No-one foresaw the world-changing events of this year, but one thing is clear: tech has been affected just as much as every other part of our lives.
Another thing that is clear is that today’s most important tech trends will play a big part in helping us cope with and adapt to the many challenges facing us. From the shift to working from home to new rules about how we meet and interact in public spaces, tech trends will be the driving force in managing the change.
In many ways, Covid-19 will act as a catalyst for a whole host of changes that were already on the cards anyway, thanks to our increasingly online and digital lives. Things will just happen more quickly now, with necessity (long acknowledged as the mother of invention) as the driving force. And should it be the case that – as certain US presidents have predicted – Covid-19 “magically disappears” – the changes it has brought about will not, as we will have learned to do a lot of things more efficiently and safely.
Here’s my overview of how the major tech trend that I identified in my most recent book Tech Trends in Practice, are likely to play out during the next year. Some will play their part in helping us to recover "normality" (whatever that means), while some of them will make it easier for us to understand and navigate a changed reality.
1. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI is undoubtedly one of the biggest tech trends at the moment, and during 2021 it will become an even more valuable tool for helping us to interpret and understand the world around us. The volume of data we are collecting on healthcare, infection rates, and the success of measures we take to prevent the spread of infection will continue to increase. This means that machine learning algorithms will become better informed and increasingly sophisticated in the solutions they uncover for us.
From computer vision systems monitoring the capacity of public areas to analyzing 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.
For business, the challenge will be to understand the changing patterns of customer behavior. More human activity will take place online – from shopping and socializing to virtual working environments, meetings, and recruitment. During 2021 we can expect the tools we use to analyze these behavioral shifts to become more sophisticated and increasingly fit the budget and infrastructure requirements of more and more organizations.
2. Robotics, Drones, and Vehicle Automation
As the volume of passengers using public transport fluctuates from week to week, depending on local conditions, initiatives around self-driving vehicles will continue at an increasing pace. Driving efficiency across public transport networks will be a priority for service providers as well as civic authorities, where reducing human labor costs will help balance the uncertainty around customer demand.
In recent years we have seen the emergence of robots in the care and assisted living sectors, and these will become increasingly important, particularly when it comes to interacting with members of society who are most vulnerable to infection, such as the elderly. Rather than entirely replacing the human interaction with caregivers that is so important to many, we can expect robotic devices to be used to provide new channels of communication, such as access to 24/7 in-home help, as well as to simply provide companionship at times when it may not be safe to be sending nursing staff into homes. Additionally, companies finding themselves with premises that, while empty, still require maintenance and upkeep, will turn to robotics providers for services such as cleaning and security. This activity has already led to soaring stock prices for enterprises involved in supplying robots.
Drones will be used to deliver vital medicine and, equipped with computer vision algorithms, used to monitor footfall in public areas in order to identify places where there is an increased risk of viral transmission.
3. The As-A-Service Revolution
“As-a-service” – the provision of services that we need to live and work through cloud-based, on-demand platforms – is the key that has put the other tech trends we talk about today in reach of anybody. It’s the reason why AI and robotics are a possibility for just about any business or organization, regardless of their size or budget. Thanks to cloud offerings from companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and an ever-growing horde of startups and spinoffs, innovators in all fields can deploy cutting-edge tech with little upfront investment in tools, equipment or specialized people.
As the ongoing pandemic rages around the world, we have clearly seen that companies that rely on cloud to provide scalable solutions as-a-service are prospering. Take Zoom, for example, which has quickly become a household name thanks to the speed with which it was able to add servers and increase its coverage and quality of service. This was due to its cloud-based nature and its partnerships with its own service providers, that were able to quickly increase capacity to meet demand. In 2021 and beyond, this is going to become increasingly important and more possibilities will open up for everyone.
4. 5G and enhanced connectivity
Faster and more reliable internet doesn't just mean we can load webpages more quickly and spend less time waiting for videos to launch on Youtube. Each successive advance in mobile connectivity from 3G onwards has unlocked new use cases for the internet. 3G made web browsing and data-driven services useful on mobile devices, 4G led to the growth of streaming video and music platforms as bandwidths increased, and 5G, likewise, will open more doors in terms of what is possible.
5G means that services relying on advanced technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality (discussed below) as well as cloud-based gaming platforms like Google's Stadia or NVidia's GeForce Now become a viable proposition, anywhere at any time. They also threaten to make cable and fiber-based networks redundant, with their need for us to be tethered to a particular location.
In short, 5G and other advanced, high-speed networks make all of the other trends we discuss here available anywhere, any time. Complex machine learning applications relying on real-time access to Big Data sources can be conducted in the field, via automation. A great example is Norwegian fishery operator Salmar that uses a 5G network to automate the care and feeding of its fish. Image recognition algorithms are used to detect which fish are over or under-feeding, and automatically dispense food and medicine needed to keep them healthy. Initiatives like this will become increasingly important during 2021, where businesses look to increase automation across their workforces.
5. Extended Reality (XR) – Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/MR).
These terms cover technology that uses glasses or headsets to project computer-generated imagery directly into the user's field of vision. When it is superimposed over what the user is viewing in the real world, it is AR. And when it is used to place the user into an entirely computer-generated environment, it is VR.
During next year we can again expect to see these, in conjunction with the other trends discussed here, assisting in tackling challenges posed by the current world situation. Largely this will involve allowing us to avoid potentially dangerous situations where there could be a risk of viral transmission. For example, medical examinations and diagnosis can increasingly be carried out remotely. A solution available to opticians allows eye tests to be carried out entirely in VR, as high-definition cameras give a clear image of the patient's eye. An AR tool then allows the customer to browse the range of glasses on offer and see what they look like on their own face without having to leave their home.
We will also see an increase in the use of VR and AR tools within education. This will reduce the need for us to work in crowded classroom conditions – if not totally, then at least in areas and during times when it is known that transmission rates are high.
And as more data on the conditions and manner in which viral transmission takes place becomes available, AR tools will be used to give out real-time warnings when we move through areas where the infection is known to have spread. Even simple steps like reminding us to wash our hands when we touch a door handle in a public space or issuing an alert when a device senses that we have touched our face without washing our hands, could help to save lives and stop us spreading illness around the real-word environments we inhabit and move through.