Tech trends towards 2018
(Note: this was written quickly in the hours right before midnight on 12/31/17 and needs some editing, so please disregard typos)
There is a lot of competition and this area is definitely heating up for 2018. Waymo, a spin-off of Google appears to be in the lead for actual self-driving, fully autonomous, no driver in the car type of service. They have some service running in Arizona and will begin picking up passengers soon. Uber has cars running in Pittsburg that have drivers in them. GM acquired Cruise, who has a fleet driving around SF, with human drivers monitoring the system, that can be used by their employees. Tesla has autopilot that drives pretty well on the highway and has some amazing abilities to avoid accident that are two cars in front, by bouncing radar off the ground. Autonomous cars should be a pretty fruitful area this year and next.
SpaceX made great progress this year, launching at least once a month, and landing 14 boosters with 100% recovery. That is an amazing rate of progress as they lost 3/8 last year. The idea of reusable rockets changes the entire equation of spaceflight. If we had to throw away a plane each time we flew one, it would never make sense financially to fly anywhere. If you look at the image above, taking into account the reusability, you can see that the BFR (big fucking rocket) is actually cheaper to fly than even the Falcon 1. By reusing a rocket, you can make even a giant rocket the cheapest rocket ever to fly. SpaceX how now flown their used rockets and so the era of reusable rockets is now realized. Next for SpaceX in 2018 is launch of the Falcon Heavy, and then within 5 years, the BFR, which will have abilities well beyond the Saturn V. So in 2018 we will see a lot of progress, many more launches, and a lowering of prices for in 2018.
2017 was a great year for progress in the hyperloop. The hype and attention are still there. Virgin has stepped in to partner with Hyperloop One, which is great because Virgin has experience in transportation and can help refine the small details. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has a signed a number of development agreements with India, Abu Dhabi, and South Korea. The student competition is on-going with teams reaching over 200 mph in the test track. More importantly, it looks like Musk isn’t actually going to sit on the sidelines, I think they will get into the game in a serious way. On top of that, Elon has founded The Boring Company, which is work to increase the speed for underground tunnel boring. This will enable hyperloop tracks and underground roadways with car sleds. These developments point to a bright future for the hyperloop concept in 2018.
Cryptocurrencies really took off towards the end of 2017 in a really crazy way. Bitcoin hit over 20,000 at one point, ethereum, which was around $13 a year ago is now at around $700, it is insane. The last few weeks have seen some crypto-hype unlike anything I have ever seen. What seems to have kicked off the crazy rally was the more widespread introduction of the ICO (initial coin offering). Aside from that not much has changed, but nonetheless, it got to the point a couple of weeks ago where my entire Facebook feed was full of crypto-this and crypto-that. Honestly it is unreal, to the point where everyone I know was starting to open trading positions. There are some parallels to the stock bubble of the late 90s, but at the same time there seems to be a lot more left to go. The prices have since come down a bit and the hype has subsided somewhat, but crypto is still THE trend of the year and has a pretty bright future for 2018 as long as there is no pop.
AI was hot last year, like Crypto is this year. I think AI is still hot under the surface, but the hype and the constant conversation about whether AI will take over has, fortunately, subsided. We are also starting to see some of the major benefits, with Google’s new translation engine, conversations between people of different languages can happen in pretty much real time. I was able to use it in China this year with no problems at all, and it was no surprise to me when Google announced that their new earbuds would translate other languages on the fly. From what I hear, the earbuds are not all the way there in terms of the experience, but the AI under the hood is there, and that is honestly what is important. We also learned this year that there will pretty much be no game or anything left for humans to be good at. Go was conquered last year by DeepMind’s AlphaGo, but this year we saw a new variant, AlphaZero, that requires zero input or studying, it just needs to know the rules then plays against itself, and it only took 4 hours to become the best chess player in the world. I personally checked some of the games, and because it is self taught from no preconceived notions, it makes moves that no human would ever do, yet they work out in amazing ways. I heard similar stories about professional Go players studying the moves made by AlphaGo and I believe this will lead to us as humans learning back recursively from the AIs we generate, which will hopefully allow us to generate even better solutions for future AIs. This is just the tip of the AI iceberg, and I still am very bullish on AI and what it will do going forward in 2018 and beyond.
