AI, 5G, 'ambient computing': What to expect in tech in 2020 and beyond

Originally posted by Edward C. Baig in USA Today

'Tis the end of the year when pundits typically dust off the crystal ball and take a stab at what tech, and its impact on consumers, will look like over the next 12 months.

But we're also on the doorstep of a brand-new decade, which this time around promises further advances in 5G networks, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, self-driving vehicles and more, all of which will dramatically alter the way we live, work and play. 

So what tech advances can we look forward to in the new year? Here’s what we can expect to see in 2020 – and in some cases beyond.

Image of cell tower with 5G next to it

5G takes hold

The next generation of wireless has showed up on lists like this for years now. But in 2020, 5G really will finally begin to make its mark in the U.S., with all four major national carriers – three if the T-Mobile-Sprint merger finally goes through – continuing to build out their 5G networks across the country. 

We’ve been hearing about the promise of 5G on the global stage for what seems like forever, and the carriers recently launched in select markets. Still, the rollout in most places will continue to take time, as will the payoff: blistering fast wireless speeds and network responsiveness on our phones, improved self-driving cars and augmented reality, remote surgery, and entire smart cities.

As 2019 winds down, only a few phones can exploit the latest networks, not to mention all the remaining holes in 5G coverage. But you’ll see a whole lot more 5G phone introductions in the new year, including what many of us expect will be a 5G iPhone come September. 

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When those holes are filled, roughly two-thirds of consumers said they’d be more willing to buy a 5G-capable smartphone, according to a mobile trends survey by Deloitte.

But Deloitte executive Kevin Westcott also said that telcos will need to manage consumer expectations about what 5G can deliver and determine what the “killer apps” for 5G will be.

The Deloitte survey also found that a combination of economic barriers (pricing, affordability) and a sense that current phones are good enough, will continue to slow the smartphone refresh cycle.

Devices start to disappear

Are you ready for all the tech around you to disappear? No, not right away. The trend toward so-called “ambient computing” is not going to happen overnight, nor is anyone suggesting that screens and keyboards are going to go away entirely, or that you’ll stop reaching for a smartphone. But as more tiny sensors are built into walls, TVs, household appliances, fixtures, what you're wearing, and eventually even your own body, you’ll be able to gesture or speak to a concealed assistant to get things done.

Steve Koenig, vice president of research at the Consumer Technology Association, likens ambient computing to “Star Trek” and suggests that at some point we won't need to place Amazon Echo Dots or other smart speakers in every room of house, since we’ll just speak out loud to whatever, wherever.

Self-driving what?

Self-driving cars have been getting most the attention. But it’s not just cars that are going autonomous – try planes and boats.

Cirrus Aircraft, for example, is in the final stages of getting Federal Aviation Administration approval for a self-landing system for one of its private jets, and the tech, which I recently got to test, has real potential to save lives.

How so? If the pilot becomes incapacitated, a passenger can press a single button on the roof of the main cabin. At that moment, the plane starts acting as if the pilot were still doing things. It factors in real-time weather, wind, the terrain, how much fuel remains, all the nearby airports where an emergency landing is possible, including the lengths of all runways, and automatically broadcasts its whereabouts to air traffic control. From there the system safely lands the plane.

Or consider the 2020 version of the Mayflower, not a Pilgrim ship, but rather a marine research vessel from IBM and a marine exploration non-profit known as Promare. The plan is to have the unmanned ship cross the Atlantic in September from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts. The ship will be powered by a hybrid propulsion system, utilizing wind, solar, state-of-the-art batteries, and a diesel generator. It plans to follow the 3,220-mile route the original Mayflower took 400 years ago.

Esports betting

Two of America’s biggest passions come together. esports is one of the fastest growing spectator sports around the world, and the Supreme Court cleared a path last year for legalized gambling across the states. The betting community is licking its chops at the prospect of exploiting this mostly untapped market. You’ll be able to bet on esports in more places, whether at a sportsbook inside a casino or through an app on your phone.  

AI and work

One of the scary prospects about artificial intelligence is that it is going to eliminate all these jobs. Research out of MIT and IBM Watson suggests that while AI will for sure impact the workplace, it won’t lead to a huge loss of jobs.

That's a somewhat optimistic take given an alternate view that AI-driven automation is going to displace workers. The research suggests that AI will increasingly help us with tasks that can be automated, but will have a less direct impact on jobs that require skills such as design expertise and industrial strategy. The onus will be on bosses and employees to start adapting to new roles and to try and expand their skills, efforts the researchers say will begin in the new year. 

Battery advances

Perhaps it’s more wishful thinking than a flat-out prediction, but as Westcott puts it, “I’m hoping what goes away are the 17 power cords in my briefcase.” Presumably a slight exaggeration.

But the thing we all want to see are batteries that don’t prematurely peter out, and more seamless charging solutions.

We’re still far off from the day where you’ll be able to get ample power to last all day on your phone or other devices just by walking into a room. But “over-the-air” wireless charging is slowly but surely progressing. This past June, for example, Seattle company Ossia received FCC certification for a first-of-its kind system to deliver over-the-air power at a distance. Devices with Ossia’s tech built-in should start appearing in the new year. 

Foldables won’t fold

The Samsung Galaxy Fold smartphone featuring a foldable OLED display.

We know how the nascent market for foldable phones unfolded in 2019 – things were kind of messy. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold was delayed for months following screen problems, and even when the phone finally did arrive, it cost nearly $2,000. But that doesn’t mean the idea behind flexible screen technologies goes away.

Samsung is still at it, and so is Lenovo-owned Motorola with its new retro Razr. The promise remains the same: let a device fold or bend in such a way that you can take a smartphone-like form factor and morph it into a small tablet or computer. The ultimate success of such efforts will boil down to at least three of the factors that are always critical in tech: cost, simplicity and utility.

The `tech-lash' will be dealt with – somehow

Data scandals and privacy breaches have placed Facebook, Google and other others under the government's crosshairs, and ordinary citizens are concerned. Expect some sort of reckoning, though it isn't obvious at this stage what that reckoning will look like.

Pew recently put out a report that says roughly 6 in 10 Americans believe it is not possible to go about their daily lives without having their data collected.

"The coming decade will be a period of lots of ferment around privacy policy and also around technology related to privacy," says Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center. He says consumers will potentially have more tools to give them a bit more control over how and what data gets shared and under what circumstances. "And there will be a lot of debate over what the policy should be."

Open question: Will there be national privacy regulations, perhaps ones modeled after the California law that is set to go into effect in the new year?

Tech battleground for the 2020s: Quantum computing

It isn’t easy to explain quantum computing or the field it harnesses, quantum mechanics. In the simplest terms, think something exponentially more powerful than what we consider conventional computing, which is expressed in 1s or 0s of bits. Quantum computing takes a quantum leap with what are known as "qubits."

And while IBM, Intel, Google, Microsoft and others are all fighting for quantum supremacy, the takeaway over the next decade is that the tech may help solve problems far faster than before, from diagnosing disease to cracking forms of encryption, raising the stakes in data security.

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What tech do you want or expect to see? Email:; Follow @edbaig on Twitter.