Forget self-driving cars and robot workers. There’s lots more happening in tech that’s wildly unexpected–if not straight from science fiction–that will become a part of daily life sooner than you think.
The Augmented Workplace
Though touted for decades, augmented reality didn’t hit the mainstream until 2016, with the success of the mobile game Pokémon Go. But its biggest impact is likely to be on the workday. AR systems that use special glasses to project a digital overlay onto the wearer’s field of vision are filtering into professions that involve complicated, multistep manual tasks. At Porsche repair centers, auto mechanics wear goggles that can receive visual guidance from remote experts; surgeons at several hospitals are testing glasses that visualize data from ultrasound scanners, allowing them to peer through skin at underlying tissue–all but giving them X-ray vision.
Google’s attempt at AR, Glass, flopped upon its debut in 2012, thanks in large part to its dorky look and the creep factor of its built-in camera. But an enterprise version thrives, and customers include GE Aviation, where engineers use it to assemble jet engines. It won’t be long before deskbound office workers will use holographic screens to type emails and create virtual 3-D models in the air: The San Mateo, California-based startup Meta is developing just that–although it recently pushed back its timetable after President Trump’s trade policies caused a major Chinese investor to back out. –Jeff Bercovici
Technological change vastly outpaces universities’ ability to adapt, and future workers will need continued skills-refreshers to stay relevant. Enter nanodegrees: hyper-specific learning programs that offer certifications for tech-based skills and increasingly important alternatives to traditional four-year degrees. Nanodegree institution Udacity has schools of business, data science, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems, in which 50,000 students spend an average of 10 to 15 hours a week in challenging courses built to rival the big schools’. Its competitor Coursera offers certificates in hundreds of subjects. These programs’ fees are generally far cheaper than even community colleges’. And next-generation nanodegree programs may soon include adaptive learning tools that apply machine learning to map individual students’ strengths and weaknesses and the pace at which they grasp key objectives–and then personalize curricula to them.
Future job applicants may have a constellation of nanodegrees rather than one diploma from a single institution–and the most-qualified students may take different paths from high school to the workforce, and still possess skills that can be put to immediate use. Currently, only certain licensable professions–like medicine–require continuing education to maintain professional standing. It’s possible that, for other degrees to stay current, we’ll be supplementing our educations with nanodegrees every few years. —Amy Webb
Electrifying Your Brain
Coffee breaks have a robust basis in neuroscience: Human brains can’t maintain focus on a boring task too long, says researcher Andy McKinley. “Usually, after 20 minutes or so, performance has gone down quite a bit,” he says. Caffeine extends that window, but nowhere near as much as zapping the brain with electrical currents, as McKinley knows. He focuses on transcranial direct-current stimulation–tDCS–at the U.S. Air Force’s applied neuroscience branch’s cognitive performance optimization section. In trials involving repetitive work, electrically stimulating the left frontal cortex let subjects maintain concentration for up to six hours–without a performance drop. In other tests, tDCS accelerated the rate of learning by 25 percent. Maybe brain-zapping headsets–already a thing with Silicon Valley biohackers–will one day be as common as espresso machines. —J.B.