2017 was a busy year full of technological change.
The emergence of AI –especially in the form of Alexa (Amazon’s smart voice recognition) and Google Assistant was certainly the cause of many forward thinking discussions. Hype around autonomous cars also fuelled an automotive industry which at the start of the year seemed to be showing signs of slowing down. Add to that a new wave of consumer updates such as super-thin 8k TV’s and triple-screened laptops in the new high-end retail market and you have what appears to have been an extremely exciting year for techies.
The truth, however, is that many of the emerging tech fields still have a really long way to go until they have been proven to be safe and are affordable.
On the more adventurous side of things Elon Musk (champion of colonies on Mars) started seeing Dollar signs at the prospect of inserting chips into people’s heads (as he announced recently) and Richard Branson, perhaps most famous for his zealous failures, backs superfast vaccum tunnel by investing in the Virgin Hyperloop – boasting ‘Jet Plane speeds on the ground’ as the future of travel.
It sometimes pays to be more realistic. History tells us that not all technologies, especially new technologies, are good … in fact for every one good technology there are hundreds of companies that utterly fail to help the world in any way, or push it in a direction which does not benefit those who do not have money to see their advantages.
We thought the New Year might be a good moment to reflect on all of this – to take a look at 2017’s developments and highlight some of the least well thought out inventions which have emerged. We are judging these not on their ingenuity, but rather their startling uselessness or failure to get into the hands of people who actually need them to lead a better and more fulfilled life.
It also seems like a good moment to see which emerging technologies show real promise for the future, and understand how they may affect us in our lifetimes, recognising the great potential that comes from truly harnessing technology for the good. We will be celebrating the cool, useful and downright amazing technological advances which true technological masters have worked tirelessly to develop.
(These items fall in no particular order.)
The WORST tech in 2017
1. Nokia Kerastase Hair Coach
The first entry on this list is the Nokia Kerastase Hair Coach, a Bluetooth hairbrush which ‘listens’ to your hair in order to provide a health score.
It records breakages and has an internal motion sensor which detects the force and speed with which the user brushes their hair. Via the mobile app you can even see the condition of your hair and order haircare products directly.
Don’t be fooled though – it’s just an overpriced hairbrush!
In truth there are lots of inventions which are designed to part fools from their money, and this is one such example. Many items on this list are there because they are simply gimmicks, and while at first glance they might look useful, it is more like Fools Gold – increasing the price greatly for no real substance.
The real problem here is that there is usefulness to this type of technology – hair loss can indicate real underlying medical issues that demand attention and can be a powerful early indicator. Unfortunately the use of this product is not driven by helping people, but rather on selling people products, making this not only a bad invention, as it exists, but one which makes people pay more, only so that a company can remove more money from their wallets.
Perhaps then the issue is not so much with the invention, but how the technology may prove useful to people in the real world.
2. Griffin Connected Toaster
Toasters are great. They are the perfect example of a simple, cheap and highly worthwhile invention. They only have one purpose and one mechanism – meaning they last for years and rarely go wrong. Unfortunately there are people in the world who like to complicate simple things. This highly expensive Bluetooth version of this simple invention shows how technology can (and is) applied to make things work less well and cost much more.
Via a mobile user interface, users can change the heat settings and see when it will be done. Different users can setup profiles that record their toast preferences and adjust the settings accordingly.
Unfortunately for the manufacturers, these features are not new. They already existed via a simple button or switch, which happen to be FAR quicker and easier to use than turning on mobile Bluetooth, pairing a device, opening the app, then selecting the user profile (which needs to be setup). Add to that the cost of around $99 and you have a very expensive toaster with a non-useable party trick.
So why is it in this list? Because the designers had a great opportunity to do something with it! Working with other devices such as alarm clocks, mirrors, lights and coffee machines (from the same manufacturer) they missed a trick in creating the modern breakfast experience – creating the smart kitchen of the future. Instead we are stuck with the dumb appliances of the present!
3. Pop-I Backpack
It’s funny how old people constantly say they don’t understand young people, but after seeing the Pop-I Backback I suppose its not difficult to see why…
Another smartphone (Bluetooth) connected device, this backpack allows users to put custom black and white images onto their backback designs, which sounds great in theory but ends up having some real drawbacks in practice. For starters the design is not aesthetically pleasing, it looks like a £2 backpack with a large kindle on it.
