Technology is bringing about seismic changes to just about every aspect of our modern lives. In 2018 we will see self-driving cars, artificially intelligent doctors and deliveries carried out by drones.
Contrary to what many seem to think, you don’t need to be a software engineer or computer scientist to be a leader in the digital revolution. More vital is the ability to match technological solutions with existing business problems in innovative ways.
However, this does mean that an understanding of the underlying forces and mechanics driving these trends is critical. So here is my overview of 5 trends which I think should be firmly on the radar of anyone setting out to make digital waves this year.
1. Data is everywhere, and growing at an ever-increasing rate
We are creating an unprecedented amount of data as we live our lives. From social media to the digital footprint we leave as we use services like Netflix or Fitbit or connected systems at work. Every second, 900,000 people hit Facebook, 452,000 of us post to Twitter, and 3.5 million of us search for something on Google.
This is happening so rapidly that the amount of data which exists is doubling every two years, and this growth (and the opportunities it provides) is what we call Big Data.
The sheer value of this data means an industry as well as an enthusiastic, non-commercially driven community has grown around Big Data. Whereas just a few years ago only giant corporations would have the resources and expertise to make use of data at this scale, a movement towards “as-a-service” platforms has reduced the need for big spending on infrastructure. This explosion in data is what has made many of today’s other trends possible, and learning to tap into the insights will increase anyone’s prospects in just about any field.
2. Smart things
In what now seems like the “olden days”, only computers could connect to the internet. Maybe, if they were very advanced, some phones could to. Today you can buy lightbulbs, refrigerators, cars, watches, kettles, thermostats and many other “smart”, and therefore connected, objects. In industry, machines are increasingly being built to communicate with each other with less need for human input, in order to more efficiently carry out tasks. Collectively this trend is known as “Internet of Things”, because it isn’t just an internet of computers and phones any more!
Intel forecasts that by 2020 there will be 200 billion devices connected to the internet. Data from these devices can help us to make better decisions about our lives (such as monitoring our exercise habits with Fitbit) as well as in business. There are huge opportunities out there for those who are able to develop products and services based around this data, and potential here is really only limited by imagination.
3. Artificial Intelligence will rule our lives
Not literally as in take over the world (yet). But they will certainly have our attention. The field of cognitive computing revolves around machines which are capable of “thinking” in a similar way humans do – particularly when it comes to learning. Of course, being computers they have certain advantages – in other words, teach them to learn, and they will do so at an incredibly fast rate, with a greater degree of accuracy than any human would be capable of. The result is that they will inevitably become more knowledgeable, capable and able to match solutions (data) to problems.
Today’s artificial intelligence systems are either specialised (designed for one task) or generalised (designed to adapt to any task) – though true generalised AI is still a distant goal. They use methods such as computer vision to enable machines to “see” – recognising objects visually and classifying them accordingly, or natural language processing to communicate with us in a human-like way.
As with Big Data (and remember it’s the amount of data they have access to which is bringing machines close to what we think of as “intelligent”), AI can seem a daunting prospect. Have no fear, though – again, thanks to the explosion of open source and “as-a-service” options, today it is a viable prospect for organisations of all sizes. Skills and expertise in this area are sure to be in high demand in 2018.
4. Talking to machines is becoming second nature
The way we interact with machines has evolved from operating levers and valves, to control panels, keyboards and touchscreen interfaces. Thanks (again) to the amount of data we have, we are now at a point where voice controlling machines feels natural and is often the most intuitive option we have.
It’s been predicted that by 2020 half of online searches will be carried out by voice – and 30% of them will be made using devices which have no screen at all. This year, BMW will roll out new cars with Alexa pre-installed, just as Ford has done.
In business we will become increasingly used to using AI assistants to manage day-to-day schedules and put information in front of us when we need it. Going beyond that, there are opportunities to drive sales well as move to a more data-driven customer experience model, through the use of chatbots and natural language-capable marketing tools.
5. Blockchain will transform the way we record and access certain types of data
Blockchain – the distributed, encrypted and public ledger behind virtual currency Bitcoin – has uses beyond making early adopters in virtual currencies filthy stinking rich. Experts say that it represents a leap forward in information storage and security.
A blockchain is really just a digital file in which blocks of information are linked together (“chained”) and secured using private key cryptography, ensuring only those with appropriate permission can edit the sections of the data they are entitled to.
Because copies of the file are stored on multiple computer systems (distributed) and kept synchronised through the consensus of the network, they potentially enable innovative solutions to problems involving tracking and ledgering transactions in a digital world.
In fact blockchain has the potential to change the very foundations of our economic system, though this is likely to be some way off. In the meantime, anyone capable of fitting blockchain technology to current business problems is likely to find their skills in demand.
2018 will be an exciting year for technological innovations that will leverage big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning AI, speech and natural language interfaces, and blockchains tools to transform and improve the world we live in.
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Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, and advisor to companies and governments. He has worked with and advised many of the world's best-known organisations. LinkedIn has recently ranked Bernard as one of the top 10 Business Influencers in the world (in fact, No 5 - just behind Bill Gates and Richard Branson). He writes on the topics of intelligent business performance for various publications including Forbes, HuffPost, and LinkedIn Pulse. His blogs and SlideShare presentation have millions of readers.