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You have probably heard of Bitcoin at this stage, the cryptocurrency that has been shaking up the currency markets for the last couple of years.

Bitcoin gained notoriety in recent years as it became the currency of choice for criminals on the dark web, who use it to pay for anything from drugs to hitmen. But you may not have heard of the underlying technology that makes Bitcoin work; it’s called blockchain.

It is not known exactly who invented blockchain. It first appeared in an online document in 2008 that unveiled Bitcoin. The document was published by Satoshi Nakamoto, however this name is believed to be an alias, so who the originator of this technology is remains a mystery.

To try and explain blockchain simply, it is a data structure that creates a digital ledger of transactions, and shares it among a distributed network of computers. It uses sophisticated cryptography to allow each participant on the network to alter the ledger securely, without the need for a central authority or financial institution.

While you don’t need to understand the underlying technology and cryptography of blockchain, you should understand that it is very likely that it will become more and more prominent in our everyday lives in the near future. Here are four uses of blockchain to look out for:

Cryptocurrency

While the blockchain cryptocurrency Bitcoin has gained popularity in recent years, it has yet to go mainstream. Bitcoin has become popular because it allows users to complete transactions with complete anonymity, hence its popularity on the dark web. It became the currency of choice on a digital black market called The Silk Road.

The Silk Road is a marketplace where you can find all manner of illegal goods and services, from prescription drugs to guns. The Silk Road has had a rocky few years, with the arrest of its creator Ross Ulbricht (known online as Dread Pirate Roberts) in 2013 and its subsequent closure by the FBI.

Its second incarnation Silk Road 2.0 was shut down by Interpol the following year, however it is believed Silk Road 3.0 is still operating. The anonymity of Bitcoin allowed this marketplace to thrive, and its users could trade in illegal goods relatively safely.

Until recently, the only way to use your Bitcoin was to store it in your digital wallet, and transfer it online via the blockchain. But it is slowly emerging offline, with Bitcoin ATM machines now growing in popularity, and I have even seen bars and restaurants that accept Bitcoin payments.

Watch this space, because cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin will start becoming more and more prominent in the coming years.

Contracts

Another area where we could see the rise in blockchain is the notion of ‘Smart Contracts’, with a startup called Ethereum heading up this movement.

The world of contracts is still awash with paper. Invoices, agreements, manufacturing contracts etc. are all still printed on paper and a massively inefficient. That could all be about to change. Smart contracts use the blockchain to keep everyone accountable without the need for the traditional signing of a contract.

Take this example: You are a company who sells PCs. For you to sell a PC you have to rely on a number of third parties. Let’s say you have manufacturers in three different Asian countries. You want to ensure that the quality of the components is up to scratch, and you also want to make sure that it is shipped to you on time.

You have your own distribution company, who must deliver to your customers on time. And you want to make sure that everyone gets paid on time. In the past this would have required multiple contracts with everyone involved in the process.

Smart contracts aim to use the blockchain to eliminate this. Specific actions can be verified by third parties, and then trigger other events. All this gets recorded on the secure blockchain, and can never be altered after the fact.  This allows for accountability for every step of the process.

Cloud Storage

Blockchain may also be about to have a big impact on the world of cloud computing. Contrary to popular belief, storing data in “the cloud” doesn’t mean it is floating around in those fluffy white things in the sky.

It is actually stored in massive data centres that are patrolled by armed guards and attack dogs. But blockchain technology could be about to change that. Blockchain technology would allow for an encrypted distributed storage network.

It is similar to the P2P music sites that were popular in the early 2000s such as Napster and Limewire, where users could download files that were stored on the computers of other users. Blockchain would allow people to store their data in a distributed cloud network based on highly secure blockchain technology.

The very nature of blockchain means that no one else in the chain would be able to view or tamper with your data while it is distributed out to millions of PCs around the world. This would contribute to a massive drop in storage costs, and while it would probably not be the end of the datacentre, it would certainly put a dent in the amount of datacentres popping up.

While it is likely that high end enterprise would still retain datacentres, for average Joe’s like you and me it could mean slashing our storage costs, and trading in our Dropbox account for something like a Storj account, a startup who is at the forefront of blockchain based cloud storage.

