Tim Frank Andersen
2020 – The digital crossroad
10 predictions for the year to come
2020 sets the stage for a brand-new decade. And, if technology keeps developing at the pace of the previous one, it promises to be the craziest and most exciting ever. In many ways, we have arrived at a crossroads. Crucial questions need to be asked.
¨Can we take care of the only planet we have? Will we develop technology in an ethical way, supporting a world we want to live in, without increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots? And, finally, will we maintain control over the artificial technologies and gene-editing power we’re currently creating? These questions will be at the top of our digital and tech agendas in 2020. And, as in earlier years, I have curated ten of the most interesting and pressing digital trends for the first year of this new era. Let’s take a look.
1. The digital sustainability paradox
We have 10 years left to reach the 17 UN Sustainability Goals laid out in 2015. Even though this has been a topic the last years, I think the debate and focus on these goals will heat up in the year to come. Any companies not taking a stand going forward will struggle to survive.
Digitization and technology play a contradictory role in this quest, however. They are key to ensuring success, but at the same time are often part of the problem. Digital progress is a double-sided sword that we need to manage better.
Many new technologies contribute positively towards sustainable impact: AI leads to solutions on health and climate issues and removes language barriers; CRISPR will eradicate critical diseases; IoT will help create more sustainable cities; and additive manufacturing will introduce new, sustainable production methodologies.
Some technologies are less positive. Smartphones, for example, are fantastic, but how can we justify the 1.5 billion phones scrapped annually? And, how much longer can we keep extracting the rare minerals needed for electronic components? E-commerce is convenient and we love it (the revenue from Singles Day in November 2019 exceeded $ 30 billion) but, what about the huge amount of packaging created to ship 2.600 items every second? Not to mention the amount of empty space shipped inside each box. Forbes estimates that an incredible 61 million containers of empty space travel the world each year due to e-commerce.
We have to keep changing and developing digital solutions and technologies to conquer the world’s biggest challenges. They must become more sustainable. I predict that this will be one of the main topics for the year to come.
2. In tech we trust?
Another important issue linked to the sustainability agenda is our ability to trust the technologies implemented in our society. And, it’s not looking good.
Firstly, there is digital manipulation. The development of fake news and deepfakes makes it almost impossible to trust what we read and see today. Most deepfake videos are currently just for amusement, but they could have more serious motives as they improve and make it almost impossible to differentiate between fact and fiction. We seriously now talk about a Post-Truth era.
Secondly, we must consider who owns and controls all the data and information collected about us. How can we trust that it won’t be misused to nudge us in certain directions or harm us in some way? In the EU we have GDPR, but we are currently quite alone globally with this strong set of rules.
A third aspect is surveillance. The cameras and microphones built into pretty much everything we use increase the risk of ‘being watched’. Many people have experienced talking about a very specific topic, only to have ads popping up on their mobile targeting that exact topic just seconds later. It might be a coincidence. But then again …
Cybercrime is still a major concern. Techniques like CEO-fraud and phishing can lure us into making bad decisions. Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks and ransomware are used to take companies down by infiltrating IT systems and networks. These techniques keep advancing and getting more sophisticated.
Finally, we see AI systems designed, built, trained, and managed on data sets that risk the introduction of bias (not necessarily with wrong intentions). Machine learning algorithms can'´t be smarter than the data used to train them. We are seeing deep learning algorithms that make critical decisions regarding our health or financial situations, without the ability to tell us how they reached certain conclusions. They lack transparency and traceability.
So, there is a lot to fix. Fortunately, Denmark is a pioneer in this field. We are one of the first countries in the world to release a national strategy for Artificial Intelligence and has launched an AI Ethics Board. It is also a Dane, Margrethe Vestager, who will lead the work in making EU fit for the digital age.
I predict that 2020 will be the year when debate around technology and trust goes from being an elitist to a common topic, relevant to us all. We need more discussion and must be more aware of the personal implications. Our actions have consequences which we all need to understand.
3. Computers that recognise you
Logging on and authenticating yourself through facial recognition went from science fiction to commodity status during the last decade. The new Danish “Nem ID” app for iPhone uses facial recognition to allow users access to their bank or when contacting a public service. So why mention this as a prediction for 2020? Well, I believe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Sensors, cameras, and AI are developing at lightning speed, and new innovations are popping up faster than we can write about them.
