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10 massive tech trends that will hit us by 2020

To say that the consumer electronics industry has changed everything would be an understatement on par with calling World War II a minor skirmish. We live in a world where people are willing to queue for days, just to be the first to get their hands on the latest version of their favourite device.

Those devices don’t just do one thing either. They allow us to connect with people around the globe in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago, using images, video and text in innovative ways.

More than that though, technology has become the catalyst for the next phase of innovation both in our personal lives and in business.

3D Printing

One place where technology’s role as a catalyst for innovation is particularly evident is 3D printing. According to tech research company Gartner, we are in the beginnings of a “Digital Industrial Revolution” that threatens to reshape how physical goods are created and 3D printing is at the heart of it.

1. By 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least US$100-billion per year in intellectual property globally

Near term flag: At least one major western manufacturer will claim to have had intellectual property (IP) stolen for a mainstream product by thieves using 3D printers who will likely reside in those same western markets rather than in Asia by 2015.

The plummeting costs of 3D printers, scanners and 3D modelling technology, combined with improving capabilities, says Gartner, makes the technology for IP theft more accessible to would-be criminals. Importantly, 3D printers do not have to produce a finished good in order to enable IP theft. The ability to make a wax mould from a scanned object, for instance, can enable the thief to produce large quantities of items that exactly replicate the original.

2. By 2016, 3D printing of tissues and organs (bioprinting) will cause a global debate about regulating the technology or banning it for both human and non-human use

Near term flag: The US Food and Drug Administration or comparable agency in a developed nation that is charged with evaluating all medical proposals will introduce guidelines that prohibit the bioprinting of life-saving 3D printed organs and tissues without its prior approval by end of 2015.

Bioprinting is the medical application of 3D printers to produce living tissue and organs. The day when 3D bioprinted human organs are readily available is drawing closer. The emergence of 3D bioprinting facilities with the ability to print human organs can leave people wondering what the effect of it will be on society. Beyond these questions, however, there is the reality of what 3D bioprinting means in helping people who need organs that are otherwise not readily available.

Digital Business

Digital business refers to business created using digital assets and/or capabilities, involving digital products, services and/or customer experiences, and/or conducted through digital channels and communities. Gartner’s digital business predictions focus on the effect digital business will have on labour reductions, on consumer goods revenue, and on use of personal data. While these do not cover the sum total of digital business, they do highlight critical areas of medium to long-term impact.

3. By 2017, more than half of consumer goods manufacturers will receive 75% of their consumer innovation and R&D capabilities from crowdsourced solutions

Near term flag: Consumer goods companies that employ crowdsourced solutions in marketing campaigns or new product development will enjoy a 1 per cent revenue boost over non-crowdsourced competitors by 2015.

Consumer goods companies are engaging crowds much more aggressively and with increasing frequency using digital channels to reach a larger and more anonymous pool of intellect and opinion. Gartner reckons we’ll start to see a massive shift toward applications of crowdsourcing, enabled by technology, such as: advertising, online communities, scientific problem solving, internal new product ideas, and consumer-created products.

4. By 2020, digitisation will cause social unrest and a quest for new economic models in several mature economies

Near term flag: A larger scale version of an “Occupy Wall Street“-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.

Digitisation means that a lot less labour is required to deliver goods and services. According to Gartner, this is fundamentally changing the way we pay for work. Long term, the research house says, this makes it impossible for increasingly large groups to participate in the traditional economic system — even at lower prices.

This, it says, will lead to more and more people using alternatives such as bartering, urging a return to protectionism or resurrecting initiatives like Occupy Wall Street, but on a much larger scale.

Mature economies will suffer most as they don’t have the population growth to increase demand nor powerful enough labour unions or political parties to (re-)allocate gains in what continues to be a global economy.

5. By 2017, 80% of people will collect, track and barter their personal data for cost savings, convenience and customisation

Near term flag: The number of Kickstarter-based auctions of personal data will increase by triple-digit percentages by the end of 2014.

The average person on the street is now, more than ever, aware of how much data is being collected about them. Interestingly, Gartner reckons that this has set the stage for offering people more control over the disposition of personal data — collected both online and offline.

