Newer technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and automation, 3D printing, mixed reality that combines virtual reality and augmented reality, and blockchain are not only disrupting and transforming business models and the lives of individuals, but also ushering in the so-called gig economy which envisages an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations engage independent workers on short-term contracts. Lounge takes a look at how these technologies will affect us in the years to come.
AI comes of age
It was only in December that the US' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) announced that a solar system with as many planets as our own had been discovered with the help of its Kepler space telescope and AI.
Closer home, Microsoft and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics are using an AI-based sowing app that is expected to help about 4,000 farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka during the kharif season. HDFC Bank's AI chatbot Eva, built by Senseforth AI Research, now works with the Google Assistant in Indian English. It has already answered more than five million user queries with more than 85% accuracy, according to the bank.
These are simply cases in point across sectors to demonstrate that the world of AI, which is broadly defined as the desire to replicate human intelligence in machines, has matured greatly.
There are three broad reasons for AI's phenomenal growth in the last two-three years. First is the rapid advancement in machine- and deep-learning algorithms. Second is the availability of humongous amounts of data (hence known as Big Data) on which these algorithms can be trained. Third is the dramatic increase in computing power that includes more efficient computer processing units and graphic processing units.
The results are visible. In December, Alphabet-owned AI firm DeepMind announced that its AlphaZero algorithm took just 4 hours to learn all chess rules and defeat the world's strongest open-source chess engine, Stockfish. AlphaZero, which was modelled on DeepMind's AlphaGo Zero computer programme, vanquished a world-champion programme in each game of chess, shogi (Japanese chess) and the Chinese game, Go, within 24 hours.
Since automation and AI are better than humans with routine tasks, it has understandably given rise to the fear that automation and AI will take away our jobs and become more intelligent than human beings. In his 2006 book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, American author and futurist Ray Kurzweil forecast that AI would surpass humans. By 2099, he added, machines would have attained a legal status equal to that of humans.
Technology luminaries, including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and even Stephen Hawking, have expressed fear that robots with AI could rule mankind. Those who believe that AI machines can be controlled include Mark Zuckerberg and Kurzweil.
The fact is that despite the advancements in AI, it is still nothing like what we see in sci-fi movies. The benefits, though, include smart personal assistants, AI-powered chatbots, better search engines, more efficient translation tools, driverless cars and trucks, and predictive healthcare. Research released by Accenture Plc. also reveals that AI could add $957 billion, or Rs60,68,150 crore, to the Indian economy by changing the nature of work to create better outcomes for businesses and society.
So though it may be difficult to predict how AI will affect us 25-30 years from now, we may want to sharpen our focus on the many positives it has introduced so far.
3D printing goes big
In 2014, a team of Indian plastic surgeons at the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (Jipmer) in Puducherry restored the deformed skull of a three-year-old girl to its original shape with the help of a 3D printer that was sourced from a Mumbai-based 3D printer maker, Divide By Zero Technologies. In July, Jipmer purchased its own 3D printer, according to a report that month in The Hindu.
3D printing, which has been around for over 30 years, is now used not only to make jewellery and toothbrushes, but also football boots, racing-car parts, food products, guns, human organs, houses and aircraft parts.
3D printing belongs to a class of techniques known as additive manufacturing, or building objects layer by layer. The most common household 3D-printing process involves a "print head", which allows for any material to be extruded or squirted through a nozzle. To be sure, there's also the concept of 4D printing, which allows materials to "self-assemble" into 3D structures, and which was initially proposed by Skylar Tibbits of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in April 2013.
According to 6Wresearch, India's 3D printer market is projected to touch $79 million by 2021. Expected domestic production, low cost of manufacturing and increasing penetration across various applications, coupled with the Make In India campaign, are the growth triggers. In India, 3D printers have been used in medical, architecture, automotive, industrial, aerospace, military and other applications, where automotive application accounts for the largest revenue and volume share.
Globally, the 3D printer market is expected to be worth $32.78 billion by 2023, according to research firm Markets and Markets. The aerospace and defence vertical, according to the report, held the largest share of the global 3D printing market in 2016.
Nasa, for instance, is testing engines with 3D-printed parts to pare the costs of powering its most powerful rocket-the Space Launch System (SLS)-while the US army is teaming up with the Marines to develop 3D-printed drones that could be made from scratch right near the battlefield.
Globally established companies such as Stratasys and Optomec have footprints in India through partnerships and alliances, notes the above-cited 6Wresearch note. Major companies active in the Indian 3D-printing market space are Altem Technologies, Imaginarium, Brahma 3, KCbots and JGroup Robotics.
Companies like Microsoft, with its HoloLens, and US-based start-up Magic Leap are increasingly betting on the melding of technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) with the real world to give users and businesses a world of so-called "mixed" reality (MR) or "blended" reality concepts.
The belief is that these technologies have the potential to become the next big computing platform.
While VR is all about a world created solely on computers or online, AR still deals with the real world and has elements of the virtual world built atop it, akin to layers of information. An example of AR is Pok√©mon GO, a game that allows you to capture virtual creatures at real-world locations-it has been downloaded 800 million times. While its popularity has waned since its release in 2016, Pok√©mon GO nevertheless underscored the potential of AR.
MR mixes both realities (VR and AR) in a bid to capture the best of both worlds. And it has caught the attention of investors.
No one, for instance, has seen the Magic Leap One goggles but for some photographs of the forthcoming product on the company's website. A first model aimed specifically at developers is expected to be available early this year. Yet, the company has already managed to raise investments of almost $2 billion, notably from Google, Alibaba Group, Temasek and JP Morgan Investment Management.