Examples include: paying with a smile on Alibaba – a solution that Nets have plans to implement in Europe in 2020; checking in at airports with your face (you’re then recognized at security and around the airport where smart signs automatically guide you to your gate or nearest lounge); checking out of supermarkets without having to do anything; and the rise of autonomous vehicles that rely heavily on computer vision technologies in order to drive safely. India has also introduced one of the largest biometric ID programmes in the world with more than 1.2 billion people registering their face, iris and fingerprints to get an individual ID. This smooths out the process of getting the right social services and everything from a bank account to a loan or cell phone (this project is powered by NEC, our mother company).
As touched on previously, the obvious downside to this technology is the possible surveillance and loss of privacy that may follow. The Chinese example of a social credit system linked to observed behaviour sounds like an episode of Black Mirror or a science fiction movie gone wrong. Police around the world are already deploying this technology more and more every day – in October 2019, the Danish police asked for the right to use facial recognition in their work. Where is all this data stored? Who owns it? Who controls it?
In 2020 we will see the roll-out of emotion detection – the ability to read your state of mind and maybe your intent through computer vision. This could be used in a multitude of ways, from crime prevention to marketing tricks and techniques. Computer vision will be used for the first time to identify athletes and authorized persons at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. It will grant them access automatically, and hopefully, vastly enhance their experience and safety. With high-profile events like this and new uses, I predict that development in this area will explode in 2020.
4. CRISPR coming of age
Since the first mapping of the human genome in 2003, the understanding and development within genomics has moved quickly. When the CRISPR Cas9 system was discovered in 2013 (a fairly simple and low-cost method to alter any gene in any organism) things went ballistic. Now, we have a technology that can potentially eradicate most genetic diseases. It could also change an entire animal species or alter an embryo to decide gender or eye colour.
In 2019, the world’s first gene-edited twin girls were born in Shenzhen, China. This action was broadly condemned, but clearly shows what is possible. We already have some of the first FDA-approved treatments for genetic diseases – Luxturna from Spark Therapeutics, for example, treats a specific type of inherited retinal dystrophy that stems from mutations in a gene known as RPE65 (the treatment is priced at $850.000 per patient). Zolgensma from Novartis promises to treat Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a rare, genetic, neuromuscular disease, with just one injection. This treatment currently costs $ 2.1 million, leading to debates about pricing and benefits. Who decides the cost of a life?
While this discussion heats up, several new and exciting techniques are being developed – if CRISPR-Cas9 works like a scissor and a pencil to cut and paste new information into your DNA, then a new technique called “Prime editing” works more like a word processor, making almost any alteration possible — additions, deletions, swapping any single letter for any other, without severing the DNA double helix.
Gene Drive is another genetic engineering technology that can spread particular genes across a population. This could potentially eradicate malaria-transmitting mosquitoes, but also risks unintended consequences. Clearly, there is room for more discussion on ethics. What chances are we willing to take? Who should be allowed to perform these alterations and in what situations?
Meanwhile, anyone can log on to www.the-odin.com and purchase a DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering beginners CRISPR Kit for just $159 (which many nerds have done). This has led to communities of so-called Biohackers across the world, like Syntech Bio network – an online community of more than 4000 science lovers and tinkerers. It is clear that this technology is extremely hard to contain within set boundaries.
I predict several major commercial breakthroughs within gene-editing in 2020, as well as heated debate on the subject. If you want to dig deeper into this topic, I strongly recommend the Netflix documentary series “Unnatural Selection”, released in October of 2019.
5. Additive Manufacturing matures
For almost two decades, 3D printers were perceived as exotic toys and not as serious competitors to existing production methods. This perception is changing, and is seen in the growth of the annual 3D Printing conference and event in Frankfurt, with over 850 exhibitors called Formnext.
Today we talk about Additive Manufacturing (AM), and there are numerous examples of commercial and viable products, only made possible through AM. Here are some examples.
Align Technology produce individual, transparent, 3D-printed braces that gradually correct your teeth. You get a new brace every 2-3 weeks. So far, more than seven million smiles have been corrected this way. Today, the company has a market cap of over $20 billion!
3Shape is a Danish dental company creating 3D scanners and a production system for 3D printing of single crowns and prosthesis. Today they employ 1.500 people.
Hearing Aids, a strong industry in Denmark, is also taking advantage of AM to introduce mass customization.
