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Tech predictions 2019

Given the unpredictable events of the last 24 months on both sides of the Atlantic, to attempt to predict the future seems foolhardy at best. However, it's become customary for us to have a go, as always on the basis that this article self-destructs in mid-January.

December 2018

So, without a single mention of GDPR or Brexit (well, almost no mention – we've saved that for other articles), here goes nothing…these are our tech predictions for next year.

Targeted ads or mass surveillance?

If 2018 was a year in which we witnessed the tension between privacy laws and adtech models ramp up, 2019 is likely to bring heightened scrutiny of targeted ad models. Recently the main focus of both the press and the regulators has been in the online space, primarily playing out around the data sharing activities of the social media behemoths built around users' digital footprints. 2019 could see the focus widen to other advertising media as data-based targeted technology is applied in areas such as out-of-home (OHH), using real-life footprints instead. As image analysis and facial recognition technology (FRT) become ever more powerful, cameras are being used by brands and advertisers to tailor ads to the audience watching.  

Businesses such as Bidooh are already deploying revolutionary technology to OHH digital billboards, enabling them not only to track who is viewing but also to interact with those viewers. 2019 is likely to see continued debate about the way in which this sort of technology should be used and what limits should be applied to protect privacy.  

The widespread use of cameras to assess, identify and track individuals has been a key focus for the UK government-appointed regulator, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner (currently Tony Porter). The Commissioner's remit covers GDPR as well as related privacy laws including the Protection from Freedoms Act 2012 which defines "Surveillance camera systems". The Commissioner issued a Code of Practice which recognises that "In general, any increase in the capability of surveillance camera system technology also has the potential to increase the likelihood of intrusion into an individual's privacy". As the Code makes clear, the way in which camera-powered ad media will be treated by the Commissioner, will continue to be fact-specific, based on the attributes of each system and its impact on individuals. For more about the data protection aspects of using FRT, see our article.

Lost and found

The advances in FRT can, of course, bring huge benefits to society as well as potential privacy intrusion. Gartner predicts that by 2023, there will be an 80% reduction in missing people in mature markets compared to 2018, due to AI face recognition. For example, up to 70,000 children go missing annually in China, suspected of being sold into illegal adoption or slavery. Chinese authorities have been applying AI facial recognition capabilities to solve many of these cases far more quickly than would have otherwise been possible, and in 2018, a Chinese man was identified having gone missing 27 years earlier as a five year-old.

There are an estimated 170m surveillance cameras in China, predicted to rise to 400m by 2020. The Chinese government is reportedly preparing to use the data from these cameras, combined with other recognition technology, geographical positioning and personal records, including education records and internet search records, and tied to individual ID cards, to create a 'social credit' scheme. Those without the necessary social credit rating could be deprived of certain 'privileges', like the ability to buy air tickets or petrol (in Xinjiang, there are already reportedly restrictions on Uighurs buying petrol unless FRT approves the purchase).

The positive use of these technologies will undoubtedly depend on how they are regulated. We will have to decide where the line between freedom from surveillance and the positive aspects of FRT and big data lies.  

A Magna Carta for the web

The so-called inventor of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee has, through the World Wide Web Foundation, launched a campaign calling on governments, tech giants and individuals to back a new "Contract for the Web" with the stated aim of protecting people's rights and freedoms online. More than 50 organisations have already signed the contract, which is published along with a report that calls for urgent action. Signatories include Google and Facebook. 

Berners-Lee summarises the context of the campaign by stating "Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken. This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge and democracy". The Contract is built on a set of "Core Principles" for governments, companies and citizens, which emphasise transparency, collaboration, creativity, mutual respect, and privacy.

