Technology and innovation can be frustrating to watch in action. That’s because there usually isn’t much action — just incremental change with occasional flashes of brilliance.
But the only way to truly understand what’s happening and why is to keep watching. Breakthroughs from years ago are finally leading to real products and services today. Others are inching forward with the promise of big changes in 2015 and beyond.
Of course, you have to know where to look. These are the tech trends that will matter in 2015.
1. Big Data gets to work
I suspect by now you’re getting tired about hearing about Big Data, but ignoring this number-crunching wave would be a mistake. First of all, we’re generating and gathering data at an insane pace. In 2010 Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said the world generates 5 exabytes of data every two days. It’s likely double that number by now.
We’re not just generating data; we’re capturing it at an unprecedented rate, first through web sites and now more frequently through mobile apps and sensors we’ll wear with increasing regularity in 2015.
Next year, companies such as Intel and IBM will turn all that data into powerful decision-making tools. IBM in particular will further expand the supercomputer Watson’s reach and introduce cognitive computing for every industry that has data to share. If you thought cognitive cooking was cool, wait until you see what IBM can do with Twitter’s data and what Watson can do for cancer.
As for Intel, the company is working on building the hardware and platforms necessary for companies to bring Big Data processing inside. Instead of making decisions based on a broad understanding of market trends and customer interests (and intuition), companies will, in 2015, increasingly rely on hard numbers to propel new products and services.
2. Artificial intelligence
All that data is leading to a revolution in artificial intelligence. Microsoft, for example, is using machine learning to analyze speech and conversation so its new Skype Translator can not only perform real-time, bidirectional translation, but can even mimic the tone of speech so it makes sense in another language. However, that kind of AI is more a product of brute-force computing, and doesn’t exactly mimic how real, or perhaps human intelligence works.
This year we saw a computer program named Eugene Groostman “beat” the Turing test. That means we now have programming capable of fooling people into thinking they’re talking to another person. The future is not about fooling anyone, though — it’s about building human-like thought in silicon.
Software and hardware that can learn and think as we do is on the horizon. In 2015, pay close attention to the work of Google’s Demis Hassabis. He’s trying to “solve intelligence,” and his company, DeepMind, is working on recreating — or at least mimicking — how human neurons work in silicon and code.
Depending on how far he gets, we could see some interesting changes in Google services and, later, software and robots that make new connections based on learning.
3. Robots with us
I wish I could tell you our robot overlords will finally arrive in 2015, but C-3PO-style humanoid robots are still decades away. That’s not to say we won’t see some pretty impressive stuff in the intervening years. Next year, robots will move next to us on the assembly line and go off road and up hills.
Most of the experts I’ve talked to point to robot innovations such as Rethink Robot’s Baxter andUniversal Robots. Both stand out because they can work in close proximity to humans without harming them.
“In 2015, we’ll see this have more of an impact on manufacturing,” said Professor Julie A. Shah, who leads the Interactive Robotics Group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She noted this growing confidence in robots on the factory floor will lead to them working in concert with humans. Right now, most factory robots work in highly-controlled environments, with humans a safe distance away.
Amazon is actually on the leading edge of this change with a combination of the fenced-off Robo-Stow robot arms, which pick things off shelves, and mobile Kiva robots that move things about the factory floor and even deliver them to workers who pick them off the robot’s mobile shelves.
Shah said factories will continue to look at how smarter, safer robots can assist in commercial appliance and auto manufacturing. “It’s still done more by people today, so a real challenge for robotics,” she said.
Outside the factory, personal robots like Jibo and Pepper may finally make it into consumer homes in 2015, but their long-term future remains unclear.
Like most years, 2015 will be filled with smaller robot breakthroughs that focus on two critical areas: manipulation and locomotion. Companies like iRobot and researchers at DARPA and MIT are increasingly focusing on teaching robots how to move and work as well as humans.
“In 2015, we’re going to see a lot more robots moving around,” said MIT Professor Sangbae Kim. He should know, his free-running Cheetah robot recently caused a sensation.
Kim, though, thinks people may have missed the point of his robot. It was not about going fast (which it did not). “What’s really distinguishing our robot compared to driverless car [is] we can go everywhere a human can go. Cars can only go where the roads are,” he said.
Kim told me he also expects to see a lot more breakthroughs in robots’ manipulation capabilities.
4. Nanotech and material sciences
2014 saw numerous nanotechnology breakthroughs like nano cages that could deliver cancer-killing medicine at a molecular-level, and metamaterials that can deform to hide objects from human touch.
When I spoke to Biomedical Engineering Post Doctoral Associate Sissel Juul, Ph.D., earlier this year about her work on DNA Nanobots, she told me, “We will see commercial targeted non-viral drug delivery soon.”
Of course, that “soon” is predicated on the speed of clinical trials and FDA approvals. Even so, expect more DNA-level eureka moments and, just maybe, some real-world applications in 2015.
Nano technology is also propelling material sciences, everything from waterproofing phones to smarter fabrics. It could also mean some new materials in 2015. Next year, there will even be a conference in Korea devoted to smart materials. Expect a few interesting announcements to come out of that.
5. Batteries and no more wires
For most consumer electronics manufacturers, the way to deal with the limits of lithium-ion battery technology — which is in use in virtually all pocketable gadgets — is to build bigger batteries. Sure Intel, Qualcomm, Nvidia, AMD and Texas Instruments are building ever-more-efficient mobile CPUs, but nothing seems to change how much power we can store and draw from these batteries.
New chemical science could lead to breakthroughs in 2015. Earlier this year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology reported that its scientists are developing batteries based on a sodium-based, complex metal hydride. It could lead to cheaper, more stable and more powerful mobile battery power. Applied Materials is working on advancing solid-state battery technology, which can hold more power than traditional lithium ion, with a much more affordable manufacturing methodology.
It’s unlikely we’ll see actual products using new battery technology (look at how fuel cells have sputtered), but mobile power packs based on new battery science are a distinct possibility.
While we wait for better batteries to come along, wireless charging is sure to come of age in 2015. There are both conductive and inductive options available and many of today’s phones already have wireless-charging technology inside. Intel is actually working on wireless charging based on magnetic resonance technology. We just need more wireless charging gadgets, stations and counters, all of which will probably flood the market in 2015.
6. Flexible displays