Exponentials are often cited, oft explained, but seldom fathomed in full. It’s just not how the human brain is trained to think, since most of the real world phenomena that matter to us are linear. We age linearly, skyscrapers go up roughly linearly, and the progress of many of our older technologies—such as legacy cars—has been linear. But as technologies are digitalized, they ride exponential curves of improvement. Take cars, for example. During their analog stage, mechanical steering and acceleration control technology barely changed over a hundred years. But now that cars are being digitalized, software-based autonomous driving capabilities have gone from speed-only cruise control to automated emergency breaks to automated distance maintenance, lane control, and autonomous parking, and now are at the cusp of self-driving. All within the span of 15 years. The 2020s will be a decade when many exponential technologies will break out into mass use. The high rate of performance improvement, logarithmic reductions in price and faster rate of product releases will make prediction a difficult business. But for now, I’ll take my chances and dive into what I think may be the top technology trends in 2021.
1. Mainstream Bitcoin
Bitcoin has been the best performing asset of the last decade and is now attracting significant institutional funds. Hedge funds, multi-billion dollar corporations like MicroStrategy, and perhaps even Tesla’s Elon Musk are all investing in the cryptocurrency. What makes bitcoin so attractive is its low-cost, trustless, no-middle-man architecture combined with fast transaction settlements and hard limits on supply. With cryptocurrency market caps now hovering at roughly $1T, it is safe to say crypto has crossed the threshold and is implanted in the public consciousness as a real asset.
After all, we “believe” in the dollar not because a piece of paper is useful in and of itself, but because it represents a promise of value backed by the state. And why do we believe in the state? Ultimately, because it is an idea—a dream—shared by a large number of people. If a dollar is merely an idea that people collectively believe has value, then bitcoin is no different. It has evolved into a monetary network that now connects a very large number of people with shared belief in its value. And while the supply of fiat currencies continues to increase (25% of all USD currency in circulation was printed in the last year), the bitcoin pool forever remains limited to 21 million coins. While some fear regulation, I welcome it. Enforcing KYC (Know Your Customer) and AML (Anti Money Laundering) protections can help bitcoin by ending the fear, uncertainty and doubt once and for all. Let’s see what 2021 holds, but I am long BTC! HODL!
2. China’s Fast-Evolving Aviation Industry and the H-20 Bomber
Chinese aerospace developments are accelerating at a frenetic pace. China launched 29 satellites to the US’s 27 during the first nine months of 2020. Their drone industry has grown by leaps and bounds. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has already operationalized its J-20 stealth fighter bomber aircraft, but the upcoming H-20 stealth bomber represents a particularly important evolution of Chinese air power and technological capacity. The aircraft was rumored to be a potential exhibit at the November 2020 Zhuhai airshow, but did not ultimately make an appearance. It is all but certain that the platform will be unveiled in 2021.
According to some reports, the H-20 stealth bomber bears a resemblance to the B2 and B21 flying wing designs and can carry a payload of anywhere from 20 to 45 tons. The latter figure is unlikely but even the former would be significant. Its own range combined with stand-off weapon systems would allow the aircraft to reach deep within North America. I don’t believe the H-20 is a harbinger of conflict, but it does represent a significant qualitative evolution of Chinese aviation capability and a credible conventional strike platform that could alter strategic calculations over time.
3. Networked Aerial Terrestrial Swarm Systems
There are two schools of thought on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that took place earlier in 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The first group proposes that drones were effective in the conflict only because Armenia lacked a suitable air defense capability. The latter school of thought believes that it was the drones that neutralized Armenia’s otherwise modern defense capability and degraded their advantage to the point where Armenia was forced into capitulation and defeat.