Large industries like aerospace, automotive and construction with global players like BMW, Boeing and Siemens (and in Denmark, Grundfos and Danfoss) are investing heavily in this area. Affordable, high-temperature printers mean that in many cases, this technology now makes sense as a viable business opportunity.
Business and sustainability advantages are many. You can mass customize your products or work with small-scale series which makes a lot of sense in several industries. You can print your spare parts or inventory on-demand or on location, thus reducing customer response time and shipping costs. And, with new materials and new design techniques, you can simplify constructions and print elements that would otherwise be impossible to produce. On top of that AM bears the promise to be one of the first truly circular technologies by reusability of print material.
The development has led to the formation of AM Hub in Denmark – a national focal point for Additive Manufacturing, focusing on how to expand the use of AM to small and medium sized companies (SME´s) as well.
AM is gaining in popularity, and I predict that 2020 will see a further increase in awareness and acceptance. Additive Manufacturing will jump from being a rogue technology with a niche position to a widely accepted and broadly used commercial production technique.
6. A breakthrough for Generative design
The sister technology to Additive Manufacturing is computational design or generative design. Here, computers design the end product through the use of AI, based on a set of desired specs, parameters or requirements. These could be lighter weight, greater torsional rigidity, manufacturing method, lower cost, special dimensions, material usage or different form factors.
In the same time it takes humans to generate one idea, computers can test thousands of scenarios and explore every possibility, delivering the solution that comes closest to what we asked for and the necessary data to prove it. This introduces a dramatic paradigm shift in design, away from craftmanship and towards a new role for the designer as a conductor. They frame the challenge and curate the optimal solution generated by algorithms.
The reason this is becoming relevant now is that the solutions from algorithms would be almost impossible to produce if it weren’t for developments within 3D printing and cloud-based computer power. These designs don’t look man-made, but rather like designs we find in nature, such as silkworm cocoons and bone structures. Companies like Airbus are using generative design to create stronger and lighter airplanes. Callaway has created their best golf driver to date, using computational design.
Under Armour and Adidas use the technology to create better shock-absorbing running shoes. Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and the engineering company Hatfield Group have used it for the architecture of the Chengdu Museum of natural history. And GM’s engineers are using generative design to redesign the seatbelt bracket, replacing an eight-part assembly with a single part that is 40% lighter and 20% percent stronger (not to mention the supply chain cost savings of having one part instead of eight).
So, what’s next? Optimization via light-weighting, parts consolidation and general performance improvement combined with an increased focus on sustainability will drive this area forward. The technological breakthroughs already created by companies like Autodesk, Siemens, and Altair are amazing. I predict that we’ll see many more great commercial generative design solutions brought into the market in 2020.
7. The dawn of drone delivery
Package delivery by drones was one of these crazy tech ideas we entertained ourselves with for years, and suddenly, it’s a reality. Why do I claim this? Well, in September of 2019 ,UPS got the first US nationwide Federal Aviation Administration (FFA) approval for drone delivery. They already delivered medicine by drones, but now they are able to expand their service.
A group of eager competitors are breathing down their neck: Amazon will start their commercial Prime Air delivery service within months; Uber will start their Uber Eats drone delivery service with a brand new drone design in San Diego in 2020; and the Alphabet-owned company Wing just teamed up with FedEx to form a serious alliance and begin delivering products by drones in Christianburg, Virginia.
Other countries are also pursuing drone delivery. Drone Delivery Canada has been in testing since 2017 and is entering commercialization as we speak. Antworks has received approval and a business license from the Civil Aviation Administration of China to operate commercial drone deliveries in urban areas. And JD.com (a Chinese version of Amazon) is doing unmanned drone delivery tests in China, Indonesia and Japan.
Will this happen in Denmark in 2020? Not for the time being, unfortunately, due to regulative issues. Although Project Healthdrone are currently doing test flights with patient samples between hospital units in Fyn. I predict that across the world, this kind of last-mile delivery will shift from a rarity to an everyday phenomenon in 2020.
8. The end of banks as we know them
Banks have come under extreme scrutiny and pressure in recent years, due to regulations like GDPR, PSD2, and MIFID2. These have hit the banking sector hard. There has also been a long period of negative interest rates (with no sign that this will change); a general negative attitude towards traditional banks dating back to the financial crisis; and major digital transformations have occurred in the sector, led by fintech startups without any legacy to stop them — all this has created a volatile cocktail that could put an end to banks as we know them.
