Welcome to episode 288 of the Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett. And with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our final show of 2018, we’re going to take a look forward into the realm of 2019, talking about emerging tech trends to watch from AI to gene-editing and a lot of more interesting technologies as well. Dirk, let’s start off by talking a little bit about how artificial intelligence is sort of come to the fore has become a major sort of tech-news, hype-trends this AI is the next emerging technology, I think, at least in the minds of a public discussion. One of the things, in an article that you pointed out to me in Fast Company that I found very interesting, was pointing to some software that basically made it possible for designers to begin putting together the elements of machine learning elements, sort of visual coding as it were for artificial intelligence.
And so what this says to me is well, number one that sort of the technical aspects of artificial intelligence are going to be impenetrable I think for many designers, myself included. Having a visual interface that sort of reveals the system and how the connections are made and how the rules are set and how things interact is going to be important to getting more, call it non-technical people involved in the creation of AI systems.
I found this completely fascinating because it felt like a step towards making it more accessible for folks who might also be interested in the user experience side of things, which, of course, we have a user experience studio we care very much about it. So to me, that’s a positive development and something I think we’re going to see more of in 2019. Your thoughts?
Well, in terms of the particular article … so it is showing the concept for a graphical user interface for programming artificial intelligence. The concept and idea are great. The reality, I’m not going to hold my breath right? So the article sites Squarespace as the example. Squarespace is a service which you can use to sort of cobble together a website without a designer that’s fairly professional. Squarespace is old technology and it’s notable that they can only cite Squarespace, not something more modern and recent and interesting. It’s been a very poor history of graphical user interfaces as intermediaries for software engineering and programming.
Yeah, they might be able to make little simple websites work, but beyond that, more complex, more interesting, more powerful things are not able to be composed or created by a designer. It still requires a true program, a true software engineer. So the notion that suddenly for artificial intelligence, they have this great beautiful plug and play any creative professional can use it. Here’s my AI software. I’m super skeptical about. There’s just no track record in software in general of graphical-user interfaces totally disintermediating the engineering component and allowing us to plug and play code complex things. It just isn’t real. Cool. Great. If they could make it work with magic, awesome. But it’s just a concept at this point.
I mean, I take it that the Squarespace reference I think is more to the conceptually, right. The way in which it would operate, right.
But if there was a better conceptual example, they would have used it.
Yeah. I mean there are enterprise-grade sort of systems that allow business processes to be assembled together in more of a visual type interface. So I think Pegasystems does some of that. And now, I mean there’s a desire to create a no-code system so that business analysts can do a similar style of App. Call it assembly or design. So I think conceptually it’s something that people really would like to have happened. But as you pointed out, at least on the design side of things, and especially with this sort of creating the visual design for things supported the code underneath is suspect, right?
I can remember sort of early, in the days of the nascent web, you had tools like Dreamweaver from Macromedia, right? Originally before Adobe bought them. And the idea was that you weren’t going to hand-code things, you were going to assemble things visually. And so the feedback from the engineering usually was, “Hey, this code is …
It wasn’t really meant to integrate with the code that was being hand generated. Coding in a text editor was a sign that you knew really what you were doing versus dragging things around in a gooey like Dreamweaver. So all that being said, I think that what Dreamweaver did do was open the gates for a lot of folks who may have not had the mind for coding or really the time or inclination or whatever the excuse was, right.
I know I’m not a capable coder in any sense of the term. So from a prototyping standpoint, maybe Dreamweaver is an interesting product or was right. So maybe these AI that are assembled using code as visual interface maybe they aren’t production grade or what have you. But I think even from an idea generation prototyping, lightweight testing, some of bringing these to a broader audience I think has value. I think as we move forward, the need to allow this technology to be accessible to a broader range of people I think is going to be really important for a number of reasons.
In this particular example, I mean, look maybe they’ll have something and it will be working great. That’s certainly a possibility. The other thing to keep in mind though is the business model. So this is proprietary, it’s released by a specific company. They have models around installation fees, ongoing subscription fees. And so again, you’re within this closed environment of whatever the tools that this company is going to make available. It’s not giving you access to a global open source, AI repository of wonders. You’re locked into whatever these cats are making for you. There’re just a lot of limitations and questions, but it certainly as beautiful and conceptually interesting.
Right. One of our trends to watch in 2019, call it, the democratization of artificial intelligence, in some manner or another. Let’s move on then to some of the other emerging technologies that we should pay attention to in 2019. Dirk, you did some comparative work taking a look at a research report from Lux Research. Tell me what did you discover as you were poking around?
