4 Unsettling Prospects for 2014
Dec 30, 2013 5:00 AM PT
As we're recovering from Christmas and getting ready for the big New Year's Day hangover, I'm reminded of the Chinese curse, "May you be born in interesting times," because 2014 is likely to be a very interesting year.
I expect the Democrats will be trying to distance themselves from their failed Affordable Health Care Act, while Republicans will be doing their best to avoid actually reading it before attacking. However, there are some impressive trends emerging that will make 2014 very, very different, and might even fix the problem we have with a U.S. Congress that saw the movie Dumb and Dumber and thought it was a how-to film.
I'll close with the product that stood out most for me over the year, the one that best anticipates what is coming and helps make the world a better place. I'm being very self-serving with this selection, because I don't want to end up as robot road kill.
Up to Our Armpits in Robots
While the expected Robopocalypse movie didn't show up at the end of the year as expected -- we have to wait until April 2014 -- we seem hellbent on making sure we are up to our armpits in robots. There is actually a section in CES dedicated to robotics next year, and Google, the firm that should have "ending the human race" as its corporate goal, this year made aggressive moves into this area.
We have drivable cars on the road -- also thanks to Google -- and a massive push to automate trains as a result of the huge crash in the East. We already have robotic vacuums underfoot in many homes. Helper robots have made great strides over the years, and while I'm still not sure we need robots that actually look human for any industry but the sex industry -- yes, there are big advancements there, too -- the end result may make the Robopocalypse book and movie look less like fiction and more like the future that's in store.
I like adventure, but I know I don't want to be the equivalent of a Star Trek Red Shirt in the Robopocalypse reality.
3D printing has come an amazing distance over the last year. We started having arguments about whether someone could print a gun that would work and ended up with an exact machined copy of a 45 automatic printed in metal. There was even an attempt to ban 3D printed guns, which apparently failed. Not sure guns should be the ultimate goal here -- I'm thinking something a bit more useful and a bit less deadly, myself.
Over the last few months, I've seen 3D printers that could produce ceramic parts for jet engines (you still had to put into a kiln twice to harden), 3D printers that used paper from an Epson printer in layers, and printers that could blend metals and plastics into the same product.
You can't print circuits, so we won't be printing iPhones any time soon, but 3D printer prices have come down to where LaserJet prices were when they went mainstream. This movement isn't just in the real world but in the virtual world as well.
We are just waiting for a vendor like HP to iPod this market and HP, which leads the printer market, has the best shot at this. I figure by the end of 2014 a huge number of us will be printing things we used to buy at the hardware store, and by the end of the decade we'll be printing things we never thought possible.
Actually, I should have headed this section "battery breakthrough," because that is the super set and more likely. However, super capacitors have advanced impressively in the past year, and their introduction into cars would massively change the electric car market.
I expect they'll show up in personal technology first, with the promise of battery-like components that won't wear out and can be fully charged in minutes. Actually, with super capacitors, you could charge in a fraction of a second, but you'd need a huge power supply and massive charging wires to handle the load which likely would be somewhat restrictive. Can you imagine getting off a plane and just holding your phone to a charging station for a minute to take it from empty to fully charged? Almost a tap-and-go experience.
We have a number of actual battery technologies chasing this same opportunity -- like lithium air -- but super capacitors are moving more quickly and arguably are a vastly better choice. If they can be made to work better than almost any of the alternatives, then it is my bet that this technology will get sorted before the end of next year.
Led by IBM's Watson, one of the big macro trends is to make systems far more intelligent. It is fascinating that only IBM, which once dominated computing, has the best chance of dominating again with its unique focus on making things smart.
Smarter cities, smarter companies and -- with a little work -- a smarter government all could result from this effort. Granted, the folks that would benefit would actually have to ask questions, which may be beyond most incumbents at the moment, but there is a good chance our doctors, investment advisors, and even the intelligence-gathering units of the government will be far smarter, thanks to Watson, by the end of the year.
You could owe your life to this trend. This system is being heavily sold into the medical industry and it has proven incredibly successful at the accurate diagnosis of unusual illnesses. If we do have a zombie apocalypse, my bet is that Watson, or something like it, will be our greatest defense.
Wrapping Up: Massive Change
I think we are potentially looking at a level of change in 2014 in line with what happened in the mid-90s with the invention of the Internet. From robots and cars that care for us to systems that anticipate our needs, to printers that can print ever-more-complex objects we used to buy in stores, the world is likely to end up massively changed.
The question to ask is whether it will be a change for the good or a disaster in the making. As always, we'll hope for the former and prepare for the latter. Here is hoping you have a Happy New Year!
Product of the Year: Humanity in the Machine
I thought hard about all the products I covered this year -- from Lenovo's amazing new tablet to the ChiliPad I sleep on every night that helps keep my marriage intact.
As I thought about what's ahead in 2014, though, it occurred to me that with all the focus on robotics and 3D printers -- some of which are close to reproducing themselves -- that the most important product I looked at was Brian David Johnson's book Humanity in The Machine.
This is because if companies like Google continue to pursue advanced technology without considering the impact on society, a lot of us -- maybe all of us -- are going to end up unemployed or dead. Also, Brian's book suggests a path that is tempered by a focus on making life better -- not just throwing another potentially life-changing technology into the market.
We need more people like Brian and his boss Genevieve Bell who constantly ask the question, how do we assure a positive result for humanity to make sure we are headed in the right direction? As a result, the book on exactly that -- Humanity in the Machine -- is my product of the year. First runner up is IBM's Watson, because I'm not entirely certain we are smart enough to do what is right.