Business Unusual

Back to the future! Here's what's in store for 2019...

Next year will be easy to make predictions, 2020, of course, perfect vision and hindsight. For 2019 though I will take a look at what we have already covered and where they are now.

New products can blaze a trail and disappear quite quickly, but the underlying technology can take years to evolve. I will make the distinction between the products and the underlying technology to illustrate this.

Uber

There are over 150 episodes of Business Unusual since its first covered Uber in 2015. It was has come a long way since then with plenty of controversy along the way. It is likely to list this year and is valued at over $100 billion. In less than a decade it has effectively been able to take the equivalent of every human alive on a trip. Walmart is the world’s largest employer with over 2.3 million employees. If Uber drivers were considered as staff members they have over three million.

It would seem this is a sure bet, but there is a big catch. The company is still not profitable. It loses less each year, but with new competition and pressure to turn a profit the point it gets into the black on the balance sheet might be the point it gets into the red on the road.

Autonomous vehicles

A potential solution relates to another prediction for driverless cars. In 2017 we looked at how far we had come and how far we still had to go. Elon Musk summed it up by saying that getting a car 95% autonomous was relatively easy, getting it to 100% is the hard part.

The many manufacturers that are adding driver assistance will in time result in them becoming autonomous. Three things need to be addressed before learning to drive becomes obsolete.

What ethics will determine how autonomous vehicles operate? Will it save the occupant to the detriment of everything else or might it sacrifice the occupants to save a larger group outside the vehicle.

What laws will be needed to accommodate a mix of driven and self-driving cars? If there is a crash; is the liable person the owner or the manufacturer?

Communications - if a data link fails and the car can’t navigate; do you blame the manufacturer or your data provider?

The progress has been impressive with a clever Mercedes ad recreating a famous incident on Chapman’s Peak 30 years later with a car that was able to drive the pass on its own.

5G mobile

The third part is the subject of the next prediction - 5G, will it be as impressive as we hope or a new digital divide? This year will see many 5G enabled devices and a few 5G test networks around the world. It is a new system that requires a more dense network of transmitters, that will make it both expensive and difficult to roll out everywhere. A further concern is that the dominant hardware maker Huawei has some countries like the US concerned about privacy issues from the Chinese government.

There may be some changes along the way, but it is likely it will be in major cities by the end of 2020.

Bitcoin

So far we looked at technologies, so let’s look at a product: Bitcoin. When it was first discussed in May 2017, it was worth about $1400, a new high, and had overtaken the cost of an ounce of gold. Since then it rose to a crazy $20 000 at the end of the year before crashing back down to earth in early 2018.

A year on from there with many viewing it as a passing fad, it is still at $4000. Will it recover and what went wrong?

It seems less likely to retrace the $20 000 level any time soon and appears to have been the latest bubble associated with a tech product. There have been many others like the Oculus Rift and Google Glass but they also fit the Gartner named Hype Cycle graph which suggests that new products often get expectations inflated to unrealistic levels.

Rather than a steady incremental improvement like we have seen with the advance in mobile phones, Bitcoin, many believed, would replace money and central banks with a limited and appreciating asset that you could acquire by merely running a computer program. Hacks, scams and an ecosystem that saw people buying the coin not to make spending easier but in the hope of cashing in invariably held on until no-one else was willing to buy and the real use and effort to mine the asset made traditional systems much more effective.

Has it changed anything? Yes, financial institutions got to see how they might improve the world’s financial system, just not with the anonymously created public ledger but rather some version of it operated by governments or financial institutions.

If there is a long term shift, it is the idea that currency can be a purely digital asset which can be used as a service and a store of value and even a product. But the best contender for what that may ultimately be is data/airtime. The kind you get from your mobile service provider. The airtime/data bundle you get is in effect a currency. You can transfer it, pay for services with it, withdraw it as cash and of course, use it to make calls and access the web. It is popular in developing markets, and countries like Sweden are leading developed countries to switch to digital options sooner too.

There are many technologies like robotics, mobile phones and drones that continue to make progress at the rate predicted by the World Economic Forum that looks to maturing technologies over a much more extended period.

Gene editing

One that we should proceed with cautiously is gene editing, the options sound perfect for improvements in plants and in time animals, but the claim that a doctor had edited twins' DNA to make them HIV resistant was both a potential breakthrough and a Pandora’s box being opened.

Another black box of magic that needs more ethical and legal consideration than technological development is machine learning. The progress and ever-improving skills have already displaced us at complex board games. It is rapidly improving how well it can replicate a voice and our movement to not only create convincing fake celebrities but potentially convince us that world leaders can be replaced digitally with convincing clones.

Despite the misgivings and disappointments from services like Facebook in looking after our information, there can be little debate that the tools and services that exist now like Wikipedia and Netflix make living in 2019 and beyond far better than 1999.

And even as almost every industry including radio gets disrupted the new options that emerge like podcasts add to your enjoyment of audio rather than detract from it. Happy 2019!

You can read or listen to all the other subjects covered on Business Unusual.

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