Technology trends are often difficult to nail down because, well, it's astonishingly hard to predict the future. But there are indicators from 2017 that point pretty strongly to what we can expect to see in the technology sector next year.
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While many of us think of technology in a very specific sense of the word (i.e., smartphones, drones, etc.) this tech trends list also includes more complex technology ideas like robotics, laser-transmitted internet, decentralized medical record systems, and other ideas a little bit off the well-worn tech path. If even half of these trends expand beyond where they're at right now, then we're in for a very exciting year.
1. Blockchains gain more widespread adoption
Blockchains are digital ledgers that can be shared and accessed by anyone to keep track of transactions between two parties. The term received lots of attention in 2017 because the cryptocurrency bitcoin uses one decentralized blockchain to keep track of all of its transactions. But the tech can be used far beyond Bitcoin.
Some people want blockchains to be used for things like medical records, where a person's patient data would be stored in a cryptographic database that accepts information from multiple different medical databases and software programs. The benefit here is that a patient's personal medical history could be kept in one safe, decentralized location, and accessible to different doctors' offices and medical centers, without those offices or their software having to coordinate with each other to update the records.
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2. Narrow artificial intelligence expands
There's a lot of talk about artificial intelligence these days, but the real benefit for companies in 2018 will be the adoption of algorithms and computer intelligence that are good at doing one very specific task, which is commonly referred to as narrow artificial intelligence (AI).
Narrow AI differs from general AI (think autonomous robots trying to take over the world) and allows computers to complete specific tasks, like driving a car, very well. Narrow AI is used in everything from language translation apps to content curation in Facebook's (NASDAQ: FB) Newsfeed, and in 2018, it's likely we'll see more companies use it to make their businesses more efficient and productive.
3. Underground mass transportation gains more traction
At the very end of 2016, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that we was starting a new company that would attempt to help solve the well-known traffic problems in Los Angeles, California. And last year, Musk's new Boring Company drilled a 500-foot long tunnel to test out a new underground system of moving passengers along high-speed tracks.
The company could potentially use two types of underground transportation, the first being a track system that could move more than a dozen passengers between cities at up to 150 mph. The other is Musk's Hyperloop concept, which consists of pods that travel in a near-vacuum tube at up to 700 mph.
The Boring Company is currently working on a 6.5-mile proof-of-concept tunnel in Los Angeles that, if it gets approval from the city, could eventually turn into an underground tunnel system in California. The company also began digging in Maryland toward the end of 2017 for another test track that could eventually become a underground transportation system between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The test tunnels won't be done in 2018, but we're certain to here much more about them in the coming year.
4. 5G Wireless Broadband launches
AT&T and Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ) began testing wireless 5G broadband in 2017, and in 2018, both companies say they'll launch limited commercial availability for the new service. Unlike 4G and LTE, 5G will mainly be used for home internet connections at first, allowing the telecoms to provide multiple-gigabit speeds via wireless connections to homes. For context, 1 gigabit speeds are 15 times faster than the average home broadband connections in the U.S.
Not only are the speeds faster, but 5G offers less congestion for home internet connections as well (think of how slow it gets when you and your neighbors are all streaming movies on the same night) and has lower latency (it can send information very fast) than traditional cable internet connections. Verizon will bring 5G to Sacramento, California, and four other yet-to-be announced markets in 2018.
5. Bitcoin grabs more headlines
Bitcoin's massive price gains toward the end of 2017 got the attention of investors and the general public, and we're likely to see more of the same in 2018. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency that allows its owners to make purchases safely and anonymously, and as of this writing, the value of one bitcoin has jumped nearly 2,000% in 2017.
Bitcoin is now accepted by some retailers, like Home Depot and Overstock.com, and it's likely that more retailers will jump on board next year, particularly if the value continues to rise. But bitcoin is still highly volatile, and its online exchanges (where you buy and sell bitcoin) are often the targets of hackers. All of this means we're probably just as likely to see bitcoin's value slide in 2018 as we are to see its price rise to new heights. Either way, expect to hear much more about the cryptocurrency in 2018.