While drones have been employed for decades, this conflict was different. Low-cost Turkish drones were combined with loitering munitions, electronic warfare and swarm strategies to wreak havoc on the Armenian military. An analysis of the conflict published in AirForces Monthly suggested that the result would not have been significantly different if the Turkish Azerbaijani onslaught was directed not at Armenia but at a European military instead. Not many armed forces would have been able to deal with the combined effect created by low-cost drones and swarm strategies. Expect a flurry of activity on this front in 2021 as air arms the world over recognize shortcomings, acquire low-cost drones and build new command, control and communications systems to enable swarm warfare. The Hyperwar thesis General Allen and I presented years ago is coming true in all its dimensions.
4. 1000+ kph Trains and the Urban Mobility Revolution
Will trains one day exceed the speed of most commercial aircraft? If tests that took place in South Korea late in 2020 are to be projected into the future, that is certainly the conclusion to which one arrives. The Korean Railroad Research Institute (KORAIL) announced that its Hyper-Tube train achieved a speed over 1,000 kph in tests conducted in December. Underground high-speed tunnels and so-called hyper loop technologies being developed both in the United States and in Asian countries such as China and South Korea promise to revolutionize rail transport. South Korea will continue high-speed rail tests in 2021 with the ultimate goal of reducing the three and a half hour long journey between Seoul and the southern part of the country to a mere 30 minutes. Urban mobility is attracting massive investments, whether in the form of “The Line,” a Saudi project that aims to build an optimally laid out city along a single 170 km long corridor; aerial urban mobility solutions; autonomous cars; and yes, high-speed “hyper” trains.
5. Autonomous Cars
In the waning days of 2020, when prodded by self-driving company comma.AI, Elon Musk tweeted that he was highly confident Tesla would have level five, fully autonomous capabilities completed by the end of the year. Significant upgrades were made to Tesla’s self-driving software in the second half of 2020 and a flurry of YouTube videos appeared with many reviewers excitedly demonstrating the impressive new capabilities. What has been demonstrated thus far is far from level five, but we’ll give Tesla the rest of this year to thrill us with their autonomy innovation. Of course, level five autonomy has been the holy grail that’s been promised by the autonomous vehicle industry for several years. If Musk’s tweet is to be believed, it is finally within grasp. By his own admission, sometimes Musk’s claims take a bit longer to materialize, but he has a pretty good track record of delivering on promises. I, for one, can’t wait to have my car drive me around!
6. No-Code AI Applications
Back in 2013 when I founded SparkCognition, many in the software industry doubted whether artificial intelligence would have much relevance to the tools and platforms they used. AI-powered code generation for any meaningful task seemed like the distant future. Beyond the software vertical, other industries were not quite sure whether artificial intelligence would deliver any real benefit. But six and a half years later, all of that has changed. Artificial intelligence represents one of the most profound shifts in digital technologies and now, most savvy executives and forward-thinking companies understand that AI adoption is not something to ignore or delay.
In 2021, the widespread use of AI will be spurred on at an even faster rate with broader availability of no-code AI application development tools. Applications like SparkCognition’s DarwinTM product can help users build sophisticated deep-learning powered models without knowing anything at all about neural network design or programming. Individuals with knowledge of applications such as Microsoft Excel can trivially export data, train sophisticated machine learning algorithms and create applications very quickly. As the rate of model development accelerates with the use of such tools, an increasing percentage of enterprise workflows will be automated through high-performance neural networks, ultimately achieving a transition to what I have previously called the “model-driven enterprise.” This transition is coming in 2021.
7. Volumetric Displays
Three dimensional volumetric displays have been a staple of science fiction for many years. Remember that scene in Star Wars where the rebel alliance is planning an attack on the Starkiller Base? The holographic projections into open space are an example of a volumetric display. But now, this technology is migrating from the world of science fiction into our real world. Australia’s Voxon Photonics is one example of a company that is working to commercialize volumetric display technology. The Voxon VX 1 is already up and running and can project up to 500 volumetric pixels or voxels. It is available for purchase today, but the $10,000 price prevents high-volume purchase, and hence, volume-driven cost reduction.