Neobanks like N26, Revolut, Monzo and Starling Bank propose a new banking future, and it seems to work. N26 and Monzo both have more than three million customers, and Starling Bank, launched in 2017, has more than one million accounts and £1 Billion in customer assets.
Here in Denmark, we have Lunar. A 24/7 mobile-first, customer-centric, user-friendly solution. Lunar has all the digital tools we love like peer-to-peer payment, easy and low-cost international money transfers and a great spending overview without fees etc.
Our everyday payments are also being handled by a new set of companies, such as Mobilepay. (despite their fantastic start in Denmark, they are now losing out to Apple Pay with in-store payments).
And, you can add the Open Banking revolution to the mix, nourished by PSD2. We have only seen the beginning of this movement with banking-as-a-service companies like Green Dot. They now have five million customers through partnerships with companies like Walmart, Apple and Uber.
Several of these partners are also entering the banking market. Apple with their new credit card and Uber with the launch of Uber Money. And they’re not alone. Facebook (Facebook Pay) and Google (checking accounts through Google Pay) are also launching financial products. These companies are using their established relationships with end consumers – even though some will argue whether you want these companies to handle your money issues as well.
So, my prediction for 2020 is that we will see a change in power and user relations in the banking sector. We will encounter a combination of challenger banks, global non-bank brands, and new fintech start-ups. This decade will be the beginning of the end for traditional banks.
9. Cryptocurrency comeback
Our perception of money has changed dramatically over the past ten years. With technologies like Venmo, Paypal, peer-to-peer payment solutions, Apple Pay, online banking, Bitcoins etc. Physical cash is becoming rarer all the time.
Cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoins, have been on a rollercoaster ride for the last few years. After a spike in valuation and hype at the end of 2018, the value of Bitcoins fell to 25% within a year. Most people lost interest and confidence in cryptocurrencies and focused instead on the core technology behind them: Blockchain.
Bitcoin’s potential to change the whole concept of money by dematerialization, deregulation, and decentralization is still intact. To see its true value, however, we need to focus on possibilities and use cases instead of on the actual valuation of the cryptocurrency.
One solution is a series of stablecoins: a decentralized cryptocurrency pegged to other existing currencies to remove volatility. One promising example is Dai, partly developed in Denmark.
But the most interesting launch happening in 2020 is the new stable cryptocurrency called Libra. It is backed by a consortium of 20 partners like Vodaphone, Uber, Spotify and Facebook. Recent mistrust of Facebook in terms of data handling has been problematic for the project with prominent early partners like PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, eBay and Stripe choosing to exit. The verdict is currently out as to whether the project will ever be launched. The US Congress is extremely sceptical. The CEO of JP Morgan has said: “No, it will never fly”.
I, however, predict that it will launch in 2020 with a much broader backing than we see now. The advantages for the 1.7 billion unbanked people in the world and the possibilities for the 2.5 billion Facebook users are just too big to stop the project. So, look forward to a cryptocurrency comeback in 2020.
10. Quantum Supremacy
Moore’s Law as we know it (the idea that the number of transistors that can fit onto a microchip doubles every two years or so) is coming to an end. We simply can’t make transistors any smaller. We have reached the limit at just a few nanometers. Other promising technologies are lining up, however, to ensure we can continue increasing computational power.
The most promising technology is Quantum computing. It is poised to change life as we know it with an ability to solve very complex tasks millions of times faster than today’s computers. Its ability to process unthinkable amounts of data will enable discoveries within many fields including medicine, machine-learning, aerodynamics, climate understanding and cryptography. Several companies have already released Quantum computers: D-Wave Systems, IBM, Rigetti and Google.
Quantum Supremacy occurs when Quantum computers perform a task that today’s super-computers are incapable of handling. In October 2019 Google publicly stated exactly that. They solved a problem in 200 seconds that would have taken today’s most advanced super-computer 10.000 years to solve. These experimental results are not yet applicable to solving practical problems. IBM has also pushed back on that claim, insisting that with some clever, classical programming, its machines can solve the same problem in 2.5 days.
It is, however, still a huge achievement, and has been called the “Hello World” moment of the next generation of computers.
Even though it probably will take several years for this technology to be widespread and commercially feasible, I still predict that we’ll see a real Quantum Supremacy moment in 2020.