11 technologies developers should explore now

From machine learning to digital twins, opportunities abound in emerging (and converging) tech trends

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Progress in deep learning has improved computer vision, language processing, and speech, as well as the ability for machines and software to seek a reward and maximize performance, says Wayne Thompson, chief data scientist at SAS: “As a result we will see a new generation of machines that can see the world, hear and read human languages, communicate to humans, and control themselves both mechanically and behaviorally, in an unprecedented way.”

Where some see automation as a job-stealing nightmare, others instead say the technology will lead to a bright, more humane future.

“I’m often asked about the impact of automation,” says Michael Hubbard, global vice president at ServiceNow. “Intelligent automation is a vast opportunity, not a threat. By working hand-in-hand with intelligent technology, we can achieve greater things. It frees us from mundane, repetitive activities—unleashing creativity and letting us build stronger, more productive working relationships. Intelligent automation makes us more human, not less.”

Virtual and augmented realities

After decades of hype, virtual reality and augmented reality finally seem to be having their moment. For those looking to develop products for these technologies, there are opportunities beyond creating isolated gaming experiences.

“While these technologies are not pervasive yet, they definitely have matured in the last few years,” says Anup Nair, VP and CTO of Mphasis Digital. “We see an increasing relevance of [virtual and augmented reality] in the product marketing and immersive selling arenas. The best use cases will come from distribution services [retail, consumer packaged goods, and hospitality], and for a lot of these areas, the surface has just started to be scratched. I think that in the biomedical and health care industries, AR/VR will be really advantageous for both education and communicating complex surgical procedures. We also see AR initiatives targeted toward performing deep analytics in social media command centers of large banks, and on trading floors providing traders infinite real estate for data analysis and collaboration.”

Christian Sasso, adjunct professor of the VR/AR Certificate program at San Jose-based Cogswell College, sees augmented reality as the most important tech trend of the year.

“AR can soon be used to deal with customer service for when an enterprise device needs repairing,” Sasso says. “For instance, a project I’ve been working on uses AR glasses to contact the customer service adviser when a television or monitor stops working. Directly talking to her through the AR interface, the representative can find the information she needs by simply looking at the broken screen, without any need to try and describe the problem over the phone, or go hunting for a serial number.”

The potential for AR and VR is dependent on distribution and won’t be prevalent until we see better, cheaper hardware, says Vishwa Ranjan, head of augmented and virtual reality at Infosys.

“In 2017 we’ll see smartphone companies develop AR- and VR-based features, like image-recognition-based, location-based, and sensor-based technologies, and 360 cameras that will help to push AR and VR out into early adopter’s hands.”

Humanlike assistants

The next stage of AI could eliminate the clunky tools we now use to interact with the digital world. Importantly, these changes are also increasingly making their way into the office.

“The workplace of the future is integrating intelligent apps into the day-to-day workplace to enhance overall productivity. We’re seeing significant levels of automation in IT that are driving 40 to 50 percent productivity improvements,” says Steve Hall, a partner at research firm ISG. “With the broad movement of enterprise workloads to the public cloud and the integration of automation and intelligent applications, IT organizations are being reshaped.”

In the personal realm, Apcera’s Collison thinks we’ll soon use assistants to do more than order online or search the web: “It will be the tool that is an extension of our own brains. We will no longer need to retain information as much; we can be free to drive analytical and critical thinking using these tools as aids.”

What should you work on if you’re interested in developing this sort of assistive tech?

“In a word, the skills most in demand today are depth,” says Gunter Ollmann, chief security officer at Vectra. “An example is mastery of a category of information security (web app security, network forensics, malware disassembly). The superficial, book-read knowledge is increasingly encapsulated in off-the-shelf tools. The subject matter expertise that drives the improvement of those tools and exception handling are the skills most in demand.”

David Parmenter, director of engineering and data for Adobe Document Cloud, says a passion for math and logic—even more than a computer science degree—is key.

“Creativity, the drive to continually learn, customer-centric thinking, resilience in the face of failure—the nature of machine learning output is not a finished product—and strong communication skills are very important soft skills for engineers in this field.

And the winner is … convergence

While AI is probably the most frequently cited breakthrough technology of the year, the most important trend of 2017 may be the merging of emerging, disruptive technologies.

Maarten Ectors of Canonical name-checked a dozen disparate technologies that, when joined, are much more than the sum of their parts: “the cloud, mobile, IoT, artificial intelligence, blockchain, augmented reality, voice interfaces, software-defined radio, Industry 4.0 [automation and data exchange in manufacturing], robotics, edge computing, and autonomous driving.”

Rocket Software’s Spedding says the siloed technologies are converging partly because of a need for businesses to dig themselves out of their own data—for example, analyzing website traffic.

“Add to that the increasing proliferation of new data sources, such as IoT,” he says, “and we see challenges just to keep up with the volume of information available to support business decision-making.”

Spedding sees opportunities for a convergence of cognitive technology, bots, and machine language in making sense of it all. A new generation of digital natives will speed the adoption of these melding technologies, he says, because they expect ease of use, interfaces inspired by gaming, and everyday exposure to augmented and virtual reality.

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