Innovation Monitor: Predictions for 2021
Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.
As 2020 comes to a close (finally..!) we’re taking a moment to step back and reflect on the year. And what a year it’s been. So to begin, let’s take a trip back to the pre-coronavirus days and consider some predictions we made last December for 2020:
1. Your next doctor’s appointment will be via your smartphone
We think this one doesn’t need much explanation.
2. Deepfakes-as-Service will emerge as a new industry
Tech powering deepfakes rapidly advanced this year, especially in the realm of virtual production and GPT-3 generated text.
3. There will be a significant increase in efforts to reduce social media-related harms
The topics of disinformation, privacy, and social media addiction took the main stage this year.
4. Pressure on big tech companies will result in a spinoff
With several congressional hearings on big tech, mergers blocked, and antitrust actions in 2020, we see this getting close.
5. You’ll be able to access Siri without a signal
We see 5G, edge computing, and differential privacy on the cusp of widespread, ubiquitous consumer use.
6. Remote parts of the U.S. will start receiving packages by drone
With social distancing and USPS slowdowns, some see opportunities in improving logistics tech, but we’ve yet to see drones deliveries.
Not bad, I think! Read on for our 2021 predictions, and feel free to reply and share thoughts and predictions of your own. Finally, as we wind down for the year, I’m drawing on moments of support and resiliency amidst a year that challenged all of us deeply. Thank you for reading.
Wishing you a happy, healthy, peaceful holiday season.
Erica Matsumoto The Metaverse (economy) becomes even more normalized Trends: prototypical metaverse, virtual economy, massively popular multiplayer games
In 2019, the metaverse was a fun idea. Possible? Certainly. Are we really going to drop corporeal activities and start living virtually? Hardly crossed our minds. The pandemic changed all that. When Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox are the alternatives to cabin fever, when hopping around a building-sized Travis Scott is the only way to see the artist “live” (and when “musical metaverse” is actually a thing), when Brie Larson tweets that she changes clothes more often in Animal Crossing than real life… well, there are a million examples that point towards a single fact: these are the seeds of prototypical metaverses that will only see more participation and investment.
For all the fascinating stuff that you can do in these worlds, it’s what you buy that will sustain and grow them — and it won’t be just the core developers that will be spurring metaverse commerce. In August this year, EPIC CEO Tim Sweeney even spoke about the economy of the metaverse, and its reliance on createors. We predict that 2021 will see not just an infusion of cash into game companies building these worlds, but more effort to convert consumers into creators. Roblox — which is set to IPO in 2021 — is a prime example. Earlier this year CEO David Baszucki estimated the company would pay out $250M to its young-adult developers by sharing proceeds from Robux purchases. Expect to see more creator empowerment in 2021. Climate Tech and Sustainable Investing are no longer niche subjects Trends: sustainability, impact investing, green fuel, socially conscious companies
With a new administration on its way to the White House, the climate is again a priority. Which is great, because we have no choice but to dramatically reduce emissions by the middle of the century. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project estimates the US needs to invest over $1T annually by 2050 to clean up US industries. Biden’s $2T proposal effectively becomes a down payment.
Critics — including the most recent administration — have pointed to “the Solyndra mess” of 2011, when the solar manufacturer defaulted on its $535M federal loan, as an argument against federal support of energy projects. But Solyndra was only one of two failures; over 20 others succeeded, including Tesla. And while traditionally investment firms have underinvested in green energy and tech because it doesn’t benefit a handful of investors, we saw this start to turn around this year.
$7T asset manager BlackRock is expecting companies to present a plan for “transitioning to a lower carbon economy.” VCs are betting on cleantech startups developing better batteries, recycling robots, and even sustainable coffins. So in 2021, we might see some large companies pressured by investors, the public, and the government to take more sustainable measures. In turn, they might do what they usually do in these situations — focus on their strengths while acquiring or teaming up with a rising (cleantech) startup. Explainable and Responsible AI get more focus Trends: black box explainability, responsibility principles, hypocrisy
Besides consulting firms like Accenture, BCG, and PwC, tech giants like Microsoft and Google — and pretty much every other big tech company out there — are pushing Explainable and Responsible AI. Before going any further, let’s acknowledge that there’s a difference. Futurist Anand Tamboli wrote this nice explainer in a Medium post: “In [an] air crash investigation, when something goes wrong…. You first find the Black Box, open it, analyze it…. That is the post-facto operation, a postmortem. You are not avoiding the incident…. As a responsible approach, you train your pilots, your crew to avoid these kinds of mishaps…. When it is explainable AI, it is post-facto… when it comes to responsibility AI, it is essential to prevent mishaps from happening.”
Responsible AI comes down to discipline — following the principles you laid out. Which big tech giants certainly don’t. And given Timnit Gebru’s recent firing, it seems that even fundamental research philosophies can’t be followed. We expect 2021 to have minor improvements over 2020’s responsibility mishaps, but not by much — as Azeem Azhar pointed out, “self-regulation in this area will not work. It didn’t work with oil companies and climate change. It won’t work with tech firms.” Don’t get me wrong — the awareness of the importance for Responsible AI will reach new heights. However, I think we’ll see more concrete actions in 2022.
As for Explainable AI, well, we’ll let Christoph Molnar “poorly drawn” comics in his tweet thread illustrate the pitfalls of explaining black-box models. The most basic solution, really, is to use simpler AI models. Since the trend is for larger, more complex models — especially in the NLP space now — we expect AI to actually become less explainable in 2021. More prosumers than ever before Trends: WFH, isolation, customer loyalty
When the pandemic hit, two clusters of workplace behavior emerged, according to researchers: the first cluster experienced severe decision paralysis as the shock to quotidian life turned every norm upside down. Among these “mourners”, 90% “still aren’t equipped to innovate using a remote work model.” Then there are the “stormers”, companies like Amazon and Twitter: platform-based businesses that attract prosumers, “individuals that blur the line between production and consumption activities.”
Distance to customers played a vital role in differentiating these two clusters. While stormers made it a point to get closer to consumers and convert them into prosumers, mourners put further distance between themselves and their customers, limiting communication and relying on chatbots to pick up the slack. We expect thriving stormers to continue attracting more prosumers throughout 2021, building a more loyal customer base. (We’re already seeing this in prototype metaverses like Roblox and Fortnite.) We find a balance between remote work and in-person meetings (sort of) Trends: WFX, WFH, hybrid meetings
While it’s clear — at least, in retrospect — that proactively getting closer to isolated consumers is a way to cultivate loyalty, it still remains a question whether remote team meetings can recapture the innovative work done at offices. Software engineer and 20-year Valley vet Joyce Park says fast feedback has gone away with remote meetings: “When you’re trying to do really innovative work, it takes so many meetings. Zoom meetings are different than normal meetings because they’re much more performative. Most engineers aren’t really in the putting-on-a-show business.”
The problem is trickier for hardware — teams can’t exactly pass around a prototype on Zoom. But we might just be experiencing early growing pains. The companies that managed to successfully adjust to WFH saw the productivity benefits — and a recent survey of global CIOs suggested that these experiences may lead to the remote workforce doubling in 2021. Given there are pros and cons to both remote and on-site meetings (which also depend on the type of meeting held), we predict that we’ll see more hybridization next year — meetings that require creative brainstorming may be held in person, if possible, while more mundane events will be done virtually. Antitrust. Antitrust. Antitrust. Trends: lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits
This was a big year for antitrust and we think it’s only going to get… tenser. In October we got a big 400-page tech antitrust report from top Democratic congressional lawmakers (meaning this might be Biden’s roadmap) that concluded that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google were anti-competitive. On October 20, the Justice Department filed an antitrust case against Google, focusing on the giant’s practices with its search app. Just this week, ten states filed a separate complaint against the company claiming Google and Facebook “harmed competition through an unlawful agreement to rig auctions and fix prices.” Wait — we’re not even up to Facebook yet.
The FTC and 48 US state attorneys general filed two antitrust lawsuits against Facebook — less than two months after the DOJ filed an antitrust case against Google. Both lawsuits allege that Facebook is engaging in monopolistic behavior by buying up the competition and limiting user choices. While all these cases will take years — remember, Microsoft’s antitrust “saga” took 21 years to wrap up — we’ll likely see more cases arise in 2021, pressuring other large tech companies to tread carefully. LiDAR propels AR even further Trend: realistic AR, immersive, creative tech experiments
Like sonar, which uses sound waves to map objects, and radar, which uses radio waves to map things, LiDAR uses light — a laser — to send a pulse and record its return (actually, millions of pulses simultaneously). DARPA’s 2005 Grand Challenge saw the first 3D LiDAR mounted atop an autonomous vehicle. Created by Velodyne, the bulky spinning system cost $75,000. A few months back Apple introduced the iPhone 12 Pro, which has a smaller, simpler version of the sensor near the back camera. That’s quite a shift.
Besides better photos, the sensor’s depth-sensing capabilities create more realistic AR scenes (check out our LiDAR issue for some awesome use cases). Besides giving developers more incentive to develop all sorts of cool apps, it will push competitors to adopt similar capabilities, and, in turn, push AR even further into the hands of the public. AirPods will push more into media and experiences Trend: Spatial audio, augmented audio
You’d think that sound, being one of our basic senses, would get more attention from the emerging tech community. Despite some disappointments (like Bose’s cancelled augmented sound project), we saw a few exciting updates that hint at some exciting opportunities for sound in 2021.
In September, a Tech@Facebook post revealed that Facebook Reality Labs was working on a range of audio tech for XR headsets, from techniques to isolate your conversation in a noisy room to ultra-realistic spatial audio. The same month, a firmware update for the AirPods Pro brought spatial audio to the device. Expect to see more spatial audio experimentation in 2021. (And for a deep dive into spatial audio’s immense potential, check out this Medium post.) Brain computer interfaces and ne Trend: Brain Computer Interfaces
If you’ve read our BCI issue, you know the world has been tackling this tech for decades — and we’ve hardly started cracking the surface. While we don’t expect any updates in the style of this year’s Neuralink presentation in 2021 (maybe 2022), we’ll definitely see more research experiments using non-traditional, non-invasive methods of capturing brain signals.
We’re particularly paying attention to Kernel, which is creating a non-invasive brain interface that shoots short pulses of light at your head, recording when that light bounces back, ultimately capturing blood flow in your brain. This Week in Business History When doing these prediction editions, we always think back to those famous AT&T commercials from the 1990s, “You Will”. Two fun facts about those ads:
- they were launched in 1993
- they were narrated by Tom Selleck
- they were directed by David Fincher.