2020 vision: The tech predictions we got right and wrong

The year 2020 used to sound like the future, but now it's only a matter of months away. What you once pictured that future would look like depends more on when you imagined it than any other factor, but there are plenty of visions of 2020 that won't be coming true.

Honda, Toyota and other carmakers pledged to have self-driving cars hurtling down the motorway by 2020, while US military agency DARPA wanted flying cars - depending on how you define either tech, they're either already here or they're decades in the future. Ten years ago, Intel researchers argued we'd have chips implanted in our brains to control devices by 2020. Gartner believed we'd have hundreds of smart devices throughout our homes and 3D printers for personalised manufacturing.

Futurists like round numbers. That's why there are plenty of articles sitting online with expiry dates looming, forecasting so many sales or mainstream availability by a certain year. "When you're dealing with so many factors - not just 'is the tech there' but also, is there a valuable enough use case, a company with the skill to market it, and the political will to drive through legislation - it's hard to provide an exact date when something will happen," said Will Higham, CEO and futurist at Next Big Thing. "So round numbers let futurists be a bit vaguer. It's safer to say something will be popular 'by 2025' than 'in 2024'."

Looking a long way out makes it a little easier, too. Brian David Johnson, director of the Threatcasting Lab at Arizona State University, always predicts a decade in advance. "It's always ten years because it's always just too far. It's over the horizon. But it's close enough that you can see the light from it," he said.

There's plenty of light shining from the following technologies, but the predictions that 3D printing would disrupt manufacturing and be in every home, that drone deliveries would drop our parcels in the back garden or that driverless cars would be on our roads all seem destined to miss their deadlines.

3D printing

Tom Cheesewright, futurist and author of Book of the Future, admits he was wrong about 3D printers. "The big one that occurred to me that is here, but has dramatically underperformed expectations, is 3D printing," he said. Cheesewright wasn't alone: Deloitte predicted 3D printing would spur a "second industrial revolution" with print-at-home food, cosmetics, toys and shoes. That analyst firm believed the 3D-printing market would top $8 billion by 2020. Analyst house Gartner said in 2017 that printer sales would top $18 billion, with more than half of all companies using the technology in some way and 6.7 million units sold by 2020.

Some very bold claims were made about the future of 3D printing - yet, like the top half of this head, they've failed to materialise

Some of those figures are roughly correct: the global "additive manufacturing" market is about $7 billion, according to the annual Wohlers Report on the industry, although only a small slice of that is the desktop machines most of us have in mind when we picture 3D printers. In reality, about half a million 3D printers sold last year - a drop in the ocean compared to 217 million phones that Apple alone shipped in 2017. "I really thought that consumer-grade 3D printers would be much more capable and much more popular than they are now," said Cheesewright. "I thought by now we'd have had our first toy craze, like a Pokmon-style toy craze based on 3D printing. I really thought that just like everybody had an inkjet in the 1990s, everyone would have a 3D printer at home."

While there has been more use of 3D printing in manufacturing, it also hasn't yet taken off the way Cheesewright predicted. "I thought they'd be in the supply chain a lot more than they are," he added. "Not necessarily 3D printing, but some form of sort of computer-controlled manufacturing, like tailored fashion, stuff like that. I really thought we might have computer-controlled sort of fashion bureaus on the high street, maybe not by now, but maybe by 2020. And it just doesn't look like a realistic prospect at all."

He thinks that 3D printing's failure to launch may be because the machines remain difficult to use. Early machines seemed so capable, but there wasn't an exponential leap in progress as there was with computing. "There are some really fundamental issues to get over," he explained. "I have a 3D printer and I love mucking around with it, but you know I've got a degree in engineering. For your average sort of consumer, they're still pretty flaky."

Cheesewright still expects that may change, noting industry remains ripe for disruption and environmental pressures may make just-in-time manufacturing even more appealing. "And it's just a question of which industries get the right combination of entrepreneur and venture capital actually to do that disruption," he continued. In other words, 3D printing has been a disappointment so far, but Cheesewright still sees a future for the concept - just perhaps not by next year.

Rethinking data

In the mid-2000s, it was Big Data. Then, the buzzwords became analytics, algorithms and AI. They're all different words and technologies for the same problem: churning through and making use of the giant piles of data we're collecting. Ten years ago, Johnson was thinking about what he called "the secret life of data" - how data is used by companies and if our digital profiles really reflect our true selves. "We've finally moved beyond talking about Big Data," he said. "You see what data is doing, what your data is doing and so one of the things I was talking about was understanding that you have a second self, and that second self is digital. And sometimes that second self doesn't resemble your physical self."

data centre

"Industrial grade" artificial intelligence could be used even more over the next five years

He used that idea back in 2010 to get people to think about what's appropriate to share with companies, be it publicly on social media or privately to their servers. "Everybody thought I was a little crazy," he said. But after years of data privacy debacles, it's safe to say he was right that we're reconsidering how our data is handled. "You don't walk into a room physically and scream out your social security number or your credit card number or your passport number, so what's okay for your digital self to do? I think we're just starting to really ask those questions as we move towards 2020 and they really need to be asked."