Yeah. So it’s interesting. So Lux Research is a Boston based research company specializing in helping companies to sort of analyze emerging tech. And I do consulting work in that space. And so they did the top 19 emerging technologies for 2019. They had previously done the top 18 for 2018. And so, I’m kind of a nerd and so I happily jumped into a spreadsheet and compared the two. There were a few different trends I found interesting. In general, the lists change wildly about half of what was on the 18 list is not on the 19 list. So there’s a bunch of things that are more, this is their moment and then they’re gone again. There were a couple things that were specifically interesting.
Number one is the top thing in 2018 is the same as the top thing in 2019. In 2019, they call it machine-learning and AI. In 2018, they were calling it machine-learning and deep neural networks. So it’s also interesting to see how their language evolves and changes over time around what they think is important. But it really underscores the fact that AI, machine-learning, like these, are really dominant right now in terms of the emerging technologies, the trends, the sort of cutting-edge stuff year over year. That was interesting to me.
The second one was number two on the list was wearable electronics and that’s interesting from a few perspectives. Number one, last year they called it Smart Watches. So big evolution from a specific device to a very broad category where they’re seeing the broader application of the things that make a Smartwatch interesting in a whole variety of wearable technology. That expansion really speaks a lot to the market. Second too is the raise in rank. 2018, it was ninth on the list and this year it’s second on the list. So that’s one really, really to watch from a Lux Research perspective. I found that interesting.
And then also new to the list and number six, so not even one of the top 18 from last year, but now all the way up to number six is battery fast charging, which interesting. I know there’s certainly technologies behind it, but from a consumer perspective that’s more of a feature, right? My battery can charge quickly, that’s a feature, has much broader applications, particularly on the B2B side, on the industrial corporate side. But for that one to just kind of show up it’s sort of raising a signal flare that hey, this is something that might be important. So those were a few things that stood out to me, Jon.
Yeah. So let’s dig into a wearable electronics a little bit more because, seems to be a rising and important, emerging technology. Now, for me personally having used these awful fitness trackers for, I don’t know, seven years now or however long, and sort of getting blisters from the first fitness tracker I ever used. I’m using a heart rate monitor right now when I bike. But I find wearable electronics distasteful.
Distasteful, that’s an interesting take.
I kind of don’t like them because they’re awkward, and I’ve really felt a freedom of not wearing a watch. Used to wear a lovely watch, and then my phone sort of takes care of that. I suppose, if you go to a nice event you can wear a nice looking watch. Other than that it’s a piece of jewelry now. I like not wearing stuff. I’m not saying I want an embeddable to track my fitness or whatever, and obviously, when I’m at the gym cycling or whatever, I want to know details. But I think some of these if they’re going to get further adoption I think they’re going to be tied to very specific use cases around … I mean, obviously, the Fitbit’s a perfect example of where you really want to know about your fitness down to the nth degree, and some sort of motivator for you to take more steps. So there are many examples of different ways you can apply that especially, if folks have medical conditions and things like that. Diabetes is a perfect example of a condition where people will want to continuously be monitoring things like blood sugar.
But generally speaking, I’ve always felt that wearables were a transitional technology. Definitely, an emerging technology but one that would give way to perhaps in an embedded type technology, or even one, like using cameras to discover some of the same information. There are algorithms that can tell you your heart rate based on what your facial scan is doing because they can detect the small capillaries pulsing right at a certain level. I’ve felt wearables were a transitional technology and that could just be my bias because I’m not really a huge fan. But, Dirk, I mean, you’ve worn wearables. I mean and you don’t wear them every day now.
I don’t wear them at all now.
So I mean I think I’ve heard you say like, “Yeah, I got the information I needed out of it and then I was done.”
Right, right. That’s right. And now, of course, they’re becoming more powerful whether they can do more things and there would be more of a use-case to have them working ubiquitously, but it will be embeddables. I mean, this is a transitional period. It’s a transitional period that will last decades, not years, but it’s a transitional period nonetheless. Embeddables just make more sense. I mean the wearables are clunky and clumsy in a whole bunch of ways, whether it has to do with washing things. Whether it has to do with having things available in unusual and difficult contexts. I mean, there’s a bunch of reasons why wearable suck. However, there’s also a bunch of reasons why collecting data that currently wearables are the only feasible way to collect is important. Right? Yeah, I mean it’s just here in the way it’s here for now and it will go away at some point. I mean, just like a lot of other things will go away. I mean, our phone, all of that stuff will be some sort of embeddable or virtualized context. But again, that’s no time soon. We’re looking a ways down the path now.
That’s an excellent point. Another emerging technology that’s going to light fire in 2019 if it hasn’t already is CRISPR and gene-editing. Now, I noticed on our friends here at Lux Research, gene-editing for 2019 it’s at four and 2018 was three.
That’s up at the top. It’s up near the top.
