Home/ Opinion / Columns/  How 2021 fared on prophecies made by a modern-day Palantir

Forged by the Elves of Valinor, the Palantir is one of seven indestructible crystal balls used “to see events in other parts of world, whether past or future". J.R.R. Tolkien created them in The Lord of the Rings; Peter Theil and team created a Palantir in the modern world using data and algorithms to know what the future might bring. At the start of this year, I peered into a Palantir of my own to write down my seven predictions in technology for this pandemic-ridden year. Now that it has sped past, I thought it worthwhile to see how I rate my own clairvoyance.

My first one, I said that vaccines and their roll-out will continue to be the biggest story of 2021. While Elon Musk and his shenanigans gave it close competition, new vaccines, their roll-out, their selfish hoarding and their promise continued to dominate the headlines. I also said that the focus on mRNA will go beyond just the covid vaccine as a promising technique to attack some dangerous diseases, notably cancer. I also prophesied that Dr. Türeci and Dr. Sahin, the celebrated wife-husband pair who created the BioNtech-Pfizer jab, will win the Nobel Prize and was disappointed to be proved wrong. Score: 3/10

I then grandiosely said that World War III will not be fought between nations, but between Big Tech and national regulators, with governments prosecuting tech firms, and the latter lashing back. A lot of action took place—the Chinese tech squeeze, Facebook whistle-blowers, various large and small fines—but war has yet not broken out. These are skirmishes at best. Score: 4/10

My next one declared that Bitcoin (or crypto) will become mainstream, with big banks and even some retailers adopting it as a currency for trading and transactions. I also bravely said that Bitcoin will surge past $50,000 (it was $30,000 then), and then immediately hedged myself that if not, it will drop below $5,000. Well, Bitcoin crossed $60,000 and is about $48,500 today. It’s definitely more mainstream, with even risk-averse countries like India climbing down from their ‘ban crypto’ positions. A bigger story is probably the NFT and DeFi boom. So my score is 6/10.

My fourth prediction was that work-from-anywhere will become mainstream—we will work at home, offices and anywhere else we can be. Many large organizations bravely asked everyone to come to office, but then chickened out in the face of Delta (and later Omicron). Offices are still largely empty, work still goes on unimpeded from everywhere. I get 7/10 here.

Linked to the above was my fifth forecast that the Great Decentralization will go beyond work and reach retail (with e-commerce and omnichannels), hospitality (more Airbnb’s than huge hotels), education (hybrid college-home), and healthcare (hospitals and telemedicine). It’s too early to call it either way, but the signs are there: We prefer to do our first consultations on video before we go to a hospital, Airbnb is doing very well while hotels struggle, education continues to be hybrid though it sadly fosters a digital divide. My score: A tentative 6/10.

The sixth one carried along this theme saying that lockdowns would have altered consumer behaviour forever. Companies, I said, will need to quickly adjust to new customer experiences and journeys, and digital technologies and expertise will be in great demand to make their business models “as digital as possible". This is mostly true, with firms bringing artificial intelligence (AI) and digital transformation to the top of their agenda, even as tech service providers and product companies have never been busier or as desperate for people. So, a triumphant 9/10 on this one.

In my final prediction, I moved to dangerous territory and said that we will see the Third Great Wall of China coming up to separate the global internet from the Chinese internet. I thought it will be built by the US and its allies to prevent China from becoming an AI and tech superpower, and the tech world could get divided into two. I could not have been more right and more wrong. China is constructing this wall and isolating itself faster than the West can build it. Note the crackdown on Didi, Alibaba and Tencent. Big Tech in China is delisting from Western bourses, its founders cowed down. The wall is coming up, but built from within. My score: A weird 9/10.

A total score of 44 out of 70 is not bad in this volatile world of technology, and so there is some truth in the Palantri. These balls were unreliable, Tolkien wrote, as it was often unclear if the events shown were of the present or past. There was also a risk of users with power choosing what to show and what to conceal; I suspect this is true in our tech world too.

Jaspreet Bindra is the chief tech whisperer at Findability Sciences, and learning AI, Ethics and Society at Cambridge University.

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Updated: 23 Dec 2021, 10:50 PM IST
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