Future Today Institute’s Tech Trends Report reveals developments in synthetic biology, deepfakes, quantum computing, ambient computing and shifting tech policy in 2020

FTI forecasts 406 trends, including synthetic biology and synthetic media, augmented hearing and sight, a new digital trust economy, smart home emissions and an expanded role for artificial intelligence.

This year, we will reach a tipping point for a number of technologies and trends that will shape the world of tomorrow. According to new research from the Future Today Institute, a sample of them include: A.I. systems that can be trained in hours rather than weeks, bioengineered animals, plant-based proteins and indoor robot-powered farms, functional 5G networks, exascale computing, and off-planet human civilization. In the 13th edition of its Emerging Tech Trends Report, the Future Today Institute forecasts the key technology trends that will redefine businesses in the coming years.

It is plausible that edited humans will be born in 2020, and as new genetic engineering trials on sperm and on human embryos get underway, we don’t yet have global norms and ethics standards on the clinical use of germline editing. This opens up the field to regulation on a country-by-country basis, which will give some companies and researchers a strategic advantage over others.

The first commercial spacecraft will take humans into space for fun rather than research, opening a massive business opportunity for insurers, space companies and the hundreds of providers within the space ecosystem that make all the needed peripherals and components. We’ll also see the launch of galactic ride sharing companies, which will transport a variety of payload into orbit: tiny satellites, art installations and even cremated remains. What we don’t yet know: how investors will react once the first accidents occur involving all that precious cargo.

Recognition systems, whether they use our voices, faces or fingerprints, are wildly popular for good reason. Persistent recognition allows companies and law enforcement to mine us for information, and to identify, nudge, reward, or punish us.  This year, they will gain new superpowers to identify not only who we are, but what we are at any time: our emotional state, whether we’re ill, and how we’re likely to behave. But these systems are riddled with bias, and this year they will face regulatory scrutiny. Should we have the rights to keep our emotional state private in our own homes? Is there a way to use this data ethically? If so, what new business models will be needed for our recognition economy?

These and other questions are addressed in this year’s report, which is the largest and most robust edition ever with 406 trends across 31 industry sectors, up 28.8% from 2019. The reason for the increase stems from increased investments, research breakthroughs, climate change, and big tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon moving aggressively into outside areas like medicine, healthcare and agriculture. Additional factors included the Covid-19 coronavirus, disruptions to the global supply chain, political and policy uncertainty, China’s continued rise and an 18-month launch window for off-planet exploration.

“Uncertainty is a key theme for 2020,” said Amy Webb, the Future Today Institute’s founder and chief executive officer. “Covid-19, a true black swan event, is a reminder that there is no way to future-proof any organization. We must shift our mindset from making predictions to being prepared. The best way to prepare for the future is to track emerging tech trends within and adjacent to your industry. We research as broadly as possible because we have reached a critical inflection point. Advancements in one technology, such as A.I., now cause advancements in other areas: self-driving cars, cancer research, investment funds, climate models, facial recognition and space exploration. Every organization must broaden its strategic thinking and adjust planning, operations and business models accordingly. Failing to monitor trends will put your organization’s competitive advantage, growth and survivability at risk.”

Key Findings

We have entered the “Synthetic Decade.”
From digital twins to engineered DNA to plant-based pork sausages, a deep push to develop synthetic versions of life is already underway. We will look back on the 2020s as an era that brought us synthetic media, such as A.I.-generated characters whose storylines we follow on social media and humanlike virtual assistants who make our appointments and screen our calls. Soon, we will produce “designer” molecules in a range of host cells on demand and at scale, which will lead to transformational improvements in vaccine production, tissue production and medical treatments. Scientists will start to build entire human chromosomes, and they will design programmable proteins. Foods made from synthetic techniques rather than artificial ingredients will make their way to the mainstream, and you’ll have a wide array of choices: humanely engineered foie gras, flora-derived ice cream and molecular whiskey made in a lab. Every industry will be impacted as our synthetic decade brings new business opportunities and strategic risks. Companies will need to ask challenging ethical questions and examine the security risks for synthetic material in order to earn public acceptance, government approvals and commercial appeal.

Our homes are producing digital emissions.

The average person isn’t aware of how much data they’re shedding. Collectively, our homes are starting to produce digital emissions, which includes all the data not actively used and processed by devices. Bits of information in that network include things like your body temperature as you watch TV, the ambient hums and creaks that your home makes at night, and the communication pings your devices make. Digital emissions aren’t harmful to the environment, but they’re an untapped resource to be mined and analyzed—with transparency and permissions, of course.  

Everyone alive today is being scored.
In order for our automated systems to work, they need both our data and a framework for making decisions. We’re shedding data just by virtue of being alive. From our social media posts, to our unique biology (posture, bone and capillary structures, vocal pitch and cadence), to our credit card debt, to our travel habits, thousands of data points are analyzed to score us. Automated systems use our scores to make decisions for or about us, whether it’s what price to show us on e-commerce sites or if we might pose a security risk at a football game. We anticipate that in the coming year, regulators will take a deeper interest in scoring.