Voting

There has been a lot of talk recently that blockchain based voting could be utilized in elections. The so called ‘e-voting’ would have great benefits over the current system, as it would completely eliminate any possibility of tampering with votes, and would also eliminate the need for votes to be counted manually.

Followmyvote.com is a startup that is involved in this area, and they aim to bring e-voting to the masses in the coming years. Indeed it is an interesting proposal. Instead of taking yourself to your local polling station, you simply download the voting app to your preferred device. You verify your identity through the app, and then place you vote in a blockchain based ballot box.

The voter can go into the ballot box and verify that their vote was cast as intended, and they can also audit the other ballots in the box, to ensure the results are accurate. Sounds too good to be true, but it could be coming to an election near you sooner than you think!

Summary

While blockchain has been around for a few years now, it has stayed relatively underground. However, it is likely that we are going to see a sharp rise in prominence of this emerging technology in the coming years.

With people becoming more and more apprehensive about their data online, blockchain seems to be a secure solution with an array of uses. So don’t be surprised if sometime soon you are prompted to ‘sign’ a contract via the blockchain, or download an app to vote in your next election.

If you want to know more about the future impact of blockchains, this Ted talk is a great start:

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Self-driving cars are no longer the distant, futuristic dream that they once were, but an immediate reality that is going to blow up in the next three years. Google has been testing its experimental autonomous vehicles in California since 2013 with tremendously positive results, and since then, car companies and Silicon Valley giants have been pouring billions into the developing industry.

Yesterday, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced that all cars currently being manufactured by Tesla are equipped with full, self-driving hardware.

That’s right: you can buy self-driving cars right now. They won’t work just yet – Tesla has decided to do some calibration before launching a software update to their vehicles which will activate the functionality, but according to Musk, this will happen as early as 2017.

With the dawn of self-driving cars less than two years away, it’s worth considering some of the major ways that they can change our lives in the next half century.

Car ownership will be obsolete

Car ownership is a rarity in big cities, but for a long time, cars have been a necessity in rural and suburban areas where taxi companies and public transportation are less accessible.

But online services like Uber are already reducing the rate of car ownership in these areas substantially, and analysts think that self-driving cars may completely eradicate the need to own a car at all, no matter where you live.

In January of this year, General Motors poured $500 million into transportation service Lyft, and bought self-driving car startup Cruise Automation for over a billion dollars. Pam Fletcher, executive chief engineer at GM explained the company’s intentions: “We are working on an on-demand ride-sharing network…it’s not something we are thinking about, it’s something we are very much readying for consumer use.”

Never worry about parking again

Parking is a nightmare you’ll never have to face again when self-driving cars dominate the roads. Even if you own your car, you’ll be able to call it right back to you as soon as it’s needed, so there’s no need for it to hang around after it drops you off.

In Nashville Tennessee, a developer is already creating a gigantic underground parking garage in anticipation of self-driving vehicles. Spaces like these will become much more common as time goes by, and according to research by car company Audi, a parking garage reserved entirely for self-driving vehicles can reduce parking real-estate by 62%.

In fifty years or so, sprawling parking lots in front of Malls and shopping centers may be simply non-existent, leaving much more room for business development and pedestrian areas. Uber have already started developing self driving taxi services, check the below video for the demo

No more pizza delivery boys

In fifty years, you won’t have to worry about counting out tip money after ordering a pizza. If drones aren’t already being used to deliver pizza by then, automatic cars will be. In fact, automatic cars will be able to deliver anything to your doorstep, making errands a thing of the past.

Not only that, but without the need for a human passenger, specialized vehicles can be equipped to keep perishables cool, or food – like Pizza – hot and ready at the time of delivery. Because operating a driverless vehicle is efficient and inexpensive, businesses that had no delivery service before will be able to reach out to a much larger customer base.

Tech startup Marathon Robotics has already teamed up with Domino’s to create an automatic pizza delivery system in Australia, though it’s currently used only in Brisbane.

Truckers will go the way of the dinosaur

Hiring someone to drive a truck is expensive, dangerous and inefficient. Not only does a truck driver make an average yearly salary of $60,000, but he can only drive for a certain number of hours before needing to sleep, eat, use the restroom, etc. Because of pressure to meet certain benchmarks, truckers are often sleep deprived and sometimes fall asleep at the wheel, causing numerous accidents every year.

