Long-range forecast: Where will cloud computing take us in the future?
This feature first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Cloud computing has had a tumultuous but largely successful journey into the mainstream since its inception. For the average online citizen, the cloud now provides hundreds of gigabytes of free or relatively inexpensive online storage. The cloud gives us ubiquitous access to our digital selves — our music, photos, videos, and other personal bits and bytes can be pulled down to nearly every computing device we own, nearly everywhere we go.
For businesses, cloud computing has enabled many of them to offer their products as services, while employing cloud services from external vendors to reduce or even replace certain traditional “overhead departments” such as human resources and employee training.
Cloud computing has also given businesses the ability to transform some technology-based capital expenses into operating expenses. This is a highly-desirable bit of financial alchemy, as operating expenses are usually tax-deductible, while capital expenses are not. For example, Microsoft’s subscription-based Office 365, the cloud-based version of its popular productivity suite, lets businesses stop buying traditional Office software licenses (a capital expense) and purchase annual Office 365 subscriptions (an operating expense) instead.
When a technology reaches a certain maturity point, people begin to wonder what future iterations of the technology will make possible. This speculation has now begun with cloud computing. Surely the cloud must be able to become more than just an online locker for our digital lives, and a more efficient method of distributing software and services.
One glimpse into the future of cloud computing was offered in a recent Computerworld article about a massive cloud-based data repository called Robo Brain. A joint university project, Robo Brain is meant to be a sort of knowledge storehouse for robots looking for information on how to perform a task. The scientists behind the project intend to load a billion images, a hundred thousand YouTube videos, and a hundred million how-to documents and product manuals into the Robo Brain system.
Once the storehouse is built, the plan is for robots to connect directly to Robo Brain and search the repository for information regarding a specific task or function. Once discovered, the robot can download the desired information and incorporate it into its programming, rather than needing to receive that same input from a human agent. Robots can also upload information to Robo Brain, so the repository will grow as robots share their task experiences with the system.
Despite its name, Robo Brain is not so much a brain (relax, Skynet conspiracy theorists) as it is a wiki for robots. Still, this is an intriguing application of cloud computing toward a future-leaning goal: using the cloud to enable the creation of self-training robots.
The present state of cloud computing technology and how it is being utilized offers some hints at possible future trends and applications. Here are three predictions for developments that could occur as the cloud continues to evolve. The first prediction is pretty much inevitable, the second prediction is highly probable, and the third prediction is (perhaps) a more future-forward scenario.
Boxed Software Finally Disappears
This has already started to happen, but there is still plenty of boxed software on the shelves of your local office supply or electronics store. Mobile app stores for iOS and Android devices have proven the effectiveness of cloud-based software delivery. Apple has been delivering its new OS X operating systems entirely online for a while now, and Adobe’s popular Creative Suite software is now available exclusively via a cloud-based subscription service.
We should expect boxed CD and DVD software packages to disappear entirely from the shelves of stores like Staples and Best Buy sooner rather than later.
The Personal Health Cloud
When it comes to consumer cloud services, online storage and content consumption are still the primary use cases. As the cost of cloud computing and data analytics continues to fall, however, it will eventually become possible to create far more sophisticated cloud services for the average user.
As an example, consider the Personal Health Cloud. More advanced than today’s relatively simple health apps and fitness bands, the Personal Health Cloud (PHC) would act as a fully expert and trusted medical advisor. Here is how it would work:
Every relevant personal health metric would automatically be captured as data in your PHC: what you eat and drink, physical activity, vital signs, sleep patterns, and so on. Future iterations of wearable sensors will be powerful enough to capture the minutiae of hundreds of desired metrics — even tiny variations in key hormone and neurotransmitter levels — without the requirement of any direct input by the user. It would all just happen in the background as you went about your day.
Your PHC dataset could also be augmented with personal DNA mapping, an analysis of your unique genetic characteristics which would provide additional context for your PHC’s ongoing tracking.
Your PHC would use sophisticated data analytics and trend prediction agents to constantly analyze the data set, and provide on-demand advice or automated warnings concerning potential health-related events and conditions. In essence, your PHC would act as the vanguard of early detection and treatment of health issues, with appropriate thresholds built in so it would know when to advise intervention by a medical professional. Are you ready to meet your digital personal health manager?
The Self-Driving City
The recent development of self-driving vehicles offers tremendous potential benefits which cannot be overstated. A recent University of Texas study concluded that if just 10 percent of all vehicles on the road were of the self-driving variety, the nation would save more than $37 billion annually. If self-driving vehicles made up 90 percent of all traffic, the estimated annual savings would climb to an incredible $447 billion.
The primary source of these savings: reduced health-care costs, lowered law enforcement and first responder expenditures, and a dramatic reduction in the amount of lost productivity hours caused by traffic jams and injury accidents.
Then, there is the cost to human life: over 33,000 motor vehicle deaths occurred in the U.S. in 2012. Forty percent of these deaths involved alcohol, drugs, distractions, or driver fatigue, human factors that a self-driving vehicle removes from the picture.
There is a lot of opposition to self-driving vehicles, of course, and especially to a mixed population of human and machine drivers on the morning commute. The key issue is one of liability, which is obviously a sore point with drivers, law enforcement officials and insurance companies.
One possible solution is for a city to become completely self-driving, by requiring all vehicles in the city to be self-driving vehicles, or at least have self-driving capabilities which must be employed within city limits at all times. Let’s ignore the inevitable political morass of this scenario for a moment, and consider the technical viability.
It’s been demonstrated that self-driving vehicles are perfectly capable of sensing everything required to operate safely, and with more proficiency than the average human driver. This capability needs to be augmented, of course, with constant updates concerning external variables such as road construction detours, approaching emergency vehicles, road closures due to environmental conditions, and so forth.
This is what a Municipal Traffic Cloud System (MTCS) would provide. The MTCS would leverage a city’s existing traffic control and monitoring infrastructure (traffic lights, cameras, road sensors, etc.) to send out instant notifications to self-driving vehicles concerning route changes, estimated time of arrival data, and other critical travel data. The MTCS would also be responsible for simultaneously creating clear paths for en route emergency vehicles, an action that many human drivers seem to have no capacity for.
The Future of the Cloud
Cloud computing is more than an industry buzz term. It has become a mature and established technology, which is now being considered with a speculative eye toward future applications. As the hardware and software powering the cloud continue to evolve and become more powerful and less expensive, we will hopefully see even more creative and innovative cloud computing solutions in the near future.