Back in 1990, the internet was just a twinkle in the eye of a few scientists at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Mobile phones were awkward bricks wielded by showy stockbrokers. Personal computers had not yet made the transition from the office to the home.
Fast forward 25 years, and more people have access to mobile phones than working toilets. Technology has revolutionised global communications, culture and business. Video chat software Skype has more than 300 million active users.
While three billion of us already have internet access, Google plans to supply the rest using high-altitude balloons (Project Loon) and solar powered drones (Project Titan) to beam wi-fi across developing nations.
Even language is no longer the barrier it used to be, with the advent
of real-time translation technologies enabling communication without a human translator. As of January 2015, we are using Google Translate to make one billion translations per day.
So what do the next 25 years have in store? “The general trend is that technology is becoming more and more a part of everyday life,” says Professor Rafael Calvo, a software engineer at the University of Sydney. While some are questioning how technology may be affecting us adversely, Calvo is researching how computers may
be able to contribute positively to our mental health. “Positive computing is changing the design of technologies to take into account the wellbeing and happiness of people,” he says.
For example, games have been designed to encourage ‘pro-social’ behaviours. In one study at Stanford, researchers built a game where players were either given the power to fly like Superman or take a virtual helicopter ride. After playing, the participants who had the superpower were more likely to help someone in need.
Though computers are traditionally seen to have a blindspot for emotions, recent advances are paving the way for computers to notice and adapt to our moods – a phenomenon called affective computing. “Some new cameras have a setting where they only take a photo when you smile,” says Calvo.
Calvo’s team has developed software to assist moderators of Australia’s leading online youth mental health service, ReachOut.com. It can detect when someone is depressed, and possibly at risk of suicide, and alert a human moderator. His group has also teamed up with the Young and Well CRC to build an online hub where young people can download apps to help improve their wellbeing.
For Calvo, this technology represents a transformation in how software is being made – aiming to improve wellbeing, not just productivity. “Our work is centred on influencing how people develop software. Australia leads the world in this field.”
New technologies could also change the way we learn, says Professor Judy Kay from the University of Sydney. Kay and her team are exploring the use of touchscreen tabletops in the classroom as tools for students to work together. They can also help teachers monitor each group’s work. “This technology can distinguish the actions and speech of each person in a group to determine how well the group is progressing and how well they collaborate,” she says.
The movie Her presents a future in which we will have intelligent virtual personal assistants to help organise our lives. We can already tell Siri to “Call Mum” or ask Google if we need an umbrella today. But this is only the beginning.
Meet Anna Cares. She’s a friendly brunette who lives inside your tablet or smartphone as an intelligent virtual agent. Developed by Clevertar (a spin-out from the computer science labs at Flinders University), Anna is being developed for the aged care space. She can already remind you to take your medication and give timely advice based on the weather.
Dr Martin Luerssen is an artificial intelligence specialist from Flinders who works on the project. He says intelligent assistant technology has been enabled by the convergence of several advances over the past 10 years, including astonishing progress in computational and sensing capabilities, as well as speech and language technologies. Meanwhile, affective computing approaches are bringing improvements to understanding human gestures and expressions.
“This enables us to create very natural, human-like interactions,” says Luerssen.
“By 2040, we expect that there will be more Australians retired than working – we cannot afford not to have this kind of technology,” adds Professor David Powers from Flinders.
We already use voice-operated technology, but now an app called Focus, developed by the Smart Services CRC, enables you to interact hands-free with a smartphone using eye movement alone – for example, you can increase font size with the blink of an eye.
“Australia leads the world in this field.”
By 2040, it is plausible we will be able to control computers with our minds using brain-computer interfaces (BCI), such as a cap covered in electrodes that can transmit brainwaves to a computer via electroencephalogram (EEG). In 2006, technology by BrainGate enabled patients with total ‘locked-in’ syndrome (where a patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to paralysis) to move a computer cursor just by thinking, thereby giving them a way to communicate. In 2010, Australian entrepreneur Tan Le unveiled a commercially available EEG headset, enabling anyone with careful concentration to give their computer simple instructions with their thoughts.
But the process is slow. “At the moment, typing with BCI can take seconds per character,” says Powers. Flinders University researchers are working on new technologies where users can type by thinking of words rather than just characters, speeding up the process.
In a field where the sudden emergence of a new technology can change the entire landscape in just a year or two, who knows how we will be communicating in 2040?
“One thing I can say with confidence is that we are very bad at predicting the future!” says Kay.
– Cathal O’Connell