Innovation

5G, smart cities, and other top tech trends for 2019

Quantitative futurist Amy Webb shares her predictions for 2019 tech trends.

CNET and CBS News Senior Producer Dan Patterson sat down with the Future Today Institute founder and quantitative futurist Amy Webb to discuss her predictions for 2019 tech trends. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Dan Patterson: So tell me about 5G, tell me about quantum, tell me about the blockchain. What are we going to expect in 2019?

Amy Webb: So 5G is just the next generation of our wireless ecosystem. We're already starting to see many rollouts. We're going to see a lot of rollouts over the next year, all around the world. Now are we talking about the expectations, meeting the expectations that we've all had for 5G? Are we talking about slightly better slightly, networks that have better connectivity with greater speeds, that's going to depend on the region. Japan and China, China especially, are much further ahead than we are in the United States. Part of what's going to require that ecosystem to get built out is widespread collaboration between the wireless carriers and everybody else in that ecosystem. And at the moment, that's not happening at a rate that you would expect. So but that being said, we will start to see rollouts. And that's important, because the other thing that's on the horizon is city scale networks and city scale spatial computing. And not just an internet of things as it relates to your office or home environment. But a city that is completely where devices and sensors and all different types of things.

Dan Patterson: We've tried this. We're trying this right now, the smart city or at least Google is in Toronto. There or at least a small part of Toronto.

Amy Webb: It doesn't have to be a huge announcement with lots of press releases to be a thing that we ought to pay attention to.

I mean, there's plenty of smart again, like this is the problem with labels come expectations, and quite a bit of baggage. So rather than looking for the next big and I'm sure that will start calling Austin Texas, a smart city now that Apple has announced its building out an entirely new center there and there'll be all kinds of expectations. There are small acts and instances of smart infrastructure all over the place, you just have to open up your eyes to it. The thing that I think we're looking at in the next year has to do with collaboration and coordination because you can have all the IoT sensors, you want in the world. If there's no hub and part of that hub is in like a freight of tech framework, but the people who plug into it and do something with it.

SEE: How 5G will transform business (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Melbourne, Australia is pretty far advanced. Nobody thinks of Australia, oftentimes, as super forward thinking tech hub. But Sydney and Melbourne are actually pretty far ahead in this space. As Singapore and their list lots of other places around the world. So anyhow, 5G will start to see more of... I don't love the term Internet of Things, because I think it's become one of those casual phrases, that means different things to different people.

So instead, what I would say is start, we're on the lookout, and anticipating much more home automation. So again, devices that do things on your behalf, assisted by your data and AI. So that might be something like a camera system on the outside of your door, that is trained to let certain people in, like your child, or your neighbor, who you really like. They just scan themselves and walk in the door, or if there's a relative...

It's permissions. You could also then keep out the people that you don't like. Now if I was a doorman in New York City, there's a certain cache of people who don't live here, there's a certain cache living in a building that has a doorman. Doormen cost money, and they do more than allow people to go upstairs. And sometimes they get it wrong, right? So this is a technology that could disrupt.

SEE: 5G technology: A business leader's guide (Tech Pro Research)

Dan Patterson: Yeah, it's a fantastic expression of when we talk about automation taking jobs, it's abstract to so many people, it's a great expression like that.

Amy Webb: And then you want to talk about quantum?

Dan Patterson: You want to talk about quantum? So you tell me we're going to hear a lot about quantum next year, I think it's the hype cycle is another 18 to 36 months. But I think everything is 18 to 36 months away.

Amy Webb: Yeah which again for me, that would be near term, right? That's not-

Dan Patterson: Oh, so I think real quantum like the... I don't. You're the expert. So what I think doesn't matter. But I think we're 20 to 30 years from quantum if ever.

Amy Webb: Sure but I think a lot of these big as Minsky would call them suitcase words. Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, blockchain, right?

It's like all of these things, once they accomplish a more to come of what our expectation was, we no longer think of those things as doing anything special or interesting. So a lot of these technologies, there's no event horizon when we wake up on January 6, and now we are quantum.

SEE: IT leader's guide to deep learning (Tech Pro Research)

Dan Patterson: Tell that to Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom.

Amy Webb: Well, we are in different ends of the spectrum on some of this. So if you want to talk about the singularity for like, five seconds, I'd be happy to talk that.

