We are approaching critical mass on a number of technologies that we will see increasingly this year. This wave will start at CES, where we will see an impressive number of attempts at personal robots and AI-powered digital assistants. Most will fail. However, both the failures and the few successes will set the stage for the first true mobile personal robots that will arrive in the following years.
The 5G rollout will enable desktop cloud computing, and the Microsoft Virtual Desktop will become real for millions of us shortly thereafter. Ironically, many of us will access it with Chromebooks.
If you are located in a city center, you'll increasingly see both electric car charging stations (largely thanks to VW) and autonomous cars. There has been an increase in violent activity toward the latter, as well as passive demonstrations against the former, which just seems weird.
With the split U.S. government, I expect a huge ramp-up in truth apps, so that people more readily can disprove any fake news being promoted by the rival political party. However, I expect many of those apps to be discredited by year end due to information corruption.
Finally, we'll have AI pretty much everyplace, but most of it will still suck. Deep learning applications will surprise us, though, with their advances in capability and knowledge. Efforts to make sure these systems aren't corrupted will get more focus.
I'll touch on all of that and then close with my product of the week: the only treadmill that you are likely to use for more than an emergency coat rack, the Peloton Tread.
I've been reviewing the announcements slated to go up next week, and I found a surprising number of robots and digital assistants (which I expect to be obsolesced by robots that are mobile).
Developers of the new digital assistants seem to have realized that we like to gesture, and talking to a tube therefore isn't natural to us. Many entrants in the coming wave of digital assistants can emote, mostly by moving around something that looks kind of like a head or a big eye. This ability does make the device appear more human. As the back-end AI improves, the voices and responses sound more human as well.
The other vector is mobility, and an increasing number of these things are on wheels. The advantage is that the technology can follow you around without your having to buy one of these things for every room. The disadvantage is that wheeled appliances don't deal with obstacles, especially stairs, very well.
Early price points suggest you could buy a traditional digital assistant for every room for less than what one of these mobile assistants would cost. Given you likely could create a cloud feature for this class of device, allowing the personality of your assistant to move virtually with you room to room, I'm questioning this initial focus on mobility. Most of these things don't have arms -- or if they do, they don't have hands -- that would allow this mobility to become a true advantage.
The mobility bar is something that can both go where you go and help you around the house. There is a lot of debate on whether this class of robot needs to look human, and I'm on the con side of this argument.
The reason is that if you design around the functions initially, you can get to a better device than if you try to make either a jack of all trades or a human-looking robot. Think of the Roomba or Neato robotic vacuums. They do what they do well without looking like a pet or a person, and have been successful for years. A single arm with wheels that would be affordable and work well would be a ton better than a creepy human-looking robot that doesn't perform well.
The 5G Revolution
What makes 5G different is that it addresses not only bandwidth shortcomings, with its largest impact at the network's edge, but also latency issues, which should force improvements to the overall network.
There will be some initial adverse impacts in the market with Apple, of the big players, likely getting hit hardest. This is because informed buyers likely will want to wait until the 5G versions of smartphones are out before they refresh to avoid premature obsolescence, and those devices won't show up in volume until after mid-year.
The reason Apple is likely to get hit hardest is that its battle with Qualcomm largely locks it out of this technology until its 2020 refresh. Given that churn already has been slowing for Apple (people just can't justify replacing an iPhone that works for the few advantages of a new one now), this should reduce sales dramatically until the company has a solution.
The big impact, though, is that this will make concepts like the "Always-Connected PC" real, and allow us to get the benefits of Windows in the cloud. (It also should open the door for the anticipated MacBook to iPad Pro pivot Apple has been hinting is coming.)
This drive for computing in the cloud, something that Microsoft was restructured to anticipate, will change dramatically what sits on your lap and desk over the next five years.
Apple's big miss this month in terms of sales is only a precursor of what is to come. Apple is particularly out of position for this transition, and market leaders Samsung and Huawei appear to be planning to beat Apple to death with this change.
One thing this showcases is that there is a huge problem looming for the smartphone industry -- the same problem that hit the PC industry around a decade ago. Folks are pretty happy with their existing devices, and if they don't have reason to buy something new, then increasingly, they won't.
The Rebirth of the Automobile
With autonomous driving (and flying) trials advancing into limited production this year, we are going to see a lot of cars driving themselves -- not so much as people carriers but as delivery vehicles. I'm not sure the idea of walking up to a car with no driver to get your groceries will work out, making the creation of robots that could bring the stuff to the front door, or even into the house, even more critical for this type of solution.
Thanks to VW, we are going to get a huge number of high-speed DC chargers for electric cars through the end of the decade, making them far more viable than they are today.
The new ones coming in are up to 450 KW (Tesla Superchargers are around 120 KW), which has prompted a number of Tesla owners to order the new electric Porsche Taycan, so much so that this new car already is sold out for 2019, even though it hasn't even started shipping yet.
It is interesting to note that attacks on self-driving cars and relatively benign attacks on electric charging stations (mostly Teslas) suggest there are a lot of folks one beer short of a six pack.
I do think that as we come to view these as more of an A-to-B horizontal elevator that designs will shift from automotive norms to something more like moving living rooms.
AI has been around in some form or other since the 1950s, and much of it has sucked. The most recent trend to use deep learning promises to give us AI that is not only intelligent, but also adaptable to our needs and capable of advancing at computer speeds.
Granted, there is a lot of concern -- well founded -- that this eventually will make us obsolete, but companies like IBM have been working to mitigate that. IBM's Watson may be evolving to become the best doctor in the world.
Given that much of this is cloud-based, the promise is that our connected devices will start evolving at a pace that is even faster than we have seen so far. Deep learning should transition our existing digital assistants automatically into something far more powerful.
Let's just hope these systems remain on the "help humans" path, and that they don't watch too many Terminator movies.
I'm still looking for a personal robot like my namesake, Robby the Robot, and this year we'll take the next major step to getting there. By the end of the year we'll be more connected, an increasing number of us will be riding in cars driven by robots, and all of this will be enhanced by the spread of deep learning as the birth of true AI progresses. I'm just hoping the new Terminator movie isn't prophetic.
If you are at CES this week, best of luck getting around. This is one show that not only will showcase the future of transportation, but also could really use it. Getting around Las Vegas this week once again will be a never-ending nightmare.