Looking Back at Looking Forward

I find it interesting to sometimes look backward a few years to see what predictions were made about the future of the telecom industry. Five years ago I went to an NTCA conference where several speakers made predictions about the industry, particularly as it would impact rural America. It’s interesting to look at what was predicted about today just a few years ago. Some predictions were dead on and others fizzled. Following are some of the more interesting misses.

Broadband Technologies. There were predictions that by 2020 that we’d see upgrades to G.Fast in rural copper networks and to next-generation PON equipment for fiber deployments. Neither of these happened for various reasons. US telcos have never accepted G.Fast, although there is widespread adoption in Europe where copper networks are delivering 300 Mbps speeds to customers. The big telcos in the US are making no investments in rural copper unless the FCC fully funds it. Many smaller telcos have taken advantage of changes in the Universal Service Fund to upgrade from copper to fiber rather than upgrade DSL. Next-generation PON electronics are still waiting for one big ISP to buy enough gear to lower prices.

Widespread 5G. It’s not hard to understand why this would have been believed in 2014 since the big carriers were already in hype mode even then. One prediction was that as many as 60% of cellphones would be 5G by 2020. There were several predictions that 5G was going to enable autonomous vehicles and that building fiber along highways would be routine by 2020. There was a prediction that we’d see small cells everywhere, with deployments every 3,000 feet.

The timing of 5G is far behind those predictions. I see where Cisco recently estimated that only 3% of cellphones worldwide would be 5G enabled by 2022. Most experts today believe that the cellular networks will still predominantly rely on 4G LTE even a decade from today. The idea of building a cellular network for autonomous vehicles died – it was always hard to imagine the revenue stream that would have supported that network. We may still get to a dense small cell network someday, but calling for a small cell every 3,000 feet still sounds incredibly aggressive even decades from now.

IoT and LPWAN. There was a prediction that by 2020 that we’d have deployed low bandwidth networks using 900 MHz spectrum that would connect to huge numbers of outdoor IoT sensors. The prediction was that there is a huge revenue opportunity to charge $1 monthly for each sensor. There are still those calling for these networks today, but it’s still not getting any widespread traction.

Widespread Adoption of Augmented and Virtual Reality. Those technologies were on everybody’s future list in 2014. Oculus Rift was the leader in developing virtual reality and Magic Leap had raised several rounds of funding to develop augmented reality. There is now a sizable gaming deployment of virtual reality, but virtual reality has not yet touched the average person or moved beyond gaming. Magic Leap finally started selling a developer headset at the end of last year.

We Should Be Overrun by Now with Robots and Drones. In 2014 there was a prediction of robots everywhere by 2020. New factories are manned today by robots, but robots are still news when they are used in a public-facing function. A few hotels are trying out a robot concierge. There are a few automated fast food restaurants. There are a few hospitals with robots that transport meals and medicines. Robots deliver take-out food in a few city centers and university towns.

Drones are quietly being used for functions like mapping and inspecting storm damage. Flying small drones is now a popular hobby. Amazon keeps experimenting with drone delivery of packages but it’s still in the trial stage. Commercial use of drones is still in its infancy.

Use of Data. My favorite prediction was that by 2020 we’d have software systems that can deliver data at the right place, at the right time, to the right person, on the right device. This harkens back to the old AT&T promise that someday we’d be able to watch any movie we wanted, the minute we wanted. To some degree that old promise came to pass, although it was implemented by somebody other than AT&T.

Some businesses are meeting parts of this prediction today. These are custom platforms that send trouble tickets to technicians, notify employees to connect a new customer, automate ordering of inventory, etc. However, nothing close to that promise has yet made it into our everyday lives. In fact, except for Candy Crush most of us probably still have the same apps on our smartphones we used in 2014. Many of us are still waiting for the digital assistant we were first promised a decade ago.

Got Some Things Right. It’s easy to pick on predictions that never came to pass and I’ve made plenty of those myself. There was some great prediction in 2014. One presenter said we’d continue to see the explosive growth of residential data usage, that would continue to grow at 24% per year – that’s still a dead-on prediction. There was a prediction that businesses would migrate employees to mobile devices and it is routine today to see employees in all sorts of businesses operating from a tablet. There was a prediction of explosive growth of machine-to-machine data traffic, and today this one of the areas fastest traffic growth.

