Four AI themes to watch out for in 2019

Photo by Jonas Svidras @ STEP.CAMERA

We’re just a few days into the New Year and all eyes are trained on Las Vegas, NV. Over the next week or so, the great and the good of the consumer tech industry will be shamelessly touting their wares at CES. Each will jockey to make a big noise in a crowded market by showcasing “life-enhancing products” with whizzy new features—like this “intelligent toilet”

In the organized chaos of nearly 4.5k exhibitors and a staggering 182k delegates, pundits will be working overtime to round-up the best and the rest. At the same time, commentators will be trying to distill core themes and make sage judgments about the tech trajectory of 2019.

In truth, no matter what gadgetry emerges victorious in the end of CES, there will still be some fundamental “meta themes” affecting technology in 2019. And though they may not secure as many column inches as cutsie robots and foldable phones this week, these core topics are likely to have more staying power.

Here are the ones to watch:

1. Privacy

This isn’t a new theme, but it’s promising to gather steam in 2019. As a pretty strong indicator of this, Apple—usually one to keep a low profile in Vegas—has laid down the gauntlet this week with a giant billboard in the city declaring: “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone”.

The message is clear. If your tech gathers personal data, be prepared to explain what you do with it. Indeed, on-device AI and data security features could become the new norm.

2. The push for tech regulation

In 2018, we saw Big Tech players held accountable for data indiscretions, links to hostile foreign powers, election tinkering, and bias. In tandem, the European Union introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), causing many US businesses to sit up and modernize data practices.

Mark Zuckerberg himself told politicians that regulation of the tech industry was “inevitable,” and his home state of California followed Europe’s lead, signing the tough California Consumer Privacy Act into law in June. Keen to avoid a patchwork of confusing legislation across the States, business leaders have recently been pushing for a comprehensive national privacy law, and it seems like there could be as many as six major bills circulating the Senate by the middle of the year.

In short: expect a lot of talking.

3. AI Ethics

Beyond privacy and related surveillance concerns, expect tech and AI ethics to grow and broaden as a field. Big colleges like MIT and Carnegie Mellon are investing a lot of money creating schools and adding classes with this discipline at their center. New conferences are popping up across the US, and established tech gatherings are adding ethics strands by popular demand.

New questions will also emerge, and they won’t just focus on driverless cars. All areas of AI will start to come under scrutiny.

Dismiss this issue at your peril.  

4. Authenticity

As artificial intelligence advances, we know that the line between the synthetic and the real is rapidly becoming blurred. Even if Sophie—the clunky robot given citizenship of Saudi Arabia last year—was readily dismissed as a gaudy PR stunt, the furore over the very human-sounding Google Duplex was firmly rooted in the horror of deceit. And let’s not forget the surge in interest (and general repulsion) over deepfakes. And China’s latest AI anchorman, launched just a couple of months ago.

In the absence of regulation and technical knowledge, the general public will need help navigating this slick, and sometimes slippery, environment.

Those who find a sweet way around the authenticity problem could profit from it.

These issues are important ones, and yet they’ve previously been seen as secondary—and obstructive—to design and implementation (as we’ve learned the hard way…). Their emergence into the foreground is not something that should detract or pour cold water on the kinds of consumer technologies coming out of CES. On the contrary, they should be embraced as a new and important lens through which we can evaluate their feasibility.