For most of history, technology was about atoms, the manipulation of physical stuff to extend humankind’s reach. But in the last five or six decades, atoms have partnered with bits, the elemental “particles” of the digital world as we know it today. As computing has advanced at the accelerating pace described by Moore’s Law, technological progress has become increasingly digitized.
SpaceX lands and reuses rockets and self-driving cars do away with drivers thanks to automation, sensors, and software. Businesses find and hire talent from anywhere in the world, and for better and worse, a notable fraction of the world learns and socializes online. From the sequencing of DNA to artificial intelligence and from 3D printing to robotics, more and more new technologies are moving at a digital pace and quickly emerging to reshape the world around us.
In 2019, stories charting the advances of some of these digital technologies consistently made headlines. Below is, what is at best, an incomplete list of some of the big stories that caught our eye this year. With so much happening, it’s likely we’ve missed some notable headlines and advances - as well as some of your personal favorites.
With that said, let’s dive straight into the year.
No technology garnered as much attention as AI in 2019. With good reason. Intelligent computer systems are transitioning from research labs to everyday life. Healthcare, weather forecasting, business process automation, traffic congestion - you name it, and machine learning algorithms are likely beginning to work on it. Yet, AI has also been hyped up and overmarketed, and the latest round of AI technology, deep learning, is likely only one piece of the AI puzzle.
- This year, Open AI’s game-playing algorithms beat some of the world’s best Dota 2 players, DeepMind notched impressive wins in Starcraft, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Libratus “crushed” pros at six-player Texas Hold‘em.
- Speaking of games, AI’s mastery of the incredibly complex game of Go prompted a former world champion to quit, stating that AI ‘”cannot be defeated.”
- But it isn’t just fun and games. Practical, powerful applications that make the best of AI’s pattern recognition abilities are on the way. Insilico Medicine, for example, used machine learning to help discover and design a new drug in just 46 days, and DeepMind is focused on using AI to crack protein folding.
- Of course, AI can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to deepfakes and fake news, for example, AI makes both easier to create and detect, and early in the year, OpenAI created and announced a powerful AI text generator but delayed releasing it for fear of malicious use.
- Recognizing AI’s power for good and ill, the OECD, EU, World Economic Forum, and China all took a stab at defining an ethical framework for the development and deployment of AI.
Processors and chips kickstarted the digital boom and are still the bedrock of continued growth. While progress in traditional silicon-based chips continues, it’s slowing and getting more expensive. Some say we’re reaching the end of Moore’s Law. While that may be the case for traditional chips, specialized chips and entirely new kinds of computing are waiting in the wings.
- In fall 2019, Google confirmed its quantum computer had achieved “quantum supremacy,” a term that means a quantum computer can perform a calculation a normal computer cannot. IBM pushed back on the claim, and it should be noted the calculation was highly specialized. But while it’s still early days, there does appear to be some real progress (and more to come).
- Should quantum computing become truly practical, “the implications are staggering.” It could impact machine learning, medicine, chemistry, and materials science, just to name a few areas.
- Specialized chips continue to take aim at machine learning—a giant new chip with over a trillion transistors, for example, may make machine learning algorithms significantly more efficient.
- Cellular computers also saw advances in 2019 thanks to CRISPR. And the year witnessed the emergence of the first reprogrammable DNA computer and new chips inspired by the brain.
- The development of hardware computing platforms is intrinsically linked to software. 2019 saw a continued move from big technology companies towards open sourcing (at least parts of) their software, potentially democratizing the use of advanced systems.
Increasing interconnectedness has, in many ways, defined the 21st century so far. Your phone is no longer just a phone. It’s access to the world’s population and accumulated knowledge - and it fits in your pocket. Pretty neat. This is all thanks to networks, which had some notable advances in 2019.
- The biggest network development of the year may well be the arrival of the first 5G networks.
- 5G’s faster speeds promise advances across many emerging technologies.
- Self-driving vehicles, for example, may become both smarter and safer thanks to 5G C-V2X networks. (Don’t worry with trying to remember that. If they catch on, they’ll hopefully get a better name.)
