Bengaluru: What must it have felt like to be a cotton spinner or an iron maker in England in the 1820s in the midst of an industrial revolution? Exactly 200 years later, we may be on the verge of another era of momentous change: the internet revolution. With internet access expanding dramatically post the early 1990s, a slew of new technologies have now matured to a point where fundamental change constantly seems to be right around the corner.
On the doorstep of a brand new decade—the 2020s—what new frontiers may Artificial Intelligence (AI) or gene editing open up? Will we soon have robot bosses? Will mixed reality change the way we consume entertainment and sports? Will we be able to cure 90% of all genetic diseases by the end of the decade? We take a look at five technologies that could alter India and the world. This may not be a definitive or even exhaustive list, but it is a list of things that could change the way we live, work, and play sooner than we think.
Imagine watching a football match, not on your TV but on a virtual reality (VR) headset that streams the match live and projects interesting stats on the fly with the help of augmented reality (AR). Mumbai-based VR startup Tesseract, now owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio, is promising a future like that with its Quark camera, Holoboard headset, and the high internet speeds of Jio Fiber. Similarly, a Hyderabad-based mixed reality startup called Imaginate enables cross-device communication over VR and AR wearables for better enterprise collaboration in the industrial sector.
Despite the much-hyped yet unmet expectations from the likes of Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens and Facebook’s Oculus, Tesseract and Imaginate simply underscore how the fusion of AR and VR technologies — the combination of which is popularly known as Mixed Reality or MR — is coming of age and is no longer in the realm of just sci-fi movies like Blade Runner 2049, where Officer K played by Ryan Gosling develops a relationship with his artificial intelligence (AI) hologram companion Joi.
For instance, AI-powered chatbots today can not only conduct a conversation in natural language via audio or text but they can be made more powerful with a dose of mixed reality. Last May, Fidelity Investments created a prototype VR financial advisor named Cora to answer client queries using a suite of tools from Amazon Web Services. Researchers in Southampton have built a device that displays 3D animated objects that can talk and interact with onlookers.
The Chinese government-run Xinhua News Agency has the world’s first AI-powered news anchor, whose voice has been modelled to resemble a real human anchor working for the agency. Going a step further, Japan-headquartered DataGrid Inc. uses generative adversarial networks (GANs) to develop its so-called “whole body model automatic generation AI" that automatically generates full-length images of non-existent people with high resolutions.
Nevertheless, challenges abound when dealing MR-and AI-powered robots, humanoids, and human avatars. For one, whenever a company generates human bodies and faces, concerns over deep fakes and cheap fakes will always rear their heads. Second, data collection will continually raise concerns over security and privacy. Third, there’s always the concern regarding the fairness of an AI algorithm when it is deployed to do human tasks— like giving financial advice. Last, but not the least, there’s also the question of whether AI bots should be allowed to pose as humans. This will continually pose a challenge and opportunity for technologists and policy makers.
Future of solar
Heliogen, a company that has billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates as one of its investors, says it has created the world’s first technology that can commercially replace fuels with carbon-free, ultra-high temperature heat from the sun. With its patented technology, Heliogen’s field of mirrors acts as a multi-acre magnifying glass to concentrate and capture sunlight.
This is just a case in point that solar technologies have evolved a lot since they first made their debut in the 1960s. For instance, solar roadways—panels lining the surface of highways—have already popped up in the Netherlands. Floating solar, on its part, is providing a credible option to address land use concerns associated with wide scale solar implementations. A French firm called Ciel et Terre, for instance, has projects set up in France, Japan, and England. Other parts of the world, including India and California in the US, are piloting similar floating solar initiatives.
Space-based solar technology is another exciting arena. India, China and Japan are investing heavily in these technologies right now. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Space Solar Power Systems (SSPS) aims to transmit energy from orbiting solar panels by 2030. Further, researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland have used solar and 3D printing technologies to develop prototypes of what they have christened as “energy harvesting trees".
With solar power cheaper than coal in most countries in the world, it’s worth scaling up these technologies.
Indians and robot bosses
Between 400 and 800 million individuals around the world could be displaced by automation and would need to find new jobs by 2030, predicted a December 2017 survey by consultancy firm McKinsey. The Future of Jobs 2018 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggests that 75 million jobs may be lost to automation by 2022, but adds that another 133 million additional new roles will be created.
Given that many of the automated jobs are being taken away by AI-powered chatbots and intelligent robots, would humans eventually have to work for a robo boss? This, however, may not be as big a concern as it is made out to be. According to the second annual AI at Work study conducted by Oracle and Future Workplace, people trust robots more than their managers. The study, released this October, notes that workers in China (77%) and India (78%) have adopted AI over 2X more than those in France (32%) and Japan (29%). Further, workers in India (60%) and China (56%) are the most excited about AI, while men have a more positive view of AI at work than women.
