Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Predicting the Future Again

In keeping with the theme of past predictions of the future, here's one more. I wrote this as a FaceBook "note" in December 2009, just over 5 years ago...

A Few Tech Predictions for "beyond 2010"
Deke Kassabian - December 24, 2009

At the end of every calendar year, the IT community tends to share predictions for technology for the coming year. It's the subject of many late December trade press articles, and a New Year's tradition. Those who make predictions sometimes review the accuracy of predictions made in the past. But why should tech pundits have all the fun? Let's join in.

What follows are predictions of mine for technology: not for next year, but for 2011 and beyond. These aren't areas in which I'm an expert, and they aren't things I've carefully researched. This is just for fun and obviously I could be way off base! The predictions that follow are based on some reading of scholarly engineering journals and also popular IT trade press (print and audio), some conversations with colleagues from around the country in multiple disciplines, and a little of my own thinking to synthesize it all.

I predict that the following technology developments will happen during the next decade, some a lot sooner than others. Don’t bet your retirement fund on any of these, but give them a read, tell me what you think, try your hand at a few predictions and share them, and have some fun.

Happy New Year!

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(1) Robots among us

I'm picking the most exciting and outlandish of my predictions as my first: That robots get to be way more common place as an element of our technology.

Now, we know that there are many things already in reasonably broad use today that can be called "robots." Roomba floor cleaners, for example, have been around for years. But I think that when most people think of "robots" they think of Sci-fi movie robots or Rosie from the Jetsons -- something that stands and maybe walks and talks and responds to voice commands and looks vaguely humanoid in its size and/or shape. And my prediction is that these cooler robots are coming.

Close to home, in our own Engineering School, The GRASP Lab (see
http://www.grasp.upenn.edu/) does amazing things with robotics, including robot motion that can handle inclines, irregular terrain, and even being pushed or bumped.

Commercially, Honda has the Asimo (see http://asimo.honda.com/). FujiSoft Inc and others are following suit. These companies have robots that stand and walk and can be programmed to move in ways we expect "movie robots" to move. Some of this stuff is commercially available now, though still a little expensive.

So, I think that impressive robot motion is clearly well on its way. What about interactivity? The fact that my car’s GPS device and my smart phone are (slowly) becoming better at interactive voice response tells me that the technology is coming along and may not be incredibly expensive. If a $500 (unsubsidized price) smart phone can do it, why not a $5,000 robot? But beyond just interactive voice response, robots may, even in the relatively short term, offer some visual feedback reminiscent of emotion. For robot development that may truly excite you -- or maybe creep you out -- check out Hanson Robotics (http://www.hansonrobotics.com/), developers of technology that bring facial expression and "attitude" to robots.

Allow me to now put a finer point on my prediction: maybe we won't all see a robot in every home and office in just a few years, but encountering a semi-autonomous, mobile, interactive humanoid robot a few times a year will I think be common for people in urban environments relatively soon.

Time frame: 2013-2015


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(2) The Kindle and today's iPod fade

It has been really interesting to watch the growth of the e-book reader space. The Kindle became the first big-dog to the market and then the Sony and Barnes and Noble entries expanded that market. Most of us have experienced them, either by becoming owners of the technology or by trying out a friend's shiny new device.

My prediction is that the dedicated single purpose e-book reader will have a short life as a general interest device and will fade to a niche device for a much smaller community of users. My bolder prediction is that dedicated mp3 players like conventional iPods will do the same thing. The reason, in both cases, is that I think capacitive touch devices like today's smartphones (think iPhone and iPod Touch, or Droid), and tomorrows larger-screen tablet devices, will supplant them. Smart phones and future multi-media tablets promised by big players like Apple and Microsoft, and smaller players like Joo Joo (nee Crunchpad) and Notion Ink Tegra, will be able to function as an e-book reader or an mp3 player, but will also do much more. Voice calls, video calls, web browsing, TV and movie watching, organizing and sharing photo libraries, and much more, become natural on these devices. Having separate, dedicated music or book devices will only make sense if their user experience is much, much better, or if none of the tablets are any good or all of them are overpriced. And I don't think that will be the case.

