SPECIAL REPORT: Presenting the Oscars of technology 2017

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SPECIAL REPORT: Presenting the Oscars of technology 2017
It's difficult to judge which technologies and innovations made the most impact to society because they all did great things in their own right.

Dubai - Forget smartphones and other gadgets; there were other innovations that had a deeper, more interesting impact this year

By Alvin R. Cabral

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Published: Wed 29 Nov 2017, 8:55 PM

Last updated: Wed 29 Nov 2017, 10:58 PM

With all due respect, apologies to Apple and Samsung; you won't be front and centre in this piece (anyway, no matter what, you two biggies manage to steal a lot of thunder every year, be it for right and wrong reasons).
The same goes for the other gladiators in their arena, because, pound-for-pound, if you look at things more closely, consumer electronics wasn't really the one that shone brightest in 2017.
Rather, the rise and advancement of several other technologies were the hottest topics this year - whether you like it or not, really.
Heck, virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality didn't even make the cut.
An honourable mention, though, goes out to cryptocurrencies, especially to Bitcoin; who would've thought that it would be valued at a mind-boggling $8,000-plus?
There will be no trophies or speeches - just an informal recognition of how the following innovations have, in one way or another, changed the way we view and do things, as well as how it makes us wonder about all the potential it can bring us once it's a full-blown thing.
Best disruptor (and rattler)
Artificial intelligence has become such a big deal - it's beating homo sapiens at its own games (chess, Go) and even drives a machine smoother (Nasa drone race). Heck, it's even scaring the hell out of us because of the fact that it can take over some of our jobs.
However you look at it, AI is indeed the future because - to be fair - the pros outweigh the cons; it's more beneficial that some sceptics think.
Look no further than what the UAE has realised about AI: the nation's leadership is so optimistic about it that it created - another world-first - the Ministry of Artificial Intelligence, headed by the 27-year-old Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Omar bin Sultan Al Olama.
"We initiated electronics services 16 years ago and [now] we are launching a fresh stage relying on artificial intelligence," His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said during the announcement of the new ministry along with a reshuffle of the UAE Cabinet.
"We are seeking to adopt all tools and methodologies related to artificial intelligence to expedite and ensure more efficiency in government services at all times."
In case you missed it, AI is slowly but surely creeping up. In the UAE, AI-powered digital assistants such as the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority's Rammas and Emirates NBD's EVA are always there to lend a virtual helping hand.
But, of course, it all circles back to the most important aspect of AI: nothing matches the intelligence of an actual person.
"Human workers [still] need to continuously monitor digital workers," Sandeep Chouhan, executive vice-president for technology and operations at Mashreq, said.
"Digital workers [also] allow human workers to do much more."
It also bodes well for industries.
"With science fiction turning into reality with AI gaining currency, it augurs well for many sectors like health,  agriculture,  education and security, among others," Anthony Peter, director of corporate communications and operations division at Panasonic Marketing Middle East and Africa, says. "Looking beyond just products talking to each other, solutions like precision healthcare and precision farming for example will help economies as they can optimise the outputs. The same can be said for many other industries."
So don't worry about the dreaded takeover of machines; we humans will still rock and rule.
Best cyber-attack foil
What's with blockchain and everybody is going gaga over it?
Plain and simple: it's secure.
Which is exactly what this world needs at a time when cyber-criminals have been making suddenly launching an attack a habit (anyone remember Petya?).
"The key benefits of blockchain is the distributed infrastructure's ability to share information that is secure and provide for the unalterable transfer of data - ensuring data integrity," financial services firm EY says.
"This makes the technology an important tool in building trust among business and consumers."
Blockchain is also the foundation for another fast-rising industry: financial technology, or fintech.
Dubai has a vision of creating the world's first blockchain-powered government. And this technology "has significant potential to transform how we transact, not just financially but also between governments and their citizens", Juan Llanos, financial technology and regulatory technology lead at ConsenSys, says.
Best experience
Despite the fact that e-retail is growing apparently fast, the even bigger fact is that it comprises a measly two per cent of the entire retail sector in the Middle East. How ironic is that?
Still, as they say, there's no other way for it but to go up - way up, especially if you consider some key factors. More and more companies are turning to the Web to sell, because of choice, price and the sit-back-and-relax convenience of it all. And with online shopping technologies becoming even more secure, it only adds value and assurance to the whole concept.
"There is more confidence now in online buying," Ronaldo Mouchawar, CEO and co-founder of Amazon-owned Souq.com, stresses.
In the case of the UAE, which enjoys one of the highest mobile penetration rates on Earth, the closing of the mobile gap is an additional key factor in shopping decisions.
"Connectivity is not a barrier anymore... mobile is changing the way people shop," he adds.
Best value for your money
Speaking of shopping, cashless payments are also giving actual cash a good run for its money (pun intended).
And while not a whole lot of users are using this technology - cash is still the undisputed king, while plastic will always save the day in certain situations - there's a really good chance that more will adopt paying by just whipping out their smartphones or smart watches (who knows, maybe even 'smart nose rings' in the future).
"The cashless society is fast becoming a reality, with a growing number of consumers... who prefer to go out without carrying cash in their wallets," Mohammad Gharaibeh, head of enterprise and mobile business at Samsung Gulf Electronics, says.
"Mobility and convenience is a key aspect in the life of many smartphone users that bank, make purchases and socialise online."
The South Korean company launched Samsung Pay in the UAE in April. Its frenemy, Apple, rolled out Apple Pay in October; both have gained steam, being widely accepted in several establishments and people understanding the convenience it brings to the table, er, check-out counter.
"We believe more consumers will be encouraged to use and accept contactless payments in the UAE," Jennifer Bailey, vice-president of Internet services, Apple Pay, points out. "Recent studies have indicated that card spending has increased substantially in the last couple of years - one of the key signs of acceleration towards a cashless environment."
(Now you believe what I said earlier, that Apple and Samsung really manage to steal the thunder no matter what?)
Meanwhile, watch out for Fitbit; the wearables maker announced this week that's it's also in talks with banks in the region to launch Fitbit Pay early next year. The more, the merrier indeed.
Best innovators
It's been said time and again that startups - no matter how much they disrupt the norm - are the future. And this is true in every sense of it: they are arguably the most innovative firms, and we're probably just waiting for the next big thing to surprise us.
One of the missions of startups - aside with coming up with new ideas - is to provide even more convenience to things we already find convenient. That said, governments are giving more importance to them, since they have the potential to contribute greatly to an economy.
"It's not necessarily people that have the best technology in the world, it may not be the latest or most innovative or something that no one has ever done before - it's almost always hard work," Ammar Al Malik, executive director of Dubai Internet City, says.
"People who literally put in the hard work, day and night, people that have the stamina and endurance to do so usually succeed."
And startups are not just growing every day - they're becoming more valuable. Look no further than the cool $580 million Amazon paid to acquire Souq.com earlier this year; meanwhile, Chinese device manufacturer Xiaomi recently announced it's planning an investment spree of up to $1 billion in Indian startups.
Next year, we could see a different set of winners coming out of the wild world of tech. Spoiler alert: it will also become even more difficult to judge, we guess.
- alvin@khaleejtimes.com

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