Oracle and Future Workplace also found that 82% of the workers believe robot managers are better at certain tasks, such as maintaining work schedules and providing unbiased information, than their human counterparts. And almost two-thirds (64%) of workers worldwide say they would trust a robot more than their human manager. In China and India, that figure rises to almost 90%.
On the other hand, the respondents felt managers can outdo robots when it comes to understanding their feelings, coaching them, and creating a healthy work culture. Whether humans eventually serve a robo boss or not remains to be seen. However, we can be certain of one thing: in the near future, we will increasingly see humans collaborating with smart robots.
Future of payments
Everyone can be a merchant, and every device can be an acceptance device," Accenture noted in its 2017 Driving the Future of Payments report. This trend has only accelerated over the last two years, especially with banks coming to terms with the fact that young customers, especially those living in urban areas, prefer net banking and mobile banking and would seldom, or never, want to visit a bank branch if offered that choice.
Bitcoin and cryptocurrency investors, for instance, have not lost faith in this disruptive currency despite the run with volatility, and despite the industry being viewed with a lot of suspicion by most governments around the world, including India. Fintechs too, with their innovative technology solutions like AI-powered bots and contactless payments to name a few, have only made the payments ecosystem more inclusive, disruptive, and challenging. In India, especially, the government’s Aadhaar-enabled payments system and the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) have revolutionized the payments ecosystem. The total volume of UPI transactions in the third quarter of calendar 2019 touched 2.7 billion—a 183% rise over the same July-September quarter a year ago. In terms of value, UPI clocked ₹4.6 trillion—up 189% over the same period a year ago, according to the Worldline’s India Digital Payments Report-Q3 2019.
However, the number of transactions done on mobile wallets was 1.04 billion—only a 5% rise over the previous year period.
QR codes, according to the report, will continue to be used for payments, and the internet of things (IoT) is set to dominate micro payments by transforming connected devices into payment channels, though the pace of adoption of 5G by countries like India will be the key.
Nevertheless, cash that has been in existence for over 3000 years in different forms is not going to disappear in a hurry. Trust and security will continue to remain the operative words in digital payments.
Making sense of gene editing
When Dolly the sheep made news for becoming the first mammal ever to be cloned from another individual’s body cell, many expected human cloning to follow soon. Dolly died over 16 years ago, and subsequently animals, including monkeys and dogs, continue to be cloned successfully. Yet, no human being has yet been cloned in real life.
While human cloning, which may or may not eventually happen, is bound to raise a lot of alarm bells given the moral implications surrounding the issue, the fact is that human genomes, or genes, are being routinely edited in a bid to find solutions for what are today considered to be incurable genetically inherited diseases.
Researchers are using a gene editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR, which stands for Clusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a tool that allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. The protein Cas9 (CRISPR-associated, or Cas) is an enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors capable of cutting strands of DNA.
CRISPR-Cas9 is primarily known for its use in treating diseases like AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Huntington’s disease. Two patients, one with beta thalassemia and one with sickle cell disease, have potentially been cured of their diseases, reveal results from clinical trials that were jointly conducted by Vertex Pharmaceuticals and CRISPR Therapeutics. The results released this November involved using Crispr to edit the genes of these patients.
Researchers are now looking to extend its use to tackle famine, lend a hand in creating antibiotics, and even wipe out an entire species such as malaria-spreading mosquitoes. Further, by genetically engineering a person’s bone marrow cells, researchers can reprogram their immune and circulatory systems. Some new cancer treatments are based on this. Moreover, looking at the DNA of the collection of microbes in your gut can help with digestive disorders, weight loss, and even help understand mood changes.
Closer home, scientists at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) and the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology (CSIR-IICB) are trying to correct genetic mutations in their laboratories using CRISPR Cas9 with encouraging preliminary results. But due to regulatory and ethical concerns, it may take a while before they can use this on humans.
IGIB also sells CRISPR products such as Cas9 proteins and its variants to educational institutes at reduced prices in a bid to encourage use of the technology.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on its part, considers any use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing in humans to be gene therapy and rules that the sale of DIY kits to produce gene therapies for self-administration is illegal. India, too, has banned the use of stem cell therapy for commercial use following concerns over “rampant malpractice".
CRISPR-Cas9, thus, remains a work in progress and countries should have policies to govern its use. Meanwhile, one can watch out for an upgrade to CRISPR called Prime, which theoretically has the ability to snip out more than 90% of all genetic diseases.