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Goldstuck on Gadgets

Reading the future in your laundry

The near future looks both scary and positive, depending where you look. At this week’s Gartner Symposium, there was no end of possibilities, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

How scary would you like your future? You can take your pick of driverless taxis, robot caregivers and cyber warfare mercenaries.

Those were some of the possibilities presented in Cape Town this week at the Gartner Symposium, an annual three-day download of high-tech roadmaps, scenarios and forecasts.

The most fascinating of these possibilities was a prediction by Peter Sondergaard, Gartner’s head of research.

‚”By 2020, you’ll throw as many computers in the laundry as you’ve used in your life,‚” he declared. He was referring to the growing trend of wearable computing, most visible today in fitness wristbands that act as pedometers and sleep pattern sensors. Emerging technologies like Google Glass spectacles and smartwatches that synchronise with phones are the obvious next step.

But that is just the beginning.

Sondergaard sketched a near future in which computer chips capable of connectivity would cost a few cents, which would make it possible to build them into anything, from mining equipment to rubbish bins to clothing.

‚”When the cost point of sensors and radio equipment becomes so low, it makes sense to build it into everything you do. By 2020, we’ll see between 15 and 30 billion things having unique IP addresses,‚” he said, referring to the ability to connect objects to each other via data links.

The ‚”Internet of things‚”, as the emerging network is being termed, will span all industries. Yet, this near future will not be focused on the technology, says Sondergaard.

‚”The drivers of technology have nothing to do with technology, but with how we want to live our lives as consumers. This is what is leading to the changes in the technology market we are seeing, and leads to these rapid cycles of new generations of technology manufacturing.‚”

Ironically, as much as consumers are driving the demand that leads to ever more high-tech products and services that make our lives easier, it will probably result in a backlash in the jobs market. While it is generally accepted that many of today’s job categories won’t exist in the future, we are likely to be shocked by just how many of today’s jobs will vanish.

‚”In the Western world we are going to have a challenge with service jobs, says Sondergaard. ‚”For example, one of the main roles of robotics will be as a result of the fact that the Western world is getting older and there are not enough people to take care of old people. That will give rise to robotic functions to take over what carers have to do now.

‚”We will see robots in health care whether for this care part or as part of the establishment of medical centres of excellence. We won’t need same level of surgeons anymore, if you have someone locally who is good at cutting and a surgical specialist who can guide that person from 10 000 miles away. ‚”

Next, says Sondergaard, we will see the rise of service robots to take over many functions of information workers.

‚”If you optimise what you have with an IBM Watson type computer that can interact with people in plain English, and combine it with a simple robot, you will have a robot that can answer any question you put to it.‚”

Fortunately, Sondergaard believes, humans won’t become useless, but will evolve to perform higher functions on the classic Needs Hierarchy developed by Abraham Maslow. They will be able to strive for self-actualisation at the top of the hierarchy, even as robots replace them at the bottom of the pyramid,

That may not be the way Hollywood likes to portray robots, but even the real world sometimes has happy endings.

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