On The Digital Life podcast this week, we discuss the top emerging technologies of this year based on information from the World Economic Forum, a study by PwC and our own analysis. From nanosensors to drones, synthetic biology to AI, this year has seen a huge crop of emerging technologies move into the
commercial realm and the public consciousness. Join us as we break down our top five, and consider the implications for people, business, and the planet.
Jon: Welcome to episode 180 of “TheDigitaLife,” a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings, listeners.
Jon: Dirk, we’re at episode 180. Did you ever think we would get to this episode? 200 is down the road, and just a few months.
Dirk: I’ve never really thought about it one way or the other. I’m pleased that we’re here, though.
Jon: Yeah. I don’t know. Whenever we get to these high, round numbers, I like to take a victory lap.
Dirk: Start running, buddy. Let’s see it.
Jon: Okay, I’m back from my victory lap. This week, we’re going to talk about the top emerging technologies of 2016.
Dirk: According to who, Jon?
Jon: According to a couple of different sources including our own analysis but the World Economic Forum released an interesting report mid to late June about some of the important emerging technologies they thought would impact the planet. Additionally, PricewaterhouseCoopers did an essential emerging technologies for business report, so this is a mash up all that research plus some of our own evaluation, based on all the news items that we like to discuss on the show on a weekly basis.
Dirk: Sounds good.
Jon: Strap yourself in, get ready for our top 5 emerging tech of 2016. I’m going to start this off with nanosensors for the Internet of Things, and the reason I’m picking that as our first one is that it provides the underpinnings for what the promise really is for the Internet of Things and it’s beginning to have an impact as more and more of these products roll out. Case in point, last week we talked about a denial of service attacks that was propagated by a variety of Internet of Things devices. You know these devices are getting out there, but when it comes to nanosensors, what we’re really talking about is these tiny sensors that can be embedded in everything from the scale in your bathroom to your, I don’t know, your home security system, to monitoring systems. In fact, at the studio at Involution, we have this article about what we call “health room” that comes from your bathroom, right?
Dirk: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jon: Basically, wiring up all the elements in your bathroom so you can start to really pull some useful health data. Over the past year, we’ve begun to see some of these things come true so nanosensors are going to increasingly both benefit us and invade our privacy in creepy ways. Dirk, your take on the impending Internet of Things with nanosensors embedded everywhere?
Dirk: Well, I think that the imagination runs wilder than the reality. I mean, one of the things like with the health room that we talk about is the possibility, for example, collecting specimens in the drain in the shower, right? I mean, then evaluating those. Well, if there’s a sensors in the drain of the shower, how do those sensors get cleaned, right? It’s very exciting to imagine sensors, sensors, sensors in all of these different places but how are they maintained? How do they continue to function? Once you have this distributed network of devices, essentially, all over the place, as different devices in that ecosystem fail, how does that impact the effectiveness of the ecosystem?
It’s neat, and it’s especially neat in theory, like when you talk about, “Oh, it’s so cool, all these different things that can happen,” but in reality, we live in a world governed by the rules of physics and there are requirements, whether they be in terms of power, whether they be in terms of cleanliness from the standpoint of having an electronic device able to function in the intended way, despite being in odd circumstances as well as people’s just tolerance of interest for everything that can happen. It’s interesting, nanotechnology in general is interesting. I mean, smaller means accessibility, smaller means there are more things that you can do, but the potential of nanosensors in the short term, I don’t know. I think it might start to get more interesting in the medium and long term when some of the other related enabling technologies are improved, such as batteries, for example, which I mentioned earlier.
Jon: Yeah, I think that’s a good point about the ruggedization problem, right? Which goes hand in hand with the cleanliness.
Dirk: Is that a term? I love that, ruggedization. I’m going to totally pick that up.
