SOCIETY | Feb 28, 2017

The future awaiting us

What can we expect in terms of technology in the next few years, giving ourselves 2030 as the horizon?

The Future of Jobs report from the World Economic Forum contains an interesting and slightly disturbing figure: 65% of children currently in primary schools will enter completely new jobs, jobs that do not yet exist. On second thought this is not so strange; in fact, if we try to look back ten years, many jobs that we consider normal today did not exist at all. In the sphere of technology alone, we can cite the app developer, the social media manager, the seller of advertising on social networks, and the certified pilot of drones and multi-rotors, to name just a few.

In all likelihood, we ourselves have had to change our professionalism and increase our skills to cope with the technological and social changes that have occurred in recent years. Moreover, those who work in the field of technology and innovation must be as prepared as possible not only to take care of their professionalism but also to help their customers face their positioning in a rapidly transforming market in the best possible way, from both the technological point of view and from that of the new business models that will appear.

So let us see what we can expect in terms of technology in the next few years, giving ourselves 2030 as the horizon.

Robotics serving the consumer

We usually think of robots as fast and efficient machines able to automate entire production chains or logistics lines. The experience accumulated over decades of industrial evolution will permit the arrival of machines directly serving the consumer, in many cases replacing humans – such as shop salespersons – in service tasks. Already today there are examples of semi-automatic sales points where consumers serve themselves independently and pay on their own at the checkout or, as in the case of experimental Amazon shops, do not pay directly but find the purchase automatically debited on a credit card. In the near future, we will have machines capable of managing a sales point in a way similar to that of a flesh and blood person, and this mode will find primary application in particular contexts such as the sale of drugs, alcohol or tobacco. In fact, it will come down to checking that the consumer is effectively entitled to buy that product and in what amounts. Moreover, thanks to the automatic collection of sales data, it will become possible to perform detailed analysis of consumer behavior.

A trillion connected objects

In fact, what we understand today as the Internet of Things will be closer to the concept of the Internet of Everything. The enormous increase in connected objects will depend on several factors: decrease in the cost of sensors, increase in the computing power of the chip at parity of size, decrease in energy consumption, improvement of battery performance, and the IPv6 full adoption which will make it possible to have about 3,4 x 1038 public IP addresses available.

This scenario will allow for approximately one trillion objects connected to the network: from the refrigerator that can shop independently to running shoes that can alert the user when it is time to replace them; from individual parcels that are sent by mail or courier and that can be tracked wherever they are in the world to clothes can provide the network with information about the weather, air quality, traffic and extraordinary events. Any physical object will potentially be able to be connected to the network with the aim of providing services or collecting data to be made available on the network itself.

Big Data

All this will increase the amount of data made available to the network by several orders of magnitude; it is estimated that the universe of data available will expand from the current 10 zettabytes to about 200 zettabytes by 2030 (200 billion terabytes), data that will be managed and used in the best way. From the conceptual point of view, we will be able to anticipate and control any type of natural or social phenomenon for which sufficient information and appropriate mathematical models exist. We could have a better understanding of how we use our time and our resources, with our vital signs being constantly monitored in order to warn of potential dangerous behavior and possible risks to our health being notified well in advance in order to be able to consult our doctor as soon as possible.

These data will make it possible to detect even criminal behavior, in some cases even before the crime actually occurs. We will be able to predict where certain crimes may be perpetrated and also the personal and behavioral profiles of the victims and the criminals.

Once made public, these data will also affect the real estate market in various areas of the city, insofar as house prices will drop in the most dangerous areas and vice versa.

The manipulation and handling of these huge amounts of data will be done using increasingly cheaper instruments, and some states will begin to conduct population censuses using the available data and in this way will update the official data of the population census.

Increasingly, those who control the data will have influence and power, both from the point of view of direct conditioning and from that of the effectiveness of promotional messages that will be increasingly geared directly towards the individual, going beyond the current logic based on user target.

Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Machine Learning

The size and variety of data available will make it possible to develop “smart” instruments that can take decisions based on the knowledge represented by the data themselves, but also to learn new forms of behavior to be implemented on the basis of events. With existing data and through recognition of specific behavioral patterns and use of artificial neural networks, Advanced Machine Learning systems will be increasingly able to use adaptive algorithms, that is, capable of changing their behavior not only according to basic knowledge but also previously accumulated experience.

