By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – There are many who believe society has “summoned the demon” through technologies that threaten to addict us to screens and games, more susceptible to cyber-snoops and replaceable by machines.
Those dangers and more are possible, of course, if the same society that creates technologies fails to remember the purpose for doing so – helping people to lead better lives.
In 2018, the pace of tech innovation will accelerate in areas where once-fanciful ideas are becoming integral to commerce, health, entertainment, security, learning, energy, manufacturing and more. Here are a few trends to watch:
BIoT – That acronym describes the intersection of blockchain, a shared ledger program that allows institutions to more selectively and securely share information and assets with others, and the Internet of Things, which connects devices through sensors. Experts believe the maturing use of blockchain will make IoT more useful while reducing the risk of hacking through a “chain” of digital records spread over thousands of computers. Possible applications include shipping goods, managing financial records and making energy systems more efficient.
CRISPR – Another acronym, it’s shorthand for a scientific technique that can be used to modify DNA in plants, animals and humans to better protect genes from bacteria and disease. It’s the next step in genetic editing that led to Food and Drug Administration approval in 2017 of therapies for certain leukemias and blindness. Such therapies don’t work for everyone and they may not last forever, but the head of the National Institutes of Health believes a revolution is at hand. Future applications may include hemophilia, sickle cells and muscular dystrophy.
Quantum computing – While still theoretical in some ways, there have been breakthroughs that suggest useful quantum computers are within reach. It harnesses the behavior of energy at subatomic levels to vastly speed up computing for a variety of uses. As Chemical & Engineering News reported, quantum computing could be used to model chemical systems that cannot be solved by conventional computers. Possible applications include: Advances in motors, magnets, power grids, fuels and solar-cell materials.
Computing job market – Even if quantum computing is still a bit “Star Trekish,” the demand for computer workers will continue to grow. In a recent presentation by leading faculty at the UW-Madison, it was noted that projected job openings for people who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in computer science will far outstrip the number of degree holders through 2024. The demand is even greater than what the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts for life scientists, physical scientists and engineers.
Virtual reality – As Smithsonian magazine recently reported, people have been fascinated by the notion of 3-D visual experiences since the mid-19th century. Technology and the availability of relatively inexpensive head-mounted devices has made virtual reality much more real since 2012, with applications ranging from architecture to games, from surgery to space simulation, and from education to psychotherapy. Heads-up-displays and augmented reality will likely affect how people drive, work, shop and play (think Pokemon Go) in the future.
Better broadband technologies – Remember when fiber optic wire was the only real way to deliver Internet connectivity? In time, reaching remote areas may be improved through wireless technology mounted on power lines, “Li-Fi” wireless tech based on LED lights, high-altitude balloons and simply making better use of unused television spectrum, called “white space.” As the Federal Communications Commission has noted: “(White space) is ripe for innovation and experimental use, holding rich potential for expanding broadband capacity and improving access for many users.” Microsoft has a 12-state white spaces pilot program in the works that would include Wisconsin.
Artificial intelligence – Voice and facial recognition are among many examples of how AI is already prevalent in society, not to mention some of the functions on the latest smartphones. Still, it’s the technology that often scares people the most – especially those who worry that machine-learning computers can become smarter than humans (probably true) and take over the human race (science fiction). As explained in a recent edition of Popular Mechanics, the promise of AI lies in giving humans better tools with which they can solve problems. Applications now or soon: Smart spam filters, faster Netflix and longer battery life.
Technology has its drawbacks and its dangers, especially if used to evil ends, but very few people would turn back the clock on advancements in regular use today. It’s a reason to be excited about the future, not fretful.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.