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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Technology: voice assistants, AI and Bitcoin will be tested in 2018

The past year was has seen a number of potentially transformative technologies hit it big

Voice assistants, artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies in particular have all gained momentum in 2017, setting the agenda for a major societal change. Sascha Steinbach / EPA.
Voice assistants, artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies in particular have all gained momentum in 2017, setting the agenda for a major societal change. Sascha Steinbach / EPA.

The best part of writing about technology is that it never gets old. With each year literally bringing new inventions and advances, even the most jaded observer will eventually encounter something exciting or unprecedented.

The past year was no exception as a number of potentially transformative technologies hit it big. Voice assistants, artificial intelligence (AI) and cryptocurrencies in particular picked up momentum and set the agenda for a major societal change.

New technology also, inevitably, raises new questions and fears and there are no shortage of those heading into 2018. Here are just a few to keep an eye on as the new year unfolds:

Voice assistants -- useful tools or agents of Big Brother?

If anything, 2017 will be remembered as the year in which we started talking to our gadgets in earnest.

Sales of Google Home and Amazon Echo devices, which house the respective companies’ artificially intelligent Google Assistant and Alexa voice-activated helpers, exploded in a big way.

Juniper Research expects more than half of the US households to have at least one of these speakers by 2022, while a Research and Markets' report expects a 30 per cent compound annual growth rate globally.

The reasons for these astounding figures are simple.

After years of false starts, algorithms have become shockingly good at recognising human speech. They’re also able to deliver results that are actually useful, from weather and news reports to trivia queries and smart home automation. They even tell jokes!

The assistants’ growing popularity means they’re becoming bigger targets. Hackers are certain to increasingly focus their attention on gaining access to all the voice data being gathered. As far as cyber security is concerned, Google, Amazon and other players in this space will be tested in 2018.

A good portion of the public still remains wary of voice speakers and their always-on microphones for this reason. There’s also the possibility that the companies behind the devices may use them for other purposes.

Google, for example, briefly ran audio ads on some home speakers back in March for the movie, Beauty and the Beast. Subsequent users' outrage forced the company to make a quick retreat.

Voice interaction and its associated conveniences have finally arrived, but it’s still new and largely untested. The biggest question around it is if – or when – the proverbial other shoe will drop.

Artificial intelligence -- job killer or granter of promotions?

AI, in 2017, also made giant strides beyond the voice assistants.

Engineers and developers introduced a swath of new AI-powered conveniences, from better smartphone photos to PowerPoint presentation design aids, that collectively made our lives easier.

Those useful developments took a back seat, however, to more portentous advances elsewhere.

In March, for example, a Google computer beat humans at the game of Go, while in July Facebook had to shut down a pair of chatbots after they worryingly created their own secret language in order to speak to one another.

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Read more:

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Throw in a continuous, year-long wave of reports predicting humans losing scores of jobs to AI and it’s no surprise that robo-angst is now at a fever pitch.

A few counter-efforts in 2017suggest that a more benevolent future is may emerge. Researchers at the University of Düsseldorf, for example, in September reported they had found no evidence that robots caused job losses after studying 20 years of labour automation in Germany.

Similarly, a New York Times report published last week found that robots were elevating the job market in Sweden. “I’m not really worried,” one miner told the newspaper. “There are so many jobs in this mine that even if this job disappears, they will have another one.”

Tellingly, 80 per cent of Swedes have positive views of robots and AI, versus 72 per cent of Americans who are worried about losing their jobs to machines.

The difference in attitude is rooted in Sweden’s progressive social programs, which allow citizens to be easily retrained for new positions. A more benevolent portrayal of technology in the media also helps.

The question thus facing much of the rest of the world isn’t which jobs will be lost to automation, but rather how to reorient workers to the new positions that will inevitably be created?

Cryptocurrencies -- financial revolution or status quo?

The astonishing rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies throughout 2017 was, some argue, an unprecedented boom, making even the dot-com bubble of the early millennium seem quaint in comparison.

Starting the year at under US$1,000, Bitcoin heads into 2018 closer to US$15,000. Its runaway success also super-charged the value of many other digital currencies, including Ripple and Ethereum.

Investors, banks and regulators began taking these currencies and Blockchain, the ledger-like encryption technology that underpins them, seriously this past year.

Their fate will likely be decided in 2018. They will either succeed in their initial mission and make the global financial system more accountable and transparent, or they will be hammered into submission by the governments.

There is also the possibility that banks and other financial institutions will find a way to subsume Blockchain technology to their ends and thereby make the currencies redundant. Or, quite possibly, all of the above.