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A glimpse of the future? Look behind you

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There is a reason that rearview mirrors are now standard operating equipment in automobiles. For anyone who has found his mirror disabled or misaligned, the notion of driving forward without a view of what’s behind is unsettling.

Technology is no different. The year 2013, while still unfolding, is brimming with stories depicting technological achievement, industry conflict and emerging business models that signal more profound changes on the horizon. At TIA 2013 this week, I had the opportunity to reflect on the year that was (and still is) and shared in a keynote some of more compelling, potential game-changers in 2014 and beyond:

The Price of Free

On January 3, Free, France’s second largest internet service provider (ISP) with more than 5 million subscribers, upgraded software in the modems it provides customers. What would otherwise have been a routine software update opened a firestorm of debate as Free unloaded a new ad-blocking feature that disrupted various advertising networks including Google’s AdSense as well as Google Analytics and advertising on YouTube. As advertising revenue is the bread and butter for online publishers, many content providers blasted Free for jeopardizing its own business model.

Just a few months later, ESPN, the cable sports channel majority-owned by the Walt Disney Company, was in talks with at least one major US carrier to explore the viability of a “toll-free” data arrangement to allow mobile users to view ESPN content without it counting against their monthly data usage. This is a huge move that would unleash more access to ESPN’s network for bandwidth-hungry, mobile-savvy consumers abandoning their television who often reach their monthly data cap allotment before its expiration. Should ESPN strike a deal with a wireless provider, similar arrangements would likely follow –- and could create a domino effect that would finally legitimize toll-free data business models.

So what do Free and ESPN have in common? With broadband traffic showing no signs of abating, the industry is increasingly in need of reformed commercial relationships with new stakeholder interactions. With newly formed commercial agreements sometimes slow to materialize, network operators are looking for alternative ways to address a seemingly insatiable broadband appetite in a more immediate way. The next 18 months will bring to bear more diagnostic tools to improve the experience customers enjoy on their networks.


Fast forward to May, when 300 hard-core scientists, neurosurgeons, researchers and gaming industry experts converged in San Francisco for the first neuro-gaming conference exploring emerging technologies and how these innovations will shape gaming in the future. Explosive growth in computer processing power, the falling price of advanced sensor technology and interesting approaches to haptic sensation technologies are all paving the way for new tools that take the gaming experience from our imaginations to virtual reality.

Conference attendees took advantage of the opportunity to try out some of the new concepts such as a virtual arm wrestling match in which the player’s arms are fitted with EMG sensors that measure the electrical activity in their muscles. When the combatants flex their arms, this electrical activity signals a robot’s arms to fight harder to pin its opponent. Then there was haptic devices designed to provide even more realistic sensations like the moment of impact from a swinging sword — despite the lack of any solid object. Add Cloud computing to the mix, and no longer are games a one-and-done purchase, but rather an ongoing engagement in a pervasive online world or environment. And as consumer appetites continue to change, the lines between PC, console, mobile games, and fantasy will continue to blur.

Super Humans

About a month later, futurist, inventor and Google engineer director Ray Kurzweil, took the stage at the Global Future 2045 International Congress to address the topic of “Immortality by 2045.” According to Kurzweil, “singularity” – an event where technology will create a super-intelligence that surpasses human brainpower – will occur by the year 2045. This singularity is believed by many, including conference sponsor, Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov, founder of the 2045 Initiative to signal the capability to host the human consciousness within a computer – shedding the inefficient human body in the process. The 2045 Initiative is a nonprofit organization that develops a network and community of researchers in the field of life extension. The goal of the organization is “to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” Itskov’s dream of transferring human consciousness into a “super being” sounds like it was plucked from the pages of a science fiction novel. But considering the technologies we rely on every day – from asking Siri for directions to receiving Netflix recommendations on what movies to watch — and the way they are designed to drive out the inefficiencies of human involvement, the dream doesn’t seem so absurd.

And there is still more to come in the last 10 weeks of 2013. But if hindsight is 20/20, maybe a networked super-intelligence that allows our consciousness to travel anywhere in the universe via holographic avatar in the span of 32 years is not so far-fetched after all.

Allison Cerra is Vice President of Customer Marketing and Communications for Alcatel-Lucent, and co-author of several books on the interplay of communications technology, identity, and end-user trends.

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