In 2017, Dell Technologies partnered with the independent futures research group, Institute for the Future (IFTF), to produce a report, The Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships in which IFTF explored the impact that robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and cloud computing will have on society by 2030.

These technologies, enabled by significant advances in software, will underpin the formation of new human-machine partnerships that are already evident in our connected cars, homes, business and banking transactions. They are even transforming how farmers manage their crops and cattle. Given this dizzying pace of progress, let’s take a look at what’s coming down the pike next.

Prediction 1: AI will do the ‘thinking tasks’ at speed

Over the next few years, AI will change the way we spend our time acting on data, not just curating it. Businesses will harness AI to do data-driven “thinking tasks” for them, significantly reducing the time they spend scoping, debating, scenario planning and testing every new innovation.

It will mercifully release bottlenecks and liberate people to make more decisions and move faster, in the knowledge that great new ideas won’t get stuck in the mire. The APJ region, emerging as the leader in innovation in artificial intelligence, will start to see real examples of these benefits becoming a business reality.

Increasingly, virtual prototyping and real-time virtual analysis are no longer options, but necessities. AI and data analysis in real-time means that you can develop your idea and test it, as many times as you want and still get to market quicker and cheaper. Instead of, say, crash testing a new car design a limited number of times in the real world, you can quickly do thousands of virtual tests.

Some theorists claim AI will replace jobs, but these new technologies may also create new ones, unleashing new opportunities for humans. For example, we’ll see a new type of IT professional focused on AI training and fine-tuning. This region will become the home of these skills, with AI dominating the skillsets of future talent.

These practitioners will be responsible for setting the parameters for what should and shouldn’t be classified good business outcomes, determining the rules for engagement, framing what constitutes ‘reward’ and so on. Once this is in place, the technology will be able to recommend positive commercial opportunities at lightning speed. There will also be examples of AI’s thinking tasks in healthcare, agriculture and financial services.

The challenge will be for organisations to prove the business value of AI technologies and make sure they have the right infrastructure and talent in place.

There's a lot of fear that some traditional jobs are going away. But while that may happen, there will also be new jobs created in areas that we don't even know about yet. As a society, we need to help people develop the skills that will compliment what AI can do.

Prediction 2: Embedding the IQ of Things

Starting in 2018, we’ll take gargantuan strides in embedding near-instant intelligence in IoT-enhanced cities, organisations, homes, and vehicles. With the cost of processing power decreasing and a connected node approaching $0, soon we’ll have 100 billion connected devices, and after that a trillion.

The magnitude of all that data combined, processing power with the power of AI will help machines better orchestrate our physical and human resources. We’ll evolve into ‘digital conductors’ of the technology and environments surrounding us. Technology will function as an extension of ourselves. Every object will become smart and enable us to live smarter lives.

It’s like a sports team, the coach provides guidance for overall play, but the players need to decide instantly how to kick that ball. The devices in IoT can make those instant decisions, but the bigger picture information passes throughout the network to create smarter outcomes.

We’re seeing this in our cars - the ‘ultimate mobile devices’ -, which are being fitted out with ultrasonic sensors, gesture recognition, and technology that makes use of light beams to measure distance between vehicles.

In time, these innovations will make autonomous driving an everyday reality. Well before, we’ll get used to cars routinely booking themselves in for a service, informing the garage what needs to be done and scheduling their own software updates.

APJ is ground zero for IoT innovation and implementation. Investments are increasing and factors like government initiatives and 5G advancement are driving forces – markets like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and ANZ stand out for their readiness because of these factors. However, barriers to IoT success are consistent globally. Collaboration will be needed to overcome barriers like inconsistent standards, a fragmented technology landscape, and the need to ready infrastructure.

Prediction 3: We’ll don AR headsets

It also won’t be long until the lines between ‘real’ reality and augmented reality begin to blur. AR’s commercial viability is already evident. For instance, teams of construction workers, architects and engineers are using AR headsets to visualise new builds, coordinate efforts based on a single view of a development and train on-the-job labourers when a technician cannot be on site that day.

AR at work will bring together people and humans, allowing people to interact with data in ways they have never done before. This region will be the testbed for these applications, as it starts its journey to dominating AR innovation and application. 

Of course, VR has strong prospects too. It will undoubtedly transform the entertainment and gaming space in the near term, thanks to the immersive experiences it affords, but smart bets are on AR becoming the de facto way of maximising human efficiency and leveraging the ‘tribal knowledge’ of an evolving workforce.

AR is an easier path because the technological barriers are lower. An AR headset is an affordable investment, as are other end-user devices. While much of the AR we’ve already seen, such as games and retail apps, are very basic, the beauty of them is that they work on your phone. Headsets will support more sophisticated uses of AR, while in the short time, VR will thrive for niche users.

Prediction 4:  A deeper relationship with customers

Dell Technologies’ Digital Transformation Index shows that 52 percent of businesses in the Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ) region think they may become obsolete within three to five years and 83 percent feel threatened by digital start-ups. It’s never been more important to put the customer experience first.

Over the next year, with predictive analytics, machine learning (ML) and AI at the forefront, companies will better understand and serve customers at, if not before the point of need. Customer service will pivot on perfecting the blend between man and machine. So, rather than offloading customer interactions to first generation chatbots and predetermined messages, humans and automated intelligent virtual agents will work together, as one team.