Rise of the Robots

Rise of the RobotsI recently finished reading Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. In the book he paints a rather bleak look at the not-too-distant future where robots begin taking over a lot of the jobs that support us. He predicts that within a few decades over 50% of the jobs that are here today will be gone through being done better and cheaper by automation.

Unlike past predictions, he’s not just talking about factory jobs, although those are well on the way to being replaced, too. I read that Apple is working hard to automate as much of the production of the iPhone as possible. But Ford says that the first jobs to disappear will be white collar jobs and that jobs that require physical skills and people-to-people interactions like plumbers, electricians, and auto repair might be the most immune from automation.

It’s a bit glib to use the word robots, because white collar jobs are going to be taken over by the combination of supercomputers and big data processing. And it’s also a bit of a misnomer to say that jobs will be replaced. Some jobs will be 100% supplanted, but for many jobs computers will be able to take over some significant portion of the work currently done. And in doing so companies will need fewer people.

The way to understand how this might happen is to consider the recent announcement that a deep learning computer learned to play master-level chess in 72 hours. There have been computers beating the best chess players in the world for a few decades now, but this is very different. The old computers were good at chess by using brute force and the computer programs looked ahead at millions of possible outcomes before making a move. But the new deep-learning computer learned to play chess the same way that humans do.

And if the computer can learn to play chess it can learn how to do a whole lot of jobs that people do. I have a friend, Danny, who operates a large CPA firm and he has already started his business down this path. He has written programs that have fully automated the process of reconciling bank statements and using that data to produce a set of books and a draft tax return, all with almost no human intervention. This has allowed him to save on labor and probably puts him five years ahead of his competition. But the industry will catch up to him and that is going to eliminate the bookkeepers and accounting clerks who have been doing that function everywhere.

It’s not hard to picture this same computer process eliminating the jobs of almost anybody that manipulates data. If you work in front of a computer screen you probably can and will be replaced. Some of the major news outlets already are using computers to generate sports stories for box scores. These programs can take a box score and turn it into a short word blurb that is hard to distinguish from one written by a human. But the new deep-learning approach is going to go far beyond this very simple task. I just read about an AI program that is helping scientists by searching through millions of published papers to find research related to what they are working on.

Ford is an industry insider and it’s hard to find fault with his conclusions. There are many others making the same prediction, but Ford makes the case more clearly than most others I’ve read. Where I disagree with Ford is in his suggestion of a solution. It’s obvious that if half of the people don’t have work that we will have to find a social solution. He suggest what he calls a Minimum Annual Income given by the government to those who can’t find work. It’s hard to picture with today’s politics that the county is going to step up and pay people to live who don’t work and will probably never work. If not, we face a very bleak future of haves and have-nots.

What I find most dismaying is that as a society we are paying zero attention to this issue while it is right in front of us. We are going to start seeing the jobs disappearing in the coming decade, with the decade following seeing the full brunt of technology replacing people. Take the example of pharmacists, which is typical of the kind of knowledge job that can easily be automated. It’s fairly unlikely that somebody just starting pharmacy school today is going to find lifetime employment in that field. There are already hospitals trialing robot pharmacists and reporting that they operate flawlessly without errors. While all pharmacists won’t go, one would think that the big drugstore chains will replace most pharmacists over the next decade or so. This is just one example and the same thing is going to happen to another thousand job descriptions. As good jobs start disappearing this is going to create possibly the biggest shift that society has ever faced over such a short period.

I don’t get paid anything to write this blog so I don’t worry about becoming unemployed as a writer. But the predictions are that a lot of technical writing will be done by computer soon. I don’t know if a computer is ever going to be as opinionated as me, but that is probably something that can be built in as well. So perhaps one day a computer will take over this blog. I’ll be sure to check in from time to time, though, just to see how I’m doing.

Have We Entered the Age of Robots?

robbyI read a lot of tech news, journals, and blogs and it recently dawned on me that we have already quietly entered the age of robots. Certainly we are not yet close to having C-3PO from Star Wars, or even Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space. But I think that we have crossed that threshold that future historians will point to as the start of the age of robots.

