Tech Trends 2018
Predicting the future is fun as it enables you to imagine a tomorrow unshackled from limitations and completely free in the knowledge that you can’t be contradicted, at least not for the next 12 months. With this in mind, here are my predictions for tech trends to watch out for in 2018.
Voice is set to dominate the way we interact with technology in the near future. The rise of voice both with or without a screen is an inevitable consequence of ubiquitous computing, where all services are accessed digitally. No matter how good the UX on a graphical user interface, it still requires cognitive effort when you’re faced with a new one, or there’s a significant update to one you are familiar with. There’s nothing simpler than asking a question, and as technology improves we’ll be transferring more and more requests to voice assistants.
In Q3 of this year Amazon sold “tens of millions” of Alexa enabled devices, slashing the prices of Echo, Dot and Alexa enabled fire sticks for Black Friday and owning the voice-enabled speaker market with over 70% share.
Google and Apple also have their own voice-enabled speakers, but the Seattle based “retail” giant has a huge head start and, given the relative price points of their devices, they’re going to need to offer something special. There’s also the question of how to monetise them and Amazon have a natural path in commerce, so I’m betting on Amazon to win out here. To be honest, my answer would be the same in pretty much any market Amazon chose to enter.
On mobile Apple and Google dominate – Siri now handles more than 2bn commands a week and 20% of Google searches on Android devices are input by voice.
If Voice is the future, then for some brands it’s a pretty bleak one. Branded search is already in decline, with fewer people prefixing a brand name to searches in Google (especially with low consideration items), voice will only accelerate this trend. Brands will need to find ways to remain relevant within the consumer consciousness or face the possibility of becoming invisible to these searches. Alexa responses are generally based on order history, Amazon’s “preferred choices” or Amazon own brands, so if you’re not on that list you’re going to have to find a way to get consumers to ask for you by name.
The combined user base of the top four chat apps is now larger than the combined user base of the top four social networks. These users are also more active in what appears to be a shift from social posting to direct messaging. I predict a lot of growth in brands using messaging apps to engage consumers and personalise customer service using chatbots and algorithm + human intelligence driven concierge services all embedded in the platforms consumers are already using.
I also predict that mobile payments through messaging apps will increase, taking a lead from WeChat who reportedly processed $550bn over the past year (to put that into scale, PayPal processed $282bn), but also in more innovative ecosystems like Kik’s cryptocurrency Kin that will herald a new era in the digital economy. We may see even more innovation in mobile cryptocurrency. I’d like to see a model based on stamp scrip which is designed to discourage hoarding by requiring holders to get a stamp costing 1% of its value applied every month. In other words, the currency loses value over time, so there’s a big incentive to spend it.
For Brands that embrace messaging apps and offer meaningful content and services that meet the needs of consumers, the rewards will be huge.
PRODUCTS THAT EMBRACE UNBRANDED SEARCH
As consumers move away from branded searches I see a rise in products that reflect the needs of the market. Brandless.com is an example of this where you can buy unbranded products, all for the same price of $3, and the listings are based around an SEO strategy of unbranded, ingredient and value led searches. I predict more of these types of companies in the future, where products are brought to market based on the wants of consumers. The trick is to innovate across the supply chain to be able to bring products to market at a speed equivalent to trends.
I think we’ll see a backlash against the data collection practices that fuel many of the big tech companies in the near future, although 2018 may be a little soon. GDPR is the result of governmental unease, but there’s still a feeling of indifference from the general public to what amounts to industrialised surveillance by Facebook, and to slightly a lesser extent Google, for the fairly benign goal of hyper-targeted advertising. It’s often said that if you’ve nothing to hide then it doesn’t matter, but everyone has something to hide, which is why I sometimes use a private session on Spotify.
We’re in uncharted waters here, as never in human history have we collected so much data on so many people. If this data ended up in the wrong hands there are frightening possibilities to what it could be used to achieve.
It’s only a matter of time before there’s a huge data breach at Facebook and/or Google that changes the question from “What are you doing to protect my data” to “Why do you have so much data about me”. This will create an environment where more regulation is inevitable and they need to define new business models where the users of your services are your clients, not the product.
If 2017 was a battle between VR and AR, and I’m not convinced it was (surely these are two very different technologies offering different experiences and use cases), then 2018 will be the year AR takes attention away from it’s more immersive brother.
I’m still not convinced by VR, it feels overhyped in a world where the money flows towards innovation in technology and, outside of gaming and niche entertainment formats, I just don’t see a sustainable need or desire for it. Sorry VR fans.
AR, on the other hand, has the potential for utility and therefore commercial application. It’s easy to see the benefit of using AR for instruction manuals, training engineers or medical staff as well as visualising the unseen in the form of road hazards, wind direction, and tidal currents. In essence, AR allows us to improve our reality whereas VR is an escape from it.
I couldn’t write a tech trends article without talking about AI. Recent advances in AI have brought some fantastic usable developments, from voice and image recognition to algorithms that improve with use. However, there’s a general misunderstanding about AI that is distracting us from thinking more productively about the future and gives rise to hysteria around how powerful computers will become, how quickly this will happen and the devastating effect it will have on jobs and civilisation as we know it.
The problem is we tend to think about computer intelligence in the same that way we think about human intelligence. This leads us to confuse a computer’s ability to perform a task with the competence of a human. For example, AI systems have become incredibly adept at image recognition, processing and labelling huge numbers of images very accurately. However, if you gave a human a photo of people riding bikes in a park you’d feel confident in asking them not just what the picture was of, but also:
Can you only ride bikes in a park?
Is it difficult to learn to ride a bike?
Is riding a bike fun?
Can you eat a bike?
A computer can’t answer these questions because it doesn’t understand what a bike is, what a park is, or what fun is and why it’s relevant to riding a bike. A computer doesn’t understand anything, it’s just able to apply a label to an image with a bike in because it’s seen hundreds of thousands of labelled pictures of bikes before. It’s been trained to recognise bikes, which is hugely impressive, but also limited.
For computers to compete with human intelligence they need Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), essentially common sense, so they will be able to look at the picture of people riding bikes in a park and answer our questions about it. This isn’t going to happen anytime soon and it’s not certain that computers will be able to obtain AGI at all, although a lot of the worlds smartest people are working to this goal. It may be that humans are truly unique in our ability to reason.
All this is a fairly long-winded way to say, don’t worry, yes AI is powerful, but you won’t be coming back to work after Christmas to find a robot sat at your desk and SkyNet definitely won’t be attempting to wipe out human existence next year. Happy Christmas!