The second decade of the 21st century was depicted in science-fiction movies from the 80s as a magical period in which cars would fly, androids walk among people on the streets and the world would flourish or turn into dystopia. When Marty McFly did not arrive on October 21st 2015, and in November 2019 we still did not need the services of Rick Deckard, many could begin to wonder whether technological development is fast enough. However, such assumptions would be wrong and incorrectly depict how our reality has changed under the influence of technology. So let’s look at various aspects of our lives in order to see if we are certainly so far from the world presented in “Back to the Future” or “Blade Runner”.
It is a fact that none of us owns a true hoverboard, but would anyone think in 2009 that in 2019, using only their cell phone, we will be moving through the streets on scooters, which before our travel stood abandoned on the sidewalks or lay loose on the grass? Or drive from place to place in cars later legally left in the appropriate parking spots? Thanks to fast data transmission and appropriate applications, we can share and rent for a specified period almost everything we have. From the mentioned transport (Uber, Traficar), through rooms and houses (Airbnb, Booking.com), ending with skills and knowledge (Skillshare, Fiverr). When we have a free room in the house, nothing prevents us from renting it to a pair of tourists for a week. Do we go skiing only during the winter holidays? Why not rent the skis for a small fee to someone else, which will refund the price of the equipment in the long run? Ebay, founded in 1995 in the USA, is recognized as the service that started the phenomenon of sharing goods, but Airbnb and Uber have established the modern principles of sharing economy. The enormous popularity of these services in the first half of the second decade of the 21st century significantly influenced the number of created solutions that use sharing as the main business form.
While this phenomenon was spreading in other countries, problems have been observed in the integration of the new way of organizing services with applicable local laws and international agreements. Sharing completely changes the way the economy works and the way we live. This forces adaptation of existing laws to new conditions, which requires many experiments that aren’t usually successful. However, this doesn’t mean that sharing economy won’t be favorably integrated with well established forms of doing business. With the increasing population of people and the decreasing amount of goods, sharing what we have rather than continuous acquisition and consumption is certainly an interesting way to earn and make the best use of the items bought and services offered.
Medicine has developed rapidly over the past 200 years. It is hard to believe that in the 19th century not all doctors knew what asepsis was, patients were not anesthetized during the procedures, and most of the operations were fatal. Despite such impressive progress, there are still many diseases that we cannot cure or significantly slow down their effects. Technological progress, as well as the development of science in the nineteenth century, provided new opportunities to overcome death and improve the lives of the sick. There are already many inventions that reduce the number of obstacles that patients face every day. Let’s look at three of them.
In 2012, Liftware was created from a group of scientists and engineers. During the year of their work, a prototype was created (later improved and perfected) of an intelligent spoon enabling people with hand tremors, e.g. those suffering from Parkinson’s disease, to eat meals on their own. It has a set of sensors and controllers that detect unwanted tremors and move the cutlery in the opposite direction to their movement. In parallel, the Chinese company Gyenno also created its solution in 2013. Both companies claim that their spoons compensate between 70% and 85% of involuntary vibrations.
Another interesting invention are the EnChroma colorblind glasses. Certainly many people have seen videos on the Internet of people wearing dark glasses and seeing colors for the first time. It is them. They were created by Dr. Donald McPherson. For almost 10 years he conducted research on color blindness, and in 2010 founded the company EnChroma Inc., which in 2012 launched its first glasses. They filter appropriate wavelengths of light in order to increase the difference between colors that the patient cannot distinguish or has problems in recognizing them. Due to the existence of many forms of colorblindness, it is estimated that four out of five colorblind people will feel a difference when using the above, created for them, glasses.
