What are the 2018 technology trends that promise to disrupt and transform businesses — and our lives — this year and beyond?

Christopher Wink, publisher and CEO of the Philadelphia-based network of local news sites known as Technical.ly, offered his prognostications. Deloitte Consulting chief technology officer Bill Briggs, who helped produce "Tech Trends," also weighed in on the topic. "Tech Trends," is an annual look at how companies "harness disruptive technology forces," according to a 2018 report.

Looking ahead, both forecasters make one thing clear: Whether a publicly-traded large corporation or a family-held, small enterprise, these three 2018 macro-trends (plus a bonus) are poised to redefine the business landscape:

Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR): The long-touted technologies are ruling the realm of practical applications.

The Franklin Institute used augmented reality technology for its Terracotta Warriors exhibition.
Franklin Institute
The Franklin Institute used augmented reality technology for its Terracotta Warriors exhibition.

Quick refresher: Both use computer-generated imagery to create an experience and engage users. AR offers complementary, or augmented, pizzazz to reality, while VR gives the user a 360-degree, first-person point of view of an environment.

"We've seen that transition," Wink said, "from university research side to company exploration to commercial private sector work to applications in the nonprofit sector, which to me is true scale of real meaning."

City tourism groups are dabbling in cool VR-type experiences that give visitors a sneak peek of must-see spots. Meanwhile, QVC partnered a few months ago with the AR YouCam Makeup app to let its viewers "try on" bases, lipstick and eye shadow by way of a selfie-camera on a phone or tablet.

QVC’s Amy Stran uses augmented reality to try on makeup.
QVC
QVC’s Amy Stran uses augmented reality to try on makeup.

Uses for digital reality appear limitless. BMW buyers can use an AR app to visualize a custom ride. CNN, for one, has announced a virtual reality unit, CNNVR, for an immersive journalism experience. Walmart used VR training to prepare sales reps for Black Friday last year.

"There's going to be an interesting evolution," Briggs said, ticking off changing interfaces: Point and click. Touch and swipe. Talk (Amazon's Alexa). "The most natural interface will be the one that's completely intuitive. AR and VR are the next wave of user engagement. That's massive potential."

Cognitive: Welcome to the world of machine learning, artificial intelligence, automation, even robot colleagues.

In the land of white-, blue- and pink-collar workers, say hello to "no-collar" workers — bots and virtual engineers.

Forward-thinking companies are considering HR processes for this non-human workforce, according to Briggs. Best practices suggest robot employees get human names (Bob the Bot?) and personal ID numbers to "make it more natural to work with side by side," he said.

Other questions to consider: Who's responsible for hiring a bot — HR or IT? How do you promote a bot as it learns new skills? If a bot makes a mistake, is it a technical bug, a reining-in issue or a matter that needs disciplinary action? And what about that retirement party when the time comes?

It all might sound a bit fantastical, but, said Briggs, "The examples I gave are not hypotheticals. They're happening. The more mature the organization, the more this is on their mind."

Smart machines, meanwhile, will continue to make a splash. By monitoring consumer activity, they can flag, for example, a fraudulent financial services transaction, or make personalized recommendations for retail purchases.

Technology also will increasingly automate work processes, improving efficiency and decision-making. Technical.ly is testing out a smart template that writes a first draft of basic information related to venture capital financing that can then be incorporated into the site's news stories.

"Machine learning is the most powerful supplement to any good idea," Wink said. "There won't be an experience without it."

BlockChain: Most likely, the term is familiar from the Bitcoin digital currency frenzy. But the breakthrough technology is expected to reach far and wide.

What is blockchain? Essentially, it's a ledger stored, or distributed, across multiple computers that keeps growing as new, time-stamped records — blocks — are added. Those blocks, encrypted but accessible to view by the network, are linked together like a, you guessed it, chain.

Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have taken advantage of this shared ledger idea to offer a secure, decentralized and quick way to pay for transactions. But, as Briggs notes, "you can use blockchain to record and exchange any kind of asset."

"In every industry, we're seeing pilots moving into production now," he said.

Blockchain could be used to share electronic medical records across health systems. Or seal smart contracts. Or track supply chains. Or monitor movement of an absentee ballot. Or confirm provenance of artwork.

The promise is that all that will happen "seamlessly, without friction."

While these three mega-stars may get all the attention, Wink emphasizes another, unorthodox tech trend already driving national conversations and making waves.

Free or low-cost online resources — Google search, Facebook machine learning, Twitter promoting — are increasingly capturing our personal information and history of activity. Is that a devil's bargain?

"One of the biggest tech trends of the year will be confronting even more how comfortable we are with that negotiation," Wink said, "and that comfort level will be determined by additional scrutiny of what those companies are doing with all that information."