2018 tech predictions: Bitcoin bubble, 5G and robot overlords

18 Dec 2017

Bitcoin. Image: Goami/Shutterstock

From bitcoin and blockchain, to 5G, broadband, automation and social media, here are John Kennedy’s tech predictions for 2018.

Nobody can ever predict the future with any certainty.

In the tech world, the future (or any hint of it) is a closely guarded secret depending on which boardroom you are in. We can only rely on signals such as trends and statistics – and the occasional mischievous warning from those in the know, such as Elon Musk – to either scare us silly or actually inspire us into action.

The only things you can predict with certainty in tech is that the chips will get smaller, the machines will get faster, the displays will get richer, the networks will get denser and our reliance on tech will be that bit more intrinsic.

2017 was an incredible year in tech when you consider just how much artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning made their presence felt in the real and virtual world, how Apple introduced two generations of iPhone in one year, and how quickly initial coin offers (ICOs) and bitcoin have surged.

2018 could the ultimate year for AI but also the year where we decide sooner rather than later if trends such as cryptocurrencies, blockchain and augmented reality (AR) are here to stay, or consigned to the history books as fads.

As I said, predictions are really just instincts or suspicions based on what we know now. But here’s what I think.

Finally, a 5G standard

2018 tech predictions: Bitcoin bubble, 5G and robot overlords

Image: Shaynepplstockphoto/Shutterstock

In the tech world, every now and then, marketers say their prayers for something new to come along that they can actually sell without worrying their poor little minds about the nitty-gritty or hard techie stuff. We saw this with ‘cloud’ around 2011 when the tech industry described it in almost religious terms; in reality, the term ‘cloud’ comes from network diagrams for LAN and WAN in buildings or campuses. It was an old term added to define the continuum in tech where the web becomes one giant USB key for your data.

In the comms world, the same was true for 3G and 4G, and you can sense the tension as marketers chomp at the bit to go mad on 5G.

Since 1982, the mobile telecoms world has gone through a generational shift on average every nine years, and we saw this with 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G.

The thing about the fifth generation of mobile is that, unlike the others, there is no defined standard for 5G. Everyone agrees that the requirement for higher-definition content and speeds of anything between 500Mbps and 1Gbps will need more antenna density. But, if you talk to players such as Bell Labs or Cisco, they will tell you that the promise of speeds 100 times faster than today’s 4G networks will also be an iteration in terms of software. It will mean more capabilities around how you can tune your devices to give greater prominence to WhatsApp feeds or video, for example.

Ericsson recently predicted that 5G will serve 15pc of the world’s population by 2022. There are at least 25 mobile operators testing what they define as 5G, with speeds in some cases reaching 36Gbps. In Ireland, an auction for the country’s first ‘5G licences’ netted €78m from five operators.

Crucially, 5G is the generation of mobile that will make all kinds of things possible, from autonomous vehicles to smart cities.

But there is still no standard. My feeling is that 2018 will be the year that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers decides a standard that defines 5G in the tradition of Wi-Fi, GPRS, UMTS and NB-IoT – one that the industry can finally work towards.

Endgame for the National Broadband Plan

2018 tech predictions: Bitcoin bubble, 5G and robot overlords

Image: Simon Burt/Shutterstock

I’ve been writing about broadband since 2001 and could wallpaper my house with all the articles I’ve written. I suspect that 20 years from now, I may still be writing about it, or the shortage of it.

Since 2012, the Irish Government has been pushing the National Broadband Plan (NBP) as the make-or-break effort that will seal the situation once and for all, promising a minimum of 30Mbps for every household to be future-proofed.

The initiative, supported by EU State Aid, is tipped as the equivalent of electrifying rural Ireland in the 1950s, guaranteeing economic and social wellbeing well into the 21st century.

The problem is, the plan has been blighted by delay after delay. In September, one of the three firms shortlisted for the plan, Siro, walked away, leaving just Eir and Enet in the running.

If I am to be honest, I believe 2018 will be the year that will make or break the NBP. Why? Momentum is being lost and some of the signals from Government are not encouraging.

As someone strongly supportive of the economic imperative of fibre and the need for State intervention, I am concerned.

In a recent statement voicing support for the EU’s 5G roadmap, Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, said something that alarmed me. While describing fibre as the new electricity system of tomorrow, the Minister said something about vital EU State Aid, the linchpin of the NBP.

“I have asked the European Commission today to provide clarity going forward in respect of State Aid rules on infrastructure investment. The ambiguity in respect of the rules in this area causes delay in State investment, and it also makes private investment decisions more difficult. We need a combination of public and private investment to roll out state-of-the-art 5G in Ireland and the EU in the future.”

This is not encouraging.

If there are no shovels in the ground in 2018, the NBP faces a questionable future.

