Tech trends 2017

Insights and predictions by Shawn DuBravac, chief economist, CTA

For the first time in history, voice recognition has reached a level close to human understanding. This opens up new opportunities, notably in replacing the smartphone as a ubiquitous interface. The sensorization and digitization trends of previous years are now leading to adaptive automation and highly-specialized applications that fundamentally transform the user experience. Last but not least augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are entering the real world of business.

CES 2017 - 50 years anniversary
This year, CES celebrates its 50th anniversary (Photo: NVIDIA Blog)

50 years of CES

CES 2017 celebrated 50 years of existence. On its central market place CES showcased hundreds of gadgets that reflected some of the close to 600 000 products that were launched over the last decades at CES.

The Consumer Electronics Show started in New York in 1967 as a spin-off of the National Association of Music Merchants – the NAMM show. From the start it was highly successful with 17 000 visitors and 100 exhibitors on approximately 100 000 square feet (30 000 m2). At the time there were only three products presented: radios, TVs and disk players. Since 1998 the show is held in Las Vegas. This year CES hosted over 170 000 visitors on 62,5 million square feet (19 million m2). In 1967 the IEC existed since 60 years and had accompanied all major developments first in the electrical and then in the electronics fields. CTATM participates actively in several technical committees (TCs) of the IEC.

The future in a crystal ball

Like every year, the IEC attended a special tech-trends briefing by Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) – formerly the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) – which is the organization behind CES. DuBravac is world renowned for his predictions, which are used by many high-tech firms as strategic input for their commercial strategies.

For the coming five years DuBravac sees five trends playing out. The full presentation can be found here.

1. The new voice of computing

Voice is showing up in many places, with Amazon’s Alexa (also called Echo) largely in first place. According to DuBravac, this technology has quietly become the hottest smart product on the market, commanding anything from household devices to audio or safety equipment, home automation to cars.

Voice recognition has come a long way. In 1994 Microsoft initiated the first voice recognition attempts with a 100% error rate, a measurement of the percentage of words that are not understood by the computer. By 2013 the error rate had improved to 25% and today we are at 5 to 6%, which is about the rate at which humans misunderstand things. Voice recognition has improved at the speed of sound (pun intended); with more progress achieved in the last 13 months than in the previous 23 years.

With voice having reached this level of accuracy, DuBravac sees screens and other interfaces – including the use of smartphones as an interface – gradually wane. Voice will increasingly be directly embedded in devices. Vocal computing will take over whenever possible and become the preferred way of commanding all kinds of devices and applications. You find more information on IEC work for voice computing in the article Hearing lots of voices? in this issue.

2. Connections and computations

Since 2003 digital has gradually transformed our previously analogue world. The trend started with smart phones or cameras and progressively moved to many other devices in the home (electronic door locks, fridges or washing machines), the car, offices, etc.

Today, increasingly intelligent systems connect many different objects and collect data to improve user experience and well-being. Wearables are a great example for this trend. While a lot of data was available before wearables came into being, information was not captured in a consistent way. Wearables started to change that.

And while general-purpose tracking devices continue to be of interest, a bifurcation is happening in that activity trackers are becoming much more specialized.They are geared to individual types of activities and often include artificial intelligence (AI) that helps improve the user’s posture or movement, pointing out stress points and impact on articulations.  

Sensorization of everything. We got pretty good at counting steps...we have moved to other problems. More water proofing and protecting of these devices. More measuring of niche sports: tennis , baseball. Kids that get involved in sports because it is interesting.

The IEC has recently approved the establishment of a new TC dedicated to wearable devices. Wearables are also intimately linked to the Internet of Things (IoT). We have interviewed the Convenor of the Joint Technical Committee ISO/IEC JTC 1/Working Group 10 about the need for standardization in this area.

Adaptive automation

In 1967 during the first CES, The Jetsons cartoon was released. It portrayed an environment of magic automation. In addition to flying cars, big computers helped automate everything, from baking, to laundry, to shopping.

In the 80s and 90s, home automation started to become really popular, focusing on opening and closing blinds. Early programmable thermostats allowed one to select temperature ranges depending on week days but the programme didn’t adapt to the habits of the home’s occupants. It had to be changed by hand.  

One of the newest trends is adaptive automation. While until recently many devices could be fine-tuned using a smartphone, now increasingly devices will adapt automatically to different environmental factors without any human intervention. A modern refrigerator will adjust cooling levels and humidity levels in accordance to outside factors, differently in winter and in summer or during sunny or rainy days.