So much for smart homes

Smart homes are here: Nest watches your habits to perfect your home heating, the Ring doorbell lets you open your front door for packages remotely, and you can change music, lighting and more by asking Alexa or Google Home to do it for you. But that's far from what the experts predicted: back in 2015, Gartner predicted that the typical family home would have 500 smart devices by 2022.

A first person view of a hand holding a smartphone outstretched in a living room.

The smart home revolution may be on the horizon - if it actually makes our lives easier

While a perfectly connected home remains out of reach for most, that could soon change. "I think we've finally crossed the threshold, we've crossed the tipping point for the smart home," said Cheesewright. That's partially down to voice controls, which he calls the "Trojan Horse of the smart home". High prices and technological problems have held our homes back in the analogue era, but with mainstream retailers from John Lewis to Ikea now selling smart lighting and other home kits, smart homes could soon become the norm, especially for practical functions such as central heating, damp monitoring and security. "Robot vacuum cleaners may seem like a bit of a gimmick, but are phenomenally useful," he said.

And that's the key to smart homes - it's not about technological wizardry, but making our lives easier. "People don't want a home that looks like the bridge to the Enterprise," he said. "They want stuff that happens automatically, almost in the background, just to make their lives a little bit more easy and luxurious."

Smart cities have also been long predicted, and while connected tech is making everything from bin collection to parking easier, the real smart city revolution is happening in new build and regeneration, such as Toronto's project with Google's Sidewalk Labs. "We are beginning to see that and we're seeing it in really interesting ways," said Johnson. "That to me is really interesting because the moment you can put computational power into anything, that means intelligence and sensing connectivity isn't special anymore. Like, do you actually need a smart doorbell? Sometimes you might but sometimes you just need it to ring."

Driverless cars

Autonomous cars are here, but not perhaps as imagined or promised. Toyota, Honda, Waymo - they have all made it sound as though we need not renew our driver's licences come 2020, as driverless cars will pick us up from our homes and then ferry us wherever we like without a human hand on the wheel. Such car makers were promising highway driving by 2020, with city environments by 2025 or beyond.

That first goal may well be achievable, so long as the goal posts are a bit wobbly. "Motorways are pretty easy," said Cheesewright. Because they have rigid rules and limited interventions there's less for a driverless car to worry about. "Whereas in towns and particularly places like Britain, you've got these organically grown-up streets that follow little paths and there's all sorts of weird and wonky things," he said. "What on earth would a self-driving car do with the Magic Roundabout in Hemel Hempstead?"

A woman reading a book in the driver's seat while the car drives itself

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Driverless cars have arrived, but there are still plenty of hurdles to navigate if they're ever going to be ubiquitous

While driverless cars are, of course, already on the road, they aren't yet carrying passengers without a safety driver behind the wheel. This is mostly the gap between different levels of self-driving car: level four is mostly fully autonomous, while level five is entirely capable of handling anything that happens on the road. We're nearing level four; level five may never be perfectly possible. As Cheesewright notes, a "partially autonomous car" isn't much better than an autopilot mode for the motorway.

That doesn't mean we'll never have driverless cars, but that we'll likely careen past any looming deadlines. "It won't be a big bang with self-driving cars," he said. "They'll gradually add more and more self-driving capability, which will be problematic because people won't know when to rely on it and when not to." Aside from the technology itself, self-driving cars raise regulatory and insurance issues that Cheesewright believes will take longer to sort out than many of us expect. He added: "We're not going to be buying a self-driving car, I don't think, any time in the next seven or eight years." So it might be best to save that prediction for 2030.

Building the future we want

Missing a made-up target isn't failure. That we don't yet have driverless cars, perfectly smart homes and haven't quite figured out data privacy doesn't mean we never will. Technology crawls forward at a steady pace, as evidenced by the slow improvement of everything from browsers to smartphones. Only occasionally does progress see a giant leap forward - such as Chrome or the iPhone - that spurs fresh innovation.

TV and films often paint the future as a tech-fuelled dystopia, but experts think we should be more positive

Other ideas are held back by regulation, even if the examples of the gig economy and social media show that taking time to think through the impact of tech ideas wouldn't always be a bad thing. Slowing the pace of change may not be a bad idea itself. "We need to think about the possible pitfalls," said Johnson.

That said, though many of us tend to prefer our sci-fi future gazing to be pessimistic visions of a tech-enabled dystopia, Johnson sees that as dangerous - tell people the world's going to end and you disempower them. "You're telling them there's nothing they can do, that it's all terrible," he said. "You have to be accountable for your dystopias, and say here's what we do to make sure we're not all doomed." Because of that, Johnson describes himself as an optimist. "The future is built everyday by the actions of people," he said. "Let's get together and build a future that's awesome." The only way we can accurately predict the future is to be the ones building it, after all.