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Can google help us predict the future

By Alistair Ross, Thu 25 Dec 2014
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Google Trends ( is a great tool, if you've not already used it, have a look on the 'Explore' tab and you'll find all sorts of neat things to look at about what the world has been searching for.

Interestingly, when I searched for the word 'Technology' on trends, it has become clear that more people were interested in searching for Technology by far back in the early-mid 2000's than they are now. In fact, people searched for the word 'technology' in 2014 1/3 of what they used to in 2005.

Why is this? I'm sure there are many theories out there, however I'll stick with my theory until proven wrong! Back in the early 2000s, when disk drive capacity was measured in megabytes, and the words 'mobile phone' was somewhat of an oxymoron, I wrote a thesis for my university back in Edinburgh called "Ubiquity: The future of pervasive computing." In it, I lamented that the near future would include wireless technology in a pervasive manner. Being a student in Edinburgh at the time I wrote that the technology would have real world uses: "after a night on the amber nectar, if one's inebriation was not such that it overcame their ability to operate their 'mobile device', one could simply tap a button and locate their closest chip shop. Moreover, one could see where it was on a map, and see reviews written by other patrons on previous visits".

All of this writing was years before Wi-Fi was a proper standard, and certainly before the birth of the iPhone in 2007. With some glaring omissions, like still referring to the mobile device as a PDA, and the fact that Wi-Fi would be available for free in every street, it was a reasonably accurate description of today's ubiquitous smartphone-enabled world.

But that's where my thesis ended. I did not wish to predict 2015 coming. For I did not believe that we would be flying round on hoverboards in a Marty McFly esque future. Instead, for the last few years I've been seeing a developing picture of 2015, headlined by the now coined term "The Internet of Things". We've been hearing about this for at least a couple of years in the mainstream media, but 2015, I believe will be the year it becomes pervasive for the average person in the street.

The Internet of Things will be everywhere and with it, the big data that it produces will in turn provide big money for companies harvesting and selling it and that big data, whether you like it or not, will probably involve you. What do I mean by all of this? Well, in 2015 you're going to find that more than likely you will have something in your life that you are almost utterly unaware of. Just like people no longer seem to search for Technology, we simply accept that it is an every day part of our lives. It is pervasive. You've seen the start of it already: smart watches that read your pulse and tell you if you're burning all the calories in that chocolate eclair you had for morning tea, or whether you're about to have a heart attack. Then there's those smart heat pumps that turn on from your mobile phone before you even get home. Contactless retail experience via things like VISA PayWave, iBeacons, RFID and all things embedded in our shopping world are assimilating data about how we shop like never before.

There are so many examples of where it has begun to take shape already, but like everything in new technology, regardless of what the big companies may say, The Internet of Things is still a wild west, much like online shopping when it started, there are little in the way of standards and accepted global laws that deal with how this information is utilised. Some people may have no issues with the fact that their fridge might collect statistics upon what type of food they will order next and offer a friendly shopping list with said groceries via an approved retailer, whilst others may balk at having their white goods company know that they have a penchant for binging on double-cream chocolate eclairs two hours after their health-kick buckwheat and berry compote. Whatever your personal stance, privacy will be a word that we all have to redefine our boundaries on what we believe is acceptable as 2015 brings the Internet and big data to things we never used to think had anything to do with tech.

I'm a technologist. Probably I'd go as far as to say that I'm an evangelist of technology. I was born during the boom of the microcomputer, so I've grown up with technology all my life and been fascinated by it's advancements over the years. I'm still young enough not to be saying 'Back in my day...', but the more I think about the paper I wrote back in the early 2000s, I would have added a final section, which I think is more relevant today than ever before. The section would be entitled "The power of OFF". Don't get me wrong, technology that helps us become healthier, happier humans is something that I for one welcome, but as we head towards Christmas, as much as social media like Facebook is great for chatting with friends, it's also pressuring you to spend more time away from those loved ones on your doorstep. The more your smartwatch beeps at you, with a new notification - the more chance you'll overcook that turkey. Do you really want that smart tv to wake you up in the middle of a well earned snooze after a few sweet sherries on Xmas day?

By 2020, Morgan Stanley estimates that the scale of the Internet of Things will be approximately 75 billion devices. That's 200 Million devices each year from next year if we don't count the devices already defined as Internet enabled. The more we are being surrounded by technology just ask yourself if it is benefiting you or pressuring you as you jump from device to device. If you feel that technology is running your life, rather than helping you run yours, especially at Christmas time, remember the power that can be sought from the big button with the three letters marked 'OFF'. FOMO, or the Fear of Missing Out is a psychological condition created by technology after all!

Now get away from the screen and enjoy the festive season! Merry 'ubiquitous' holidays!

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