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I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo the Hobbit, in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings (LOTR). Frodo was reflecting upon what all of us have been undergoing for the past two years, as the covid pandemic sweeps over us in successive waves. Gandalf the Wizard replies: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." While some of us chose to feel helpless, many in the world of technology decided that this really was the time to change the world. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, here are seven big things that happened, or shall we say the “seven Rings presented to the Dwarf Lords" of Tolkien’s Middle Earth:

Year 2021 of the Common Era was one in which crypto came into its own, not only as a trading instrument, but also as a real currency—if not of the real world, at least of this alternate reality on the internet called the Metaverse. Facebook Inc changed its name to Meta Inc, a16z and others introduced billion-dollar investments, Coinbase listed itself for its shares to be traded on a real-world stock exchange, and meme coins reigned. To me, the most profound revolution that this has ignited is the rise of the creator economy, where ‘individuality is monetized’ and artists, writers and other creators can carve out careers of their own. This will have a profound impact on jobs, organizations, and work in general. The Metaverse of course is new and uncertain, and as Tolkien says, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to." The Metaverse, crypto and the creator economy that it has unleashed together promise to sweep us off to another world and a new reality.

The past year was also one that saw artificial intelligence (AI), specifically Deep Learning, make great strides. The year before, DeepMind, an Alphabet-owned company, unveiled Alpha Fold, which predicted how proteins fold in our body, something that could revolutionize medical science. In 2021, DeepMind spun off a subsidiary called Isomorphic Labs that will focus on using AI processes to develop new drugs. AI has been hailed for long as a path-breaking technology and Deep Learning could make that happen to become “the one Ring to rule them all."

Closer home, a mythical creature galloped across techdom, more specifically the startup world. Unarguably, the startup ecosystem in India has not seen a boom year like 2021. By 29 December, India had doubled its unicorn population to 81 startups with valuations of $1 billion or more, making us the world’s third largest unicorn country. This unprecedented boom in tech entrepreneurship reflects how the old order is changing and speaks of the courage of our young people who believe in venturing out to change the world for the better.

Globally, if there was one company that arguably changed the course of history, it was Tesla; 2021 was the year that Tesla and its creator Elon Musk single-handedly reshaped the automobile, technology and energy industries, and thus the world. The company’s market value crossed $1 trillion, more than the next nine carmakers. Tesla’s success drove Musk to become the richest man in the world, but its influence went beyond that: Every carmaker, country and vehicle customer has embraced electric as the future of personal mobility, with most automobile firms declaring that they will stop making conventional vehicles soon.

The other place where Musk’s outsize influence made a mark was outer space. His SpaceX has overtaken countries to become a dominant player, launching the biggest rockets, bringing them back to earth, and blanketing the sky with satellites to connect the planet. Rivals Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are trying to catch up, and a billionaire’s space race has begun. “Not all those who wander are lost," said Tolkien. Perhaps he had them in mind.

While tech roared ahead, much of it got impacted by the Great Semiconductor Supply Chain Crisis, as the post-Delta recovery severely strained the supply of semiconductors. The lack of these chips, which are used beyond electronics and computing, in cars and consumer durables and everything else going smart, hit the production and availability of almost everything. It also pushed semiconductors to the top of the list of strategic industries, eliciting massive investments by countries and even the fear of war over this scarce commodity.

Finally, the future of work suddenly came closer. The creator economy, gig work and entrepreneurship boom, combined with work-from-home (or anywhere) forced by the pandemic, showed workers that there could be other ways to make a living. This resulted in large swathes of white-collar workers quitting jobs or contemplating leaving in what was dubbed The Great Resignation. Nowhere did this have a bigger impact than in the tech sector, leading to raw nerves in companies and skyrocketing salaries.

The past year had many more big tech events, but I had to choose seven. This year promises to be even bigger, as the pandemic shows signs of weakening.

“All’s well that ends better," said The Lord of the Rings, and my seven predictions for this year will follow in my next column a fortnight from now.

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

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