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Ian Pearson of international company Futurizon in Ipswich on the technologies of the future and the economic and social backdrop.

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Superconvergence now the name of the game

I give talks in almost every industry about how future technology will affect them. When I first started in the 90s, I often had audiences of CxOs who were dismissive and preferred to hide in the corner and treat the future as a passing fad.

They even boasted how their secretaries did all the emails and computer stuff because they were CEOs and shouldn’t be seen doing such things. They are all history now. Most of their companies died and any CxO who doesn’t know their way around a computer these days would be laughed out of town.

Computing merged with communications and gave us the web and from the mid 90s onwards, successful companies have seized the opportunities it brings rather than hiding from the threats it also brought. 

Convergence is now entering another phase and it will change the world again. There are multiple threads that intertwine so let’s call it super-convergence. Looking at the threads, even though they are intertwined:

The real world will converge with the virtual world via augmented reality. Anything from media, web, apps, games, can blend synergistically with the real geographic world, enabled by ubiquitous IT. This will go far beyond conventional location based services. One of the key advances to make it take off will be visor technology, coming from both the Google Glass and Occulus Rift directions to give us semi-transparent visors that can do any level of transparency of overlay between totally real to totally computer-generated.

Dumb things will absorb IoT technology to become smart things. Sure, the field is overhyped, but there is still a huge actual potential.

Miniaturisation of IT will enable IT to converge with jewellery to give us digital jewellery. (Actually we’ll probably get a fair bit of analog electronic jewellery too, mostly later). I think there will be a wide range of specialised devices again, unbundling much of what out smartphones have integrated.

Miniaturisation, wearables and medical technology will meet the huge medical and lifestyles markets to give us devices that range from active skin (my own invention) with devices printed on or within the skin to monitor and interact with blood chemistry and nervous system activity and a host of security/identity devices, sports training, gaming tech and full-sensory immersion. 

At the macro end of wearables we’ll have a probably short lived market for smart watches and wristbands, short lived because you can do all of these better using combinations of active skin and your visor. This takes IoT right into your body.

Software and hardware will converge via cloud and IoT to give us off-the-shelf devices that do a wide range of things in useful lifestyle suites instead of us having to wrestle with hundreds of apps. Those of you old enough will remember Microsoft office when it was just Word and Excel, and you had to buy spell-checkers and grammar checkers and font-spacing and publishing tools and drawing and photo capabilities all separately. 

That’s where apps are today, people just aren’t bored enough yet. There’s a double convergence in here. One where apps congeal into lifestyle suites and another where those converge into specialist devices. Apps will soon be history.

Industries are converging too. I don’t need to list examples for anyone reading this.

Even then we’re not finished. We are at the peak of an almost perfect storm. We need to reduce environmental impact of each function if more people want more functionality. Ongoing miniaturisation, better power harvesting and lower power consumption, better connectivity, better processing, better sensing and better actuators, better interfaces and better security. All of these are being pushed hard for diverse reasons but the results all interfere constructively.

So where is the global hub of all this super-convergence? Silicon Valley? Boston? South Korea? Israel? Or here in East Anglia, in the Cambridge area more specifically? Well, rumours abound, and lots of big players are apparently interested in our local heroes who have grabbed some of the threads above and started knitting.  

I am not the only futurist in IT, most big companies have people doing exactly what I do, and many have come to the same conclusions of the directions the markets will take and are acting on them.

If we are about to see a vast explosion of tiny devices addressing every area of our lives with highly connected IoT automating all the tedious app and AI and payments and identity stuff and making it secure and having loads of processing and comms and sensing, all dirt cheap, then we can see firstly that we have a lot of excellent companies in our area in many of the key fields, and secondly that to achieve the dreams, we also need some serious interworking of the specialist teams, and that is often achieved via mergers and acquisitions. 

We can be pretty certain that the reconnaissance activity and the rumours will soon become real invasions and fierce battles for key territory between the big guys.

Empires are about to be built that will determine the whole flavour of how this super-convergence is implemented, who builds and tends the walled gardens. The new convergence will be hardware driven. Miniaturisation, fundamental stuff like components, circuit and chip design, hard radio engineering, energy harvesting, ultra-simple embedded OS and computer design, storage, transmission, displays, active skin. 

There will be a lot in software too, but not as much. We need to replace all the security risks from using hundreds of seriously over-permissioned apps with some integrated software lifestyle suites, or better still to do that design and make it good and then put it in devices. Hardware-software convergence is about 15 years overdue.

Convergence is so yesterday! Now it’s super-convergence and as for disruption? You ain’t seen nothing yet. You might even want a smart watch yet, but you only have a few years left before people will call you a dinosaur for wearing one. As for using an iPhone? Soon, 5g of digital jewellery is all the IT you’ll need.


Futurizon’s top twenty inventions for the next decade

Futurizon works with almost every industry sector. When studying the new science and technology coming over the horizon all the time, it is hard for an engineer not to invent things. Here are just 20 of Futurizon’s inventions that could become real in the next decade, some are already starting.

What will fashion do with cheap displays?

It has taken far longer than it should, but we are now finally seeing flexible polymer displays being forged into wrist watch straps, bendy and curvy phones.

Are we there yet?

Like most people, I look at the world around me and see huge disconnects between cultures. There is no final straw, but seeing the recent protest in Saudi Arabia by women against the ban on them driving cars pretty much sums up how much global difference there is in value sets. We generally assume our own is the right one.

The future is made of Carbon

I have blogged quite often about the potential for graphene. It is a wonderful new material, and best of all is a British discovery.

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal mesh like chicken wire. It is hard to make in large quantity so is still expensive, but already its mechanical, electrical and chemical properties have been thoroughly measured. It impresses across the board.

Brain wave or bird-brained?

The race is on to build conscious and smart computers and brain replicas.

Henry Markram, director of both the Blue Brain and the Human Brain Project at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, is working on a nice project that aims are to make a working replica of the brain by reverse engineering it.

Drones: the fly on the wall could be a spy

Drones (autonomous flying vehicles), are becoming very routine equipment in warfare. They are also making market impacts in policing and sports. I first encountered them in 1981 when I started work in missile design.

Digital fluids, smart make-up, liquid computing and cloud nets

A long time ago it occurred to me that if ink contained small particles that could hold digital information, a signature by pen on paper could act as a digital signature, too.

There are lots of ways that particles small enough to be suspended in ink can hold data. But data storage is only one of several different potential uses.

Chips everywhere. Really?

Although I am definitely an engineer underneath, I’d be the first to accept that futurology is often more of an art, distinguishing the likely from the possible.

Roll on flexible electronics

We are not very good at keeping things simple. Computers get ever more complex and power hungry, but it doesn't need to be that way.

Microsoft v Acer v Apple v Samsung v Intel v Google v Amazon v...

It's getting interesting now, again. Not long ago, there was the bog standard PC in most homes and offices, running Windows, some Macs for those with a more arty streak, and a few IT enthusiasts running Linux.

“A modern railway for the 21st century”. Really?

There has been a lot of enthusiasm from train enthusiasts over the announcement of £9Bn investment over the next several years 'providing a modern railway for the 21st century'. I think what they really mean is 'forcing a continuation of a 20th century railway into the mid 21st century. It is an opportunity missed. I think the money could be much better spent.

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