A smart bed presented during CES adapts its firmness to the sleeping position of the occupant automatically adjusting for different pressure points so as to keep an optimal comfort level. The bed also has a temperature control that keeps feet cosily warm and cools the sleeper during hot summer nights. The head piece slightly lifts up to avoid snoring (the dream of every wife).

In sum, a lot of automation will be happening in areas where we wouldn't want to do the adjustments ourselves. We will let our devices take over and do small subtle adjustments for us.

Combining different elements for new outcomes

The combination of sensing and advanced camera technology results in collision avoidance systems that can be applied to cars but also to things like drones. Here they help reduce the risk that expensive drones are lost bumping into pylons or trees. The connection of drones, cameras and security systems can provide a bird's-eye view of a property during an intruder alert.

As a general trend, autonomous elements of our lives will combine into bigger systems, for example smart buildings and smart cities. 

3. Driver-assist technologies and driverless cars

DuBravac sees transportation as another area that will heavily benefit from digitalization and sensorization. In the self-driving space, multiple overlapping AIs provide drivers with a fuller picture of what is going on in and around the car. These AIs supervise posture, the direction of eye movements, vehicles and obstacles in proximity and other moving objects such as humans and animals.  DuBravac sees a similar approach as relevant for spaces like the home or the office.

In previous years, multiple car manufacturers presented prototypes at CES that gave shape to their futuristic visions. What has changed in 2017 is that many of these cars are available in dealerships near you.   

E-commerce might lead to new types of commercial vehicles that increase driver productivity. Here a concept delivery van features an automated logistics centre that includes an automated arm that brings packages forward so that the driver doesn’t have to get out of the car, as well as integrated delivery drones that drop packages at the right door-step. 

4. AIs infusion into everything

DuBravac sees AIs penetrating a lot of areas. Beyond cars and devices, AIs will also penetrate services and content. Here AIs will we be useful in providing recommendations that open up new experiences that a consumer might not have discovered by himself with current algorithms that are generally based on past behaviour. The perceived value of AIs will be based on things such as fluidity of conversations, value of recommendations and AI-infused adjustments.

AIs come in three categories:

  • Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI): This is the level we are able to achieve with today’s know-how. It is also referred to as weak AI.  This type of AI specializes in a single area. It can for example beat a world chess champion in chess, but can’t achieve anything else.
  • Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is sometimes referred as strong AI or human-level AI. It designates a computer as smart as humans across the board. It can perform any intellectual task a human being can do. It is unclear when this level can be reached
  • Artificial Superintelligence (ASI) is defined as an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brain in every field. It may be just a little smarter or trillions of times smarter than us.

Recommended reading

5. Digitizing the consumer experience

Health and wellness, sport, sleep, family tech, wearables; these are some of the many manifestations of how the digitization of our environment impacts our life-style and choices. It has led to a democratization of healthcare. For example, 100 years ago most people wouldn't have known their weight or body temperature. Now devices are moving healthcare that was exclusive to the medical profession to the home. Digitization is also playing an increasingly important role in smart assistance to elderly or disabled persons, allowing them to lead a good quality life for longer. New types of services help elders to stay in touch while preserving their autonomy, or allow family members to monitor the intake of medicines, and any abnormal inactivity remotely. A wide array of smart devices presented at CES was geared to monitoring and diagnostics, allowing people to measure their vitals and consult with doctors at a distance. Not far from now we will receive recommendations tailored to our needs, exactly at the right time.

Digitization and sensorization is also increasingly built into our work and impacting services delivered by businesses. For example cruise lines now includes thousands of sensors on their ships to deliver an optimal experience to their passengers. A personalized medallion tracks were each guest is, what they are doing and what they might want to do next, providing personalized recommendations. It also knows when a guest nears their cabin and pre-emptively turns on lights, air conditioning, music as desired.

There is also an increased trend to the digitization of senses, for example smell.

Smell sensors work fundamentally differently from cameras and microphones. Until recently this was one of the last frontiers where computers lagged behind. In the future smell detectors will be able to assist the perfume industry in quality control or know when food is going bad.

Faster mobile

The whole digital ecosystem is empowered by wireless connection and increasingly fast cellular networks. Over the past years we have seen exponential increases in network speeds. While 3G (G indicates the generation of wireless technology) brought speeds from 200 kilobytes per second (kbps) to a few megabytes (MB) per second, 4G technologies reach up to 200 and more MBs per second. The 5G network system is expected to offer speeds of 15 to 30 gigabytes (GB) per second of theoretical downlink. DuBravac predicts a whole new suite of services including real-time VR and AR, tactile response and haptic feedback. For example one will be able to sense the grain of wood, the smoothness of a button or the structure of sand.