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Why AI will be the defining technology trend of 2020

Artificial intelligence will make its presence felt this year, as two impressive tech demonstrations show.

With a new decade dawning, I asked my Amazon smart assistant, Alexa, what the future holds. She quoted Wikipedia, informing me that 2020 would be a leap year and that the Olympics would be held in Japan. “Hey, Google,” I asked my other smart assistant, “what will happen in 2020?”

“My apologies, I don’t understand,” she replied.

So much for artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, AI will begin to make its presence felt – in the coming year and decade – in a way we haven’t experienced before. The advances were signposted in two impressive AI demonstrations I witnessed in 2019.

The first was Google Duplex, the tech giant’s next-level chatbot, which uses AI to call restaurants and, mimicking a human voice, make reservations. Google trialled it in New Zealand in October, getting Duplex to call businesses and check their Labour Day opening hours. The company has been training Duplex with real-life conversations, which should pay dividends when the service rolls out in 2020 as an extension to the Google Assistant on smartphones.

 

The second was Butterfly iQ, which uses AI to interpret ultrasound images taken on a handheld device that plugs into an iPhone. It’s the low-cost convenient, pocket-sized future of imaging and an excellent demonstration of the medical benefits that AI has the potential to deliver.

The technology is increasingly being built into chipsets in our phones, TVs and smart devices. It will start to drive automation of routine tasks in 2020, which could drastically alter the way we work.

The arguments over facial-recognition technology, in particular, will escalate in 2020 as the convergence of AI and biometrics makes it a much more powerful tool. Governments want it for security purposes and companies to hone in on their customers’ shopping preferences.

2020 will see a more mature conversation about what we want from AI, and our Government will become more active in overseeing its use.

 Medical benefits: the Butterfly iQ ultrasound. Photo/Supplied
The regulation of technology will be a dominant theme as we approach elections at home and in the US. The laissez-faire approach of the past decade saw “big tech” thrive, but it came at a huge cost to society and democracy.

I don’t see a move to break up Google or Facebook on the immediate horizon, but I would expect tougher regulation of their operations and scrutiny of their activities, particularly when it comes to their use of our data, paying their fair share of tax and buying up companies to stifle competition.

Misinformation campaigns and AI-powered deep fakes will feature in efforts to manipulate the elections. How the likes of Facebook deal with these new threats will determine how much new regulation is enacted.

I expect Facebook will probably give up on its cryptocurrency, Libra, which went down like a lead balloon with banks and financial regulators in 2019. Bitcoin will continue to fluctuate in price but remain an outlier in the economies of nations.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to anticipate some sort of new gadget to point the way forward and I suspect it will enable more immersive interaction with the deluge of digital content we are swimming in. It could come in the form of Apple’s long-expected augmented-reality glasses. Other companies have failed to make AR a mass-market technology, but Apple’s knack for delivering an exceptional experience could make the difference.

Most importantly, we go into 2020 with our eyes wide open to the potential of technology to be a force for good and evil.

This article was first published in the January 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.