|Five 2018 Predictions — on GDPR, Robot Cars, AI, 5G and Blockchain|
Predictions are like buses, none for ages and then several come along at once. Also like buses, they are slower than you would like and only take you part of the way. Also like buses, they are brightly coloured and full of chatter that you would rather not have in your morning commute. They are sometimes cold, and may have the remains of somebody else’s take-out happy meal in the corner of the seat. Also like buses, they are an analogy that should not be taken too far, less they lose the point. Like buses.
With this in mind, here’s my technology predictions for 2018. I’ve been very lucky to work across a number of verticals over the past couple of years, including public and private transport, retail, finance, government and healthcare — while I can’t name check every project, I’m nonetheless grateful for the experience and knowledge this has brought, which I feed into the below. I’d also like to thank my podcaster co-host Simon Townsend for allowing me to test many of these ideas.
Finally, one prediction I can’t make is whether this list will cause any feedback or debate — nonetheless, I would welcome any comments you might have, and I will endeavour to address them.
1. GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) will be a costly, inadequate mess
Don’t get me wrong, GDPR is a really good idea. As a lawyer said to me a couple of weeks ago, it is a combination of the the UK data protection act, plus the best practices that have evolved around it, now put into law at a European level with a large fine associated. The regulations are also likely to become the basis for other countries — if you are going to trade with Europe, you might as well set it as the baseline, goes the thinking. All well and good so far.
Meanwhile, it’s an incredible, expensive (and necessary, if you’re a consumer that cares about your data rights) mountain to climb for any organisation that processes or stores your data. The deadline for compliance is May 25th, which is about as likely to be hit as I am going to finally get myself the 6-pack I wanted when I was 25.
No doubt GDPR will one day be achieved, but the fact is that it is already out of date. Notions of data aggregation and potentially toxic combinations (for example, combining credit and social records to show whether or not someone is eligible for insurance) are not just likely, but unavoidable: ‘compliant’ organisations will still be in no better place to protect the interests of their customers than currently.
The challenges, risks and sheer inadequacy of GDPR can be summed up by a single tweet sent by otherwise unknown traveller — “If anyone has a boyfriend called Ben on the Bournemouth – Manchester train right now, he’s just told his friends he’s cheating on you. Dump his ass x.” Whoever sender “@emilyshepss” or indeed, “Ben” might be, the consequences to the privacy of either cannot be handled by any data legislation currently in force.
2. Artificial Intelligence will create silos of smartness
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a logical consequence of how we apply algorithms to data. It’s as inevitable as maths, as the ability our own brains have to evaluate and draw conclusions. It’s also subject to a great deal of hype and speculation, much of which tends to follow that old, flawed futurist assumption: that a current trend maps a linear course leading to an inevitable conclusion. But the future is not linear. Technological matters are subject to the laws of unintended consequences and of unexpected complexity: that is, the future does not follow a linear path, and every time we create something new, it causes new situations which are beyond its ability to deal with.
So, yes, what we call AI will change (and already is changing) the world. Moore’s, and associated laws are making previously impossible computations now possible, and indeed, they will become the expectation. Machine learning systems are fundamental to the idea of self-driving cars, for example; meanwhile voice, image recognition and so on are having their day. However these are still a long way from any notion of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.
So, yes, absolutely look at how algorithms can deliver real-time analysis, self-learning rules and so on. But look beyond the AI label, at what a product or service can actually do. You can read Gigaom’s research report on where AI can make a difference to the enterprise, here.
In most cases, there will be a question of scope: a system that can save you money on heating by ‘learning’ the nature of your home or data centre, has got to be a good thing for example. Over time we shall see these create new types of complexity, as we look to integrate individual silos of smartness (and their massive data sets) — my prediction is that such integration work will keep us busy for the next year or so, even as learning systems continue to evolve.
3. 5G will become just another expectation
Strip away the techno-babble around 5G and we have a very fast wireless networking protocol designed to handle many more devices than currently — it does this, in principle, by operating at higher frequencies, across shorter distances than current mobile masts (so we’ll need more of them, albeit in smaller boxes). Nobody quite knows how the global roll-out of 5G will take place — questions like who should pay for it will pervade, even though things are clearer than they were. And so on and so on.
But when all’s said and done, it will set the baseline for whatever people use it for, i.e. everything they possibly can. Think 4K video calls, in fact 4K everything, and it’s already not hard to see how anything less than 5G will come as a disappointment. Meanwhile every device under the sun will be looking to connect to every other, exchanging as much data as it possibly can. The technology world is a strange one, with massive expectations being imposed on each layer of the stack without any real sense of needing to take responsibility.
We’ve seen it before. The inefficient software practices of 1990’s Microsoft drove the need for processor upgrades and led Intel to a healthy profit, illustrating the vested interests of the industry to make the networking and hardware platforms faster and better. We all gain as a result, if ‘gain’ can be measured in terms of being able to see your gran in high definition on a wall screen from the other side of the world. But after the hype, 5G will become just another standard release, a way marker on the road to techno-utopia.
On the upside, it may lead to a simpler networking infrastructure. More of a hope than a prediction would be the general adoption of some kind of mesh integration between Wifi and 5G, taking away the handoff pain for both people, and devices, that move around. There will always be a place for multiple standards (such as the energy-efficient Zigbee for IoT) but 5G’s physical architecture, coupled with software standards like NFV, may offer a better starting point than the current, proprietary-mast-based model.