6. Augmented reality goes mainstream on mobile
In 2017, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) made some huge moves to bring augmented reality to its millions of iPhone and iPad users when it released iOS 11 with augmented reality capabilities. The tech giant now allows developers to create their augmented reality (AR) apps, like IKEA's Place app, which allows users to scan rooms in their home and add virtual furniture into it to see what it looks like.
Facebook also took steps in 2017 to pave the way for more AR use on its platform next year as well. The company's new AR Studio allows developers to create filters and camera effects (think augmented reality masks for selfies) for its Facebook and Messenger apps, and it has expanded the use of AR filters in its Instragram app. The focus on mobile AR by Apple and Facebook is part of the reason an estimated 1 billion smartphone users are expected to create AR content on their phones next year, according to research from Deloitte.
7. We catch a glimpse of the first true driverless car service
Automakers and tech companies have been testing driverless cars for years, but in 2018, Alphabet's (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) self-driving car company, Waymo, will make even more headway.
Waymo has been testing its self-driving vehicle fleet in Phoenix, Arizona, for the past few months, but the company said recently that in a few months, it will launch a driverless car service in the city. That means Waymo's vehicles will pick up people on-demand, drop them off at destinations, and drive themselves around town without a human in the driver's seat. That's a big step forward for Waymo, and driverless car tech as a whole, and it means the company is a few years ahead of its competition. Most automakers and tech companies are targeting their self-driving car services for 2021.
8. New solar energy developments
In 2017, a group of MIT scientists began work on a new type of solar panel technology called hot solar cells. These cells can be up to two times more efficient at converting sunlight into energy than typical photovoltaic solar panels because they use more advanced materials and have a superior process for capturing light.
The hot solar cells essentially funnel light into carbon nanotubes, which then causes them to heat up to about 1,000 degrees Celsius, and then transfer than intense heat back into a focused light toward the solar cells. The process makes the cells much more efficient at turning light into energy than traditional solar panels, and it also offers the ability to siphon off some of the heat to be stored and converted into energy later. The hot solar cell research is still in its infancy, but it could help advance solar panel technology beyond conventional panels in the years to come.
9. In-home digital virtual assistants become more prevalent
Voice-enabled smart speakers like Amazon.com's (NASDAQ: AMZN) Echo (with its Alexa virtual assistant) have been around since 2014, but at the end of 2017, they started to gain much more traction -- and that's likely to continue into 2018.
These speakers can field questions about the weather, order online products, search the web, and even do things like order an Uber or have a pizza delivered. They can also be paired with other smart home products, like a thermostat, so users can control devices around the home using just their voice.
The number of Americans who have used these types of devices has spiked nearly 130% from 2016 to 2017, and by 2020, more than half of U.S. households will have at least one smart home speaker, according to Juniper Research. All of which means that it's likely we'll see even more adoption of these voice-enabled smart speakers next year.
10. Quantum computing becomes more accessible
Quantum computing is a difficult idea to understand, but the simplest explanation is that it uses the laws of quantum mechanics to allow computers to process information as both 1s and 0s at the same time, whereas conventional computers can only process information as either a 1 or a 0. This allows the computer to figure out multiple outcomes at once, instead of processing answers in a sequence.
Because quantum computers can process information in this way, it makes them much more powerful than conventional computers. Google made some big strides in this space at the end of 2017, and it now offers free, open-source quantum computing software to chemists and material scientists.
While current quantum computers are still in their early stages, companies believe they could soon be used to figure out the problems of climate change and make new medical discoveries. Google, IBM, Microsoft, and others are already knee-deep into quantum computing, and Google's latest software is compatible with IBM and other companies' quantum computers, which paves the way for more adoption of this tech next year.
11. Surgical robots enter more operating rooms
For years now, Intuitive Surgical has had a hold on the surgical robotics market. Its da Vinci robot has been in use since 2000, but the company's patents are about to expire, and that's leaving the surgical robotics market wide open for other tech companies and major medical companies to step in.
