The Future Today Institute today unveiled the twelfth annual Tech Trends Report, which highlights 315 trends, up from 225 last year. The report highlights top trends in areas like energy, robotics, AI, transportation, data, privacy, and security.
Future Today Institute director and New York University Stern School of Business professor Amy Webb will release the report and detail highlights in a presentation today at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
The report is written to be accessible to Fortune 500 companies, as well as small business owners, universities, governments, and startups.
The 2019 Tech Trends Report comes hot on the heels of the release Tuesday of The Big Nine, a collection of optimistic, pragmatic, and catastrophic predictions about the future of humanity under the expanding influence of some of the largest tech companies in the world.
The report includes trend breakdowns by industry, from banking to beauty to tech, as well as advice for how to plan for the future.
Webb argues that many organizations aren’t thinking the right way about how far into the future they should be making plans.
“To effectively plan for the future, organizations need to learn how to think about time differently,” the report reads. “Start retraining yourself to think about change and disruption to your organization and industry across different timeframes and build actions for each. The next 12-36 months — tactical actions. 3-5 years — strategic action. 5-10 years — vision and R&D initiatives. 10+ years — how you and your organization can create.”
The report also includes optimistic, pragmatic, and catastrophic scenarios for things like a collision between autonomous driving data and regional privacy laws, flying taxis, and drones as a source of renewable energy.
Like last year, the 2019 Tech Trends Report begins with a look at artificial intelligence trends. AI has been noted as a trend on the report for the past decade.
Webb expects to see more AI that mimics people online — like Molly — and she also sees bias in AI systems continuing.
Bias isn’t just a problem that can lead to racially offensive results like Google Photos identifying a woman of African descent as a monkey or vision systems for autonomous vehicles that fail to see people of color; it can affect decisions about people’s lives in ways that aren’t fully understood or explainable. Real-world consequences of biased AI will continue to proliferate, Webb predicts, as AI decides things like who can rent a car, receive a bank loan, or access certain medications.
Last year, the 2018 Tech Trends Report declared China was on its way to becoming an unmatched AI hegemon, and this year the report said China has solidified that status. A report by business analytics firm Elsevier expects China could lead the world in total AI research papers produced in the next five years.
Evidence of this growing influence is highlighted not only by advances from companies like Baidu and Alibaba, but also by computer vision startups like Megvii’s Face ++ and SenseTime.
The Chinese establishment of an equivalent of the U.S. Department of Defense’s DARPA research agency was also pointed to as evidence of China’s advantage in AI.
“No other country’s government is racing toward the future with as much concentrated force and velocity as China. The country’s extraordinary investments in AI could signal big shifts in the balance of geopolitical power in the years ahead,” the report reads.
In the section on data, Webb points out that data governance and retention policies and data lakes are being adopted by more organizations.
AI services from cloud providers was also highlighted as a major trend. The report notes that companies like Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud Platform lead in the United States, with Alibaba and Baidu leading the way in China. Since cloud customers often stick with their initial vendor, what’s at stake is no less than hundreds of billions of dollars.
Consolidation of talent and resources by the dominant companies will continue, a development Webb cautions should give us pause.
“When it comes to the future of AI, we should ask whether consolidation makes sense for the greater good, and whether competition — and therefore access — will eventually be hindered as we’ve seen in other fields, such as telecommunications and cable,” the report reads.
Webb predicts that we will see the export of China’s social credit score system and personal data records (PDR) that include school and work history; financial records; and legal, travel, and shopping information.
“PDRs don’t yet exist, but from my vantage point there are already signals that point to a future in which all the myriad sources of our personal data are unified under one record provided and maintained by the Big Nine. In fact, you’re already part of that system, and you’re using a proto-PDR now. It’s your email address.”
Facial recognition and unique voice signatures, emotion detection, bone structure detection, and even personality recognition like the kind deployed by Cambridge Analytica to help get Donald Trump elected president will feed this trend. Synthetic biometrics are also beginning to emerge.
“Political candidates, law firms, marketers, customer service reps, and others are beginning to use new systems that review your online behavior, emails, and conversations you have by phone and in person, to assess your personality in real time. The goal: to predict your specific needs and desires,” the report reads.
Revenge porn is on the rise, along with law enforcement use of systems like Amazon’s Rekognition and persistent audio surveillance systems that are always listening and analyzing conversations. Wi-Fi and radio waves can now be used to identify a person’s location, sleep cycle, and emotional state.
The use of voice to carry out computing with smart speakers is another clear trend. Webb cites research that says roughly 40 percent of U.S. households will get smart speakers by the end of 2019 and that about half of searches will be done with voice by 2020. Ambient computing in vehicle infotainment systems is also part of what Webb refers to as the voice assistant wars.
AI chipsets and unique programming languages for AI frameworks like Uber’s Python-based Pyro may also become a trend. Facebook AI Research chief scientist Yann LeCun recently suggested that deep learning may need a new programming language.
Among intelligent machines, Webb and FTI expect autonomous vehicles designed for last-mile travel or services like food delivery to grow in adoption.
Soft and molecular robotics, as well as teams of robots working together and human-machine collaboration, were identified as trends this year. Robot abuse — incidents of people attacking things like security or food delivery robots — is also a trend.
In transportation, trends include drone operation centers for management of drone fleets, drone swarms, autonomous ships, underwater vehicles, and the return of supersonic commercial air travel.
For the second year in its history, the 2019 Tech Trends Report also includes a breakdown of the smartest cities on the planet.
Smart cities are those with initiatives for smart buildings, waste reduction, abundant public Wi-Fi hotspots, and 4G or 5G connectivity.
The smartest city in the world, according to the report, is Copenhagen, Denmark. The top 10 cities are in Nordic nations of Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. San Francisco (at 20) and Boston (at 22) are the only U.S. cities in the top 25. No African cities were listed in the top 25.