Coronavirus accelerated digital transformation in a way no one could have predicted 12 months ago, dragging the rest of the world head-first into the digital future we already knew was coming.
So with 2021 just around the corner, here are five areas in tech that, either despite or because of COVID-19, are worth keeping your eye on next year.
1. Natural language processing
The release of GPT-3 was a milestone for natural language processing (NLP) that seemingly flew under the radar of mainstream attention.
Sure, the Guardian published its own AI-written essay about whether robots are going to take over the world, but in general there was a lot of other news to cover in 2020.
Built by Elon Musk-backed AI laboratory OpenAI, GPT-3 quickly became the gold standard for creating text that reads like it has been written by a human.
As impressive as it seems, GPT-3 is not perfect. Its content tends to be quite superficial and dissolves into incoherence on long-form pieces.
But there are already concerns – even from its developers – that NLP technology could flood the internet with realistic-seeming fake news and misinformation at a much larger scale than we see already.
This is mind blowing.— Sharif Shameem (@sharifshameem) July 13, 2020
With GPT-3, I built a layout generator where you just describe any layout you want, and it generates the JSX code for you.
W H A T pic.twitter.com/w8JkrZO4lk
GPT-3 and other NLP models have important ramifications for the future of software development as shown when early experimenters found ways to make GPT-3 quickly generate working code.
Imagine where AI will be after another year of learning how to speak and code just like us.
2. Virtual reality
Virtual reality (VR) is just about the most futuristic consumer tech that no one seems to be using.
Fully immersive, interactive environments experienced from within our homes were exactly what the doctor ordered this year – but the uptake stayed low and VR has not become a household device.
That’s despite the release of Half Life: Alyx – a new VR-only title in the iconic Half Life series made by Valve, a developer known for its high-quality output.
For many, the hardware cost is still too high or hard to get hold of (the Valve Index headset is not even available in Australia) given there’s so few must-have VR titles and that many bulky PC headsets also require you to install external sensors around the room.
Following its fairly quiet launch in October, the Oculus Quest 2 could become the kind of VR standard that pulls true next generation entertainment into the mainstream
Its predecessor was already one of the best VR offerings as a lightweight, standalone, portable device that used external cameras to easily create a play-space anywhere, removing the need for external sensors or other hardware.
The Quest 2 further improves on all that with a reasonable price tag ($479 for the base model) but it comes at another cost: you’re going to need to give Facebook your data.
3. Cyber security
There’s a lot of reasons why cyber security was on a lot of people’s minds in 2020.
Businesses suddenly had to manage larger threat landscapes as their workforces shifted out of the office while the prominence of scams and digital hygiene became ever-present as we all stayed online for longer.
Then there were the breaches.
Logistics firms, government departments, social media platforms, even cyber security companies, not to mention the prime minister’s vague warning that Australia itself was under cyber attack from a “sophisticated state-based actor”.
That all culminated in the news last week of an ongoing Russian supply chain attack on Texas-based network software company SolarWinds that has “grave implications” for the US government and some of the world’s biggest businesses.
Experts will be combing through the wreckage of SolarWinds well into next year as they piece together the true extent of this major act of international cyber espionage.
Responding to the attack, incoming US President Joe Biden suggested cyber security would become a key part of his administration and foretold the potential of using more offensive capabilities.
"We need to disrupt and deter our adversaries from undertaking significant cyber attacks in the first place," he said.
"We will do that by, among other things, imposing substantial costs on those responsible for such malicious attacks, including in co-ordination with our allies and partners."
Cyber isn’t just a backroom issue anymore and you’re going to be hearing about it a lot in 2021.
4. Smart glasses
Like virtual reality, smart glasses are set to fundamentally change the way we see and interact with the world around us.
The idea is relatively straightforward (combine speakers, camera, display, and computer with a pair of glasses) but has seen little public use since the infamous Google Glass proved that walking around wearing a camera designed by surveillance capitalists isn’t very cool.
Unless they’re Ray Bans.
Facebook is betting that its partnership iconic sunglasses company will make walking around with a camera on your face a less creepy proposition.
Rather than going all-in with features for consumers – which the likes of Microsoft and Google makes available for enterprise customers – smart glasses designers look to be pushing for a more gradual development of the tech as seen with the audio-only Amazon Echo Frames or speaker company Bose’s own Frames glasses.
On the other hand, Chinese mobile device manufacturer Oppo has indicated it wants to get its own full augmented reality smart glasses to market by 2021.
Apple is also reportedly developing its own fully featured smart glasses in the coming years. Predictions abounded that the Apple glasses would be released in 2020 but that didn’t quite pan out.
5. Quantum computing
The way it’s looking now, the arrival of quantum computing is going to be more gradual than sudden.
Progress tends to be slow with this technology as scientists and engineers grapple with the implicit difficulties of processing information using the fabric of reality.
Next year, IBM plans on unveiling its 127-qubit processor Eagle as part of its roadmap to 1,000 qubits by 2023.
On pure numbers, Eagle will more than double the number of qubits in Google’s Sycamore processor which was used to contentiously claim ‘quantum supremacy’ in 2019.
Eagle will also have greater capacity than the University of Science and Technology of China’s Jiuzhang computer that made headlines recently for its novel photonics architecture which allowed the system to solve a problem that is intractable for classical computers, and claiming to have reached quantum supremacy.
As these systems keep ramping up, they will continue outperforming classical computers and crack open fields like cryptography and pharmaceuticals.
Quantum computing is a hotly contested space as it rewards different approaches, melding the best of science, technology, and innovation.
Quantum computing probably won’t change the world in 2021, but what happens in this space next year is guaranteed to change the future.