APJ consumers are already demanding, digitally savvy, and embracing mobile-driven interactions. They are also adopting technology-driven interactions like alternative payment methods.

In fact, much of the innovation in payments on a global scale is being driven by industry leaders in this region, and consumer demand for this will increase exponentially. 2018 will see brands being pushed to meet those consumer expectations.

You will see a blend of human and robotics working together to provide better customer service. Your doctor will rely on AI and analytics to stay abreast of the latest research and they can focus on your individual needs. More sophisticated AI chatbots will provide better customer support at the first instance, but humans can jump in to guide more complex cases.

Prediction 5: Bias check will become the next spell check

Over the next decade, emerging technologies such as VR, AI, will help people find and act on information without interference from emotions or external prejudice, while empowering them to exercise human judgment where appropriate.

In the short-term, we’ll see AI applied to hiring and promotion procedures to screen for conscious and unconscious bias. Meanwhile VR will increasingly be used as an interview tool to ensure opportunities are awarded on merit alone, e.g. by masking a prospective employee’s true identity with an avatar. 

By using emerging technologies to these ends, ‘bias check’ could one day become a routine sanitiser, like ‘spell check’- but with society-wide benefits.

Studies show that the gender or ethnicity of the name on a resume can unconsciously influence recruiters. Machine learning can just look at a set of resumes solely on the skill sets that match the hiring profile. It doesn’t matter how old the candidates are, what they look like, what their name is, their location or any other factors that may influence humans.

Prediction 6: Media & Entertainment will break new ground with esports

In 2018, we’ll see increasingly vast numbers of players sitting behind screens or wearing VR headsets to battle it out in a high-definition computer-generated universe. As hundreds of millions of players and viewers tune-in, esports will go mainstream. APJ is already on the way to realising this change, as we head towards the 2022 Asian Games where esports will be a medal event.

The esports phenomenon points to a wider trend. Namely that even quintessentially ‘human’ activities like sport have been digitalised. Technology has widened ‘sport’ to all types. You don’t need to have a certain physique or build. If you have quick haptic responses and motor skills, you can play and claim victory. The APJ region will see the biggest impact of this – with China, Hong Kong and South Korea already making headway with events and investments. Singapore is also setting its sights on homegrown esports professionals with a training academy for future esports champions.

We know people enjoy playing against others rather than on their own, we also know that some people enjoy watching or even betting on those games. This is an area where the technology is there and going mainstream is now inevitable.

Additionally, traditional sports, like cycling, have upped their game by harvesting data to identify incremental but game-changing gains. In the future every business will be a technology business, and our leisure time will become a connected experience.

Prediction 7: We’ll journey toward the “mega-cloud”

Cloud is not a destination. It’s an IT model where orchestration, automation and intelligence are embedded deeply into IT Infrastructure. In 2018, businesses are overwhelmingly moving toward a multi-cloud approach, taking advantage of the value of all models from public to private, hosted, managed and SaaS.

Some markets like ANZ and Japan are already leading the way in this approach.  However, as more applications and workloads move into various clouds, the proliferation of cloud siloes will become an inevitability, thus inhibiting the organisation’s ability to fully exploit data analytics and AI initiatives.

This may also result in applications and data landing in the wrong cloud and leading to poor outcomes. APJ organisations will still be challenged to address their infrastructure to address immediate challenges but still have to keep a view of future applications.

As a next step, we’ll see the emergence of the “mega cloud”, which will weave together multiple private and public clouds to behave as a coherent, holistic system. The mega cloud will offer a federated, intelligent view of an entire IT environment.

To make the mega cloud possible, we will need to create multi-cloud innovations in networking (to move data between clouds), storage (to place data in the right cloud), compute (to utilise the best processing and acceleration for the workloads), orchestration (to link networking, storage and compute together across clouds) and, as a new opportunity, customers will have to incorporate AI and ML to bring automation and insight to a new level from this next generation IT environment.

Organisations are now smarter about which cloud is right for which application. We’re moving onto to intelligent cloud consumption, where data is housed in the most suitable type of cloud, with AI adding and removing services as needed, and the user just knows that it’s where they need it to be.

Prediction 8: The year to sweat the small stuff

In this increasingly interconnected world, our reliance on third parties has never been greater. Organisations aren’t simple atomic instances; rather, they are highly interconnected systems that exist as part of something even bigger. The ripples of chaos spread farther and faster now that technology connects us in astonishing ways. Consider that one of the most substantial data breaches in history occurred because attackers used credentials to log into a third-party HVAC system.

For the first time, security will be part of the conversation the whole way through. The threats are going to keep growing and the only way to address them is with a multi-prong strategy. You want to protect the perimeter, you want protection natively embedded in the app and you want the governance over the data regulation your company requires.

Due to our increasingly interwoven relationship with machines, small subtle failures can lead to mega failures. Hence, next year will be a year of action for multinational corporations, further inspired by the onslaught of new regulations such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will impact organisations across APJ.

Prioritising the implementation of cybersecurity tools and technologies to effectively protect data and prevent threats will be a growing imperative. APJ organisations will be driven to increase security budgets, and will also look at business-wide efforts such as employee awareness. IoT security will also to make it to the top of the list of security spend priorities in the region, to address potential issues from edge to core to cloud as innovation in IoT picks up pace.

Danny Elmarji is director of system engineering at Dell EMC Australia and New Zealand.