Social media backlash

2018 tech predictions: Bitcoin bubble, 5G and robot overlords

Facebook app on iPad. Image: Ymgerman/Shutterstock

As stated, the march of technology means faster chips, denser networks and richer displays. And, as we all know, the geeks are getting richer all the time. As someone who loves tech and has always admired the industry, I suspect that the nerds in their secure, ivory towers, with free food and other perks, are losing touch with the real world. It’s hard to say it, but I believe it.

The ‘fake news’ epidemic has put a harsh light on how social media can be manipulated and it also shows that – depending on what tribe you follow in politics or sport, or what belief system you are signed up to – algorithms put you in a digital echo chamber and colour your view of the world in whatever way you or your cohorts wish to see it.

Social media is also addictive, like crack cocaine for those who need constant validation. If US president Donald Trump’s out-of-control tweeting is anything to go by, we are at a unique and dangerous time in history.

We have gone from witnessing the good that social media can enable – as seen with the Arab Spring and how people in Egypt even named their child ‘Facebook’ – to a point where it can also play a role in life or death.

It was quite telling recently when former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya banned his own children from using social media because he believes the technology is playing a role in ripping society apart, citing how hoax messages led to the lynching of innocent people in India, for example.

We have also seen the role social media is playing in the ethnic-cleansing crisis involving the Rohingya in Myanmar, for example.

The powerful position of this technology will no longer be ignored. After more than 10 years of social media, 2018 will be the year where leaders of various firms, from Facebook to Twitter, will need to acknowledge the role social media is playing in the world, or face a backlash that will shake their ivory towers to their very foundations.

Age of Automation: A human-robot rights convention

2018 tech predictions: Bitcoin bubble, 5G and robot overlords

Image: Mopic/Shutterstock

It’s kind of strange how the one person most lauded for audacious efforts to bring about the future through space travel, electric vehicles, Hyperloop trains and more – Elon Musk – is most vocal about how AI and robotics are also a threat to the future of humanity.

Instinctively, most of us fear how automation and robotics could claim our livelihoods. For example, a recent study by PwC reckons that entry-level jobs for young workers in industries such as hospitality or manufacturing could be wiped out by the 2030s.

Musk has warned that the power of the world could end up in the hands of just a handful of companies with advanced AI systems. He said these companies need to be careful not to create something dangerous.

“I keep sounding the alarm bell but, until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal,” Musk told the National Governors Association recently.

The thing is, most predictions point to 2025 as the time when AI matches the human brain’s processing ability, but what if it also turns out to be something that matches humanity’s worst instincts for avarice, or worse?

Musk’s creations seem inspired by science fiction, and so too do his warnings, but his is a voice worth heeding.

2018 could be the year that people listen, and some kind of human-robotic rights convention can be agreed upon to prepare the world for a time when humans and machines will have to coexist harmoniously.

The cryptocurrency bubble bursts

2018 tech predictions: Bitcoin bubble, 5G and robot overlords

Image: AlekseyIvanov/Shutterstock

This Christmas, when you are sitting with loved ones, perhaps playing cards or Monopoly, imagine if all that pretend cash could be given real and tangible value. Well, that’s kind of what’s happened with bitcoin. From being a research paper created by the enigmatic and mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008, bitcoin has grown in value to hit $19,771 a piece, at the time of writing. Not bad going for something that is not linked to any government or gold standard, and which is really just a piece of digital code.

According to Forbes, whoever created bitcoin is now the 44th richest person on the planet. In Chicago, the futures market is already enabling investment in the currency, and it is expected that Nasdaq will follow. Other countries such as Singapore and China have banned speculation on the currency, but it is still gaining pace. According to analyst Ronnie Moas, the endgame for bitcoin will come when it reaches up to $300,000 or $400,000 in value.

Cryptocurrencies are in vogue and ICOs for currencies such as Ethereum are becoming a new way for businesses to gain investment. According to a recent report by CB Insights, in the second quarter of 2017, the total funding raised by ICOs surpassed equity financing for the first time, and the trend is forecast to continue to more than $2bn in 2017.

It’s almost as if you can invent a currency or create some value out of Monopoly money.

2018 could be the year that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies go the way of the Dutch tulip auctions of the 17th century.

The danger for the tech start-up world is that if ICOs unravel, it could also be the chain reaction that stymies the irresistible rise of tech funding, which has gone unchecked for the best part of a decade.

The moment blockchain gets to shine

2018 tech predictions: Bitcoin bubble, 5G and robot overlords

Image: Enzozo/Shutterstock

Ledger technology blockchain is probably one of the most critical tech developments of our time, creating a new standard for authenticity, transparency and security.

Unfortunately, it has become indelibly associated with cryptocurrencies because it is an enabling technology. The danger is that if bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies flounder, blockchain itself could be guilty by association.

However, I take a more optimistic stance on blockchain, and believe that the technology could soon become bedded down in a panoply of applications, from healthcare and manufacturing to food and drug traceability.

In a world floundering in too much data and information, 2018 could be the year that blockchain applications enter the mainstream, moving from pilot projects to real-world uses.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years