2020 held developments that very few of us could have foreseen, and so it’s with some trepidation that we approach the technology predictions for 2021.
Against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has touched everyone on the planet, in some ways it may feel a shallow exercise to try to focus on developments for a specific sector of commerce. However, as the advancements in vaccines have already demonstrated, progress in this sector can lead to evolutions that can be life changing as well as game changing.
“COVID-19 has triggered a decade’s worth of innovation in just a few short months,” said Serge Lupas, CEO of the media division at data insights company Kantar. Indeed, the pandemic has changed the way we all live and work, but many would argue that, with necessity being the mother of invention, it has simply accelerated a panoply of changes that were coming anyway around the way we work, communicate and live, technologically, economically and socially. So, it’s on shifting sands that I base annual predictions this year.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) will drive COVID-19 recovery
AI isn’t a new phenomenon and has become an acronym often shoehorned onto many technology models to (artificially, ahem) excite customers and investors. AI’s development has been typified by a series of incremental improvements punctuated by bursts of real change.
Even though scientists have been claiming to be building artificial intelligence for over 50 years, it is only in the last 20 years that we’ve seen real-world breakthroughs. These have been driven by the arrival of big data, enabling machines to analyse and learn from sufficiently large datasets to allow for the development of products ranging from natural speech recognition to autonomous vehicles.
AI’s ability to detect patterns from massive datasets is now used effectively in the detection of viruses. United States AI & big data firm Palantir is credited with the tracking & management of COVID-19.
According to Forbes, during 2021 AI will become an even more valuable tool as the volume of data we are collecting on healthcare, infection rates, and the success of measures we take to prevent the spread of infection continue to increase:
“From computer vision systems monitoring the capacity of public areas, to analysing the interactions uncovered through contact tracing initiatives, self-learning algorithms will spot connections and insights that would go unnoticed by manual human analysis. They will help us predict demand for services from hospitals and other healthcare providers, and allow administrators to make better decisions about when and where to deploy resources”.
As we move into the new normal where millions of consumers spend more time at home and less time travelling and interacting with physical monitoring systems such as Points of Sale and location-based tracking, more human activity will take place online. It will be imperative to track and predict virtual behaviour and use data to gain insight into behavioural change.
5G will be huge
The evolution from 3G to 4G was more than incremental. It allowed streaming services to thrive with increased bandwidth and changed the role of mobile data in our lives. The step up to 5G will be even more of a game-changer.
Currently 4G tops out at a theoretical 100 megabits per second (Mbps) whereas 5G tops out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means 5G is, in theory, a hundred times faster than the current 4G technology. At this speed, you could download a two-hour movie in just 3.6 seconds on 5G, compared with 6 minutes on 4G, or 26 hours on 3G.
But it’s not faster download that makes 5G so revolutionary, it’s the new use cases that allows. For example:
- AI machine learning applications (like the ones mentioned above) relying on real-time access to big data points can be conducted across much larger data sets in real time.
- 5G can handle more devices at once, so no more worrying about poor service in crowds. A 5G network can support around one million devices for every square kilometre, all connected to the internet at the same time. This will be transformational for the Internet of Things, supporting the ability for any object to be online – watches, clothes, pets, cars, healthcare monitoring devices, deliveries, traffic lights and multiple other pieces of infrastructure.
- Services relying on improved bandwidth and lower latency such as augmented reality and virtual reality, as well as cloud-based gaming platforms like Google’s Stadia, become a very viable proposition, as do 3D video calls.
5G can make cable and fiber-based networks – with their need for us to be tethered to a particular location – redundant. Some of the most pronounced effects may be in transport. Sector publication TTI has studied the likely effects of 5G on our cities in 2021 and beyond, and highlights the following:
- Decreased commute times – most transportation agencies rely on out of date schedules and data, resulting in poorly-timed lights, slowing motorists down and making commutes longer than they should be. 5G technology can change all this by allowing traffic lights to receive real-time data about the traffic patterns from cameras, sensors, and drones distributed throughout the smart city. In tests by Carnegie Mellon University, it was found that the technology yielded a 40% decrease in traffic stops, 21% drop in emissions, and a 26% faster commute.
