What does the future hold? For me at least, it’s full of bacon: Wrapping my scallops and shrimp, sitting next to my eggs, scattered atop my Waldorf salads. But 2020 is also full of technological advances, and continuing the innovations that have made the world race forward faster than you can say “not too crispy, please.” Three fields hold the most promise for the tech world in the year ahead: the Internet of Things (IoT); artificial intelligence (especially A.I.’s most visible face, voice assistants); and 5G connections and devices.
Make no mistake: Like bacon flavoring a steak, it’s the combination of these trends that really unlocks their power. It’s a refrain we’ve heard time and again from major tech makers like Samsung and Qualcomm and LG and Huawei: 5G + A.I. + IoT. But what does this mashup of buzzwordy acronyms mean exactly? Meaningful change. Here’s my take on what we’ll see in 2020.
The Internet of Things (IoT): Better stuff
IoT means a lot more than just adding networking connections to ordinary devices like security cameras, vacuum cleaners, and door locks. Getting things online will connect as many as 100 billion devices to the network by 2025, which will lead to meaningful products for consumers for sure — but it’s hardly realizing the dream of IoT. Video doorbells, connected sprinkler systems, smart toaster ovens … the Internet can let us access them remotely and do more with them. They’re fundamentally better than they used to be. But the innovation hardly stops there.
Step two for IoT devices is networking them. Consider the ideal vision of the networked smart home: Your connected smoke alarm sniffs the air and detects not just the lingering aroma of bacon but a hint of fire. Rather than just blaring a senseless klaxon to startle whoever’s within earshot, it turns off the oven and furnace, shuts power to the room, and calls the fire department. Networking devices together unlocks their power. I don’t just need a push notification on my phone that the smoke alarm is going off; I want a system that can fix the problem or make my life easier in other ways. For this to work, the right combination of products is key — and for the record, this is how Google is now selling products.
But that’s stuff you can do today. 2020 will bring the first big advancements in what I call phase three of the IoT transformation: Using A.I. to process the unfathomably large amounts of data streaming out of these networked devices and leveraging it in meaningful ways.
For many people, the face of A.I. is actually a voice: Alexa, or the Google Assistant.
Consider the progress we’ve made from the days of paper maps, which never really folded effectively to fit back in the glove box anyway. Moving maps to our phones and GPS devices is better for lots of reasons. But it’s only by networking multiple phones together that the real power of mapping is unlocked. Using millions of cellphones, Waze and other mapping apps can identify speed traps and accidents, reroute us around slow spots, and generally make maps work better.
Better maps are great, but smarter highways are better still. When city planners and even the federal government start to apply data analysis to all of that information, amazing things can happen. We can predict crashes by combining crowdsourced crash data from Waze with state data sets. Or better understand the connection between speed limits and crash outcomes, thanks to anonymized data from GPS-enabled devices. Expect to see more of these big-picture, IoT-driven insights in 2020.
A.I. + Voice: Getting smarter
A.I. will fundamentally transform a lot of our lives, as companies bake it into every appliance they make, use it to better understand climate change, detect cancer, and more. But for many people, the face of A.I. is actually a voice: Alexa, or the Google Assistant, the smart speaker sitting on the counter just waiting to tell you how tall the Empire State Building is, or to name all of the U.S. Presidents — in reverse chronological order.
The reality of smart speakers is unfortunately banal: The vast majority of smart speaker owners use their devices to listen to music, asking Alexa to play Post Malone or Christina Aguilera. Or, more realistically, the Wheels on the Bus — which is actually the most commonly played song on Alexa-powered speakers. And that’s a sad commentary on the state of these devices, where the astonishing scientific and mathematical energy poured into the algorithms that make A.I. possible is mostly being used to entertain our toddlers.
Three things herald meaningful change in this space for 2020: A.I. is coming spread to a slew of new devices and the growing smarts behind the A.I. itself. Right before Thanksgiving, Amazon introduced a new way to bring Alexa to all sorts of devices. The company dramatically reduced the requirements for building voice-powered devices: Until now, you needed at least 100MB of RAM and an ARM Cortex A-class processor. Now, the requirement for Alexa Voice Service integration for AWS IoT Core has come down 1MB and a cheaper Cortex-M processor. That means you’ll see Alexa everywhere, Amazon says:
“[This] makes it easier and more cost-effective to add Alexa Built-in capabilities to products where embedding voice wasn’t previously viable, such as light switches, thermostats, and small appliances.”