This will allow the machines to relate to humans in a way that is increasingly indistinguishable from real human beings, not because of the acquisition of real consciousness but through the ability to learn over time what behavioral pattern to be used in all situations. We will thus increasingly approach machines capable of passing the Turing test, although it is not a question of “thinking” machines according to the original definition of Alan Turing, but rather of expert machines that are adaptive and increasingly able to understand natural language and increasingly express themselves using it.

This type of technology will enable the use of these machines with extreme efficiency, even in complex tasks such as taking corporate decisions. While Data Analytics is used today as a support instrument in making decisions, which nevertheless are always taken by humans, within a few years a number of strategic decisions by large companies in the world could be taken directly by these systems, with or without the control and approval of humans.

Intelligent and self-driving vehicles

The number of self-driving cars on the roads will increase significantly, and the doubts and uncertainties caused by the lack of human control will be outweighed by the data available – data demonstrating that these vehicles, fitted with wide-ranging sensor systems and excellent ability to predict human behavior, will be enormously safer than traditional vehicles. These vehicles will all be connected to a single network, providing it with all the data collected by on-board sensors, and will take from the network all the data necessary for optimizing the itinerary, both from the standpoint of consumption efficiency and from that of safety.

This will not necessarily concern only cars but may also concern vehicles transporting goods by road and even flying vehicles such as drones and multi-rotors, all connected to the same network, and all providers and consumers of data useful for efficiency and safety.

They will all be electric vehicles able to determine for themselves how and where to recharge, and it will be virtually impossible for an accident to occur between two of them.

3D-printed objects

3D printing technologies will be revolutionized by the possibility of printing complex objects and using new materials in ever shorter times and with increasingly lower costs. This will make it possible to buy everyday objects, regardless of form and materials, printed in 3D. From the industrial point of view, it will no longer be necessary to modify production lines to insert changes to products; it will be sufficient to modify the print templates and use the same machines, without major changes.

This type of technology will also enable “printing” biological tissues up to the production of real simple functioning organs.

The printing of mixed biological material to technological material will enable the production of various kinds of chips, for example pacemakers or vital sign detection sensors, able to be implanted without the risk of rejection; this may be achieved using, for example, samples of biological material taken directly from the person to be implanted.

A further step forward will take place with the use of shape memory materials, graphene, new types of polymers and nano composites. These innovative materials – all the characteristics and potential of which are not yet known – can be printed in 3D along with biological, technological and traditional materials, opening the door to uses which are currently inconceivable.

Personal devices

What we are accustomed to call smartphones today will increasingly change in nature and characteristics, becoming real control centers of our real life, as well as of our virtual presence. The telephone component will gradually lose importance, becoming one of the various forms of communication enabled by the device. Improved processing power, exceptional battery life and huge storage space will place these devices at the centre of our existence. The concept of “synchronization” of data between a personal device and a computer as we know it today will become meaningless insofar as fixed stations will no longer have computational capacity nor storage space for data; they will only provide input devices and displays large enough great to meet our needs. All the computing power, storage potential and software will be provided directly from our personal device, which will be connected wirelessly to technological appendages that will serve us from time to time.

The very concept of “storage” will lose meaning over time because all our data and our applications will be in cloud spaces constantly synchronized with our devices and automatically subject to backup; this phenomenon will also be driven by the quality of connectivity, which will increasing improve over time, becoming a commodity which we will no longer have to worry about.

In  conclusion…

The future that awaits us will be punctuated by major technological changes impacting on our behavior and determining new ways in which we relate with technology.

The combination of biological sensors, data, artificial intelligence and Advanced Machine Learning will make it possible to assess our health conditions in a much better way and to intercept in advance any warning signs. At the same time, however, this enormous amount of data present on the network will lead to reflection on issues of the security and inviolability of personal information and of issues related to privacy.

While, on the one hand, self-driving vehicles will transport us everywhere at very low prices, it should be considered that our geographical position will always be a datum present on the network, as well as our health conditions, our consumption and our preferences in various fields, including at the personal level.

Because of thee confidentiality inherent in the types of data on the network, it will be necessary to regulate their use, including to prevent them from being used for purposes related to non-democratic control of populations.

Another aspect to be considered carefully is the impact on employment: distribution of robots to perform physical and repetitive tasks and the availability of intelligent machines that can make complex and strategic decisions are phenomena that could cause a decrease in the workforce in many areas. If we are able to manage this phenomenon, there will not be a reduction the number of workers; what will change will be the very nature of work. People will have to acquire new skills and thus, already today, the task of the school is to properly orient young people in the direction of the skills needed to live and work in the future that awaits us – a future that many of us cannot wait to know.

Massimo Canducci