The year 2020 tends to elicit big predictions. It marks the end of the first decade and the start of the second of the 21st century. It's a synonym for perfect eyesight and comes complete with a poetic, self-contained echo. Countless science-fiction scenarios are set in this year, from the game Battlefield 4 to the film Godzilla: Final Wars, and it inevitably catches the imagination of futurists and trend-watchers.
Back in 1994, global think tank Rand predicted that in 2020, humans would employ new breeds of animals to perform manual labour. Some predicted that people would have landed on Mars. Others reckoned that telepathy and teleportation would be possible by now. While the reality doesn't quite match up to these expectations, it's far from mundane. We're on the verge of a faster, more complex, more powerful information age, which brings with it extraordinary benefits – and, needless to say, a wealth of associated problems.
The rise of artificial intelligence and 5G
Two key technologies will underpin developments coming in 2020: the next-generation data network known as 5G, and new frontiers in artificial intelligence (AI). Despite the hype, 5G hasn't yet managed to elicit much enthusiasm among consumers. We know it promises to be speedy (between 10 and 100 times faster than 4G), but that prospect alone hasn't yet caught the public imagination. True, it's only just rolling out, coverage is sporadic, and there are currently a limited number of devices able to connect to it. But 2020 will begin to give us a far better idea of what it's like to live in a 5G world.
It'll bring products and services that rely on an instant-on, zero-latency transfer of data. At one end of the scale, we'll find pure entertainment, such as impossibly high-quality 8k video on demand, or games streamed direct from the cloud (cloud gaming services such as Google's recently launched Stadia will gather momentum next year as connection speeds increase). But at the other end of the spectrum lie fundamental changes in the way we live. Smart buildings, where heating and light reacts automatically to human presence. Life-changing surgery, performed remotely over distances of thousands of miles.
The future of self-driving cars
Automated transport systems such as drones and driverless cars will be invigorated by the expansion of 5G. While all new models of car are becoming more "intelligent", few of us have yet seen a self-driving car in action; it's still a technology dependent on human chaperones and is very much at the testing stage. But Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, has announced that it will unveil a fully autonomous vehicle in 2020. It may take much longer, however, for society to get sufficiently used to the idea to be able to place its trust in the technology.
A crucial element of these cars is the improvement of hazard-detecting sensors. At Las Vegas’s CES show next month, we’re promised a demonstration of a “Transparent Hood” where images from cameras around the vehicle are processed algorithmically to create a single, obstruction-free video of the car’s surroundings. That kind of sophisticated imaging, coupled with AI, allows cars to detect, recognise and react – but it’s not just the automotive industry that will be radically altered by these improvements in computer vision. Images become information, and information is actionable. Cameras can actively monitor production lines in the workplace. CCTV footage can be analysed for incidences of violent behaviour. In many parts of the world, our faces will become data points.
Endless potential for facial recognition
This is set to upturn the service industry; attention can be more easily personalised and, provided it doesn't freak us out, it stands to improve the customer experience. Tailored advertising can detect our emotions and display images accordingly, making the targeted ads we see on Google and Facebook seem unsophisticated by comparison. Everything from travel to education could be changed by facial recognition, but it will find itself facing ethical challenges at every corner. The analyst firm Gartner predicts that at least four of the G7 countries will have established some kind of regulatory oversight of AI in the coming years.
New heights in health
Digital health services will continue to grow in sophistication, and not just in terms of tracking health, but actively managing it. Remote appointments with doctors – so-called Telemedicine – will become a more cost-effective way of receiving medical care. The enormous amount of data generated by wearable technology and smart health products will pave the way for "precision medicine", where healthcare professionals can personalise treatment in a way that's never previously been possible. And because it's real data rather than reported symptoms, the care will be better, too. But with AI partly responsible for diagnosing, again, a whole new set of ethical questions arise.
What is Extended Reality?
Less contentious, but equally futuristic, is the technology that goes under the banner of Extended Reality – augmented, virtual and mixed reality. The physical awkwardness of using them, either via headsets or through a phone's camera, has limited their adoption, and it still feels like a technology looking for a use, but 2020 may deliver it. Early adopters may find themselves fascinated by Nextmind, also due to be demonstrated at CES, the consumer trade show in Las Vegas: a wearable device that's effectively an interface with the brain, using machine learning to convert thoughts into digital commands. It's early days, but the possibilities of this are mind-bending. Nextmind development kits are being made available in the coming year.
Unforeseen dangers seem to be part and parcel of technological development. One of Gartner's short-term predictions is the World Health Organisation classifying problematic online shopping as an addictive disorder, as people feel pressured by ever-sophisticated advertising methods to buy things they can't afford. Criminals will find new ways to invade our privacy and steal from us. And there's the broader problem of deepfakes, which will continue to erode our trust in public figures and the media. Here, it's predicted, there may be a role to play for blockchain – the digital authentication system – to verify and stamp video and audio content as being real. But it may be too late to convince a public becoming increasingly distrustful of what they see. This scenario for 2020 certainly wasn't predicted in Godzilla: Final Wars. But we are where we are.