SMAC Turns DARQ – Tech Trends Defining the Future

In many ways, the 1920s set the stage for the rest of the 20th century. Electrification became widespread, cars became commonplace, and homes got radios and telephones. New infrastructure was built to accommodate and expand the reach of technologies, culminating with the internet and world wide web of the 1990s. In much the same way, the 2020s will be the foundation of what the rest of the 21st century looks like.

A series of technological innovations invented in the 90s and Noughties spread rapidly and dominated the 20teens, acronymed to SMAC. This means Social (kicked off by Friendster in 2002 and Myspace in 2003), Mobile (iPhone in 2007), Analytics (new tools for realtime data extraction and correlating) and Cloud (Amazon’s EC2 cloud came out in 2006, Google launched cloud services in 2008). Much tech talk today focuses on these four areas, especially for the business and higher education sectors.

But the pace of technology change keeps accelerating, and a new acronym is pushing SMAC aside: DARQ. This stand for Distributed ledgers, AI, Reality extension and Quantum computing. Many people are already using the term “post-digital” because the digital world is becoming so integrated into the real world that there will soon be essentially no meaningful difference between the two.

Today, there are organizations already leveraging these emerging technologies to drive differentiation and become the thought and brand leaders of tomorrow. Any organization that isn’t thinking about DARQ runs the risk of being left behind, and being unable to catch up.

Whatever the year 2099 looks like, historians will look back to these four areas as the foundational elements of the 21st century.

5G and IoT

Before we get into DARQ, it’s important to understand how 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) will set the stage for the expansion, improvement and full-scale adoption of these technologies.

Widespread use of 5G networks will enable a vast amount of information to move from one device to another at phenomenal speeds. 5G is so fast that a consumer could download a full two-hour film in six seconds. In a city with blanket 5G coverage, one million devices can be networked for every square kilometer (compared to 2000 for 4G). This mean that literally everything will be connected to the cloud: streetlights, parking meters, the electrical grid, water distribution and roads for autonomous vehicles, just to name a few. And that’s in addition to all the devices we carry around and have in our homes.

This kind of interconnectivity is unprecedented in human history. IoT will be an omnipresent but invisible layer to the physical world, where devices are constantly communicating with one another, aided by AI, to optimize and improve systems. It already is: by 2025, there will be more than 75 billion devices connected to the web.

Speed is important, but the real boon of 5G is its low latency. Data pings from one endpoint to another so quickly, it’s essentially instantaneous. 4G networks have a latency of around 50-60 milliseconds, while 5G is under 30. This will enable things like a comprehensive network of autonomous vehicles, remotely operating mining equipment or robots in dangerous environments, and telepresence surgery by doctors who are in a different city from their patient, or even a different country.

D = Distributed Ledgers

Most people have heard of cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin), which use a type of distributed ledger (DL) called blockchain. A distributed ledger is a database that’s shared among many locations, synchronized and updated instantly, with multiple people able to access some or all of the data. Everyone with access serves as “witnesses” for any transaction that occurs, verifying the legitimacy of that transaction from many perspectives.

It’s essentially crowdsourced security. A centralized database is stored at only one location, and if that location gets hacked, that’s that. By distributing the ledger across multiple users, no central authority is needed (or even welcome), and it becomes that much harder to commit fraud or hack the database. This is because all copies of the ledger would have to be attacked at the same time, which is almost impossible. The data is encrypted at each endpoint, and only those specific users have their unique decryption keys.

Since distributed ledgers have multiple parties looking at them at any given time, there’s no need to vet a third party into trusted status so they can then be allowed to handle the data. This speeds up information processing and allows networks to expand. And as the network expands, it becomes even faster and more secure.

Today’s more than 5,000 cryptocurrencies already use this tech. We’ll see more of the financial world using distributed ledgers, but other sectors are also expected to adopt it. This technology is really about verifying information of any kind, not just money.

Companies are using distributed ledgers for home, travel and maritime insurance, and global product tracking in near realtime. Microsoft is partnering with the ID2020 Alliance to create a distributed digital online identity for everyone using Azure. Worldwide humanitarian aid, utility providers, analytics companies, medical licensing, car leasing, Amazon, NASDAQ, and even the Department of Homeland Security are all seeing the benefits of using this tech. It will soon be the standard.

A = Artificial Intelligence (AI)

We’re not talking about sentient computers yet, but current AI technology leverages machine learning to create a series of algorithms that optimize processes without direct human intervention. Create a set of computers instructions, tell it how to learn, feed it a lot of data and stand back while it does its thing. An AI program can work faster and more efficiently than a whole team of people, helping optimize strategic decision-making on the fly.

AI is being incorporated into just about every app and platform you can think of. City infrastructure, investment management, actuary tables, predictive analysis, cyber security, combating disinformation, chatbots, customer interfaces… there’s no aspect of our digital and online lives that isn’t already being automated using AI. There are even AI programs that write other AI programs. This is Big Data creating more Big Data, spitting out information sets that humans can act on immediately.