Time frame: 2011

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(3) SSD for serious laptops

This one is a little simpler and maybe a little more obvious. As memory continues to get cheaper, and as people continue to gravitate to laptops over desktops, fast boot and fast wake will be differentiators at first (and perhaps we’re already at this point) and expected soon after. So high-end laptops will move to Solid State Disk (SSD) for their primary storage, followed soon after by the mid-range. Prohibitively expensive for many now, it's just a matter of time for this stuff to get cheap. Conventional spinning disk drives for Netbooks and very low-end laptops will still make sense. SSD will be the choice for mid- to high-end laptops.

Time frame: 2012

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(4) The “Clouds” are clearing

To borrow terminology from Gartner, and apply it to this year's biggest buzz-phrase, the slide from the "Peak of inflated expectations" into the "Trough of Disillusionment" is about due for Cloud Computing.

Cloud Computing as a service offered by some industry players is a very interesting tool that looks like it can be used strategically. But the assumption that it is the solution to a long list of IT woes, and a transformational technology to be broadly applied comes from, in my opinion, a misunderstanding of what Cloud Computing really is. This seems especially true within Higher-Ed.

Over the next several years there will be some outsourcing of email that will be mis-categorized as cloud computing (when it really is tactical outsourcing). In some cases, the use of ad-supported and otherwise free commodity web-based services will be mis-categorized as Cloud Computing. For other uses, the realization that it isn't free and it can be somewhat brittle will hit some of us over the head.

But then some enterprises will carefully study and understand the Cloud technology that is really available, will consider policy and law as it applies to services and data and will navigate the complexities of the SLAs, will do real ROI analyses for services that are not free, and will deploy services based on Cloud Computing -- some successfully and some not. As that happens, Cloud Computing will "level off" into its rightful place in the Gartner "Plateau of Productivity" and become one of many tools that the best IT shops will be able to use strategically and effectively.

Time frame: 2012

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(5) 3D printing comes home (or at least to the small office)

3D printing, already in use at Penn at the School of Design and perhaps elsewhere, is the process of building up 3D objects through the printing of successive layers of plastic or other materials. The printer gets a 3D specification as input and literally prints out a 3D object.

This technology is very valuable for prototyping newly designed objects, but it might also turn out to be a handy way to get small and simple replacement parts in a hurry. Imagine printing a camera lens-cap, a battery cover, small toy parts, and more. Rather than writing to the manufacturer to buy something that costs more to ship than to make, the manufacturer could allow you to replace the parts yourself (and fully at your cost).

3D Printers are available today in the $10K-$20K range (and of course at much higher cost, too), with some new entries showing up at around $5K. If the price gets closer to $1,000 soon and $300 eventually, and if product manufacturers end up liking the idea of making some of their replacement parts available as specifications for home printing, these interesting devices could become a lot more common.

Time frame: 2015

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(6) Cars that drive themselves

Really, truly, drive themselves. You sit there and read the newspaper (if newspapers still exist).

Several times over the last decade, teams from around the world competed in the DARPA Urban Challenge in which vehicles navigated and drove entirely on their own with no human driver and no remote control. The results so far are mixed, but that there are any successes at all is really quite impressive.

This one comes with a lot of anxiety. Would YOU get into a car that a machine was driving? Knowing all you know about the rate at which computers and other automation systems fail? Would you get in and trust your life and the lives of your loved ones to a non-human? Not today you wouldn't, and neither would I. But some day I think you will. In fact, you already do something like this all the time. Elements of air travel and even elements of car travel already depend upon technology in ways that have crept in over time. When technology works very reliably for a long period of time, we begin to trust it.

The pieces to make this real already exist in rudimentary form. In fact they are already commercially available. I know I’m oversimplifying, but … (GPS) + (Cruise Control) + (External proximity sensors) lead to self driving cars. Again, I’ll grant that there’s more to it than that. But how much more? Some high-end cars already have on-board systems that allow them to self-park. Others are starting to have crash detection systems that allow them to respond to imminent impact in ways that minimize passenger injury. Isn’t all that the beginning of self-drive?

Time frame: 2020 for the first workable self drive concept car from a major car manufacturer. A while longer before they are driving down your block.

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(7) FAX will still be a technology in somewhat common use.

Really.

Time frame: 2020

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