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The next decade? You ain't seen nothing yet


Future: Google's self-driving car

Future: Google's self-driving car

Future: Google's self-driving car

We all knew that DVDs would die out. As soon as broadband allowed us to download and stream movies in high definition, there was little logical reason to keep buying and renting bits of plastic for up to €20 a go.

One could say the same about SMS text messages. The moment mobile phones started using internet data, apps such as WhatsApp rendered absurd the notion of paying 10 cents per text. (Incredibly, some operators still charge this in an effort to milk their remaining Nokia users.)

But this is only clear in hindsight.

What we don't see are the ways that the internet is going to shake up our everyday lives over the next 10 to 20 years. These changes will be every bit as disruptive as those that have shaken the last decade. In some cases, they are likely to cause fundamental schisms in society as we know it.

Here are three of the most obvious things that will soon be different.

1. We'll soon talk to our washing machines

Forget Pokémon Go: the hit device in the US over the last two years has been Amazon's voice-controlled Echo gadget. It works by matching your 'natural' voice questions to answers or commands for home devices, in each case routed through internet voice analysis engines. For example, you can use it switch the (completely separately) lights on or off. "Controlling the lights is, in my opinion, a solid indicator of voice-controlled smart-home technologies which will someday become commonplace," says Ben Bajarin, whose company recently ran a study of American households that use the Echo. "As our homes get smarter, it makes sense that the way we will interact with our smart objects is through voice. It may be the catalyst to drive the true smart automated home into the masses."

Make no mistake: washing machines, TVs, cookers and heating systems are about to introduce this technology into Irish showrooms. After that, it's not that big a leap to the talking Hal computer foreseen by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And lest you think the entire concept of talking to a domestic appliance seems absurd, try to remember how you first felt when answering machines were introduced to the mass market. Those of a certain age will recall how "weird" it was to "talk into a machine" at that time. Then there was the stigma of holding and speaking into a mobile phone. We quickly got over both sartorial stumbles because of the utility advantage. So if you think humanity will baulk at the idea of talking out loud to objects, walk down any city street where you'll see dozens of (mainly young) people gassing away into thin air as they use a headset with their phone.

2. Robots really are coming to take your job

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We've all seen the stories about Amazon replacing 30,000 of its warehouse workers with connected robots. But it's not just factory staff that online systems have in their sights. Holland's legal aid board is trialling the replacement of lawyers with online algorithms to help settle divorce cases. Everything from maintenance costs to child access can now be settled by an online robot. (A human can be added, but it costs €360. So 95pc go with the robot, according to the Dutch agency.) Call centres - of which we have more than a few in Ireland - are in trouble, too. The world's biggest outsourcing giants are about to start introducing robot agents. They will be helped by companies such as Microsoft, which is currently releasing software that allows online customer service robots initiate, co-ordinate, and confirm calls completely by themselves.

One study from Oxford estimates that 35pc of our existing jobs will be replaced by internet-connected robots within 20 years.

Indeed, such is the expected impact of workplace robots that EU officials are starting to consider whether certain robots should have limited 'rights' as workers. Last month, the European Parliament's committee on legal affairs drafted a motion urging that "the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations".

3. You won't control your car anymore

People still have a hard time believing this, but self-driving, internet-reliant cars are definitely coming. And it's not just some stretch of desert in Arizona or California: they're coming to Ireland and Europe. All of the main car manufacturers have advanced investment programmes and working prototypes. Technically, the cars already work today, using a combination of sensors, lasers, GPS positioning and on-board computers. Indeed, carmakers have already started to incorporate self-driving features without most people noticing. Get into a new high-end Mercedes and you'll find that it can effectively take over your driving on a motorway. It does this by sensing lanes. If a car in the next lane gets a little too close, your car automatically steers slightly away.

But it is advances in mobile internet roll-out that will turn this into something completely different. High-speed 5G networks, for example, will enable enhanced 'computer vision' that is guided and corrected by internet-connected sensors. Cars will drive around towns and cities as humans would, but without human error. Logically, there may no longer be a requirement to take a driving test in order to ask a car to drive you somewhere. And the portents for professionals - from bus drivers to taxi drivers - are equally obvious.

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