2020 Vision: A Look Forward To The Promises of a Truly Amazing Year

Get ready for the first complete synthetic human brain, moon mining, and much more

Robotic moon bases, chips implanted in our brains, self-driving cars, and high-speed rail linking London to Beijing. According to a dazzling number of technology predictions that single out the year 2020, it's going to be to be one hell of a year. Here, we take a look at some of the wonders it holds in store.

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2020, of course, is just a convenient target date for roughly-ten-years-off predictions. "It's not any more particularly interesting, in my opinion, than 2019 or 2021," says Mike Liebhold, a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future, and an all-around technology expert with a resume that includes stints with Intel, Apple, and even Netscape. "There's a continuum of technological development, and that's just an easy date for an editor or a writer to get a handle on.

After spending decades helping various top-tier tech companies develop and deploy their cutting edge technologies around the world, Liebhold now helps clients take a long view of their businesses so they can make better decisions in the short term. He and his colleagues at the Institute for the Future don't help clients read tea leaves (predictions are for soothsayers and crystal ball gazers) but they do help them read what he calls the signals -- those things you can see in the world today that allow you to make reasonable forecasts about what the future holds.

"We help people think systematically about the future," Liebhold says. "We don't give them answers, we give them foresight."

In other words, the year 2020 (and 2019, and 2021) is Liebhold's business. And he forecasts a pretty interesting world a decade from now. For instance, given the current forward momentum of mobile technology and the ever-present forces of economies of scale, Liebhold says it's conceivable that most of the world's population will be able to afford a Web-enabled smartphone or tablet device by 2020, offering everyone on the planet geo-location services and access to global information and communication (the forces working against this, he notes, are political rather than technological).

Facial recognition and other biometrics will be commonplace, he says. High-performance data visualizations that currently require supercomputing power will become commonplace as well, driving technological and scientific innovation at even faster rates. We'll see wider distribution of things like AI and immersive media experiences like viewpoint-independent 3-D. We'll finally have some decent augmented reality glasses.

And what won't happen? We won't be uploading the human mind to a machine by 2020, a la Ray Kurzweil. We won't be cruising the streets in self-driving vehicles, and while robots may be rolling around on the moon, we won't be mining minerals from extraterrestrial sources.

So what will the world look like in 2020? With Liebhold riding shotgun, we took a quick spin through 2020 to see what the future might hold. Click through the gallery to see some of the bolder 2020 forecasts we've seen--and why some of them don't stand a chance.

Japan Will Build a Robotic Moon Base

After March's devastating earthquake and tsunami (and the ongoing nuclear crisis in Fukushima prefecture), Japan has a long and expensive rebuilding phase in front of it. But the Japanese have proven themselves nothing if not resilient and resourceful in the face of such hardship. Should the powers that be decide to continue forward with Japan's ambitious plan to build a robotic lunar outpost by 2020--built by robots, for robots--there's no technological reason why they shouldn't be able to. In fact, there's really no nation better for the job in terms of technological prowess. "I think that's probably doable, although they have some economic problems right now," the Institute for the Future's Mike Liebhold says. "There are private launch vehicles that are probably capable of doing that, and I think the robotics by that point are going to be quite robust." PopSci Predicts: Technologically possible, but economics will be the deciding factor.JAXA

China Will Connect Beijing to London via High Speed Rail

China's ambitious scheme for a high speed rail line linking East and West is a prime example of one of those projects that is technologically possible yet unlikely, at least in the time frame given. "I think technically it's certainly feasible, but I'm not sure that politically and economically it's going to fly," Liebhold says, citing the complexities (and costs) of securing right of way across 17 nations. China's plan: offer to pick up the tab. China would pay for and build the infrastructure in exchange for the rights to natural resources like minerals, timber, and oil from the nations that are benefit from being linked in to the trans-Asian/European corridor. Even so, nine years isn't a lot of time to lay all that track, and there's no way China can control for geopolitical issues, civil unrest, and other variables inherent in such a large-scale undertaking. PopSci Predicts: Possible but unlikely.