There are research teams all over the world working to get robots to do the kinds of tasks that we want from a C-3PO. As the recent DARPA challenge showed, robots are still very awkward at doing simple physical tasks—but they are now able to get them done. There are research teams that are figuring out how to make robots move in the many subtle ways that humans move and they will figure it out.

The voice recognition used by robots still has a long way to go to be seamless and accurate. As you see when you use Apple’s Siri, there are still times when voice recognition just doesn’t get us. But voice recognition is getting better all the time.

And robots still are not fabulous at sensing their surroundings, but this, too, is improving. Who would ever have thought that in 2015 we would have driverless cars? Yet they are seemingly now everywhere and a number of states have already made it legal for them to share the road with the rest of us.

The reason I think we might have already entered the Robot Age is that we can now make robots that are capable of doing each of the many tasks we want out of a fully functional robot. Much of what robots can do now is rudimentary but all that is needed to get the robots from science fiction to real life is more research and development and further improvements in computing power. And both are happening. There is a massive amount of robot research underway and computer power continues to grow exponentially. I would think that within a decade computing power will have improved enough to overcome the current limitations.

All of the components needed to create robots have already gotten very cheap. Sensors that cost a $1,000 can now be bought for $10. The various motors used for robot motion have moved from expensive to affordable. And as real mass production comes into play, the cost of building a robot is going to continue to drop significantly.

We already have evidence that robots can succeed. Driverless cars might be the best example. One doesn’t have to look very far into the future to foresee driverless cars being a major phenomenon. I can’t think that Uber really expects to make a fortune by poorly paying and mistreating human drivers such that the average Uber driver last less than half a year. Surely Uber is positioning themselves to have the first fleet of driverless taxis, which will be very profitable without having a labor cost.

We see robots being integrated into the workplace more so than into homes. Amazon is working feverishly towards totally automating their distribution centers. I think this has been their goal for a decade and once its all done with robots the part of the business that has always lost money for Amazon will become quite profitable. There are now robots being tested in hospitals to deliver meals, supplies, and drugs. There are robot concierges in Japan. And almost every factory these days has a number of steel collar workers. You have to know that Apple is looking forward to the day soon when they can make iPhones entirely with robots and avoid the bad publicity they keep getting from their factories today.

The average person will look at video from the recent recent DARPA challenge and see clumsy robots and be convinced that robots are still a long way off. But almost every component needed to make robots better is improving at an exponential pace, and we know from history that things that grow exponentially always surprise people by ‘bursting’ onto the scene. I would not be at all surprised to see a workable home maid robot within a decade and to see a really awesome one within twenty years. I know when there is a robot that can do the laundry, load the dishwasher, wash the floor, and clean the cat litter than I am going to want one. Especially cleaning the cat litter—is somebody working on that?

Jobs that Can be Replaced by Robots Now

robbyI’ve written a few blogs before about how robots are going to take over many repetitive jobs over the next few decades. Certainly robots have had a role in manufacturing for some time now, to the point that we have a name for them, steel-collar workers. But we are on the verge of seeing automation pop up in places that you might not have suspected. Following are some examples of trials of robots that are happening in the world today.

Pharmacist. The vast majority of prescriptions that are filled are very routine. There are still medicines that require a pharmacist using a mortar and pestle, but most drugs come ready-made from the manufacturer and just need to be packaged for a given patient. The UCSF Medical Center launched a trial of a robotic pharmacist at two of its hospitals. The robots pick, package and dispense prescriptions and last year prepared 350,000 prescriptions without error. Further, a robot at bedside is being tested that will scan drugs and verify that each patient is being given the right medication.

Hospital Orderly. At any given time in a hospital, one major daily task is wheeling patents from one place to the next. Last year Abacus Global Technology tested a motorized orderly system in Singapore’s Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. These motorized hospital beds can move patients from place to place at a safe speed and are smart enough to deal with changes in terrain (like something laying on the floor or traffic congestion. While these won’t replace orderlies who do many other tasks, they will allow a hospital top reduce the number of needed orderlies.

