UPDATED 10:00 EST / DECEMBER 24 2019

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The future is autonomous: 5 reasons why automation will be tech’s major story in 2020

This article wasn’t written by a robot, but it could have been. That, along with literally thousands of other uses, is why automation will be big news in 2020.

Over the course of 2019, it was nearly impossible to cover any major tech conference without discussing an innovation in robotics, artificial intelligence or a similar automation solution. Not every automated advance will be a surefire winner, but the body of evidence offers a convincing case that the field is moving rapidly and adoption will only continue to grow.

The global automation industry is expected to generate $238 billion by 2021, with sectors such as artificial intelligence predicted to double over the three-year span.

Rapid advances in AI and machine learning have propelled automation out of the research lab and into daily lives. The chances are fairly high now that customer service requests via online query or a phone call are being handled by a chatbot.

Here are five key reasons why automation will continue to be a significant story in 2020:

1. Robotic process automation

Two of the leading companies in the RPA space — UiPath Inc. and Automation Anywhere Inc. — raised a combined $858 million in 2019 alone, bringing theor total combined valuation to nearly $14 billion. Gartner Inc. has called RPA the fastest-growing software subsegment that it tracks.

What is propelling this segment of the tech market is a realization in the enterprise world that RPA really can handle mundane tasks and free up people to focus on other areas of the business. Companies are using RPA to process invoices and generate price comparisons, but the expectation is that RPA will move inexorably into medical, pharmaceuticals, and even the public sector.

“Of the 2,800-plus customers we have, I have visited hundreds of them and talked to thousands of people on the ground who use this technology, and there’s not a single one of them who would go back,” said Mihir Shukla, co-founder and chief executive officer of Automation Anywhere, during a 2019 interview with SiliconANGLE.

2. Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Venture capital funding reached nearly $10 billion in AI businesses last year, a doubling of investment from the previous period. When Microsoft Corp. surveyed senior executives, it found that 94% viewed AI as an important tool.

Is this indeed the “eternal spring” of AI, as former Google Brain leader and industry pioneer Andrew Ng speculated in an interview?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the field is blooming. AI-powered robots are already hard at work on manufacturing assembly lines, side-by-side with human workers. The healthcare industry is using AI to streamline drug discovery and monitor patients with virtual assistants. And 3,700 corporate earnings reports are being produced by the Associated Press per quarter without a single human reporter writing a word.

However, the focus on AI and machine learning may also shift strongly in 2020 from what the technology does to what it shouldn’t. Providing guardrails for AI was a hotly debated subject in 2019, and governments, such as the state legislature in Illinois, are becoming more active in limiting use of the technology in the workplace.

“Every product that we’re building is seeking to change a behavior,” said Charna Parkey, an applied scientist at Textio Inc., during a SiliconANGLE interview in November. “If you’ve got unmanned aerial vehicles and you’re trying to make a decision about where to drop the bomb, you need a human in the loop.”

3. Cybersecurity

The cybersecurity industry is facing a basic math problem. There are too many threats and not enough people to deal with them.

A study by the largest nonprofit group in the security industry found that there was a gap of nearly 3 million cybersecurity jobs worldwide. Meanwhile, according to a report from SelfKey, at least 5.3 billion records were exposed through data breaches in 2019 alone.

This may explain why investments in automated cybersecurity solution companies have been soaring, according to a study from Pitchbook and Dell Technologies Capital. Will this be enough to help businesses protect crucial data?

The answer is still to be determined, but enterprises are taking steps to confront the harsh reality.

In the same week this year that Pat Gelsinger, chief executive of VMware Inc., declared that the security industry had “failed its customers,” his company completed the acquisition of Carbon Black Inc., a security platform with an AI-powered data lake. And in December, Amazon.com Inc. Chief Technology Officer Werner Vogels, who frequently appeared at AWS events during the year wearing a shirt with the slogan “Encrypt Everything,” announced the release of several new automation tools for cloud security.

“We can’t just keep using brute force and throwing tools at the problem,” said Dave Vellante, chief analyst at SiliconANGLE’s sister market research firm Wikibon. “The focus really has to be on automation. So machine intelligence and analytics will definitely be part of the answer.”

4. Voice and digital assistants

It started with voice interface built into smartphones, and the technology has now shifted to the smart home thanks to the popularity of digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home. The U.S. installed base of home smart speaker devices grew from 50 million units to 76 million over the past year.

There are signs that the coming year will see the deployment of voice technology for a variety of use cases well outside of the home. McDonald’s Corp. is testing voice-activated drive-throughs in Chicago, and Domino’s Pizza is developing a voice-recognition application to take telephone orders.

And the enterprise is headed down the voice technology road in 2020. Salesforce.com Inc. devoted much of its annual Dreamforce conference in November to the roll out of an AI-powered voice technology for the company’s business products and systems.

“This is the end of data entry and the beginning of data conversations,” Richard Socher, chief scientist at Salesforce, said during a Dreamforce conference presentation. “Voice is finally here.”

5. Autonomous cars

The year 2019 was not a promising one for the future of autonomous driving. Chief executives at Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co. conceded that deploying self-driving cars was proving to be a difficult task. The state of Arizona was sued after an Uber Inc. self-driving car killed a pedestrian in 2018.

However, there are also signs that 2020 may be a year of small yet significant steps for autonomous cars.

In December, the California Department of Motor Vehicles announced a permitting process for companies seeking to deploy small autonomous trucks for commercial use. Nvidia Inc. also launched a new set of advanced processors specifically designed for self-driving vehicles.

And Volkswagen declared its intention to put a fleet of electric self-driving cars on the road during the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Even the coming 2020 presidential election in the U.S. has not been insulated from the automation discussion. One recent story documented how automation is perhaps the least understood issue on the part of both candidates and voters.

“Artificial intelligence, deep learning, machine learning —  whatever you’re doing, if you don’t understand it  —  learn it,” said Mark Cuban, the tech entrepreneur and reality TV star. “Because otherwise you’re going to be a dinosaur within three years.”

Photo: Tomasz Frankowski/Unsplash

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