- Wi-Fi may have heard the news and said “hold my beer,” as 2019 saw the introduction of Wi-Fi 6. Perhaps the most important upgrade, among others, is that Wi-Fi 6 ensures that the ever-growing number of network connected devices get higher data rates.
- Networks also went to space in 2019, as SpaceX began launching its Starlink constellation of broadband satellites. In typical fashion, Elon Musk showed off the network’s ability to bounce data around the world by sending a Tweet.
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality
Forget Pokemon Go (unless you want to add me as a friend in the game - in which case don’t forget Pokemon Go). 2019 saw AR and VR advance, even as Magic Leap, the most hyped of the lot, struggled to live up to outsized expectations and sell headsets.
- Mixed reality AR and VR technologies, along with the explosive growth of sensor-based data about the world around us, is creating a one-to-one “Mirror World” of our physical reality - a digital world you can overlay on our own or dive into immersively thanks to AR and VR.
- Facebook launched Replica, for example, which is a photorealistic virtual twin of the real world that, among other things, will help train AIs to better navigate their physical surroundings.
- Our other senses (beyond eyes) may also become part of the Mirror World through the use of peripherals like a newly developed synthetic skin that aim to bring a sense of touch to VR.
- AR and VR equipment is also becoming cheaper - with more producers entering the space - and more user-friendly. Instead of a wired headset requiring an expensive gaming PC, the new Oculus Quest is a wireless, self-contained step toward the mainstream.
- Niche uses also continue to gain traction, from Google Glass’s Enterprise edition to the growth of AR and VR in professional education - including on-the-job-training and roleplaying emotionally difficult work encounters, like firing an employee.
Digital Biology and Biotech
The digitization of biology is happening at an incredible rate. With wild new research coming to light every year and just about every tech giant pouring money into new solutions and startups, we’re likely to see amazing advances in 2020 added to those we saw in 2019.
- None were, perhaps, more visible than the success of protein-rich, plant-based substitutes for various meats. This was the year Beyond Meat was the top IPO on the NASDAQ stock exchange and people stood in line for the plant-based Impossible Whopper and KFC’s Beyond Chicken.
- In the healthcare space, a report about three people with HIV who became virus free thanks to a bone marrow transplants of stem cells caused a huge stir. The research is still in relatively early stages, and isn’t suitable for most people, but it does provides a glimmer of hope.
- CRISPR technology, which almost deserves its own section, progressed by leaps and bounds. One tweak made CRISPR up to 50 times more accurate, while the latest new CRISPR-based system, CRISPR prime, was described as a “word processor” for gene editing.
- Many areas of healthcare stand to gain from CRISPR. For instance, cancer treatment, were a first safety test showed ‘promising’ results.
- CRISPR’s many potential uses, however, also include some weird/morally questionable areas, which was exemplified by one the year’s stranger CRISPR-related stories about a human-monkey hybrid embryo in China.
- Incidentally, China could be poised to take the lead on CRISPR thanks to massive investments and research programs.
- As a consequence of quick advances in gene editing, we are approaching a point where we will be able to design our own biology - but first we need to have a serious conversation as a society about the ethics of gene editing and what lines should be drawn.
3D printing has quietly been growing both market size and the objects the printers are capable of producing. While both are impressive, perhaps the biggest story of 2019 is their increased speed.
- One example was a boat that was printed in just three days, which also set three new world records for 3D printing.
- 3D printing is also spreading in the construction industry. In Mexico, the technology is being used to construct 50 new homes with subsidized mortgages of just $20/month.
- 3D printers also took care of all parts of a 640 square-meter home in Dubai.
- Generally speaking, the use of 3D printing to make parts for everything from rocket engines (even entire rockets) to trains to cars illustrates the sturdiness of the technology, anno 2019.
- In healthcare, 3D printing is also advancing the cause of bio-printed organs and, in one example, was used to print vascularized parts of a human heart.
Living in Japan, I get to see Pepper, Aibo, and other robots on pretty much a daily basis. The novelty of that experience is spreading to other countries, and robots are becoming a more visible addition to both our professional and private lives.
- We can’t talk about robots and 2019 without mentioning Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, which went on sale for the general public.
