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6 Technologies That Will Define 2016

Please join me for “Path to Transformation,” an event I am putting on May 10 and 11 at the Plug and Play accelerator in Silicon Valley in conjunction with Insurance Thought Leadership. The event will not only explore the sorts of technological breakthroughs I describe in this article but will explain how companies can test and absorb the technologies, in ways that then lead to startling (and highly profitable) innovation. My son and I have been teaching these events around the world, and I hope to see you in May. You can sign up here.

Over the past century, the price and performance of computing has been on an exponential curve. And, as futurist Ray Kurzweil observed, once any technology becomes an information technology, its development follows the same curve. So, we are seeing exponential advances in technologies such as sensors, networks, artificial intelligence and robotics. The convergence of these technologies is making amazing things possible.

Last year was the tipping point in the global adoption of the Internet, digital medical devices, blockchain, gene editing, drones and solar energy. This year will be the beginning of an even bigger revolution, one that will change the way we live, let us visit new worlds and lead us into a jobless future. However, with every good thing, there comes a bad; wonderful things will become possible, but with them we will create new problems for mankind.

Here are six of the technologies that will make the change happen.

1. Artificial intelligence

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There is merit to the criticism of AI—even though computers have beaten chess masters and Jeopardy players and have learned to talk to us and drive cars. AI such as Siri and Cortana is still imperfect and infuriating. Yes, those two systems crack jokes and tell us the weather, but they are nothing like the seductive digital assistant we saw in the movie “Her.” In the artificial-intelligence community, there is a common saying: “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet.” People call this the “AI effect.” Skeptics discount the behavior of an artificial intelligence program by arguing that, rather than being real intelligence, it is just brute force computing and algorithms.

But this is about to change, to the point even the skeptics will say that AI has arrived. There have been major advances in “deep learning” neural networks, which learn by ingesting large amounts of data. IBM has taught its AI system, Watson, everything from cooking, to finance, to medicine and to Facebook. Google and Microsoft have made great strides in face recognition and human-like speech systems. AI-based face recognition, for example, has almost reached human capability. And IBM Watson can diagnose certain cancers better than any human doctor can.

With IBM Watson being made available to developers, Google open-sourcing its deep-learning AI software and Facebook releasing the designs of its specialized AI hardware, we can expect to see a broad variety of AI applications emerging because entrepreneurs all over the world are taking up the baton. AI will be wherever computers are, and it will seem human-like.

Fortunately, we don’t need to worry about superhuman AI yet; that is still a decade or two away.

2. Robots

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The 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge required robots to navigate over an eight-task course that simulated a disaster zone. It was almost comical to see them moving at the speed of molasses, freezing up and falling over. Forget folding laundry and serving humans; these robots could hardly walk. While we heard some three years ago that Foxconn would replace a million workers with robots in its Chinese factories, it never did so.

Breakthroughs may, however, be at hand. To begin with, a new generation of robots is being introduced by companies—such as Switzerland’s ABB, Denmark’s Universal Robots, and Boston’s Rethink Robotics—robots dextrous enough to thread a needle and sensitive enough to work alongside humans. They can assemble circuits and pack boxes. We are at the cusp of the industrial-robot revolution.

Household robots are another matter. Household tasks may seem mundane, but they are incredibly difficult for machines to perform. Cleaning a room and folding laundry necessitate software algorithms that are more complex than those required to land a man on the moon. But there have been many breakthroughs of late, largely driven by AI, enabling robots to learn certain tasks by themselves and by teaching each other what they have learned. And with the open source robotic operating system (ROS), thousands of developers worldwide are getting close to perfecting the algorithms.

Don’t be surprised when robots start showing up in supermarkets and malls—and in our homes. Remember Rosie, the robotic housekeeper from the TV series “The Jetsons”?  I am expecting version No. 1 to begin shipping in the early 2020s.

3. Self-driving cars

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Once considered to be in the realm of science fiction, autonomous cars made big news in 2015. Google crossed the million-mile mark with its prototypes; Tesla began releasing functionality in its cars; and major car manufacturers announced their plans for robocars. These cars are coming, whether or not we are ready. And, just as the robots will, they will learn from each other—about the landscape of our roads and the bad habits of humans.

In the next year or two, we will see fully functional robocars being tested on our highways, and then they will take over our roads. Just as the horseless carriage threw horses off the roads, these cars will displace us humans. Because they won’t crash into each other as we humans do, the robocars won’t need the bumper bars or steel cages, so they will be more comfortable and lighter. Most will be electric. We also won’t have to worry about parking spots, because they will be able to drop us where we want to go to and pick us up when we are ready. We won’t even need to own our own cars, because transportation will be available on demand through our smartphones. Best of all, we won’t need speed limits, so distance will be less of a barrier—enabling us to leave the cities and suburbs.

4. Virtual reality and holodecks

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In March, Facebook announced the availability of its much-anticipated virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift. And Microsoft, Magic Leap and dozens of startups aren’t far behind with their new technologies. The early versions of these products will surely be expensive and clumsy and cause dizziness and other adverse reactions, but prices will fall, capabilities will increase and footprints will shrink as is the case with all exponential technologies. 2016 will mark the beginning of the virtual reality revolution.