Paralegals. One of the most gruesome task anymore in a law suit is reading the mountains or documents that are produced during discovery. One tactic of defendants is to produce so many documents that they overwhelm their opponents. Law firms bill huge sums to have people read these piles of paper and people get tired, make mistakes and might miss the key piece of evidence. Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto California provided software for a recent lawsuit that was able to scan and process 1.5 million documents for a cost of $100,000, a huge savings. This is good news for defendants and bad news for law firms.

Cleaning. In a world that is battling ebola and other deadly diseases there is a need for somebody to thoroughly clean areas and kill every germ. Xenex Disinfection Service has developed a robot that will kill every germ in a room with UV light. Of course, this same technology could be brought to hotels and even to germ-phobic households.

Store Clerks. A lot of store clerks have already been eliminated due to self-checkout. The next robot innovation is being tested by Lowes at its Orchard Supply Store subsidiary. The robot, called OSHbot has a complete map of the store in memory plus access to current inventory and will lead customers to the right place in the store to find what they want.

Hotel Concierge. Last year the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino California tested a robot concierge. Named SaviOne, trials have shown the robot to be as helpful as a human concierge. The robot leads you to your room at check-in (without expecting a tip). It was able to provide restaurant recommendations and reservations, hail a cab and handle a lot of routine customer service tasks.

Rescuers. There are several robots being tested to help in emergencies. Scientist at Tohoku University in Sendai Japan have developed a robot that can be used to enter tight spaces such as with a building collapse. The snakelike robot can enter tight spaces and can identify movement while also sending back camera images to the operator. There are other robots being used that listen for faint noises in these situations helping to find trapped people.

Babysitter. Aeon, a major Japanese retail store is using robots to babysit children while their parents shop. The robots come in various styles, such as a Hello Kitty robot. NEC also has a robot called PaPeRo that can amuse kids by telling jokes, giving quizzes and which can keep track of kids using an RFID chip.

Soldier. This one is scary to anybody who shudders when they watch the future scenes in the Terminator movies, but there are a host of defense contractors working on field combat robots. Early versions of some of these robots have been tested in Iraq, but the technologies are improving rapidly to the point where robots might be used to go into harm’s way before people.

Sportswriter. Narrative Science, using software developed by Northwestern University is using software to write sports stories from data supplied by box scores. Fox Sports is already using this software to write stories about baseball and softball games. It’s said that the stories are informative and about the same as what would be written by a human sportswriter. When somebody comes out with robot blog writer I guess I’ll go back to watering my plants and drinking an extra cup of tea in the mornings. It will be interesting to see if they can find a robot as opinionated as me!

Computerizing our Jobs

Rowa_RoboterI often write about new technology such as cognitive software like Siri or driverless cars. These types of innovations have the potential to make our lives easier, but there are going to be significant societal consequences to some of these innovations. Late last year Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a paper that predicts that about 47% of all current American jobs are at risk of being replaced by some form of automated computerized technology.

We have already been seeing this for many years. For example, in the telecom industry there used to be gigantic operator centers with rooms full of operators who helped people place calls. Those centers and those jobs have largely been eliminated through automation. But not all of the jobs that have been eliminated are so obvious. For example, modern accounting software like QuickBooks for small business and more complex software for larger businesses have displaced many accountants. Where a large company might have once had large rooms of accounts payable and accounts receivable personnel, these software systems have eliminated a significant portion of those staffs. And many small businesses perform their accounting functions today without an accountant.

Computerization has also wiped out entire industries and one can only imagine the numbers of jobs that were lost when iTunes largely replaced the music industry or NetFlix and Hulu have replaced video rental stores.

Automation has created some new jobs. For instance, looking at this video of an Amazon fulfillment center we can see that there a lot of people involved in moving packages quickly. But we also see a huge amount of automation and you know that Amazon is trying to figure out ways to automate the remaining functions in these warehouses. It’s not a big stretch to envision robots taking the places of the ‘pickers’ in that video.