- Meanwhile, Google, Boston Dynamics’ former owner, rebooted their robotics division with a more down-to-earth focus on everyday uses they hope to commercialize.
- SoftBank’s Pepper robot is working as a concierge and receptionist in various countries. It is also being used as a home companion. Not satisfied, Pepper rounded off 2019 by heading to the gym - to coach runners.
- Indeed, there’s a growing list of sports where robots perform as well - or better - than humans.
- 2019 also saw robots launch an assault on the kitchen, including the likes of Samsung’s robot chef, and invade the front yard, with iRobot’s Terra robotic lawnmower.
- In the borderlands of robotics, full-body robotic exoskeletons got a bit more practical, as the (by all accounts) user-friendly, battery-powered Sarcos Robotics Guardian XO went commercial.
Self-driving cars did not - if you will forgive the play on words - stay quite on track during 2019. The fallout from Uber’s 2018 fatal crash marred part of the year, while some big players ratcheted back expectations on a quick shift to the driverless future. Still, self-driving cars, trucks, and other autonomous systems did make progress this year.
- Winner of my unofficial award for best name in self-driving goes to Optimus Ride. The company also illustrates that self-driving may not be about creating a one-size-fits-all solution but catering to specific markets.
- Self-driving trucks had a good year, with tests across many countries and states. One of the year’s odder stories was a self-driving truck traversing the US with a delivery of butter.
- A step above the competition may be the future slogan (or perhaps not) of Boeing’s self-piloted air taxi that saw its maiden test flight in 2019. It joins a growing list of companies looking to create autonomous, flying passenger vehicles.
- 2019 was also the year where companies seemed to go all in on last-mile autonomous vehicles. Who wins that particular competition could well emerge during 2020.
Blockchain and Digital Currencies
Bitcoin continues to be the cryptocurrency equivalent of a rollercoaster, but the underlying blockchain technology is progressing more steadily. Together, they may turn parts of our financial systems cashless and digital - though how and when remains a slightly open question.
- One indication of this was Facebook’s hugely controversial announcement of Libra, its proposed cryptocurrency. The company faced immediate pushback and saw a host of partners jump ship. Still, it brought the tech into mainstream conversations as never before and is putting the pressure on governments and central banks to explore their own digital currencies.
- Deloitte’s in-depth survey of the state of blockchain highlighted how the technology has moved from fintech into just about any industry you can think of.
- One of the biggest issues facing the spread of many digital currencies - Bitcoin in particular, you could argue - is how much energy it consumes to mine them. 2019 saw the emergence of several new digital currencies with a much smaller energy footprint.
- 2019 was also a year where we saw a new kind of digital currency, stablecoins, rise to prominence. As the name indicates, stablecoins are a group of digital currencies whose price fluctuations are more stable than the likes of Bitcoin.
- In a geopolitical sense, 2019 was a year of China playing catch-up. Having initially banned blockchain, the country turned 180 degrees and announced that it was “quite close” to releasing a digital currency and a wave of blockchain-programs.
Renewable Energy and Energy Storage
While not every government on the planet seems to be a fan of renewable energy, it keeps on outperforming fossil fuel after fossil fuel in places well suited to it - even without support from some of said governments.
- One of the reasons for renewable energy’s continued growth is that energy efficiency levels keep on improving.
- As a result, an increased number of coal plants are being forced to close due to an inability to compete, and the UK went coal-free for a record two weeks.
- We are also seeing more and more financial institutions refusing to fund fossil fuel projects. One such example is the European Investment Bank.
- Renewable energy’s advance is tied at the hip to the rise of energy storage, which also had a breakout 2019, in part thanks to investments from the likes of Bill Gates.
- The size and capabilities of energy storage also grew in 2019. The best illustration came from Australia were Tesla’s mega-battery proved that energy storage has reached a stage where it can prop up entire energy grids.
Marc is British, Danish, Geekish, Bookish, Sportish, and loves anything in the world that goes 'booiingg'. He is a freelance journalist and researcher living in Tokyo and writes about all things science and tech. Follow Marc on Twitter (@wokattack1).