Seven technology predictions for a year of accelerated change

2020 was an unusual year, an Annus Horribilis of our times. While it was the year of the virus, it was also the year that science and technology came into its own. A vaccine in less than a year, the unstoppable rise of Elon Musk and his paradigm-shattering companies, startling new advances in Artificial Intelligence with GPT 3 and AlphaFold 2, and the Tech Backlash were some of the big tech events of the year gone by. As humanity welcomes 2021 with an almost desperate hope and optimism, would science and technology will continue to shape the world?

In this column, I have decided to be brave, and foolish, to predict what 2021 will bring.   “A good forecaster,” said an anonymous wise man, “is not smarter than everyone else, he merely as his ignorance better organized.” So here is my ignorance, encapsulated into Top Seven Tech Predictions for 2021

  1. Vaccines and their rollout will continue to be the biggest story of 2021. However, the focus on mRNA will go beyond just the COVID vaccine, as a promising technique to attack some of our most dangerous diseases, notably cancer. Dr. Özlem Türeci and Dr. Ugur Sahin, the celebrated wife-husband pair, who molded their mRNA passion and research into the first vaccine, the BionTech-Pfizer one, will win the Nobel Prize in 2021.
  2. The Third World War will not be fought between nations, but between Big Tech and national regulators. The EU and Europe have sounded the horn for battle against Google and Facebook, China has taken the unprecedented step of shooting down the $37BN Ant IPO mere days before listing, even the laissez faire US asked for the breakup of Facebook. Big Tech has become as, if not more, powerful than nation-states and the states are hitting back, with their regulators being the front-line troops in the battle. 2021, with the Democrats in the saddle in the US, will see even bigger confrontations. Perhaps, the sign of things to come were evident when Microsoft became the first corporation to open a UN representative office. Expect more companies to do so.
  3. Bitcoin will become mainstream. Some of it has already begun with PayPal allowing crypto spending, and both Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan appointing executives to head digital assets. As Bitcoin moves from the realms of technology and libertarian idealists to Wall Street and Main Street, its price has surged past USD 30000. I expect it go beyond USD 50000 in 2021; alternatively, it will drop below USD 5000!
  4. Work from Anywhere (WFA) will become mainstream – going beyond mere Work from Home (WFH), we will work out of home, offices and anywhere else we can be. Many large corporations have already announced plans to move to this new scenario. Expect some companies to make WFA a permanent policy, as work becomes decentralised, and the 50% drop in business travel predicted by Bill Gates to become reality.
  5. This Great Decentralisation will not only be in work, but also in retail (with ecommerce and omnichannel), hospitality (more AirBnbs than mammoth hotels), education (hybrid college-home), healthcare (hospitals and telemedicine) and many other sectors. Scott Galloway, of the Stern School of Business, calls it the Great Dispersion, and this phenomenon, which got accelerated by the pandemic, will become unstoppable.
  6. The above will mean that customer journeys will change dramatically. It takes 21 days to form a habit, 90 to make it a behaviour. The unending lockdowns have irrevocably altered our behaviours in retail, eating out, work, learning and healthcare. Corporations will need to quickly adjust to these new customer experience and journeys, and digital technologies, tools and expertise will be in great demand to make their business models ‘as digital as possible’. Technology and strategy will not be different things for a company, technology strategy and business strategy will merge, as businesses scramble to become tech-at-core. Expect almost every company to start their digital transformation journeys, and a flurry to find and appoint Chief Digital Officers.
  7. Finally, we will see the Third Great Wall of China: the first was built centuries ago to protect against Eurasian invaders, the second was built last century to separate the global internet from the Chinese internet. The third is being built now, by the US and its allies, to prevent China from becoming an AI and tech superpower, as an example the 5G wars with Huawei and the US sanctions against Chinese tech companies. This will mean that the tech world could get divided into two – the China tech evangelized through the Belt and Road and other initiatives, and the rest of the world.

It happened to be a 6th century Chinese Poet, Lao Tzu, who said that “Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.”. As I bravely make the above predictions, it will be end of 2021 which will reveal which of these two camps I belong to.

(This article was published in Mint on Jan 7 2021)

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