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2020 will be the beginning of the tech industry's radical revisioning of the physical world

Jonathan Shieber

These days it's easy to bemoan the state of innovation and the dynamism coming from America's cradle of technological development in Silicon Valley.

The same companies that were praised for reimagining how people organized and accessed knowledge, interacted publicly, shopped for goods and services, conducted business, and even the devices on which all of these things are done, now find themselves criticized for the ways in which they've abused the tools they've created to become some of the most profitable and wealthiest ventures in human history.

Before the decade was even half over, the concern over the poverty of purpose inherent in Silicon Valley's inventions were given voice by Peter Thiel -- a man who has made billions financing the creation of the technologies whose paucity he then bemoaned.

“We are no longer living in a technologically accelerating world,” Thiel told an audience at Yale University in 2013. “There is an incredible sense of deceleration.”

In the six years since Thiel spoke to that audience, the only acceleration has been the pace of technology's contribution to the world's decline.

However, there are some investors who think that the next wave of big technological breakthroughs are just around the corner -- and that 2020 will be the year that they enter the public consciousness in a real way.

These are the venture capitalists who invest in companies that develop so-called "frontier technologies" (or "deep tech") -- things like computational biology, artificial intelligence or machine learning, robotics, the space industry, advanced manufacturing using 3D printing, and quantum computing.

Frontier technologies are moving closer to the center of venture investment


Continued advancements in computational power, data management, imaging and sensing technologies, and materials science are bridging researchers' ability to observe and understand phenomena with the potential to manipulate them in commercially viable ways.

As a result increasing numbers of technology investors are seeing less risk and more rewards in the formerly arcane areas of investing in innovations.

"Established funds will spin up deep tech teams and more funds will be founded to address this market, especially where deep tech meets sustainability," according to Fifty Years investor, Seth Bannon. "This shift will be driven from the bottom up (it's where the best founder talent is heading) and also from the top down (as more and more institutional LPs want to allocate capital to this space)."

In some ways, these investments are going to be driven by political necessity as much as technological advancement, according to Matt Ocko, a managing partner at the venture firm DCVC.

Earlier this year, DCVC closed on $725 million for two investment funds focused on deep technology investing. For Ocko, the geopolitical reality of continuing tensions with China will drive adoption of new technologies that will remake the American industrial economy.

"Whether we like it or not, US-government-driven scrutiny of China-based technology will continue in 2020. Less of it will be allowed to be deployed in the US, especially in areas of security, networking, autonomous transportation and space intelligence," writes Ocko, in an email. "At the same time, US DoD efforts to streamline procurement processes will result in increasingly tighter partnerships between the DoD and tech sector. The need to bring complex manufacturing, comms, and semiconductor technology home to the US will support a renaissance in distributed manufacturing/advanced manufacturing tech and a strong wave of semiconductor and robotic innovation."


Expect machine learning, computer vision, and autonomous vehicles to effect industry as well. Shipping and logistics, farming, and construction businesses will all see robots play a larger role in their operations -- and the harbinger of these advancements will be the role of autonomy in the trucking industry.

"Autonomous trucking will quickly move from testing to handling a substantial portion of the market for hauling commercial goods cross-country via a hub model where last-mile deliveries are still handled by human drivers. In fact, large scale autonomous trucking will emerge as a viable business long before autonomous cars, especially if it follows business models like the one mentioned here," Ocko wrote in an email. "As this happens, commentators will wring their hands that “robots are taking jobs”, but the data will show (as the recent multi-quarter shortfalls in long-haul trucking equipment sales itself already shows) that a) there were more jobs than humans to take them and b) humans are increasingly electing out of this class of work."

The entrance of autonomy into the trucking industry will open the door for other businesses to see how they can replace people in the dirty, dangerous, and demanding jobs that no one really wants to do -- and where labor shortages already exist. For Ocko, it's likely that industrial agriculture will be the next industry hit by the automation wave.

It's not just traditional manufacturing that will see the penetration of new technologies in ways that contradict the nearly decades-long narrative of technological stagnation.

"2020 will be the year of synthetic biology. We'll see built many new synbio application level companies (which will create new products and therapies directly) and also infrastructure level companies (the tools and tech needed to build application level companies). There will be a couple infrastructure level companies founded that become as important to the synthetic biology industry as semiconductors were to the computer industry -- and as valuable," according to Bannon.

