9 reasons to be optimistic about tech in 2020

technology solar power
Bright future? Blockchain will boost solar power and shine light on supply chains
Image: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
  • Technologies like Blockchain and AI will change our world in 2020.
  • Positive impacts include treating rare diseases and making supply chains more transparent.
  • The World Economic Forum's Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution helps these technologies reach their potential.

2020 is the year that some of the most-hyped technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will reach full maturity and begin to deliver on their promise.

While this will yield increased profits for companies who can effectively leverage these technologies into new business models, what makes these developments truly revolutionary is their ability to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges, ranging from education to health. Experts and fellows from the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution weigh in with their predictions for the most exciting ways in which new technologies will improve the state of the world in the coming year.

Genomics to treat rare diseases

When I was born in 1992, I arrived four months premature with every joint in my body bent together as tightly as possible — from my head being pressed down on my right shoulder all the way down to my toes being pressed against the bottom of my feet and my ankles collapsed against the back of shins like a broken golf club.

The oddest part? My twin sister had shared the same environment with me and was 100% healthy. There was only one culprit: a genetic mutation. In these early days before the human genome had been sequenced, doctors excitedly exchanged ideas on just how my genes could have mutated with all environmental factors ‘controlled for’. It took more than ten years of bone and tissue samples, but genetics delivered good news the same way it had delivered a new set of questions for doctors to answer when I was born. Thanks to early gene panels and other innovative precision medicine approaches, a team of doctors figured out how to isolate the ‘bad genes’ causing my bones to be bent. I stood upright for the first time shortly after my 15th birthday, and walked for the first time a year later. Genetics did that—genetics and our increasing understanding of how to leverage it for healthcare applications allowed me to stand, to walk, and to live a life free from a wheelchair.

Health and healthcare

How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

At the start of 2020, it is incredibly exciting to see the advances taking place in the world of genomics as we move into a new decade. There are more than 475 million people globally similarly living a rare disease who previously didn’t have answers, but now their lives have the potential to positively be transformed thanks to our expanding knowledge of genomics—and, most crucially, the application of genomics to a clinical setting.

Lynsey Chediak, Project Lead, Precision Medicine

Tech for tailored disaster alerts

Very large-scale disasters such as typhoons and floods occur frequently due to the effects of global warming. How to protect people's lives is a global and urgent issue.

Beacon NGO.org uses a system called “beacon” combining the technologies in the 4th industrial revolution era such as big data analysis, AI and drones.

technology disaster typhoon
Better alerting saves lives
Image: REUTERS/John Javellana

This provides evacuation information specific to individuals. When a hurricane strikes, optimized evacuation instructions for each citizen are provided: healthy people are recommended to evacuate even though the rain is strong to some extent, people who need care supporters for evacuation are encouraged to move to the 2nd floor for refuge. Moreover, individually specific information regarding the timing of returning from the shelter can be provided based on damage condition and weather information of the resident areas confirmed using drones.

Sanae Imai, Fellow, C4IR Japan

AI to make school materials tailored to the child

Adapting teaching curricula suited to children’s best learning capabilities is a tremendous opportunity for artificial intelligence and data-driven tools. Through pattern recognition and machine learning, materials that were previously introduced to students with learning disabilities can be made accessible by precision education. These new systems, if implemented in a way that strives to preserve privacy and maintains an ethical use of technology, have the potential to significantly improve the lives of children for generations to come.

Given the way that AI solutions build upon the data to which algorithms are applied, there’s an urgent need to set up governance structures and systems of accountability. Making sure that more children can have access to this knowledge is a mandate of fundamental human rights. Preparing our young to leverage the possibilities of AI through their education is a commitment of hope for the future.

Eddan Katz, Project Lead, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

In 2020, expect tech to start reshaping the legal services market – aided by an activist regulator.

In Britain, the UK Solicitors’ Regulation Authority has called time on a legal services market in which only one in three individuals with a legal problem – and one in ten small businesses – get expert legal advice. Last year, it launched a competition for tech businesses to develop digital solutions that would help people to resolve their legal problems more efficiently – attracting bids from well over 100 tech startups, law firms and alternative providers.

tech justice
Justice should be in everyone's reach
Image: REUTERS/Stephen Hird

RCJ Advice helps women and children suffering from domestic violence to gain court orders, access legal aid and navigate court processes, while Mencap has designed a chatbot to give people with learning disabilities legal advice on care and welfare benefits.

In total eight winners will partner with the regulator to develop their solutions by spring 2020. Expect regulators in other countries and sectors to take note.

Stephen Almond, Fellow, Agile Governance

Chatbots will help us manage our health

Chatbots could change the way healthcare is delivered in 2020. A Chatbot is an AI program designed to converse with people via voice interfaces or text messages.

Imagine text messaging a virtual doctor or asking Alexa to check whether the symptoms of your child warrant medical attention. This is not fiction – Babylon Health is already offering a service like this. Then, go beyond that to book an appointment with the child's physician, even in the middle of the night. Doctors at the hospital may use Chatbots to track care teams and procedures. Finally, a patient can get recovery instructions, to be sure that you are following the doctor's instructions. These are only a few of the numerous healthcare interactions that Chatbots are reshaping.

