While digital capabilities are firmly embedded in everyday life for many of us, we are still only at the beginning of what these new technologies can offer. Indeed, many believe 2021 will mark the beginning of a new era that will be powered by human augmentation technologies.
Recent developments in communications technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, automation, and augmented and virtual reality are now coming together to create powerful new tools which have the potential to transform manufacturing, transport, pharmaceutical discovery and development, professional service delivery, retailing and much more besides.
What will make 2021 different to other years is the rollout of 5G telecommunications networks, the fifth generation of mobile connectivity which is the underlying glue holding these technologies together. It is a key enabling technology for autonomous cars, smart cities, and the factories of the future.
5G is capable to powering 100 times the number devices at 100 times the data speed using a tenth of the energy of its 4G predecessor and will provide the speed, data volume and low latency needed by the new generation of autonomous systems. Everything from cars, to delivery drones, factory robots, patient monitoring systems, and water and air quality sensors will be connected using the 5G networks which boast the responsiveness and capacity to handle the bandwidth demands of a hyperconnected world.
Fulfilling the promise of human augmentation requires super-efficient computing that can process vast volumes of data in real time. Recent breakthroughs in quantum computing hold out the promise of much faster processing speeds than those of even the most powerful supercomputers currently in use.
As the volume of behavioural data expands, several technologies and disciplines are evolving to parse behavioural data and influence behaviour in sophisticated ways. By understanding and compensating for widespread human heuristics and biases, governments and companies are now helping people lead healthier lives, save for retirement and make more sustainable choices in their lifestyles.
Simulating human behaviour and emotion
Affective computing, or emotion AI, is another revolutionary technology. Bringing together insights from computer science, psychology and cognitive science it brings machines into the realm of human emotion. It enables computers understand the emotional as well as the cognitive channels of human communication.
It does this by enabling systems to recognise human emotion by, for instance, analysing eye movements, facial expressions and tone of voice, and respond to it appropriately in user interactions.
The combination of behavioural economics and affective computing is a potent force. It will allow platforms and interfaces to analyse behaviour and emotions and respond in highly customisable way, even at scale. This is already beginning to happen, and we will increasingly see it manifest itself in the form of vastly enriched customer experiences both when conducting transactions and in communications with contact centres.
But, as in all revolutions, there are risks. Augmented and virtual reality experiences can become powerful tools for manipulating public sentiment and behaviour for ill as well as good. Realising their potential while securing trust will only be possible by developing guarantees of authenticity.
Another emerging risk is synthetic media. Around the globe, governments, businesses and media face a significant trust deficit. In our digital world it becomes easier and quicker to create and spread false information and even fabricate realistic graphical, audio, video and text-based reportage of events that never occurred.
Sophisticated digital editing tools also make it easier to edit audio-visual information, manipulating the context and messages creating what are known as shallow fakes.
Disinformation, existing information forged or selectively edited, can spread virally on social media platforms with profound impacts on people’s opinions and behaviour. Elections, politics and celebrities have been the main targets up until now but the risk to businesses is beginning to emerge, with huge implications for brand reputation.
Companies have suffered with phishing, spam and malware for decades and there is an increasing array of tools and techniques to mitigate those threats. But the use of AI to generate media poses a particularly complex set of challenges. AI algorithms that create counterfeit content are becoming cheaper and more sophisticated, requiring far less skill on the part of the user. They are also capable of circumventing detection methods and learning how to create ever more realistic forgeries.
The good news is that we are already seeing advances in the battle against these pernicious algorithms. Here in Ireland, Greg Tarr, a Leaving Cert student at Bandon Grammar School in Co Cork, took the overall prize in the 2021 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), for devising an advanced computer programme using artificial intelligence to detect deep fake videos. His programme is quicker and more accurate than many current state-of-the-art detection systems.
There is no cause for complacency, however, and there must be a redoubling of efforts to develop measures to counter the risks posed by synthetic media and counterfeit content. That means exploring and cultivating the means to authenticate videos, photos, text and other content on the internet. That will likely rely on uniquely human critical faculties and the augmentation of those capabilities offered by this latest wave of the digital revolution may well provide a solution.