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Outlook 2025: where are we? where are we going? – I

The graphic represents on the left the relevance of several technologies on business sectors as predicted in 2017 looking at 2020, on the right the current perceived relevance of those technologies. Image credit: FDC IEEE

5 years ago, back in 2017, I prepared a graphic summarising the expectations of several industry leaders I contacted, directly and indirectly through members of the Industry Advisory Board of the IEEE Future Direction Committee. The questions those leaders were asked to answer were prodding their feelings on the relative importance of a set of technologies to specific industrial sectors. In the past 6 months I asked the same questions again and summarised the result using the same circle diagram (look at the image, on the left the results from 2017, on the right the current ones). Connections means an impact, thickness of the line expresses the amount of impact. Hence, the overall dimension of a tech area signifies how large is its overall weight, whilst the bigger the size of the application areas points to the dependence on technology. Of course the sets of people differed, as you might expect in a 5 year time span, and also the industries participating were not exactly the same but there was a very good overlap. As I pointed out when presenting the results at the recent FDC meeting this is not meant to be a sound statistic result but to provide a glimpse on the perception of industry on the relevance of technology (and its evolution).

What stems out by looking at the differences in the two diagrams is:

  • The importance of technology has grown significantly for both Industry 4.0 (Digital Industry) and for Healthcare (to be expected, given the impact of the pandemic);
  • 5G is seen as less “impactful” (today)  than what was foreseen 5 years ago, although “private 5G” has grown in relevance in the Industry 4.0 sector;
  • Artificial Intelligence is more impactful today than what was expected it would be. Interestingly, the growth of impact is perceive across all application segments.
  • Digital Twins impact has grown significantly
  • A few more considerations:

In 2017

  • 5G was a dream of an amazing increase in capabilities that, just because of it would have changed the landscape in many sectors
  • In the Supply Chain the focus was on an ever increasing optimisation
  • Self-driving cars seemed to be just around the corner
  • Artificial Intelligence was the turf of the Big Guns (Google and the likes)
  • Data Centres were seeing as growing and the focus was on controlling the energy budget
  • Digital Transformation was the talk of the town, with very little implementation, with some notable exception, like music and travel (lodging, read Uber, AirBnB…)
  • Digital Twins were mostly in the background
  • Quantum Computer was promising to tackle hard computation problems in a few years
  • AR/VR goggles were cumbersome but a new generation would soon change that

In 2021 the reality looks a bit different from the expectations:

  • 5G has panned out as any new wireless generation, not as the marketing had boosted. The pandemic has slowed down a bit investment and uptake but not by much. Looking back at 4G deployment the timeline is pretty much the same. 5G enabled Smartphones are only now becoming widely available but there are basically no applications requiring 5G. All of them run as well on a 4G network (as could have been expected since developers of applications are looking for the biggest possible market for their products). The increase in speed is only noticeable if you have an app to measure it. In most situation you won’t notice any difference (not running that video at 4x its speed, aren’t you?). The only notable difference is in the use of power rapidly draining your battery.
  • The pandemic has shifted the focus of Supply Chain from optimisation to resilience. AI and Digital Twins are playing a bigger role.
  • Self-driving cars are still just around the corner, and there is a growing skepticism on the possibility of seeing them in the mass market in this decade.
  • AI is becoming pervasive and no longer the sole domain of the Big Guns. Industry is embedding more and more AI in its products, thanks to the easiness of AI training (GPT-3 and the like) and to neuromorphic chips becoming available at lower and lower cost.
  • The focus is shifting from data containers (Data Centres) to data spaces (Gaia-X is driving the development of D.S.).
  • The Digital Transformation has accelerated tremendously because of the pandemic forcing companies to move their processes to the cyberspace. In most cases this has been seen as a temporary crutch, expecting a roll-back as soon as the situation allows. However, some effects are here to stay and the acceleration, estimated in compressing 7 years into 1, will be felt in the coming years.
  • Digital Twins are now applied in a growing variety of sectors, so many as a matter of fact that they are now in an hype phase (companies are boasting on using them even when they are a very tiny subset of the real thing.
  • Quantum computing remains a dream
  • AR and VR goggles are still (almost) as cumbersome as they were 5 years ago, but the hope to see wearable seamless AR is still with us.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.