Conversational interactions with Chatbots are far more intuitive than using websites or apps. The positive impact will be tremendous in populations with poor access to healthcare and too few doctors. However, there are many technical and regulatory challenges, and in some circumstances we should of course prioritise access to a doctor. But AI technology is rapidly advancing, and organizations like the World Economic Forum are developing regulatory frameworks to ensure the safe deployment of the technology. Soon, with Chatbots we may be managing our health using a far more intuitive process.

Venkataraman Sundareswaran, Fellow, C4IR

Blockchain will build more ethical supply chains

Whether they’re buying food, diamonds, or car parts, consumers are looking for ways to prove the authenticity of items. With blockchain, as data can be made visible to all participants who have been authorized to view it – and in general cannot be altered by a single entity – customers can view a single audit trail with the assurance that the data has not been tampered with along the way. Time-stamping can provide a single source of truth on the product’s history, from the harvesting of the materials to the shelving in a store. Knowing the full journey of a product comes with several benefits, including improved product safety, a reduction in fraud, and increased accuracy in forecasting and collaborative planning within the industry.

supply chains technology
Clearer cargo: Blockchain can boost supply chain ethics
Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Pressure to prove responsible sourcing is expecting to increase both internally and externally in 2020. This trend is expecting for customers, policy-makers, NGOs, investors and employees to increasingly demand better visibility on where products come from and better management of social, environmental and economic sustainability throughout the supply chain. Industries must get ahead of increasing demands and lead the way. Blockchain can support this increased transparency where the societal nature of business conduct plays an increasingly important role. It is anticipated that over time, regulators will place less trust in internal databases to prove provenance or quality, which creates opportunities for distributed ledger technology to unlock transparency for compliance.

Nadia Hewett, Project Lead, Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology

Tech will make trade better in four ways

A report by VISA shows that digital payments added $296 billion in real (U.S.) dollars to GDP in the 70 countries between 2011 and 2015. Digital payments significantly reduce risk of theft and costs associated with using cash. They allow small and medium businesses to have faster access to revenues and to be able to quickly re-invest their revenue. Digital payment systems allow for a more transparent economy by reducing tax evasion and corruption.

3D printing (3DP) has been associated with trade decrease under the assumption that local production near consumption would prevail, and even take place at the household level. However, some new evidence argues for the opposite. Trade in hearing aids increased 58% when 3DP started dominating hearing aid production in early 2000.

Blockchain can help not only track goods across borders, but also documents. This technology can drive interoperability among trade single windows, single entry points to submit documentation and complete all import, export, and transit-related processes. Trusted evidence on origin will promote higher utilization rates of preferential market access, reducing costs and compliance risks at the border.

5G will move global trade from wired to wireless, and in turn has the potential to make trade more environmentally sustainable. With efficient management at ports, e.g. real time data collection and monitoring combined with the Internet of Things, 5G could enable port operators to streamline the process, reduce ships and trucks’ waiting time and congestion, thereby reduce pollution. 5G could also enable fisheries with real-time data and monitoring to ensure environmentally friendly approaches.

Ziyang Fan, Head of Digital Trade

Blockchain will boost transparency

Bitcoin is one of the first blockchain applications, but it showcases that for the very first time, individuals did not need to rely on intermediaries to carry out large-scale monetary transactions. Although most current applications exist in the fintech and banking industry, its promise and potential to drive social impact is stupendous, be it in agriculture and land rights, democracy and governance, health or environmental sectors.

GrainChain, an American company launched in 2013, seeks to reduce the number of intermediaries in a given transaction, and develop a more trusting and transparent ecosystem so that all farmers can have access to equal information about the quality of their inputs. It has aided more profitable transactions across the continent and is now focusing on creating such an impact transcending geographic boundaries.

e-Estonia, founded in 2008, is a fully secured system where citizens can track all government related transactions which make use of their personal information. All the data is saved on an aggregated ledger of registrations and is certified by the required personnel. Such a system brings in efficiency while reducing administrative costs.

ME SOLshare, founded in 2015, harnesses the potential of blockchain to bring electricity to the most isolated regions in Bangladesh by making use of reliable solar panels. The technology enabled the decentralized trade of energy as well as payments, giving more power to local households in order to have access to clean energy.

There is vast potential for blockchain technology to serve humanity; it needs to be tapped into progressively so that it can be scaled to reach its full impact.

Shubhangi Poddar, C4IR India

AI will boost our health

The power of artificial intelligence is revolutionizing several industries, but its impact in healthcare is truly life-changing.

Artificial Intelligence applications already provides immense benefits to people - be it in the early detection or improved diagnosis of diseases. It is particularly useful in specialty care, for example in radiology, pathology and pharma. AI systems are developed to examine medical images like CT scans, MRIs and X-rays and are enabled to provide detailed feedback without the need of human intervention.

Given its ability to analyze a varied amount of data, AI can yield diagnoses faster and with more precision. Individuals in remote areas, without access to proper healthcare setups, can also gain. There is certainly a need to balance out these successes with possible risks such as error in detection, excessive data availability and privacy concerns. Nevertheless, the use of artificial intelligence has an enormous and positive impact for doctors and patients in healthcare to leverage.

Shubhangi Poddar, C4IR India