While the report and the Contract will no doubt serve as a high profile call-for-action, enforcement of these Core Principles will only be possible with government intervention. This is particularly true of the Principles that apply to companies. For example, while Facebook is an early signatory to the Contract, it and businesses like it remain very much as for-profit organisations whose duties primarily lie with keeping investors happy by maintaining growth. While doing the 'right thing' by signing the Contract may support publishers' brand values, they will ultimately only feel the need to embody the Principles in their underlying business practices if to do so hits the top line. 2019 is unlikely to be a year that shows dramatic changes in behaviour among the tech giants such as Facebook, but perhaps it will be seen in the rear view mirror as part of a period of tonal shift for the internet, likely to play out over the coming decade.

On the edge

Long gone are the days where "the Cloud" is seen as anything new. From Software-as-a-service, through Platform-as-a-service, the centralisation of processing power and storage is commonplace nowadays and, in some sectors, a model that buyers would need to justify not deploying rather than the other way round. However, there are limitations - the servers used within cloud services are by definition usually located some distance from the end-users of those services (not least by virtue of the need to locate data centres close to sources of power, as well as cooling). This can add to latency issues, meaning that processing is not operating at the most efficient speed. As Cisco has stated "In most scenarios, the presumption that everything will be in the cloud with a strong and stable fat pipe between the cloud and the edge device – that's just not realistic".  

This is where edge computing comes in. Edge computing allows data produced by users – primarily so far internet of things (IoT) devices - to be processed closer to where it is created instead of sending it across long routes to data centers or clouds. It is essentially a triage model whereby as much of the data as possible (sometimes huge volumes) is processed locally to the device, in so-called 'micro- data centres', with the minimum volume being passed back to the central cloud platform. Edge computing models are particularly suitable where IoT devices have poor connectivity and it is simply inefficient for the devices to be constantly connected to a central cloud. The centralised data can also be sent in 'batches', to optimise periods of good connectivity.

Edge computing is expected to play a key part in the development and roll-out of 5G networks, with network operators deploying micro-data centers either within or close to 5G towers, so business customers can take space in these micro-data centers for edge computing deployments.

Critics of edge computing question its security on the basis that the edge devices themselves are likely to be more vulnerable than centralised cloud platforms. As such, and as ever, data security, particularly in relation to potential state-sponsored acts, is likely to be a major factor determining the growth of edge computing into 2019 (see here for more on data security in 2019).


The rise of blockchain out of the shadows of Bitcoin into the spur for the proliferation of distributed ledger technology is not news, although we are seeing the technology deployed in an increasingly diverse range of models, primarily around smart contracts and asset verification, from land through to works of art. Previously criticism was aimed at the fact that governments and regulators would not support monetary systems without bank-backed centralisation, and it remains to be seen whether any one virtual currency will become ubiquitous (see our article for more).  One of the strengths of blockchain-type models is that transactions are permanently recorded and cannot be deleted or modified, thus avoiding interference and fraud. That very strength could ironically play a key part in driving a new threat in and beyond 2019; in its annual report of predictions for the Technology sector, Gartner predicted that by 2021, 75 percent of public blockchains will suffer 'privacy poisoning' — inserted personal data that renders the blockchain non-compliant with privacy laws.

"Companies that implement blockchain systems without managing privacy issues by design run the risk of storing personal data that can't be deleted without compromising chain integrity," Gartner explains. "A public blockchain is a pseudo-anarchic autonomous system such as the internet. Nobody can sue the internet, or make it accountable for the data being transmitted. Similarly, a public blockchain can't be made accountable for the content it bears."

No sweat

2018 brought the UK the joint hottest summer on record, with temperatures actually reaching more than 16 degrees in some parts Scotland! If summers continue the Trump-denied trend of rising temperatures, us athletic Brits might need to turn to the experts at MIT for a solution to prevent overheating during workouts - a team of MIT researchers has designed a breathable workout suit with ventilating flaps that open and close in response to an athlete's body heat and sweat. The flaps are lined with live 'microbial cells' that shrink and expand in response to changes in humidity, acting as tiny sensors and actuators, driving the flaps to open when an athlete works up a sweat, and pulling them closed when the body has cooled off.

