Close encounters with the future


Published in Telecom Asia, Oct 22,2013 – Close encounters with the future

Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons.—POPULAR MECHANICS, 1949

Introduction: Ray Kurzweil in his non-fiction book “The Singularity is near – When humans transcend biology” predicts that by the year 2045 the Singularity will allow humans to transcend our ‘frail biological bodies’ and our ‘petty, derivative and circumscribed brains’ . Specifically the book claims “that there will be a ‘technological singularity’ in the year 2045, a point where progress is so rapid it outstrips humans’ ability to comprehend it. Irreversibly transformed, people will augment their minds and bodies with genetic alterations, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence”.

He believes that advances in robotics, AI, nanotechnology and genetics will grow exponentially and will lead us into a future realm of intelligence that will far exceed biological intelligence. This explosion will be the result of ‘accelerating returns from significant advances in technology”


Here is a look at some of the more fascinating key trends in technology. You can decide whether we are heading to Singularity or not.

Autonomous Vehicles (AVs): Self driving cars have moved from the realm of science fiction to reality in recent times. Google’s autonomous cars has already driven around half a million miles. All the major car manufacturers of the world from BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan, Ford or GM are all coming with their own versions of autonomous cars. These cars are equipped with Adaptive Cruise Control and Collision Avoidance technologies and are already taking away control drivers. Moreover AVs alert drivers, if their attention strays from the road ahead, for too long. Autonomous Vehicles work with the help of Vehicular Communication Technology.

Vehicular Communication along with the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) achieves safety by enabling communication between vehicles, people and roads. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications are the fundamental building block of autonomous, self-driving cars. It enables the exchange of data between vehicles and allows automobiles to “see” and adapt to driving obstacles more completely, preventing accidents besides resulting in more efficient driving.

Smart Assistants: From the defeat of Kasparov in chess by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, and then subsequently to  the resounding victory of IBM’s Watson in Jeopardy, capable of understanding natural human language, to the more prevalent Apple’s intelligent assistant Siri, Artificially Intelligent  (AI) systems have come a long way. The newest trend in this area is Smart Assistants.  Robots are currently analyzing documents, filling prescriptions, and handling other tasks that were once exclusively done by humans. Smart Assistants are already taking over the tasks of BPO operators, paralegals, store clerks, baby sitters. Robots, in many ways, are not only smarter than humans, but also do not get easily bored,

Intelligent homes and intelligent offices. Rapid advances in technology will be closer to the home both literally and figuratively. The future home will have the ability to detect the presence of people, pets, smoke and changes to humidity, moisture, lighting, temperature. Smart devices will monitor the environment and take appropriate steps to save energy, improve safety and enhance security of homes.  Devices will start learning your habits and enhance your comfort and convenience. Everything from thermostats, fire detectors, washing machines, refrigerators will be equipped electronics that will be capable of adapting to the environment. All gadgets at home will be accessible through laptops, tablets or smartphones from anywhere. We will be able to monitor all aspects of our intelligent home from anywhere.

Smart devices will also make major inroads into offices leading to the birth of intelligent offices where the lighting, heating, cooling will be based on the presence of people in the offices. This will result in an enormous savings in energy. The advances in intelligent homes and intelligent offices will be in the greater context of the Smart Grid.

Swarms of drones: Contrary to the use of weaponized drones for unmanned aerial survey of enemy territory we will soon have commercial drones. Drone will start being used for civilian purposes.  The most compelling aspect of drones these days is the fact that they can be easily manufactured in large quantities, are cheap and can perform complex tasks either singly or collectively. Remotely controlled drones can perform hundreds of civilian jobs, including traffic monitoring, aerial surveying, and oil pipeline inspections and monitoring of crop conditions. Drones are also being employed for conservation of wildlife. In the wilderness of Africa, drones are already helping in providing aerial footage of the landscape, tracking poachers and in also herding elephants. However, before drones become a common sight, it is necessary to ensure that appropriate laws are made for maintaining the safety and security of civilians. This is likely to happen in US in 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will come up with rules to safely integrate drones into the American skies.

MOOC (Massive Online Open Course): The concept of MOOC, or the ‘Massive Open Online Course’ from top colleges, though just a few years old, is already taking the world by storm. Coursera, edX and Udacity are the top 3 MOOCs besides many others and offer a variety of courses on technology, philosophy, sociology, computer science etc.  As more courses are available online, the requirements of having a uniform start and end date will diminish gradually. The availability of course lectures at all times and through all devices, namely the laptop, tablet or smartphone, will result in large scale adoption by students of all ages.

Contrary to regimented classes MOOCs now allow students to take classes at their own pace. It is likely that some students will breeze through an entire semester worth of classes in a few weeks. It is also likely that a few students will graduate in 4 years with more than a couple of degrees. MOOCs are a natural development considering that the world is going to be more knowledge driven where there will be the need for experts with a diverse set of in-depth skills. Here is an interesting article in WSJ “What College will be like in 2023

3D Printing: This is another technology that is bound to become ubiquitous in our future. 3D printers will revolutionize manufacturing in ways we could never imagine. A 3-D printer is similar to a hot-glue gun attached to a robotic arm. A 3-D printer creates an object by stacking one layer of material, typically plastic or metal, on top of another.  3D printers have been used for making everything from prosthetic limbs, phone cases, lamps all the way to a NASA funded 3D pizza. Here is a great article in New York Times “Dinner is Printed” It is likely that a 3D printer would be indispensable to our future homes much like the refrigerator and microwave.

Artificial sense organs: A recent news items in Science 2.0 “The Future touch sensitive prosthetic limbs”   discusses the invention of a prosthetic limb that can actually provide the sense of touch by stimulating the regions of the brain that deal with the sense of touch. The researchers identified the neural activity that occurs when grasping or feeling an object and successfully induced these patterns in the brain. Two parallel efforts are underway to understand how the human brain works. They are “The Human Brain Project” which has 130 members of the European Union and Obama’s BRAIN project. Both these projects attempt to ‘to give us a deeper and more meaningful understanding of how the human brain operates”. Possibilities as in the movies ‘Avatar’ or ‘Terminator’ may not be far away.

The Others: Besides the above, technologies like Big Data, Cloud Computing, Semantic Web, Internet of Things and Smart Grid will also be swamp us in the future and much has already been said about it.

Conclusion: The above sets of technologies represent seismic shifts and are bound to explode in our future in a million ways.

Given the advances in bionic limbs, Machine Intelligent AI systems, MOOCs, Autonomous Vehicles are we on target for the Singularity?

I wouldn’t be surprised at all!

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