28 Dec 2015 was a tipping point for six technologies that will change the world
To the average person, it may seem that the biggest technology advances of 2015 were the larger smartphone screens and small app updates. But a lot more happened than that. A broad range of technologies reached a tipping point, from cool science projects or objects of convenience for the rich, to inventions that will transform humanity. We haven’t seen anything of this magnitude since the invention of the printing press in the 1400s. Here are the six:
1. The Internet and knowledge
In the developed world, we have become used to having devices that connect and inform us and provide services on demand, and the developing world has largely been in the dark. As of 2015, however, nearly half of China’s population and a fifth of India’s population have gained Internet connectivity. India now has more Internet users than does the U.S., and China has twice as many.
Smartphones with the capabilities of today’s iPhone will cost less than $50 by 2020. By then, the efforts of Facebook, Google, OneWeb, and SpaceX to blanket the Earth with inexpensive Internet access through drones, balloons, and microsatellites will surely bear fruit. This means that we will see another three billion people come on line. Never before has all of humanity been connected in this way.
This will be particularly transformative for the developing world. Knowledge has always been a privilege of the rich; tyrants rule by keeping their populations ignorant. Soon, everyone, everywhere, will have access to the ocean of knowledge on the Internet. They will be able to learn about scientific advances as they happen. Social media will enable billions of people to share their experiences and help one another. Workers in the remotest villages of Africa will be able to offer digital services to the elite in Silicon Valley. Farmers will be able learn how to improve crop yields; artisans will gain access to global markets; and economies based on smartphone apps will flourish everywhere.
2. Doctors in our pockets
All of this has been made possible by advances in computing and networks. In a progression called Moore’s Law, computers continually get faster, cheaper, and smaller, doubling in speed every 18 months. Our $100 smartphones are more powerful than the supercomputers of the 1970s—which cost millions of dollars. With faster computers, it becomes possible to design more powerful sensors and artificial-intelligence (A.I.) systems. With better sensors, we can develop sophisticated medical devices, drone-based delivery systems, and smart cities; and, with A.I., we can develop self-driving cars, voice-recognition systems, and digital doctors. Yes, I am talking about applications that can diagnose our medical condition and prescribe remedies.
In 2015, smartphone-connected medical devices came into the mainstream. Most notably, Apple released a watch that, using a heart-rate sensor and accelerometer, can keep track of vital signs, activity, and lifestyles. Through its free Research Kit app, Apple provided the ability to monitor, on a global scale, the use of medicines and their efficacy. Microsoft, IBM, Samsung, and Google too, as well as a host of startups, are developing sensors and A.I.-based tools to do the work of doctors. These technologies are expensive and geared for the developed world; but companies in China, India, and Africa are working on inexpensive versions. The sensors that these devices use, and the computing and storage that A.I. systems need cost very little. Previous generations of medical advances were for the rich; now all can benefit.