Shape shifters

There are further use cases, as according to the researchers: "We can combine our cells with genetic tools to introduce other functionalities into these living cells …. We use fluorescence as an example, and this can let people know you are running in the dark. In the future we can combine odor-releasing functionalities through genetic engineering. So maybe after going to the gym, the shirt can release a nice-smelling odor." It is even possible that the cells could be used to manufacture materials that can change form - biologists have observed that microbial cells can change their structures or volumes when there is a change in humidity, and the MIT experts have speculated that natural shape-shifting substances such as yeast, bacteria, and other microbial cells might be used as building blocks to construct moisture-responsive fabrics, even stating that "These cells are so strong that they can induce bending of the substrate they are coated on."

According to Gadgetify.com, researchers have also been working to apply this technology to running shoes, and it is easy to imagine wider applications, for example, in workplaces where temperature and humidity control is key. Whether 2019 will see the technology commercialised is perhaps doubtful at this early stage of development, however, it could well be a stepping stone towards the wider application of biological phenomena in manufactured materials.

Say, what?

Universal translators, as trailed in Star Trek and other science fiction, have been 'on the way' for years, but the technology has never quite delivered. However, last year Google launched its wireless earphones, Pixel Buds, which included a then new feature, Google Translate. With the accompanying Google Translate app installed on a connected phone, Google's Pixel Buds are capable of translating more than 40 different spoken languages in real time. The technology is far from perfect, and there is some way to go, but it may have been the strongest consumer offering to date in this space. Google Translate has been joined by competing products in a market that is set to become ever more crowded:

  • Smartphone cameras such as those in Samsung's Galaxy S9 can translate street signs and restaurant menus.
  • Video chat software from Skype and others translates fast enough to allow two people speaking different languages to talk almost seamlessly.
  • Facebook recently announced that its Messenger app will translate conversations in real time.
  • Microsoft's translation app will use artificial intelligence and machine learning even when it's not connected to the internet or a cellular signal.
  • Professors at Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute are developing silent speech implants, tiny devices inserted into people's cheeks and mouth that monitor the vibrations of speech so that a person can whisper in their own language and it can be translated and broadcast in any other language.

As voice recognition and language processing technologies continue to develop, the quality of the translations will continue to improve, and 2019 may well see the world start to feel a little smaller.

Fake news!

The global phenomenon of fake news has moved from the realms of irritation to threats against personal safety and democracy as the volume of fake news has exploded through the use of bot-controlled social media accounts, many emanating from rogue states.

2019 will undoubtedly see the debate about how to counter the rise of fake news heat up further, but what measures will actually be taken by industry and governments? In a recent report, the LSE Commission on Truth, Trust and Technology, a group made up of MPs, academics and industry leaders, has recommended that the government should hand fresh powers to a new body rather than to existing regulators such as Ofcom and the Information Commissioner. The report argues for the creation a new body to monitor the effectiveness of technology companies' self-regulation, which would be called the Independent Platform Agency. The Agency would provide a permanent forum for monitoring and reviewing the behaviour of online sites and produce an annual review of "the state of disinformation", the group said. It will be interesting to see whether MPs adopt the proposals and how they would impact existing plans to grant new powers to the Information Commissioner's Office and Ofcom.

The EU has also been focusing on this issue, forming an expert group on disinformation and issuing a Communication in April 2018 as part of its Digital Single Market strategy. As a result, major players in the technology and advertising industries have now come together to sign up to a Code of Practice published by the Commission to address the challenges of disinformation, hoping, no doubt, to avoid regulation in this area which could move them ever further away from the role of intermediary. Reported signatories of the Code so far include Facebook, Twitter, Google and Mozilla. For more on this, see our article.

'The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views.' The words of Doctor Who in 1977 now seem very prescient, and it will be interesting to see whether 2019 brings any real progress towards the dalek-style extermination of fake news.

If you have any questions on this article please contact us.

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Graham Hann

Graham looks at next year's big tech issues.

"As voice recognition and language processing technologies continue to develop, the quality of the translations will continue to improve, and 2019 may well see the world start to feel a little smaller."