Tech startup Otto, which was recently bought by Uber for $670 million, is working to reduce the need for hiring a truck driver by developing self-driving semi-trucks. At first, automated trucks will still require someone present to operate the vehicle, at least in cities. But they’ll at least be able to sleep during the long, hundreds of miles across flat and monotonous interstates.

No more traffic lights

Traffic lights are for human beings, with limited senses, and carbon-based brains. Computers don’t need traffic lights. According to researchers from MIT, self-driving cars can be synchronized, allowing them to automatically adjust speed, and safely pass through intersections without risk of a collision.

Getting rid of traffic lights will be beneficial in a number of ways, reducing the time that cars idle and therefore lessening fuel consumption, getting people to their destinations in a timelier fashion, and reducing traffic congestion.

No more phantom traffic jams

The all-too-familiar rush hour that creates wall to wall traffic in cities across the world can be nearly eliminated by self-driving cars. Contrary to popular belief, many traffic jams are not caused by accidents, but by careless drivers who slow down too quickly, causing a complex wave of slowing cars that can go on for hours before dissipating.

The same synchronization that prevents self-driving cars from needing traffic lights will also enable them to communicate during traffic, and avoid practices that lead to this phenomenon, reducing commute time, and making the road a safer place.

Many lives will be saved

In 2014, former General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz predicted that self-driving vehicles would crash at about 10% the rate of human drivers. “The autonomous car doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t text while driving, doesn’t get road rage,” he pointed out.

Since then, a study published by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute confirmed that Lutz was right: after analyzing over a million miles of data from self-driving vehicles, they are clearly much safer than cars operated by human beings.

3,287 people die from car crashes every day. Self-driving cars will bring that number down significantly. What more is there to say?

Summary

It’s important to stress that self-driving cars are already here, and they will become very common in the next two decades. Not only will they make life better for human beings in many positive ways by reducing the cost of transportation, increasing efficiency of transit and eliminating many of the ordinary inconveniences associated with driving, but they will also have a big impact on the planet: optimistic calculations say that self-driving cars can reduce vehicle related carbon emissions by 90%.

According to Elon Musk, the next big challenge is not technological, but bureaucratic: legislators have to be convinced to pass laws that will allow automated vehicles on public roads.

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Like many tech ideas, Virtual Reality was a concept born before its time. Back when computers still filled rooms, thinkers like Stanley G. Weinbaum speculated about the possibility for fiction to take on a life of its own, and through the decades, futurists dreamed of creating virtual worlds of sights and sound using the wonders of technology.

The 1990s came, and behold – computers no longer filled rooms, and what was once an impossible dream was suddenly a reality. Companies like Sega seized the opportunity to develop Virtual Reality with audio/video headsets, allowing gamers to play video games in a virtual space that felt real. Except…it didn’t feel very real. Unwieldy head-pieces coupled with blocky graphics and poor motion tracking rendered early versions of Virtual Reality a commercial flop.

Two decades later, and Virtual Reality is back in style. As graphics processing technology has advanced, big projects like the Oculus Rift and the PlayStation VR have finally delivered on the promises of the dream, allowing users to have impossible experiences like flight, and exploring fantasy worlds in high resolution with realistic motion tracking. Two years ago, Oculus was acquired by Facebook for over $2 billion dollars, demonstrating once and for all that VR is finally a viable commercial opportunity.

Here are 7 ways that Virtual Reality is changing the world as we know it:

(Virtual) Space Missions

Everybody wants to go to space. Unfortunately, it may be a pretty long time before you get the chance to do that, and even then, it’s not going to be cheap. But never fear! Thanks to 3D imaging technology on recent NASA probes, it’s possible to construct a photorealistic, virtual version of planets like Mars that can safely be explored using Microsoft’s Hololens, and soon on other platforms including the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, and HTC Vive.

NASA has also been using Virtual Reality to train astronauts for work on the International Space Station. In the past, training for work in space has been tricky – Astronauts have used huge swimming pools to simulate the difficulties of operating in a zero gravity environment. But thanks to VR, complicated situations can be accurately recreated so Astronauts know what to expect once they get off a Shuttle.

