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Foldable phones, 5G and 'ethical A.I.' — what's on deck at one of tech's biggest conferences

Tech giants will launch some of their latest mobile products this weekend while trade tensions between the U.S. and China will take center stage.
People walk by a 5G stand at the Mobile World Congress on Feb. 26 in Barcelona.Josep Lago / AFP - Getty Images
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Mobile World Congress (MWC), a massive conference for electronics and telecommunications companies, officially kicks off Monday in Barcelona, Spain.

Tech giants will launch some of their latest mobile products this weekend ahead of the event, while discussions about 5G technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will juxtapose trade tensions between the U.S. and China will take center stage.

Here are some of the themes that will dominate the agenda at MWC this year.

Foldable phones

Samsung revealed its highly-anticipated Galaxy Fold this week, and it's possible other companies will come out with their own foldable devices at MWC.

Huawei, which has previously said it will release a foldable devicethis year, will host a launch event Sunday afternoon in Barcelona. The Chinese tech giant's social media accounts have hinted a foldable device could be the main event.

Xiaomi, another Chinese phone maker, has already revealed a prototype of a foldable tablet that can turn into a phone. The company will also host an event on Sunday in Barcelona where it could show off the device. Earlier this week Xiaomi released its flagship Mi 9 smartphone in China.

In addition to trying to get their hands on any foldable devices, MWC attendees will be looking at their price tags. Samsung's Galaxy Fold will cost an eye-popping $1,980, and analysts say other foldable devices could be equally expensive.

"Foldable screens will accelerate the convergence between smartphones, tablets and laptops, progressively unleashing a new form factor," Thomas Husson, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, told CNBC in an email.

5G race

5G has been a key theme for the past few years at MWC but many are hoping this year it will go mainstream. The so-called fifth-generation network promises faster speeds and lower latency but its rollout has been limited so far.

Telecom equipment providers like Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei will be showing off their latest 5G equipment at MWC, and operators from around the world will be showcasing their efforts to get 5G networks up and running. Telecom companies will also be on a mission to prove they can absorb the high costs of building the networks.

Smartphone makers will also be releasing 5G handsets and prototypes to try to prove consumers will soon be able to benefit from the networks. Samsung released a 5G version of its Galaxy S10 this week that it said would be available later this year.

"I think a lot of operators will be stimulated by the fact that I can launch this phone and it will say 5G and that will be attractive to some consumers," Thomas Noren, head of 5G commercialization at Sweden-based Ericsson, told CNBC in London this week.

Meanwhile, Huawei has found itself stuck in the middle of trade tensions between the U.S. and China in the race to develop 5G technology. U.S. officials are urging allies not to use Huawei's equipment out of fear that it could enable Chinese spying. Huawei's founder Ren Zhengfei struck back at the U.S. this week saying the company would "never undertake" any spying activities.

Security concerns and regulation will likely underpin many of the discussions about 5G next week in Barcelona.

A.I. ethics

Most major tech conferences devote large parts of their agendas to AI, and MWC isn't an exception. The conference features dozens of keynote events about AI, including a panel discussion Monday night with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche about how to make technology like AI more inclusive.

Judging by the conference's agenda, a lot of the conversation at MWC about AI will revolve around how to ensure it's "ethical." As more companies adopt AI and machine learning, tech CEOs and government officials are voicing concerns that bias could be built into algorithms, affecting business decisions and policymaking.