Lisa Vallee-SmithLisa Vallee-Smith

Over the past decade, we’ve seen significant changes in the technology industry. Hardware, software, interfaces and services have all transformed in remarkable ways. The cumulative effect of these innovations can be summed up simply: technology isn’t just part of our everyday lives now, it’s at the core of human interaction.

For the most part, this evolution traces back to the dawn of the smartphone. As mobile devices have become more capable, easier to use, and ubiquitous, they’ve changed how people consider the concept of “personal computing.” It no longer means sitting down at a desk and using a keyboard and mouse. Within the context of our daily lives, the phones in our pockets are more powerful than any laptop or desktop.

Mobile devices have become our cameras of choice, our handheld gaming consoles, our GPS units, our social-media dashboards, our VR and AR headsets, our music players, our mobile TVs, our department stores and our newspapers. They’ve changed the way we summon a ride, order food, split a bill, and even find a date. The app economy is worth a trillion dollars, and it didn’t even exist a decade ago.

O'Dwyer's Nov. '17 Technology PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Nov. '17 Technology PR Magazine

Yes, the smartphone has changed a lot of things. That’s not news. However, it’s important to consider the smartphone as a symbol of how certain technologies can impact seemingly everything around us. Now that we’re living in a mobile-first world, what will be the next technological sea change to transform our lives?

It’ll be much bigger than phones. The next 10 years will see significant advancements in human-machine interfaces, transportation and city infrastructure. Technology is bound to become an even bigger part of our lives. In the coming years, these advancements will maintain the dizzying pace of change.

Voice is the default interface

As much as touchscreens and apps have changed the world, we’re already moving beyond them. Amazon launched its first Alexa-powered Echo device three years ago, and while voice controls were part of our mobile devices before the Echo, putting them in a fixed in-home device was a revelation. These smarter speakers don’t just make it easier to check the weather or play our favorite music, they’ve also become control centers for our increasingly smarter homes.

Google and Apple have since joined the voice-speaker fray, which means spoken-word interfaces will only get better and more pervasive from here on out. Big-name competition and ongoing improvements in artificial intelligence and deep learning will help these voice platforms get much smarter in the coming years.

Just as smartphones made touchscreen interfaces mainstream, these popular voice assistants make spoken commands the new normal. Now that there are several options for your home, in-car systems are likely to be the next major voice battleground.

Cities become giant computers

Think of the rapid evolution of the smart home. Now, expand that idea citywide. The upcoming transition to 5G networks — another major trend to watch in the coming years — will allow city infrastructure to become increasingly connected. Combined with that connectivity, maturing IoT technologies and evolving artificial intelligence will help population centers analyze large pools of data in real time and adapt accordingly.

Imagine public-safety workers being automatically alerted when a person is in danger, or ambulances being automatically deployed when a car accident occurs. Picture traffic lights changing as an ambulance approaches an intersection or your car automatically finding an open parking space near a popular restaurant.

Not all of these applications will be a reality right away, but your city may turn “smart” sooner than you think. The Consumer Technology Association predicts there will be 88 smart cities around the globe by 2025. In 2018, for the first time, International CES will have a large portion of its show floor devoted to smart cities.

Self-driving cars dominate the roads

Just as smart cities will evolve steadily over the next decade, the vehicles that populate their roads will offer increasing levels of automation. We’ve already seen in-car systems that can change lanes, parallel park and take some of the tedium out of being stuck in traffic. We’re on the brink of those automated systems becoming standard-issue features in all cars. However, the real self-driving revolution will happen outside of individually owned vehicles.

Taxis and shuttles will be the first fully autonomous vehicles on the road, with preset routes to airports, landmarks or city centers. While these vehicles will be designed to drive without any human interaction, the way they do so will evolve. The first generation will navigate with built-in sensors and onboard mapping systems. However, as smart cities evolve, so will these navigation systems; the vehicles will interact with one another and their surroundings, taking cues from the infrastructure itself. Smart traffic signals, road signs, and car-to-car communication will reshape and optimize the flow of traffic.

All this will also leave a lot of in-car downtime for passengers. Without the need to steer, cars can become more like extensions of our homes. They’ll allow us to get some work done, binge-watch Netflix, and maybe even catch an extra 20 minutes of sleep. The shapes, sizes, and interiors of cars will all go through radical redesigns, and the roads of the future will look incredibly different due to all the automation. 

Changes that go well beyond technology

As was the case with smartphones, each of these emerging technologies may have a societal impact that extends beyond its core purpose. And they aren’t all positive.

Improved voice interactions can change the future of computer interfaces, creating devices that are more personal — and more intrusive — than ever before. Smarter cities may lead to efficient large-scale infrastructures, but at the risk of creating new concerns about personal privacy and security. And while self-driving cars can pave the way to safer roads, many people aren’t comfortable with the idea of cars taking the wheel by themselves. The implications of more-advanced AI and automation will have a substantial impact on the job market and society at large.

It all comes back to another lesson we can learn from the rise of the smartphone: even the best technologies can have negative consequences. As technology becomes an even bigger part of our lives in the future, it’s important for it to become more assistive than disruptive.

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Lisa Vallee-Smith is CEO of Airfoil. A public relations and marketing communications consultant with more than 25 years of experience, her expertise includes primary research, strategic planning, corporate communications, and issues/crisis management.