Like Before, But More: Tech Trends in 2020

The dawning of the ‘20s has everyone thinking back to what the previous decade brought us, and forward to what the next one may bring. As someone who’s written quite a bit, and spoken even more, about the role of technology in enabling and creating a proposed future, I suppose it’s my turn to put my chips down on some bets for the next 10 years.

But of course, before I do, the past beckons. In January of 2010, there was no iPad outside of the labs in Cupertino. The iPhone was still in its infancy as the iPhone 3GS and it wasn’t until mid-2010 that the world would see the iPhone 4, the first of Apple’s products to use their so-called “Retina” screen technology. The smartphone market in general was still incredibly thin by today’s standards, with only a hair over 20% of Americans owning a smartphone. Both Nokia and Blackberry outsold Apple that year in smartphones.

There was no Uber, no Airbnb, no DoorDash, no Slack, and no Spotify in the United States (it was being tested in Europe). There were no voice assistants; no Amazon Echo, no Google Assistant, no Siri. Tesla Motors only sold a single type of car, the Roadster. Home video was still 1080p, and there were no 4K TVs, and no 4K content to be consumed. There were no VR headsets you could walk into a store and purchase.

If there’s a pithy way to summarize the last ten years of technological development, it might be “yes, but more.” Everything, from connectivity to speed, from social networks to smartphones, and from productivity to gaming, is perhaps recognizable but simply more than it was. Technology is faster, brighter, higher res, ubiquitous and unceasing, and the world we live in is photographed, videoed, and recorded at every step more than ever before.

Just like before, but more.

If there’s anything I’m willing to predict about the next 10 years, it’s that it won’t be “just like before”. There are some fundamental shifts happening underneath the technological waves that will give rise to entirely new sorts of systems and services. These will give rise to services and systems that we’ve seen before.

I see three things that, in combination, give rise to the new world that we’ll be inhabiting come 2030, and all are technologies that are in the world now. Those are:

  • machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI),
  • the explosion of ubiquitous connectivity and the Internet of Things (IoT), and
  • the availability of new visual interfaces for our computing lives such as augmented and extended reality.

The first two are highly intertwined over the next several years. AI and machine learning systems are capable of great insights and horrible mistakes, but rely on large sets of data to both train the systems and as substrate to consume and manipulate. As the IoT increases in scale and scope over the next several years via technologies like 5G cellular service rollouts, better low-energy communication protocols like UltraWideband, and the continuing march of Koomey’s Law, the possible gathering of data increases enormously. The logical outcome of these technologies is a world where every object is connected and has an address on the Internet. And I do mean every object; your fast food drink cup, your shoelaces, your copy paper, your jewelry, all of them will have chips that are capable of operating on the smallest imaginable amount of energy (small enough to be powered by movement or ambient light). Each of these will be connected to each other and the Internet in a sensor net that is capable of capturing more or less the entirety of activity of the world.

This data will be used to drive AI systems of all shapes and sizes across society. It will be captured, brokered, purchased, and sold by the largest of corporations in an effort to be in the right place and right time to have the right pieces of data for the next big thing: the best delivery algorithm, the best new pharmaceutical breakthrough, or the safest self-driving vehicle. These AI systems will likely be wonderful and terrible, and it’s up to us to be very wary of how and what they are allowed to control in the world.

While I would never bet against the smartphone as an interface for this new ubiquitous computing world, I do think that we are going to see the rise of new visual overlay technologies. Whether these take the form of glasses, contact lenses, or something entirely new, the ability to re-write the visual input of a user is the last step in our 50-year quest to design the ideal computing interface. Visual overlay is the final step in this process because once you have the capacity to alter the vision of a user to embed/display anything we’d like at life-resolution, you have the ability to design and use any interface you can imagine.

You also have the ability to live inside any world that you wish. Once this technology is mature (which may not be in 10 years, but soon after), anyone can “live” in any world they want ... inside a game, in any historical period, or with anyone or anything in or out of the world as they see fit. For Black Mirror fans that are reading this, this world might sound familiar, and my guess is that it will be so amazingly worse than Black Mirror, it’s hard for me to put into words. If you think we have trouble in the modern era with disinformation and news coverage, imagine how difficult it will be to communicate with each other once we can’t even agree on the physical world around us.

Each of these technologies bring separate challenges to the information ecosystem. AI and machine learning bring the issue of interoperability of data, the problem of metadata labeling of large data sets for usage restrictions, and more. Ubiquitous IoT brings privacy and security issues to every object in the world, so have fun securing that attack surface. And omnipresent extended reality brings issues of disinformation and a return to metaphysical questions about reality and truth.

None of this is entirely new. As I said at the beginning of this essay, it’s all a form of “like now, but more.” It’s the “but more” that I’m most worried about, because turning all of these technologies to 11 can and likely will have unplanned-for outcomes that will surprise us. Hopefully none of those surprises will be existential, but I’m not betting against it just yet.