Surgical robots don't perform surgeries on their own, but are instead controlled by surgeons and enable to perform their work more precisely, in some cases. But these robots are also getting smarter. The Economist recently pointed out that Google has teamed up with Johnson & Johnson to release internet-enabled surgical robots, through a joint company called Verb Surgical, that will share data and video with other surgical robots like it, and then use machine learning to improve how surgeries are performed. With more companies jumping into this market, and Google helping to expand how these bots assist surgery, 2018 is sure to bring even more advancements.
12. Taxi drones take to the skies
Many companies have been bullish about their ability to launch autonomous aerial vehicles (AAV) in big cities, but a China-based company called EHang is actually making the idea a reality in 2018. The company already has one-person prototype flying taxi right now, and it says it will start mass-producing flying taxis capable of carrying up to two passengers in 2018.
The EHang E-184 looks like a large drone with a human-sized cabin on top, and can fly to pre-set destinations at up to 62 miles per hour and for up 25 minutes on its electric batteries. EHang already has a contract to bring the taxis to Dubai in 2018, and it is also in talks with cities across Europe. It's still unclear how common these flying taxis will become, but it looks like 2018 may be the year they actually become a reality.
13. Alphabet will deliver internet via lasers in India
Alphabet's X research division is selling some of its high-tech laser beam technology to India's government next year so it can provide high-speed internet to millions of citizens. The devices use what's called "space optical technology," and it consists of boxes that send and receive laser signals to each other to transmit internet signals, instead of using copper wire or fiber optics. The final internet signal is then sent to users via Wi-Fi or cellular signals. Since it uses light to send the signals, and nothing else, it's the ultimate wireless signal.
A recent Reuters article said Alphabet will provide 2,000 of space optical boxes spaced about 12 mile apart from each other on rooftops and poles, capable of sending internet signals at 20 gigabits per second. Space optical technology typically suffers from weather-related obstacles (it doesn't like rain or fog), but Alphabet says its technology is already addressing some of these problems.
14. The Internet of Things marches on
The Internet of Things (IoT) is the phrase used for devices that have sensors, collect data, and connect to the Internet so the information they produce can be analyzed or used for automation. These devices can be anything from smartwatches like the Apple Watch to industrial machinery that sends a signal to a computer to tell it that a specific part is about to fail.
There were 6.4 billion IoT devices used in 2016, and that number will reach 11.2 billion in 2018. As these devices increase and start taking over more industrial and enterprise systems, they need to become more secure and more easily updated. This is why it's likely that we'll see much more IoT platform software and improved security in the coming year. Many of these devices are small and inexpensive, which means cloud-based software and network-based security (directly from the cellular connections themselves) could be the key to a growing IoT market. Research firm Gartner says that starting in 2018, we should see much more higher-volume and lower-cost devices that will be used for everything from connected security systems to smart LED lighting.
15. The return of augmented reality headsets
Google debuted its augmented reality glasses, called Google Glass, back in 2012, but the device eventually crashed and burned among public scrutiny (they weirded people out), and after it failed to be useful enough for use by the general public. But Google has since released a newer version of its Glasses for enterprise use, and an augmented reality company it's backing called Magic Leap will launch its own pair of "mixed reality" glasses in 2018 as well.
Magic Leap's glasses are called Lightwear, and they can be used to browse the internet, make conference calls, or play games. There's no price tag for the glasses yet, and they're intended to be purchased by software developers so that they create content and apps for the glasses. Magic Leap has received $1.9 billion in funding so far, and the debut of the much-anticipated Lightwear glasses is likely the first of many AR glass headlines we'll see in 2018.
Of course, there's no way to know which of these tech trends, if any, will truly take off in 2018. But each of the above trends builds on current technological innovations, which means they're already more than just flash-in-the-pan ideas. If I had to bet on a few right now, I'd expect driverless cars, augmented reality, the expansion of IoT, and in-home virtual assistants to gain the most traction in the coming year. Just keep in mind I'm making these predictions sans a crystal ball.
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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Chris Neiger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Intuitive Surgical, Johnson & Johnson, Tesla, and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple, short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple, short January 2018 $170 calls on Home Depot, and long January 2020 $110 calls on Home Depot. The Motley Fool recommends Home Depot. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.