COMMENTARY

Pros and cons of 2018's most disruptive technologies

As we embark on a new year, the drive to deliver more streamlined services on a tighter budget will only intensify. The following four disruptive trends will be at the forefront of discussions. Each is already getting a lot of attention in technology circles, and in 2018 they will start to shape the thinking of decision makers in every area of government and business. Consider both the opportunities and the concerns for each trend.

The Internet of Things

The Opportunity: The Internet of Things is all about using sensors to collect data in the field and then making real-time and near real-time decisions based on analyzing that data. IoT is already being used to power smart homes -- e.g. intelligent refrigerators, ovens, thermostats and security systems -- as well as smart factories that can monitor building conditions and the status of production.

IoT will certainly be a key topic of federal and state initiatives related to building and grounds maintenance, security, and logistics. It will also play a vital role in the military, as well as in domestic crime prevention and combating terrorism.

One of the most exciting developments is the rise of smart cities, where a variety of sensor types will be used in coordination to lower operational costs, improve transportation, and deliver services more efficiently.

The Concern: Wherever there is massive data collection, no matter how altruistic the intent, privacy concerns arise. For example, who owns the data that a smart city collects? Who can have access to it? Can it be sold? This will be an increasingly important topic for legislators in 2018 as more IoT-powered systems come online.

Blockchain

The Opportunity: The recent meteoric rise of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has many people finally talking about the power of blockchain, the open ledger technology that can be used for far more powerful solutions than just tracking these cryptocurrencies.

For example, in the same way blockchain eliminates the need for a bank or credit card company to serve as a middleman for a currency transaction, the technology can be used to implement smart contracts and mortgages that simplify and accelerate legal relationships -- while increasing security and transparency -- even when a cryptocurrency is not involved.

While practical applications of blockchain may still be some time off, federal and state governments should imagine how this technology can increase efficiency, drive down costs and reduce risks.

The Concern: As an open, distributed technology, blockchain lacks the central control that governments tend to prefer. How this technology can be abused and how it comes to be regulated remains to be seen.

Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality

The Opportunity: Virtual reality (creating a submersive world for a user to enter) and augmented reality (enhancing a user’s view of the real world) offer unlimited opportunities to improve education, increase safety and reduce costs. For example, military and police trainees can practice in highly dangerous or sensitive situations without facing or creating any real danger. Using goggles, technicians can send drones or robots into dangerous environments -- a collapsed building or a flood zone for example -- and search for survivors or effect repairs from a safe distance. Or an expert can make repairs to a disabled jet or tank anywhere in the world without the time or cost of traveling to the site.

In the same way that virtual conferencing has lowered costs by reducing the need for travel, we need to constantly think of ways that new virtual and augmented reality technologies can be used to save time and increase efficiency.

The Concern: Remember the Pokemon Go craze? Remember seeing people wandering the streets looking down at their phones? Augmented reality goggles may well have a place in public settings. For example, tourists could see information about buildings and events as they walk around a new city. But the potential danger caused by distraction is a very real issue cities will need to start considering this year.

Artificial Intelligence/ Machine Learning

The Opportunity: Artificial intelligence (AI) systems are programmed to do intelligent things, such as control driverless cars. Machine learning (ML) systems, such as product recommendation engines, incorporate usage to become more precise or accurate.

Logistics companies are already using AI and ML to identify optimal routes, and it is easy to envision a time when public sector buses, trains and metro lines will rely on these technologies to adjust routes and schedules on the fly for far greater efficiency. Along with driverless cars, driverless buses are on the way, and drone package delivery, which is already being tested, may have public sector applications as well.

AI also presents an opportunity to address long-tail needs around education and advocacy. For example, the many associations headquartered in the DC area enable people who work in the same field to gather, learn from one another, and collaborate on industry-wide agendas. AI and ML can help make these advocacy and educational efforts much more precise and effective through reaching out to and connecting members (“micro-targeting”) based on jobs, interests and connections.

The Concern: Automation will inevitably replace some jobs, and the public sector will need to study the impact of this. As a society, we have to ensure we understand how decision making evolves in an AI setting. For example, AI decisions are based on algorithms and optimizations of inputs, and we need to have confidence the outputs won’t have surprising or negative consequences. And micro-targeting has the potential to keep people inside their filter bubble, which could lead to further polarization of society.

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About the Author

Conor Sibley is the chief technology officer at Higher Logic. He has been designing and implementing business enabling technology since the late 1990's. Sibley has in-depth knowledge from his work as a software executive, advisor to successful technology businesses, contracting with the military and intelligence community and investing in startups. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia in computer engineering and he received his master's from the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business.

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