Five technologies that will alter our world in 2016

With changes to the way we do journalism, humanitarian work, banking and war — the world will be transformed by these five technologies on the rise in 2016. 

A person uses Gear VR virtual reality headsets during a preview session in Hollywood, California Sept. 24, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

1. Killer Robots: Increasing the automation of warfare

Matthew Bolton, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Pace University

While we are becoming increasingly used to the idea of remotely operated robotic weapons — drones — they are only one manifestation of a broader digitization of warfare. Human rights advocates, humanitarians and even many military personnel are concerned that the growing autonomy of new weapons will soon take people completely "out of the loop" of decision making about killing. This might sound like science fiction (articles in the new media compulsively reference the film Terminator), but such "Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems" (LAWS), or less euphemistically, "Killer Robots," are a not-too-distant future.

Indeed, the U.S., Russian and Chinese militaries are eyeing each other’s robotic weapons development programs nervously. Examples of precursor systems include a sentry gun with the capacity to be programmed to fire automatically on a heat signature, missiles that dive-bomb radar signals they don’t recognize and high-tech landmines.

Objections to such weapons emerged first among academics, rather than in traditional arms control or human rights circles. A group of concerned computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts, philosophers and social scientists formed the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) in 2009 to focus scholarly, media and policy attention on the threats of robotic weapons. They argued that autonomous weapons systems pose grave legal, moral, humanitarian, technical and security risks.  In 2013, ICRAC joined Human Rights Watch and other NGOs in founding the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which advocates for an international ban on all weapons that fail to meet the standard of “meaningful human control” over individual attacks. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings has also raised alarm at the human rights implications of increasing autonomy in the use of force.

Over the last two years, diplomats have been discussing LAWS at the UN in Geneva in meetings on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Though many states have expressed concerns about the implications of LAWS, with some even calling for a preemptive ban, these conversations have not yet resulted in concrete action, but in late 2016 there will be a five-year review of the CCW that could offer a chance for more concerted multilateral action. Meanwhile, awareness in the tech and scientific community is growing, particularly following an “Open Letter” signed by more than 1,000 experts, including Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates, calling for a ban. Moreover, Clearpath Robotics and the Icelandic Institute for Intelligent Machines have both issued policies pledging not to develop killer robots.

2. Virtual Reality: Taking interactive to a new level

Nonny de la Peña, CEO, Emblematic Group

2016 will be a watershed year for virtual reality, when the realism of 360° video gets married to the immersive qualities of volumetric, or "walk around," VR, to create a whole new level of experience.

On the hardware front, the first two quarters will see the release of three next-generation headsets: the HTC Vive, the Sony Morpheus and the Oculus Rift. To varying degrees, each of these incorporates positional tracking — the ability to know where the user is within a defined environment. In other words, they all enable volumetric VR, taking advantage of that tracking to allow users to move around at will within a scene. 

In 360° video, the viewer is tethered at the centre of a spherical field of view, able to look all around them but not able to change their position relative to what they see. Spherical video is what most people currently think of as VR, but that will change as developers and users see what these new headsets can do.

But here's the best part. Companies like 8i are bridging the two worlds, capturing photo-realistic, 3D video-esque films of people that can then be plugged into rendered, immersive environments. So we will be able to create experiences where you are walking around and exploring a scene, and interacting with characters that look and move the same way as when they are shot on video. And that is going to make for a very exciting year.

3. Psiphon: Breaking the Internet open

Karl Kathuria, CEO, Psiphon Inc.

Every year, the Internet becomes less open. Whether it’s China blocking news sites, Iraq blocking social media or Russia stifling independent media voices, there is no doubt that many people around the world cannot engage with Internet content in the way that so many of us take for granted.

For the past 10 years, Psiphon has been addressing these problems. It started when researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab developed software that people in uncensored countries could install to act as a proxy for helping people in the censored country. As interest grew, the company looked for more scalable solutions to help support large audiences from broadcasters like the BBC and Voice of America.

