Smartphones becoming 'remote controls' of our lives, the dawn of driverless cars, the Heartbleed software vulnerability and smart thermostats pave the way for engaged consumers – we asked IET experts what were the most significant engineering and technology trends of 2014 and what to expect from the upcoming year.
William Webb – The IET president, Member of the Communications Policy Panel
2014 was the year when our smartphones really did become our 'remote control on life'. Google Now, Siri and other systems can now understand spoken commands, interpret calendars to find routes and warn of traffic congestion, link to home thermostats to automatically change heating and much more.
This had been predicted as long ago as the 1990s but has taken until now to realise mostly because of all the challenges of understanding behaviour and accessing disparate data sets. It's a combination of widespread mobile data availability, advanced smartphones and the use of 'big data' to allow computers to make good guesses at what we're trying to do. It's not quite smart enough yet – Google thinks I cycle everywhere so warns me many hours in advance when I've got a trip from Cambridge to London (which takes 40 minutes by train) but these are surely teething problems with a solution that will take much of the hassle and everyday worries out of our lives.
In 2015 we can expect smart cities will show the first signs of life. It is clear that there is much that can be done to improve city life from smart parking solutions that identify free spaces, to smart dustbins that know when they're nearly full and smart street lights that save energy and provide communications and guidance.
There have been over a hundred 'testbed' smart cities around the world but to date these have been research projects rather than real implementations. With massive interest in the Internet of Things, the eco-system of technologies forming and recent government white papers in this area, 2015 will see smart cities move to initial deployment. It may still be five to ten years before we really reap the benefits but at least we will be starting on the journey to smartness.
Will Stewart – chair of the Communications Policy Panel
From all the things that happened in 2014, I would like to point out the Nobel Prize for chemistry going to Germany’s Stefan Hell for what is essentially engineering for high-res microscopy.
When it comes to trends we’ve seen gaining momentum over 2014 and which we can expect to continue next year, I would mention the emergence of growing levels of autonomy and event/video/location recording in road vehicles (including bicycles!).
All major manufacturers now have plans and things like lane assistance. Automatic emergency calls from accidents are already out there. Full autonomy is probably a decade away (no more) but the contribution to road safety is much closer. People are bad drivers – machines will be much better. And recording of accidents will be very precise – good for the more honest among us and probably for safety too.
Another significant development is the broadband Internet going ubiquitous and wireless. This includes the Internet of Things (including cars as above) and wearables for health monitoring, and also 4G and emergent 5G. This also goes with a 'utility' public attitude. Many people just expect it to work but there is a lot of technology development behind it including our IET 'Demand Attentive Networks' (DAN) initiative.
Hugh Boyes – IET's cyber-security expert
The big cyber-security story of 2014 was the Heartbleed bug. This bug achieved mainstream media coverage. It was the first time that a software bug had been given a logo and the issue caught the UK media's attention when the Mumsnet website was hacked. More significantly, this bug revealed the parlous state of much of the critical software we rely on day-to-day to enable and secure Internet traffic.
In 2015 we might start to see a breakthrough in the demand from both the public and from regulators for improvements in the trustworthiness of software.
The demand may be driven in part by the reaction to the cyber security and software failures we have witnessed in 2014, ranging from software bugs, banking software failures, website crashes and high-profile cyber incidents such as the hacking of the Sony Corporation.
This level of failure would not be tolerated in physical engineering products and should no longer be acceptable for software engineering and IT systems. Indeed, concepts such as autonomous (driverless) vehicles, smart cities and the Internet of Things (IoT) will all require a significant increase in software trustworthiness and a good starting point would be the use of principles set out in BS PAS 754, which was sponsored by the UK government.
Simon Harrison – chair of the Energy Policy Panel
I would put forward the launch of smart learning thermostats, which occurred in 2014 in the UK (although they were launched in the USA in 2012). These allow domestic heating that responds to users’ patterns of behaviour without their intervention to be controlled from a smartphone and provides large amounts of easily understood data in ways that make users want to study it.
The reason this is significant is not the technology (neat though that is), but the way in which it engages users in their domestic energy economy. 'Engaged Consumers' have been a holy grail of smart energy and energy efficiency policies for years and here is the first innovation brought to market that starts to deliver it.