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 we base our annual predictions this year.
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.
Canadian AI company BlueDot is credited with the early detection of COVID-19. The health monitoring company used its AI platform to continuously review over 100 data sets including airline ticket sales, demographics, foreign language news reports, climate data, plant disease data and animal populations, and beat the WHO to detect the outbreak on 31 December 2019.
BlueDot detected not only the outbreak in Wuhan but also that it would jump to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo in the days after it was initially detected. All this without using social media data which BlueDot claims is too messy.
Another AI platform developed by Boston Children's Hospital, HealthMap, does leverage social media data, and crunches data from Google searches, blogs and discussion forums, effectively listening to chatter to detect unusual patterns which can be used to identify the first signs of an outbreak
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.
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:
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:
Market Intelligence analysts ABI Research claim in a whitepaper that 5G will be far and away the most successful mobile phone tech ever launched. They expect it to expand smartphone sales exponentially, reaching 1.15 billion units by 2025, and accounting for more than 70% of total smartphone sales, becoming the most accelerated mobile technology generation ever launched.
"5G smartphone sales will increase more aggressively compared to 4G and, in comparison to growth at launch, 5G will outperform its predecessor on nearly every metric, including the number of mobile devices, subscribers, and networks," forecasts Research Director David McQueen.
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:
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 USD 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.
Our head of Data Protection & Cyber Vin Bange predicts that visible privacy accountability has value, and that those companies that demonstrate it will be more likely to succeed. Reflecting this, we predict that general concerns about use of personal information among consumers will continue to grow, and those companies that demonstrate 'privacy by design', and put it at the heart of their culture and product development will reap the greatest rewards.
That said, given the factors brought out in the survey and financial data above, we don't think there will be a dramatic shift in social media business models for some years to come.
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 generally (see above regarding 5G), 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.
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 EUR 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.
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.
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.
2020 has reminded us that to attempt to predict the future is a fool's errand. We hope our musings above prove more accurate than some previous attempts to foresee technological advancement. Our favourite has to be the 1956 newspaper article envisioning a major innovation in department store infrastructure, through the introduction of an "Air Curtain Entrance". This was described in the newspaper back then:
"There's no door in a revolutionary doorway for stores. Instead, a curtain of downward rushing air acts as a temperature and draft barrier to protect the interior. Rows of overhead nozzles direct filtered, warmed (or air-conditioned) air downward to a floor grille… The air velocity is a gentle breeze that won't disturb women's hair but is said to keep out dogs and cats. At night, a conventional door protects the opening."
Just as the pioneers of Betamax failed to anticipate VHS, it seems a journalist in the 1950s failed to foresee the development of the revolving door.
To discuss any of the issues covered in this article in greater detail, please contact a member of our Technology, Media & Communications team.
Upcoming UK and EU initiatives which will impact platforms in 2021 and beyond.
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What 2021 holds for life sciences and healthcare in the context of COVID-19 and Brexit.
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Looking at parallel initiatives from the EU and the UK which will shape the future of data sharing in 2021 and beyond.
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What to expect from the UK's plans to regulate online harms.
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Vin makes his top five predictions for data privacy in 2021.
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