“Looking Forward” is a series of articles on the top trends in technology, strategy, and culture that will influence small businesses in 2019 and beyond.
In 2019, the big technology trends influencing business will be less about flashy new products and more about the saturation and maturation of technologies that have been in the market for several years. The buzzwords that have led the news this decade, in particular AI, blockchain, AR/VR, and IoT (Internet of Things), are no longer newfangled ideas and hype, but have all evolved into useful technologies that are driving new innovations in the market. Here’s what business owners need to know about what’s happening in these areas:
Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning
When it comes to AI, the media continues to shine the spotlight on human-like robots and self-driving cars, but behind the scenes, the principles behind AI and machine learning are driving some unique new applications that will begin to influence small businesses in a big way.
Most significant are the advances in natural language processing (NLP) that now allow machines to better communicate with humans and like humans. Google dazzled audiences at their annual Google I/O event with the unveiling of Google Duplex, a chatbot that can have a natural-sounding conversation with a human, complete with “ummms” and “uhhhs." Google first tested it out within their Pixel phones in the form of a virtual assistant that can schedule hair appointments and restaurant reservations on their owners’ behalf.
While this development will not be taking over any executive assistant jobs soon—a Wired writer was able to throw off the chatbot with a random question in the middle of a conversation—but the machine learning algorithms driving the NLP tech in Google Duplex has far-reaching potential. Some believe that such systems could help improve call center operations (Google says it’s consumer-facing for now), while other tech companies are looking at NLP advancements for improving applications in customer service (via customer sentiment analysis and virtual support bots) as well as internal operations and human resources (via knowledge automation).
Virtual reality / augmented reality
Virtual reality and augmented reality have remained on top of tech trend lists since the mid-2010s, particularly after Facebook made headlines with the purchase of VR headset company Oculus Rift in 2014. Since then, VR and AR technology has become much more mainstream, especially in the field of gaming, where VR consoles like the HTC Vive and Sony Playstation VR have become popular and AR games like Pokemon Go have entranced followers throughout the globe.
In business, the applications of VR and AR have been less discussed but no less important. In particular, the architecture, design and real estate industries have made huge strides in incorporating VR/AR technology into their business, with many design firms using VR to showcase 3D models to colleagues and clients. Some firms are even going as far as hiring VR developers in-house, taking advantage of talent that had previously worked for the video game industry.
Augmented reality has also found a niche in the retail industry, where many retailers are using AR applications to enhance the shopping experience. Companies like Gap, Timberland, and Topshop have created “virtual fitting rooms” where shoppers can envision themselves in various outfits through a phone app or in-store screen—no undressing required. In the home building and interior space, Lowe’s and IKEA have also built apps that allow customers to envision what a piece of furniture may look like within your own home.
Bitcoin’s precipitous crash in early 2018 may have given some cryptocurrency naysayers the satisfaction of “I told you so,” but that doesn’t mean blockchain (the technology that makes cryptocurrency possible) should be discounted as a tech fad.
The decentralized ledger system at the core of blockchain technology is currently being used to build many different types of applications, from developing secure payment processors to storing medical records to running an entire government (for example, almost all of Estonia’s public services, like voting and tax payments, are managed through blockchain-secured digital identities). Nonprofits are also experimenting with blockchain to deliver humanitarian aid and allow refugees to store their health, education and identification data in an uncorrupted system.
For small businesses, some of the most exciting developments are in supply chain management, where blockchain is being used to more accurately track inventory as it moves from the producer to wholesaler to business to consumer. Businesses would have a real-time view of the entire ecosystem, not just their suppliers, but also their suppliers’ suppliers. New startups like ShipChain, Origintrail, and Skuchain (among many others) are taking advantage of blockchain to better track shipments through supply chain, leading to a new level of transparency and accountability that can help businesses prevent theft, ensure ethical sourcing, and avoid counterfeiting and fraud.
Internet of Things (IoT)
By 2021, the average North American household will have 13 smart home devices, from smart speakers and smart light bulbs to smart baby monitors and smart dog feeders. The market for these devices, often called the “Internet of Things” (IoT), won’t be slowing down any time soon: Gartner predicts that there will be 20.4 billion devices in the market by 2020, and total spending on IoT endpoints and services will top $2 trillion.
Although the connected smart home generates the most spending in the IoT market, the connected workplace is not far behind. Bain predicts that the B2B IoT market will generate $300 billion in 2020, with most of the spending being in the manufacturing, transport, logistics and utilities industries.
The world of manufacturing is especially benefiting from hyperconnected, fully digitized processes powered by IoT technology. Major manufacturers such as Audi, Harley Davidson, and Siemens are leading the way with “smart factories,” where intelligent machines with built-in sensors and RFID chips can “talk” to one another and adjust workflows, and direct e-commerce integrations allow for consumers to order personalized, highly configureable products that are managed from order entry to shop floor.
Harley Davidson in particular has become a notable leader in the smart factory revolution, having completely digitized its operations and equipping its production facility with end-to-end engineering. Every machine is a connected device, each providing rich performance data that can be analyzed. Production managers can predict when machines might break, and know to the tenth of a second how long it takes to install a component on a motorcycle. An e-commerce integration allows customers to personalize bikes with pain colors, frame designs, and gas tank sizes, with orders being communicated directly to the factory. Not only has Harley Davidson greatly reduced operating costs ($200 million at one plant alone), it’s cut its order fulfillment timeline from 21 days to just six hours.
Just around the corner: 5G and edge computing
With so many smart devices coming online in the next few years, it’s only natural that technology infrastructure also evolve to meet with the high demand. The need to always be connected and handle data processing in real-time will require a much stronger network, so expect to hear a lot more about 5G network service and edge computing in the next few years, particularly when it comes to powering the next generation of tech innovations that will require near real-time data processing, from driverless vehicles to smart city grids.