Cars Will Drive Themselves

Self-driving cars that take to the streets autonomously while passengers kick back and relax have been both a sci-fi staple and a technological holy grail pursued by the likes of Google, DARPA, and automakers themselves (Stanford U's self-driving Audi TT is pictured above). But before we can have cars that think for themselves (a la DARPA) or even "car trains" that sync up so several vehicles can follow the lead of one human driver, our cars have to be able to talk to each other. All of our cars. "It's unlikely, in my opinion, because of the heterogenous nature of the vehicles in the world," Liebhold says of self-driving tech. "Although there are people who have a notion of the kinds of communication networks we need between vehicles, even if we made the decision today to implement something it probably wouldn't be mature enough by 2020 to work." Our global wireless infrastructure is inadequate even for all of our media computing, Liebhold says, so the idea of rolling out even more sophisticated wireless infrastructure to link our cars and other traffic tech within a decade is simply not likely. PopSci Predicts: Certainly doable, but not by 2020.

Biofuels Will be Cost-Competitive With Fossil Fuels

This prediction comes courtesy of the U.S. Navy, which along with the other branches of the U.S. military has looked extensively into ways to wean its own operations off of fossil fuels. The military on the whole has pledged to get half of its energy from renewable resources by 2020, and the Navy whole-heartedly believes that it can turn to fifty percent biofuels by that point in time. "I think that's reasonable," Liebhold says. "Again, this is geopolitical, this isn't technical." The military understands as well as anyone that being dependent on foreign nations--some of whom have a tenuous relationship with the U.S. and its global military presence--for fuel puts us in a potential strategic bind. But the military brass's enthusiasm for biofuels doesn't just spell cleaner naval fleets or ground vehicles burning a 50-50 blend. The military buys fuel like everyone else, so the Navy's forecast that biofuels will be cost-competitive with oil by 2020 bodes well for all of us, not just the military. If the Navy is correct, biofuels--though still a contributor to CO2 emissions--could take a sizable chunk out of the amount of oil and gas we're pumping from the ground (and, you know, fighting over) by decade's end. PopSci Predicts: Feasible.U.S. Navy

The 'Flying Car' Will be Airborne

"No. The air traffic control for something like that is incredible," Liebhold says, returning to his argument about self-driving automobiles. "If we can't even get the communication infrastructure for our cars, how the heck are we going to build an infrastructure for aerial communications? And on top of that I don't think flying technology is going to scale down to the personal level by then either." PopSci Predicts: The military might have its prototype "flying humvee" by 2020 (DARPA wants it by 2015), but the tech won't trickle down to the rest of us for quite a while.

We'll Control Devices Via Microchips Implanted in Our Brains

The human brain remains biology's great, unconquered wilderness, and while the idea of meshing the raw power of the human mind with electronic stimulus and responsiveness has long existed in both science fiction and--to some degree--in reality, we likely won't be controlling out devices with a thought in 2020 as Intel has predicted. While it's currently possible to implant a chip in the brain and even get one to respond to or stimulate gross neural activity, we simply don't understand the brain's nuance well enough to create the kind of interface that would let you channel surf by simply thinking about it. "Neural communications are both chemical and electrical," Liebhold says. "And we have no idea about how that works, particularly in the semantics of neural communication. So yeah, somebody might be able to put electronics inside somebody's cranium, but i personally believe it's only going to be nominally useful for very, very narrow therapeutic applications." PopSci Predicts: We might have chips in the brain by 2020, but they won't be doing much.

All New Screens Will Be Ultra-Thin OLEDs

It doesn't take much more than a trip around the Web to see some pretty amazing screen technologies that are already making it out of the lab and onto the shelf. There will certainly still be some "antique" monitor screens hanging around in 2020, but as far as new stock is concerned it's easy to see the entire industry shifting to paper-thin OLED surfaces, many with touch capability. "I think that's legitimate, we've been forecasting that for years," Liebhold says. "So surfaces will become computational, walls, mirrors, windows." PopSci Predicts: "Give that one a high probability," Liebhold says. Done.

