Predictions are ultimately a fool’s game. While it’s certainly possible to make some broad assumptions about the next 12 months in technology (Apple will release a new iPhone! More firms will introduce cloud services!), the fast-changing nature of the industry can quickly wreck even the most seemingly surefire trends. That’s doubly true when it comes to cutting-edge technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and machine learning.
With that in mind, here are some cautious forecasts about the hottest technologies of the next few years. Sure, we could be wrong. But if any of these segments see wider adoption, it could mean exciting career opportunities for the tech pros who specialize in them. So without further ado:
Bots sure attracted a lot of hype in 2016, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced chatbots as a new feature of Facebook Messenger. In theory, businesses could replace human customer-service managers with bots that could answer a variety of product-related questions. In practice, many first-generation bots had trouble performing simple tasks—for example, Poncho, a cute cat-bot designed to respond to user queries about the weather, tended to flub its conversations.
But just because bots experienced some teething problems doesn’t mean the technology is doomed to failure. As tech firms such as Facebook and Microsoft release more sophisticated tools for building bots, the software will (hopefully) improve to the point where interactions with customers are relatively seamless. If there’s a sufficient level of developer interest, bots could rapidly become more sophisticated, interesting, and ubiquitous.
Indeed, a few years later, Google released Duplex, which took bots into the voice-activated realm. Duplex engages with restaurants and other stores to book reservations and appointments; although the technology is still pretty limited, it nonetheless offers huge promise. Pair that with chatbots slowly evolving within customer service and the enterprise, and it’s clear that this technology could still develop into something really cool and useful.
Virtual reality has drawn a lot of buzz. So has augmented reality (AR), especially once “Pokémon Go” proved that millions of people will cheerfully interface with AR via their smartphones. (For those who are unfamiliar with the concept: unlike virtual reality, which immerses the user wholly in a digital environment, AR superimposes digital creations atop the real world.)
Apple CEO Tim Cook has indicated his company’s interest in AR, and it’s not inconceivable that the nest few years could see the release of an Apple-branded AR headset (no doubt paired with an iPhone). If priced low enough for widespread adoption, the next version of Microsoft’s HoloLens, an AR headset, could also draw in consumers. There are also business cases for AR, and we could see more companies adopt the technology for their own uses.
Like “Big Data” before it, “Machine Learning” is rapidly becoming one of those buzzwords diluted of meaning. That being said, the fundamental concept—that software can learn new things without additional programming by humans—will continue to power startups and products. Everything from Internet fraud protection to natural-language processing will come to depend even more heavily on machine learning, driving investment in the segment.
A lot of those machine-learning startups will surely crash and burn, but a few will succeed and turn into economic behemoths. While it’s difficult at this point to predict which companies will make it through, those that manage to stay on the razor’s edge of innovation may end up earning billions. (The problem is that it also costs billions to keep these firms in trained technologists, so even a few well-funded ones won’t necessarily make it.)
Over the past few years, the trend within the technology industry has been toward more security and encryption, not less. High-profile breaches have made the need for data protection more pressing, even for people who don’t ordinarily think about encrypting their information against prying eyes. Trust that, over the next year, more companies will highlight everything they’re doing in this arena—and remember that they’ll need technology professionals with extensive backgrounds in cryptography and security to make sure new features are as locked down as possible.