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The European Journal
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Mattie Brignal

The Confused Older Person’s Guide To Tech

A young person explains what innovations to expect in 2020

When it comes to tech, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the oldies – that is, anyone born in the 1900s. In an age of self-driving cars and AI deep-fakes the VHS-Betamax format war is an event as ancient and mythical as the fall of Troy. Moore’s Law, which, as everyone knows, holds that a newly introduced item of tech will be redundant by the time you’ve got to grips with it, suggests that the blistering pace of technological change over the past few decades is set to continue. Unfortunately for those of us who still occasionally watch DVDs and don’t enjoy talking to household objects, 2020 is set to be another year of intriguing (and terrifying) tech advances.

It’s likely that the year ahead will see the much hyped blockchain come into its own. A blockchain is a decentralised digital ledger storing encrypted records of information that can’t be altered. The technology, which already underpins cryptocurrencies, allows for easy digital identification, and frictionless, secure transactions. Blockchains are increasingly being used to bypass traditional financial systems, allowing for micro-loans to those without access to conventional banking. The immutability of the ledger guards against fraud and corruption, storing legal contracts, housing deeds and electoral registers without the need for third parties. Perhaps most importantly, dating apps have started to harness the blockchain. New entrants Ponder and Luna use it to prevent cat-fishing while protecting personal data. The technology allows the apps to repeatedly verify users’ personal information while never outwardly revealing it.

There’s bad news for those who have just mastered that soon-to-be-antique - the screen. One prediction doing the rounds in Silicon Valley is that the role of smartphones is set to diminish over the coming years with screen-less, wearable tech playing an increasingly important role in our daily lives. In the next few months, Apple will release a pair of augmented reality glasses that project images directly onto the wearer’s retinas. The burgeoning e-textiles industry is already weaving electronics into clothes so that garments can regulate body temperature, play music and gather data on vital signs and athletic performance. Flexible electronic skin patches to monitor diabetes and cardiovascular disease are also starting to be rolled out.

But the ultimate in wearable tech is due to be released by the end of the year. After 17 years of development and $175 million of investment, US firm Sarcos is releasing a full body exoskeleton. Its creators promise that the suit, resembling a stripped-down Iron Man costume, will protect the health and improve the efficiency of physical labourers by making loads feel 20 times lighter. Its industrial applications are expected to spill over into the everyday, with exoskeletons being used to improve the mobility of the physically impaired.

You may ask: “Why would I want my toast to talk to my toaster?”

Wearable tech is part of what is being heralded as a transformative, multi trillion-dollar industry tipped for massive growth over the next few years: the ominously vague Internet of Things (IoT). Many of us are now used to barking commands at Siri or Alexa. But the IoT promises a comprehensive global network of everyday objects constantly communicating without human interference. The number of devices connected to the internet is expected to increase from around 7 billion today to as many as 75 billion by 2025. Vehicles, food packaging, hairbrushes, parking spaces, dog collars and shipping containers will all join this 3-D web.

“Why would I want my toast to talk to my toaster?” you may ask. Well, the IoT offers the prospect of vast efficiency improvements through self-regulating systems. Vending machines will manage their own stock levels and automatically order refills. Agricultural smart sensors will monitor chemical levels in soil and control irrigation. Data fed back from ingestible sensors will allow doctors to check that patients have taken medicine correctly. But for all its benefits, the IoT also raises the intriguing possibility of your pacemaker being hacked.

If this all sounds worryingly futuristic then it’s worth remembering that the seminal sci-fi classic Blade Runner, based on a 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, was set in 2019. The future - long-anticipated - has finally arrived. In one of Dick’s other novels, Ubik, the protagonist, Joe Chip, gets into an argument with a door in his rented apartment that refuses to open until he pays it five cents. Unable to pay, Joe starts unscrewing the door which threatens to sue him. But Dick’s far future sketch could soon be a serious reality. The IoT would allow the door to alert the police, submit its legal claim and tell other doors to refuse the intruder access before the first screw hit the ground.

These dizzying developments are adding layers of complexity to an already confusing world. But the oldies should focus on the positives because there’s no real alternative to surfing the tech wave. We’re on the ride whether we like it or not and resistance is futile. You’ll be arguing with doors before you know it.