Predicting the future is never easy. Few people would have predicted the events of the last 24 months, so perhaps the only safe predictions are continued uncertainty in the world, mistrust of governments and big brands, and the growing urgency of the need to tackle climate change. Against that backdrop we've tried to assemble a few thoughts (through the lens of technology) on what we expect 2022 and beyond will bring, and if one word runs through the themes like through a stick of rock, it's trust.
According to Forrester's market predictions for 2022, 10 big brands will step in where governments fail to act. The report finds that consumers in the US, UK, France, and India trust companies more than governments (although it's all relative) and increasingly expect brands to use their platforms to lead the change on issues impacting greater society. This prediction is not limited to the technology sector but in large part it is likely to be technology that enables brands to step up and deliver on ESG and other goals, to reflect the values they claim to live by.
The Forrester Analytics Consumer Technographics Benchmark Survey, 2021, shows that more adults in major markets regularly purchase from brands that align with their personal values. While most brands typically avoid aligning with values that may strongly split opinion, particularly political ones, it is likely that environmental values will be front and centre given 2021 has witnessed a turning point in public consciousness, with awareness of the seriousness of the climate crisis growing through activism and perhaps the (long overdue) acceptance of the urgency of the issue by the mainstream media.
Big tech may be late to the game, but they are here – examples include Apple's recent announcement that it will allow customers to repair some devices at home, and its move away from bundling headphones and chargers. CCS Insight recently predicted that by 2024, phone-makers' green credentials will become an important part of consumer purchase decisions in developed markets, and that environmental concerns will fuel interest in refurbished devices. Indeed, an initiative from leading European mobile operators to develop a pan-industry Eco Rating labelling scheme was announced in May 2021, which aims to provide information at the point of sale to help buyers identify and compare the most sustainable devices.
Media platforms are now also on the front foot – the Director-General of the BBC has said climate change is no longer a "politically controversial" issue (a comment made while speaking as part of a panel that coincided with COP26). This comes as 12 of the UK's major media brands agreed to increase the amount and improve the quality of their climate change storytelling across drama, comedy and daytime programming.
While technology businesses can play a crucial role in tackling climate change directly, media businesses will need to tackle climate misinformation. Last month, an open letter led by the Conscious Advertising Network and signed by over 250 major organisations (including major consumer brands such as Ben & Jerry's and 02, media agencies such as Havas and VCCP, charities including Friends of the Earth, as well as scientists and other contributors) demanded COP26 leaders and technology platforms address climate misinformation. The letter is addressed to the CEOs of Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest and Reddit. The letter stated: "The problem we are trying to solve is that many of the big tech platforms currently have no Climate Misinformation policies. In August 2021, a study by Newsguard and Comscore found that $2.6 billion was being spent by big brands advertising on misinformation sites. Clearly, there is a significant risk that COP26 could be seriously undermined by dis/misinformation or even that violence may be inspired by that disinformation. This must change."
One of the signatories, Eco-bot.net, highlighted a wide range of 'greenwashing' campaigns designed to look supportive of climate goals, but which contribute to climate warming or contravene the scientific consensus on mitigation and adaptation. Research from another signatory, Stop Funding Heat, found 113 ads on Facebook with messages like "climate change is a hoax" between January and October 2021. The letter demands that the platforms implement climate misinformation and disinformation policies, and enforcement that extends to content, algorithms and advertising, similar to the robust COVID-19 policies that have been published over the last 18 months. Among more specific measures, platforms are urged to accept the official definition of climate misinformation and block adverts where they meet the definition.
Making up around 20 percent of the population and born between 1995 and 2000, generation Z have entered, or are entering, the workforce. According to research by Deloitte, 37 percent of this generation feels anxious about climate change and the environment is their number one worry globally. They have grown up with the existential risk of human extinction on their Instagram feeds. According to Forbes, activists are now the most important group for brands, even if they don't buy their product or service "…because a handful of digital activists can bring down share prices by convincing existing customers to boycott your brand. Historically, activism was viewed as something radical, often on the fringes of society. Today, activism is mainstream, further accelerated by the pandemic. In 2021, companies can no longer afford to stay silent on important social and environmental issues. Put simply, not taking a stand makes you complicit in maintaining the status quo".
