From the reality of 5G to the utopia of autonomous cars: digital forecasts for the year that has just begun
What can we expect from technology 2020
The decade that is about to end will probably be remembered as one of the most important ever from a technological point of view. Although there have been no revolutionary achievements (like landing on the moon or the birth of the internet), the speed with which digital innovations have followed and the impact they have had on society has been truly impressive.
Among innovations born in the Ten years and others that only really spread in this decade, the list is endless: deep learning, cloud, smart speakers, virtual reality and augmented reality viewers (in addition to smartwatches and tablets) are an example of fundamental technologies born from this decade. Social networks, smartphones, music and movie streaming platforms, blockchains & cryptocurrencies, platforms for the sharing economy and who knows how many others are instead examples of digital innovations born a few years earlier, but which are in the decade that is about to close have spread.
To understand how much 2010, in our accelerated era, seems prehistoric, few data are enough: Facebook had 500 million users and Instagram didn’t even exist; Netflix was only available in the United States and its revenue was still primarily based on mailing DVDs; Spotify was instead a curious novelty that nobody used. Overall, only 7% of the global population owned a smartphone. Another era.
At the dawn of the 1920s, the feeling is of being faced with a passing of the baton: some technologies are about to be replaced, other highly anticipated ones risk ending up in nothing and at least a couple of other great ten-year cycles are about to open. Here’s what to expect from technology in the year that is about to begin.
The advent of smart glasses
If we had to choose a technological icon of the Ten years we would have no doubts: the smartphone. And it is therefore highly symbolic that at the beginning of the new decade we are witnessing the first steps of technology that will replace the most important device of our era: augmented reality viewers, which will definitively incorporate the digital world into the physical one.
The two environments will no longer be separated, as still happens today, but will merge into each other thanks to augmented reality. The directions of Google Maps will be projected directly onto the road, observing a monument will bring up the information relating to it, notifications from social networks or emails will appear in a corner of our view. In a nutshell, the gradual process that is leading our existence to be, as Luciano Floridi would say, life will come to fruition.
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Obviously, all this will not happen in 2020 alone, but it is precisely this year that we will see new important steps: the most ambitious viewer, the Magic Leap One, has just been officially marketed, Snapchat has ready the new Spectacles, Amazon sells its Echo Frames with integrated Alexa, Apple prepares its great landing in 2023. Each giant is following a different path: by those who prefer to focus on bulky viewers but already equipped with most of the features (such as Magic Leap or Microsoft’s Hololens) and those who wear glasses that are as normal as possible and therefore still limited in functionality (Spectacles and Echo Frames).
One thing is certain: smart glasses are the new frontier of commercial technology. And 2020 will be the year in which we will see great steps forward.
And the autonomous cars, instead?
If you go and look for articles written around 2015 by specialized newspapers around the world, you will always find the same forecast: by 2020 autonomous cars will become reality and we will be running around the cities free from the burden of driving. Well, 2020 has arrived but self-driving cars have run aground: of course, the technology exists as well as vehicles that are tested on the road by companies in the sector, but progress seems to have stopped and now nobody really expects this innovation to enter on the market in the coming years.
It is a story that teaches us two things: the first is that we should not give too much credit to technological forecasts (uh …), the second is that professionals have (understandably) overestimated the progress of artificial intelligence that drives these vehicles. A few years ago, deep learning was proceeding at unthinkable speeds: every week there was a new sensational discovery and it seemed that the quality of machine learning only improved at increasing speeds.
Consequently, it was reasonable to expect that Ai would relatively quickly include not only the basics of driving (recognizing pedestrians on the strips, following directions, keeping a safe distance, etc.) but also more complex aspects: dodging pedestrians crossing everywhere, bypassing cars in double rows, living with mopeds speeding through the alleys, with bicycles in the wrong direction and so on.
The challenge that we humans face every day with a good degree of success has proved excessive for artificial intelligence: the variables that arise are simply too numerous for a system that, at its base, exploits statistics and, unlike the man, he is unable to generalize and use common sense. So, do we have to forget about autonomous cars? It is not said, but the times could be much, much longer. In the meantime, we can be satisfied with more and more sophisticated driving assistants, able to maintain the lane, brake in the face of unexpected obstacles, wake up if we have a sleep and much more. And maybe, soon, we will be able to give up the steering wheel at least in the most controlled environments, such as for example on larger motorways. It will not be what we were promised, but it is not trivial either.
The era of quantum supremacy
Towards the end of 2019, we officially entered the era of quantum supremacy. Put like this, it seems the title of the fifteenth film of the Terminator saga, but instead, it represents a goal that scientists and computer engineers have long wanted. A milestone that was finally reached in September of this year, when the quantum computer called Sycamore – which arose from a collaboration between Google and NASA – exploited its 53 qubits to solve in just over three minutes a problem that a supercomputer traditional would have taken 10,000 years to complete.
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This is precisely the definition of quantum supremacy: the moment in which it is shown that a computer system based on quantum physics is able to do what for traditional computers – no matter how powerful – would be impossible or would take an unreasonable time. As we understand, quantum supremacy does not represent the conclusive stage of the long journey towards quantum computers, but rather it’s beginning.
The challenges that computer scientists face are still many: even the smallest vibration or the slightest change in temperature can ruin the work of quantum computers, which in fact are kept sheltered and isolated from the rest of the world inside impenetrable cabins, in constantly chilled places at very low temperatures. For this and many other reasons, the risk of quantum computers giving incorrect results is extremely high. “Imagine asking a computer to do a calculation and get once in a thousand completely random responses,” reads the MIT Tech Review. “Since a program may have to perform millions or billions of calculations, a quantum processor like the ones we have available today would have no hope of solving any useful problems.”
It will still take time for quantum computers to become truly useful, but the year to come will be a fundamental stage in one of the most important paths that the computer world has in front of it.
5G becomes reality
Tradition wants a new generation of mobile data transmission to appear every 10 years: from the Tacs that in the 1980s made cell phone calls possible up to 4G which in 2010 also brought broadband to smartphones. And now it’s the turn of 5G, which promises to be an evolutionary leap for our digital age.
The most publicized aspect is related to speed (which will also reach 1 gigabit per user), but the most important feature is another: latency (i.e. the time it takes two devices to connect), which will drop from the current 30 / 40 milliseconds to just 2 milliseconds. Thanks to this very short interval, the connected devices will be able to communicate in real-time, definitively exploring the potential of the internet of things: from remote medicine (through which surgeons can also operate thousands of kilometers away) to smart cities ( in which the sensors, to give just two examples, will allow traffic lights to adapt to traffic and signs to communicate with cars), up to precision agriculture (swarms of drones that intervene autonomously and only in areas where there is need).
5G, especially in China, is already a reality today, but it will be in 2020 that we will discover all its power. And if it will be able to maintain the highest expectations.