Volumetric displays represent the future evolution of workstation imaging technology, and as soon as these become practical they will be a preference for 3D designers, mechanical engineers and many other types of technical professionals.
8. Drones Operating in Urban Areas
Although 2020 was a difficult year, some good did come from it! For one, the FAA issued new guidelines around the use of drones operating in urban environments at night and over crowds. They also mandated remote ID broadcast technology for small unmanned aerial systems. While remote ID does post an additional reporting responsibility on the users of drones, the scope of drone operations can now be expanded considerably, driving useful applications at scale.
Companies like SkyGrid are developing platforms to enable the deployment, tracking, cybersecurity, maintenance and safe integration of drones into national airspace. SkyGrid even recently demonstrated the first test of an autonomous cybersecurity protection system on a drone. Between the FAA’s new ID requirements and commercial developments in the field, such as improved cybersecurity, drone operations in urban areas can finally become more routine in 2021.
9. Quantum Computing
For many years quantum computing has been heralded as one of the most exciting and profound innovations in computer science. The computational power of a quantum computer can be thousands and even millions of times greater than a conventional computer. While not every computation that is possible to execute on a traditional, classical computer is doable on a quantum system, there are many exciting applications that quantum computers can enable almost immediately. One such area is cryptography, where traditionally secured cryptographic messages can be decoded in a small amount of time compared to a classical computer. This potential shortcoming of traditional cryptography has given rise to the field of quantum-safe cryptographic algorithms.
Another very exciting application of quantum computers is modeling chemical and biological processes. Quantum computers can simulate such phenomena much faster than a classical computer can. This gives them a massive advantage at predicting what molecular interactions will actually look like in the real world, leading to all sorts of valuable outcomes ranging from drug discovery to materials science. In fact, the potential of quantum computers to bring to life materials with never-before-seen properties may be their killer application.
IBM is likely to release a 127-qubit quantum computer in 2021, which would be the largest such system yet. Google may not be far behind. A vast array of smaller companies, such as IonQ, DWave and Rigetti are hard at work developing both hardware and software for the quantum stack. Expect new announcements from each of them through 2021.
10. Mainstream 5G
5G cellular communications technology, when deployed at full capacity and scale, promises to revolutionize human-to-human communications by delivering smooth, high-resolution video, low-latency near-life like video conferencing and VR-capable gaming. But 5G is about more than human-to-human communications. It also holds the potential to enable reliable, low-latency control of physical semi-autonomous systems such as cars, trucks and urban aerial mobility drones; the machine-to-machine network!
5G’s theoretical maximum data rate is 20 GBps and, on average, the spec can deliver 100+ Mbps consistently. However, most implementations of 5G in the US can only deliver 35-50 Mbps average speeds. And while we hear a lot about 5G in the press, as of 2020, some of the largest US carriers had only extended 5G capability to one percent of their network.
This might change in 2021. Expect significant expansion of the 5G footprint and a much greater penetration of 5G-capable phones. The new Apple iPhone released in September 2020 now natively supports 5G. As it is inevitably adopted, a large percentage of US smartphones will be 5G-ready. The additional volume of users will also encourage software and services developers to begin incorporating 5G-enabled features, from better video quality and higher frame rates to new modes of interaction.
Undoubtedly, many of the most exciting developments in 2021 will be in areas we haven’t focused on in this article; the surprise exponential technologies can generate is tremendous. As time marches on, the exponential curve leaps higher and higher and the surprise it creates increases too! Will we see significant advances on AI algorithms and learning capabilities? Will we make advancements in general purpose learning? Explainability? A fusion of symbolic and connectionist approaches to enable more robust and transparent AI? The answers to all of these is quite likely, yes, yes, yes and yes. Just what these enhancements will be and how profound their effects are remains to be seen. What’s for sure, though, is that 2021 is going to be an action-packed year full of technological innovation and advancement!