Back in February 2021 MIT Technology Review marked the 20th anniversary of their annual selection of the important technologies of the year. They presented this year’s list with a short review of each technology and provided a link to a more in-depth article.
There were ten ‘breakthrough’ technologies identified for 2021.
Firstly, one we’ve all become familiar with since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic – the use of messenger RNA vaccines. Research and development in mRNA has been ongoing for the last twenty years or so but the pandemic spurred some fast action and rapid development of at least two effective vaccines. This heralds a future transformation of medicine as the technique holds out great hope for vaccines against diseases such as malaria and also for treatments for HIV and sickle cell disease and the possibility of helping us fight off cancers.
Two other technologies that may support, or encourage, societal changes are lithium-metal batteries and green hydrogen.
Quantumscape, a Silicon Valley startup with a deal with VW, claims the development of a battery that will support the wider adoption of electric vehicles by enabling a greater range and faster recharging. These lithium-metal batteries promise much for successful electric vehicles and may help support wider usage of them – although there is an increasing awareness that lithium supply could eventually become an issue.
This may be offset by the use of green hydrogen as a replacement for fossil fuels. Until the recent falls in cost for solar and wind power making hydrogen fuel has been an energy intensive and expensive process. With this no longer being the case, the supporting infrastructure is beginning to be built and will bring a network of electrolysis plants making clean hydrogen so enabling the manufacture of liquid synthetic fuels that are direct replacements for petrol and diesel.
The remainder of the list deals with a variety of IT related themes, from GPT-3 to hyper-accurate positioning to multi-skilled AI.
GPT-3 is the largest, and most literate, of natural language computer models that can write and speak. And whilst it can mimic human written text, as yet what it produces can sometimes be downright bizarre. This can probably be amended but will use vast amounts on computational power, need a large carbon footprint and an extraordinary amount of resources. So, yes, a technology ‘breakthrough’ but will, perhaps, take much longer to become mainstream.
The algorithms of TikTok’s recommendations have changed how influencers become famous by enabling new creators of online content to get large numbers of views far more quickly than other social media platforms. This encouraged the other platforms to try to follow suit and may lead to improvements in how we all access new and different kinds of online content. Will this broaden the range of media and views that we consume online?
Thinking about social media leads us to think about privacy and another ‘breakthrough’ technology in the list is that of Data Trusts which is alternative approach that is now being explored. Such trusts collect and manage your data and offer potential solutions to privacy and security although many details are still being worked out.
Other pandemic-induced digital solutions like digital contact tracing and remote everything also make the list. Contact tracing has not, so far, been very successful despite available technology but the lessons learnt may well pave the way for future success. And certainly the last year has speeded up the acceptance of ‘remote everything’. Online learning has had remarkable success in Asia – and perhaps there are lessons to be learnt in other parts of the world to help this type of learning be more successful elsewhere. In Africa, the pandemic has encouraged the use of telehealth care and it has been a life saver for many. There will be many lessons in both these areas for the future use of technology.
The final two points on the list are hyper-accurate GPS and multi-skilled AI. The completion last June of China’s global navigation system enables provision of positioning accuracy of 1.5 to two metres to everyone in the world and four new satellites for GPS III were launched in November 2020 will enable an upgrade of the GPS system that has been with us since the early 1990s. Pinpoint accuracy of GPS is opening up new possibilities for delivery robots, landslide warnings and more accurate self-driving cars.
Improvement in AI systems is premised through the use of multi-sensory inputs which would help robots gain a more flexible intelligence regarding the world around them. This could enable them to react to new situations and begin to generalise their learning similar to that learning found in humans.
These technologies are all in existence now and will, undoubtedly, affect us as they evolve and develop. What aspects of these will ‘breakthrough’ to our daily life in 2021 or maybe it will be something else that completely surprises us?
Written by Cathy Dunn, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
Future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% higher growth. SAMI Consulting brings 30 years of experience delivering foresight, futures and scenario planning – enabling companies and organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”. Find out more www.samiconsulting.co.uk.
If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at email@example.com and/or browse our website at https://www.samiconsulting.co.uk