“An optimist,” wrote Bill Vaughan, “stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”
Whichever of those camps you identify with, you’ll probably agree that 2020 is leaving us with few things to cheer. Dig a little deeper, though, and you may find that this year of pestilence and turbulence has set us up for a burst of innovation going forward.
Consider the arena of technology. In the 1960s, it took four years of concentrated research and development to create a vaccine against the mumps, a serious viral infection.
Yet we have seen two entirely new anti-Covid vaccines engineered, tested at scale, manufactured and approved in less than a year. As I write, the Pfizer and Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccines are being distributed across the UK. They will potentially change the lives of millions of people worldwide.
Meanwhile, scores of therapies have been tested, which might alleviate the suffering of people who’ve contracted Covid-19.
Other vaccines will no doubt be approved soon. Earlier this year, more than two hundred vaccine projects were underway globally. All this provides compelling testimony to the power of collaborative innovation.
Medical technology has caught our attention more than any other in 2020, for good reason. It will continue to grab the headlines but 2021 promises to be a bumper year for ground-breaking innovation on other fronts, too.
The coming year will likely be a big one for text analysis tools. These are the techs that drive devices like our ubiquitous voice assistants, as well as chatbots and machine translation.
Already, machine-driven simultaneous translation has become a feature at many international conferences. Meanwhile, chatbots are almost old news now, but their power to emulate online human interactions continues to grow.
Chatbots will become an important tool in our battle against mental health disease. They will help people access more quickly the best mental health services for their needs. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence analytics will deliver constantly updated information on mental health issues.
In the US alone, the number of tech start-ups in the mental health space tripled their funding in just five years up to 2018. Sixty-five per cent of workers in a UK study (and 75 per cent of the youngest workers) said they felt positive about the role of technology in managing their mental health.
For those who are perhaps less comfortable with this kind of technology, let me add an important disclaimer. Language technology is very good at recognising patterns, which is how it learns to translate. However, it still falls far short of human levels of comprehension.
The same is true of everything that’s commonly bundled together under the label “Artificial Intelligence”. The clue is in the name - this tech still represents an artificial and limited form of intelligence. It applies only to specific tasks and still requires some level of human programming. We’re a very long way from Artificial General Intelligence, which can handle the broad range of simultaneous tasks the human brain performs every day.
After years of a society-wide push to reduce the production of plastics, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a resurgence in plastics. Throughout 2020, we relied on plastics in the production of face masks, visors and other essential protective equipment.
The reliance on plastic is not something we can maintain for the longer term, though. In the UK, five million tonnes of plastic are used every year. Almost half of this is used for packaging. Globally, five billion tonnes of plastic ends up as waste.
As we start to emerge from the immediate effects of Covid-19, we’ll see plastic recycling become a major focus for innovation. We need to speed up mechanisms for turning plastic waste into re-usable products.
This is an area of technology that calls on mathematics, computer science, biology and statistics to study complex biological data.
It’s used extensively by the pharmaceutical sector and will be hugely helpful in the development of new drugs and therapies.
It will also be useful in terms of food production, in the development of meat-free sources of protein, for example. This could be a great boon for countries that can’t feed their populations, or where there are concerns about carbon emissions from the farming of meat.
One of the fastest-growing areas of technological innovation relates to the management of mental health. Psychologists and others are starting to see the potential of virtual reality (VR) in treating anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.
VR offers a way of transporting patients from one reality to another, allowing them to take time out from a threatening situation. In time, it can help patients develop new habits for problem resolution, by creating simulations of difficult situations.
The technology will be even more beneficial to mental health with the emergence of fully haptic VR. This technology will do more than fool our senses of sight, sound and touch - as VR does today. It will also emulate taste and smell, creating vast new possibilities for emulating reality in treatment situations.
The development of green hydrogen will be a major area of innovation and investment in 2021 and beyond. Already, it attracts 14 per cent more investment globally, each year.
Green hydrogen technology uses electricity produced by renewable energy to extract hydrogen from water molecules and use it as fuel. It will be very helpful in cleaning up industrial processes that are difficult to de-carbonise. These represent fifteen per cent of the economy and include such sectors as long-haul trucking, aviation and heavy industry.
Saudi Arabia is building a futuristic city called Neom in the desert by the Red Sea. The goal is to power the city entirely using green hydrogen. Meanwhile, Germany is investing more in green hydrogen than any other emerging fuel-source.
Until recently most people thought holograms were pure sci-fi, but even wifi was sci-fi not that long ago.
For the better part of a decade, holograms have been used in concerts featuring artists alive and dead.
The Coachella music festival 2012 featured a “live appearance” by Tupac Shakur, a rap singer who was murdered in 1996. He performed one song together with his (still living) friend Snoop Dogg, in a hologram created from the ground up by a movie CGI company. The cost? Something in the vicinity of $400,000.
Since then, other artists have been “resurrected” using holographic projection. They include Michael Jackson, Roy Orbison, Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline.
In 2018 Orbison’s hologram was backed by a live orchestra on a national US tour, performing sixteen hit songs in each venue. Promoters love this kind of thing. It’s so much cheaper to move a hologram around on tour than a real artist.
In most of these cases, holograms were created based on video footage of past performances, plus the recorded song.
Holograms can, however, be created entirely from the ground up, using voice actors and digitally-created images. That’s what we saw in 2020 when Kanye West presented his wife Kim Kardashian with a hologram of her late father Robert.
Holograms presented in real-time will soon have an impact on elections. A candidate in the 2017 French presidential race gave a speech in seven venues simultaneously using holographic projection.
Meanwhile, holograms are being used in medicine, to design prosthetic devices that can be fitted more accurately and comfortably for the wearer. Remote surgeries can be conducted using holograms, with expert consultants working in one location and local, hands-on surgeons in another.
Holographic projection is also used in the design of furniture, cars and even buildings - using full-size or scaled-down versions of the final product. Cities are also being developed using 3D scale models.
As this technology improves and becomes more consumer viable, holograms will create a “virtual travel” market, which will be important for the environment. It will become much more common for business leaders to avoid costly air travel by casting into meetings a live hologram of themselves.
Soon thereafter, we’ll see personalised holographic units, such as phones or wearables that can project basic holograms - at least, those that are pre-recorded. This will provide great consolation for workers in remote locations, who go for long periods without physical contact with their families.
Holograms will also provide another weapon in our war against mental illness.
Like virtual reality, holograms will provide opportunities for patients to face stressful situations or people within controlled environments. This will be a step up on the apps we have today, which help us break patterns of behaviour and explore different treatment options.
In 2021 we will keep some of our focus on dealing with Covid-19. But we will also produce rapid collaborative innovation in technologies that solve other problems. There’s every reason to look forward with hope.