It’s up at the top and based on sort of recent events where there were live births of gene-edited human beings. I would say the horse is racing around the track now. That was something that happened in 2018 that I did not expect by any means. I don’t know if I had a particular date in mind when I thought that would happen, but I did not think it was going to be this year. With that consideration, I think what that does is it does put it into the public eye in sort of a negative light, which is unfortunate. And I think, which is exactly what the scientific community did not want to have happen. That being said, I think it’s also upped the ante for competitiveness around not just sort of these, editing of human genes but all of the other aspects, whether it’s editing-genes in animals or plants or what have you. It’s raised the bar for all of that intentionally or not.
And whether that’s good for the technology, probably not, but that is going to be getting a lot of additional scrutiny by governments, by organizations. They’re going to be a lot of ethical questions asked about CRISPR technology in 2019. So I don’t know whether this is going to be a net positive for gene-editing in 2019, but it’s going to be big.
So I think we can also mention and we’ve talked about this a bit on the show but 3D printing is another one, additive fabrication, slightly more technical name for it.
But we interestingly removed that distinction. So in 2018, it was their second highest technology and they call it 3D printing and additive manufacturing. This year, it’s third instead of second and they just call it 3D printing. So again, it’s interesting to see how the terms are fluctuating from their perspective of sort of analyzing the industry.
Yeah, I think this is slightly under the radar technology in comparison to sort of the big news hogging items that AI and gene-editing can be. 3D printing, additive fabrication or not, the stuff of headlines so much, until you’re at least in the applications that are sort of immediately feasible. But what’s amazing about this technology is it really changes the face of manufacturing, especially for sort of short order complex but smaller amounts of product, right. So it takes manufacturing from needing huge assembly lines to a sort of a much smaller footprint. In fact, I think there’s the possibility that you can at least be prototyping some complex machines now using all additive fabrication. In fact, in Somerville, our neighbor town down the road here on Mass Ave., in Somerville there are plenty of startups working in the space.
And I think in the past year we’ve seen the debut of some amazing metal 3D printing. Printing parts for motorcycles say that are extra-light because they’ve got a sort of very interesting honeycomb interiors, which are strong and yet a lot lighter than having a solid metal part. I’ve seen some demos of this and it’s really I think underappreciated how much this is going to transform manufacturing.
Now, in terms of, over the course of 2019, I think we are going to see more productions systems come online. So moving from the prototyping, which is very popular right now with 3D printing and starting to move much more into the production space. So I know some companies are making it, so the prototype systems can be … You can have multiples of your prototyping system which then serve as production. So you may have one of these machines in your research and design facility and then 100 of them on your factory floor in a warehouse somewhere. But that’s one methodology that I’ve seen for rolling this to a production capacity. American manufacturing I think with these flexible lines that can produce different kinds of parts of different kinds of products and then swiftly retool them to produce some other thing. I think that’s part of the future of manufacturing. I think that’s pretty exciting and something we can watch for in 2019.
I don’t know about 2019. I mean I think it’s something that’s later as opposed to sooner because we still have such a labor cost disparity between the United States and China, or the United States and even down-market from China. Places like Vietnam for example. It’s just so much cheaper on the labor side in those places that I think we’re still a ways away from the manufacturing being here in any meaningful quantity. Now, in the longer now though, that will change because the extremes are going to come towards the middle and the difference will reach a point where it just makes sense. It makes financial sense for a company that, which is motivated mindlessly by money as opposed to human considerations as well. It then becomes a no-brainer for that company to say, “Hey look, we need to bring this here because it’s better us, even though we’re still paying more on wages. The time saved, the logistic costs, all that other stuff makes those the better play.”
The other factor too, which won’t hit immediately but at some point, we’re not going to have giant container ships going over the ocean full of so many products. Due to global warming, there’ll be some kind of legislation or tariff thing or something that’s either a cost, a pain for the people who are wanting to ship or just limits, based on not allowing sort of global trade to happen at that scale just in order to keep the planet okay. We’re so backwards right now it’s a while away. But it’s when those things start to happen that the bringing it to the US will really start to take off.
So just want to say thank you to all of our tremendous guests in 2018. We had a lot of fantastic guests on the show and I’m going to put together a little list and put it on SoundCloud of our interviews over the past year. It’s been a lot of fun. We actually had more guests on the show in 2018 than we did in 2017, so it was terrific growth there and we appreciate people taking the time to come and talk to us about emerging technologies, design and ethics
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com. That’s just one l in the digitalife. And go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find the Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. And if you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T and, of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare in emerging technologies. You can check out firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O .com. Dirk.
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 288 of the Digital Life. And that wraps up our 2018 season. For, Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next year.