We’ve spent some time since the beginning of this year thinking about what kinds of tech trends 2019 might hold in store for us. While there will be plenty of spectacular innovations coming ahead— it is one thing to write about singular breakthroughs, and another to look at the macro trends they might represent.
Without further ado, here are the three broad trends in technology we expect to see in this coming year.
From virtual assistants to data analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already having a large impact on our lives. As capabilities expand and access barriers are lowered, we think AI will become more available to a wider range of sectors, and will play a growing role in some existing use cases.
AI currently performs largely assistive functions such as aiding and enhancing data-driven analytics.
As AI gets better at performing complex tasks, we expect AI to make more autonomous decisions — meaning that some businesses could begin restructuring core systems and processes with AI at the center.
A good example of this trend is Germany’s Otto, an e-commerce merchant. Using a database of 200 variables and 3bn past transactions, a deep-learning algorithm predicts what customers will buy a week before any order is actually placed. And here is where it gets interesting — Otto allows the algorithm to make the appropriate stock purchases automatically. As a result, product returns have decreased by over 2m items a year, and surplus stock has declined by 20 percent.
We expect more such examples to pop up over 2019, with more businesses trialing automated AI decision making in their critical business functions.
That said, there are many areas where AI is not (yet) appropriate for fully automated responsibilities. In those cases, AI holds most value — at least in the near- to mid-term — in complementing and improving human decision making, such as through powering analytics tools to give human users a better understanding of massive datasets.
We think a growing number of businesses will experiment with how AI tools could bring value, because the costs of AI adoption are falling. Third party providers from Google to fresh startups are now offering services such as bots, digital assistants, and machine learning services with pre-built models — this means that firms can gain access AI resources at a lower cost, and without having to build them internally from scratch.
This limited application is where we expect most AI growth to occur. While some firms in the forefront will be experimenting with automated AI processes, the majority will be testing how cognitive computing tools can augment human capabilities and make them better at their jobs.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of smart devices beyond standard laptops or smartphones that are connected to the internet — such as cars or sensors — which in turn widens functionality by facilitating interaction and data exchange.
Owing to progress in 5G, edge computing, and expanding use cases, we think IoT development and deployment will accelerate, with more types of connected devices introduced to a wider set of applications across industry, mobility, healthcare, governance, and in our homes.
However, in the midst of this momentum, we also think that several significant challenges particular to the IoT will dominate the trend. Namely, the interoperability between devices, and concerns regarding the privacy and security of IoT users.
5G, the next generation of cellular wireless technology promises high speeds and low latency, and the critical ability to connect a huge number of sensors and devices.
Indeed, the shrill pitch of 5G buzz has been ringing for years, and it will still be years before 5G networks become the norm. But, telecom companies in the likes of Huawei, Qualcomm, and AT&T have separately been launching 5G equipment and trials in select cities, with some even predicting commercialized rollout by this year.
Another catalyzing change is edge computing, a shift in the physical distribution of computing power from centralized datacenters or the cloud, to the ‘edge’ of a network — for instance, the device itself.
Edge computing is important to IoT because certain applications, such as self-driving vehicles, require complex computation in near-real time. While 5G could go a long way to filling those requirements — it is simply faster to perform all the data collection and processing locally than to transfer that data over distance to a centralized location, and wait for it to be processed and sent back.
Together, they could help address a longstanding problem in the IoT — creating an infrastructure which can handle high volumes of complex data between a huge number of devices while providing enough speed to be practical.
Today, smart devices such as voice assistants, remote heart rate monitors, and industrial sensors have already made their way into our homes, hospitals, and factories.
While we predict more announcements of IoT products and projects throughout the year, this excitement comes with some very important caveats.
For the IoT to be an Internet of Things — and not the Internets of Many Different Things — devices need to be able to communicate and interact with each other, regardless of their manufacturer, model, industry, and operating system. That is currently not the case, meaning that a standardized communication protocol between different devices and platforms still needs to be agreed upon and created.
There are significant organizational challenges in bringing many disparate providers together and agreeing on design foundations, and of course, there are also profit disincentives for tech giants who may want to protect their market share. Yet overcoming these communication blocks is essential to a functional IoT.
Privacy and Security
As connected devices penetrate further into our homes and become more ingrained in industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, and national infrastructure, the security risks they represent also multiply.
IoT devices arouse privacy concerns because their use and adoption open channels through which our data and sensitive information could be accessed by malicious actors.
Additionally, with the digitization of physical space, cyber attacks could manifest as physical threats with severe destructive potential to personal safety and national security — for instance, by remotely disabling car brakes, accessing pacemakers without authorization, or disrupting national transport systems.
We expect advancements in 5G, edge computing, and improving device sophistication to accelerate IoT development. However, alongside these headlining advancements, we also expect to see more urgency in the groundwork discussions around how to build the interoperability, privacy, and security required to extract the full value of the IoT.
3) Ethics and technology
The third major trend we expect to see is increasing ethical scrutiny over the behavior of tech firms and the societal impacts of a digitized world.
In particular, we expect the focus to fall on data privacy and corporate responsibility.
The digital nature of modern living means that growing facets of our lives are increasingly being represented in a virtual reality. But for a long time, the value of that data and its potential abuses were largely absent from the mainstream consciousness.
On the back of those scandalous privacy breaches revealed in 2018, like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica kerfuffle or the many leaks of sensitive data — organizations, governments, and consumers are growing increasingly concerned about what of our information is collected, and how that data is used.
This means that corporations (and public bodies) which harvest data need to be more proactive about promoting transparency in their collection methods and where the data goes — or face backlash from their consumers and constituents.
The discussions on privacy are also opening up more general questions regarding the role of technology within society, and the responsibility of the companies which create them.
Evidently, the companies themselves have a duty to make sure their products are not abused. But the authorities which regulate corporate activities, and the consumers who use their services and products also need to think about what they can do to ensure that the powers of those technologies and services are not abused or manipulated for sinister ends.
Crucially, this attitude does not apply to social media, or data privacy alone — it encompasses all emerging and existing technology. How could the expanding adoption and sophistication of AI impact the way companies and governments make decisions? How could IoT-enabled smart cities be designed to encourage healthier living and reduce pollution? How can we take a more active role in shaping the technologies we use? This trend of digital ethics may be the most important of the ones we have outlined in this post, because it has the power to reframe the perspective from what technology could do for us, to how they should be doing it.