With so much uncertainty all around, the Future Today Institute answers: What are the most important emerging tech trends that are likely to impact your organization this year?

Everyone is feeling anxious. In the wake of the global Covid-19 outbreak we are suddenly dealing with a crushing amount of uncertainty. It might feel like there is no point in planning. Organizations, like people, have limbic systems. Organizational anxiety can spread fast and cause leaders and teams to make poor decisions. Without concrete answers to questions about the future, anxiety grows. It’s a vicious, terrible cycle.

Your goal right now isn’t predictions. It’s preparation for what comes next. We must shift our mindset from making predictions to being prepared.

Trends are waypoints to help anticipate future states in a world where uncertainty looms. Use them to examine your assumptions, cherished beliefs and expectations for the future using a bolder, more holistic perspective. This year it will be harder to do that, but it’s essential as we deal with the new realities of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the 13th edition of our Future Today Institute Tech Trends Report, we forecast the key technology trends that are likely to redefine businesses in the coming years. More importantly, we offer strategic analysis and guidance on longitudinal tech trends and further explore them in future scenarios to help you understand their implications on your organization and industry.

This is our 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.

We invite you to use, share and build upon the material in our 13th annual Future Today Institute Tech Trends Report. We are making it freely available to the public. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Highlights and 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. Amazon’s upcoming project, AWS For Everyone­ — a low-code/no-code platform built to enable anyone to create business applications using their company data — will be a huge differentiator when it launches.

You — and your customers — will have augmented hearing and sight.
While you shouldn’t expect to see everyone wearing smart glasses by this time next year, you will certainly start to notice some important developments throughout 2020, beginning with audio augmented reality (or AAR). Think of it as augmented reality for audio. Smart earbuds and glasses will digitally overlay audio (like directions, notifications, and verbal descriptions of what — or who — you’re looking at) without others hearing and while you continue to hear what’s going on around you. Not only will AAR help runners stay safe, it offers a sophisticated alternative to traditional hearing aids. Smart glasses won’t look like the minimalistic Google Glass headband, but rather a stylish pair of frames you’d find at your local optometrist’s office. Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook all have connected systems on their product roadmaps. The connected glasses and AAR ecosystem offer tremendous new business opportunities — and could signal disruption to longtime market leaders in frames, prescription lenses, hearing aids and headphones.

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.

China has created a new world order.
The growth of China’s economy might be slowing, but it would be a mistake to assume that the PRC 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.

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.

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 content, 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.

Covid-19 will have significant and pervasive ripple effects impacting every industry, every business, every government, and every person.
The pandemic has already shifted data, privacy and healthcare policy in the U.S. It’s leading to increased investment in bioscience and biotech. It’s pressuring our current healthcare systems, while leading to new demands for home diagnostic testing tools. Do not be tempted to throw up your hands, say there’s too much disruption happening and put off strategic planning. Now is precisely the time to think about short and long-term implications of trends on your industry.

2020 Report: By The Numbers

  • 406 strategic tech trends, which is up 28.8% from last year. A broad view of tech trends is the best way to see around corners and spot emerging disruption. This is our most expansive and robust report yet, and if you look for connections between your industry and trends in other fields, it will guide your strategic thinking throughout the year.
  • 31 trend sections. We’re covering several new areas like synthetic media, vices, algorithmic scoring, supply chain and logistics, synthetic biology, quantum and edge computing, big tech’s move into healthcare and medicine, in addition to all the usual trend areas like AI, blockchain, home automation, AgTech and the global supply of food, geopolitics, climate change, robotics, space, cryptocurrencies, autonomous vehicles, AR/ VR/ MR and more.
  • 27 future scenarios on a wide array of topics.
  • 11 strategic guidance mini-reports for senior decision-makers.
  • 6 strategic foresight toolkits and frameworks to use with our trend analysis.
  • 9 tech and science primers to help you get smart fast.
  • A calendar for 2020 to help you plan your strategy.
  • Expert interviews on the future of connected glasses and the future of sextech.
  • A list of weak signals for the next decade.

One More Thing…

As you’ve heard, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the South by Southwest festival this year. For those of you who usually attend SXSW, you know that Amy Webb launches FTI’s annual report on the main stage. She and our FTI colleagues spend the rest of the day answering every question attendees have, no matter how small, technical or arcane. We have been active members in the SXSW community for more than a decade, and we want to do everything we can to help our friends and colleagues get through this crisis. In order to give back to the SXSW community, we are hosting free virtual roundtables, which will include a deep dive into tech trends for a particular industry followed by an Ask Me Anything Q&A session. We’re also partnering with Subtext this year to provide you with a SXSW-like experience. You can text message Amy Webb your questions, chat about our research, get more detail on our trends and explore our scenarios, and Amy will message you back directly. This is a completely free service, and we will keep it active for a few weeks. We fully support SXSW and are grateful for their incredible passion, hard work and dedication. Our hearts go out to SXSW festival staff and the city of Austin. We look forward to joining all of our friends in Austin next year!

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, visit www.futuretodayinstitute.com/trends and follow our conversation on social media with #TechTrends2020.

Quantitative Futurist. 未来学者. Trends+strategy @FTI. Author THE BIG NINE + SIGNALS ARE TALKING. Prof @NYUStern. Cofndr @SparkCamp. Fellow @OxfordSBS @ACGeoTech