In the future, NASA may also use VR to give Astronauts a break from a long journey to Mars, letting them experience a virtual Earth while stuck in small Space Capsules.Testing Cars before Manufacture

Building a car is expensive. Sticking a dummy inside a car and crashing it into a wall to see if it’s safe is also expensive. Manufacturing cars and failing to notice a design flaw that leads to death and massive recalls is extremely expensive.

The Ford Motor Company noticed this, and thought – “hey, how about crashing virtual cars into virtual walls first? That would probably be safer, and cheaper.” And they were right – since December of 2013, Ford has been using Virtual Reality to test cars as soon as they are designed to determine their safety, how smoothly they drive, and whether they will actually be an enjoyable experience for consumers.

The same technology also gives people a chance to virtually drive cars before buying them. Ford, Hyundai and Volvo have all started using virtual showrooms to help customers feel better about laying down a $20,000 check for a brand new car.

Learn About History (by actually being there)

History doesn’t have to be boring. There’s a reason that movies about ancient Rome tend to be box office hits. But Virtual Reality may take historical education a step further – Timelooper is using VR to recreate important historical events in countries around the world. Launched in London, right now Timelooper’s catalogue mainly contains important events that took place in the city, including the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the Blitz of WWII. A few months ago, the app also expanded to New York City, and will soon recreate historical events in China, Germany, Spain and Washington D.C.

VR history isn’t limited to recreation, however. Google has been capturing 3D images of important historical sites like Pompeii, for instance, which can be virtually explored using Google Cardboard. Virtual Heritage not only gives people living in the present a chance to explore the past, but will give future generations an opportunity to experience the present by preserving our world in Virtual Reality.

Architects can explore the buildings they design

In the past, building design was not a very hands on experience. You used your drawing paper and pencils to create detailed floor plans, and at best, you’d get a small scale model before spending millions of dollars to create a high-rise skyscraper.

Virtual Reality will change this forever. In 2015, visualization artist Olivier Demangel announced that VR would let designers “change the world like a god”. True to his predictions, since then, tools like VRTisan have been released which not only allow architects to design buildings, but to explore and modify them in real time using PlayStation VR.

vr-building

Immersion Journalism

Modern photojournalism is flawed. Photographs offer a limited perspective of world events, don’t tell the whole story, and are often manipulated as propaganda. During the Great Depression, The Farm Security Administration hired photographers to show the effects of the Dust Bowl, and since then, many have suggested that they deliberately made things seem much worse than they actually were.

Virtual Reality may help to revolutionize journalism, and give people a much better understanding of major events happening in the world. In 2014, Project Syria was debuted at the World Economic Forum, giving viewers a chance to explore the scene of a bombing in Syria, and virtually experience a refugee camp.

Doctors can train on virtual patients

Everybody needs doctors, but nobody wants to be a lab rat. Thanks to VR, instead of experimenting with cadavers and expensive silicon dummies, medical students now have the opportunity of practicing their medicine on virtual students.

At Idaho State University, VR headsets are being used in conjunction with haptic feedback (gloves that simulate physical sensation) to simulate procedures like catheter insertion and environment sterilization. The technology is also being used by surgeons and dentists to safely practice complicated and dangerous operations without cutting open a human being.

Go to work without leaving your home

As the rate of telecommuting climbs in the U.S, people are spending more time away from the office, and more time at home. As nice as it may be to make money in your pajamas, working at home takes away the chance for face to face interaction with co-workers, and water cooler banter.

Virtual Reality may give telecommuters the chance to occupy a virtual office and attend meetings with coworkers without the gas (or plane ticket) it takes to get to work. That’s the mission of AltspaceVR, which uses robotic avatars in a real workplace to stream the environment to a telecommuter wearing a VR headset.

This technology may eventually be used in colleges, schools, and even social venues, creating a new dimension of ‘long distance friendship’.

Summary

It’s pretty clear that Virtual Reality isn’t just for games. Many industries are taking advantage of the possibilities created by VR, and developers have been pushing high-level concepts that could revolutionize the way we live, work, learn and communicate with one another; and we’ve only touched on immediate possibilities presented by VR. As time goes on and technologies continues to advance, VR may wind up changing the world much like computers, smartphones and Internet did in the past.