I returned to an old theme for a dinner with a selection of property, construction and retail professionals recently: the merging of the physical and digital worlds that is happening as each invades the other’s domain. This is some of what I said.
Perhaps the more advanced offensive is the progress of physical objects into the digital domain. The natural result of Moore’s law advances and sheer economies of scale mean that just about any device can become a ‘smart’ device for the price of a few pounds.
Increasingly, the most costly aspect of this transformation is the question of power, so cheap has processing and connectivity become. Just a few pence now will add a rudimentary chip with enough processing grunt to handle basic applications, and a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection.
If you want it to run without power for more than a few minutes, that costs a little more: batteries are still expensive. Eventually though, we solve this problem. And though physics might start to present a challenge to Moore’s Law in its most technical form, the exponential increase in computing ‘bang for buck’ will continue.
The result is that just about everything gets connected in one way or another. However small the utility of making something ‘smart’, the cost will ultimately fall below that threshold.
A living city
How does this affect the worlds of the property, construction or retail professional? A few examples.
Firstly there will be no aspects of a building or space, that you cannot measure or control, at any point in its life cycle. More than that, there is likely to be a level of automated intelligence controlling and managing all of these assets.
Whereas a building management system today might maintain environmental conditions, monitor fire safety, and minimise energy consumption, future systems might be able to wield much greater control and do so in collaboration with other buildings and spaces around them.
Imagine a building that largely builds itself, to the specifications in the design DNA that an architect defines. Imagine it can continuously optimise its internal layout to the needs of its users. Imagine it can collaborate with other nearby intelligences to maximise safety, comfort and utility for the people around it.
In the future our self-driving cars will be navigating their way around self-managing buildings, themselves an ecosystem of smart devices.
The virtual made real
While physical objects are becoming increasingly digital, so too are digital objects becoming increasingly physical. The combination of artificial intelligence with a range of new sensing and display technologies means that digital artefacts and devices increasingly interact with us in physical ways: voice and gesture, observation and inference.
Today’s example of this is perhaps the rapid growth in voice assistants: Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. In thinking about the future we have to consider how these limited intelligences will continue to evolve, but also another key technology: augmented reality.
Augmented reality allows us to over-write the reality we see and hear with a new, digitally-generated reality. Every place and face can be changed. Every surface becomes a screen, every space an opportunity for a digital object — or person. Just don’t try to sit on a digital chair.
And augmented reality captures everything in our physical environment in digital form. Full-time cameras and microphones will allow tech giants like Google to complete their mission of indexing the world’s information, right down to the location of every thing, at every point in time.
The new PDA
Geeks of a particular vintage will remember the PDA, the pre-smartphone pocket computer. I think the name can now be recycled for a class of cloud-connected intelligent assistant that begins to take on many of the more mundane aspects of running our lives — and our businesses.
Imagine outsourcing the more mundane tasks to which your brain is assigned: administration, travel bookings, ensuring you have fresh milk in the fridge. We’re reaching the point where we can — and will — trust our digital assistants with our memories, our chores, and our payment cards.
With the information captured through our augmented reality devices, and the interactions we have with our voice assistants and social graphs, these new PDAs will know everything they need to know about us, and our world.