A.I.-as-a-Service and Data-as-a-Service will reshape business.
The future of digital transformation is rooted in two key areas: A.I.-as-a-Service and Data-as-a-Service. Microsoft, IBM, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are all developing new services and tools ranging from robotic process automation to offering GPUs (graphics processing unit) in the cloud. In 2020 we will see the launches of low-code/no-code platforms built to enable anyone to create business applications using their company data.

Soon every company will have access to robots.
Cloud robotics and automation is a field in which physical robots share data and code and perform computations remotely via networks, rather than within their containers alone. Soon, businesses will be able to take advantage of cloud-based robotics for a variety of uses, including strategic warehouse selection in anticipation of seasonal retail spikes, security in large buildings, and factory automation. It could also be a catalyst for shifting manufacturing away from countries where human labor costs are cheap.

Big tech has its sights set on farming.

You read that right. Some of the world’s biggest tech companies—Amazon, Microsoft, Walmart—are getting into agriculture.  (We think of Walmart as a tech company as wall as a retailer.) Microsoft launched a multi-year plan to modernize agriculture with data analytics, and is piloting a program already on two U.S. farms in which Microsoft has invested. Walmart is opening its own meatpacking plants and dairy processing facilities in an effort to drive down costs. Meanwhile Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has invested in vertical farming.

A new Mil-Tech Industrial Complex is forming.
Our future wars will be fought in code, using data and algorithms as powerful weapons. The current global order is being shaped by artificial intelligence, and the same countries leading the world in A.I. research – the U.S., China, Israel, France, Russia, the U.K., and South Korea – are also developing weapons systems that include at least some autonomous functionality.  Some of the biggest A.I. companies in the U.S. started partnering with the military to advance research, find efficiencies and develop new technological systems that can be deployed under a variety of circumstances.

China has already created a new technological world order. 
The growth of China’s economy might be slowing, but it would be a mistake to assume that the People’s Republic of China has lost its influence. In the past two decades, China overtook the U.S. as the world’s dominant exporter on every continent with the exception of North America. Its imports matter, too: This year China should surpass the U.S. and become the world’s largest movie market, with a projected $10 billion in revenue. China has a rapidly-expanding middle class, an educated and trained workforce and a government that executes on long-term plans. China will continue to assert prolific dominance in 2020 across multiple areas: diplomacy throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin and South America and Europe; the development of critical digital infrastructure; artificial intelligence; data collection and scoring; bioengineering and space. 

It’s going to be a big year for off-planet exploration.
This is an important year for space initiatives. Some of the planned missions involve humans, others are for robots only, and a handful will bring earthly agriculture into space. We’re tracking trends in microsatellite launches, internet from space, space-based quantum internets, space junk and a new “made in space” initiative. Some estimates value the space industry at $330 billion, and that could double by 2026.

Our new trust economy is being formed. 
We will soon see a host of new tools built to engender and ensure—but also manipulate—our trust. In the wake of deepfake videos and other manipulated con- tent, a new ecosystem devoted to trust is in the process of being formed. There’s a lot at stake: After hearing an A.I. fake his CEO’s voice on the phone, a gullible employee transferred $243,000 to a scammer. In the coming year, sentinel surveillance systems will algorithmically detect manipulated content—for a fee. Meanwhile, governments and interest groups around the world will try to shape the future development of A.I. and blockchain technology, proposing legislation and “bill of rights” manifestos. 

For 15 years, the Future Today Institute’s annual report has offered a broad, data-driven outlook on the emerging technology trends that hold the most risk and opportunity for business, government and society. A trusted resource with more than 8 million views, FTI’s annual report is used by executive leaders, strategy officers, R&D labs and government agencies to guide their strategic planning throughout the year. It is also used extensively by screenwriters and producers, who gain inspiration and insights from FTI’s scenarios and trend forecasts. For more information on this year’s report, visitwww.futuretodayinstitute.com/trends and follow our conversation on social media with #TechTrends2020.

Lead Authors

Amy Webb is a quantitative futurist. She is the founder and chief executive of the Future Today Institute, a leading foresight and strategy firm that helps leaders and their organizations prepare for complex futures. Webb is a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business, a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University’s Säid School of Business, a Fellow in the United States-Japan Leadership Program and a Foresight Fellow in the U.S. Government Accountability Office Center for Strategic Foresight. She was a Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where her research received a national Sigma Delta Chi award. She was also a Delegate on the former U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, where she worked on the future of technology, media and international diplomacy. Webb was named to the Thinkers50 Radar list of the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future of how organizations are managed and led and won the 2017 Thinkers50 Radar Award. Webb has advised three-star generals and admirals, White House leadership and CEOs of some of the world’s largest and most admired companies on their futures. She is the bestselling author of The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, which explains how to forecast emerging technology. It was a Washington Post Bestseller, won the Gold Axiom Medal for business books, and was selected as one of the best books the year by Fast Company, Inc. Magazine andAmazon. Her new book about the future of artificial intelligence, The Big Nine: How The Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, was longlisted for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award and won the Gold Axiom Medal for books about business and technology. She was to be a Featured Speaker at SxSW this month.

Marc Palatucci is a futurist and senior associate at the Future Today Institute. He holds an MBA in Emerging Technology from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a BA in Linguistics and Languages from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. He is a published writer and serves as editor-at-large for an arts, fashion and culture magazine and creative media agency. Marc is based in the Future Today Institute’s New York office.