As announced by the UK government in October, the UK will become the first G20 country to enshrine in law mandatory TCFD-aligned requirements for Britain's largest companies and financial institutions to report on climate-related risks and opportunities. The government confirms that from April 2022 over 1,300 of the largest UK companies and financial institutions will have to disclose climate related information.
Businesses will need to publish and live by their environmental values, be pro-active in doing so, and report on their progress. This will drive the need to engage with platforms that can properly harness and assess climate data on a global basis. Platforms like UK-based CLIMATE X (which harnesses vast data to map the Earth's surface and allow businesses to project the impact climate change will have on properties, assets or infrastructure under different climate scenarios) or aklimate (a platform allowing companies to engage with suppliers on a mass scale to assess supply chain emissions) are just two examples of a growth area in data analysis which is likely to become essential to businesses. The fact that businesses can only report on data they can actually measure is also driving a new form of 'carbon accountancy', as harnessed by another growing platform, Emitwise.
2022 will see a stratospheric increase in carbon reduction messaging, reporting and proactive brand communication, with a corresponding growth in investment into companies that can enable this.
Large companies commonly offer cybersecurity 'bug bounties', (sometimes amounting to very material sums) to people who help them find previously undetected security flaws in software. Startups such as Bugcrowd and HackerOne have been fast to grow offerings.
As AI has gathered pace, the idea of sourcing penetration testing from ethical hackers has shifted to the need to flag unforeseen algorithmic bias. Algorithmic bias has long been reported in hiring decisions, as has the fact that some facial recognition technology has a difficult time identifying Black people, and some credit scoring systems reflect class divisions along racial lines.
On 30 July 2021, Twitter launched the first algorithmic bias bug bounty program, opening the code of its image cropping algorithm (based on identifying the most salient images) and asking participants to look for new biases. This followed allegations that an algorithm resulted in racial bias in September 2020, when a user showed that when presented with an image of Barack Obama and a white US politician, the algorithm systematically cropped out the former president. After the bounty hunt, Twitter announced its findings, highlighting a number of other areas of bias, including that the algorithm almost never chose people with white hair as the most salient person in a photo.
Twitter commented: "The results… confirmed our hypothesis: we can't solve these challenges alone, and our understanding of bias in AI can be improved when diverse voices are able to contribute to the conversation.". It has also stated: "Results of the bounty suggest biases seem to be embedded in the core saliency model and these biases are often learned from the training data. Our saliency model was trained on open source human eye-tracking data, which poses the risk of embedding conscious and unconscious biases. Since saliency is a commonly used image processing technique and these datasets are open source, we hope others that have utilized these datasets can leverage the insights surfaced from the bounty to improve their own products".
This is a view shared by many commentators and experts. "Exposing AI's biases starts by scrapping the notion that machines are inherently objective", says Cathy O'Neil, a data scientist, whose book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, examines how algorithms pervade modern life, and the darker side of Big Data. "Even when parameters that guide algorithms are completely reasonable, discriminatory choices can still sneak in through the cracks. When you make reasonable choices without thinking very hard about them, you're automating the status quo, and the status quo might be unreasonable".
Forrester predicts that in 2022, other major tech companies such as Google and Microsoft will implement bias bounties, as will non-technology companies including banks and healthcare companies. It states: "AI professionals should consider using bias bounties as a canary in the coal mine for when incomplete data or existing inequity may lead to discriminatory outcomes from AI systems. With trust high on the agenda of stakeholders, organizations will have to drive decision-making based on levers of trust such as accountability and integrity, making bias elimination ever more critical".
In the US, Verizon recently announced it has made a deal to use Amazon's Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to add capacity to the Verizon cellular network and provide fixed-wireless internet service in rural parts of the US. This reflects a growing consensus that LEOs hold great hope for addressing the digital divide, as emphasised in the US Congressional Research Service report to US legislators and policy makers in August 2021.
Broadband has for some time been provided through use of Geostationary (GEO) satellites. GEO satellites orbit the Earth above the equator at an altitude of 22,236 miles, so that their orbital motion exactly matches Earth's rotation. As a result, they stay in the same position relative to points on the Earth's surface, a useful feature for applications such as weather monitoring, communications, and surveillance. GEO satellites require just three satellites for the equivalent coverage of the Earth, unlike LEO satellites (see below) but they are much more expensive in many ways; they are extremely expensive to launch and have a roughly 15-year service life. Also, their performance is limited due to latency (given distance data has to travel) and interference of weather conditions is more acute given the need for a GEO satellite to be in line of sight of both receiving and sending ground stations.
