2020 VISION

Vision 2020: Opportunities on tech front, but also a bumpy ride

Trade tensions are set to linger but there are glimmers of hope. Trust within societies is fraying and identity politics surging, but not without a challenge. Technology is making a difference to many, and climate change is getting closer attention. Insight explores these issues and how they might play out this year.

By the end of 2019, the tech world had learnt two things.

First, be prepared for a bumpy ride when standing on the shoulders of two warring giants.

Second, those who hold the keys to unlock the possibilities of bleeding-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G hold the keys to the future and progress.

These lessons, which are also closely intertwined, will set the tone for 2020 and beyond.

AI and 5G technologies were in the spotlight when trade tensions between China and the United States escalated last year.

They will remain as bargaining chips as the dispute continues into 2020 - a momentary truce notwithstanding.

It's not hard to understand why AI and 5G were singled out - although on paper the concerns were of cyber espionage and human rights. AI and 5G are expected to stage the next industrial revolution which will welcome new realities like self-driving cars, remote surgery and smart cities complete with smart power grids, e-surveillance and payments by facial scans. Nations with the keys to these technologies hold the keys to the future.

As expected, top Chinese tech firms including facial recognition specialists SenseTime and Yitu, video surveillance tool maker Hikvision and 5G mobile equipment maker Huawei have been blocked from trading with the US in what some experts believe will momentarily slow down China's technological progress.

The tech sanctions created their first casualty: the Huawei Mate 30 smartphone launched globally late last year. It came without Google apps and services, but instead runs on Huawei's in-house developed operating system.

 
 
 

The tech bans are not expected to be lifted any time soon, and any talks on lifting them are as flimsy as the truce and the soon-to-be-signed trade deals. The stalemate will predictably continue into this year, creating an uncertainty that may be a drag on progress.

Nations may have to deal with a situation in which systems developed by US companies may not work with those created by Chinese firms - if the trade war leads to separate and incompatible technologies being developed.

A splintered tech world is not totally unfamiliar to most people. China has already created an alternate universe for apps and services behind its great firewall, designed to keep out foreign firms' influence on domestic tech consumption.

For instance, Baidu is the equivalent of Google for online search activities in China, while Weibo rivals micro-blogging platform Twitter. The Chinese have also created Renren, which is similar to Facebook.

If the events of 2019 taught China anything, it is to be self-reliant. As if heralding a future for an alternate hardware universe with its own supply chain, Huawei has been ramping up production of 5G chips with integrated modems to wean itself off foreign third parties like Intel, Qualcomm, Xilinx and Broadcom.

In other words, expect another bumpy year in 2020. If the world ends up with two hardware and software ecosystems, connectivity and how business is transacted around the world could be affected.

But exciting times also lie ahead. Millions of dollars are being committed by governments in countries such as Canada, China, France, Israel, Germany, South Korea, Japan and Singapore to invest in AI research and talent.

What is to be expected are breakthroughs in fields like medicine, for instance, to interpret computed tomography scans or smartphone images to accurately predict one's likelihood of having lung cancer or eye diseases. Early detection allows for early intervention. Plus, AI allows for greater efficiency as analysis can be done at scale.

 
 

Just as Amazon, Airbnb and Uber disrupted the retail, hospitality and ride-hailing industries, respectively, it is hoped that medical AI will do the same for the healthcare sector by bringing down operational costs and widening its reach.

Millions of dollars will also be poured into 5G network rollouts to allow ultra-fast, no-lag connectivity to be more widespread. This year, large-scale 5G commercial launches can be expected in South Korea, Japan, China, the United States and Europe. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics will showcase new uses of 5G, with live broadcasts featuring 360-degree ultra-high definition footage of athletes' moves.

With so much connectivity and smartness in cities and devices strapped to consumers, efforts to better address privacy, ethics and cyber security become more pressing. Issues of freedom and dignity will rise to the fore as AI robots increasingly assume the role of social companions and caregivers for a growing elderly population.

Another question that begs an answer is: Will granny's robot companion inspire more family conversation or allow her kin to conveniently turn away from the demanding work of caring for her?

It is noteworthy that just a decade ago, technology was mostly relegated to a back-room function. The disruptive force of technology is more keenly felt today than ever before. There is no turning back.