The 7 most underrated technology trends for 2017

It’s been 20 years since IBM’s Deep Blue defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in a match. Google registered its domain name in 1997, the same year Amazon was sued by Barnes & Noble for claiming to be the world’s largest bookseller. Apple launched the first iPhone in early 2007, and six months later Microsoft bought 1.6% of Facebook shares. Over two extraordinary decades, these six companies have reshaped what technology can do and how it can influence our lives.

And now we stand looking at 2017, wondering what technological marvels it will bring our way. Given my background in industrial design and architecture, I tend to have a different perspective than a technology services professional might. Here’s my take on what’s worth tracking in the coming year.

Two factors play a central role in most of these new advancements: the cost of computing power and the size of computing devices, both of which keep shrinking rapidly. (For example, an iPhone 6 has more computing power than a 1980 Cray supercomputer.)

Zero UI is changing computers as we know them. Thanks to advances in speech recognition and cognitive computing, a person can talk to a device instead of using a traditional UI to click or type. We may have had frustrating moments with Siri, Cortana, Alexa or Google, but these programs will have a permanent impact on human-to-computer interaction and on the form factor of the machines we use. Both advances are likely to lead to a proliferation of these devices in our built environments.

Another byproduct of ZERO UI is ubiquitous computing. In contrast with desktop computing, this type of computing can happen on any device, in any location and in any format. The term was coined in 1988 by Mark Weiser, who at the time was the forward-thinking CTO of Xerox PARC—the company that gave us laser printing, Ethernet, GUI and desktop (no, it wasn’t Apple or Microsoft).

As a result of these innovations, there are seven new technological advances poised to change our industry—and our world—in 2017.

1. Context brokering: This is my favorite. You may have seen Google Now remind you that it’s time to leave for the airport. Leading up to that notification, Google read an email the airline sent, looked up the flight schedule, and researched traffic conditions or public transport. In essence, it understood the context, developed insight using data from disparate sources, and triggered a notification. This demonstrates the trend of data with structure becoming information, which in turn evolves into knowledge and eventually, when applied in context, becomes wisdom. Going forward, the capability of enriching information with context will become more abstract, and therefore reusable across information systems.

2. Artificial intelligence and machine learning: These trends have come a long way since that famous chess match in 1997. Computers are getting smarter at developing cognitive abilities and solving problems, especially when it comes to recognizing patterns that aren’t obvious. Examples range from basic applications, such as Gmail learning to preempt your email responses with Smart Reply, to more in-depth solutions, such as the growing body of research into how machine learning methods can help improve cancer detection. Businesses that have invested in data should start actively considering machine learning pilots.

3. The rise of robots: AI goes to the next level in intelligent machines. Popular examples include drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and self-driving cars. In more specialized cases, we’ve seen robotics used in nursing, surgery, disaster management and so on. This trend is remarkable because robots designed initially for very specific tasks in very controlled environments (such as assembly lines) can now venture into uncontrolled environments (such as cars on a highway) as a result of machine learning and cheaper computing power. They’re also learning to work together, like Baxter and CoBot. An increase in the use of robots should have a huge impact on productivity and, in some cases, safety and operational costs.

4. Printing (2-D, 3-D and 4-D): As an industrial designer, I’m interested in all kinds of printing. Two-dimensional printing has opened up avenues for limited-batch personalized merchandise for e-commerce—for example, personalized M&Ms. Twenty years ago, the 3-D printers at my university were kept behind lock and key and used only by highly specialized staff. In past few years, as the technology has became more accessible, it has found many consumer-centered uses. Most are more fun than useful, but we’ve also seen breakthroughs in 3-D-printed organs, prosthetics and electronic components of electronic devices that are no longer being manufactured. But I’m the most curious about developments in four-dimensional printing, where the fourth dimension is time and objects can reshape themselves or even self-assemble.

5. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR): Someone has described the difference between AR and VR as the difference between visiting the aquarium and going scuba diving—and now improvements in computing power, display technology and wireless bandwidth have allowed these technologies to become practical. Product companies are responding by producing a lineup of AR and VR headsets. AR holds a lot of promise for businesses with use cases including remote support, customer service, training, visualization and new ways of collaborating. VR, on the other hand, has potential implications for the gaming and entertainment industries, as well as other use cases that require immersive experience: tourism, retail, hospitality, and visualizing architectural or automobile interiors.

6. Display technology: Much of computing and information technology has become more visual, and most human-computer interaction takes place via displays. The traditional 2-D display has gotten a serious upgrade—not only can it curve and fold, but it can also provide haptic feedback when you write on it. The most compelling developments are in three-dimensional or volumetric displays. Unlike 3-D movies or AR/VR, where the brain is tricked into believing it can see three dimensions, volumetric displays actually show three-dimensional images. These displays have tremendous potential for interpersonal communication (for example, holoportation), medical imaging, mathematics, oil exploration, product design and more.

7. Smart homes: Connected multiroom entertainment systems, comfort control, security and remote monitoring systems, renewable energy innovations and Wi-Fi-enabled washing machines are rapidly transforming our homes. These innovations open up a host of opportunities for existing players (for example, detergent makers), and they also threaten the dominance of traditional appliance makers that fail to capitalize on these trends.

In addition to these seven trends, much has been written about developments including software-defined security (SDS) and the platform-based design approach. These are important, but they strike me as more about how these technologies work than about what they are. With that caveat, I’d like to leave you with thoughts about two very interesting pieces of technology that may have a wide-ranging impact:

  • Smart dust: This field focuses on developing autonomous sensing and communication in the space of one cubic millimetre—roughly the size of a grain of sugar. Applications range from communications and monitoring to healthcare. After its first appearance in 2005, this technology is poised to make a comeback.
  • Brain computer interface: In this video, you’ll witness a neuroscientist attempt to control the activity of another person using his own brain. This is way ahead of Zero UI, where the user interface is audio-based. The UI resulting from this technology would be thought-based, and I’m fascinated to see where it leads.

As you look toward 2017, what kinds of technological change do you see? If transformation is on the horizon for your business, see how Mindtree thinks about digital. Then contact us to start a conversation about your future.