Conversely, LEO satellites operate much lower (anywhere from around 300 to 1,250 miles above the Earth's surface), so this significantly cuts latency and allows for faster broadband speeds, and they are less impacted by weather conditions. LEO satellites are not restricted to orbits over the equator and can therefore better support coverage in northern and southern regions. There are drawbacks: orbital 'drag' means lifespans are shorter than GEO satellites, and also, because LEO satellites are constantly moving around the Earth (so that each satellite is only within line-of-sight of a fixed point on Earth for a short period of time), coverage requires many hundreds or thousands of satellites.
Gartner's annual predictions report suggests that by 2027, low orbit satellites will extend internet coverage to an additional billion of the world's poorest people, raising 50 percent of them out of poverty.
Gartner also predicts that in the next three years there will be nearly 900,000 professional developers across Africa enabled by the rise of informal education channels. As the African market continues to grow, Gartner anticipates global investors will reduce their venture investment in China in favour of Africa. Zdnet reports that a number of African nations have established innovation hubs in an effort to attract coders and tech talent to the region, and draw investment from overseas, including "Kenya's $1 billion tech ecosystem – dubbed 'Silicon Savannah' – which continues to attract entrepreneurs, investors and technologists from Africa and further afield".
The startup scene is nascent compared to the behemoths of US and Europe, but it has already produced a number of unicorns – as reported by Quartz Africa: "There is a wave of optimism around the first four African startups to hit a $1 billion valuation. These $1 billion+ companies… are Flutterwave, Interswitch, and Fawry in fintech, and Jumia in e-commerce. Emerging markets investment analysts are betting on these two sectors, staked on the continent's tech-savvy population, to provide even more unicorn status companies for the region… The continent's large unbanked population, most of whom are informally employed but increasingly mobile and tech savvy provides immense potential for tech startups to tap into the payments and e-commerce sectors".
The pandemic has driven growth in use of digital payment platforms and Fawry, Interswitch, Jumia, and Flutterwave have recorded a jump in user numbers and value of transactions processed on their e-commerce and fintech platforms. Three of these unicorns are from Africa's most populous country and largest economy, Nigeria, while Fawry is from Egypt, where tech startups are attracting massive funding from venture capitalists.
According to the UN, Africa has the world's fastest-growing population, with over 50 percent of global population growth by 2050 coming from the African continent, as well as the world's fastest-growing middle class. This population growth is set to drive a market that could be the next tech powerhouse.
The recent news that Apple is suing NSO Group for using its Pegasus spyware on Apple users could be the start of big tech as privacy champions. Apple is looking to get an injunction to prevent NSO from using Apple's products and services, and is seeking redress on behalf of its customers. Apple has a history of defending its users from access to their data by law enforcement, famously refusing to unencrypt a phone at the FBIs request in 2018. Given NSO spyware is state sponsored, 2022 may be the year that Apple and other tech giants take the fight to governments and sue them on behalf of individuals for breaching fundamental rights.
In 2021, South Africa's patent office granted the first patent for an invention conceived by an artificial intelligence inventor. This concerns an AI system known as DABUS, which stands for "device for the autonomous bootstrapping of unified sentience" and which has 'invented' "a food container based on fractal geometry".
The current position in the UK is that an inventor must be a person, with the UK Intellectual Property Office ruling "…machines do not have a legal personality and cannot own property".
Recognising the issue, however, the UK government recently launched a consultation to discuss the repercussions of AI in the UK copyright and patent system, seeking evidence and views on the extent to which patents and copyright should protect inventions and creative works made by AI. The consultation ends on 7 January 2022, so could 2022 see IP rights granted to AI systems in the UK and even globally? Given the differences between the South African patent system and those in the UK, US and EU, we think it will take longer than that for the picture to become clear.
Well, that's it for another year. We look forward to keeping an eye on our hit rate as 2022 develops and we'll be back with predictions for 2023 same time next year. To discuss any of these predictions in more detail, please reach out to a member of our Technology, Media & Communications team.
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