You can debate the relative merits of attending the massive CES technology trade show underway in Las Vegas until you’re blue in the face. (I’m skipping the annual confab this year, but GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower hosted a panel there.)
One conclusion is certain, however: The event does a fabulous job of surfacing technologies that will affect both consumers and the corporate world.
This year’s CES, in particular, is replete with product launches and partnership proclamations that will loom large on sustainable business agendas. OK, so maybe they won’t be a big deal this year, but they certainly will break through within the next three to five.
In the spirit of early planning, here are five technology trends we’re watching closely. Hear more about all of them on today’s episode of the GreenBiz 350 podcast.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the state of 3-D printing. Two of the best-known players, Stratasys and 3D Systems, just finished years filled with layoffs, executive upheaval and, in one case, a consumer market exit.
The fact remains: 3-D printers have become a very credible tool for prototyping, one that allows businesses to test new materials and lightweight designs with less environmental impact than traditional processes. Sure, sales are limited right now, but by 2020, revenue from 3-D printer hardware and software will top $20 billion, according to projections from consulting firm Wohlers Associates.
There are several reasons 2016 will be a breakthrough year. One of the biggest telltale signs: Autodesk, HP Inc. and Toshiba are just three mainstream tech companies planning to introduce products, even though they’re not likely to hit the market this year.
Still, that’s likely to inspire price cuts in the not-so-distant future, which will be great for those of you who aren’t willing to plunk down $100,000 for one of these machines today.
Analysts also anticipate faster printing speeds, as well as support for materials other than plastic. Toshiba’s system (expected in 2017) will print using powdered metals. Stratasys and 3D Systems are working on similar machines, which could push 3D printing out of its prototyping role into broader production applications.
On its own, artificial intelligence isn’t all that smart. But so-called “machine learning” technologies are absolutely central to everything from automated energy management systems to self-driving vehicles.
“Systems modeled on the human brain such as deep learning are being applied to tasks as varied as medical diagnostics systems, credit scoring, program trading, fraud detection, product recommendations, image classification, speech recognition, language translation and self-driving vehicles,” said Tractica analyst Bruce Daley, commenting on his firm’s recent forecast of $11.1 billion in revenue for AI applications by 2024.
Right now, the market is tiny: slightly more than $200 million in 2015, according to Tractica’s forecast.
Now is probably a good time to remind everyone that IBM’s sophisticated Watson analytics technology actually got its start as an AI program, deep within IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer. At last check in October, more than 500,000 people were registered for the service.
As just one example of how AI works, Vestas Wind Systems uses Watson to calibrate turbine placement and operations. The system considers data from more than 35,000 weather stations worldwide, along with Vestas’ own metrics, for more accurate predictions.
“We could pose the questions before, but our previous systems were not able to deliver the answers, or deliver the answers in the required timeframe,” Vestas Vice President Lars Christian Christensen told IBM. “Now, if you give me the coordinates for your back yard, we can dive into our modeled wind libraries and provide you with precise data on the weather over the past 11 years, thereby predicting future weather and delivering [a] power production prognosis.”
Other massive software companies advancing the capabilities of AI software are Facebook, Google and Microsoft. They’re all talking up the possibilities of image recognition but all three companies have donated at least some of their work to the open source software development community with the hope of accelerating the creation of other relevant applications.
Another development you should check out: a special “artificial intelligence supercomputer” launched at CES by chipmaker NVIDIA. The technology, which has the processing power of 150 MacBook Pro notebook computers, interprets data from cameras, radar, LiDAR (light and radar) and ultrasonic sensors — it’s meant (eventually) for use in self-driving vehicles.
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