Arthur C Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That was in the 1960s, but it can’t be truer today than ever. The age we are living in, and the technology we are consuming, is nothing short of magic. Self-driving cars are very close to reality and will be allowed on the roads in California sometime this year, we are talking to our smartphones these days, translating languages on the go, robots are cleaning our homes better than ever, and even our gadgets are talking to each other. Artificial intelligence (AI), backed by technologies such as machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing, deep neural networks and Internet of Things (IoT), is changing how we live, sometimes in very visible ways and at others in a very subtle form. Newer cars today can detect and alert drivers when they drive into a wrong lane. Some smartphone assistants can understand multiple comments thrown at them. Using AI, doctors are able to better diagnose illnesses in patients.
This is the thing with technology, whenever and wherever a need arises, it rises up to the challenge. It evolves till that need is fulfilled, enhancing quality of life. Sometimes, humans don’t even realise a piece of technology was needed till it actually raises quality of life. As technology has evolved, it has also changed the way humans interact with each other. Of course, societies, too, have evolved—joint families have become nuclear families. But in many ways, technology has been able to bring people closer. Technology has turned dreams into reality. And it does this in a magical way. Ultra-pervasive technologies like machine learning and AI have made smartphones almost ubiquitous. Technology can potentially automate every aspect of our lives, without taking away our individuality.
Simple-to-sophisticated technology is stitching the fabric of our daily lives. Online banking transactions have meant that we no longer have to spend hours in a queue. The cringe-worthy idea of cleaning our house after a full day’s work has been made an amusing one with technology providing a range of solutions—robots to do housework while we watch or adorable microbots that leave no nook or corner of a house untouched—giving us so much more time to catch up on world news or pursue other ambitions.
There are now refrigerators with in-built cameras that detect the presence of fruits and vegetables automatically, and remind us to purchase stuff, or even auto-order for us. Then there are smartphones available in the mass market with AI built in and using augmented reality (AR) technology. These allow a person to find that pair of shoes, across e-commerce portals, they saw someone wearing at the last party. All the person has to do is open an app and click a photo. It is this trait of technology that will even solve the biggest challenges facing humanity at this time—illiteracy, malnutrition and poverty.
Let us take the case of pacemakers that aid a person’s heart in making it beat continually. Now that same Ventricular-Assist Device (VAD) is loaded with functions that enable doctors to monitor the patient real time, with sensors fitted in the device constantly sending data. While VADs have proven to be able to extend the life of a patient for decades, sometimes they are not enough and the patient may need a heart transplant. That is not likely to be a problem for long with fully functional soft artificial hearts made of 3D-printed silicone emerging that can prolong life.
Gone are the days when life used to change devastatingly after an accident or major illness. Oscar Pistorius, with both legs amputated, won multiple laurels in the Paralympics and Olympics. Technological modification at the personal level is enabling the physically handicapped go far beyond what was earlier imaginable. 3D-printed prosthetic legs, running blades made from 80 layers of carbon fibre, blindcaps through which swimmers could get vibration alerts from coaches to make a turn are just some of the innovations in sports technology that were used in the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
We don’t realise it, but technology is also the biggest contributor to economic growth in developing countries. A report by Deloitte along with Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) found that a 10% increase in mobile penetration increases total productivity factor by as much as 4.2% points. Entire countries have become economic powerhouses on the back of fully leveraging and deploying cutting-edge technology.
Take the Netherlands as an example. Some Dutch farmers are producing as much as 20 tonnes (versus a typical yield of nine tonnes) of potatoes per acre of land, using 90% less water and almost no chemicals. Using a combination of technologies including IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, farmers use drones, driverless tractors and quadcopters to provide detailed readings on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients and growth, measuring the progress of every plant down to the individual potato.
Technology has enabled better collaboration across organisations and cultures. It has the power to aid physically challenged to live quality life. It has the potential to bridge divides that separate us from each other—rich and poor, small and large enterprises, island and a mega country. Though it is not a panacea for all problems in life, meaningful technology is definitely a great instrument for us get the most out of life, prolong life and live the way life should be lived. Technology today is almost like magic.
By Aloknath De