Magic Leap credits its differentiation to its photonic lightfield chip, which relies on silicon photonics, wherein data is transferred faster between computer chips by optical rays.
Microsoft, which has adopted cloud in a big way, already has Kinect-an input device that senses motion and allows users to play games with gestures and spoken commands. It is now betting big on its MR holographic computer, HoloLens.
HoloLens has sensors that allow you to use your gaze to move the cursor when you want to select holograms. You can use gestures to select and size items, and drag and drop holograms. You can also speak directly to the virtual assistant Cortana. In 2017, Microsoft changed the name of the backend that helps run HoloLens from Windows Holographic to Windows Mixed Reality. The company has partnered with companies such as Samsung, Acer and HP for its MR headsets. Big companies in the mixed reality market include HTC, Intel, Magic Leap, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Samsung.
Research firm Gartner Inc. predicts that by 2019, AR, VR and MR solutions will be evaluated and adopted in 20% of large-enterprise businesses.
The global MR market size is expected to reach $2.8 billion by 2023, according to research firm Reportbuyer.com. The MR market, notes the report titled "Global Mixed Reality Market Analysis (2017-2023)", will witness rapid growth due to increasing demand for innovative and wearable products. The aerospace and defence sectors could use MR products for training programmes. The technology can be used effectively in schools since it provides 3D images, leading to an interactive learning experience, the report adds.
The world's biggest cryptocurrency, bitcoin, may have risen around 20-fold since the start of 2017-from $1,000 to almost $20,000 on some exchanges-before taking a dip, making it a very volatile investment. In contrast, the adoption of blockchain, the underlying technology that powers bitcoin, has been a stable exercise by industries across the world. Banks and financial institutions have clearly been the first movers.
In 2016, Visa Inc. said it was planning to use blockchain to improve its digital payments processes. In November, Visa rolled out the first, pilot phase of its blockchain-based business-to-business payments service, B2B Connect. The platform, developed with the blockchain start-up Chain, is also designed to ensure secure, yet transparent, payments between enterprises. ICICI Bank, India's largest private bank, too said it was gearing up to use blockchain technology to make banking more secure.
Blockchain is a distributed ledger shared via a peer-to-peer network that maintains an expanding list of data records. Each participant has a copy of the ledger's data, reflecting the most recent transactions or changes. Thus, blockchain increases transparency, reduces duplication of access to data or checking of data, and results in scalability and lower costs. The benefits of blockchain, though, are not restricted to banking and financial institutions.
The world's largest mining firm by market value, BHP Billiton, is using Ethereum (a blockchain custom-built by Switzerland-based Ethereum Foundation) to improve its supply-chain processes by recording "movements of wellbore rock and fluid samples and better secure the real-time data that is generated during delivery".
Even governments have realized the value of blockchains. Australia Post has set out a plan to use blockchain in election voting while Estonia is already using blockchain in its tax and business registration systems. And so are countries like the US, UK, Russia, Sweden and Singapore.
Smart contracts, or the possibility of capturing contracts of law in software code on a blockchain, may have far-reaching consequences, according to experts. A large number of blockchain initiatives may fail, say experts, but they believe blockchain is here to stay, especially since it's now being powered by AI too.
For instance, SingularityNET plans to allot AGI (artificial general intelligence) tokens to enable AI service transactions globally. SingularityNET aims to become the key protocol for networking AI and machine-learning tools to form a coordinated artificial general intelligence. To accomplish this, the SingularityNET platform must be powered by a utility token that is tailored to enabling its core functionality. The SingularityNET token "AGI" is structured to enable four key mechanisms: transactions, settlements, incentives and governance.
Robotics and automation
On 25 October, a humanoid called Sophia (designed to look like the late actor Audrey Hepburn by her creator David Hanson, the founder of Hanson Robotics) was awarded full citizenship of Saudi Arabia.
Most people who read this news item, or have seen sci-fi movies such as Star Wars, The Terminator, Transformers, Surrogates or The Matrix, may be tempted to believe that robots and computers will soon rule over, or even smother, humans.
On the contrary, though, even an advanced robot such as Asimo took years to learn to walk without tripping, something infants learn rapidly due to the highly evolved human brain. Nevertheless, most humans fear that smart automation, intelligent software bots and brainy robots can take away our jobs-sooner or later. They have reason to believe this.
Robots already deliver pizzas and packages; they serve in warehouses; there are assistive robots taking care of the elderly; there are robots making hamburgers and others, like the Roomba robots, that mop floors; and there are software bots writing articles and movie scripts.
In his book The Rise Of The Robots-Technology And The Threat Of Mass Employment, Martin Ford suggests that while all jobs are at risk of automation, it is the "routine" and "predictable" jobs that will be affected the most. Further, the field of robotics is being enhanced by advancements in AI. Hanson Robotics is already partnering with SingularityNET, which enables AI-as-a-service to ensure that anyone can use AI services easily.
And in January 2017, the European Union introduced a draft report suggesting that autonomous bots might, in the future, be granted the status of "electronic persons"-a legal definition conferring certain "rights and obligations" that was first proposed in May 2016. A decision is yet to be taken.
Researchers are trying to address these issues, in part, by proposing human-robot collaboration in the workplace, or even a tax on robots that replace humans. Some researchers are even mooting the idea of a universal basic income for humans who lose their jobs to robots.
Moreover, there are people who are convinced that countries should advance international deliberations over "lethal autonomous weapons systems", aka fully autonomous weapons or killer robots. The reason is that if autonomous robots keep humans out of the loop, it could lead to indiscriminate killings, especially on battlefields, since robots cannot take moral decisions.