Commercial Space Will Take Us to the Moon and Asteroids (and We'll be Mining Them)

This prediction came by way of Esther Dyson, who knows a thing or two about technology. But we're only willing to meet her half way here. By all accounts, it looks as though there will be a robust private space industry by 2020. SpaceX already has deals to resupply the ISS, and Virgin Galactic has demonstrated its ability to take tourists to very high (but suborbital) altitudes. But as for the mining of extraterrestrial bodies like asteroids, or commercial space companies arranging holidays to the moon? We're not holding our breaths. For one, Liebhold notes, the human body was not designed for long-duration space travel and it's going to take us decades (if ever) to figure out how to fight the physiological deterioration that would set in on long-distance manned missions. But even robotic missions aren't so simple. Look several decades our for robotic mining missions to asteroids, he says. But look for things like the space elevator to happen first. PopSci Predicts: Commercial space travel is the real deal, but beyond orbital flights things become exponentially more difficult. The moon, asteroids, and mining missions are unlikely targets within the 2020 time frame.SpaceX

A $1,000 Computer Will Have the Processing Power of the Human Brain

Cisco's chief futurist made this prediction a couple of years ago, and Liebhold doesn't think the company is so far off. ""I think that's reasonable," he says. "That's not the intelligence of the human brain, that's just the ability, the number of cycles. If you look at Moore's Law and the way the cores or the number of processors on chips is growing, that's totally viable." PopSci Predicts: Likely.Zephyris via Wikimedia

Universal Translation Will be Commonplace in Mobile Devices

DARPA has been working on a universal translator for decades, with varying degrees of success (and failure). Language, it turns out, is an incredibly complex thing, especially when you get down to the micro level and start examining regional dialects, slang, and other semantic nuance. But as the cloud goes, so goes our ability to translate on the fly. "Language translation won't take place on the device, it takes place in the cloud," Liebhold says. "In order for a computer to detect what it is your saying, it has to compare what you're saying with millions of other examples. That's done in the cloud. So it's reasonable to say that any device with a network connection will be able to translate languages." But, he cautions, while we should be able to seamlessly swap words between the mainstream languages on our mobile devices by 2020 (we can do that now, to some extent, with Google Translate), minority languages will still be a long time coming. Companies (like Google) and governments are putting together very good bodies of knowledge for this kind of translation--Google is combing through U.N. transcripts to see how even lesser-spoken tongues translate spoken English, and vice versa--it will simply take time for translation to become accurate and effective. PopSci Predicts: Probable, but with varying degrees of accuracy depending on the language.Google

We'll Finally See Some Decent AR Glasses

Regular readers of PopSci have been salivating over the promise of augmented reality for ages, but in reality it never seems to live up to the hype. Current AR apps for smartphones are marginally helpful, but the amount of data one can access through them isn't extremely vast, and you have to view the world through your phone display to get the information overlay. What we really want is AR overlaid directly onto whatever we happen to be looking at. We want that data to be rich, customizable, relevant and easy to access. By 2020, we should have all that. The evolution of AR is happening in two codependent technological arenas. For one, glasses themselves are getting better. Current AR apps and glasses too often have incongruities between the real world and the graphical overlay, and in the case of glasses such misalignment can be disorienting, even nauseating. By 2020, Liebhold says, position sensing, GPS locating, and image positioning should be mature to the point that even when you're moving quite fast (say, riding a bike down the street) the AR can keep up with the real world. The other side of the equation is the spatial Web, which is coming along quite nicely. As more Web sites and digital services imbue themselves with geolocation data, that spatial Web becomes more robust. "We're going to see the data in the world around you become rich so the world itself will become self-explanatory," Liebhold says. "Things and places will have rich detail attached to them." Next up: AR contact lenses. They won't be commercially common by 2020, but Liebhold thinks we'll definitely be seeing working models coming out of the lab by decade's end, with regular rollout coming in the following years. PopSci Predicts: We're already halfway there.via Lumus Optical

We'll Create a Synthetic Brain That Functions Like the Real Deal

We've already established that it's possible to build a computer with the processing power of a brain. But is it possible to build a human brain from scratch. Researchers at the Blue Brain Project at the Brain and Mind Institute of the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, think so. They've already build a model of the 10,000-neuron neocortical column that, running on a massively powerful IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer (pictured above), looks pretty amazing. But the human brain contains billions upon billions of neurons, and a lot of its processes are poorly understood. There's an argument that as we build a brain, we'll learn more and more about it, increasing our rate of understanding exponentially year after year. But there's still so much we don't know that it's difficult to be optimistic that even the geniuses (we'll resist the temptation to call them brainiacs) at Blue Brain can grow their synthetic brain that quickly. PopSci Predicts: We'll get there. Someday.Argonne National Labs