Jon: Yeah. I mean, basically, you have product design for products that are going to be abused, right? That’s been a huge problem for things like wearables because some early wearables were just not suited for everyday living, so you’ve got designers who are used to perhaps designing for more delicate compute devices, things that you would actually treat with a degree of respect, versus you can imagine The North Face or Patagonia or the kind of really out in the world, and I picked some sporting goods providers, but those guys know what they’re doing when they’re creating products that need to take a beating, and so the combination of electronic devices plus real world abuse …
Jon: … It doesn’t come out to electronic devices surviving for very long.
Jon: In fact, as much as I love the example of iRobot’s Roomba, I mean, I’ll tell you. I have long hair and I managed to kill at least two of those before they figured out how to … This is just people with long hair, right? There are people with pets. I mean, those things were getting tangled up and burning up their motors and stuff like that.
Dirk: Oh, my goodness.
Jon: This is just … I mean, this isn’t even rugged living. This is just my living room floor.
Dirk: How much do those cost?
Jon: The Roombas were expensive early on, but I think I, I don’t know, maybe a few hundred dollars. More than I wanted to have blown up and smoking on my living room floor. Regardless, point well taken on the ruggedization and cleanliness problem. Moving onto emerging technology number two is artificial intelligence as we were saying earlier, the plumbing that makes a lot of emerging technology run. Whether you’re on Facebook and you’ve discovered that your photos have been identified, pre-identified with tags for all the people that are in them, whether you’re talking about IBM’s Watson project, which is basically enhancing decision making across a variety of verticals including healthcare, or you’re talking about everyday chat bots or down the road, self driving cars, right?
All of these have this complex decision making that’s meant to mimic the human thought process, and this year, we’re seeing, I mean, just the excitement over chat bots alone, I think you probably have thousands of screens worth of articles written about chat bots. AI has been simmering as an emerging technology to watch, but I think this year, at least it’s reached a tipping point. Your thoughts on that?
Dirk: Yeah, I mean artificial intelligence is the plumbing of our digital future so that’s just the reality, and so now we’re watching and adapting as we see the quality of artificial intelligence increase, so that it is increasingly able to permeate and to influence. Again, it’s going to be slower than we think in a lot of ways, but it is what our digital future will be built around.
Jon: Yeah. No doubt. I mean, there’s so much information that we can’t take advantage of, that we really do need artificial intelligence to sort through some of these things, especially in the healthcare space where even our own medical records, I think, are opaque to a lot of us. I mean, there’s a pile of information there. You really need ways of both interacting with that information and sorting through it to find valuable patterns, both tasks which a machine could be doing.
Dirk: In theory, right?
Dirk: And it’s someday in practice but right now it’s just so far away, and again, I’ll use Siri and Alexa as two examples of that. I mean, these are products that have a lot of money from big corporations put behind them, and are designed for consumer use. I find them both to be garbage, and this is years after they’ve been released and had the chance to be optimized, and how far away are those products from being wonderful? It’s years. It’s not decades, but it’s years. We’re just not there yet. It’s clumsy, it’s clunky, but it’s not there.
Jon: Yeah. I’d agree with the clumsy and clunky part. I think as an enthusiastic early adopter of voice user interfaces, I have a higher tolerance for the thrills and spills that you get from these sort of early usage for these technologies. I actually use Alexa everyday multiple times a day, for a variety of things, and I have multiple instantiations. I have the big tower, the Echo, and then I have the little hockey puck that just came out, that you can put in other rooms in the house, so I’m slowly trying to create my IoT voice activated house, but I am willing to put up with more of the mistakes, I think, than you might be.
Dirk: For sure. I mean, I say this with love, but you’re the guy who buys a Roomba, it breaks, and you buy another. You know what I mean? I want stuff to work first.
Dirk: Listen, there are individuals like yourself who the novelty and the fun of exploring those technologies and growing with them is part of it. I want to live my life. For me, the technology allow me to live my life better, and as soon as you’re clumsy and clunky and stupid, you’re making me live my life worse. It’s just two different ways of looking at it but from a money making standpoint, people better treat me as their consumer as opposed to you …
Dirk: … Because it’s my seeing it as good enough for my life, is it at a point where it could go mainstream, whereas you definitely are on that bleeding edge of tech geeks, right?
