It is always a nice start to the new year to see the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, even if only via press reports.
This year, we will see some more of the future appear. We knew long ago that we would enter an age of digital jewellery and this year with Intel releasing Curie, a button-sized computer to work with a range of wearables, it finally dawns.
This will be a long trend that gradually replaces phones and tablets by bits of task-specific jewellery and head up displays. After decades of aggregating more and more into single devices, we’ll now see an explosion of more specific devices, for identification and security, for socialising, for life-recording, for interfaces – for just about everything you do there will be some device or other just as there are apps today.
The Intel CEO spoke about the need for diverse workforces. I agree totally. People from different ages, genders, backgrounds and cultures bring different ideas or viewpoints to the table and that helps ensure that products cover a wider range of wants and needs, hence larger markets for companies. If you have diverse ideas and diverse analysis of them, you’ll get better products.
Nike will bring in its Marty McFly power laces too. Hooray! It may be a trivial technology, but it is a clear demonstration that technology can now help in even the smallest areas of our lives, that imagination and engineering reaches everywhere now.
Thought recognition headbands, smart watches and the like do pretty much the same. We all know the future does all that, this just brings it all one step closer. The future is still the future, but you can get a seat nearer the front now. That seat may well be in a self-driving car, summoned by your wrist watch.
2015 is the year of digital jewellery, the year of augmented reality, of fragmenting and dispersing technology. The word wide web allowed business to be fragmented and recombined in imaginative new ways, disrupting the business models of old and bringing in fresh ones.
Now it is hardware that will do the same. Generic head up displays and dispersed jewellery-sized devices will be stimulative technology, creating new products for areas we’d never even thought of using technology for.
As always, there is a new wave of robots and robotic toys, remote controlled devices and so on. These are part of a powerful incremental trend. There are rarely major breakthroughs, just lots of small advances each year, gradually bringing us towards the all-purpose companion or home servant robot.
Major breakthroughs such as the new wave of augmented reality headsets are important industry creators but those small incremental changes are just as important in the long run, even if we notice them less. You can travel the same distance in many small steps as in a few large jumps.
We’ll see lots more casual displays as costs fall, even as head up displays take off. It isn’t a simple fight between them; you can have both for little extra cost, so you will. Sensing will be added, monitoring will be added, remote control will be added. Why? Why not?
Lots more cameras are coming too, but today we also see warning by our information commissioner that most people are not concerned enough about all this coming blanket surveillance and its potential power. I can’t agree more.
Even if it is used responsibly by some, it will be abused by others. Even if a benign government keeps all the data for wholesome reasons, a malign agency might get hold of it tomorrow. It is in areas such as this that I have warned that engineers should take the lead and ensure responsible development. Ordinary people simply don’t understand all the potential uses and abuses. Also, the world is becoming a more dangerous place.
Those out there that don’t like us and our civilisation are becoming more adept at using asymmetric techno-dependence. There will be more cyber-warfare, more hacks, more fraud, more crashes. It won’t all be electronic fluffy toys and smart watches.
Engineers can and should make decisions to protect the interests of ordinary people in their place. When companies launch products that open new dangers, engineers should ring the alarms. If consumers can’t trust us, why should they buy our products and services?
As all these exciting new products and services spring onto the market, and as their detailed workings and industry standards become ever more complex and mysterious to ordinary folk, engineers need to recognise the special responsibility that falls upon them.
As the high priests and priestesses of the new technobabble, non-techies will increasingly rely on them to offer the right sacrifices and make the right chants to make it all work safely.