At the speech commemorating the fortieth 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 the 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 crown 2020 as the real pretender to the annus horribilis throne.
“The human animal”, said H. Allan Smith, “differs from the lesser primates in his passion for lists”. So here is mine on the seven big tech happenings of 2020, in ascending order:
Number seven is Digital Transformation, which came into its own this year. Most purely non-digital companies faced plummeting sales and broken supply chains. Digital First companies like Zoom, Netflix, Amazon boomed, and proved they were antifragile. Companies which had infused digital DNA into their legacy business models and culture were more resilient than others. 2020 made every business realise that it needs to 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 – decentralised, tech tools driven, distributed authority – suddenly became the present, as millions of knowledge workers stopped going to office to work, and the Zoomer generation was born. This year has accelerated the decentralisation of everything – work, retail, hospitality, healthcare, education. This will massively disrupt these sectors, and give rise to innumerable multi-billion opportunities in the process
Five is The Tech Lash: Big-tech had their best year yet, with Amazon up 93%, and Google and Microsoft crossing $1tn in valuation. However, 2020 will be remembered for the backlash against Tech becoming mainstream, with countries across the world started uniting against its burgeoning power. The first shot a was fired by the EU for antitrust violations. The US House of Congress grilled the tech titans in August, and now it is threatening to break Facebook up. China stopped the Ant Financial IPO a day before launch. With great power, comes great responsibility; the tech companies have enjoyed too much of the former, now it is time for the latter
Four was an AI breakthrough called GPT3 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 intellectual task that a human being can. GPT has been trained on a massive body of text across 175 billion parameters; all of Wikipedia would constitute just 0.6% of this training data. It is being used for some astounding use cases such as writing creative fiction in the style of many (including T.S. Eliot), auto-completing pictures, answering medical queries with stunning diagnostic accuracy, and even talking to historical figures like a simulated dialogue between AI pioneers Alan Turing and Claude Shannon interrupted by Harry Potter. We will see the real potential of GPT 3 in 2021 and beyond.
Number Three, ad an even greater leap forward in AI is Alpha Fold 2, the protein-folding predictor unveiled by Google-owned DeepMind. Proteins are the building blocks of our bodies, the origin of our existence. Scientists know that proteins fold, and the final intricate shape they take after folding determines their function. If they fold wrongly, they can cause Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS and other unknown diseases. Predicting how a protein will fold has been a huge challenge in science, since 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 the private spacecraft industry with the SpaceX, dragged the car industry to its electric future with Tesla, promised to solve the urban commute problem with the HyperLoop and the Boring Company, and, in his spare time, built a brain-machine interface with NeuraLink. In the bargain, he has overtaken Bill Gates to become the second richest man in the world, the Ironman who showed how one man could change the world.
The Number One news of 2020 is indubitably the COVID Vaccine. Vaccine development is often measured in decades, the fastest so far ebing the mumps vaccine which took four years to make. In the face of the biggest crisis to hit the globe, it was the scientists who rose up to save it. Within an year, we have three vaccines developed and manufactured, and more are on the way. Two of them are made in a profoundly new way, harnessing mRNA that contains the genetic instructions for the vaccinated 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 an year mutates into 2021, these big tech happenings give us hope of a more equal and decentralised, vaccinated and greener future. More to that in the next column
(This article was first published as an OpEd in Mint on 24 Dec 2020)