I love robots and I went to see DARPA’s competition in LA a few years ago that offered Boston Dynamics Atlas robots to a number of teams to compete in tasks like opening doors, navigating uneven surfaces, turning knobs etc. The 6-foot tall robots, were powered by loud hydraulic systems, that left them moving slowly, clumsily and without grace. I would say they were about as far from nimble as they could get. This year Boston Dynamics released footage of the newest one that can not only do impressive box jumps and rapid movements, but it was able to do a legit backflip. This year we also saw the introduction of more realistic looking robots like Sophia from Hanson Robotics that are starting to cross the uncanny valley with accurate facial representations. Speaking of human-like robots, this year saw the opening of the world’s first sex bot brothels… There were also the introduction of some task specific robots like one that is a pair of arms that can work an entire kitchen and cook meals. There is a lot of action in this field and I think we will continue to see robotics advance fairly rapidly in the labs and with prototypes, but not commercially just yet. I am bullish on robots in 2018, but see them becoming more widespread closer to 2019-2020.
2017 was a great year for biotechnology, but there is a much longer lag time in bringing products to market in this field compared to others. However, we we are finally starting to see some major milestones being met in terms of long sought after technologies. For example, the FDA approved the first ever gene therapy treatment for leukemia and are looking to create therapies for 40-50 additional diseases. To treat patients with leukemia, they are removing the patients T cells, altering genes in a lab to target a specific part of the cancer cells, and then re-injecting them into the patient. The FDA has also just recently approved a gene therapy treatment for a genetic type of blindness that uses a virus. This is just the beginning of this field though, because we will soon start to see the seeds of the next gene editing revolution, using CRISPR-like technologies, begin to be used in humans. In 2017 we saw the first experiments in the US on human embryos. CRISPR-like technologies essentially allow for the copying and pasting of genes and could be used to prevent diseases in babies before they are even born. Biotechnology this year saw significant progress in attacking problems like hunger. We saw major investments in companies like Memphis Meats, who plan to clone the cells of a cow that make up meat in a lab, so that we no longer have to grow an entire cow just to eat a portion of it. Inventions like this will allow us to lower the amount of farmland required to feed our population, lower the climate impact, and potentially end animal suffering. Biotechnology offers us the tools to solve many of humanities pressing problems by harnessing the power of directed biology. I am very bullish on biotech, but am aware that progress in this field will be slower than most others. That said, the pipeline has a lot of interesting things for us to look forward to in 2018.
This year we saw some of what I hope are the last gasps of oil as technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, combining with batteries to cover major parts of the country. Costa Rica had over 300 days of energy production solely from renewable sources. We saw negative energy prices from Germany, to Denamrk and beyond. We saw batteries and solar bail out other types of power production and we saw the lowering of future bids of energy in solar to levels that make other types of energy production unable to compete. Even with a negative political situation in the United States, renewable energy cannot be stopped (this is a stub entry).
There was serious hype earlier last year as the Vive and Rifts made their way into the market after a few years of serious hype. We now appear to be in the a plateau, where the market is slowly growing, but it has become obvious to me that most “non-gamers” are not going to shell out for a high-performance desktop computer just to use the device. Furthermore, most people are just not serious gamers and gaming is still the best use case for the headsets. I believe some significant improvements are being made behind scenes on this class of headsets, but I am not sure improvements in quality will even be the tipping point for the normal consumer. I don’t think VR will really take off until standalone headsets with inside out tracking (no need for external sensors) arrive, and even then the full adoption won’t occur until there is a killer app for the everyday person. I am still bullish on VR and expect 2018 will be good for it, and maybe the Ready Player One movie being produced by Steven Spielberg will help further adoption.
Apple introduced an AR development kit, but so far have I have not seen much done with it. Microsoft’s Hololens is on-going and in development mode, but it is still limited by a very small field of view (FOV). A company called Meta has a version with a larger FOV, but it has not dropped yet. And the most hyped multi-billion dollar raising company, Magic Leap, has finally let the press write a major post on them, with a supposed release date of 2018. They look pretty decent, but I doubt we will see people wearing them around in public etc. I think we will see more augmented reality apps and what not, but glasses won’t take off until late 2018 at the earliest, if not 2019.