4. Attitudes to autonomous vehicles will normalize
The good news is, car manufacturers saw this coming. They are already planning for that inevitable moment, when public perception goes from, “Who’d want robot cars?” to “Why would I want to own a car?” It’s a familiar phenomenon, an almost 1984-level of doublethink where people go from one mindset to another seemingly overnight, without noticing and in some cases, seemingly disparaging the characters they once were. We saw it with personal computers, with mobile phones, with flat screen TVs — in the latter case, the the world went from “nah, thats never going to happen” to recycling sites being inundated with perfectly usable screens (and a wave of people getting huge cast-off tellies).
And so, we will see over the next year or so, self-driving vehicles hit our roads. What drives this phenomenon is simple: we know, deep down, that robot cars are safer — not because they are inevitably, inherently safe, but because human drivers are inevitably, inherently dangerous. And autonomous vehicles will get safer still. And are able to pick us up at 3 in the morning and take us home.
The consequences will be fascinating to watch. First that attention will increasingly turn to brands — after all, if you are going to go for a drive, you might as well do so in comfort, right? We can also expect to see a far more varied range of wheeled transport (and otherwise — what’s wrong with the notion of flying unicorn deliveries?) — indeed, with hybrid forms, the very notion of roads is called into question.
There will be data, privacy, security and safety ramifications that need to be dealt with — consider the current ethical debate between leaving young people without taxis late at night, versus the possible consequences of sharing a robot Uber with a potential molester. And I must recall a very interesting conversation with my son, about who would get third or fourth dibs at the autonomous vehicle ferrying drunken revellers (who are not always the cleanliest of souls) to their beds.
Above all, business models will move from physical to virtual, from products to services. The industry knows this, variously calling vehicles ‘tin boxes on wheels’ while investing in car sharing, delivery and other service-based models. Of course (as Apple and others have shown), good engineering continues to command a premium even in the service-based economy: competition will come from Tesla as much as Uber, or whatever replaces its self-sabotaging approach to world domination.
Such changes will take time but in the short term, we can fully expect a mindset shift from the general populace.
5. When Bitcoins collapse, blockchains will pervade
The concept that “money doesn’t actually exist” can be difficult to get across, particularly as it makes such a difference to the lives of, well, everybody. Money can buy health, comfort and a good meal; it can also deliver representations of wealth, from high street bling to mediterranean gin palaces. Of course money exists, I’m holding some in my hand, says anyone who wants to argue against the point.
Yet, still, it doesn’t. It is a mathematical construct originally construed to simplify the exchange of value, to offer persistence to an otherwise transitory notion. From a situation where you’d have to prove whether you gave the chap some fish before he’d give you that wood he offered, you can just take the cash and buy wood wherever you choose. It’s not an accident of speech that pound notes still say, “I promise to pay the bearer on demand…”
While original currencies may have been teeth or shells (happy days if you happened to live near a beach), they moved to metals in order to bring some stability in a rather dodgy market. Forgery remains an enormous problem in part because we maintain a belief that money exists, even though it doesn’t. That dodgy-looking coin still spends, once it is part of the system.
And so to the inexorable rise of Bitcoin, which has emerged from nowhere to become a global currency — in much the same way as the dodgy coin, it is accepted simply because people agree to use it in a transaction. Bitcoin has a chequered reputation, probably unfairly given that our traditional dollars and cents are just as likely to be used for gun-running or drug dealing as any virtual dosh. It’s also a bubble that looks highly likely to burst, and soon — no doubt some pundits will take that as a proof point of the demise of cryptocurrency.
Their certainty may be premature. Not only will Bitcoin itself pervade (albeit at a lower valuation), but the genie is already out of the bottle as banks and others experiment with the economic models made possible by “distributed ledger” architectures such as The Blockchain, i.e. the one supporting Bitcoin. Such models are a work in progress: the idea that a single such ledger can manage all the transactions in the world (financial and otherwise) is clearly flawed.
But blockchains, in general, hold a key as they deal with that single most important reason why currency existed in the first place — to prove a promise. This principle holds in areas way beyond money, or indeed, value exchange — food and pharmaceutical, art and music can all benefit from knowing what was agreed or planned, and how it took place. Architectures will evolve (for example with sidechains) but the blockchain principle can apply wherever the risk of fraud could also exist, which is just about everywhere.
6. The world will keep on turning
There we have it. I could have added other things — for example, there’s a high chance that we will see another major security breach and/or leak; augmented reality will have a stab at the mainstream; and so on. I’d also love to see a return to data and facts on the world’s political stage, rather than the current tub-thumping and playing fast and loose with the truth. I’m keen to see breakthroughs in healthcare from IoT, I also expect some major use of technology that hadn’t been considered arrive, enter the mainstream and become the norm — if I knew what it was, I’d be a very rich man. Even if money doesn’t exist.
Truth is, and despite the daily dose of disappointment that comes with reading the news, these are exciting times to be alive. 2018 promises to be a year as full of innovation as previous years, with all the blessings and curses that it brings. As Isaac Asimov once wrote, “An atom-blaster is a good weapon, but it can point both ways.”