In 2018, disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and computer vision are maturing, going from game-changing ideas to foundational tools for business. This year, we’ll see these and other technologies drive how business gets done and what new products will launch in the near future.
To get a sense of what’s ahead for this year, we looked at the technologies experts say are most likely to affect a wide variety of organizations as they undergo digital transformations. Pros in these fields gave us their top picks for what should be on your radar, as well as some insight into the implications of adopting these new technologies.
Smart health tech
Last month, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase announced a joint venture with a focus on using technology to offer their employees and their families “simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.” Health insurance stocks dropped on the news, as industry watchers theorized how new technology might broadly affect health care.
Some analysts see gains already being made in preventative care. In 2018 Tech Market research firm ABI forecasts that businesses will widely adopt remote patient monitoring, with 18 million wearables incorporated into corporate wellness programs. The firm predicts that number to jump to 44 million by 2021.
Video, videoconferencing, and VR
In a survey of nearly 300 companies to determine what makes a great employee experience, researchers at MIT found a surprise at the top of the list: video. Investments in video technology lead to innovation, as well as improved collaboration and productivity, researchers found.
“We see firms investing significantly in interactive video technologies particularly as they spread the use of agile methodology beyond their software development teams to the rest of the business,” says Kristine Dery, a research scientist at MIT’s Sloan Center for Information Systems Research. “This highly interactive agile method of project delivery — with daily stand-ups — requires teams to either be face to face, or to have the technologies that replicate those more intimate situations as closely as possible.”
Dery predicts that video tech will continue to simulate and improve face-to-face communication with new features, like virtual reality (VR) and other immersive tech (see below), especially as organizations work to fill the skills gap with distributed teams.
Customer service is an area where transformation to digital is moving, for better or worse, at a blinding pace. Gartner predicts the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse by 2020.
“In 2018, chatbots will rapidly become more sophisticated, dramatically reducing costs of routine customer care activities, and often improving the customer experience,” says Scott Zoldi, chief analytics officer for FICO. “In the coming year, chatbots will quickly understand the tone, content and predicted highest-value conversational paths to meet various objectives.”
Zoldi also offers a warning: “This subtle ‘engagement’ can turn to manipulation through AI that learns the magic words to sway our attitude, actions and possibly elicit en masse reactions.”
A recent CompTIA report finds that IoT devices are helping to reduce costs and improve efficiency in industrial settings.
“From gathering new data to automation of infrastructure,” the CompTIA study reports, “companies are finding many benefits from adding connectivity and intelligence to physical infrastructure.”
Rowan Trollop, senior vice president of IoT at Cisco, notes increases of IoT in smart factories, tying together devices, sensors and other assets. “Early adopters are already seeing big reductions, in equipment downtime … process waste, and energy consumption in factories.”
Increased IoT adoption will present new security threats and a need for manufacturing to work with IT groups to identify risks and provide wide-ranging protection, Trollop says. “Escalating risks mean that manufacturing — an industry generally slow to implement security measures — has to be more expeditious about taking action.”
Voice control and virtual assistants
Analysts and other experts say 2018 is a year where natural language processing improves substantially and takes hold in the enterprise, a trend that will continue as workers who grew up with voice control integrated with cloud computing enter the workforce.
“Voice-activated assistants have already begun permeating the business setting, but it’s still early days in terms of tapping into and unlocking the power of what this technology can fully do,” says Christian Pedersen, chief product officer of S/4HANA Cloud at SAP. “We’re starting to see examples of both the demand and need for these technologies with the announcement of Alexa for Business late last year and the voice assistant takeover we saw at CES. To power today’s evolving business setting, we need to propel these businesses with trainable digital assistant technologies that are smart, predictive, have the capability to learn, and can quickly adapt to the new and changing environment.”
But what direct impact with voice assistants have in the workplace? “In the short term, we see assistants helping increase productivity and improve work-life balance. In the longer term, we’ll see voice assistants replacing our computer screens and keyboards,” Pedersen adds.
Immersive experiences (AR, VR, mixed reality)
Research firm Gartner expects by next year augmented reality (AR), VR, and mixed reality — which combines aspects of the two — will be used by 20 percent of large businesses.
“Immersive experiences in 2018 through the use of [head-mounted displays (HMDs)] will continue to improve at a rapid pace,” says Lewis Richards, head of 21st century human practice at Leading Edge Forum. “All the major players are in a race to provide consumer tools that will build platform ecosystems.” Gartner predicts HMDs will create $72 billion in revenue for the devices alone.
Bill Bodin, CTO for Kony, an enterprise app maker, explains the use case for AR in a range of industries. “In retail, we augment store shelves and products in real-time,” he says. “In maintenance, repair, and many industrial applications, we create informational overlays on mechanical or electrical equipment, putting key instrumentation metrics directly in the hands of the people servicing the area. For airports, we create virtual displays, personalized to the traveler. In banks, we use augmented reality to direct customers to key service areas and dynamically show the names and specialty areas of the branch staff. For those that service banking equipment, such as ATMs, we provide views of internal peripheral failures and deliver secure repair references tailored precisely to the problem.”
Gartner predicts AR will outpace VR for business use. “The technology will evolve from pilot projects with modest growth to sustainable business models, market maturity and global availability,” the firm says. “The technology shipping in 2020 will be markedly different than anything available today.”
Research firm ABI identifies smart manufacturing as a transformative tech to watch. Ultimately the goal is to create a hands-free, heads-up experience where information can be accessed right where the work is performed.
In the meantime, industrial 3D printing — for prototypes and parts that are created on the fly — are on the rise: “ABI expects U.S. $75 billion in 3D printed products and parts in the U.S. by 2026. The value of technology-driven, lean manufacturing innovation is greater than the sum of its parts for players in industrial end markets, which are generally large, with a set of well-understood needs and slim margin.”
With buzz around autonomous vehicles and smart stores like Amazon Go, computer vision is having its moment.
“The strategy of tracking customer journeys has moved from the online marketplace to physical stores,” says Eli Portnoy, CEO of research and intelligence firm Sense360. “The proliferation of cost-efficient and generally available sensors, advances in computer vision and in artificial intelligence are creating a variety of new applications. While businesses like Amazon have been monitoring and recording our shopping habits, preferences and purchases for some time now, brick and mortar is increasingly looking to do the same to remain competitive.”
Hauling freight is an area that’s ripe for integration of AI and computer vision, says Chris Nicholson, CEO of Skymind. “FedEx and other large companies have been piloting this technology, while startups such as [trucking firm] Peloton are building it from the ground up.”
Companies looking to hire engineers in the field are finding it’s a hard ticket to punch. “Computer vision is the hardest position to fill,” says Mike Grandinetti, CMO and CSO of storage firm Reduxio. “Qualified candidates command $400K salaries,” Grandinetti says, and expect a lot of freedom and, at least at startups, a lot of equity.
Artificial intelligence for services
Neil Sahota, worldwide business development leader and master inventor for the IBM Watson group, says this year we’ll see AI make strides in industries as varied as real estate, law, and most visibly, in hospitality.
“As more guests demand an always-on and personalized concierge service, hotels are activating chatbots to create [concierges] that can help with any request in a timely manner,” Sahota says. “By remembering and processing tons of information that ranges from the nearest restaurant recommendations to tomorrow’s weather, AI can help developers create bots that cater to each guest’s preferences. Also, bots allow guests to engage with the hotel from any location through their mobile devices. Hotels like Marriott International and Cosmopolitan Las Vegas have already begun implementing bot concierge services, and there will be more hotels jumping on the bandwagon in 2018.”
Kevin Ryder, chief marketing office at software firm Integrated Research, agrees.
“AI is even helping to predict customer behavior, providing advice to customer service reps on how best to solve a particular issue,” Ryder says. “In 2018, we will see even greater acceptance of bots as a legitimate alternative to human interaction for customer service.”
Containers and microservices
Containers and microservices are attracting interest from organizations that need to quickly develop apps, especially ones that employ IoT and/or the cloud.
“It’s interesting to see IoT projects pulling in many vogue technologies like edge computing, serverless and containers, along with organizational structures around DevOps and microservices,” says Todd Loeppke, lead CTO architect at Sungard AS.
Container and microservices platforms are attractive for smaller, new projects with low risk, says Dan Juengst, principal technology evangelist at OutSystems.
“As organizations become more comfortable with managing these modern container-based microservices architectures, we’ll see continued growth,” Juengst says. “Many organizations will stand up container orchestration platforms such as Docker, Kubernetes or Cloud Foundry to help manage the lifecycle of containers as their use grows.”
Amit Zavery, senior vice president of product development at Oracle Cloud Platform, says the effect of blockchain is being seen outside of the finance industry, in areas like improving the supply chain and addressing security.
“Already, greater than 2,500 new blockchain-related patents have been filed,” Zavery says, “while the financial impact is predicted to top $176 billion by 2025. In just two years, we expect blockchain to have become the disruptive standard in modern commerce. You could argue that blockchain has achieved this status already, and is beginning to influence other industries just as profoundly, in healthcare, retail, the public sector” and other areas.
Vincent Manier, CFO at Engie Insight, says we’ll see major disruption to companies’ finance departments that expand beyond accounting, “a 600-year-old double-entry system. It’s crucial for CFOs to not only closely examine the external disruption blockchain will set in motion, but also prepare for the impact on their internal finance organizations. Everything from reconciliation and cash application to PO and invoice matching could soon be taken over by a distributed ledger technology.”
Combining cloud and edge technology offers the benefits of computing power at the source with the ability to host, manipulate and analyze data transferred from those sources. Think personal health data sent to a centralized cloud, or data from a car sent to the cloud to alleviate traffic congestion.
“While it’s common to assume that cloud and edge computing are competing approaches, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts,” according to a Gartner report. “Enterprises should begin using edge design patterns in their infrastructure architectures.”
“It’s a new paradigm, one that I see augmenting existing architectures for particular use cases,” says Glen Robinson, emerging technology advisor at Leading Edge Forum. “It help reduce latency, decouples systems, builds in resiliency, reduces cost, so it’s mostly a good thing, but the edge and the hybrid architectures where it adds value are ill understood.”
A frequently mentioned concern, as companies undergo their digital transformation, is how to address a nearly overwhelming amount of data and glean insight.
Jewell Parkinson, head of HR at SAP, says these same issues will also affect human resources, where new streams of data offer opportunities and also challenges in maintaining companies’ focus on ethics, corporate culture, and compliance.
“What 2017 has shown us is the need for a dedicated focus joining forces with other key stakeholders across the enterprise operating as the key cultural safeguard for organizations of all sizes and industries,” Parkinson says. “In 2018, we’ll see continued focus on the importance of culture, reputation and socially responsible technology engagement.”