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Explainer: 12 reasons 2020 will be an awesome year

  • Courtesy of Popular Science

    Get ready for the first complete synthetic human brain, moon mining, and much more. Maybe robotic moon bases, chips implanted in our brains, self-driving cars and high-speed rail linking London to Beijing. According to a dazzling number of technology predictions that single out the year 2020, it's going to be to be one heck of a year. Here, we take a look at some of the wonders it has in store.

    2020, of course, is just a convenient target date for roughly-10-years-off predictions. "It's not any more particularly interesting, in my opinion, than 2019 or 2021," says Mike Liebhold, a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future, and an all-around technology expert with a resume that includes stints with Intel, Apple, and even Netscape.

    Liebhold now helps clients take a long view of their businesses so they can make better decisions in the short term. He and his colleagues at the Institute for the Future don't help clients read tea leaves but they do help them read what he calls the signals — those things you can see in the world today that allow you to make reasonable forecasts about what the future holds.

    In other words, the year 2020 (and 2019, and 2021) is Liebhold's business. And he forecasts a pretty interesting world a decade from now. So what will the world look like in 2020? With Liebhold riding shotgun, we took a quick spin through 2020 to see what the future might hold.

  • Japan will build a robotic moon base

    JAXA

    There’s no technological reason why Japan shouldn't be able to move forward with its ambitious plan to build a robotic lunar outpost by 2020 — built by robots, for robots. In fact, there’s really no nation better for the job in terms of technological prowess.

    The Institute for the Future’s Mike Liebhold says, “There are private launch vehicles that are probably capable of doing that, and I think the robotics by that point are going to be quite robust.”

    PopSci Predicts: Technologically possible, but economics will be the deciding factor.

  • China will connect Beijing to London via high-speed rail

    Courtesy of Popular Science

    China’s plan:Link the East and West with a high-speed rail line. Not linking the Eastern with the Western parts of China — they're talking about linking the Eastern world with the Western world.

    How to deal with the inevitable headaches of a 17-country train? Offer to pick up the tab. China would pay for and build the infrastructure in exchange for the rights to natural resources such as minerals, timber and oil from the nations that would benefit from being linked in to the trans-Asian/European corridor.

    PopSci Predicts: Possible but unlikely.

  • Cars will drive themselves

    Courtesy of Popular Science

    It's long been a dream of, well, just about everyone, from Google and DARPA to automakers themselves: utter safety and ease of transport thanks to self-driving cars. There's movement being made, but the first hurdle to clear is a big one: Getting all these heterogenous cars to speak to one another. We don't yet have the wireless infrastructure, globally speaking, to link all our cars with all our traffic tech.

    PopSci Predicts: Certainly doable, but not by 2020.

  • Biofuels will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels

    U.S. Navy

    The U.S. military has pledged to get half its energy from renewable resources by 2020, and the Navy whole-heartedly believes it can turn to 50 percent biofuels by then. It makes political sense not to rely on volatile regions for energy, and this push could mean both cleaner vehicle fleets and a major bump in the competitiveness of biofuels in the market.

    PopSci Predicts: Feasible.

  • The 'flying car' will be airborne

    Courtesy of Popular Science

    The rebirth of the flying car? Liebhold, of the Institute for the Future, shoots this one down. "No. The air traffic control for something like that is incredible." It's a problem in every way — logistically we can't do it, cost-wise we can't do it, and technologically it's extremely unlikely. Oh well.

    PopSci Predicts: The military might have its prototype “flying humvee” by 2020 (DARPA wants it by 2015), but the tech won’t trickle down to the rest of us for quite a while.

  • We'll control devices via microchips implanted in our brains

    Courtesy of Popular Science

    The human brain remains biology’s great, unconquered wilderness, and while the idea of meshing the raw power of the human mind with electronic stimulus and responsiveness has long existed in both science fiction and — to some degree — in reality, we likely won’t be controlling our devices with a thought in 2020 as Intel has predicted. While it’s currently possible to implant a chip in the brain and even get one to respond to or stimulate gross neural activity, we simply don’t understand the brain’s nuance well enough to create the kind of interface that would let you channel surf by simply thinking about it.

    “Neural communications are both chemical and electrical,” Liebhold says. “And we have no idea about how that works, particularly in the semantics of neural communication. So yeah, somebody might be able to put electronics inside somebody’s cranium, but I personally believe it’s only going to be nominally useful for very, very narrow therapeutic applications.”

    PopSci Predicts: We might have chips in the brain by 2020, but they won’t be doing much.

  • All new screens will be ultra-thin OLEDs

    Courtesy of Popular Science

    Display tech moves incredibly fast. There will certainly still be some “antique” LCD monitor screens hanging around in 2020, but as far as new stock is concerned, it’s easy to see the entire industry shifting to paper-thin OLED surfaces, many with touch capability.

    “So surfaces will become computational," Liebhold says. "walls, mirrors, windows. I think that's legitimate.”

    PopSci Predicts: “Give that one a high probability,” Liebhold says. Done.

  • Commercial space will take us to the moon and asteroids (and we'll be mining them)

    SpaceX

    A two-parter: commercial trips to the moon (which is becoming a bustling space industry as you read this) and mining extraterrestrial bodies. That last part seems less likely — we haven't yet figured out what long-term space travel would do to the human body, and even robotic missions are likely several decades off.

    PopSci Predicts: Commercial space travel is the real deal, but beyond orbital flights things become exponentially more difficult. The moon, asteroids and mining missions are unlikely targets within the 2020 time frame.

  • A $1,000 computer will have the processing power of the human brain

    Zephyris via Wikimedia

    Cisco’s chief futurist made this prediction a couple of years ago, and it seems reasonable in some ways. Not intelligence, really, but purely the "ability, the number of cycles," as Liebhold puts it, is on track given Moore's Law.

    PopSci Predicts: Likely.

  • Universal translation will be commonplace in mobile devices

    Google

    This one's under intense development, both in practical forms like Google Translate and crazier ones from DARPA.  Translation will probably happen in the cloud, consulting with massive bodies of language knowledge compiled by companies and governments.

    PopSci Predicts: Probable, but with varying degrees of accuracy depending on the language.

  • We'll finally see some decent AR glasses

    Augmented reality is highly visible on smartphone apps, but we want more — we want rich, customizable, relevant and easy to access AR overlaid directly onto whatever we happen to be looking at. That depends on the glasses and GPS, which should be accurate enough to keep up with the real world by 2020, but also on the spatial web, with geolocation data.

    PopSci Predicts: We’re already halfway there

  • We'll create a synthetic brain that functions like the real deal

    Once we have a computer with the processing power of a brain, can we build a brain from scratch? Researchers at Switzerland's Blue Brain Project think so. But there's an argument that as we build a brain, we'll learn more and more about it, increasing the rate of difficulty as we proceed.

    PopSci Predicts: We’ll get there. Someday.

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