Depending on your perspective, we are either starting the last year of the old decade or starting the first year of the new decade.
In the layperson’s world of numbers, folks tend to start counting from one. Zero certainly does exist in the decimal number system, but it hasn't always been in our counting lexicon. The convention is not to include zero as an option when counting things because when we are babies, we hold up one finger, and then two, and so on. One, two, three, four—you start with one cookie and go from there, and no one wants to ask for no cookies. From that viewpoint, the last decade would consist of years 2011 through 2020.
In the digital world, however, we tend to start counting at zero. Most programming language compilers start array indexes with zero. And you can have a value at position zero, which can be a cookie. Given that, electronic-type people are more likely to fall into the camp that says the year 2020 is the start of a new decade. Unless, of course, your programming language has the capability to enumerate array indices; then, you might start at the year “turtle,” and this could be a “watermelon” of the decade.
Regardless of what you call the decade, a lot of change is in store. Here are five of the more significant technological shifts directly ahead of us and how to respond.
1. The Internet of Things (IoT) Becomes Real
The internet really came into its own in the first decade of the century. It evolved from a set of independent websites into a single connected entity. But, for the most part, you had to go to it; you had to sit at a fixed location of some sort with a desktop, laptop, or early-model tablet.
This last decade, however, the internet became ubiquitous. It grew to encompass us and is now everywhere. Today, we are almost never away from the internet. In fact, we often don’t even know that we are connected or what parts of our world are talking with what.
That always-around internet from the teens of the century made way for the IoT. The IoT is big news these days, but is far more potential than reality; it is still new and often doesn’t work all that well. There are too many gaps in coverage and too many components that require too much technical knowledge to install, set up, and fully utilize. However, there will come a day within the next 10 years when that is no longer the case.
Translating this into action: Get comfortable designing small PCBs, and get familiar with microcontrollers and wireless technologies.
2. True Wireless Power and Energy Harvesting Will Go Mainstream
WiFi devices are great, but you still need to give them power somehow. High-power devices still need to be wired in or plugged in, and low-power devices still need either rechargeable or replaceable primary (non-rechargeable) batteries.
Almost everything other than power can now be wireless, and some devices can be charged today by setting them on a small wireless charger pod. Today’s wireless charging is nice, but it is still something you need to give thought to.
By the end of this decade, you will not need to think about it. Wireless charging will be standardized and far more flexible than today’s little pods. Smaller devices will consume little enough power that energy harvesting will be a viable alternative to primary cells for remote devices. Larger devices will get power from charging fields in desks, walls, cars, and just about everywhere imaginable. Essentially, for most things that you buy, you simply will not need to worry about how and when they get their power.
Translating this into action: Improve your skills at low-power design and refresh your knowledge of electromagnetic induction.
3. Artificial Intelligence (AI) Becomes Mainstream
I doubt many other pundits would disagree with me on this one. However, I see a slightly different perspective than I've seen from most others. That is, I don't see AI, or "the machine," taking us over and enslaving us. I see us creating the machine and then twisting and enslaving it for our own very human purposes.
In March of 2016, Microsoft put an AI chatbot out on Twitter. It used machine learning to improve its ability to interact with people and become more human. Within less than 24 hours, it had become a racist, misogynist, jerk. We humans took over that embryonic form of AI and twisted it into the worst that we can be.
Humans may still end up being enslaved, but it won't be by AI. If it happens, it will be by humans using very human-controlled systems. I believe that most people are inherently good, but a small number of folks who want to do damage have an inherent advantage over a larger number of those that don't. Computer systems can amplify that advantage to a terrible degree, and that's where we need to throw a lot of vigilance.
AI will become mainstream in the next decade. The machine won't be sentient, but it will largely be indistinguishable from humans. We need to work hard to ensure that it can appropriately deal with the negative human elements, or we'll be surrounded by depressed, disrespectful, and angry machines.
Translating this into action: AI requires a lot of computing power. If you want to be involved as a hardware person, study up on your high-speed digital (HSD) and high-density interconnect (HDI) PCB design skills.
4. Viable, Self-driving Cars
Fully autonomous cars seem to be getting pretty close to viability, but there are still far too many challenging edge cases for them to be safe. The computer systems can already typically see and react faster than humans, which is a good solid step. But the cars still struggle with judgment and the ability to quickly process things they have not experienced before or been programmed for.
If a human driver has never before seen the road covered in spilled whole fish, they can probably still figure out what to do to avoid hitting it or anything around it. The car computer may not be able to discern that the fish are a hazard, yet the road is still drivable.
A big part of this will entail modifying the road system to better accommodate some of the limitations of automotive vision and decision processing. One group of people will claim that a car isn’t really self-driving if the roads need to be modified to allow the cars to drive themselves. Another set will be there until someone points out to them how much of our road system is designed or modified to accommodate limitations in the way humans drive, walk, and interact with cars.
Translating this into action: Give some creative thought toward the electronics involved in road infrastructure, such as power transmission, control electronics, and fault-tolerant, high-speed wireless technologies.
5. Traffic Jams on the Internet
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed that about every other week, some publication or industry expert was predicting that internet traffic would outstrip the backbone capacity, and the whole system would collapse in on itself. It never did, and that’s not what I’m talking about.
What will happen, though, are traffic jams or brownouts. One of the reasons that the internet has worked so well and grown so fast is that it hasn’t had many artificial limits placed on it. That’s changing due to purposeful throttling and new security policies.
Until identity and security are fundamentally figured out, security policies and practices will become more and more onerous for both humans and systems. These tough policies will increasingly cause false positives, especially during periods of high demand, such as around holidays.
For most of the next few years, selective outages will become a regular occurrence. Your bank computers will be shut down, or the grocery store or gas station will not be able to process credit cards. These brownouts may also manifest in a more traditional sense. Power companies sensing possible attacks will shut off parts of the grid as a precautionary measure. Other utilities, traffic lights, airlines, and any part of the infrastructure are at risk of this type of outage.
Translating this into action: Keep some cash handy if you are into security.
Over the last 10 years, a truly mind-numbing array of technologies have become a part of our everyday lives. Some of the big things were already invented when the decade started, but they became real in the 20-teens: ubiquitous smartphones, connected home devices, real-time navigation, electric cars, reusable rockets, smart cruise control, phone cams, and an always-online and connected world. I really don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.
Duane Benson is marketing manager and CTO at Screaming Circuits.