On 13 June, 1863, The Press newspaper in Christchurch, New Zealand, published an open letter from the novelist and philosopher Samuel Butler entitled "Darwin Among the Machines". What is remarkable about this article is Butler’s visionary outlook in a world where Edison’s electrical light bulb would take another 17 years to be invented.
In trying to describe how machines will evolve over time, he asked: "What sort of creature is man’s successor in the supremacy of the earth likely to be? We have often heard this debated; but it appears that we are creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race."
One hundred and fifty years on, it would be hard to describe the impact of our current fascination for technology with better words. The difference between then and now is that what was hypothetical then is now real. There is little doubt that we are in the process of creating our own successors, and we are indeed adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation on a daily basis.
Take a look at the year that has just passed: Google is perfecting its driverless car; Oculus is developing a fully immersive virtual reality; Motorola invented the Edible Password Pill; 3Doodler launched a pen that can write in 3D; Double Robotics launched the mobile telepresence robot (pictured); scientists at Australia’s University of Newcastle regenerated a frog that has been extinct since 1983; Boston Dynamics engineered the Atlas Robot; Amazon prototyped drone deliveries; we saw the creation of an artificial pancreas and a plethora of new sensors such as Myo, Leap Motion and Emotiv.
Keeping with the Darwin metaphor, we can argue we are witnessing the "evolution" of new species, artificial ones and, unlike the ones described in Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, the evolution of the "homo artificialis" is so rapid that it requires this type of yearly update.
A beacon for retailers
Location-based marketing is about to get a big boost in 2014, mostly thanks to a single piece of tech: iBeacon. For retailers, iBeacon is easily the most important announcement made by Apple in 2013 as it will unlock a raft of new types of customer experiences in the coming months. It works by using Bluetooth Low Energy proximity sensing to transmit a universally unique identifier that, when picked up by a compatible app, can be turned into a physical location and trigger a specific action on the device, such as sending a welcome message, generate a discount voucher, unlock a hotel room door or even make a payment.
Amazingly, iBeacon is already available on almost 200 million iOS devices as it came built-in as part of iOS 7. Moreover, iBeacon is not limited to the Apple ecosystem. Indeed, any device with BLE can be an iBeacon, including devices running Android’s Jellybean and KitKat systems too.
On 9 January, 2001, Steve Jobs gave one of his greatest Macworld keynote presentations in which he introduced the "digital hub" concept. He said the "desktop" would become the hub and would evolve into becoming the centre of the digital lifestyle of the 21st century.
Today, of course, the smartphone is the new digital hub, but it no longer needs to connect to a MP3/DVD player or digital camera since the smartphone has become all those devices. Instead, it connects to your bathroom scales, your fitness bracelet, your home thermostats or your dog’s collar. With the advent of the "internet of things", the smartphone is the perfect device to connect and control it all since it is with us 24/7.
This is giving birth to a new trend and a new name where applications and accessories are coming together: appcessories. These are accessories that you control using an app on your smart device. Nike+ FuelBand, Fitbit, Pebble Smartwatch, Samsung Galaxy Gear, Google Glass, Nest and Withings are all examples that have emerged in the past couple of years and the trend will accelerate in 2014.
In many senses, the foundation for wearable tech has been laid out in the past couple of years (BLE, better batteries, miniaturisation, new user interfaces such as touch, gesture and speech recognition) and many predict that 2014 will be "the year" when wearable technologies will go mainstream as they become more affordable, useful and socially acceptable.
There is little doubt that we are in the process of creating our own successors, and we are indeed adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation on a daily basis
On one end of the "socially acceptable" scale, less visible wearable tech such as fitness bracelets or smartwatches will go mainstream first while more visible wearable tech such as the Google Glass will take longer to be adopted by the masses.
However, wearable tech will not be limited to humans; we will see more pet-connected objects such as smart collars that you will be able to track and control from your smartphone. Smart tags such as Tile and Gecko should also see wider adoption.
A smart, connected world
The "internet of things" will also see massive growth in 2014. Nest has proven the model works and we should see more start-ups (and grown-ups) launching new connected objects. Smart objects that are likely to be mostly adopted by home users in 2014 are smart locks, smart light bulbs and smart plugs, and this, combined with a wider adoption of easy-to-use software solutions such as ifttt.com, will make integration between the devices and applications a breeze. The "internet of things" is particularly popular on sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo and the Consumer Electronics Show this week is full of suppliers exhibiting connected objects.
A few Januaries ago, the "semantic web" was in every year-ahead prediction article. Hailed as the next iteration of the web, it now seems to have become a bit of a dirty word with investors and consumers. The original focus of the semantic web was great – a vision of a web of interconnected data and meaning – but ultimately missed the big picture, which is that people care less about knowledge graphs and more about the people and current events happening in their social graphs.
While this iteration of the web was critical (search engines would be broken and apps such as Flipboard or Zite would not exist), it now needs to evolve into a web of immediacy and relevancy – a "synaptic web" some call it – that can deliver current and relevant content to users.
There will be more exciting developments for the web in 2014, as it continues its transformation into a critical artificial-intelligence layer for connecting and serving future online experiences via apps and devices of all sorts. To get an early taste, just try Google Now – an array of incredible engineering and AI coming together to serve a blistering type of virtual assistance.
Merging the physical and the digital
These emerging technology trends will offer marketers new ways to merge physical and digital experiences. This new trend, also known as Phygital, will lead retailers to create new types of experiences that resurrect the high street thanks to the creation of smart stores that will deliver personalised and entertaining shopping experiences.
2014 will also see the rise of "maker brands", as non-tech companies acquire tech start-ups. 3D printing, the miniaturisation of sensors and portable electronics such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino will fuel that trend.
So, as we can see, we are well on our way to creating our own successor as anticipated by Butler 150 years ago. In a way, the current stage in this process is one of "augmentation". We are augmenting ourselves, giving ourselves new power and senses through the use of technology. Smartphones and wearable tech are a perfect example of this.
Augmentation through tech is an interesting paradigm for brands too. It can greatly help organisations transform into innovative brands by looking to augment their existing products and services with new technology.
Gregory Roekens is the chief technology officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO