Six trends that will drive technology development in 2021 — and beyond
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
It’s still 2020 as I write this, but the end is in sight. It seems like it was years ago that the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with its resulting chaos and disruption. For a number of individuals, the struggle against our invisible enemy has meant having a little more time around the house than normal. Some have engaged in home remodeling, exercising, or learning a new skill.
Others, like me, have focused on improving skills we already had. If you are a fellow technology professional, then perhaps you’ve had time to burnish or boost your skillset as well. Now that 2021 is finally almost here, however, what should we expect from the year to come? What important, impactful, or interesting trends will dictate how we look back at 2021?
As a technologist, I am a geek at heart. I truly love seeing weird, exciting things come to life through technology development. I still marvel at the astonishing capacity of human ingenuity for bringing things to life, for manipulating our environment and changing the world using simple zeros and ones.
That is why I think smart clothing and wearables will continue to break through as one of the hottest items of 2021. Here are just a few of the things that are quite close to ending up in your shopping cart, and on your person:
Smart socks — Can you imagine going out for a run wearing socks that compile and transmit real-time data to your phone about foot-strike levels, your instep, and how much pressure you are exerting against the ground? It’s crazy to think about the level of information about your activity available just from your feet.
Smart shoes — There’s not as much similarity here as you’d expect. I saw a shoe recently appear that will order pizza, as well as one that laces itself. As these trends continue to move forward, I can easily envision shoes that instantly track weight — yours and whatever you’re holding. Instead of struggling to weigh a dog or cat, you simply hold it and then get an update from your sneakers.
Other concepts — Think about your entire outfit. What if you were sleeping and your nightshirts emitted infrared light to improve your quality of sleep? What if you had a spouse or child whose terrible nighttime seizures could be tracked and reported by a pair of pajamas?
Perhaps you’re in business. The pocket square in your suit coat might actually be a digital business card exchange. How about polo shirts that suggest a workout, or other activewear that rewards you with brand loyalty points when you wear it? Technology is coming to your clothing, and I expect this trend to continue well into the coming decade.
Moving off of things you put on your body, let’s consider things that attach to, or become part of, your body. These are sharp investments of your money and your time. Brain chips are in the news right now, and prosthetics for every other part of your body could soon become mainstream.
How about a pair of contact lenses that let you surf around the web? Imagine that same enhancement, only now you can see all of vital stats, in a heads-up Terminator-esque display, of the person standing in front of you. Tech innovator Elon Musk recently installed a chip in a pig’s brain — how long before that same technology is available for testing on human subjects?
Microchipping of pets is likely to take a big leap forward, with a real-time tracker in the animal’s ear putting an end to the era of “My dog is missing” signs on utility poles. Microchipping of humans, to help root out disease and monitor health from the inside, is probably the next logical step.
As human technology implants take hold, fierce arguments are certain to erupt. The first time that such technology assists in providing a cure, however — How far would you go to speed up the dissipation of, say, a pandemic? — people are likely to get on board.
Could you imagine having your wallet just under your skin? Not that far off, in my opinion. A lot of it may sound like science fiction right now, but human augmentation is likely to become a matter of personal choice far more quickly than many are expecting.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
There no way that I could write an article about near-future tech trends without saying how far and fast AI is likely to evolve in 2021 and beyond. You will see things like real-time translation of languages becoming so sophisticated that it will be commonplace for you to have an entirely seamless phone conversation with someone who speaks a different language.
NLP or natural language processing will get a lot better and we will, in the not-so-distant future, understand the building blocks of life — since human language and communication at a high level is what sets us apart from the apes. AI will also get personal as body monitors and real-time analysis of entire populations will come to light.
I believe that in 2021 we will see that the AI embedded in social networks has already grown much further than we ever knew — and that those companies are already using AI to further business goals. Indistinguishable deepfakes will become commonplace, and machine learning will be something that every human on earth will know about —and have access to, and be affected by — before year’s end.
We already rely on AI-fueled activity to the point of “needing” AI and machine learning. As time passes, we will become completely comfortable with the idea of machines that think and feel. By the time that “Skynet”-style computer systems, to the extent that they exist in the real world, actually do become self-aware, people will simply shrug and start their next blog post just by thinking about it.
Biotechnology is already huge, and the companies that are driving research and fueling innovation are bigger still. Drug researchers will be fighting the next pandemic before it even starts, and pushing ahead with cures for certain types of cancer. Fighting disease, however, is really only the tip of the biotechnology iceberg.
So-called “designer” DNA upgrades, with retooled viruses delivering payloads of tweaks across the body via subdermal patches, are on the near horizon. Keep an eye out for companies pursuing this line of research as they start to appear on the stock market and toss a few bucks their way. You will thank me later on, when you are as old as I am now, writing this.
Watch for full body scan-and-detect machines that are as easy as a gas station fill-up. Keep your eye on companies that are working on pill-form DNA-altering medicines, or flipping biological switches that make your teeth regrow. Biotechnology will eventually dictate everything from curing baldness to prolonging life, to performing ultrasonic surgeries. I envy the endless possibilities in store for the youngest current generations.
As entertainment companies continue to move their product literally closer to home, expect to see a huge focus on virtual “things.” I predict that virtual worlds like Second Life will start to go mainstream in a major way. Professional sports franchises will get people so close to the action via virtual spectation that stadiums may eventually disappear. And, like it or not, the adult entertainment industry is likely to lead the VR charge.
Virtual reality is much more powerful, however, than to exist solely as a tool for our amusement. People will want VR for even better virtual meetings. As wearable tech gets easier, you will be able to interact with a home buyer, a colleague, or a customer as thought they were right beside you. There are already military applications of VR tech, such as training pilots, and there are likely to be many more of those in store.
A qbit (sometimes also spelled qubit), or quantum bit, is the basic unit of quantum information, and qbit tech is about to have a huge impact on cybersecurity and Blockchain. I could write volumes of books, really, on the interrelationships between qbits, cybersecurity, and blockchain.
Recall how I talked about zeros and ones changing the world? What if you have a third choice or a whole range of choices, rather than just on and off? The possibilities are limitless. Quantum computing, really, is what is going to drive all of the technology advancements we’ve discussed already.
Quantum tech will grow the finance world, make healthcare a thing we only used to think about, and drive the next century of human evolution. Eventually, qbits will fuel the development of uncrackable encryption, and enable transactions at a micro scale.
What if a handshake, with verbal intention, could trigger a valid contract in the cloud? What if IKEA sent out a pair of contact lenses that allowed you to augment your house will all the stuff they sell — and then buy it with a couple of blinks? What if everyone’s DNA was cataloged so we could pick a person out of 8 billion with unique immunities that we want everyone else to have?
I have doubtless swing wide of a dozen (or more) new trends that will foster innovation and drive change in 2021 or, for that matter, in our lifetime. The trick when you are coming up on 2021 is to invest your time and money into these initiatives.
Look for companies that are doing a new vaccine, or on the cusp of a qbit breakthrough, and add some of their stock to your portfolio. Look for training or certifications or degrees related to these technologies that you can add to your personal IT toolkit. All of these trends will explode — your job is to be one of the people holding the match when the big bang gets triggered.