Jon: Right, yeah. The first mp3 player I bought was a Rio and it had 8 megs of storage space, so you can put like, I don’t know, four songs on there.
Dirk: And you can barely get the album “Rio” onto there.
Jon: Yeah, unfortunately. Moving onto item number three for our emerging technologies of 2016 is, of course, drones, which have just recently we have the US Federal Aviation Administration establishing some rules that allow for commercial drone use, so drones for surveillance, for movie making, for sport, in the case of Amazon, for delivering things to your house. I wouldn’t say 2016 is the year of the drone, but maybe the year that drones start to make it into the commercial marketplace as …
Dirk: Still not there.
Jon: … Being other than a hobbyist thing. Certainly not a mass adoption scenario yet, but there is the initial commercialization, I think, that’s going on. We’ve talked about drones at length, mostly from a skeptic perspective of just the complexities of having all of these flying objects in the way of other more important flying objects, or buildings. Even from a privacy standpoint, do you really want the multiple eyes in the sky? But this is an emerging technologies list, so we’re not looking for the tipping point. Any other thoughts on the wild world of drones?
Dirk: No. I don’t know. I tend to look at it like a 5 year old, right? Over the years, I’ve owned a handful of radio controlled things, whether it be a car, a boat, a plane. Every time I’m using them, no matter what, they go out of my range and I use control of them. They’re just out there. They’re gone, basically. Having a lot of these things whizzing about that are lost control of, either because they’ve gone out of range or lost a battery, or had a malfunction, until they come up with the technology where it miraculously turns into a Nerf ball or a harmless ball of foam, I don’t know. I don’t get it. I don’t get it. I don’t see how it makes sense at scale. I just don’t. To have pieces of machinery that gravity will bring them down hard on somebody’s head or a roof of their house or open moon roof on the car.
I mean, whatever the use case may be. There’s a lot of bad endgames with that. Look, the technology could get better, they’ll figure it out. Less fail, yada yada yada, but I don’t know. I mean, is it necessary? The older I get, I put things to the “Is it necessary? test. Do we really need that for delivery? I don’t know. Maybe they’ll figure it out and it’ll be wonderful and I’ll be cheering it on, but I’m not cheering yet, Jon.
Jon: Yeah. The first time that you order a book and a drone flies it to your front doorstep, then maybe that will make you a convert, or not.
Dirk: We’ll see.
Jon: Next on our list is in the bio-pharma vertical and that is Organs-on-Chips. Just to be clear, these are not complete human organs by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, they’re a small collection of cells that allow scientists by virtue of them being on these chipsets, allow scientists to test certain types of drugs and get the same sort of valuable information that they might get from a clinical trial which might prevent things like animal testing which can be heinous, or even advancing into human clinical trials could potentially reduce the amount of that type of work that’s needed.
Advancing both the science for creating better drugs and doing it more quickly, and a variety of these Organs-on-Chips have been created, and the folks down the street at the Wyss Institute in Boston were really the pioneers in this space, but in 2016, this is the underpinnings of this technology have been proven and there’s now a commercial company that’s pushing this along so very notable for this year that organ on the chip becomes commercially viable, I think.
Dirk: Yeah, very interesting. What I’m finding is that the advances that are coming more from the science side as opposed to more of the commercial side are the more interesting emerging technologies, the more interesting advances, because they are necessary. I mean, they have a real clear applicable benefit beyond just making some corporation a lot of money while having nominal questionable convenience benefits for the first world, right?
