What can we expect in tech in 2022? Science reporter Jamie Morton looks at five areas to watch.

The dawn of the Metaverse

When Facebook announced its rebrand to Meta last year, commentators were questioning whether the heady concept it’s banking billions on really is a new horizon in tech – or just hype that conveniently distracted its troubles.

That’s the “metaverse” – and as far as the social media goliath is concerned, it’s the successor to the mobile internet we know today.

Precisely what constitutes the metaverse is hazy at best, but Meta describes it as “a set of interconnected digital spaces that lets you do things you can’t do in the physical world”.

“Importantly, it’ll be characterised by social presence, the feeling that you’re right there with another person, no matter where in the world you happen to be.”

Right now, the portal to this virtual, 3D world is still our smartphones, but Meta and other tech companies pouring billions of dollars into its evolution say it’s ultimately be experienced via advanced virtual reality and augmented reality headsets.

Apple, Google and Microsoft are also poised to roll out new products into the metaverse market, while Meta itself is releasing a VR headset it’s called Project Cambria.

Along with that, the company is focusing on tech for gaming, messaging, fitness, working, education and a new social space it has dubbed “Horizon Home”, where users can virtually hang out, watch videos and jump into games and apps together.

While Meta itself says the metaverse is still a ways off, virtual developers have already been spending millions of dollars for plots of land within one popular metaverse, blockchain-based Sandbox, where users can play games and attend concerts.

Will 'web 3.0' arrive?

If you’re reading this article online, it’s via what’s long been called “web 2.0” – or the second iteration of the world wide web.

Simply put, web 2.0 – a term dismissed as jargon by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee – means users can interact with each other, and create and share their own content in virtual communities like blogs, apps and social media and networking sites.

As “Web 3.0” proponents argue, however, a problem with our status quo is that much of it’s based on centralised services like Netflix that provide video-on-demand through a subscription business model.

“This model has its advantages, such as the speed that Zoom scaled operations during the pandemic, but suffers from monopolisation,” said Dr Jeff Njisse, a senior lecturer in cryptocurrencies and blockchain at AUT.

“Web3 is the move to decentralisation, where there are fewer or no intermediaries. This is a whole new paradigm and shifts the business model from corporate to individual.”

Nijesse said we were already seeing Web3 taking off in finance, in the form of decentralised finance, or “DeFi” – touted as a new era in global crypto markets.

“In the near term, this is going to accelerate.”

A better-known example were non-fungible tokens, or NFTs – one-of-a-kind data units stored on a blockchain, and bought and sold in the form of anything from digital music and art to event tickets and domain names.

While many remain sceptical about them – some commentators have panned them as little more than a pyramid scheme – that hasn’t stopped people from paying eye-watering amounts.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey famously sold his first-ever tweet, posted back in 2006, for nearly US$3m as an NFT, while a digital collage by US graphic designer Mike “Beeple” Winklemann fetched nearly US$70m – helping set off the craze.

“[They’ve] seen tremendous growth this past winter, and although valuations may be in a bubble, the onboarding of artists, fans, users, entrepreneurs, and the tech-curious will continue,” Nijesse said.

What's next in crypto?

Last year saw a ten-fold increase in the global adoption of cryptocurrency – and there’s no indication of this slowing.

“Bitcoin is the king and will continue to eat other asset classes; presently it’s the 14th largest currency, just ahead of the Russian ruble,” Nijesse said.

El Salvador, which has no currency of its own, has even adopted Bitcoin as a legal tender – and it’s likely that similar nations may follow suit either as a business, fiscal, or political decision, or all three.

But for Bitcoin to be accessible as a currency, the fast, cheap transaction layer called the “lightning network” is needed.

The decentralised, open-source blockchain Ethereum is slated for an important network upgrade to transition from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake.

Presently, there’s more than US$36 billion in ether, the network’s native currency, locked up to participate in the regime change, and investors are expecting the value to increase.

Closer to home, local cryptocurrency marketplace Easy Crypto has now expanded to Brazil and just raised $17m in funding to further grow operations.

Nijesse expected we’d also see more nation states rollout a central bank digital currency, or CBDC.

Our Reserve Bank is actively exploring how a CBDC might work alongside cash as government-backed money, how the cash system as we know it might need to change, and what issues might come with new electronic forms like Bitcoin, or “stable coins” like those proposed by a Facebook-led consortium.