Virtual and augmented reality, respectively VR and AR, definitely deserve a separate article and has many already available on Internet. This technology can be useful in every aspect of life, from entertainment through work and study, ending with space travel and medicine. Let’s focus, however, on the last one. Creating additional reality allows you to simulate elements that are difficult to access or unreachable at the moment, or create additional depth for existing objects. In healthcare, this solution is ideal for training, diagnostics and rehabilitation. Using HoloLens glasses, St. Mary’s Hospital in London and at the same time Cleveland clinic in cooperation with Case Western Reserve University projected images obtained from MRIs and CT scans on the patient’s body. In the future, it’ll save time needed for patient diagnostics and allow faster surgery. On the other hand, students at University of South Florida’s College of Pharmacy use VR and AR to learn how specific drugs work on humans and to simulate a surgery without entering the operating room.
The last 10 years have been a breakthrough for artificial intelligence in many aspects. Nowadays algorithms not only recognise cats and dogs, or replace the faces of celebrities with ours in movies, but also win games with us and drive cars on their own. Of course, given the very narrow number of criteria.
Machine learning has been developed since the 1950s, and the number of discoveries and innovations in this field is constantly growing. In 2010, the ImageNet project, a large database for image recognition, started the ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge, which aims to find software that makes the least mistakes in recognising objects in photos every year. In 2012, a convolutional neural network called AlexNet won this challenge, achieving only top-5 error rate of 15.3%, while in 2015 ResNet, a residual network, reached 3.6%. It was the first algorithm that won the competition and obtained a smaller percentage of error than it was achieved by human (5.1%) on the given data set.
Since IBM Watson, a supercomputer, won the Jeopardy! tournament in 2011, we see more and more software that defeats champions in all sorts of games. In 2015, an algorithm called AlphaGo, using elements of machine learning and decision trees, defeated the professional Go player, a strategic board game considered one of the most difficult games due to the huge number of possible positions on the board. Shortly afterwards, in 2017, OpenAI Five algorithm won with a professional player Dendi in Dota 2. In early 2019, DeepMind presented AlphaStar, a program playing in real time in Starcraft II. It reached Grandmaster Level last October, becoming better than 99.8% of the people playing this game.
Intelligent cars also stopped to be just a figment of human imagination. Since Tesla introduced Autopilot to Tesla Model S and Model X in the middle of the decade, in many cases the presence of the driver became necessary only for legal reasons. Current software can park independently, maintain speed, move on the highway, maintain one lane and a safe distance from other vehicles. However, autonomous city driving is still being developed.
Although we still have a problem with implementing an algorithm capable of passing the Turing test, and the neural network used in autonomous cars sometimes may confuse the stop sign with the speed limit sign when we put a black sticker on it, but let’s treat it as a challenge for the next decade. Let’s be glad that our machines can create catchy songs suitable for Eurovision.
Despite many incredible achievements and inventions, it would be impossible if we didn’t observe dystopian aspects of technological development. The concept of fake news, false information, has gained in popularity in recent years, since everyone is able to create their own post depicting a false event. The use of bots and trolls to spread a changed or untrue article often increases people’s credibility and makes the described situation a reality.
On the other hand, when we should check every information received, we must also be more careful about our privacy. Before 2010, no one wondered what they shared on Facebook or Myspace, nor considered reversing or hiding the webcam. Since when in 2013 Edward Snowden presented the scale of surveillance conducted by US government, revealing PRISM program, massive discussion started of the security of our information on the web. It flared up even more when in 2018 Channel 4 News journalists revealed that Cambridge Analytica by illegally using the data of 87 million Facebook users, analysed and processed it to select recipients of election spots for Donald Trump in 2015 US presidential election and for the Leave.EU group during the UK referendum in 2016. In both cases, it probably had a significant impact on the winning of both staffs.
It would be very difficult or even impossible to list all the significant technological achievements as well as events of the last decade. We try to “add” technology everywhere and empirically check whether the idea will succeed. Often it succeeds, at other times we learn something. In 2016, Elon Musk announced his next project called Neuralink, whose task is to create advanced communication between the human brain and machines. It can help paralyzed people and influence the treatment of brain diseases. On the other hand, it also creates many new questions and problems. Transcendence with Johnny Depp may soon be not just a science-fiction movie. Whether we like it or not, technology will develop and the world will move forward. Whether to perfectionism or to destruction, it depends only on us.