The digital revolution starts with the sprint. With rapid technical advances, science fiction technology will soon reach our everyday lives – this time for real. Five truths about tomorrow’s world.
What is technology?
“Technology” includes machines and devices made by humans. These things have a use: they can be used to build, craft, or research. Technology also includes buildings such as roads, bridges, or houses. This can make your life easier. Technology is a kind of counterpart to nature.
The word technology comes from Greek and means something like handicraft. You can also say that technology is what craftsmen have made. New techniques also led to new professions. For as long as computers have existed, there has been a need for programmers.
Thanks to technology, people can make something easier than without. For example, printing a text is faster than writing it yourself. We can even do other things with the help of technology: we could not fly without an airplane, hot-air balloon, or something similar.
But technology is also the way you make something: every craftsman has to master certain techniques. A blacksmith, for example, needs different techniques than a tailor. He works with other tools and must be able to use them correctly.
The word technology is often heard in connection with skill. Some athletes are asked about their technique of handling skis, a ball, or gymnastics equipment. Everyone may have a slightly different approach, and whoever is the most skillful, i.e., has the best technique, gets the best results.
Top 5 technologies that will change our everyday lives
1. The robots are coming
A paradox is named after the robotics researcher Hans Moravec: Computers could solve intelligence tests or play checkers comparatively easily, the philosopher once wrote. But it was “difficult if not impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old child in terms of perception and mobility.” That will soon no longer be true.
Robots are currently experiencing a development spurt. This has to do with Moore’s law, i.e., the observation that is still valid today that the capacity of integrated circuits doubles on average every two years. But also with the growing quality of learning software. The multi-purpose robot Baxter, for example, can be taught new tasks by guiding its arm through inappropriate movements.
Many people are already dealing with robots in everyday life, often without even knowing it. For example, automatic video stores still exist today, in which DVDs are handed out as if by magic because a storage robot behind the ordering touchscreen fetches the right film from the shelf.
In the future, however, machines that appear to serve one or more purposes autonomously will increasingly become part of our everyday lives. As silent helpers in hospitals, as warehouse workers in a coffee table format, or as parking assistants. From vacuum cleaners, window cleaners, and delivery drones to humanoid machines like Baxter, which take on various tasks in factories. Extinguishing fires, guarding parking lots, and skiing Robots can already do this today, but work has long been going on on real all-purpose machines, especially in the military sector. At the Robotics Challenge of the US military research agency Darpa in June, robots will climb ladders, clear doors of rubble, and steer vehicles.
Most often, however, we will initially encounter robots in everyday life on the street. Detailed reports on the robots that are revolutionizing our everyday lives can be found here.
2. Self-driving cars: Cell phone calls Robotaxi
Frank Levy (MIT) and Richard Murnane (Harvard) are among the most renowned economists in the USA. In 2004, in their highly acclaimed book “The New Division of Labor” on the influence of computers on the world of work, the two economists contrasted those professions that computers could soon make superfluous with other activities that they continued to regard as the domain of humans. For example, driving a car. A driver was confronted with a “wall of images and sounds,” with almost incomprehensible chaos, the two wrote. That can only be deciphered with human pattern recognition, and it will stay that way for the time being.
Ten years later, self-driving Google cars are on California’s streets, and from mid-2015, autonomous vehicles will also be tested in English cities. The search engine group wants to enter mass production by 2020, as do VW, Audi, Mercedes, and BMW. Even Apple is rumored to be working on robotic vehicles. In Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, test routes will soon be set up on motorways. Federal Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt wants to present key points for the use of robotic cars in road traffic by September 2015.
The ride-sharing company Uber apparently plans to replace human drivers with robots in the next step. This could soon pay off, especially in the areas of passenger transport and logistics. After all, robot cars only have to take a break for refueling and maintenance. They don’t demand a salary or social benefits. The prices for the necessary technology – such as lidar devices for scanning the environment – are in free fall.
It is safe to say that in six to eight years, it will be possible to order a taxi without a driver using an app. And truck rest areas on motorways could become noticeably emptier in the medium term.
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3. Virtual Reality – for real this time
Anyone who has ever worn such glasses, their doubts usually disappears in no time. Virtual reality, which has been a promise that has not been kept for decades, only becomes accessible once you have experienced it yourself. If you observe people who have Oculus Rift glasses, Samsung’s mobile phone adapter Gear VR or just Google’s cardboard model in front of their faces for the first time, this quickly becomes clear.
In Samsung’s virtual demonstration cinema, for example, you can watch films on a screen the size of a real cinema screen – you have to turn your head to see from one edge to the other. If you want, you can sit in a lunar crater instead of in the cinema.
The movements of your own head are seamlessly and cleanly transferred to the simulated environment. And if the film is shot with a 360-degree camera, you can also turn around in it. The only thing that still bothers you is the visible pixels. After all, you actually have a standard cell phone a few centimeters in front of your eyes. In general, the mass market for smartphones is paving the way for the new VR boom: components such as high-resolution screens, position, and motion sensors are suddenly affordable.
Craft glasses, which deliver impressive experiences with smartphones and headphones, are sometimes available for less than 10 euros. There are already many demonstration apps for mobile phones (can be found with the keyword “Cardboard”), from virtual roller coasters to drone flights filmed with 360-degree cameras.
Virtual reality glasses will probably first satisfy the immersion desires of hardcore gamers. But they will also ensure that media consumption, for example, when traveling, becomes significantly more impressive but also more lonely.
Our prognosis: in just a few years, people will be seeing people on trains or planes with VR devices on their heads instead of laptops or tablets as film players. And entertainment formats will emerge that we can’t even imagine yet.
