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Predicting the future of technology

We sat down with AI expert, Dr Adam Pantanowitz, to get his predictions on the future of technology.

Now, we see technology all around us – it was slow at first and, then, completely sudden. It generally follows an exponential trend. Over time, technology has been growing faster and faster, and the impact of technology is even more rapid.

Technology forms so much of our daily lives, it’s hard to imagine it increasing but it certainly will. In the future, we can imagine technology becoming even more integrated with our lives and our stream of consciousness.

And you can also imagine the way we interact with computers changing. Instead of doing things in a rudimentary way with our fingers and thumbs, technology may be more seamlessly integrated with our neurology in invasive or non-invasive brain-computer interfaces.

When we look at how technology will change the future of work, it will have a massive, transformative impact on industry. You can imagine yourself partnering with technology in more intimate, interactive ways.

1. What is the metaverse?

The metaverse isn’t really well understood because there are actually two different versions of the metaverse.

There is the hypothetical metaverse we see in science fiction. This is the idea that internet becomes a single immersive experience, where we conduct our lives and create multiple worlds and experiences.

The current version is something different. We see multiple 3-D immersive worlds popping up and people calling it the metaverse. It is accessed through virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). With VR you wear a headset to access a three-dimension (3-D) world, using an interface (for example, a keyboard) and audio (your voice) to navigate the world and interact with others. AR isn’t fully immersive. In AR, we look at reality as it stands and superimpose a computing interface into that reality.

AR and VR, together, form what we call spatial computing. The metaverse will exploit the tools of spatial computing to allow you to feel like you’re in a different world.

During Covid-19, at a time of social separation, it created a portal where it doesn’t really matter where you are as long as you’re accessing the same system, which exists as a layer outside of our reality. This idea of being delocalised as a human being presents some exciting opportunities.

“You can imagine a future where artificial intelligence is generating worlds at a faster rate than we can consume them, that would be my vision of a future metaverse.”

2. What is blockchain technology?

In its simplest form, blockchain in a distributed record, a record that’s stored in multiple places and when the record changes somewhere it synchronises somewhere else.

Today, people are building what is known as Web 3. This is the latest ‘version’ of the internet, where the centralised control of the internet becomes dissolved and distributed. In Web 3, we use blockchain in part to store these records.

A lot of the hype around the metaverse is due to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), blockchain-based assets that have unique identifiers. NFTs can’t be confused or swapped, with only a single version of each asset on any given blockchain Web 3, blockchain, and the metaverse have links which synergise together. NFTs will be sold in metaverses.

For instance, you’ll be able to buy an asset that is uniquely yours, like a piece of art, and display it in a virtual house that others can come to and visit. In future, we may be so immersed in the metaverse that we’ll end up spending more time there than we do in normal reality via VR and AR. This is one of the potential justifications of the value some people associate with NFTs.

In the digital world, your reach is greater than in any physical reality. Companies will be able to develop, produce, and sell their products in a metaverse. In this scenario, a virtual private banker is not an impossibility.

“When metaverses are created, they may not be created by a single organisation, but rather by a distributed group of people in some decentralised way – so they may leverage blockchain for assets purchased in a metaverse environment to gain access to certain features for financial transactions.”

3. The future of artificial intelligence and robotics

The future of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) is an exciting and fast-moving field. There are cogent links between these two worlds.

When we think of a robot, we think of something physical. When we think of AI, we think of something inside the computer. But, they are closely linked concepts. For instance, you may have software deployed to a robot to help it navigate its environment – that would be AI within a robot.

On the other side, you may have a robot that doesn’t exist in the real world, it exists in software as a simulation.

Robotics and AI will have an impact on the way we execute our daily work. We’ve already automated much of our work. In future, we won’t be telling programmes explicitly how to do the work – with machine learning and data - it will learn itself. It will become more seamless and integrated.

As an example, in mining, overhead cameras roaming the earth, taking footage of the planet, could be used to optimise the allocation of resources. We could best use our scarce resources to identify optimal new sites for mining and better understand the lifecycle of mining activity.

“This field is about improvement and optimisation. So, anywhere in your work where there’s an opportunity to be more efficient, AI can help you achieve that.”

Artificial intelligence in healthcare

Technology and AI are impacting healthcare in dramatic ways, and it’s certainly going to increase in the future.

Right now, we’re seeing that impact in diagnostics, in terms of public health policy and public health prevention. It also affects the way we understand, study, and practise medicine and fundamentally perform research.

Our belief, as medical practitioners, is that we will be able to augment and enhance the way healthcare is performed and, hopefully, do it at scale.

A practical example is in the field of radiology. In Africa, more than 90% of radiological images taken are never seen. This is because radiologists, as specialists, are difficult to train and their work is time consuming.

With so many radiological images going unseen, many people go undiagnosed and, even though the equipment exists, the scarcity is in the skillsets required for diagnostics. AI can help with this problem.

AI is starting to diagnose many radiological images and can better choose which images radiologists need to see to help radiologists with the problem of scale. Now, in a region where there might be only three radiologist per 100 000 population, there won’t be the problem of that 90% going undiagnosed.

“We’ve seen advancements across healthcare, from the public health components of healthcare – where interventions act at scale – all the way through to personalised individualised medicine.”

4. Human-computer interaction

The way we as humans interact with computers is a technology field called human-computer interaction (HCI).

It’s existed since the onset of computers, to give them inputs to give us outputs. Earlier on, it was through punch cards and, now, it’s more likely with our thumbs on our smartphones. But, it’s still a fairly slow and low bandwidth way of inputting information.

In future, it’s likely that HCI will speed up. The boundary between us and machines will start to dissolve. We can imagine a more seamless way, through HCI placed near or in our brains that measure the activity of our neurological systems non-invasively or invasively, to transmit information back to computers.

At Wits, for example, we developed a research project that exploited the human eye, with the vestibular ocular reflex. This is the reflex that allows you to fixate your gaze on a given point without when moving your head or your body.

We exploited this evolutionary trait – it’s allowed us to watch for danger and evade it at the same time – for HCI. We placed a head-mounted camera focused on the user’s eye to allow them to use their vestibular ocular reflex to drag a mouse around a computer screen in a more natural way.

“In the future, it’s likely that human-computer interaction will speed up and the boundary between us and machines will start to dissolve.”

What does the future hold?

We can imagine the technology of the future becoming totally dissolved – the way we interact with them would be seamless.

It would become something so natural to us, something that we may not need to manipulate to interact with the technology itself. It is likely to become something even more magical to behold.

“The best technologies look like magic to us.”

About Adam

Adam Pantanowitz

Dr Adam Pantanowitz is a biomedical and electrical engineer, a faculty member of Singularity University, a lecturer for medicine and engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, an entrepreneur, as well as a world-renowned keynote speaker