As the old saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
I find this saying to be particularly true when it comes to technology. Even though it’s become more complex, the underlying themes that drive technical innovation have surprisingly remained constant throughout history. We want better stuff faster and at a lower cost. Also, we want to get the most out of what we have already.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some important new developments on the horizon in 2020; There are. But for the most part, they’ll be evolutionary rather than revolutionary and no matter what, they’ll be part of a bigger picture that was started centuries ago.
Here are my five technology predictions for 2020.
1. Robotics will continue to improve
Can you remember the last time you rode an elevator run by a human? Or how about when you made a phone call with the assistance of a telephone operator? Neither can I. The fact is that machines have replaced human labor since before sail and steam replaced oarsman as the primary power source for maritime transportation.
History has shown if mechanical power can replace human activity, it will. Businesses like machines. Machines behave predictably; they don’t complain, and they don’t need to be accommodated by the likes of an HR department. Given the opportunity, a business will choose a machine over a human every time. Robotic labor won’t diminish. In fact, I think we’ll see a proliferation of it throughout every aspect of life.
Most improvements in robotics will be on the factory floor. Factories tend to be highly controlled environments, which makes it easier for autonomous robots to maneuver. Self-driving equipment is now commonplace on farms and mining sites. But in no time at all, robots with ever-improving manual dexterity will move beyond the factory, field and mine to make their way onto the highways and skies of the world.
My first technology prediction for 2020 is that we’ll see autonomous vehicles start to operate in public environments where traffic patterns are predictable and population levels are small. This year we’ll see the start of autonomous big-rigs driving through the highways of Montana, Idaho North Dakota, the Gobi Desert and the Russian Steppes. We’ll also see the introduction of autonomous aircraft to move freight in sparsely populated areas.
Of course, as the robots get more powerful, the scope of their activity will broaden, which leads to my next prediction.
2. AI will continue to get smarter
Five years ago, my Gmail client pointed out my spelling mistakes. Then a few years later it started to correct my grammar. Last year it made suggestions about how to respond to incoming emails and reminded me when I had unanswered ones that needed a reply.
For all I know, this could be the year where I’m taken out of the mix completely and the client just sends out emails on behalf. Why not? It’s observed every email I’ve ever written and because it’s wired into the Google mothership, my emails get analyzed along with the billions of other ones on all the Gmail clients all over the planet. It’s like the Borg collective on Star Trek; one big mind that knows everything about everything.
More, not less data will be fed into the collective mind of artificial intelligence. More data translates into more pattern identification, which in turn translates into more intelligence that gets smarter faster.
Society already allows AI to control a good deal of trading activity in the financial markets, not to mention inventory fulfillment in the supply chain. Where it will get interesting is in the broader scope of predictive behavior in retail commerce. In other words, 2020 might be the year the Amazon introduces the automatic shopper. It will be a service that delivers stuff to you when you need it based on your usage history. You won’t order it; you’ll just get it.
Not only will you get the goods you’ve previously ordered, but the service will figure out the new items you want and can afford. It might be a new type of toothpaste, a new car or even a new product designed just for you. The odds are you’ll want it, but if you don’t, you can always return it free of charge, of course.
3. Customers in emerging markets will demand more
The biggest reason for CI/CD, microservices architecture, no-code programming and all the other newfangled technologies is to get software into the hands of customers faster. If companies could deliver new software on a second-by-second basis with messenger pigeons, they would. But, they can’t. Instead, we get Docker, Kubernetes, Jenkins, AWS, Azure, Google Cloud and all the other stuff that speeds up code deployment and reduces cost. It’s not a matter of technology. It’s a matter of making money.
More demand means more money. It’s that simple.
My next technology prediction for 2020 is that it will be the year where we see significant growth from emerging markets in Asia and Africa. As poverty rates in these areas continue to fall, so too will the cost of technology. As more people move beyond the activities of non-industrial sustenance living, it means more participants will enter the modern workforce. The result will be more people and more things will want more code, either directly or indirectly.
Customer demand won’t diminish in 2020 either. However, there is a good chance that as demands accelerate, there will be more research conducted about the consequences of consumption-based economies. Other economic models focused on sustainability will come to the forefront of serious consideration.
4. The enterprise will still struggle with legacy issues
Even as we enter 2020, 80% of the world’s corporate data lives on a mainframe. Ninety-six of the world’s top 100 banks, 23 of the top 25 US retailers and nine of the world’s 10 largest insurance companies use mainframe technology. There’s a lot of old code out there that provides value. Companies understand this fact. They also understand that this old code needs to be maintained. The problem is that the people that know how to maintain the software are literally dying off. This expertise needs to be replenished.
Another technology prediction for 2020 is that it’ll be the year where we see a dramatic increase in the demand for “old school” programmers. There’s good money to be made coding in COBOL, C, PL/1 and even FORTRAN. It might not be the most exciting code in the world, but it could be quite lucrative for programmers with this knowledge. If I were a high school or college student looking for a way to make some good money on the side, I’d take the time to learn mainframe programming. Why flip burgers when you can sling old-school code for well above the average wage?
5. Online delivery within the day, if not the hour, will become the norm
Companies such as Grubhub can get an evening meal delivered to you within an hour. Amazon delivers twice a day, if not more. Everything lines up for ubiquitous, continuous, on-demand delivery. As fulfillment centers become more plentiful, integrated and disbursed, 2020 might very well be the year when delivery within the hour for all goods bought online becomes a practical reality.
My final analysis
Technology doesn’t stagnate. Even in the darkest depths of the Middle Ages, it moved forward — a bit slower perhaps — but it did move forward. These days, as the planet continues to unify, I expect to see the rate of technological innovation increase, not only along the lines of my predictions, but maybe also in unimagined, dramatic ways. After all, quantum computing is now offered as a commodity service by the major cloud providers.
And yet, we’ll still be a species that travels through the universe on a spaceship called Earth for destinations unknown. Let’s hope that we figure things out for the better and make the journey safer for all our fellow travelers.
Happy New Year to one and all. These were my technology predictions for 2020. What are yours?