The Future Still Lies Ahead

Top Stories of the Year, #1

This has been such a horrible year for politics that some people were wishing for a giant meteor to strike the Earth and put us all out of our misery—and they were only half-joking. But there is, thank goodness, a lot more to the world than politics, and from the standpoint of emerging technology, 2016 was a year filled with wonders and marvels.

This was the year a whole cluster of long-imagined technologies started to come to fruition and went from science fiction or breathless speculation to actual reality. Here are the five big “emerging technologies” that actually began to emerge in 2016.

1. Self-Driving Cars

This is the year the self-driving car went from “possible” to “inevitable” to “actually on the roads.”

Earlier this month, Uber’s self-driving test cars finished up their first three months on the road in Pittsburgh. Some autonomous vehicles have already been in use for a while, of course, such as self-driving tractors, and more are on the way. There is a lot more work to be done to make self-driving cars work with a very high degree of reliability, but that future is getting closer.

“The cars are really, really capable,” says Fairfield, “and the rate at which they’re getting better is actually increasing.” When will it be good enough that they, at least, are happy with it hitting the streets without a fallback? “Not too long.”

Regulators have largely been very accommodating in clearing the legal hurdles, but not equally so everywhere, as Uber’s recent move of a test fleet from California to Arizona shows us—which also reminds us of the virtues of federalism.

No, the fully self-driving future won’t come as fast as we hope (or fear), nor will it have all of the impacts that are currently being predicted for it. How all of those issues will play out is what remains to be seen.

2. Drone Delivery

This is the year we went from Tacocopter jokes to actually delivering tacos, or at least burritos. This is more than just a gimmick. Amazon has been testing out a whole drone delivery system.

Amazon’s longer-term goal is more fantastical—and, if it succeeds, potentially transformative. It wants to escape the messy vicissitudes of roads and humans. It wants to go fully autonomous, up in the sky. The company’s drone program, which many in the tech press dismissed as a marketing gimmick when Mr. Bezos unveiled it on “60 Minutes” in 2013, is central to this future; drones could be combined with warehouses manned by robots and trucks that drive themselves to unlock a new autonomous future for Amazon.

Amazon made its first actual drone delivery just a few weeks ago.

This isn’t just a First World luxury. The world’s first functioning drone delivery service is for medical supplies in Rwanda. Nor is this just about aerial drones. Small rolling ground drones are also being used to make deliveries, and judging from their reception, it’s going to take us a long time to adjust to this amazing new future. Like, maybe five minutes.

As the bot trundles on down a gravel path, most passersby give it the faintest of glances. That’s what’s surprising: the robot really doesn’t cause a fuss among the general public. If anyone does try to take it, the compartment (big enough for three large grocery bags) is electronically locked, and the GPS can tell Starship its exact location at any time. But even children just give it a fleeting look. If this is the future, the public seems pretty relaxed about it.

Well, this is the 21st Century, after all.

3) Robot Workers

This is the year it became clear that whole sectors of the economy are going to be run largely by robots. In the story on Amazon’s drone delivery service, did you notice that the warehouses were also going to be run by robots? Well, that part of the future is already here, and not just for Amazon.

When Skechers started building a colossal distribution center in Moreno Valley six years ago, backers promised a wave of new jobs.

Instead, by the time the company moved to the Moreno Valley, it had closed five facilities in Ontario that employed 1,200 people and cut its workforce by more than half. Today, spotting a human on the premises can feel like an accomplishment.

There are now only about 550 people working at one cavernous warehouse, which is about as big as two Staples Centers combined. Many of them sit behind computer screens, monitoring the activities of the facility’s true workhorses: robotic machines.

That might not sound like good news, except that the remaining jobs are both physically less demanding and more productive.

Lourdes Gonzalez, 46, started in 1992 as a packer in an old Skechers facility in Compton, where she earned minimum wage and walked through 50-plus aisles of shoes to fill orders written on pieces of paper. “Now, everything we do is through the system,” Gonzalez says, seated in front of several monitors packed into a small room above the floor of the warehouse.

She spends her entire day overseeing the flow of orders through the building. One minute she is staring at a live map showing traffic flow and any jams on the conveyor belts, and the next she is studying a spreadsheet that shows how far along workers are in processing orders on deck. Gonzalez earns more than $20 an hour for this work, and covers her three children on her company-provided health insurance. “I love my job,” Gonzalez said, sounding like she means it. “It’s fascinating.”

This is what I described as the Paradox of Productivity: if you want to get paid more for your job, you have to let a robot take it away from you.

4. Virtual and Augmented Reality

The idea of “virtual reality”—an immersive computer simulation so realistic it seems like an alternate reality—has been around for decades. This is the year technology finally started to catch up with that vision and the market was flooded with multiple virtual reality headsets.

