In a stunning year for technology, 2015 brought us a number of new surprises. Which of these tech disruptions matters most to you?

1. Your new chauffeur just parked out front.

Tesla released a software update that suddenly put assisted driving in the hands of its customers. Tesla's assisted driving and parking are suitable for surprisingly many, but certainly not all, driving conditions. Founder Elon Musk believes that in 15 to 20 years, it would be "quite unusual to see cars that don't have full autonomy." Ten million self-driving cars are predicted to be on the road by 2020. This year, you got the first taste of what that will be like.

2. Robots swarm in space.

"If there's one thing that we've seen repeat throughout history, it's that you tend to over-predict what'll happen in the next year, but you tend to vastly under-predict what will happen in the next 10 years," says Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources president and chief engineer. In July, his asteroid-mining company launched its first spacecraft. It plans to release armies of low-cost, robotic asteroid miners in the next three years.

Paving the way to freely market the raw materials the robot army brings home, the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act was also signed into law this year.

3. Bridge binging.

A Dutch design company, MX3D, and Autodesk are collaborating with the City of Amsterdam to 3-D-print a metal bridge over one of the city's canals. Joris Laarman, designer, says the project will free the world to think about craft in new ways. "I strongly believe in the future of digital production and local production -- in 'the new craft.' This bridge will show how 3-D printing finally enters the world of large scale, functional objects and sustainable materials while allowing unprecedented freedom of form."

He's not alone--this year, Michigan Tech open sourced plans for building a 3-D metal printer for under $1,000. Branch Technology, a Chattanooga startup in the 2015 Launch Tennessee master accelerator program, took inspiration from nature to develop 3-D-printed walls for homes and buildings in a process it calls "cellular fabrication." What are you going to build?

4. A.I. for all.

Then again, you may not have to build anything, as smart as computers are getting. Let them learn to build for you. You've heard that neural nets are the mechanism that computers use to learn?

The fastest and, for many, the best of the A.I. application platforms belongs to Google. This year, the tech giant started giving away how it trains neural nets. Not only that, Google is also giving away the code library for taking a trained A.I. and plugging it into your app. Get the goodies at TensorFlow.org.

5. Get re-inspired by the Terminator movies.

This year, Google's Boston Dynamics released footage of its powerful android, Atlas, walking through the woods. Just watch it. 

 

Disrupted yet?

6. Draw your dreams.

If watching the robot running through the outdoors made you want to run indoors, this next tech disruption is right for you. The Apple Pencil translates artistry from your hands directly to the computer, without needing a scan. It also doesn't need you to learn a new tool, like a keyboard or a mouse. You can draw thick, thin, and slanted lines, like you do with a calligraphy pen. You can press harder for thicker lines and lighten up for fading lines. Imagine the kids of the future drawing in delicious digital crayons on intelligent walls. You would go to bed and reset the walls to clean. Now that's progress.

7. Step out on a cloud.

In 2015, Amazon launched the first-ever cloud services platform for the internet of things, making it easier than ever for companies to make products intelligent at a faster clip. The race to the cloud is white hot. 

In 2015, both Microsoft and Amazon each exceeded $7 billion in revenue from cloud hosting services. IBM and Google are not far behind. Analyst IDG says 90 percent of enterprises are relying on APIs in their cloud integration plans for 2016. A quarter of total IT budgets will be allocated to cloud computing in next year and larger investment are expected to come from enterprise departments outside of IT. 

8. Recode cancer.

Baby Layla Richards, found to have aggressive leukemia at just 14 months, improved dramatically when her scientists and doctors edited her genes. Yes, this was incredibly experimental. Her parents agreed to it only because they thought she was about to die. It's not ready for mass production. But in terms of a disruption in how we treat terminal diseases like cancer, this experience opened a big, bright door to the future.

9. Take on your friendly neighborhood crypto currency.

The financial services sector is estimated to be about 15 percent of the total $78 trillion global economy. The annoying truth: Much of that isn't adding direct value.

That's because banks, insurance companies, and the like burn labor dollars tracking down pennies and premiums from one system to another. Then, they audit that work, lighting up even more labor.

Blockchain promises to extinguish the endless audit trail by allowing trusted partners to directly edit the registers involved. Data is encrypted; only a partner can read the system, and even then, maybe only certain sections.

Developing encrypted shared platforms, though, hasn't been easy. This year, Microsoft integrated Ethereum blockchain app development with Azure. This makes it much easier to develop disruptive blockchain solutions that cut costs and increase security.

10. Trip the light fantastic.

This year, the first prototype "Li-Fi" LED light bulbs were prototyped. Li-Fi is a further development of wireless communication using light emitted from bulbs. Light has a much broader spectrum than radio signals, the basis for Wi-Fi. In a cloud-crazy, connected world, reaching for a richer signal spectrum makes sense. Today, Li-Fi is less than a billion-dollar industry. Some estimate it will be over $8 billion by 2020. With virtually unlimited capacity and costs expected to be 10 times less than Wi-Fi, that seems likely. Below, hear Li-Fi researcher Harald Haas talking in 2011 about how light is the future of communication. This year, his vision became real bulbs that work.
 

Published on: Dec 4, 2015