Some may find this spooky (insert ubiquitous Big Brother or Skynet reference here), but it’s actually one of the drivers for the democratization of information. AI programs are inexpensive, so anyone can utilize them to maximize their procedures and systems, wringing the most benefit out of ideas as possible. AI augments things – it doesn’t take them over. The work becomes smarter and more meaningful.

Synthetic media also uses AI. These are digital representations of people that behave as if they’re real. News stories abound about deep fakes, which is certainly something to watch out for. But this technology is being used for positive outcomes as well, especially when combined with networked, cloud-based data. China recently launched a digital TV anchor; AI and adaptive machine learning can create digital therapists for people to talk to at anytime, anywhere. As AI learns more, it can even assist in things like design. This is called machine co-creativity.

R = Reality Extension

The lines between the digital world and the physical world are going to become more and more blurred.

The term Extended Reality usually refers to using digital overlays to interact with the real world. Most common is Augmented Reality, or AR, where a person might be looking at, say, a car engine, but also see a digital overlay of the specs for that engine, allowing them to make simple repairs with no prior knowledge or expertise.

Virtual reality, or VR, takes this a step further by creating an immersive, totally digital environment that people interact with by moving around in physical space. The possibilities for learning, training and retail experiences are just now being explored, and we can expect to see more and more AR and VR in the next decade.

User interfaces (UI) have been changing for a while now. A keyboard combined with a mouse became a more powerful way of interacting with a computer. Then touchscreens came along. Now there are voice user interfaces (VUI) for things ranging from consumer products (laptops, smart speakers, smart TVs) to digital signage – just talk to the screen and it shows you what you want. Gesture interfaces are also finally making their way to market. AR and VR are just more sophisticated UIs.

Soon devices will be able to “see” as well as “hear”, and might be able to recognize a specific individual or even judge the emotional state of the person in front of it, allowing it to serve up information and services the moment the person wants or needs it. Maybe even before they consciously know they do.

3D printing will further extend the digital into reality. Need a new pair of shoes? Buy the pattern online and print them at home. What we can print will become more and more sophisticated. So-called 4D printing is when you print something that can then change into something else. An example of this is the Self-Folding Surface Cube from the MIT Self-Assembly Lab. We’ve even begun printing organic matter, which could revolutionize food production and medical science.

Despite some initial bumps, we’ll start seeing more wearable tech soon as well, especially once AR really takes off. Eventually this will start to be more than just tech that people wear; technology will be able to be implanted directly into the human body. Yes, the dreams of the old cyberpunks will soon be a reality.

There are companies today that had reported success with brain-machines interfaces, which means you literally just think at the device and it does what you want it to. This can be used to control computers, but also a whole range of devices, including sophisticated limb prosthetics and semi-robotic exoskeletons that allow paralyzed people to walk again.

Q = Quantum Computing

Think of all the benefits a comprehensive 5G network offers over telecommunications of the past. Well, the once-theoretical world of quantum computing will make even today’s most powerful supercomputers look like a tube radio from the 1920s.

The physics of it is complicated (quantum computing takes advantage of quirks in matter at the sub-sub-atomic level), but suffice it to say that quantum computers offer an almost limitless potential in computing power, speed and efficiency. For programs and apps written today, we’re talking about a million-fold increase in performance, or more. For example, there’s a famous calculation that would take the Summit supercomputer (currently only eclipsed by Japan’s Fugaku) 10,000 years complete; Google has a quantum computer that solved it in 200 seconds.

But once this technology starts becoming more common, new types of programs will be written that take full advantages of quantum computing’s capabilities. Networking such devices together could create a system more complex than all the human brains in New York City combined. From where we are right now, there is no imaginable limit to what quantum computing will be able to accomplish.

The Future is Now

None of this is science fiction, or even speculation. All of this tech is coming, and very soon. Some of it’s already here. The rate of change is continuing to accelerate, in part aided by these technologies, and before you know it, everything will be affected. 2031 is almost certainly going to look a lot different from 2021. 2041 will be almost unrecognizable.

Organizations should start training their people now in the brave new world to come. “But I’m just getting around to looking into SMAC,” you might say. Well, that’s already being supplanted. It might once have been enough to wait around for new technologies to become widespread before finally jumping on the bandwagon, but there’s a very good chance that early adopters today will so completely dominate the field tomorrow that there’ll be no catching up to them. So, if you’re not already fully using SMAC, you might think about skipping it and leapfrogging right on to DARQ.

This tech is pushing the democratization of knowledge and invention further and further. Educating yourself today on what’s coming will let you take full advantage in the world of tomorrow. And perhaps you’ll come up with an innovation all your own that revolutionizes an entire process or industry.

As the saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to create it.