating experiences where already it is hard to decipher whether you are talking to a human or a machine.

This portends major changes for the future of customer relationship management, which no doubt Microsoft, Salesforce and fast-growing companies like Intercom are watching very closely.

Could bots be mankind’s next best friend?

Tech leaders will be the new business leaders

The digital economy is the economy. Across the world in 2016, thousands of traditional businesses went to sleep one night and awoke the next day as data businesses.

The trend will continue in 2017, as the internet, smartphone apps or other digital filters become the aperture through which consumers increasingly transact.

You are seeing this on retail floors of stores like River Island, where consumers can shop online and collect in-store, on flights with Ryanair where the digital experience continues long after you check in or check out, and the disruption that players like Airbnb and Uber are causing traditional industries like hospitality and transport, respectively.

This is signalling a major transformation in how companies deal with their customers and view their data. According to IDC, 50pc of the Global 2000 companies will be depending on digital products, services and experiences to connect with customers.

By 2021, it is forecast that a third of CEOs and COOs of Global 2000 companies will have spent at least five years in a tech leadership role.

Cloud will reign eternal

From being a mere concept in 2008 to today, where most consumers and executives rely on the cloud consistently – from Facebook and WhatsApp to Dropbox and Office 365 – cloud computing is increasingly becoming the nerve centre of IT infrastructure.

Ireland saw major data centre investments and acquisitions in 2016, from Apple building an €850m data centre in Athenry, Co Galway, to Facebook building a massive data centre in Clonee, Co Meath. Combine this with Equinix buying Telecity and its raft of data centres in and around Dublin, and it’s clear that Ireland is in the eye of the data storm.

This isn’t just about social media or e-commerce; the reality is that more and more IT infrastructure, which used to exist on premises in companies, will have moved to the cloud.

IDC predicts that by 2020, 67pc of enterprise IT infrastructure and software will be in the cloud.

By 2018, 60pc of IT will be done off premises and not only that, but 43pc will be processed at the edge by 2019.

In a nutshell, cloud won’t be an Amazonian concept (sorry AWS) but rather, a fully fledged reality that is 100pc trusted by users.

The fourth platform

As cloud’s roots grow deeper, the idea of computing as a thing that sits on our desk or in our hands will dissipate. Even as more and more of the world’s population join the mobile revolution, the golden era of the smartphone is coming to a close. That doesn’t mean the smartphone is going away any time soon, but it will become the lynchpin of a slew of new computing experiences that will draw our eyes elsewhere.

Big data, internet of things, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), 3D printing, robotics, next-generation security, blockchain – all of these technologies will happen around us, with data being the fabric and the smartphone being the connecting device.

In other words, computing experiences will be occur without relying on a primary screen as the conduit. This is the fourth platform.

The mainstreaming of AR and VR

VR and AR have been slowly entering the fray. 2016 was a significant year that finally saw Microsoft take the wraps off HoloLens, as well as Oculus Rift arriving, along with a slew of competing devices from HTC, Samsung and Sony.

VR has been a kind of revolution and it hasn’t. The high-end experiences promised by Oculus and Microsoft are still hampered by computing power.

At the lower end, smartphone-based VR experiences from HTC and Samsung – and let’s not forget Google’s Cardboard and similar products which can be found in any supermarket or toy store – are still gimicky.

Keep your eyes and ears (no pun intended) open for what Google intends to do with its Daydream headset, which portends a merging of the VR and AR worlds, so the headset can also overlay virtual reality experiences onto the physical world before us. In a sense, this could be the future of the recently shelved Google Glass or the newly launched Snap Spectacles.

Expect the games and experiences to become more intelligent and textured. Keep an eye on what Irish firm Immersive VR Education – creators of Apollo and Titanic virtual experiences – has planned in the year ahead, as VR and AR move from novel to to natural.

Smart things and voice

Like I said, smartphones will occupy less of the stage and give way to smarter things. 2016 saw Amazon up its game with Echo, its voice-based e-commerce service, as well as its Dash buttons, which order consumables like washing powder or nappies in just one touch.

Google will be no slouch in 2017, having already revealed its Google Home speech-based product at I/O earlier this year.

This is Google’s fourth platform play and the company is closely shadowing, if not exceeding, rivals like Apple on the payments front.

2017 will see a kind of arms race, where players like Amazon and Google will endeavour to become the partner of choice for a whole range of internet of things (IoT) players who see e-commerce as a potent ingredient in their smart things.

Facebook acceleration, Oculus telepresence and Slack rivalry

Rather than being email killers (if only), most workers are up to their tonsils in additional tools and things to keep an eye on; like Slack, Trello, Wrike, and other digital platforms aimed at simplifying workflow.

Others giants like Microsoft (Teams) and Facebook (Workplace) added to the cacophony in 2016.

It is high time that someone decided to dominate this space for once and for all with tools that eradicate the need for all the others.

There is a golden opportunity for Microsoft to do more to bring Skype and Teams together, or for Facebook to finally reveal its telepresence vision for the future of work with Oculus and Workplace.

Keep an eye on other dark horses like Cork-based Teamwork or Salesforce (which almost bought Twitter). They may do something to finally get rid of the screen noise and clutter (sorry, Microsoft) that is the reality of the modern-day worker.

The iPhone hits 10, Apple revs up for its newest phase

It is hard to believe that it is nearly 10 years since Steve Jobs took to the stage at Apple World in 2006 and said “One more thing …”

That one more thing was the iPhone and, having gone through more than seven different phases of the device, Apple will no doubt do something to celebrate the iPhone at 10.

Considering the phone’s form factor has remained mostly the same for the last three generations, I expect Apple to reveal a wholly new design to the iPhone to signal its next phase. As I said, only Apple really knows what this form factor will look like, but expect the design to inform all future phone designs from rivals in the Android camp. I mean, why break with tradition?

Another next phase for Apple, however, may see the company finally break its silence on what it intends to do with cars.

Apple is revving up to be a big noise in the IoT and healthcare spaces, but the idea of an Apple car is still igniting people’s imaginations.

Will Apple build a car or just a car OS? Given that Apple has so far dashed expectations on television hardware, the car idea is one that just won’t disappear.

Codenamed Project Titan and spearheaded by some of Apple’s top talent and roughly 1,000 workers, Apple may choose the timing of the 10th anniversary of the iPhone to shed some light on the future of the company for the next decade.

Will that involve four wheels? Definitely. But will it be an Apple car or OS? We’ll have to wait and see.

The Solar revolution

Given that Elon Musk’s master plan goes beyond cars and includes trucks, buses and homes, the attractive economies of scale of solar panels are hard to ignore.

Musk recently revealed his solar roof concept that would use tiles made of glass, which look like ordinary roof tiles, to power up homes.

This might not sound as crazy or unfeasible as you would think, when you consider that Scientific American recently said the average cost of solar models per watt dropped from $22 in 1980 to under $3 today.

It suggests that soon, an average solar tile per watt will be $1.75.

That makes 2017 a lynchpin year for a whole new revolution in solar energy.

But time will tell.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com