Dan Patterson: Bring it. But first tell me what the singularity is, and then go.

Amy Webb: So it has different meanings to different people.

Dan Patterson: Wait, what has different meanings to different people?

Amy Webb: Singularity. The idea that machines surpass us and take off and do their own things. Is that a good explanation?

Dan Patterson: Yeah, I just want a fantastic sound bite from you. So what is going to achieve what?

Amy Webb: I don't want to have a perfect sound bite on the singularity, because it means different things to different people. And I can guarantee you that different pockets of people will then come after me. Here's the thing in order for there to be a single event, if maybe it doesn't happen in an instant. Maybe it happens over a few days right? Let's stop for a moment, especially on the timeline that Kurzweil oftentimes talks about.

Dan Patterson: He says 30 years out, like I always say 18 to 36 months, he always says 30 years.

Amy Webb: But we're like half way through the 30 years on the way to the singularity. But here's the thing we would have to back task that. I am a quantitative futurist, my job is not to make predictions, it is to use data and to use that data to build models based on what we know to be true today, and to try to figure out what are plausible outcomes, given what we know.

So if I were to back cast that singularity as it's been described, and as we've heard about it for a long time to today, what would it take for that to be true? Well, for one thing, everybody would have to be on the same standard, right? There is no singular OS that operates everything. We have enormous companies in the United States, in China and by the way, in other parts of the world as well. So this would mean that Google is like TensorFlow, like Google, we would have to have a single standard and a single OS and a single framework and a single set of data. There would have to be a fundamentally different approach to the development of technology, not just in the United States, but also in China, that currently exists. So what would it take for that to happen? Well, humans would no longer have egos. Like, if we stop and think about the practical steps to get us from where we are today to that event horizon, it seems wildly impossible.

Dan Patterson: Why does the human ego prevent us from achieving?

Amy Webb: Well, it's not just ego? It's ego in business and business model. Is TensorFlow at the moment, the best possible framework going forward, is Amazon Web Services the best possible or Azure. There's lots of different possibilities.

Dan Patterson: Yeah, so you're saying and that-

Amy Webb: Some of that is tied into business.

Dan Patterson: Right. The competitive framework, for the ecosystems in which we exist right now is not necessarily conducive to building this utopian-

Amy Webb: That's right. But it's also not going to happen on its own. Therefore, what would probably be required is some regulatory framework, which means that if there was going to be a singularity, it's more likely more plausible that it would originate in China. Maybe if, again, there were single standards and all the other things that you would need for something like that to happen. But we don't have a regulatory framework in the United States. And I'm not advocating for regulation. However, here's where ego comes into play, we need courageous leadership. We need somebody to say, look, not all the jobs are going to be taken by robots. That's dumb, right?

Not all of the things that we do are going to be automated by robots, but a whole bunch of people are going to lose their jobs, and there is no way it's going to be very, very hard to replace them, unless we make some difficult decisions today. Those decisions have to do with how we collect taxes, what our social structures look like, I mean we have to make, we have to like confront some very uncomfortable uncertainties. And knowing that we cannot possibly predict what the exact future looks like, we have to start making some very, very wise, very politically unpopular decisions. And those decisions have to be based in data.

And we have to be willing to trust the scientists and the technologists, and everybody else in the ecosystem to help guide us to where we're going. We cannot continue to cede some of that strategic thinking to outside groups. I'm off on a tangent, but I'm going to keep going. There was something called the Office of Technology assessment, that existed in the United States, and was staffed with trained futurists, mathematicians, ethicists, climatologists like social scientists, and hard scientists. Their job was basic and simple. Their job was to inform policymakers and lawmakers so that they could make good decisions. This was done in a nonpartisan way. It really was. They produced research and more than just producing research, they sat and talked with our leaders to help them understand, all of these pressing issues.

Newt Gingrich defended the OTA in the 1970s. I will also say that the Office of Technology assessment, in addition to all of the amazing work that it did, became the gold standard in countries all around the world who still today To this day, have an Office of Technology assessment. Whose job it is to do this longer term planning and to help the people in charge, confront those uncertainties and when warranted, make the uncomfortable decisions. That's how it all ties back to ego.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Producer for CNET and CBS News.

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