- Driverless cars – autonomous driving will only be capable of mass rollout with the ability to process huge amounts of data in real time, which is not supported by existing 4G technology. Driverless cars effectively become a network sharing data about road conditions with other cars, such as warnings about icy conditions, location of snow build-up, potholes, or fallen trees, prompting vehicles to select a safe more optimal route – basically satnav on steroids.
Many of us want to pay for privacy, but perhaps not enough of us… yet
Predictions that ad-funded social media will be replaced by paid social apps are not new, and allegations about the role social media has played in recent elections and a certain referendum have not resulted in a dramatic shift in audience engagement.
Recent data does, however, show that sentiment favouring privacy, even at a financial cost to the user, is growing. Many commentators predict that a paid-for model will start to get traction in 2021.
Earlier in 2020, remote access management company Twingate commissioned a survey of social media users to gauge how concerned people are with the safety of their personal information, how much money they would be willing to pay to increase their privacy, as well as what platforms they most trust. The results seem to illustrate a rising tide:
- 45.9% of people were extremely or moderately concerned about the safety of their personal information
- 20.8% of people have had their personal information compromised through social media
- 43.5% of people have entered false information to protect personal information, with TikTok and Facebook users leading the way
- 28.6% of people would prefer to use social media platforms that generate profit through paid user subscriptions
- 60% of people are at least somewhat willing to pay for social media to prevent collection and sharing of personal information to third parties; strikingly, Millennials seem to feel more strongly about this than baby boomers, and Generation X feels even more strongly, at 63.7%.
Should these figures worry Facebook and its peers? Certainly. But will we see a significant shift to paid models in 2021? Some financial metrics are compelling on this point; according to the above survey, the average maximum amount users are willing to pay for a paid model of Facebook is USD 5.29 per month, or USD 63.48 per year, and based on Facebook’s published ad revenue, this far surpasses the USD 2.07 it would need to charge users to replace that ad revenue alone.
However, according to Axios, on wider revenues Facebook will generate around $226 per user in the US in 2021, which remains a multiple of what users say they are prepared to pay. Also, social media needs to be social, and it would seem less likely that users would be willing to pay for a platform unless most of their social media contacts join them. So, it will presumably take a groundswell of users to migrate to paid platforms before there is anything like a tipping point.
As remote working has become the default for many white-collar workers, holidays have become few and far between due to lockdowns and quarantine restrictions, and as access to mobile data improves, it’s likely that more travellers will see the sense in (and possibility of) spending more time at their holiday destinations by working remotely for part of the time. This could lead to ‘summering’ trips where work is mixed with holiday.
Lab grown meat
Given the environmental impact, meat production is not the flavour of the month. Another option is to make meat in a laboratory. The science behind this involves extracting stem cells, growing them, and then inducing them to make muscle and fat.
According to the Economist, more than 50 startups are working on cultured-meat products of various kinds, including burgers, chicken nuggets, shrimp dumplings and steak, and in 2021 consumers will be able to try lab-grown meat for themselves. The Economist points out that tissue engineering is prohibitively expensive to do at scale and claims that a burger unveiled in 2013 by Mosa Meat, a Dutch startup, cost €250,000 to produce.
This year, however, researchers at Northwestern University managed to reduce the cost of one kind of growth medium, the most expensive part of the process, by 97%. One startup is leading the pack: Memphis Meats aims to put products on the market from 2021. These will initially be plant-based but the company will then move to meat-based products from 2022.
Technology will support hybrid workforces
According to IDC, by 2023, 75% of large companies will commit to providing “technical parity” to a workforce that is “hybrid by design rather than by circumstance”. People will increasingly work in a mixture of locations, all connected by technology. In its 2021 predictions, IDC also said working from home will become institutionalised. Business models that embrace this culture will thrive, attract the best talent, and technologies that enable it will continue to scale in 2021 and beyond.
Through healthcare connectivity, the right hand will know what the left hand is doing
For decades the health service in the UK has attempted to connect its constituent parts so that the patient journey is supported by shared information between clinicians rather than hindered by a patchwork of disconnected providers, and blocked further by data protection laws outpacing stakeholders’ resources to invest in solutions that meet patient needs.
Disruptive technology is playing a role, with platforms like Careology enabling patients, care givers, nurses and clinicians to connect and share information on the same platform about a patient’s treatment and to help manage cancer care remotely. Governments are using private initiatives to bring public healthcare into the 21st century, spurred on by the pandemic.
Nazrul Hoque – 01 January 2021