Jon: Yeah, and I think that’s a great transition into our fifth and final emerging technology of 2016 which is systems metabolic engineering. In a nutshell, making engineering microbes to create a wide variety of chemicals that today are mostly derived from petroleum or other non-renewable sources, so for example, using bacteria to generate biodegradable plastic, for instance. We’re all aware that petroleum based plastics are clogging up our oceans, creating little islands out in the Pacific, actually, as they accumulate.
Dirk: They’re called “garbage patches,” actually.
Jon: Yeah, these horrible and tragic things, versus biodegradable plastics that can be generated by basically a brewing process of using these microbes.
Dirk: Did you know that most of the leading oceanographers will not eat seafood anymore? They will not eat things that come out of the sea.
Jon: That’s a horrible thing to say to me, because I think we just had seafood recently.
Dirk: We did, but they’re so concerned about the detrimental impact to their health for eating the seafood that they won’t eat it anymore. Yeah, just to underscore the importance of figuring these things out.
Jon: Right. I think one of the challenges that this metabolic engineering is trying to overcome right now is doing this at scale. Making sure that the amount of energy that it takes to brew these chemicals, you’re not using up more energy than you would have if you just used the petroleum based stock, as opposed to these new feeder stocks. Regardless, I think it’s become increasingly important, the bioengineering of really this microbiological world that I think has become at least a little bit more part of the conversation. There’s the microbium and microbiology are starting to become more noticeable in our scientific conversations which I find to be very interesting because I know that just a couple of years ago, if you mentioned, “Hey, people are engineering bacteria,” you’d get a funny look.
At least from a cultural conversation standpoint, I think we’re beginning to understand that the next revolution of emerging technology is not just going to be found in computer chips, but is also going to be part biological, if not the majority biological.
Dirk: I think that’s true. What I would like to see more of from a standpoint of emerging technology, emerging science, are things that are reversing global warming. Some of the things we’re talking about will allow us to move away from technologies that hurt the environment and warm the earth, to things that either do it less, or don’t do it all. We need to start cooling the earth, right? That’s just the fact of it, unless we want to accept the sea level rises and the other really catastrophic things that are going to come from it. Notably absent on this list are technologies designed for that purpose, to not just slow down the warming, but to start cooling and start going in the other direction. That’s the kind of thing I’m really interested in seeing and as far as I can tell, very little effort is being put to those endeavors.
Jon: Yeah, I think from the standpoint of that last technology we were discussing, engineering microbes, there is the preliminary research being done for microbes that would absorb carbon dioxide and then I guess in theory, that waste product would need to be buried somewhere or prevented from going into the atmosphere. There is the promise of microbiology at least providing some solution sets down the road, but it is not within the scope of our 2016 discussion certainly. It’s a little bit farther along than that, unfortunately.
Dirk: But it also still reflects industrial age thinking. As you mentioned, there still is a waste product from that that needs to be stored somewhere. I mean, we’ve happily stored garbage underground. We’ve happily stored nuclear waste underground. We can keep doing that, but it doesn’t scale, right? 2016, what about 3016? At some point, we run out of places and the science fiction idea of jettisoning garbage and rubbish into space, that doesn’t scale either. I mean, our world and by world I mean the greater, not just our planet or our universe, but everything. I mean, it’s all interconnected at the end of the day, right? It’s all interconnected, and we continue to take things and turn them into rubbish of varying degrees and toxicity, and putting it away for later, but at some point with later, there’s a reckoning, right? I’d love to see us break out of that frame, of the industrial, going back pre-industrial.
I mean, I guess we go back to agrarian so well into the BC, but of just, “Hey, there’s waste. Bury it, dump it, move it down the road and move on,” I mean, let’s stop with waste. Let’s totally change our thinking and think long term, think sustainable in a more global way. I’m just tilting at windmills at this point, Jon.
Jon: Yeah, and just for full disclosure, I am not a microbiologist, so anything that I talk about on the microbiology side should be taken with a grain of salt, for sure.
Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. So, it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett that’s j-o-n f-o-l-l-e-t-t. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o dot com. Dirk?
Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thank you so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 180 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.