More importantly though, it ruins the idea of what a packpack is…. Rugged, Hardwearing and Washable. Backpacks are designed for being outdoors, for being used as makeshift goalposts, for being cheap and reliable and all those things we expect of things which are low cost. This design goes against that very principle by making it large, inflexible and impractical with no increase in usefulness.
Gimmicks are great and all, and to be honest I’m sure some form of this will probably hit the clothes and accessories market but this company get 0/10 for execution!
4. Jager and Lewis Smart Collar
Ever wondered if your dog was sleeping but couldn’t be bothered to look? How about if your dog walker was actually just pretending to walk your dog rather than actually doing it? Oh – have you ever wanted insights about your dog’s stress levels and emotions?
Yea me either…
But if you are one of those people – then don’t worry, the perfect solution is here! Introducing the Jager and Lewis Smart Collar, a huge clucky tracker which fits onto your dog’s collar. It tracks their movements (just like a health tracker) – when they eat, whether they bark, when they sleep – everything you never wanted to know! Its like big brother for your dog!
I don’t really like animal technology for one reason – it stops people having relationships with the animal. A screen cannot tell you if an animal is feeling happy, content and secure – regardless of what the packaging says. The technology, or rather investment in the technology is too limited to know much at all about your dog that you couldn’t tell within a second just by looking.
Joking aside it does have some uses. For those owners who don’t want to implant their dog with a chip this might be a good option, but at £160 it seems expensive compared to other options, including collars which can also display led messages and will even play messages to anyone that finds them.
The point here is that half of the fun with pets is getting to know them and understand them – not offloading their emotional wellbeing to an app. Rather than being ‘useless’ this invention somehow takes away from being a pet owner itself.
5. Samsung Bixby
Anyone with a new Samsung phone knows why Bixby is on this list.
Bixby is the dedicated assistant for Samsung phones which offers integrated voice recognition with system controls. With a dedicated button and access to a virtual assistant that can actually change settings of the phone itself, Bixby offers a really helpful feature for users who are tired of having to navigate complex menus, which is a constant problem phone users face, and a specific issue that neither Google’s assistant or Amazon’s Alexa can help users solve.
Unfortunately, while in theory this all sounds great, in practice it isn’t … it really isn’t. In fact it’s the opposite of great. It’s NON-great, UN-great … in fact it’s blooming awful.
For starters the voice recognition is terrible compared to any other option (because it was developed in Korea) and it doesn’t understand context commands (such as how one connection links to another). It also doesn’t talk back or link with any apps (even though it says it does).
This is a classic example of an undeveloped technology being released in a country it wasn’t designed for – unfortunately on one of the best phones on the current market. Its dedicated button gets knocked all the time (as its in totally the wrong place) and Samsung have even taken steps to actively stop developers from deactivating the button.
In essence Samsung tried to make it work by pushing the app out into the UK market and make customers the beta testers. This, on such an expensive device, is pretty inexcusable – which is why Bixby deserves to be called utterly useless and gain its place on this list.
The BEST tech in 2017
1. Google Deepmind Machine Learning (Amazon / Facebook / Google / Salesforce / IBM / Netflix)
Machine learning has technically been around for a while, but key advancements have meant it’s taken a real jump forwards over the past 6 months leading to 2018. You may have heard that a Deepmind AI bot called AlphaGo was able to win the world’s most difficult board game (Go), winning against the world’s best player, Lee Sedol, 4-1. Indeed this year also saw the DOTA 2 (a real-time strategy computer game) championship interrupted by a new bot from a company called OpenAI which challenged the world’s best players 1v1 (and beat them all).
This is largely because of two specific advances in machine learning which have tubocharged the ability for machines to learn.
- Adaptive / Reactive Programming
In the past, machine learning has always been about humans teaching AI, and AI learning over time – but now that’s all changed. Now two different forms of AI can work together – one acting as an ‘ideas’ AI which endlessly presents options, and the second which acts as a ‘judge’ or goal defining AI which sets the strategy.
This change, which mirrors the humans brains two sides of the brain regarding creativity and logic, has greatly both increased the output and proficiency of AI technology. This, coupled with a faultless memory has shown some tremendous gains thanks to the sheer speed which is possible through electrical circuits as opposed to brains.