As increasing demand and scarcity drives up the value of such data, it says, it’ll become increasingly worth people’s while to share it voluntarily. The collective interest in self-tracking meanwhile suggests that people are investing more time and energy in collecting data about themselves. They increasingly view such data as a key asset for life improvement, which could also be consistent with the idea of trading it for value under the right circumstances.

6. By 2020, businesses and governments will fail to protect 75% of sensitive data, and declassify and grant broad/public access to it

Near term flag: By 2015, at least one more Snowden or WikiLeaks moment will occur, indicating an upward trend in corporations and governments’ acceptance that they cannot protect all sensitive information.

The amount of data stored and used by businesses and governments is growing exponentially, such that any attempt to protect it all is unrealistic. Instead of facing an unfathomable task of protecting all data, organisations and governments will focus on protecting only a small part of it, but protecting it well. Wider society will also gain from this approach, enabling it to establish better control over government and business, preventing abuses of power and engendering greater trust.

Smart Machines

The emergence of smart machines adds opportunity and fear as “cognizant and cognitive systems” and can help with decision-making, but could also remove the need for humans in some processes. Some businesses will see this as a means of delivering greater efficiency, but will have to balance between the active human workforce and the cold efficiency of machines that can learn.

7. By 2024, at least 10% of activities potentially injurious to human life will require mandatory use of a non-overideable “smart system”

Near term flag: Economically priced cars with “automated assist” technology added as standard equipment will increase through 2014.

The increasing roll out of “smart systems” capable of automatically responding to external events is increasing all the time, but there remains a deep-seated resistance to eliminating the option for human intervention. The capability, reliability and availability of appropriate technology are not the issue. The real issue is the willingness of people to accept both it and increasing removal of manual override options.

8. By 2020, a majority of knowledge worker career paths will be disrupted by smart machines in both positive and negative ways

Near term flag: Virtual personal assistant usage in business grows more quickly in 2017 and 2018 than iPad usage did in 2010 and 2011.

Gartner reckons that smart machines will upend a majority of knowledge workers’ career paths by 2020. Smart machines exploit machine learning and deep-learning algorithms. They behave autonomously, adapting to their environment. They learn from results, create their own rules and seek or request additional data to test hypotheses. They are able to detect novel situations, often far more quickly and accurately than people. Anyone who’s a part of the knowledge economy needs to recognise that smart machines can create substantial competitive advantages, as well as entirely new businesses.

9. By 2017, 10% of computers will be learning rather than processing

Near term flag: In 2014, the number of speech recognition applications running on deep neural network algorithms will double.

Deep learning methods, based on deep neural networks, are currently being applied in speech recognition systems as well as some object recognition applications. Quality of life improves when society is able to derive useful information from the copious amounts of unstructured data collecting in the internet. The most important implication of a learning computer is that it expands much less energy to recognise more complex patterns.

Internet of Things

The Internet of Things cements the connection between machines, people and business interactions in the modern era.

With the advent of massively connected devices, businesses, governments and people now have access to more information about themselves and their surroundings than they can actually act on.

Gartner reckons there’s serious opportunity to build applications and services that can use that information to create new engagement models for customers, employees and partners, and to foster a new set of business and marketing models that give the word “engagement” real value.

10. By 2020, consumer data collected from wearable devices will drive five percent of sales from the Global 1000

Near term flag: The number of smartphone apps requesting to share consumer data will increase twofold by 2015, indicating a rise in the number of people looking to get their hands on customer profile data.

Wearable computing, or wearables, is quickly moving into mainstream society, led by the growing, multi-billion dollar health and fitness markets (think about the Nike+ Fuelband and the Jawbone Up). Within five years, says Gartner, consumer wearables will become more sophisticated, capturing what the user sees, hears or even feels through biorhythmic responses. The technical hurdles that have stalled the adoption of wearables (battery life, augmented reality, chip evolution and bandwidth) are quickly eroding; opening doors to creative minds determined to exploit this technology for commercial gain as evidenced by sizable investments in wearable technology from Samsung, Google, Apple and Microsoft.

Author | Nur Bremmen: Staff reporter

Nur Bremmen: Staff reporter
Nur is an enigma with a passion for creating words. He recently entered a love affair with technology and chorizo sausages. He travels a lot -- you catch him, if you can, at a Silicon Cape event every now and again. More