Some of the innovations on the horizon have the potential to eliminate other large piles of people. Probably the most obvious technology with that potential is driverless cars. One can envision jobs like taxi drivers disappearing first, eventually followed by truck drivers. But there are other jobs that go along with this like many of the autobody shops that are in business to repair car accidents due to human poor driving. We have already seen Starbucks trialing an automated system that replaces baristas and I saw one of these automated systems in an airport last month. There is a huge boom right now in developing manufacturing robots and this are going to replace much of the manual labor in the manufacturing process. But this also will allow factories to return to America and bring at least some jobs back here.

But this study predicts a much wider range of jobs that are at risk. The real threat to jobs is going to be through the improvement of cognitive software. As an example, IBM’s Watson has been shown to be more accurate than nurses and doctors in diagnosing illnesses. We are now at the point where we can bring supercomputers into the normal workplace. I read four different articles this week about companies who are looking to peddle supercomputing as product. That kind of computing power could start to replace all sorts of white collar and middle management jobs.

The study predicts a huge range of jobs that computers can replace. They include such jobs as patent lawyers, paralegals, software engineers and financial advisors. In fact, the paper predicts that much of the functions in management, financial services, computer technology, education, legal and media can be replaced by cognitive software.

Economists have always predicted that there would always be new jobs created by modernization to replace the jobs that are lost. Certainly that is true to some extent because all of those jobs in the Amazon warehouse were not there before. But those jobs replace store clerks in the many stores that have lost sales to Amazon. The real worry, for me, is that the sheer number of jobs lost to automation will happen in such a short period of time that it will result in permanent unemployment for a large percentage of the population.

One job that the paper predicts will be replaced is technical writer. As a technical blogger I say “Watson, the game is afoot! IBM, bring it on.”

The IoT of Home Medical Care

Medical_Software_Logo,_by_Harry_GouvasIf you read my blog much you will know that I talk a lot about the Internet of Things, and that I often mention how the IoT is going to transform medicine. The reason for this is personal, not just to me, but to the whole generation of baby boomers. We are now 60ish and, while that is not yet old, we all can look into the future in a decade or two and see ourselves as old.

I think the biggest fear that a lot of us have is losing control of our lives and ending up in an institution. Many institutions are dehumanizing and even the best run ones are a far cry from staying in your own home. And so, to me, the part if the IoT that probably interests me the most is the technologies that are going to let people stay in their homes as long as possible. I don’t know about you, but if I had one wish to make with a genie it would be to live to a ripe old age with good health and then die in my own bed.

While the IoT is a relatively new thing, there has already been a lot of thought and research put into using technology to take care of the elderly. Let’s take a look at where some of this early research is headed.

Smart Motion Detectors. One brilliant idea is to install smart motion detectors around the home. Motion detectors can tell a lot about a person without being as intrusive as surveillance cameras. Motion detectors coupled with good software can learn an elderly person’s habits and can then send out an alert or an alarm if something seems amiss. This system ought to be able to tell if somebody has fallen or if they are unconscious and not moving and alert a caregiver if they won’t respond. At first this might create some false alarms when somebody is napping hard, but over time the system will get to know the patient and will know the difference between napping and a real trouble.

This does raise the issue of privacy. Most of the technologies on the horizon are going to compromise some privacy. It’s going to be up to each person to determine how much privacy they will trade for getting to stay in their own home, and I think for most people they will choose the monitoring over the alternative.

Health Monitors. I wrote recently about the Qualcomm Foundations$10 million XPrize to create a tricorder like the one in Star Trek. There are going to be small unobtrusive devices that can keep tabs on temperature, blood pressure, blood sugar and a number of other statistics that can let the patient be monitored for general health. This kind of monitoring is going to alert the health system that there is a problem before the patient even realizes it. This is taking preventative care to the next level.

Smart House. There are a lot of devises that can be incorporated into the smart house that can help the elderly. Probably the most useful will be the ability to talk to your house and tell it what you need. This means that everything from a call to 911 to making a room warmer are just a voice command away. But there are many other things a smart house can do. It can do things like remind a person when it’s time to take medication. It can remind the elderly to turn off the stove or to lock doors.

Robots. And finally, let’s not forget robots. There should be robots in a few years that can do a lot of the mundane tasks around the house like cleaning, taking out the trash, watering the plants, etc. that can be a real benefit to the elderly person living alone. And if it can play a mean hand of gin rummy, all the better!