6 technology convergences to watch in 2018

Disruption doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Companies must see beyond individual technologies and look for where convergence is fostering the unprecedented

digital disruption ts
Thinkstock

The scope and pace of technological innovation is ascendant, advancing at a pace that is impossible to keep up with. Much ado about artificial intelligence, blockchain, the internet of things, virtual reality, … the list of emerging technologies continues to grow. But for the buzz, all the investment, and all the 2017 roundups and 2018 predictions, we often fail to remember technology’s secret.

The most powerful disruptions rarely occur from single technologies but well-timed convergence of multiple existing technologies to foster something altogether unprecedented.

In my analysis of the impacts of emerging technology, I identify how and where people, organizations, and ecosystems are being transformed by technological convergence. Here are six convergences to watch out for in the coming year.

1. Biometric authentication + mobile pay = the interface for digital identity

2017 was a breakout year for biometric-enabled payment. Now that just about every mobile giant has shipped handset with touch and face identification, these capabilities are quickly becoming ubiquitous. Indeed some 89 percent of smartphones will be biometrically enabled within just two years, according Acuity Market Intelligence. Already, financial services and retailers are flocking towards biometrics, not only in their ongoing quests to make payment more seamless, but for improved security.

But the intersection of biometric authentication with mobile payment is about more than an iris-, fingerprint-, or voice-enabled credit card, it’s about clearing a significant cultural barrier in the interface for digital identity. In 2018, expect to see many more examples of biometrics used for broader identity authentication, such as:

  • Airport security scanning (such as done by JetBlue, Delta, and Clear)
  • Consumer IoT authentication
  • Pharmacy dispensary of medications
  • Medical records access

Taken in sum, these mark a significant pivot in the interface we use to verify our identities, and how we access our property and services as a result.

2. Virtual agents + smart home appliances = the catalyst for consumer IoT adoption

For all the headlines about chatbots, the real stars of 2017 were their more sophisticated cousins, virtual agents. These deep-learning-based multimodal, multichannel, conversational, and highly personalized software agents are already becoming standard to support hands-free use cases.

Google’s assistant tells you precisely when to leave for your flight given current commute and weather conditions. Amazon’s Alexa easily handles purchase and logistics if simply commanded, “Alexa, order me the same cat litter I bought last month.” While smart speakers have been around for a few years, 2017 was the year these agents started popping up in other consumer electronics. Alexa is now integrated in devices from more than 60 manufacturers; Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana aren’t far behind. Expect countless others to be announced at CES this year.

The integration of these agents across hardware marks an important turning point for consumer IoT, a market that has continuously fallen short of revenue and adoption projections. Instead of highly fragmented smart homes, smart appliances, and smart cars each requiring different apps, virtual agents (VAs) represent the potential for continuity across. Not only are VAs voice-interactive, but their ability to continuously learn (via individual and aggregate data) over time means those providing IoT products and services can better wield context to provide actual value.

3. Edge computation + consumer devices = erosion of the cloud   

For the past few years, there has been significant shift in where compute, and in some cases, analytics occur. The broad trend has been away from centralized hub-and-spoke model, where all data are sent to the cloud, toward a more distributed model where processing occurs at the edge, usually on the device or other local node. Driven by mission-critical or low-connectivity deployments (where cloud latency is untenable), this trend penetrated the consumer device market in 2017.

Led by mobile device manufacturers to accelerate features and functionality, increase battery life, and improve data security, edge computation is now standard on phones and tablets. But 2017 saw an increase in device-level data processing in a host of consumer devices for which data security are paramount, from robotic vacuums and toys to door locks and gateways, and far beyond.

But this shift away from cloud-based processing has other implications to watch for in 2018. First, it spells new design options for consumer privacy, which is of particular imminence with the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Second, it is an enabling factor in shifting market share from mobile devices towards more hands-free devices like hearables and other classes of wearables that still suffer from battery limitations. Third, it may also signal a competitive quake, as cloud providers cede market share to edge analytics providers.

4. Computer vision + augmented reality = more accurate mixed reality

Augmented reality (AR) had a good year in 2017, marked by an influx in enterprise use cases and more object libraries for broader development. Many analysts expect integration with mobile devices will catalyze AR adoption. But the reality is mainstream consumption of digital media overlaid onto the physical world requires more than just adequate hardware.

Machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence already underlie AR applications, but expect 2018 to be a critical year in the intersection of computer vision and AR. This convergence is essential for augmented images to accurately overlay real-world environments—currently a shortcoming because most AR apps rely on GPS and compass sensors to compute object placement. 2017 offers a clue, as we saw an increase in AR software libraries for open source development, the foundation for training AR apps to properly overlay the right virtual object or sign in the right physical space using public data like city maps.

Computer vision is an essential element of the AR equation, particularly as AR is merely a step towards mixed reality—in which virtual objects aren’t just overlaid in physical spaces, but are interactive and dynamic.

5. Blockchain + advertising = new business models for the business model of the internet

Even if modern advertising has become highly programmatic and automated for scale, the truth is that it remains highly opaque. Traceability of placements—never mind the authenticity of stats, nor scores of intermediaries—means companies still have a very hard time ensuring they are getting ads they paid for. As for consumer advertising experience, much is left to be desired.

2017 was the year ad giants like the IAB, DMA, Nasdaq, and Comcast dipped their toes into the world of distributed ledger technologies. Blockchain-based protocols offer a range of potential improvements to current advertising woes, from greater transparency and accuracy to cryptographically secure tracking, from fraud reduction to compensation for content creators.

2018 will lay the foundation for advertisers to experiment with blockchain’s business model impacts. A group formed by Comcast, which now has more than five other global leaders in advertising, will use blockchain as a data-sharing mechanism to let marketers, publishers, and programmers share data for smarter targeting without having to pool it in any one place (and circumvent intermediaries). Others, like the Brave browser, take disintermediation via blockchain a step further. Brave is using its Basic Attention Token (BAT) as direct microcurrency (a token) between advertiser pays the viewer for actually viewing the ad. Smarter ad spending and consumers monetize their attention.

6. Smart grid + blockchain = monetize electrons

2017 was also a huge year for blockchain, both for enterprise development of private/permissioned blockchains, and on the public crypto side of the market, with the ICO craze and the astronomical growth of bitcoin.

2018 promises another surge in blockchain’s slow and wide application: integration with smart grids. Germany’s Innogy, France’s EDS, and Austria’s Wein Energy are among numerous global utilities giants experimenting with blockchain for more efficient energy transmission, leveraging smart infrastructure (such as buildings, factories, residences, solar panels, electric vehicles, and charging stations) to negotiate energy among each other autonomously and avoid surplus.

Other peer-to-peer initiatives are also evolving the narrative to one in which blockchain enables the monetization of electrons. ElectricChain’s SolarChain enables peer-to-peer storage, transmission, and barter of solar energy across local networks across the globe in both third world and developed economies. Users (of any size) buy into solar energy, submit data from their solar panel to the network and verification (via blockchain) rewards users in a tokenized asset called Solar Coins (which can be cashed in).

2018 promises at least one constant: more of the same

There is no doubt we will continue to see numerous technological innovations: more eye-popping advancements in software, analytics, firmware, security, and speed; fewer screens, more spoken and augmented interfaces. The widening scope of technological advancement also means virtually every technology can be relevant to every organization. There is no single “next big thing”—companies must see singular technologies in broader context, and look for where the convergences are emerging, in 2018 and well beyond.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?