Psiphon now operates its own massive network, through which over 10 million people worldwide connect to the Internet, reading news and connecting over social media when they would otherwise be prevented from doing so. The challenge of providing a robust service in this environment has been met by Psiphon’s development team with changing infrastructure, new protocols and an increasingly impressive set of techniques to keep the Internet open for everybody.

The free, open-source app for Windows PCs and Android devices not only gets past national filtering, but creates a secure tunnel between the end user and the Psiphon network, providing a layer of privacy when browsing over open WiFi networks. This aspect can perhaps explain recent fast growth in the U.S., Canada and Europe, where Psiphon has also started to offer a premium, subscription-based version.

Use of Psiphon is growing in every continent, and the team behind the software is ready to face whatever challenges 2016 has in store for them. The reward is knowing that they play a part in keeping people connected, both to content and with each other.

4. Missing Maps: Democratizing the charting process

Kevin Hill, digital marketing coordinator, MSF Canada

When a natural disaster or an outbreak of a disease threatens a community in a developing country, how can the response be at its most effective when there are no accurate maps of the area?

Missing Maps is an open collaboration of humanitarian NGOs and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), created to map the most vulnerable places in the developing world and to improve response to crises.

These NGOs, including Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross, are increasingly using maps that include OpenStreetMap data in their operational decision-making, epidemiological analysis, logistical planning and disaster risk reduction programming.

The mapping process uses crowd-sourcing to identify roads, buildings and other features in satellite imagery, which is then verified and added to by on-the-ground teams. An online tasking manager provides a platform for the mapping, and in-person mapathons bring people together to create the data, but there is great untapped potential for individuals to contribute from home.

Since August 2014, mapping parties have been organized across six continents, and more than 5500 volunteers have committed over 16 million map changes to open street maps in countries like DRC, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Central African Republic, Bangladesh, South Africa, Sierra Leone and many more.

In an effort to expedite the mapping process, and to encourage participation of individuals via mobile, developers are now working on the creation of an application based on the Pybossa open crowd-sourcing platform to quickly assess whether there are settlements or roads in the selected satellite imagery.

There are ongoing mapping projects responding to flooding in Kinshasa, DRC, to improve HIV medication distribution in Mozambique, and for emergency preparedness in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In the coming year, Missing Maps will increasingly assist in the response to crises, both before and after they occur.

5. Blockchains: Further transforming the global economy

— Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn and Marcel Goguen, political scientists

Originally developed in 2008 to enable the creation of the internet-based cryptographic payment system Bitcoin, blockchain technologies are being increasingly applied in a host of novel manners. Blockchains are digitally encrypted but open public ledgers enabling the nearly real-time verification and broadcasting of transactions. In other words, it increases the ways to send currency online — privately, securely and without the use of banks — and anyone can use it, from corporations to terrorist groups.

Applications of blockchains in payment systems have helped overcome the problem of double-spending that long afflicted electronic transactions. Doing so has enabled peer-to-peer transferring of stores of value in decentralized manners. This has importantly bypassed the use of centralized financial intermediaries (like banks) or trusted third-parties (like PayPal or Western Union).

The fruits of the nearly $1 billion invested in blockchain technologies in 2015 may be revealed over the coming year. Investment banks like Goldman Sachs have been at the forefront of investments in private blockchains, banding together in a consortium exploring the development of a blockchain-based payment and settlement network. Other areas of growth for blockchain technologies will be with 'smart contracts.' These are legal contracts whose clauses are automatically trigged. Some have forecasted ‘decentralized autonomous corporations’ (DACs) may arise from contracts entirely based on blockchain-based contracts.

Taken together, these and other applications of blockchain technologies could lead to wide-ranging transformations of the mechanisms of trust that have long underpinned the global political economy. There may be considerable industry re-alignment and job losses in high-paying and secure professions (lawyers and accountants particularly), along with transformations in corporate governance and development aid, and a loss of power of centralized government bodies. In other words, a world without banks could be just around the corner.