Will 2021 be the year when we cautiously emerge from the pandemic, supported by new technologies? Many of them are already there – we simply need to use them! Technology editor Verena Dauerer writes about five technology trends that she thinks will help shape the new year: from machine learning and creativity, the "Woven City" concept, ethical sourcing, bioreactor meat, and new technologies to get the pandemic under control.
In machine learning, a sub-branch of artificial intelligence, algorithms are fed with training data to detect patterns and apply them to unknown data. This became interesting this year, when the algorithms were fed over a period of time with artistic works from all disciplines until they themselves became creative and began composing, painting or creating sculptures. One of them hit the headlines: GPT-3, developed by the American company OpenAI, is an Open-Source language model that, when prompted, is capable of penning poetry, generating tweets, writing entire articles, and holding exceptional conversations with people.
Even if GPT-4, OpenAI’s next evolution of the model, is still some way off – we will not even notice in 2021 how GPT-3 clings to the written word on the quiet. Of course, we can also take a positive view of this: GPT-3 will lighten some of our workloads, generate news, conduct small talk with acquaintances, or fill our own social media channels with relevant content. The language model is intelligent and not a simple bot that executes commands. That is why it will often remain undetected.
But anyone who thinks that this is too scary, should have their creative work done by another machine learning variant: Runway ML is an online tool that designers can use to create generative art – by feeding their designs, photos or films to certain algorithms. Truly anyone can do this without any programming knowledge. After all, creativity means creating playful, random products. And, we all know, their beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.
We are already using intermodal modes of transport and are starting to switch seamlessly between public, private and semi-private sharing modes. We take the train, tram or bus, and then take an electric scooter, electric motorbike or hybrid car to get from A to B. The novel aspect of this in 2021: fuel cells are finally becoming more affordable, and companies are launching urban experiments in which electrical technology, solar and hydrogen are used equally. What is more, robots are also set to populate a city where all the technologies are interconnected to each other and interwoven: the "Woven City" project will become a zero-emission city. The first spade of soil will be dug in 2021 near Fuji in Japan, powered by Toyota and designed by architects from the Danish Bjarke Ingels Group.
Will this be able to solve the infrastructural problems of our developed cities? Naturally not so quickly. In 2021, we can begin by upgrading street lights to electric charging columns. And, of course, complying with open standards. The Berlin company ubitricity is already doing this in London and has already installed 1,300 charging lampposts there.
For some time now, companies have no longer been interested in recording the biggest profit: instead what matters is that their consumer goods are produced under fair conditions. Consumers are rightly increasingly demanding sustainability, environmental compatibility and production in line with local social and cultural conditions – often in developing countries. The transparency of supply chains to production facilities will become increasingly competitive, especially in 2021. Technologies, such as blockchain and smart contracts, can help to transparently track the path of crude oil, diamonds or beer. The authenticity and purity of food is becoming increasingly important – an aspect further reinforced by the coronavirus pandemic. The turnover of blockchain in agricultural and food supply chains is expected to rise seven-fold by 2025.
At a consumer level, apps now show consumers whether products have been fairly produced. My Label from France, for example, shows how this is done by displaying supermarket products that meet various fair or sustainable consumer criteria. The Ecolabel Guide app gets to grips with the labels on products, such as "organic" and "sustainable", and confirms whether the manufacturers are keeping their promise.
It took some time, but this year vegan meat products finally reached the shelves of organic cooperatives through to cheap discounters. It was the year of Beyond Meat, a start-up specialising in plant-based replica meat products, the shares of which rose a hefty 83 percent by mid-December. This is just the beginning: next year, the company is set to launch the actual production of chicken meat from a retort. Chicken cells removed during a biopsy are artificially grown in a bioreactor. They are only fed a plant-based diet. The first worldwide approval was granted in Singapore in December, submitted by the US company Eat Just. However, in California and Israel too, start-ups are working on plant-based beef and pork, which is due to be launched in 2021.
After the slaughterhouse scandals in Germany in 2020, an era is finally starting in which animals no longer need to be bred for meat production. By 2024, Beyond Meat hopes to offer at least one product that is cheaper than its meat competitor, opening up a whole new field of cooking.
The pandemic arrived in 2020. In 2021, we will gradually return to everyday life (hopefully). This is due to new health technologies that we will soon take for granted: Algorithms can detect by a patient’s cough whether he or she is infected with the coronavirus. The difference between the cough associated with the flu or a cold and the cough associated by a Covid-19 patient cannot be perceived by human ears. However, algorithms are able to detect this in 98.5 percent of cases, even if other diseases are involved. They detect it in 100 percent of cases when the cough is due to the coronavirus alone. Developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), there could soon be a smartphone app for it.
But things are developing even faster: a Welsh company is developing respiratory machines capable of detecting an infection by a person’s breath alone. Swiss researchers are also working on this: but using AI to detect an infection by a person just breathing into a microphone. Who would have thought that 2021 would be the year when medicine demonstrates the benefits of algorithms to us.