The biggest change of all lies in a fundamental shift in how we use and interact with voice assistants in 2020.
Google made a similar announcement in May when it rolled out Google Assistant 2.0, which the company said would change the way we use phones. In a nutshell, Google Assistant uses three complex algorithms to understand, predict, and act upon what we’re saying, which requires 100GB (gigs!) of data storage and a network connection to operate. Google announced it has used deep learning to combine and shrink those algorithmic models down to 500MB — and that means it’ll fit happily on our phones, without network latency slowing responses and actions down. Expect further improvements from Google to match Amazon’s scale and pervasive adoption of assistants into everything.
The second improvement is in capabilities: Both Google and Amazon have poured time and energy into “auditory events,” to let their assistants hear things that aren’t just voice commands. That means things like footsteps, the sound of breaking glass or dripping water, dogs barking, and so on. This heralds real transformation of the home security space, which the two have quietly dabbled in with Alexa Guard and Nest Secure. The thinking goes, if the smart speakers you’ve been filling your life with can also monitor and keep safe your stuff, why pay ADT or SimpliSafe to do it? I anticipate big news from these two giants in this space.
The biggest change of all, however, lies in a fundamental shift in how we use and interact with voice assistants in 2020. Today, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa awaits a wake word; sure, they’re listening, but until you say the wake word, they won’t act. And like that girl you so desperately wanted to ask to prom, they definitely won’t be the one to reach out. But thanks to a new push for proactivity, your assistant will soon be the one to speak up first: Picture “Steve, you left the porch light on,” or “Do you want to listen to NPR”?
This has big implications for lots of fields, notably home security, where an assistant will soon be able to detect that you’ve left for work and offer to activate the alarm that you failed to set when you left. Take it to the next level, however: The Apple Watch has fall detection, where the power of A.I. lets the device sense that you’ve taken a header and can contact help. Thanks to the power of algorithms and vast quantities of data analysis, our devices could soon proactively warn us before we get woozy and stumble. Fall prevention is a far more powerful tool.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The rollout of 5G was meant for 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics — seven months from now. But Qualcomm realized the need for 5G – that whole 5G + A.I. + IoT, remember? – and pushed the industry to move faster. Hence 2019, when AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon all championed their 5G networks as first, fastest, best, and more. Sorta. Reality is, the networks at present are less enticing than yesterday’s tuna salad … but 2020 will bring change.
Behind the scenes, tech companies will be building out real-world applications of 5G.
Next year we’ll see wide-scale deployments and rollouts of 5G across the United States, bringing meaningful coverage to a wide swath of the country. Thanks to lower-priced chipsets, we’ll see phones at prices the world can afford. And thanks to the Snapdragon 865, it’s a safe bet that every premium phone next year will sport 5G compatibility. Even the iPhone … maybe.
This is all to say that the 5G transformation will happen quickly, and when it does, we’ll finally be able to move around the vast amounts of data currently being produced by the world’s IoT devices, computers, and more: A whopping five quintillion bytes of data are produced every day, according to Cisco. That’s a five followed by 18 zeros. Shlepping those bytes into the cloud for A.I.-powered data analysis will demand 5G networks. It’s simple math.
So what will you do with all of that 5G speed next year? In Korea, where they already have 2 million subscribers to 5G networks (really!), carriers saw a huge growth in mobile video, Cristiano Amon, the president of Qualcomm, told me recently. Expect to see this in America in 2020. Expect to see brands start pushing 4K + 5G on your cell phone, thanks to the killer bandwidth those devices enable. The only problem, of course, is that the incredible details of 4K are completely invisible on a 6-inch screen. So take all the inevitable advertising with a grain of salt.
Behind the scenes, tech companies will be building out real-world applications of 5G; expect to hear a steady trickle of case studies centered on industrial IoT, where machines will communicate in real-time to manufacture stuff, stock shelves, and in general keep businesses humming.
All of these trends depend deeply on each other. For IoT devices to bring meaningful change, networks will need to supercharge the volume of data they’re transmitting. For anyone to make sense of all of that data, we’ll need still more powerful A.I. So keep your eyes peeled for huge changes in the year ahead. It’s practically guaranteed to be a wild ride