Facebook’s Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift is considered a pioneer in the industry. The first prototype was shown in 2012, and the second version of the so-called developer kit is currently available. There is no official date for an end-customer version. Towards the end of 2015, it could be ready. The glasses are designed to be connected to a PC. Short tests with pre-release versions of appropriately adapted PC games are impressive.
The previously often criticized problem that nausea sets in when using the glasses is now gone. Oculus can also use a camera to recognize the user’s movements and transfer them to the virtual world. The price for the final version has not yet been determined. The current developer kit costs $350 plus shipping and import sales tax.
Sony’s Project Morpheus
Unlike the Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus VR glasses should not work with a PC but with the Playstation 4 and the Playstation Vita.
The Move controllers, which have been available for the Playstation for some time, can be used to control games. In the first tests with prototypes, the Morpheus showed a similar gaming experience to that of the Rift. Just like Oculus, Sony has not yet decided when and at what price the VR glasses should come onto the market.
“Project Cardboard” by Google
Two developers at Google designed the Project Cardboard in the 20 percent of their working time that they are allowed to use for their own projects. Google’s bosses liked it and set up a department to turn it into a commercially viable technology.
The project was officially presented at the Google I/O 2014 developer conference, and cardboard kits were distributed with which the participants could make their own VR glasses. There are now a number of interesting apps for mobile phones that you simply plug into the cardboard construction.
Gear VR by Samsung
With the Gear VR, Samsung has turned Google’s Project Cardboard into a commercial product. In our test, the 200-euro glasses made a good impression. Graphically, it offers even more than the Oculus Rift, for example, because its screen has a significantly higher resolution than that in the Oculus glasses.
However, this screen also makes the Gear VR expensive fun: You have to use Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 as the screen and computer in the Gear VR. According to the list price, a purchase of 769 euros.
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LG’s VR for G3
Samsung competitor LG responded to the Gear VR with its own version of Project Cardboard, the VR for G3. As the name suggests, this model is powered by the LG smartphone G3.
In contrast to the Gear VR, however, the LG glasses do not have a price. If you want them, you have to buy a G3, and then you get them for free.
Zeiss VR One
The optics company Zeiss has developed another noble variant of the Project Cardboard.
The difference between the products of the mobile phone manufacturers: With the appropriate adapters, the Zeiss glasses can be used with different smartphones. According to the manufacturer, adapters for the iPhone 6 and Samsung’s Galaxy S5 are the first. More are to follow. The company specifies the price as 99 euros.
4. The live translator in your pocket
For decades, a dictionary, maybe even a small phrasebook, was part of the holiday luggage. But those who constantly carry around a device with Internet access nowadays tend to use online dictionaries abroad or quickly type the desired sentence into Google Translate. Network access is required.
But there are already aids for smartphones and other mobile devices that translate what is written and said into the foreign language in real-time and vice versa. Sometimes the translation may still sound very clumsy, but the technology will improve rapidly in the coming years. It will soon be normal for tourists in Japan, Spain, or Croatia to simply speak the sentences they want to say into their smartphones. The cell phone then also translates the answers.
It will no longer be an issue to ask for highlights and a layered cut at the hairdresser in Rome or to point out a lactose intolerance to the waiter in Stockholm, even if you don’t speak a single word of Italian or Swedish. Holiday flirtations will take place across cell phones. And you will also be able to chat in foreign languages from a distance: Microsoft, for example, has already announced a real-time translator for Skype. It should soon be understood in 40 different languages.
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5. Artificial intelligence as an operating system
The Internet of Things is likely to be real, but it will feel different than we think it will today. There are already intelligent electricity meters, thermostats, and door locks, but hardly anyone uses them – also because they are often complicated to use.
The digital world of the future still needs an operating system. In all probability, this task will be taken over by the technology that is now called artificial intelligence (AI). In a few years, people will probably only call it “computer” or “telephone.”
So far, such command centers have been called Siri, Cortana, or Google Now and are still rather bad at making wishes come true. That’s going to change. “Hey AI, I’m on vacation for two weeks now,” automatically turns down the heat, locks doors, auto-replies to emails, and pauses subscriptions. “KI, I would have to go to Vancouver on Thursday morning and back again on Monday evening” for corresponding travel offers. For companies, there are still completely different applications.
Several companies are currently working on concepts that are sometimes called “AI as a Service,” i.e., artificial intelligence as a service. Google has developed a system that its developers simply call Brain. It is already being used internally to solve various problems, such as extracting addresses from StreetView photos. A company called Viv, founded by three men who used to work on Apple’s mobile assistant Siri, promises “an intelligent, voice-enabled interface” as a plug-in for “devices, services or things.” All the big players in Silicon Valley have recently acquired AI startups, sometimes for a lot of money.
All of this is made possible by parallel computer architectures, cloud capacities, and above all, learning algorithms and so-called neural networks. Intelligent systems are trained with huge amounts of data until they master what they are supposed to be able to do. And thanks to the digital data explosion, there are now more than enough of them. These can be texts from the UN stocks, which are always available in many different languages, or voice commands collected from mobile phone users. Machines are now training to make connections, analyze, translate, and play “Space Invaders”.
Very soon, therefore, computers will understand better what we want from them. It will probably only feel like science fiction for a short time: We have gotten used to computers that play chess better than humans or win quiz shows. Or, to paraphrase Kevin Kelly, former Wired Editor-in-Chief, “Like any form of basic service, AI will be extraordinarily boring, even though it will transform the internet, the global economy, and civilization.”
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