Annus horribilis the year has certainly been but it also saw some impressive advances in technology
At the speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of her becoming the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II memorably remarked, “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure." It was a year when three royal marriages disintegrated, a fire obliterated a large portion of Windsor Castle, and the Duchess of York one-upped all of this by getting entangled in a ‘toe-sucking’ scandal. Annus horribilis is the Latin term she used, which simply translates to ‘horrible year’. However, as she looks back at the year just going by, she might be tempted to pick 2020 as the real claimant to that crown.
“The human animal," said H. Allan Smith, “differs from the lesser primates in his passion for lists." So here is mine of 2020’s seven big tech happenings:
Number seven is Digital Transformation. Most purely non-digital companies faced plummeting sales and broken supply chains. Digital-first companies like Zoom, Netflix and Amazon boomed, and proved they were antifragile. Companies that had infused digital DNA into their legacy business models and culture were more resilient. 2020 made every business realize that it must be ‘as digital as possible’ to thrive in this increasingly uncertain world.
Six is Decentralisation and how Work from Anywhere came home. 2020 and covid slowed down the world, but paradoxically accelerated change. So, the future of work—decentralized, tech tools driven, with distributed authority—suddenly became the present, as millions of knowledge workers stopped going to office, and the Zoomer generation emerged. This year has accelerated the decentralization of everything—work, retail, hospitality, healthcare, and education. This will disrupt these sectors and give rise to innumerable opportunities.
Five is the Tech Lash: 2020 will be remembered for the backlash against Big Tech going mainstream, with many countries across the world uniting against its burgeoning power. The first shot was fired by the European Union for antitrust violations. The US House of Congress grilled Big Tech titans in August, and now it is threatening to break Facebook up. China stopped Ant Financial’s initial public offer just a day before launch. With great power comes great responsibility; tech companies have enjoyed too much of the former, now it is time for the latter.
Four was an artificial intelligence (AI) breakthrough called GPT 3, or Generative Pre-trained Transformer Ver 3, created by OpenAI. It is being heralded as the first step towards the holy grail of artificial general intelligence, by which a machine gains the capacity to understand or learn any mental task that a person can. GPT 3 has been trained on a massive body of text across 175 billion parameters; all of Wikipedia would constitute just 0.6% of this data. It is being put to astounding use, such as writing creative fiction in the style of many famous authors, auto-completing pictures, answering medical queries, and engaging historical figures in simulated dialogues, such as one between AI pioneers Alan Turing and Claude Shannon interrupted by Harry Potter.
Number Three, and an even greater leap forward in AI, is Alpha Fold 2, the protein-folding predictor unveiled by Google-owned DeepMind. Scientists know that proteins fold, and the final intricate shape they take after folding determines their function. If they fold wrongly, they can cause serious diseases. A protein could take any of as many as 10 raised to the power 300 different shapes. AlphaFold 2 predicts this with a roughly 92% accuracy, and this could change medical science forever.
Number Two is a phenomenon called Elon Musk. Just declared Fortune Businessperson of the Year, he has created a private spacecraft industry with SpaceX, dragged the car industry to its electric future with Tesla, promised to solve the urban commute problem with HyperLoop and Boring Company, and, built a brain-machine interface with NeuraLink.
The number one spot goes to the covid vaccine. Vaccine development is often measured in decades, but scientists rose to save the world. Within a year, we have three vaccines developed and manufactured, and more are on the way. Two of them harness mRNA, which contains genetic instructions for a person’s own cells to generate an immune response. mRNA can be potentially used to treat various cancers and multiple other yet-incurable diseases.
As this humdinger of a year mutates into 2021, these tech happenings offer hope of a more equal, decentralized, vaccinated and greener future.
Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’ and founder of Digital Matters