Innovations in biology won't be confined to synthetic biology or genetic modification, Bannon says. Directed evolution will bring the ability to engineer microbial and enzyme design to make biological machines that can manufacture materials in new ways that transcend chemical processes. All of these innovations will be advanced by technologies that improve the ability to sequence individual cells, powering new drug discovery and therapies, diagnostic technologies, and industrial bio-based manufacturing.

"Breakthroughs at the intersection of computational biology and synthetic biology will deliver two 'shock and awe' moments that disrupt 'business as usual' in large global industries," predicts Ocko. "First, one or more companies operating at this intersection will generate substantive treatments and/or cures for one of the major diseases afflicting our global population, perhaps in response to a pandemic or other health crisis. They will deliver this cure with a speed, cost-efficacy, and safety profile that defies 50 years of biotech and big pharma expectations. Second, one or more of these companies will demonstrate that one or more major components of a critical industrial supply chain, like the hard plastics used in consumer electronics, can be made with lower cost, higher quality, and at greater volume/speed with zero or negative CO2 processes."

Both Ocko and Bannon have high hopes for the quantum computing industry as well. Bannon sees a pivot away from the leading architectural paradigm in the industry -- superconducting qubits (a technology that could have trouble scaling) -- and toward novel methods like photonic quantum computing, neutral atoms, or trapped ions. Meanwhile Ocko predicts that 2020 will be the year that quantum computing applications see their first true uses in commercial settings -- particularly in the field of algorithm development.

"Ironically, QC might be put to use in auto-generating bullet-proof algorithms that make data uncrackable in the face of QC compute power, as opposed to the other way around.  Similarly, the algorithms for addressing scarcity of resources with complex multi-dimensional demands, logistics in the face of violent climate change, and higher bandwidth communications at lower power (think WiFi straight to a satellite) are all amenable to this approach," says Ocko.

Perhaps the most obvious area where "frontier technologies" will make their presence felt is in the one area that's most visible to consumers... the food industry. Indeed, new tech companies are already reshaping consumer habits and positively impacting the real world through the creation of meat substitutes that have effected the bottom line at fast food chains like Burger King and grocery stores.

These are companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that are worth billions of dollars and rely on the kinds of synthetic biology that Bannon and Ocko both expect to yield even greater results in the next decade.

"In 2020 we will see large raises for companies tackling every part of the 'animal agriculture stack'. We're currently using animals as pieces of production technology to convert plant-protein inputs into outputs we like to eat, drink, or wear," according to Bannon. "A new crop of founders are moving past this 4,000 year old technology by using biology or other tech to make the same products, but without the animals. 2020 will bring large rounds for these companies across the stack (meat, milk, gelatin / collagen, leather, etc)."

Decades from now, the foods that consumers eat could be cultivated from organisms that are making proteins which are processed into the various foods that a new generation of consumers eat... on Mars.

Indeed, space is another area where advancements in science are overtaking the fictions of the day. Ocko thinks that the proliferation of small satellites generating high-quality imagery of the Earth will not only power investment profits from hedge funds, but will prove an integral part of a new carbon economy and drive efforts to combat climate change.

These satellites are "providing critical data for scientists tracking trends across the globe and for first responders in real-time situations like the recent California fires," according to Ocko. "We see a concordant trend in being able to deploy firefighting drones against fires in their earliest stages, potentially enabling greater resiliency in the face of climate change through the combination of real-time space intelligence and autonomous airborne systems."

Finally, there's even an opportunity for new technologies to correct the mistakes of innovations past. Some of the bots and crude automated messaging services generated by early iterations of machine learning technology -- which have been employed by the worst actors to poison the well of social media -- can be drowned out by more effective computational tools.

"We urgently need a multi-disciplinary approach to 'noise cancelling' increasingly advanced computational propaganda in social media and our societies overall.  This computational propaganda is the textual, memetic, and video 'cognitive poison' that is being today computationally amplified, and tomorrow computationally generated, and threatens the Western democracies that gave birth to the very tech that threatens to destroy them."

In this call to action is actually the seed of a warning that new technology developers and the investors that finance them should heed. The problems that are now laid at the feet of the current leaders of technology's last great revolution could easily apply to the next generation of innovators. And since these are companies who will transform the world directly -- the implications of that are far more profound -- and profoundly terrifying.

The future is being written now and it's up to the authors to determine whether the next chapter of humanity's history of magical thinking will also be its eulogy.