Virtual reality will change how we learn and how we entertain ourselves. Our children’s education will become experiential, because they will be able to visit ancient Greece and journey within the human body. We will spend our lunchtimes touring far-off destinations and our evenings playing laser tag with friends who are thousands of miles away. And, rather than watching movies at IMAX theaters, we will be able to be part of the action, virtually in the back seat of every big-screen car chase.

5. Internet of Things

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Mark Zuckerberg recently announced plans to create his own artificially intelligent, voice-controlled butler to help run his life at home and at work. For this, he will need appliances that can talk to his digital butler: a connected home, office and car. These are all coming, as CES, the big consumer electronics tradeshow in Las Vegas, demonstrated. From showerheads that track how much water we’ve used, to toothbrushes that watch out for cavities, to refrigerators that order food that is running out, all these items are on their way.

Starting in 2016, everything will be be connected, including our homes and appliances, our cars, street lights and medical instruments. These will be sharing information with each other (perhaps even gossiping about us) and will introduce massive security risks as well as many efficiencies. We won’t have much choice because they will be standard features—just as are the cameras on our smart TVs that stare at us and the smartphones that listen to everything we say.

6. Space

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Rockets, satellites and spaceships were things that governments built. That is, until Elon Musk stepped into the ring in 2002 with his startup SpaceX. A decade later, he demonstrated the ability to dock a spacecraft with the International Space Station and return with cargo. A year later, he launched a commercial geostationary satellite. And then, in 2015, out of the blue, came another billionaire, Jeff Bezos, whose space company Blue Origin launched a rocket 100 kilometers into space and landed its booster within five feet of its launch pad. SpaceX achieved the feat a month later.

It took a space race in the 1960s between the U.S. and the USSR to even get man to the moon. For decades after this, little more happened, because there was no one for the U.S. to compete with. Now, thanks to technology costs falling so far that space exploration can be done for millions—rather than billions—of dollars and the raging egos of two billionaires, we will see the breakthroughs in space travel that we have been waiting for. Maybe there’ll be nothing beyond some rocket launches and a few competitive tweets between Musk and Bezos in 2016, but we will be closer to having colonies on Mars.

This surely is the most innovative period in human history, an era that will be remembered as the inflection point in exponential technologies that made the impossible possible.

Is Insurance Ready for Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is no longer a technology reserved for the gaming industry. The applications are manifold in industries such as education, engineering, healthcare, insurance, sports and telecommunications. But, unlike other technology disruptions such as telematics, IoT, mobile, digital and cloud, which I have outlined in a previous blog, VR is yet to catch up in terms of adoption by insurers.

However, there are some applications from which the early adopters of this technology have started benefiting and others from which they could soon start benefiting.

Current Enterprise Applications

The Applications: VR simulation of car crashes – Insurers better understand what happens in a car crash for a safety demonstration

The Benefits: Improvement of driving behavior by creating awareness on safety and reducing accident claims

The Early Adopters: Australian insurer NRMA Insurance built a car crash simulation in collaboration with an ad agency and a film production studio and provided the experience to customers through an Oculus Rift headset in a crashed car showroom exhibit.


The Applications: Training – Safety experts and workers in manufacturing plants and warehouses are trained on safety practices and risk handling by creating a virtual world with various scenarios

The Benefits: Immersive and effective training experiences

The Early Adopters: Travelers insurance is working with AppliedVR in developing a VR mobile application aiming at industrial safety


The Applications: Advertising – Ad campaigns in VR gaming and on other platforms

The Benefits: Connecting better with the tech-savvy audience

The Early Adopters: Axa partnered with Google Niantic Lab Ingress to protect the gamers in a virtual real world using Axa Shield.


Ideas Insurers Can Explore

The Applications: Risk Assessment – Underwriters can look at all the possible risk hazards in a building without actually visiting the building.

The Benefits: Cost saving on travel and hiring

The Early Adopters: Insurers can steal ideas from the travel industry and see how they can customize VR for their needs. Marriott Hotels “teleports” guests to places like Hawaiian beaches and downtown London with sensory experiences.


The Applications: Analytics – Data scientists can analyze and visualize large dynamic datasets in VR, and executives can interact with the dashboards and take decisions

The Benefits: Quick and informed decision-making, scenario analysis

The Early Adopters: Insurance industry can draw inspiration from solutions developed for power, oil and gas and logistics industries. Space-Time Insight has recently demonstrated the capability of big data analytics and VR for power substation maintenance using Oculus Rift.


As an array of companies such as Google, Facebook, Samsung and Sony beef up their investments in VR and the number of enterprise applications spread across industries, the technology will soon prove to be disruptive for the insurance industry. Though customer experience, product demos and employee engagement are the key applications for the insurance industry, the ideas could be limitless as the technology matures. The day when we will compare the insurance product, take a driving test, purchase by interacting with an agent and talk to the customer care executive for claims, all through VR, is not too far away.