They’re still expensive, they can induce “simulation sickness,” and they can be kind of anti-social to use, which is why they haven’t sold terribly well so far. But the technology has achieved a solid base from which it can improve, and many games and apps are being developed for it. Some of them are pretty darned cool.

[T]he experience puts you in the middle of outer space, standing among the stars, looking at Earth as Marvel’s Galactus might as he considers sapping our planet of its natural resources.

But while your mission is far more benign, the feeling of power is nevertheless immense, as the Vive controller lets you point at any area on the planet and drag the globe to find where you want to look next. Once you’ve picked a spot on the planet, you simply press Forward to dive down into a spot or Back to fly back into the sky and watch the cities and mountains shrink under your feet.

It’s not incredibly interactive beyond looking and viewing, but it’s easily one of the most powerful VR experiences I’ve had in recent memory. This is how supervillians tour the planet in science fiction movies, only this is 100 percent real.

In fact, virtual reality is getting so good, some people don’t want to leave it.

Yet the limelight in 2016 was stolen by “augmented reality,” the idea of taking elements of virtual reality and overlaying them onto our view of the real world. Sure, Microsoft unveiled its Hololens augmented reality glasses. But the biggest breakthrough, improbably, was the resurrection of a 1990s cartoon franchise.

No, it’s not the first and no, it’s not the best. But, there is no question that the incredible success of the Pokemon Go game is an absolute watershed moment for augmented reality.

Despite serious questions about security issues (both digital and physical), battery life impact and cloud infrastructure support, among other issues, the game’s incredible, nearly overnight success now means that no one will ever need to explain what augmented reality is to almost anyone.

“You know, like Pokemon Go.” “Oh, got it.”

Like a lot of the other technologies we’ve discussed, this one still has a long way to go. But it’s no longer on the drawing board or in science fiction. It’s here, and it will just keep getting better and more useful.

For more, follow our full coverage on virtual reality and augmented reality.

5. Artificial Intelligence

A lot of the technology we’ve already discussed, particularly self-driving cars, is made possible by advances in artificial intelligence. That’s just one aspect of Silicon Valley’s mania for AI this year, as engineers have developed new ways to incorporate it into a wide variety of software.

Where artificial intelligence was most visible, at least for a cadre of early adopters, was in the AI home assistant: Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, Microsoft’s Cortana, and the improved version of Siri. And there are also Facebook’s new chatbots. All of these were made possible by AI’s increasing ability to process human speech, deciphering what is said to it and responding in an appropriate manner.

In the not-too-distant past, this kind of human-computer interaction would have blown away technologists and delighted consumers—but in 2016, it’s nothing special. Conversations with Siri are commonplace, just like they are with Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa.

Machine learning (ML) and narrow forms of artificial intelligence (AI) have officially reached the mainstream. The explosion of innovation we’re seeing in AI/ML stems from a series of rapid technological advances over the last few decades: widespread internet connectivity and proliferation of online data, faster/cheaper computers (per Moore’s Law), variable-cost cloud computing, R&D investments from large technology companies and a vibrant open-source software community.

We haven’t yet built HAL 9000, but we’re getting closer.

No, the current state of artificial intelligence doesn’t match up to science fiction, either the utopian version or the dystopian. Nor does it mean the end of work or the need to put us all on the dole. In fact, artificial intelligence still requires a lot of human intelligence to make it work:

DeepMind spent years playing Go, and Watson had the context for “Jeopardy,” having been fed terabytes of trivia and natural language examples to help it decode the show’s answer-question format. It is only because of this human hand-holding and “training” that these machines were able to deliver such dominating performances. Even a seemingly simplistic application like x.ai’s meeting scheduling assistant took years to learn the context around meeting scheduling in order to reach a consumer-acceptable level of competence….

When given the appropriate context and designed to solve specific problems like how to play a game or fight cybercrime, these technologies can indeed fuel meaningful innovation. For instance, the software powering self-driving cars is poised to be one of those breakthroughs. Cuter technologies like Siri, Alexa, or Google Home, while convenient, don’t really solve any global problems and still contain sizable economic barriers-to-entry for many consumers.

What is increasingly called “artificial intelligence,” both inside the tech industry and the media, is more artificial than intelligent.

Again, it’s a start, and it sure is a long way from the pocket calculators we thought were so amazing when I was a kid.

These are just the top highlights of an amazing year in emerging technology. There is also automated checkout, commercial space exploration, precision medicine, FinTech, supersonic flight, neurotechnology, human enhancement, nuclear energy, fusion power, fracking…oh, and yes of course, flying cars.

For all of our dissatisfaction with the current state of the world, particularly our day-to-day politics, the future still lies ahead, and an awful lot of people are doing amazing work to bring us there.

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