5G and the 'Internet of Things'

New Zealand’s 5G rollout is set to gather pace this year, bringing superfast speeds to more mobile users in more parts of the country.

Spark is powering ahead with a programme to bring 5G to 10 to 15 further locations by the end of 2022, amid wider plans to deliver coverage to approximately 90 per cent of the population by 2024.

Vodafone has so far rolled out 5G to parts of Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Manawatū-Whanganui, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown, while 2degrees, which has spent more than a billion dollars improving its network, is planning a full 5G launch early this year.

“In a nutshell, 5G has very low latency communication and high throughput,” AUT computer science lecturer Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh said, adding that early testing had indicated speeds fast enough to surpass 1 gigabyte per second (Gbps).

“Full 5G rollout is just around the corner, and not everyone realises the impact this is going to have – it’s not just about superfast download speeds on our phones.”

One of the biggest benefits could be to the long-discussed “Internet of Things”, or IoT – a new era of tech where almost any connected device will be able to link up and analyse one another’s data.

We’ve already had a taste of this with smartphones that talk to our car sound systems or cast video to the family TV – but Mohaghegh said 5G could push capability much further.

That included real-time traffic tracking and control in cities, better energy efficiency in buildings, or patient health monitoring in hospitals.

“Some of these features already developed and deployed already,” she said.

“And in fact, most modern commercial buildings constructed future-proofed with Building Management Systems (BMS) that will use 5G in IoT to further improve their efficiency.”

A slightly quirkier working example is the so-called “internet of sheep”, where technology is being used to keep an eye on grazing stock.

“As the 5G rollout continues and ramps up, we will really start to see these developments increase.”

Why AI's about to get smarter

Mohaghegh also expected more exciting developments in the world of artificial intelligence and machine learning this year.

AI programmers continue to take AI – both the volume of data it can churn through and its ability to do so – to impressive new heights.

Particularly, OpenAI’s new GPT-3, which generates human-like text and can mimic human language, has proven one of the smartest and most powerful language models ever built, and is seen as a major step toward realising the possibility of fabled “true AI”.

Elsewhere, Elon Musk’s Tesla is working toward self-driving cars with level 4 autonomy this year, and commentators are picking more AI-driven gains across everything from scientific discovery to sustainability and cybercrime.

Mohaghegh pointed to a recent global survey of 350 technology leaders, which found more than three quarters believed a large proportion of everyday human tasks across areas like manufacturing, financial services, and healthcare would become robot augmented, or fully automated.

“This comes with concern to a lot of people – there’s a lot of worry about job losses,” she said.

“However, the reality is that this new technology-driven shift will result in a greater number of jobs, but a lot of skills shortage. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 85 per cent of jobs in 2030 don’t even exist yet.”

Nonetheless, Mohaghegh said how we as humans handle AI and AI development is something to be concerned about.

“One huge application of AI is in facial recognition,” she said.

“It has some really amazing applications – probably the most well-known and most-used is the facial recognition unlock feature on our phones.”

Despite its uses, facial recognition tech (FRT) came with some alarming privacy issues.

A case in point was an algorithm used by US company Clearview AI to match people’s faces to a database of billions of facial images sourced from the internet from places such as social media channels.

It allowed users like law enforcement agencies to simply upload a facial image to find matches – essentially proving a much more sophisticated Google search for faces.

“The issue at the moment is that Clearview AI may constitute a potential breach of some countries’ privacy policies,” she said.

“The UK Information Commissioner and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner launched an investigation into Clearview AI, and found the database is likely to contain data from citizens collected without their knowledge.”

As such, Clearview AI has been ordered to stop collecting images taken in the UK and Australia and to remove those images it already has in its database.

While New Zealand Police have tested the tech itself, it’s recently moved to mitigate concerns by putting special processes in place around its use.

And last month, it was reported that police would put a halt to using live automated FRT until issues around security, privacy, ethics and the law were better understood.

As the uses for facial recognition become more and more controversial, tech giants like Meta, Amazon, and Microsoft, too, have suspended selling facial recognition software use to law enforcement agencies, given there are potential privacy breaches.

“For the everyday social media user, this kind of news does serve as a warning to be careful about what images we upload with public visibility on social media platforms,” Mohaghegh said.

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