Engineering 101

5 Technologies Changing Life as We Know it

By Ruth Seeley

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The Alan Turing character in Ian McEwan’s recent novel Machines Like Me describes the human brain as

A one-liter, liquid-cooled, three-dimensional computer. Unbelievable processing power, unbelievably compressed, unbelievable energy efficiency, no overheating. The whole running on twenty-five watts—one dim light bulb.

While we haven’t yet succeeded in creating anything that can compete with the human brain’s complexity, size, and energy-efficiency fronts, the pace of technology advancement in the last decade means we’re now on the brink of realizing a brave new world in the least cynical sense of the term.

So many science fiction and fantastic future predictions we’ve grown up hearing about are suddenly being realized. While any list of the most life-changing tech advancements is highly subjective, here are five technologies that are already (finally) changing life as we know it.

1.3D Printing

A concept first outlined in 1974, the state of 3D printing in 1980 versus almost-2020 is like 2001’s Hal (or at least his corporeal embodiment) versus a smartphone.

At first, printing with anything but plastic was slow and expensive. Now that we can print metal parts, we’re looking at a manufacturing revolution that involves huge supply chain disruptions. When manufacturers no longer need to maintain inventory and can just print a replacement part on-demand, the whole business model will have to shift. Large factories that make a few things may have to become small factories that make a lot of things.

3D printing can easily create shapes far more complex than we’ve ever been able to achieve with traditional manufacturing processes. And they can create materials that are stronger and cheaper as well. The economy of scale will soon no longer be a factor in manufacturing, and with plastic, metal, concrete, liquid, powder, chocolate or human tissue all materials that can be used in 3D printing, resource industries will be disrupted as well.

2. Generative Adversarial Networks

The invention of two competing neural networks known as generative adversarial networks or (GANs) in 2014 is a game-changer. From fashion to space exploration, neural networks that can learn from and teach each other present infinite possibilities, from constructing accurate facial imagery based on hearing someone’s voice to visualizing the effect climate change will have on a particular building. GANs have been used recently to create paintings and write melodies. Oh, and they can also generate a person’s voice, extrapolated from a single image.

3. Really Big Data and Machine Learning

It’s not just that we’re generating more data every millisecond, it’s that we now can quickly process that data and use it for planning, marketing, and strategic decision-making. With 90% of world data created between 2015 and 2017, we desperately need to be able to sort, analyze, and interpret that data in meaningful ways.

That, of course, is where machine learning comes in. Algorithms that apply complex mathematical calculations to big data and do so quickly and almost effortlessly make both autonomous cars, “if you liked this, you’ll like that” viewing, listening, reading, and buying recommendations possible. As well as, of course, as the ability to monitor what people are saying about your organization to detect potentially fraudulent activity.

4. Automation

The rate at which manufacturers, shippers, and retailers are implementing automation has become dizzying. As global trade wars intensify fear of a North American recession, the impact of automation on jobs looms large. Whether it’s order-picking bots in warehouses, surgical assistant bots, last-mile delivery bots, or autonomous trucks hauling freight, the future is here now. While the mantra is that the first human jobs to disappear in the next wave of automation will be repetitive and dangerous, some job loss from automation estimates are as high as 47%, and robotic applications will affect pretty much every industry and profession that currently exists.

Right now, a lot of the most exciting research is about helping robots better mimic human touch and helping them learn to interact better with their human colleagues.

5. The IoT

Smart homes, smart buildings, smart cities, smart agriculture: the Internet of Things and the ability to easily collect data via sensors is revolutionizing our ability to respond to potentially disastrous events as well as create huge energy efficiency savings.

A rendering of the western edge of the innovation campus planned for Toronto’s waterfront. (Image Credit: Picture Plane for Heatherwick Studios for Sidewalk Labs)

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and the Canadian government are collaborating to create a high-tech urban neighborhood on Toronto’s central waterfront, rethinking urban planning and building a neighborhood that incorporates the latest digital technologies. Design, policy, and technology decisions will be based on the extensive network of sensors that can gather data on what people are doing, air quality, and noise levels. Within the neighborhood, vehicles will be shared and autonomous, with postal and other deliveries made by bots.

On the weather front, a vast network of sensors can now predict the likelihood, timing, and severity of flash flooding, with the potential to save thousands of lives annually.

In case you missed it, here’s Bill Gates’ take on this year’s 10 breakthrough technologies.

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