The 4 tech trends that will shape 2017, predicted by ZDNet editors

The real story behind AI is automation, the Internet of Things platform eludes us, the smartphone holds out for the big one, and virtual reality becomes less virtual and more reality.

Automation, AI, and robotics are the real forces behind the disruption to the global job market, and they will accelerate in 2017.

Image: iStockphoto/Matriyoshka

As we do each week, the editors of ZDNet will continue to put our heads together in 2017 and give you our weekly Monday Morning Opener--an editorial that zooms in on the most important topic in tech for the week. Now that we're sailing into the new year, we've also put a few brain cycles into zooming out on the big issues that will shape the year ahead.

So after giving you the 5 biggest tech trends of 2016, we've now got the four big ones that will dominate 2017.

1. Automation becomes the elephant in the room

by Jason Hiner, global long form editor

For all the talk about artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning in 2016, the shadow that they cast--the real thing people are afraid of--is automation. We're teaching computers how to do more and more things that we used to need humans to do, and in some cases to do things on a scale that we've never had enough human capacity to attempt.

That's going to enable us to understand, measure, and manage human society in ways that we're never possible before. It's going to make us more efficient, allow us to innovate faster, and make better decisions than we ever thought we could handle.

It's also going to make millions of current jobs redundant.

That doesn't mean AI and automation can do everything. Far from it. It's great at rote, systematic, and essentially boring tasks, especially ones that involve massive data sets. It's not good at designing and architecting systems, interpreting ambiguity and gray areas, or making judgement calls when the data doesn't present a clear winner between multiple options.

In short, it's not good at complex problem solving. And nothing makes humans more human than solving problems. It's how we reached the top of the food chain over creatures stronger and faster than us. It's how we've reshaped much of the planet in magnificent--and sometimes dangerous--ways.

The power of automation is the next great turning point in the human story, and we're not talking about it enough yet. We're not planning and exploring what it means to the future of our civilization. The rhetoric of the 2016 US presidential campaign and the Brexit vote in the UK both all but ignored it--even though it was the real force behind the changes that mobilized so many angry voters in 2016.

That will no longer be possible in 2017. All talk of trade deals, tariffs, and short term investments are band-aids that won't stop the impact of automation, and that will become evident quickly enough. That doesn't mean we shouldn't put a few band-aids on sores or take cough medicine to curb an illness. But, we need to change our behavior and find a much stronger remedy to forge a path toward true health. Let the exploration begin.

2. The Internet of Things gets real

by Larry Dignan, global editor in chief

It's a safe bet that the Internet of Things will accelerate and feature more real-world deployments, big data applications and maybe even a bit of advertising. As for the real-world deployments, platforms are quickly maturing and netting customer case studies. Think GE's Predix platform and how it's being used by power generation companies.

Meanwhile, smart city deployments are also picking up. The wild card for smart city deployments is planning (comprehensive vs. a series of smaller IoT efforts), security concerns and returns for cities, citizens and businesses.

In the smart home, it's clear that the Internet of Things is faring well, but how these various platforms will ultimately be integrated is anyone's guess. One thing is clear: There is no one perfect platform for the smart home or city.

In 2017, you'll also hear a lot more about the cloud connecting to the IoT landscape. Amazon Web Services is moving down that IoT path and rest assured Google, which announced Android Things and a partnership with Qualcomm, and every other cloud services provider will follow.

One wild card for the year ahead will be advertising. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) reported that 62 percent of American consumers own at least one IoT device and 65 percent of them say they would be willing to receive an ad on an IoT screen.

3. The smartphone becomes a commodity

by Steve Ranger, EU editor

2016 was a year of overpriced and underwhelming flagship smartphones. A year of uninspiring hardware design and over-complicated and unnecessary features--not to mention the occasional overheating battery.

Even PCs--boring, boring PCs--have been more interesting than smartphones this year, as we talked about in our 2016 wrap-up. But while PC vendors have been driven to innovate or die, smartphone makers have instead been terrified to move away from the successful-but-aging format (the flat black slab of glass) for fear of screwing it up and alienating customers. But this lack of innovation has mainly benefitted the second tier smartphone companies by giving them a chance to build phones that look like the flagships, have all the features that people actually use, and are a lot, lot cheaper.

In 2017 those trends will accelerate: it will be a great time to be a smartphone buyer as even the cheaper models will have a pretty good set of specs and features. And it's going to get harder and harder to justify the big premium for those flagship smartphones as a result.

Much depends then on the iPhone 8. After the so-so iPhone 7, it needs to come back with something more exciting, especially as it will also mark 10 years of iPhones. So what to expect? Perhaps some curved screens, or a bezel-free device with a fingerprint reader built into the glass or some major updates to Siri. Will that be enough to revitalise the market? Perhaps, or more likely we will see the smartphone slide further into commodity status.

4. Virtual reality goes real world

by Chris Duckett, APAC editor

Unless you are a keen gamer, you are unlikely to have a virtual reality headset sitting around in the next twelve months--but that does not mean virtual reality is stalled.

Virtual reality is finding its way into healthcare, defence, and education sectors--and it doesn't always involve the overhyped headsets you hear about in tech news.

Google's Daydream View--the Nintendo Wii of VR--is being used to alleviate loneliness and isolation for long-stay hospital patients across Australia.

For serious business users, the clear choice is the Microsoft Hololens and its ilk. Whereas most of the alternatives are fully immersive, the augmented reality of Hololens lends itself to notation and highlighting of the world around you.

And of course, there are the consumer trio of Oculus, Vive, and Playstation VR plugging away in the entertainment and gaming sector.

It won't be an explosive uptake, but VR is will continue to pop-up in surprising non-obvious places, since businesses are showing far more interest than consumers in experimenting with the technology.

ZDNet Monday Morning Opener

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:

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