- Self-Taught Generation
Garry Kasparov was ranked no. 1 in the world at chess for 225 months. In 1997 he was beaten by the DeepBlue, created by IBM. DeepBlue did this by playing thousands of games of chess against different humans and then using its learnt strategies to help it beat him.
In comparison, in 2017, AlphaZero (part of the same program which won ‘Go’) taught itself chess in 4 hours and destroyed the most powerful chess AI in the world (Stockfish 8). This is because AlphaZero is specifically designed to learn rules quickly and simulate scenarios thousands of times per second to essentially teach itself rather than being taught by users. It is the first machine which does not require humans to learn.
This change has not just led to drastic thoughts about what is possible with AI, but has even caused many technological advocates to becomes quite fearful about its uses. It seems that understanding goals and ways to achieve those goals is one thing, but letting the AI teach itself a moral code may be something else entirely.
2. Assistive Sense technology – enChroma, eSight 3, Cochlear Implants, Lens
Technologies which directly enhance human abilities – both physical and metal – are perhaps the most exciting innovative areas in 2017. While many people may think about advances in instant translation and robotic limbs, this area has found real traction in assisting people with particular disabilities which affect other senses.
enChroma glasses, for instance, enable colourblind people to see in full colour for the first time in their lives. Using just a simple set of sunglasses, new technology allows specific diseases which affect the development of the eye to be overcome.
eSight 3 allows legally blind people (85% of those registered as blind) to see the world around them clearly. It uses camera, focusing and powerful lens technology to allow proper light reflection and clarity onto the retina.
Cochlear implants allow those who have never heard sound to hear the world around them perfectly by bypassing the actual ear canal and transferring sounds directly down the auditory nerve.
The profound impact that these technologies have on people mean that they take their place in the best uses for technology in 2017.
Face++ was developed and released in 2017 by Megvii Technology Inc, one of the worlds largest companies, valued at $3 Bn. You may not have heard of this company, or even technology, because it is only available in China, but Face++ allows people to make payments using only their face as proof of identity.
Facebook in the US and UK have taken a similar route for other means, but Face++ has been able to gain the trust of the financial payments industry by showing accuracy of over 99% success rates in the real world (ie on bad cameras such as blurry CCTV footage). The software is so good it can even detect the differences between identical twins!
Retail companies around the world are starting more and more to adopt this technology, and 2017 is likely to be the year which started this trend. The age of needing to carry money, cards or even devices is over, now all you need is your face!
4. HP Sprout Pro G2
3D technology is starting to take off. While Photoshop and other design tools have been 3D for a while, its starting to find a new home in eCommerce and even into Windows with paint 3D. This has driven a whole host of new ways of thinking about the PC in both business and at home.
One of the key problems with drawing and designing on the computer is being precise. A pen and paper will always be far easier to help create great works of art compared to a mouse and a mousepad. The Sprout is looking to go one step further and imagine what a 3d capable computer might look and feel like, and honestly the results are quite startling. 3D scanning takes a leap from near impossible to really easy, taking on board the simply point and click functions which are uilt into the device.
HP as a company have been forced by their competitors to rethink their position in the market and decide if the mass market, with its race to the lowest price, is really part of their future.
All I can say is that I really love this new direction from them, filling a space that until recently was cornered by the biggest tech company in the world, Apple. It may be far from perfect, but this bold new step towards the light has certainly helped HP shine a little more brightly in 2017.
Bixi (as opposed to Bixby) is a pretty cool idea. Have you ever just jumped out of the shower or been cooking and tried to use a tablet or touchscreen? Its not ideal … with dirty or wet hands, touchscreens become very impractical.
Which is fine if you are good at using voice commands … but if you’re like me then a. you haven’t used voice commands that much and b. don’t like sounding like a crazy person through your walls and floors shouting at Alexa’s, Siri’s and Google’s then sometimes its nice to have another option.
Bixby allows users to use mini handsfree motion detectors rather than talk to their mobile device in order to do things. It can record a number of different gestures. While it probably won’t find its place among the cutting edge inventions of the century, with all technology companies basically copying each other, its nice to see some thought given to consumer problems which can arise from this.
We are earmarking this technology because it solves a small problem cheaply and effectively, something that all technology should aim to do.